New Church in Ukraine should put aside post-Soviet legacy: interview with Nicholas Denysenko
On 15 December, a Unification Council took place in Kyiv which molded a single Orthodox Church from the hitherto disparate Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP), Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), and a small part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) and elected its Primate. The newly-created Orthodox Church in Ukraine is on track to receive a Tomos of autocephaly from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on 6 January 2019. On the one hand, the multi-generational dream of an independent Orthodox Church of many Ukrainians has come true; on the other hand, the schism between the Churches has not gone anywhere, because the UOC MP overwhelmingly ignored the Council and is hostile to the new Church. Can the historical event on 15 December be considered a victory, what goals does the new Church have before itself to gain the trust of world Orthodoxy, and what reform plan it should have are some of the questions we discussed with Fr. Nicholas Denysenko, an American theologian who has just released a book on the history of the Ukrainian Church in the 20th century.
Father Nicholas, you have been studying Ukrainian Church history for quite some time. What do you make of the Council?
I would say two things.
First, it's an important achievement that the Council actually took place. There have been so many attempts to unite separated Orthodox Christians in Ukraine that have failed. Today’s history really brings us back to 1918, to the first all-Ukrainian Council, which really was upsetting because the bishops who presided over that Council manipulated the proceedings to shift the pendulum from autocephaly to autonomy.
So the fact that today’s bishops were able to have this Council, under the conditions of such a formidable opposition by Moscow is an achievement of its own. I think it's easy to undermine it.
Critics will say "well, only two bishops from Moscow Patriarchate participated." But they reunited the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP) and this is important, as these churches have been separated since 1992. And actually this is the achievement of something that the Ecumenical Patriarchate desired in 2015, when they sent the exarchs to Ukraine to attempt to unite the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Kyiv Patriarchate. So from that perspective, I think this is a real achievement, it is the beginning of a potential real union that has the possibility to grow if things go very well.
Another important dimension of the Council is the advocacy and support of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This is really the first time in the history of the modern history of the Ukrainian Church that Orthodox Ukrainians who want autocephaly have been able to get the support of the highest authority in the Church. So the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate not only participated but presided at the Council is an important step, meaning that there is no reversal to what happened on 15 December, as much as the Moscow Patriarchate will demand it. There is no reversal. This is only going to go forward. It will be either slow or fast, but it will go forward.
Secondly, conclusions can be drawn from the difficulties of the proceeding of the Council that we have learned of the intrigue concerning Metropolitan Mykhail from Lutsk and his rescinding of candidacy for the position of Primate of the Church. It will be impossible for anyone to expect that the process is going to suddenly become easy. All of the parties who are involved are parties who have operated independently up to this point. This is always challenging. If they made compromises for the Council, they're going to have to continue to make compromises. And so I think they're going to have to learn to face the fact that many bishops supported Metropolitan Mykhail and Symeon as a positive, that the balance among the bishops of the Church will only be enriched. I think this will be a challenge for Metropolitan Epifaniy; but now he has an opportunity to really depend on the other bishops in his Synod for advice, for council, and to work with them in moving forward.
And this could be an important new development for the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches, because many of them have depended on one authoritative figure in the past. So with the struggle comes the opportunity to do good, because, as the news doesn't hesitate to tell us, the opposition from Moscow will be formidable and they will do anything they can to persuade the other Orthodox Churches in the world that what happened on Saturday was illegitimate. So the burden on the leaders of the new Church, especially on Metropolitan Epifaniy, is very heavy. They will need to be clear and decisive and as open as possible to show that they have arrived.
So, on the one hand, it's an achievement; on the other hand, there's still a long way for the Church to go to arrive where it needs to go — that is to receive the recognition of the other Orthodox Churches in the world as a legitimate autocephalous Church. And also to begin a new chapter that doesn't simply recirculate or revive the legacy of the Soviet-era Church or even the pre-revolutionary Church.
Do you have any predictions about the reception of this new Church by other Churches?
I think that the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is going to have to be patient. The Tomos is finished, there's no reversal, they will receive the Tomos on January 6, and the Churches that are loyal to Constantinople are going to recognize them.
What Churches are those?
It's hard to say which ones exactly. We can probably count on the Church of Greece, possibly the Church of Cyprus. Alexandria is hard to say, because of the relationship that they have with the Moscow Patriarchate as well. But even if you have Greece and Cyprus and especially Romania, that would be a good beginning for the new Church in Ukraine. I do think that other Churches will eventually recognize, but I think the process will be more slow because of Moscow's opposition. But I think that within a year or two, it's likely that at least half of the Churches in the world will recognize it. However, that's a prediction, not a promise.
What do the leaders of the Church need to do to earn this recognition?
I think that they have to do two things. One: that they have to request meetings with the leaders of the other Churches to introduce themselves. I think the biggest obstacle is — and I don't know Metropolitan Epifaniy myself, I would love to meet him — nobody knows him. Maybe there are some people that he has encountered during his time in Greece where he received his theological education and that will help, but because of the separation of the former Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church from the rest of the world, their leaders are largely unknown to the other Orthodox Churches. So their first task is to travel, to visit, meet people, maybe to do this with the assistance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The second thing, and this is very important: the other Orthodox Churches, however flawed they are, are unnerved about Ukrainian nationalism. They don't understand how Ukrainians are discovering their identity, especially in this post-Maidan war period, and embracing patriotism, because they are not living in Ukraine and don't understand the conditions of war. They don't have the colonial and imperial past that Ukrainians have. So they are nervous especially because of Moscow's campaign that this is going to be an attempt to create a state Church, or a national Church. And I think that if the leaders of this Church demonstrate that they are open to everyone, that no matter who you are in Ukraine, if you are Orthodox, are invited to be part of this Church — this will go a long way for demonstrating arrival and legitimacy. I think this is particularly important to demonstrate to people who self-identify as Russian or perhaps Romanian, who will come and might want liturgy in Slavonic instead of Ukrainian, that they are just as welcome as everyone else.
What nobody wants in Orthodoxy is ethnophyletism, where only Ukrainians are allowed in the Ukrainian Church. What I think other Orthodox will be looking for is openness to everyone. And even public statements can go a long way along with policies. So in that sense, the leaders of the new Church also have to be careful about relations with the State. Everything that has happened up until this point is understandable, but I think the opposition is going to depict the Church as a tool, an organ of the state. And so we simply have to navigate this time very carefully, because the difference now is that the whole world is watching. Even the State Department in the USA is watching. So it's not going to be easy, but these are the big steps that I think you need to do.
What do you think about the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate boycotting the event? Why do you think this happened?
I'm not surprised. They have hardened their position. This is their comfort zone, and I think that this is a symptom of the last 100 years. The Moscow Patriarchate has effectively redefined autocephaly as separatism and isolationism. But autocephaly is not separatism, autocephaly is independence in communion with all of the other Churches. So that logic of the Moscow Patriarchate is actually flawed: if autocephaly is just isolationism and separatism, then no one should be autocephalous; neither Greece, nor Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania — none of them should have autocephaly.
I think that a raising of a new generation of Orthodox people who are open to dialogue would go a long way towards reconciliation in Ukraine. Obviously, I think that dependence upon political leaders in parliament who are in the Opposition Bloc, who only feed and infuse the anti-autocephalous polemic, is a real problem, and I don't know how Church leaders plan to address this dilemma.
But I think that what will help the new Church is to have two bishops from the Moscow Patriarchate on the Synod who know that Church, who have allies in that Church and can serve as ambassadors to show that coming into this new Church, you're going to be welcome, you're going to be a brother and a sister in Christ, and that we have the support of Constantinople. Once a few bishops will start to migrate over, we will see those who are sympathetic to autocephaly gradually move over; however, it's going to take time.
Another thing I think is necessary is that there has to be some kind of a break to start a new dialogue. And I mean not a dialogue with an official commemoration together with the president at a memorial in Kyiv, but an actual dialogue where they try to work out their differences. This dialogue has died since the end of the earlier tenure of Metropolitan Volodymyr. The real chance for dialogue was lost during the Maidan and afterwards.
You know, it will depend also on what Moscow is going to do. If other Churches begin to recognize autocephaly and enter into communion with the new Church in Ukraine, you might see more openness of the Moscow Patriarchate towards reconciliation. I think for the first couple of months, the Moscow Patriarchate is going to attempt to continue what I call a refrain, and it's familiar to everyone: the schismatics remain schismatics, and the Church remains the Church; they are uncanonical and we are canonical.
No matter how many times they refuse to enter dialogue, the leaders of the new Church have to request dialogue and publicize requests for dialogue, for reconciliation, for unification.
Also, I think that the rest of the world has to find allies in Ukraine who can help them understand accusations that parish property is being seized illegally. This is the greatest unknown to those of us who don't live in Ukraine. If a parish wants to be part of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, how do we know that this was a voluntary move on their part, that the government didn't force them to become part of the new Church? Many people say that they are forcing them to do this. I think it's important for the new Church to have a healthy media presence and people who are assisting them in their publicity to show that the rights of people in Ukraine who want to be under the Moscow Patriarchate are being respected. And I think that it's realistic to expect that the Moscow Patriarchate will have some kind of presence in Ukraine for many decades to come. This process of reconciliation will be long and before the Churches unite, there would have to be some kind of eucharistic concelebration first. It will take more than one generation to overcome a legacy of separation and difference.
This is not quite the Unification Council we expected. Why do you think it all went this way?
Because of the last 100 years. You know, the truth is that I don't have anything personally against Patriarch Filaret. I think he is a complicated historical figure; in the last many years he has been the strongest advocate for autocephaly in Ukraine. For people in the Kyiv Patriarchate, the picture of Filaret and the way that he runs the Church was a positive one. But those in the Moscow Patriarchate were left with a very negative depiction of Filaret. And as the Council approached, they simply weren't able to reconcile themselves with the idea that someone that not only had been deposed, but had been anathematized by the Church would be legitimate.
This perception is the outcome of the narrative they have constructed about his life and legacy. From my perspective, there was a Filaret who was the exarch of Ukraine and then there was a Filaret who was a leader of the Kyiv Patriarchate. There was some kind of transformation that happened between those two. In terms of the Unification Council, I think that the fact that Filaret was still alive was an obstacle that made even those who were sympathetic to autocephaly hesitant because of all the things they have heard about this figure.
This is why in my own writing I have compared the Ukrainian schism to the impact of a divorce on a large family. You don't know the other people very well; you only know things about them that you've heard. And the lack of dialogue was an obstacle. Maybe it would have been easier in the post-Filaret period after he dies, given his age, but it's hard to say.
I also think that a lot of people were caught off by the timing of the Council. One question that remains unclear is why Ecumenical Patriarchate took this action at all. Many people were very surprised. When I read the news in April, I said "I don't believe this, this has to be fake news." Because the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s modus operandi was to simply wait and to tell all of the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine to unite first, and then receive autocephaly.
Now they have said that they waited long enough. And I think that those that didn't attend the Unification Council, saying that the Ecumenical Patriarchate interfered in their internal affairs, that they really believed that.
Metropolitan Symeon and Oleksandr from the Moscow Patriarchate went over to the new Church. But most people were afraid of risk. If the new Church proves to be stable, to be able to overcome this initial period of transition, I think that we'll see unification occur gradually and increasingly over a period of time.
The only way that the Unification Council could have worked otherwise is if the process would have been stretched out over a longer period of time. But it seems that that was probably not acceptable to President Poroshenko. So another issue is that the process was very fast; it all happened over 2018, except for the upcoming issuing of the Tomos. That's very fast; the Church moves slowly.
What's most important to people who don't live in Ukraine, and this is something I've discovered as a teacher, is that we simply don't know who the leaders of this Church are. In part this is determined by the narrative. Who controls the literature, who writes it, who is the author of the story? It will be very helpful for people to simply come to know — who the leaders are, where they came from, where they lived, what are their hopes and dreams for this new Church.
What interests me as a scholar is what is going to change for the faithful and priests now that they have a Tomos. Will they feel free, will they feel like they can live in the Gospel in a new way? And another thing: everyone wants to know what kind of a church this will be. Will this be a copy of Moscow? Or are we going to be witnesses to an era of conciliarity (соборноправність), openness, of truly engaging society.
There's one thing that Metropolitan Epifaniy said in his interview a few days ago that resonated with me very much and I would like to learn more. He said: the priests shouldn't just live in the temples, they need to be out among the people. In other words, ministry is not just about church service (богослужіння), it's also about being with the people and their everyday lives. I don't know if you noticed, but he sounded very much like Pope Francis. And to me, it was refreshing to hear this. I think this is what people will be watching. But the big thing is that those of us that don't know the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, we need to get to know you. What can you in the Ukrainian Church tell us about who you are?
If you were to draft a reform plan for the new Church, what would it be?
To be biblical, to promote the reading of the Bible in the churches, the study of the Bible, and to train clergies to be good preachers, that they give good sermons. To be open. I think that a lot of the Orthodox in the world don't want dialogue with Christians of other denominations and other faiths. I think that the Church in Ukraine would contribute very much if they would be leaders of ecumenical dialogue. And Ukraine is a wonderful place to do this, it's a multi-religious society, it's very unique in just the number of people who are there.
And I also think that the new Church can draw from the Ukrainian legacy of involvement of the laity in the life of the Church. You know, all the pictures and videos that you see, they only show the priests; and one of my favorite sayings of Metropolitan Onufriy is about about people. This might sound funny, but a few years ago somebody asked him what is his Church's belief in autocephaly. And he said: "Am I the Church? I'm not the Church; all these people, they are the Church." ("Хіба я Церква? Я не Церква; то всі ці люди — то Церква".) And I appreciate that, and I think that we need more of that in the Ukrainian churches — to invite the laity to truly participate in the life of the Church. I don't think anything bad would come of that. This is a good opportunity to put that post-Soviet legacy aside once and for all and to become a leading Church of the 21st century. I believe this can happen.
Nicholas Denysenko is Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana (USA). In his recent book "The Orthodox Church in Ukraine," he analyzes this history from the early twentieth century to the present.