News Analysis

Is true independence on the way for Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians?

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I prays at the Hagia Triada Greek Orthodox church (Getty Images)

Last October, Orthodox Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople announced the creation of a new autocephalous (self-governing) national Church in Ukraine. A council to bring this new body into being will meet on December 15. It is intended to heal the rift between the separate Orthodox churches in Ukraine. All three rival groups have been summoned to take part in the synod, in the hope that they will be able to unite under the aegis of Constantinople.

In reality, Bartholomew knows that there is virtually no chance of any significant participation from the largest group, the official Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which has no intention of severing its historical ties with Moscow.

Constantinople dropped a bombshell last autumn by unilaterally restoring to communion the self-styled Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the smaller Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, both seen as schismatic by most Orthodox. Moscow’s response was to break off communion with Constantinople, a serious though not unprecedented move. The UOC-MP refuses to partake in the projected reunion council and denies Constantinople’s right to take such a step.

There is a theological element to the rift which goes beyond tension between Moscow and Kiev. Other Orthodox churches worldwide are concerned that Bartholomew is aiming at strengthening his role as a pure figurehead into a direct jurisdiction they judge foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology.

So far only churches close to the Russians, like those in Serbia, Poland and Syria, have publicly sided with Moscow, but anything seen as an aggressive push for power from the Phanar risks isolating Constantinople, making its position vulnerable.

Bartholomew’s strategy of using the issue to bolster his own status against Moscow could also backfire if it alienates the Ukrainians themselves. The projected statutes for the new Ukrainian Church which emerged from Constantinople last month have disappointed many, apparently conceding much less autonomy to Kiev than is already enjoyed by UOC-MP. The final say over many important matters affecting Church life is set to rest with Constantinople.

The fusion of competing, often fractious groups, each with dominant personalities potentially having to relinquish their status in favour of unity, was always going to be difficult. Many of those concerned will now be wondering whether they wish to exchange the Russian yoke for one imposed from Constantinople.

Constantinople’s supporters argue that, at least initially, only close external oversight can protect the emerging autocephalous church from the dangers both of internecine strife and of subservience to political and nationalistic interests. For this reason, it is thought that a hierarch from outside Ukraine may be chosen to head the new body.
But Bartholomew is pursuing a strategy which has high risks for himself and his Church.