The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, leader of the global Orthodox Church, has issued a statement confirming plans for an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and restored ties with the previously schismatic Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate.
The announcement, released Oct. 11, also removed the traditional right of the Russian Patriarch to ordain the Metropolitan of Kyiv, a move which will likely be perceived as a deliberate slight to Moscow.
Fr. Alexander Laschuk, a Byzantine Catholic priest, canon lawyer, and professor at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, told CNA that the announcement was an “incredibly bold move” by Bartholomew, one likely to have real consequences for the global Orthodox Church.
The announcement was released by the office of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, following a regular session of the synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, held Oct. 9-11.
The meeting included bishops of the ecumenical patriarchate itself and its other territories, such as Greek Orthodox bishops in the United States, but was not inclusive of the wider orthodox community as each self-governing Church is independent.
“The Holy Synod discussed in particular and at length the ecclesiastical matter of Ukraine,” the statement said, introducing a number of resolutions on the future of the Orthodox Church in that country.
The first of these was to “renew the decision already made that the Ecumenical Patriarchate proceed to the granting of Autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine.”
The statement also said that Metropolitan Filaret Denisenko, leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, had been restored to full communion along with its members.
Orthodox Christians in Ukraine are currently divided into three separate groups.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate effectively declared itself independent from Moscow in 1992, and is considered by the Russian Church to be a schismatic group. Until now, the other Orthodox Churches have recognized Ukraine as under Moscow’s jurisdiction and honored the excommunication.
The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, re-founded in 1990, is similarly seen as a breakaway group.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is under the authority of the Russian Church and has been the officially recognized Orthodox Church in the country.
Patriarch Bartholomew’s plan to create a single, self-governing Church in the Ukraine, led by its own patriarch, is motivated by a desire to unify the country’s 30 million Orthodox Christians. The Russian Church sees the move as an infringement of its jurisdiction and authority.
Fr. Laschuk explained that while Metropolitan Filaret had originally been appointed by the Patriarch of Moscow, he was excommunicated by the Russian Church in 1997.
“When Ukraine gained political independence from Russia, they wanted ecclesial independence also. The Ukrainian Church declared themselves independent. It was a political anathema related to authority, not a theological question.”
By restoring communion with Filaret, Bartholomew has essentially reasserted his position at the center of the global Orthodox Church, pointedly nullifying the previous Russian anathema.
“The fact of restoring Metropolitan Filaret to the communion of the Church, as he had been deposed and anathematized by the Moscow Patriarchate, is critical,” Lashcuk told CNA.
“It emphasizes the Ecumenical Patriarch’s role as arbitrator, it restores millions of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine to the communion of the larger Orthodox community, and it will certainly be seen as a huge insult to Moscow.”
Independence for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has been a fiercely contested subject between the Patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople, with the Russian Church insisting on its traditional – and politically enforced – authority in the country.
In recent months, tensions have escalated between the two leaders.
In September, the Patriarch of Constantinople sent two personal envoys to the Ukraine, where they met with both government and church leaders in preparation for the creation of an independent Ukrainian Patriarchate. Both Archbishop Daniel of Pamphilon and Bishop Hilarion of Edmonton were present during the recent synod meeting.
Following the arrival of the two bishop-envoies in Ukraine, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow announced last month that he would no longer mention Bartholomew in official prayers, or celebrate liturgies together with him.
Thursday’s announcement contained further direct measures against Moscow’s traditional influence in Ukrainian ecclesiastical affairs. In addition to confirming the formation of an independent Ukrainian Church and returning Filaret to the Orthodox fold, Bartholomew revoked a canonical letter, first issued in 1686, granting the Russian Patriarch the right to ordain the Metropolitan of Kyiv.
“Basically, Bartholomew has firmly stated that Ukraine is in Constantinople’s canonical territory, and has removed the Metropolis of Kyiv from the Patriarchate of Moscow’s authority,” Lashcuk said.
He told CNA that the decision by Constantinople to assert itself would likely provoke real fallout, but that it appeared to be a principled decision.
“I think the Ecumenical Patriarch has decided to do what he thinks is right, regardless of the politics involved, including a large Church that is completely codependent on its authoritarian state.”