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Ecumenical Patriarch recognizes independence of Orthodox Church of Ukraine

Metropolitan Epiphanius, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko in Istanbul, January 5, 2019. (The Presidential Administration of Ukraine)

The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople on Saturday signed a tomos of autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, formally recognizing the Church’s independence.

The tomos was signed on January 5 at St. George’s Cathedral in Istanbul, after Bartholomew I concelebrated a Divine Liturgy with Epiphanius I, Metropolitan of Kyiv and primate of the newly-created Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

Among those present at the signing were Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko and several other Ukrainian government officials.

The tomos, or decree, has been delivered to Kyiv, where Epiphanius put it on public display following a Divine Liturgy celebrated Jan. 7 at St. Sophia’s Cathedral.

Bartholomew’s formal conferral of autocephaly is the culmination of a process that began amid the collapse of the Soviet Union, and gained momentum after Russia’s annexation of the Crimean Peninsula in 2014 and Russian backing of separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine.

The Ecumenical Patriarch’s intention to create a single, autocephalous Church in Ukraine is motivated by a desire to unify the country’s 30 million Eastern Orthodox Christians, who were until recently split among three Churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), which is linked to the Russian Orthodox Church, and two Churches which had claimed autocephaly, but were not recognized by other Orthodox Churches: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

Autocephaly for the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has been a fiercely contested subject between the Patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople, with the Russian Orthodox Church seeing the move as an infringement of its jurisdiction and authority.

Bartholomew had announced Sept. 7 he was sending two envoys to meets with civil and ecclesial leaders in Kyiv to prepare for Ukrainian autocephaly. In response, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow said later that month he would remove Bartholomew’s names from the diptychs, and would not concelebrate with him.

The Ecumenical Patriarch declared Oct. 11 he would grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. At the same time, he restored to communion Metropolitan Filaret, head of the UOC-KP, and also revoked the right, granted in 1686, of the Russian Patriarch to consecrate the Metropolitan of Kyiv.

In response, the Russian Orthodox Church broke communion with Bartholomew Oct. 15, calling his recognition of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine “lawless and canonically void.” Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, chair of external Church relations for the Russian Orthodox Church, said that “the church that acknowledged the schismatics has excluded itself from the canonical field of Orthodoxy.”

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine was established Dec. 15 at a “unification council” held by representatives of the UOC-KP and the UAOC. In addition, two bishops of the UOC-MP, Alexander Drabinko and Simeon Shostatsky, participated in the unification council. Soon afterward, they were declared schismatic by the UOC-MP, and their sees vacant. Both have joined the OCU.

Several UOC-MP parishes have also reportedly joined the OCU.

It was at the unification council that Epiphanius, 39, was elected primate of the OCU. He had previously been Metropolitan of Pereyaslavsky and Bila Tserkva in the UOC-KP.

Along with ecclesial leaders, Poroshenko has been a strong backer of Ukrainian autocephaly. At the conclusion of the unification council he said, “We are now creating an independent Ukraine. And this event is as important as the referendum on our independence adopted more than 27 years ago.”

He linked an independent Church to Ukrainian patriotism, and said: “Autocephaly is part of our state pro-European and pro-Ukrainian strategy, which we have been consistently implementing for almost five years. All this is the basis of our own way of development, development of the state of Ukraine and development of our Ukrainian nation.”

Fr. Alexander Laschuk, a Ukrainian Greek-Catholic priest, canon lawyer, and professor at St. Michael’s College at the University of Toronto, discussed with CNA both the inter-Orthodox and the ecumenical implications of Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly.

For the Orthodox Church in Ukraine “it’s a sign of maturity that the Ecumenical Patriarch, who is first among equals, sees they can be a self-governing Church … that’s a sort of vote-of-confidence for the Church in Ukraine.”

Within Eastern Orthodoxy, Laschuk said, the decision also will play into debates about how autocephaly is granted, given that “the power of the Ecumenical Patriarch is not the power of the Holy Father, so how decision are made is much more complicated at times.”

While Constantinople is the traditional and historical center of Eastern Orthodoxy, Moscow has long exercised considerable influence and power, both because of its size and because of its closeness to Russian civil authorities.

The debate over the granting of autocephaly plays into the relations of Constantinople and Moscow, and their relative importance and power. Both the Russian and Ecumenical Patriarchs have written to the heads of the other Eastern Orthodox Churches, asking them not to recognize, and to recognize, respectively, the OCU’s autocephaly.

The decision for autocephaly, Laschuk said, will also have a tremendous impact on ecumenism.

For example, because of the presence of Eastern Orthodox bishops with whom it is not in communion, the Moscow Patriarchate chose not to participate in the 2007 meeting at Ravenna of the commission for dialogue between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

“It will also affect ecumenical dialogue in the sense of ‘who is our bargaining partner’, for Catholics,” Laschuk said. Previously, the Holy See dialogued only with the UOC-MP as “canonical Orthodoxy” in the country, but “clearly that’s changed” with the recognition of the OCU by Constantinople.

The priest added that he thinks the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, “is excited to have a partner with which he can actually dialogue; we won’t have the union of the Churches tomorrow, but if you can’t even talk to each other, it’s hard to get much done …  I think His Beatitude is very happy he has someone with whom he can talk, and be in the same room with, which was not the case previously.”

He commented that “entire regions of Ukraine” are becoming increasingly Seventh-Day Adventist or Pentecostal, and that “collaborative activity by the more traditional Churches is a very welcome thing, as opposed to sort of, warring factions.”

Major Archbishop Shevchuk had written to Epiphanius December 20 to congratulate him on his election as primate of the OCU, commenting, “We have all witnessed how the Lord, through the power and deeds of the Holy Spirit, in cooperation with your good will, heals the wounds of church divisions and enmity, giving opportunity to reconcile with our brother in Christ.”

“At this significant moment, I extend my hand on behalf of our Church to you and all the Orthodox brethren, offering you to begin our path to unity, to the truth. Because the future of the Church, our people and the Ukrainian independent European state depends on how we today will cherish unity and overcome what separates us.”

Major Archbishop Shevchuk added that “we are grateful to the Lord who has blessed the participants of this, without exaggeration, an important event that will enter the history of independent Ukraine as a great God’s gift on the way to the complete unity of the Churches of Volodymyr’s Baptism.”

He noted that “the Churches of Volodymyr’s baptism … live in one liturgical heritage, from the depths of beauty and God-inspired wisdom we draw spiritual strength. Even today, we are not in full eucharistic communion, but are called to jointly overcome the obstacles that stand on the path to unity. This historic mission and the foundation of the future patriarchy of the united Kyivan Church were laid by even the glorious church men Peter Mohyla and Josyf Veliamyn Rutsky.”

The words of the head of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church allude to the 988 baptism of Vladimir the Great, Grand Prince of Kiev, which resulted in the Christianization of Kievan Rus’, a state whose heritage Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus all claim.

The Christianization of Kievan Rus’ forms the roots of the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate).