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Ukrainian Orthodoxy: path to recovery of Church unity. Part II

05.07.2016, 14:22
Ukrainian Orthodoxy and Ukrainian society suffer from division. The majority of Ukrainian Orthodox believers belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The rest of the Orthodox community of Ukraine has chosen a different path of self-proclaimed autocephaly. However, neither the first nor the second path is optimal for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine to date.

Ukrainian Orthodox Church and legacy of Metropolitan Volodymyr

1. The need for self-determination  of the UOC

Ukrainian Orthodoxy and Ukrainian society suffer from division. The majority of Ukrainian Orthodox believers belong to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate. The rest of the Orthodox community of Ukraine has chosen a different path of self-proclaimed autocephaly. However, neither the first nor the second path is optimal for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine to date.

The unification based on the existing status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (the self-governing Church with the rights of broad autonomy within the Moscow Patriarchate) make impossible the attitudes in Ukrainian society after the annexation of Crimea and the beginning of the armed conflict in Donbas, and the close relationship between the Moscow Patriarchate and the modern Russian state, recognized as “aggressor state” by Decree of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine of January 27, 2015.[1]

 The unification based on self-proclaimed autocephaly is not acceptable for the majority of the clergymen and communities of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who remain, often contrary to their patriotic sentiments, loyal to the canonical structure of the Church. For the vast majority of them are part of the UOC not because it is the vehicle (or tool) of the ideology of “Russian world,” but because the Ukrainian Orthodox Church today is the only one ecclesiastical structure in our country that maintains canonical and prayerful communion with universal Orthodoxy.

A difficult and dramatic situation emerged. However, it cannot be regarded as a stalemate. The way out of the existing situation lies in the new historically responsible position of Ukrainian canonical Orthodox episcopate. As clearly stated in the Parliamentary resolution, “Ukraine remains the object of military aggression by the Russian Federation.”[2] This does not leave us a chance to be “above the fray.” In the interest of maintaining and strengthening of canonical Orthodoxy in Ukraine in the new historical conditions, a historic decision should be ventured upon: the arrangement of church life on the basis of full canonical independence or autocephaly. The time has come to fulfill the promises that were given by the episcopate of the UOC in 1992: take all measures to legally regulate the “aspirations of the Ukrainian Orthodox flock to full independence, i.e. the canonical autocephaly.”[*].

During the lifetime of His Beatitude Metropolitan Volodymyr and His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II, it was believed that ecclesial life in Ukraine showed a slow trend towards becoming fully independent. The split significantly complicated the life of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. However, there is hope that its healing will be associated with the dynamic development and the gradual improvement of the canonical status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (from the rights to broad autonomy to the legitimate canonical autocephaly).

The new historical conditions made their amendments to this “slow-paced” plan. The terms of existence of the Church in Russia and Ukraine were subject to substantial changes. In modern Russia there is a new attempt to revive the Byzantine “symphony” (from Greek “Συμφωνία” – accord, agreement) in church-state relations. In Ukraine, the Church develops in a different direction, which provides for a greater extent of independence of ecclesial life from the state “oversight” (in spite of the continuous attempts by the state to “format” ecclesial life in line with certain political interests). The attitude towards the Ukrainian church issue in Ukrainian and Russian societies has also changed. In modern Russian consciousness the expression “Ukrainian autocephaly” has become synonymous with a “split” and the final “loss” of Ukraine. (And this is contrary to the indisputable fact that the canonical autocephaly, by contrast, will return millions of Ukrainian Orthodox who today are in a state of canonical isolation to prayerful communion with the Orthodox brethren in Christ). Instead, for the present-day Ukrainian society overcoming the church division and unity on the basis of autocephaly became one of the main symbols of national unity.

It became clear that under the new political circumstances, the leadership of the Moscow Patriarchate is substantially limited in the choice of canonical initiatives of curing the church division in the neighboring country. On the one hand, this is the effect of anti-Ukrainian sentiments in Russian society, which the Patriarchy has to reckon with. In addition, in modern Russia, there are clear trends to control ecclesial life by secular institutions that consider the obstruction of Ukrainian autocephaly as one of the priorities of the modern Russian policy in the religious sector.

The situation in Ukraine has radically changed as well. The annexation of Crimea and armed confrontation in Donbas caused significant damage to Ukrainian society. Imperial forces hoped to split Ukraine. However, this did not happen. Instead, the external threat united society on patriotic principles. Ukraine stood and rallied. In such united and renewed Ukraine, our church, unfortunately, has become a “foreign” church body (“a branch of the Russian Church”) in the eyes of society. For decades, Ukrainian society accepted the position and the system of canonical arguments of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church with due respect. However, with the beginning of Russian military aggression everything changed.

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is no longer perceived as a local church body. No matter whether we like it or not, in the eyes of a significant part (if not the most part) of modern Ukrainian society we have become a “church of the aggressor state.”

 There is even a special hashtag which, unfortunately, is popular on social networks: #Tserkvaokupanta (“occupier’s church”). It grieves me that the church in which I grew up and was educated, the church to which I belong and that I love with all my heart, is seen as “the church of the occupier.” It also grieves me to see that the concept of canonicity is discredited in the eyes of society. For decades, in defining its jurisdictional or religious affiliation, Ukrainians have paid particular attention to the canonical status of churches. But today the word “canonical,” unfortunately, for many Ukrainian has become synonymous with “religious contempt” and “hypocrisy.”

The external threat has changed society. For the sake of protecting the sovereignty and integrity of the state, society rejected these arguments and united. Such changes have been awaited and are now awaited from the church environment. But now that two years of Ukraine’s countering imperial aggression have passed, our Church, unfortunately, has not taken a final and definite decision. Society expects from us a clear and unequivocal condemnation of modern imperialist policy of Russian military aggression.

We overemphasize one point of the confrontation, saying that Ukraine is going through a “civil war” (“internal strife”). Society expects that in the circumstances of ongoing war for independence, the hierarchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church clearly and unambiguously stands on the side of their flock, the side of the Ukrainian people and actively support Ukrainian sovereignty and statehood. And we are talking that the Church is “above the fray” and tries to combine loyalty to own country with loyalty to the imperial center (against the backdrop of active support that a part of our clergy provides to illegal formations of DPR and LPR). Society expects that we finally sit down at the negotiating table with representatives of the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. We do not just ignore these expectations, but disrupt any negotiations, returning to the vocabulary of the early 1990s generated by secular journalists and other people, alien to evangelical faith and church culture.

We are moving to the past, thus exposing our Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the danger of marginalization and gradual transformation of the largest church, once the most effective and influential church into a “minority church,” the church, which will primarily be associated in the eyes of society not with universal Orthodoxy, but with the politicized theory of “Russian world.”

 Let us consider the data of recent opinion polls that show “the existence of a sustainable trend: the number of supporters of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church since 2010 has reduced (in 2010 it accounted for 24% of respondents, in 2013 – 20%, in 2014 – 17% and nowadays – 15%); instead, the number of supporters of the UOC-KP has grown compared to 2000, it has doubled – from 12% to 25%.”[3].

It is important to understand: the way of opting out the life and problems of modern Ukrainian society – including the withdrawal from the process of formation of Ukraine’s own national church is a path to nowhere, the path to a major historical defeat of the Church, which, ignoring the new historical challenges, after all, will concede her position and influence to those religious communities which we usually call “non-canonical.”

We got used to the unique status of a single Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the hierarchy of which enjoys undeniable canonical status. However, canon law does not give us the right to indifference and inaction. “And don't start telling yourselves that you belong to Abraham's family. I tell you that God can turn these stones into children for Abraham,” John the Baptist once told the Pharisees and Sadducees (Matthew 3.9). We can hear the same words once us, unless we overcome indifference of our hearts.

2. Legacy of His Beatitude Volodymyr

“If a person wants to come to terms with another, he must take the first step towards the one with whom he wants to reconcile, even though he was wrong. Similarly, the issue of association with those who are in schism does not lie in only waiting for steps only from the other side. If today we do not open to each other the embrace of love, if we do not sincerely seek for unity, doing that tomorrow may be too late.” These were the words of His Beatitude Metropolitan Volodymyr, which are contained in his spiritual testament – a document summarizing all the experience of the departed Primate of our Church.

His will and, more broadly, the entire legacy of Metropolitan Volodymyr and the line of church development he elaborated in his last years of life are now seen by many as part of history. In other words, as something that belongs exclusively to the past. However, it is this heritage that could help our Church to worthily respond to challenges.

Metropolitan Volodymyr supported the resumption of dialogue between the UOC and the UOC-Kyiv Patriarchate. His Beatitude Volodymyr constantly stressed and the need to overcome the church division and its consequences. There is yet another important appeal, which is present in the Testament of His Beatitude Volodymyr: consider autocephaly not as synonymous with the split, but as one of the models of unity of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine with universal Orthodoxy.

Returning to this line of development of our Church set forth by His Beatitude Metropolitan Volodymyr, we should stop looking for excuses why we do not unite with our brothers from unrecognized religious communities, but start searching for realistic scenarios and real unification model of restoring ecclesial unity.

In search of such a scenario and a foundation for reunification one should recall the events and documents of the first half of the 1990s, when the Ukrainian Orthodox Church ventured on a bold and principled step: it determined in a conciliar manner that it met all requirements for autocephalous being.

On November 1-3, 1991, the UOC Council was held in Kyiv, which was attended by all the then hierarchs of the Church, representatives of clergy, monastics and laymen from all dioceses. This Council determined that the new canonical status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church should be “full autonomy and independence, i.e. autocephaly as further improvement of the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”[4] Given the difficult circumstances under which this Council proceeded, its historical importance is sometimes underestimated. Reception of the Council’s decisions still causes some problems for modern Orthodox Church. After all, they are closely related to two issues – the conceptual issue of the status of Orthodox Church in Ukraine and the attitude to the then Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Filaret. Yet, abstracting from the circumstances and personalities, it is worth noting: the main decision of the All-Ukrainian Council of 1991 was a statement that the necessity of autocephalous being of the UOC at a new historical stage was strategically correct.

The former Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Filaret and the next head of the UOC, Metropolitan Volodymyr, are often considered opponents in the issue of autocephaly.

Allegedly, the first UOC Primate supported full canonical independence, while Metropolitan Volodymyr supported maintaining the canonical subordination of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to the Moscow Patriarchate. This point of view represents a somewhat simplistic perspective of a complex historical reality.

Metropolitan Volodymyr and his predecessor as head of UOC really endorsed different views on some important issues of ecclesial life. And their difference rather consisted not in the attitude to the idea of autocephaly, but in choosing the ways to achieve it. Self-proclamation of autocephaly and the Kyiv Patriarchate by the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in 1990 was a reaction of the Ukrainian Church to irreversible historical processes: the collapse of the Soviet Union and the restoration of Ukrainian statehood. However, the self-proclaimed Kyiv Patriarchate has existed for a quarter of century, and has not yet succeeded to unite the Orthodox people of Ukraine through this non-canonical autocephaly[5]. Realizing that unrecognized autocephaly was unable to unite the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Metropolitan Volodymyr believed that obtaining legal status (i.e. the canonical autocephaly acknowledged by Orthodox world) should proceed in several stages and within canon law.

Theoretically, the All Ukrainian Council of the UOC in 1991 had the following options:

1) declare autocephaly in a conciliar way and appeal to the Russian Orthodox Church and other local Orthodox Churches asking her to acknowledge it;

2) state the necessity of autocephaly in a conciliar  way and appeal to the Russian Orthodox Church with the request to grant it;

3) declare the necessity of being an autocephalous Orthodox Church and to ask for granting it the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which believes that granting autocephaly is its prerogative.

In 1991, Metropolitan Filaret was confident that the most appropriate way of obtaining autocephaly was its provision by the Moscow Patriarchate, which, allegedly, under the pressure of historical circumstances should agree to autocephaly the same as the year before it had agreed to “independent governance” of the UOC. This scenario, however, proved to be invalid. And then, having actually lost influence on the life of the UOC, Metropolitan Filaret followed the path of building up the Kyiv Patriarchate based on the self-proclaimed autocephaly.

Taking up the position of the Church Primate, Metropolitan Volodymyr was faced with a situation where the self-proclaimed autocephaly, unrecognized by universal Orthodoxy became for the majority of the clergy and parishioners of the UOC synonymous with “Philaret’s split.” It was very risky to speed up the process of obtaining canonical autocephaly under these historical circumstances. Autocephaly was strongly opposed by the Moscow church on the one hand and on the other hand by the supporters of canonical communion with the Russian Orthodox Church from among the bishops of the UOC.

The situation forced the Metropolitan Volodymyr to be especially careful speaking publicly about the issue of autocephaly and the future of Ukrainian church. Yet, reviewing documents of the UOC of the first half of the 90s, we can see that the issue of full canonical independence was not withdrawn from the agenda of our Church.

“Not only do we unanimously endorse and support the aspirations of the Ukrainian Orthodox flock to full independence, i.e. the canonical autocephaly, but take all the steps to legally resolve this vital question of our Church,” Kharkiv Council participants stated[6]. Such statements are contained in other relevant documents of the UOC. In particular, the appeal to the Ukrainian head of state of March 9, 1993 expressed hope that the Orthodox Church “in the near future will occupy its rightful place among the oldest autocephalous national Orthodox Churches of the world.”[7] “We believe in the possibility, on God's blessing, to further improve the independence and autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, including the status of the Local Church,” Patriarch Alexy II wrote to participants of All-Ukrainian Orthodox Conference, held in Kyiv in January 1995 on the blessing of Metropolitan Volodymyr.[8]

The possibility and usefulness of the autocephaly was referred to by the deceased Primate with a considerable caution. “We should explain,” Metropolitan Volodymyr argued in one of his speeches, “that the idea of autocephaly of any local Church does not carry anything negative in itself. Autocephaly is only a way of organizing the church life. Providing autocephalous status to a particular local church is the evidence of the quantitative and qualitative growth of the Church, a proof of its capability of independent being.”[9] As the deceased Primate of our Church wrote in one of his latest texts, “The history and current state of the Ukrainian Church give reason to hope that in the future our church will get a new status – that of the local canonical church. But our way to the cherished ecclesial and national unity should be based not on canonical arbitrariness, but the trust in Universal Orthodoxy, which, as I sincerely believe, at the time that the Lord knows, will give our church the new canonical status and an appropriate place in the diptych of the local churches.”[10]

“This status should crown all our efforts,” Metropolitan Volodymyr once said about autocephaly.[11] Why did he say ‘crown’? Obtaining the autocephalous status is a complicated and lengthy process, which, according to Metropolitan Volodymyr, envisioned multiple stages. At first it was necessary to stabilize the situation in the UOC, later on – wait  for “psychological reception” of the new canonical rights of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (which is actually identical with the rights of a limited autocephaly) of the church circles of Ukraine and Russia. A new stage was to be the actual positioning of the UOC as an independent Orthodox Church at Pan-Orthodox level, as well as attaining conflict-free relations between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the self-proclaimed Kyiv Patriarchate. The next stage of the process had to envision the resumption of ecclesial unity and the establishment of the united Orthodox Church in Ukraine on the canonical basis of the UOC. Finally, at the final stage of its development, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, which would have preliminarily renewed its unity, was to receive enhanced canonical status, that is, to become a fully legitimate local church, whose autocephaly is recognized by the plenitude of universal Orthodoxy.

As of 2008, Metropolitan Volodymyr managed to bring the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the penultimate stage of this “evolutionary autocephalous” path. The celebration of the 1020th anniversary of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus and the visit to Ukraine on this occasion of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew testified to the Orthodox world that the UOC, although formally being part of the Moscow Patriarchate, had de facto outgrown its autonomy and makes for the full canonical independence.

The same year, formal talks between the UOC and UOC-KP were initiated for the first time. On September 9, 2009, the Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church established a working group, which was responsible for the preparation of dialogue with representatives of the UOC-KP (Journal 45). On October 2, the same year (in the form of working groups to prepare the dialogue) and held the first official meeting between the authorized representatives of the UOC and UOC-KP.

As the history has demonstrated, the strategic direction elected by Metropolitan Volodymyr was correct. However, Metropolitan Volodymyr failed to achieve this noble objective. As the Primate’s health was deteriorating, Metropolitan’s influence on the formation of a strategic course of the UOC decreased. Instead, the influence of the pro-Russian vector in the life of the UOC lobbied by politicians and oligarchs increased. His Beatitude Metropolitan Volodymyr spent his last years in a rather unfavorable situation. Misunderstanding by some brothers, bishops, numerous critical publications against the Metropolitan and his entourage in the media controlled by Russian and pro-Russian political forces, demarche against Metropolitan Volodymyr at the anniversary council (July 2011) by Donetsk businessman V.Nusenkis ... Remembering these historic events today, when Ukraine became the victim of Russian aggression when Crimea is annexed and the war in Donbas is ongoing, we can safely say: opposition to the course of Metropolitan Volodymyr and the process of consolidation of Ukrainian Orthodoxy came from government and political circles of Russia and was one part of the preparation for future hybrid war of Russia against independent Ukrainian statehood.

[*] Appeal of the Kharkiv Council of Bishops of the UOC to the President of Ukraine L.M. Kravchuk // Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the turn of the millennium. Documents and materials. K .: Publishing Department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 2012. p. 57–58. P. 26-28 contains a photocopy of this historical document.

[1] Appeal of the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine to the United Nations, European Parliament, Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, NATO Parliamentary Assembly, OSCE Parliamentary Assembly, GUAM Parliamentary Assembly and national parliaments of the countries of the world on the recognition of the Russian Federation as an aggressor state. Adopted by the Verkhovna Rada of Ukraine on January 27, 2015.

[2] Op.cit.

[3] Religion and Church in Ukrainian society: case study // Religion, the Church, society and the state: two years after the Maidan (informational materials). Information materials prepared for the next meeting of the permanent round table “Religion and Power in Ukraine: Problems of Relations,” May 26, 2016 with the support of the Konrad Adenauer Foundation in Ukraine. К., 2016. p. 22.

[4] Determination of the UOC Council of November 1-3, 1991on the complete independence of the UOC.

[5] “It is Moscow that obstructs unity,” some autocephalous figures claim. Of course, it is impossible to deny the fact that the church life in Ukraine falls within the scope of Russia's geopolitical interests. It is openly stated not only by Russian experts, but also officials. But the Russian factor should not be overemphasized. It is clear that the self-proclaimed autocephalous church has not been received by Ukrainian people.

[6] Appeal to the President of Ukraine L.M. Kravchuk // Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the turn of the millennium. p. 57–58.

[7] Appeal to the President of Ukraine L.M. Kravchuk of March 9, 1993 N.192.

[8] Address of the All-Ukrainian Orthodox Conference to His Holiness Patriarch Alexy II of January 24, 1995.

[9] Metropolitan Volodymyr of Kyiv and All Ukraine. Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the turn of the millennium: achievements and challenges. Speech at the Anniversary Conference “Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the turn of the millennium” // Ukrainian Orthodox Church at the turn of the millennium. Documents and materials. K .: Publishing Department of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, 2012. p. 104–105.

[10] Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine Volodymyr (Sabodan). Thoughts of different years. Op.cit. p. 227-228.

[11] Op.cit. p. 228.

Oleksandr (DRABYNKO),

Metropolitan of Pereyaslav-Khmelnytskyy and Vyshneve,
Vicar of the Kyiv Metropolis