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Ukrainian autocephaly. After one year

13.09.2019, 14:53
Ukrainian autocephaly. After one year - фото 1
All this past year the CEMES foundation worked on a scholarly project, which examined the Ukrainian crisis from a theological, historical and canonical perspective, always in relation to the triptych: Primacy-Conciliarity-Autocephaly.

Petros VassiliadisAll this past year the CEMES foundation worked on a scholarly project, which examined the Ukrainian crisis from a theological, historical and canonical perspective, always in relation to the triptych: Primacy-Conciliarity-Autocephaly. The project was undertaken by its academic members, as well as the teaching staff of the inter-Orthodox post-graduate program from all Orthodox jurisdictions on “Orthodox Ecumenical Theology”, run by CEMES at the English-speaking International Hellenic University (IHU).

The general conclusion on the Ukrainian autocephaly is that on a theological, canonical and historical point of view the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s (EP) granting last January the tomos of autocephaly to those Ukrainian Orthodox willing to have it and ready to form an all-Ukrainian Orthodox Church, remains uncontested. The Russian Orthodox Church, who felt losing a large part of its jurisdiction, which in addition is the historic cradle of her Christian faith, has chosen to follow a rather communication strategy insisting on a conspiracy theory, namely, that the entire process was politically motivated and that evil forces wanted to destroy the Russian Church etc., and most importantly the diplomatic road, trying with all kind of measures to prevent its recognition by the Orthodox autocephalous Churches of her influence and even beyond.

The catalytic evidence officially produced by the EP from the early stages of the dispute, at the end of September 2018 (OMIΛOYN TA KEIMENA), remains till this very day without convincing counter argument, official or unofficial. The 1686 Patriarchal act, by which only the right to ordain the Metropolitan of Kyiv was granted to the Patriarch of Moscow, and that on the clearly expressed condition to follow the decision of the Kyivan clergy-laity assembly, and most importantly to commemorate the EP, proves beyond any doubt that the Kyivan Metropolia still remained under the EP’s omophorion.

   One cannot blame for the present regretful situation either the EP, which is canonically obliged to defend its ecumenically set rights, or even the MP, which was also trying to defend its canonical jurisdiction using whatever arguments it considers appropriate. The blame – with regard both to the Orthodox unity and, more importantly, to the Rus Kyiv-Moscow unity, on which the MP put the emphasis – is exclusively to be placed on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP), especially her leadership, who lost a unique opportunity to secure to a large extent both their legitimate control of the autocephalous-in-the-process Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and – what is even more important – to determine and retain the actual unity between Ukrainian and Russian Orthodoxy.

The only blame on the MP was its decision to use the Divine Eucharist, the ultimate Orthodox characteristic of self-identity, for an administrative dispute creating, as it was noted, numerous problems in our effort to secure the Orthodox unity, especially in the Orthodox diaspora. But such spontaneous actions are numerous in our long history – in both the first and the second millennium – and in the course of time they were solved. The MP has used this measure also in the Estonian territorial dispute; but it lifted it after few years. I hope and pray this to happen again.

In all similar cases in the past and the previous century canonical irregularities, resulting in schismatic situations – most notably in the Greek autocephalous Church – the Ecumenical Patriarchate intervened, following the Canons of the Ecumenical Councils, and healed the schisms bringing back millions of Orthodox to the canonical Orthodox Church by granting them autocephaly. This is what happened to all newer Patriarchates and Autocephalous Orthodox Churches.

 The main reservation by some autocephalous Churches for not recognizing the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church (OCU), still in force, is that the schismatics and anathematized – measures that were imposed in a legalistic and semi-nationalistic way, and not in the philanthropic spirit of the oikonomia that almost all canonical decisions request– did not repent. The inability of the UOC MP to solve the problem, and thus retain Orthodox unity in the country, has inevitably forced the EP to act as she did. To that reservation one further was added: that of the validity of the ordination of those in an un-canonical status (schismatics, anathematized etc). And this was reinforced by the behavor of the notorious, of soviet style and life, Filaret (Denissenko), who is now rightly deprived any authority in the OCU. As to the theological problem – raised quite lately – of readmittance to the canonical status of the Orthodox Church of clerics, including the hierarchs, this is not an actual problem. In the history of the Undivided Church and the Orthodox canonical tradition, they are not to be re-ordained, and their believers to be re-baptized. All these, of course, if we keep the spirit (and the letter) of the Orthodox canonical tradition, and we are not guided by other principles!

What is actually the main obstacle in the unfortunate intra-Orthodox divide, promoted by the MP for a long period, is a model of Orthodox unity without a Protos, without a primacy of honour and service (and with certain prerogatives).  This is  what some Orthodox propose, though not openly and even not going as far as abandoning the ages-old canonical tradition that was established by the canons of the Ecumenical Councils, but in the back of their mind is something that flies in the air In practice, all Orthodox with no exception – and with no theological counter argument – follow a primacy at all levels of Church life (parish, diocese, autocephalous church), except at the universal one.

Of course, no one suggests keeping our canonical tradition without dynamically interpreting and contextualizing it. But if we follow the above logic there is a danger to fall into a protestant-style confederation of independent Orthodox Churches, a situation almost inevitable with the alternative proposal. If that happens, we can no longer speak of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” we confess in our Church, but of something alien to Christian and authentic Orthodox ecclesiology.

Unfortunately, for many centuries after the Great Schism the Orthodox have unconsciously developed a “negative” identity: we are not what our tradition has left us as legacy, but what the others, mainly the Catholics, are not. In other words, without a primacy, a visible expression of the Church’s unity, accompanied of course by synodality.


Assessing this regrettable split in our Orthodox Churches, created by the above described different approach to Orthodox Church unity, clearly manifested after the Ukrainian autocephaly, one cannot but underline some positive aspects.

Firstly, the most promising outcome of this crisis is that the EP has revived an ancient ecclesiological ethos; the participation of the entire people of God (clergy and laity) in our Church’s decision-making process, which in our present day autocephalous Orthodox Churches is either forgotten or at best marginalized. In other words, the authentic version of synodality was brought back, hopefully to be followed not only at the top, but at all levels of Church life: parish, diocese, regional/national, universal. This is the only effective measure to abandon the nationalistic and ethnophyletism hoovering in modern Orthodoxy under the guise of autocephaly.

Secondly, the new situation in Ukraine with the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox in that country unexpectedly brought also an ecumenical revival in the country. The contribution of the Ukrainian Eastern Catholics in religious reconciliation is undoubtedly a further positive outcome. They not only openly expressed views in favor of the Ukrainian autocephaly; they have suddenly emerged as one the main players in fostering ecumenical relations, after nearly half a millennium being the most serious obstacle for the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue. Their leader, His Beatitude Mgr. Sviatoslav (Shevchuk), underlined, that “in Ukraine there is an interesting perspective for ecumenical dialogue in the context of new possibilities.” And in an interview, he went as far as expressing a bold optimistic view, that “the restoration of Eucharistic communion between Rome and Constantinople is not utopian thinking, as some people call it. This is the goal of the ecumenical movement. This is the fulfillment of the commandment of Christ, ‘that all may be one’.” He also expressed his determination “to cooperate with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. We have even agreed with His Beatitude Epiphanius, to work out a certain ‘road map,’ acknowledging that his own Church “carries the mystical ecclesiastical memory of the undivided Christianity of the first millennium…we consider our Mother Church to be the Church of ancient Constantinople.” Equally, on the Orthodox part, the newly elected Primate of OCU, Metropolitan of Kyiv and the whole of Ukraine Epiphanius, declared: “We want to start a fruitful cooperation between the Orthodox and the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church that existed before, but we want to deepen it, in order to work together in the future.”

 In the CEMES Final Report, mainly because of the decision of the Holy Synod of the MP to break communion with her mother Church, it was stated: “in view of the possibility of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church joining the OCU…many devoted Orthodox would possibly prefer the unity with the Roman Catholic Church, especially with the Present Pope, rather than with the Russian Church, especially with her current Russkii Mir theory, which in very many respects is contrary to the more holistic mission document of the Holy and Great Council, under the title “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World,” a document for which the Russian Orthodox Church, after all, has officially the most reservations.”


Regarding the future of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, together with the CEMES Final Report, as well as the most recent views by the Greek Metropolitan of Nafpaktos Hierotheos(Vlachos), on the Ukrainian crisis, I believe that all efforts should now focus on the gradual restoration of the unity of the Orthodox in Ukraine, which will also heal the schism between Constantinople and Moscow, though unilateral from the MP side. Taking in to account that the MP seems to have settled with a double-jurisdiction in Ukraine, (i.e. the inevitable co-existence of UOC-MP and OCU, despite the fact that at the moment for different reasons they do not recognize each other), one feasible and realistic proposal as an interim solution would be to follow the model of the famous “Patriarchal Act of 1928”, still functioning in the Church of Greece. Although such double-jurisdictions seem quite un-canonical and have been criticized in the case of Estonia and the Orthodox Diaspora, it is the only possible solution to reduce the accumulated enmity and continuous confrontation for nearly 3 years now. The co-decision for the creation of a Permanent Holy Synod as a supreme executive ecclesiastical body, consisting of 6 hierarchs from UOC-MP and 6 from the OCU, according to the model that has been in operation for about a century in the Church of Greece.


Can we hope that the gloomy situation will turn into a more hopeful one? Why not! We must never forget that the Holy Spirit works, especially with regard to Church unity and the ecumenical relations, in unexpected and unimaginable ways. Will the Holy Spirit blow in similar unexpected and unimaginable ways to our Church now? Are we – rather  ready to move in the Holy Spirit? Can they become transforming disciples of our Lord and bearers of witness in Christ’s Way?

I pray that our Church – especially our leaders – closely and prayerfully consider the signs of the Spirit, at least as the leader of the Catholic Church did nearly five years ago in the Basilica of St. Paul Outside the Walls, when he said: “The unity of Christians - we are convinced of this - will not be the fruit of refined theoretical discussions in which each will try to convince the other of the truth of their opinions. The Son of Man will come and will find us again in the discussions. We must recognize that in order to reach the depth of the mystery of God we need each other, to meet and to confront ourselves under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, who harmonizes diversity and overcomes conflicts, reconciles diversity.”

And I pray, as in the World Mission Conference of the World Council of Churches in Athens (2005), the first in a predominantly Orthodox country: “Come Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile.”

*Emeritus Professor Petros Vassiliadis is President of WOCATI, President of Honour of CEMES, and Director of the Inter-Orthodox Post-Graduate Program on “Orthodox Ecumenical Theology of IHU.

Petros Vassiliadis