Goodwill toward Men? Ukraine’s Autocephalous Orthodox Churches

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Ivan Loshkarev, political scientist, expert in international relations

Ukraine’s legislative initiatives to establish state control over religion have recently brought the fate of the Orthodox Church back into the limelight. Despite the delayed vote, the bill can be back on the Parliament’s agenda any time soon. The incumbent government voices its disapproval of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC – Moscow Patriarchate), the only canonical church in the country. This offers hope to several non-canonical religious institutions, which aspire to obtain the status of autocephalous (self-governed) churches.

In early 2016, Ukraine’s religious scene was dominated by 9 Orthodox churches (including the Old Believers) and 64 autonomous Orthodox communities. The country’s biggest Orthodox Church – as measured by different criteria – remains the one aligned with Moscow. It comprises:

  • more than 12000 parishes;
  • 207 monasteries;
  • 3707 schools, mainly Sunday schools;
  • the clergy numbering 10,169.

By comparison, the UOC-Kyiv Patriarchate (the UOK-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (the UAOC) lag well behind their major contender. While the former encompasses:

  • 5000 parishes;
  • 67 monasteries;
  • 1174 Sunday schools;
  • 3332 priests.

The latter is made up of:

  • 1188 parishes;
  • 13 monasteries;
  • 269 Sunday schools;
  • 723 priests.

That is to say, two-thirds of the Orthodox parishioners and 85% of the clerics fall within the jurisdiction of the UOC-Moscow Patriarchate[1].

However, the situation is more complex than it might seem. In recent years, information campaigns have shaped a restrained or even negative attitude to the UOC-Moscow Patriarchate, which provoked the exodus from the organization. Some survey results indicate that both the UOC-Moscow Patriarchate and the UOC-Kyiv Patriarchate have, at least, a comparable number of churchgoers. According to the 2015 opinion poll conducted by the well-respected Rating company, the latter’s active adherents outnumbered the former’s supporters. 28% of people described themselves as belonging to the UOC-Kyiv Patriarchate, while 15% owed their allegiance to the country’s largest canonical church. At the same time, a little more people may favour the Moscow Patriarchate, as Ukraine’s current realities dissuade many respondents from making their voice heard. Another 29% of those polled considered themselves non-card carrying orthodox Christians[2].

The history of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church is replete with disagreements over jurisdiction and canonicity involving acknowledged Local Churches and Ukraine. For instance, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, which notionally ranks as primus inter pares (first among equals) among the heads of the several Local Churches, does not recognize the 1686 transfer of Kyiv’s metropolis (ecclesiastical authority) from Constantinople to Moscow. Backed, for example, by the Patriarch of Antioch, the third-most senior see, the Russian Orthodox Church has engaged in a centenary debate with the Ecumenical Patriarchate about Constantinople’s superiority. The main sticking point is whether the dominance implies additional rights or all Orthodox Churches are equal. Should the Patriarchate of Constantinople enjoy institutional primacy, it may become equivalent to the Papacy, which suggests setting up new Local Churches and handling arbitration among different religious institutions. This means that the entire Orthodox world may reject Moscow’s jurisdiction over Kyiv’s metropolis.

The two major groups of Ukrainian priests call for the autocephaly. Firstly, the list encompasses former members of Moscow’s Patriarchate. Acting outside the canonical jurisdiction, they sought to implement their own projects. Secondly, add to the mixture priests from Ukrainian diasporas within the US and Canadian borders. They see a decisive shift away from Moscow’s influence as their primary function. Unsurprisingly, both groups strove to establish their own autocephalous churches. Specifically, a Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church was reestablished in Lviv in 1989 by a group of laypeople. It is noteworthy that while Ioann, former Bishop of Zhytomyr (Russian Orthodox Church, ROC), was tasked with ordainment to the priesthood and consecration, Metropolitan Mstyslav (Stepan Skrypnyk) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the USA was elected Patriarch. Prior to taking monastic vows, a nephew of ataman Symon Petliura – who was also his adjutant – served in the army during the Civil War in Russia. Later Mstyslav became a member of the Polish Sejm. During the Second World War, he collaborated much with the Nazi. Mstislav was enthroned as Patriarch, but he was the nominal head of the UAOC since he administered the church from Canada until his death in 1993.

There was a major split in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in 1990-1991, fueled by the ambitious Metropolitan of Kiev and Halych (Galich) Filaret (Mykhailo Denysenko). Following the death of Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia, Filaret, who had closely cooperated with the KGB and secured the preassurances from the CPSU Central Committee, became a patriarchal locum tenens and the front-runner in the ROC patriarchal election. However, the sobor (synod) backed the candidacy of Metropolitan Alexius of Leningrad and Novgorod. On hearing about the defeat, Filaret returned to Ukraine to seek the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. He gained strong backing from Leonid Kravchuk, first President of Ukraine (1991-1994). The head of state helped Filaret to retain control over the UOC funding. The Hierarchical Council of the Russian Orthodox Church convened in Kharkov in 1992 to voice its distrust of Filaret and asked him to issue the request to be relieved from the position of the Primate of the UOC. Later Filaret was defrocked by the Russian Orthodox Church and anathematized.

The parliamentarians from the People’s Movement of Ukraine (“Rukh”), who belonged to President Kravchuk’s inner circle, forced the revived UAOC to convoke a unifying sobor, which joined its efforts with Filaret and his followers to establish the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate under Patriarch Mstyslav. Following the Patriarch’s death in 1993, the Church split into the UAOC and the UOC-KP while Filaret’s authoritarianism alienated some parishes that gravitated towards Ukrainian Orthodoxy from abroad. Filaret was elected head of UOC-KP in 1995. His opponents rallied behind Patriarch Dymytriy (Yarema), a former member of the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Greek Catholic.

The situation in Ukrainian Orthodoxy has stayed largely the same since the mid-1990s. Occasionally the suggestions to reunify the UAOC and the UOC-KP can be heard. The recent attempt was made in 2015, but the representatives failed to even agree on the number of delegates to send to the unification congress, to say nothing of administration matters. After the Orange Revolution, President Viktor Yushchenko (2005-2010) enthusiastically promoted the unification of the three Orthodox churches, including the UOC-Moscow Patriarchate, but to no avail. Pyotr Poroshenko, the incumbent president, seeks to advance similar views as he has started negotiating the issue of autocephaly with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

The current canon law provides for three possible alternatives as the parties seek the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine:

– The UOC-Kiev Patriarchate will become part of the UOC-MP, which will increase the number of those supporting autocephaly within the canonical church. The 2013 decision of the Bishops’ Council of the UOC-KP banning the elections of patriarchs after Filaret’s death offers evidence, albeit indirect, that the scenario is likely to unfold.

– The UOC-KP and the UAOC will continue to exist outside the canonical norms and will rally support from schismatic groups to create a kind of Orthodox “International”. It can last indefinitely as the Kyiv Patriarchate, for example, has partners in Montenegro.

– The Patriarchate of Constantinople can apply the primacy doctrine to formally recognize one of the churches as autocephalous. However, it needs the consent of the Moscow Patriarch to recognize the UOC-MP, therefore, the choice is confined to the UAOC and the UOC-KP. The Constantinople patriarchs cite the 1924 Tomos of Autocephaly (self-government) which granted independence to the Orthodox Church in Poland. Nevertheless, this decision gave rise to controversy and resistance.

– The will of Patriarch Dymytriy (Yarema) will be executed to make the UAOC part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, a self-governing church which was established in 1995 and is subordinated to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is a way to circumvent the existing canonical norms, which will, however, set a precedent by creating two Orthodox churches on one territory.

In sum, it should be noted that the issue of the Orthodox Church autocephaly is highly politicized in Ukraine and has little to do with religion per se. Much depends on the external actors, primarily the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Meanwhile, church institutions are losing credibility and, the frequency of church attendance is declining, which is a more important issue to deal with than the ambitions of church heads.



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