Tomos ante portas: a short guide to Ukrainian church independence

22.12.2018, 20:05
On 11 October, a three-day meeting of the Synod, or church council, of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, finished in Istanbul. It gave further confirmation that Ukraine is on the path to receiving church independence from Moscow – and healing its schism, which has for nearly thirty years divided the world’s second largest Orthodox nation.

On 11 October, a three-day meeting of the Synod, or church council, of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, finished in Istanbul. It gave further confirmation that Ukraine is on the path to receiving church independence from Moscow – and healing its schism, which has for nearly thirty years divided the world’s second largest Orthodox nation.

Although President Poroshenko triumphantly announced that in result of the meeting Ukraine had received the long-awaited Tomos, or decree of Church independence – a claim circulated in Ukraine with great enthusiasm, this is not true. Indeed, now Orthodox Church independence for Ukraine is indeed now a question of “when,” not “if,” and many were anticipating that the Tomos would be granted at this Synod. However, the recent decisions made in Istanbul, the residence of the Ecumenical Patriarch, are much more nuanced. Euromaidan Press explains how we got to this point and what’s next for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

What happened?

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who also carries the title of Patriarch of Constantinople, a tribute to the city’s role as a center of Christianity during the days of the Byzantine empire, is working on making the Ukrainian Church independent from Moscow, or autocephalous. This has been going on since 2016, when the Ukrainian parliament appealed to Patriarch Bartholomew to grant this autocephaly.

This appeal was precipitated by Russia’s undeclared war against Ukraine. One of Ukraine’s three Orthodox Churches, and the only one recognized as legitimate by the rest of the world Orthodoxy – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) is subjugated to Moscow. It is extensively used as an instrument of Russia’s geopolitical influence over Ukraine and is one of the pillars of the “Russian world,” a neoimperial concept Russia uses to expand its influence and oppose the West. At the same time, Ukraine has two other Churches, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP) and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), regarded by the 15 autocephalous churches of the world as schismatic.

This is now all changing. The announcement issued by the Synod on 11 October brings Ukraine one more step closer to having a legitimate independent Orthodox Church, as well as ending the religious isolation of millions of Orthodox faithful in Ukraine.

It all goes back to 1240, when the Tatar-Mongol invasion devastated the central part of the medieval kingdom of Kyivan Rus and divided its heritage between two emerging principalities – Moscow and Lithuania-Poland. The Church of the Kyivan Rus, which was an integral part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, was divided as well. The Moscow part split off and became the Moscow Patriarchate. In 1686, the Ecumenical Patriarchate agreed to give its Lithuania-Poland part, the Kyiv Metropoly, to be managed by the Moscow Church, under certain conditions. This part of the church is today the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. Is now headed by Metropolitan Onufriy and is subordinated to the Russian Orthodox Church, although claiming to enjoy autonomy.

After the Russian empire started disintegrating in 1917, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), headed by Vasyl Lypkivskyi, was proclaimed in Kyiv in 1921. It is crushed by Ukraine’s new Bolshevik government. In 1990, the UAOC was renewed in Ukraine. It is since 2015 headed by Metropolitan Makariy.

In 1991, after the proclamation of the independence of Ukraine, Metropolitan Filaret who headed the UOC MP proclaims autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate – a move which was not supported by everyone in UOC MP and the Moscow Patriarchate, i.e. the Russian Orthodox Church, itself. In 1992, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP) was formed. It is still led by Filaret, now a Patriarch.

Makariy and Filaret had been anathematized, or excommunicated, by the Russian Orthodox Church, meaning that they and the churches they lead were not recognized by the rest of the world Orthodoxy. Only the UOC MP was in communion with the rest of the world Orthodox Churches. Up till now, that is.

These three churches follow the same doctrine but are separate administrative entities. Although the UOC MP boasts the largest number of parishes and dioceses (12,064 parishes vs 4,807 of the UOC KP and 1,048 of the UAOC), its number of faithful has been dropping rapidly. According to the latest Razukov poll in 2018, 28.7% Ukrainians said they belonged to UOC KP (8.7 mn people in absolute numbers), 12.8% – to UOC MP (3.8 mn people). A significant number of people – 23.4% – said they were “just orthodox” (7.5 mn people), without identifying with a concrete confession.

So what happened in Istanbul?

The Synod made several decisions:

1. confirmed that it would indeed grant Autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine – but did not say when;

2. reestablished a Stavropegion of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Kyiv. A Stavropegion is an autonomous Orthodox Church unit (church, monastery, or union) subordinated not to the local hierarchs, but directly to the Ecumenical Patriarch and enjoying special rights – a representative center of sorts. The Ecumenical Patriarch established such Stavropegia before 1686 after which the Moscow Patriarch acquired this right. There are currently no Stavropegia of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine, so it is not quite clear what the decision refers to. Perhaps it is laying the ground for the future establishment of such Stavropegia;

3. lifted the anathemas that the UOC MP placed on the leaders of UOC KP and UAOC, Filaret and Makariy and restore them in their hierarchical ranks, which means that as of 11 October, the faithful of these two churches which were hereto considered “uncanonical” and illegitimate, are now a part of the Orthodox Christian family.

Here, the Ecumenical Patriarch as the higher-standing “first among equals” used his right to consider appeals by members of other churches, in this case – by Filaret and Makariy. Although rare now, this right was widely used in the first millennia of Christianity;

-revoked its 1686 Synodal Letter to give the Patriarch of Moscow “management rights” over the Kyiv Metropoly, including the ordainment of the Metropolitan of Kyiv. Formally, the Russian Orthodox Church violated the conditions of that letter – that the UOC MP would “commemorate the Ecumenical Patriarch as the First Hierarch at any celebration, proclaiming and affirming his canonical dependence to the Mother Church of Constantinople.” Instead, they commemorate the Moscow Patriarch;

-called upon all sides to refrain from force and violence. An important detail – tensions between churches are rising, and the UOC MP has started ringing (to this moment, false) alarms that Ukrainian nationalists had being seizing its property.

What did these decisions change?

According to Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, PhD, Senior Lecturer at Stockholm School of Theology, they are preliminary decisions preparing the soil for the next steps – for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to plant the Autocephalous Church in Ukraine. They reinstated the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine and the status quo which existed up to 1686:

“It was a historical event. In the modern political life, you don’t often see decisions which correspond to events three-four-five centuries ago. But with the Church, this is the case, and yesterday’s decision of the Ecumenical Patriarch goes back to events of the 17th century.

The rationale for this sequence of steps is the following. If Constantinople granted autocephaly to the Ukrainian churches as they are now, there would be many reservations and concerns from other [autocephalous] Churches, and problems with the reception of the Ukrainian autocephaly from them. But if Constantinople grants full autocephaly to its own structure in Ukraine, there will be much less reservations about this.”

This decision is especially important given that Moscow had contested Constantinople’s right to decide on an autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, arguing that Ukraine “constitutes the canonical territory of the Patriarchate of Moscow” and that, consequently, such an act on the part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate would comprise an “intervention” into a foreign ecclesiastical jurisdiction. Two weeks before the Synod in Istanbul, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had published a detailed historical note with convincing proof for its historical jurisdiction over the Kyiv Metropoly, apparently providing the conceptual base for the decision of the Synod. Moscow had not provided an answer to this note.

Meanwhile, religious scientist and professor Yuriy Chornomorets believes that the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision lays the ground for the unification of the three Orthodox churches in Ukraine, and will put the UOC MP to the test:

“Constantinople’s canonical rehabilitation of Patriarch Filaret gives Ukrainian bishops of the three jurisdictions a chance to unite. Will they use this chance? It’s obvious that not all the bishops of the UOC MP will join the unifying processes. So, this church will still function, but probably have its name changed to ‘Russian Orthodox Church’ and will significantly lose its influence on society, politics, faithful. This loss of influence has already happened over these four years [since Euromaidan – Ed]. This church starting from September 2014 has taken extremely conservative and pro-Russian positions, has isolated itself from society, from other churches. In 2017, the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church had significantly curtailed the rights of the UOC MP by changes in the statute of the Russian Orthodox Church. Today, the bishops and priests of the UOC MP are placed before the need to decide: either to follow the canons, which require creating an autocephalous church headed by its own patriarch or remain subjugated to the Moscow Patriarch. This is a simple decision, and I think we will soon see how many bishops of the UOC MP are really bishops, and how many are pro-Russian politicians in church robes.”

For full article and infographics click here.

Alya Shandra

Euromaidan Press, Oct 14, 2018