In April, it was announced that Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko has petitioned Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to recognise an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate is said to be considering the request, and there are high hopes in Kiev that a “Tomos of autocephaly” – meaning that Ukrainian Orthodox will be canonically free of oversight from Moscow – will be granted by July 28, the 1,030th anniversary of the baptism of Prince Volodymyr of Kievan Rus in 988.
Both Ukraine and Russia see themselves as successors of the new Christian polity which emerged from that event. But that common inheritance today serves as much to divide them as to unite them.
Ukraine’s independence in 1991 led to the resurgence of desire for ecclesiastical liberation from Moscow. The “EuroMaidan Revolution” of 2014, and the resulting conflict over eastern Ukraine and Crimea, have led to that simmering discontent erupting into an open split. So Poroschenko’s role in sponsoring such a development in Church affairs is no surprise.
At present Ukraine is a religiously fractured nation. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) is the only one recognised as canonical by the other Orthodox churches worldwide. The request for recognition comes from two breakaway groups. The smaller of the two, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), formed after the 1917 revolution, was disbanded under Stalin before re-emerging after 1991. The following year a new group broke away from Moscow. After an unsuccessful attempt to unite with the UAOC, its members founded a separate Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP), led since 1995 by Patriarch Filaret Denisenko.
Information about the numbers invoved is sketchy. What is certain is that conflict with Russia since 2014 has boosted Filaret’s Church. Since then, at least 60 parishes have switched jurisdictions. Events like the refusal of a Moscow Patriarchate priest to celebrate funeral rites for a child baptised in the UOC-KP, and reports of violence and intimidation against clergy and faithful in Russian-controlled territory, have further alienated many citizens from clergy loyal to Moscow.
The Kiev government, and many ordinary Ukrainians, hope that these groups will coalesce into a unified Church which will be a religious expression of national identity. The expectation is that the UAOC and the UOC-KP will finally resolve their differences, and that they will be joined by many UOC-MP faithful and clergy, perhaps including some bishops, hitherto held back by fear of joining what most Orthodox Churches officially see as a schismatic entity.
These developments are of course vociferously opposed from Moscow. Patriarch Kirill and his colleagues denounce the encroachment of politicians into ecclesiastical affairs – a claim not untinged by irony, say many Ukrainians, given the alleged subservience of Moscow’s clerics to the Kremlin. The Russians also maintain that Constantinople acting alone has no authority to grant autocephaly, which can only be confirmed by all the other autocephalous churches.
These conflicting claims present Constantinople with a major dilemma. Siding with Kiev would dilute the strength of the Moscow patriarchate and give the Ecumenical Patriarchate a new ally of considerable weight in its longstanding struggle against Moscow’s desire to take over leadership of world Orthodoxy.
However, it would also spur Moscow on to further attack and diminish Bartholomew’s standing, and this would find an echo among other churches which make light of Constantinople’s authority.
In fact, the question of how and by whom autocephaly can be granted has never been clearly defined within Orthodox Canon Law, and lack of agreement meant that it was not possible to settle it at the Pan–Orthodox Council in Crete in 2016.
Several Churches maintain that it can only be granted by the “Mother Church” (in this case, Moscow) acting in union with all the others. (This too is ironic, since many of them achieved autocephaly themselves by unilateral proclamations only recognised by the others as a fait accompli many years later.)
My expectation is that Constantinople will sit on the fence for now at least, keeping the question open as a useful thorn in Moscow’s side, while avoiding the dangerous showdown which would result from acquiescing with Kiev.
But another place where the heat will be felt will be the Vatican. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) is supporting Ukrainian autocephaly. Indeed, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk has suggested that union with Rome would be the best way to seal the ecclesiastical unity and independence of Ukraine. This is not a realistic expectation, but it has caused predictable fury in Moscow. Late last month, Pope Francis received Patriarch Kirill’s representative, Metropolitan Hilarion, and publicly assured him that Rome has no ambitions in Moscow’s sphere of influence and would remain neutral.
This will be music to Moscow’s ears, but in Kiev it sounds like a rebuke. The UGCC has long felt that in Rome its interests are often sacrificed to those of Moscow.
Tensions between the Vatican and the UGCC are nothing new, and Shevchuk, like his predecessors, will be no pushover. The ramifications of this dispute between competing jurisdictions extend far beyond the frontiers of Ukraine, or even worldwide Orthodoxy.
Having been unable to sell in churches for well over a year due to the pandemic, we are now inviting readers to support the Herald by investing in our future. We have been a bold and influential voice in the church since 1888, standing up for traditional Catholic culture and values.
Please join us on our 130 year mission by supporting us. We are raising £250,000 to safeguard the Herald as a world-leading voice in Catholic journalism and teaching. For more information from our chairman on contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund, click here
Make a Donation
Donors giving £500 or more will automatically become sponsor patrons of the Herald. This includes two complimentary print/digital gift subscriptions, invitations to Patron events, pilgrimages and dinners, and 6 gift subscriptions sent to priests, seminaries, Catholic schools, religious care homes and prison and university chaplaincies. Click here for more information on becoming a Patron Sponsor. Click here for more information about contributing to the Herald Patron's Fund