Autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church: A Beginning of a Big Religious Split

2018 / 09 / 20

Author: Mamuka KomakhiaAnalyst 


On September 14, the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church made decision of severing its relations with the Patriarchate of Constantinople. At this stage, talks about fully severing the relations are still too early; however, the Russian Church openly stated that it will do so if Constantinople recognizes the independence of the Ukrainian Church from the Russian Church. Despite the preventative steps taken by the Russian Church, the events that have unfolded for the past few months indicate that the probability of granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church is rather high, which will inevitably lead to a split in the Orthodox Christian world.


What did the Synod of the Russian Church decide?

The decision of the Synod of the Russian Church was hastened by the fact that the Patriarch of Constantinople sent two representatives to Ukraine, which was assessed by the Russian Church to be a step towards granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. After the completion of the session of the Synod, the representative of the Russian Church, Vladimir Legoida, stated that the Russian Church will no longer be participating in the structures lead by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Another decision of the Synod stipulated that joint sermons with the high-ranking members of the Patriarchate of Constantinople will be stopped and the Patriarch of Constantinople will no longer be included in their prayers.

This decision of the Russian Church does not yet mean the “full severance of Eucharistic unity” with Constantinople. According to the assessments of the representatives of the Russian Church, such a radical decision is planned to be made if the Patriarch of Constantinople continues his anti-canonical work on the territory of Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate.

Out of the Orthodox churches functioning on the territory of Ukraine, the Russian Church and other Orthodox churches only recognize as canonical the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, often referred to as Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, which is subsidiary to the Russian Church. The remaining two churches:  Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church are considered to be non-canonical. Three Orthodox churches were formed in Ukraine after the dissolution of the Soviet Union, when the proponents of the creation of an independent Ukrainian Church split from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate in 1992.


Chronology of Religious Confrontation

Euromaidan and the Position of the Russian Church

After the 2014 Euromaidan events, the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the pro-Russian insurgency in Donbas, the Russian Church finally broke its political neutrality and openly supported the policies of the Kremlin. Due to close relations with the Kremlin and its positions towards the events of Euromaidan, a perception grew in the population of Ukraine that the Russian Orthodox Church is a tool for the Kremlin’s political struggle and a proponent of the political interests of the Government of Russia. According to the data of independent social groups, after Euromaidan the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate surpassed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate in the number of parishes and by April 2018, 43% of Ukrainian Orthodox Christians were supporting Kyiv Patriarchate while 20% were supporting Moscow Patriarchate.


Backstage Diplomacy

On April 9, 2018 the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, personally visited Istanbul where he asked the Patriarch of Constantinople for support to the Ukrainian Church. Several days after this, the Deputy Head of the President’s Administration, Rostislav Pavlenko, personally delivered the request letters of the representatives of Ukraine’s national and spiritual leaders to Istanbul.

After Poroshenko’s visit, a special delegation was created in the Patriarchate of Constantinople, which visited all Orthodox churches in order to deliver information about the issue of granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. The delegation visited Georgia on June 16. It is interesting to note that several days earlier, on June 4, the Head of Foreign Relations Department of the Russian Church, Metropolitan Ilarion (Alfeev) also visited Georgia to discuss the issue of the Ukrainian Church.


Meeting of the Patriarchs

On August 31, the Patriarch of Russia, Kiril, personally visited Istanbul to dissuade the Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I, and the latter did not hide his intention to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. After the end of the meeting the representative of the Patriarchate of Constantinople stated that the issue of granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church was resolved back in April and at this stage, only the implementation of the decision is in progress.


Decision of the Patriarch of Constantinople

On September 1, the issue of granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church was discussed at the Synaxis of the Church of Constantinople, which is the gathering of all hierarchs of the Church. The Synaxis discusses the most important issues of the Orthodox World. The last such meeting was held in 2015, before the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church on Crete. At the opening of the Synaxis, Bartholomew I stated that he takes the initiative to resolve the split in Ukraine as Russia, which is responsible for the painful processes taking place in Ukraine, is unable to solve the problem.


Sending the Representatives of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to Ukraine

Very soon after the meeting of the Patriarchs, on September 7, the Patriarch of Constantinople sent his official representatives to Ukraine – Archbishop Daniel of Pamphilon from the United States and Bishop Ilarion of Edmonton from Canada (both ethnically Ukrainians). They are to prepare the process of granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church.


When will the Ukrainian Church get Autocephaly?

According to the current information, a meeting of the Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople is scheduled for October 9-11 and it is highly likely that it will make a decision about granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. After this, the Tomos of Autocephaly will be brought to Kyiv where in two months’ time a united church council is to be held. At the council, the non-canonical churches of Ukraine, as well as the representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate that choose to attend, will establish a new church, which will have the right to use the Tomos. The new church must choose its leader as well.

We should expect the birth of a new autocephalous church at the end of 2018 or the beginning of the following year.

Positions of the Parties

Position of the Russian Church

The Russian Church has a position on granting autocephaly to other churches that is different from that of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Moscow believes that granting autocephaly to a new church must be a result of a consensus between all autocephalous churches and not a unanimous decision of any one autocephalous church. In its own right, the Patriarchate of Constantinople believes that granting the Tomos of Autocephaly can be done unilaterally as well.

The main ally of the Russian Church on this issue, the Kremlin, published a moderate statement about these processes. On September 14 the Press-Secretary of the Kremlin, Dmitri Peskov stated that the only desirable scenario for Moscow and the whole Orthodox world is to maintain the unity of the Orthodox world. According to the Kremlin, the state must not interfere in clerical issues.


Position of the Patriarchate of Constantinople

The Patriarchate of Constantinople considers Ukraine to be its canonical territory; hence they believe that they have every right to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. The confrontation about the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has its origins in the 1686 historical decision, when the Patriarch of Constantinople recognized the Kyiv Metropolis to be a part of the Russian Church. Until that time, the Kyiv Metropolis was subsidiary to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Constantinople states that in 1686 Moscow received not the “right of ownership” of these lands (meaning today’s Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania and Poland) but rather an authority on certain fields of local church life. According to the assessment of Constantinople, the right of transferring ownership was later violated by Moscow as the Russian Church annexed these territories.

The Russian Church does not share Constantinople’s historical arguments. According to the Russian Church, in order to justify its interference on the canonical territory of another church, the Patriarch of Constantinople is misinterpreting the historical facts and relies on his alleged exclusive powers, which, in reality, he does not have and has never had.


Position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate

According to the assessment of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyiv Patriarchate, the statement of the Russian Church that Ukraine is their canonical territory is false. They state that Kievan Rus’ was introduced to Christianity in the 10th century by Constantinople, while the Ukrainian Church only transferred under the control of the Russian Church in the 17th century. According to the opinion of the Church, due to this exact reason, Moscow cannot call the appointment of representatives of Constantinople to Ukraine interference in the processes taking place on the canonical territory of the Russian Church. Rather to the contrary, it was the Russian Church who was violating the canonical norms for over 300 years.


International Environment

The change in the position of the Constantinople Church took place during a very difficult period for Russia, when it is confronting both the United States of America, as well as the European Union. It is noteworthy that out of the two representatives sent by Constantinople to Kyiv, one is from the United States, while the second is from Canada. It must be pointed out that a large part of the parish of the Patriarchate of Constantinople lives in North America and most of them are Ukrainian or Greek.

Lately, the cases of refusing Schengen visas to Russian clerics have become more frequent. For example, the Metropolitan of St. Petersburg and Ladozh, Varsanoff, was refused visa to Greece. The Greek Consulate also refused visas to other members of the Russian Church who were planning a pilgrimage to Mount Athos. According to unofficial information, the clerics of the Russian Church are already considered as spies by Greece.

The Patriarch of Constantinople has close ties to Greece. Greece is home to the Holy Mount of Athos, which is under the control of Constantinople. Mount Athos is a distinguished place for Orthodox Christians and members of the Russian elite like to go there.


Principal Conclusions

Strengthening of the Patriarchate of Constantinople

The Patriarch of Constantinople does not have the same power as the Pope; however, he is traditionally considered to be “the first among equals” in autocephalous Orthodox churches. He is also nominally considered to be the spiritual leader of about 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world (among them, the Russian Church has the most populous parish). By granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church, the Patriarch of Constantinople is confronting a powerful Church in the Orthodox world; however, at the same time, he will gain a supporter in the form of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church, which will strengthen his positions.


Weakening Russia’s Religious and Political Influence

Autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church will practically delegitimize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate, which will enable Ukraine’s political leaders to work more actively in order to remove the Russian Church from their country, as it is considered by more and more Ukrainians to be a hostile Church since 2014. Autocephaly will likely be a stimulus for many to change their church allegiance, including the current priests of Ukrainian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate.

For the Russian Church the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church means losing millions of members of its parish. In 2013, before Russia’s annexation of Crimea, Ukraine was home to a third of the cathedrals and clerics of the Russian Patriarchate. It is highly likely that the Russian Church will lose control over the most important Orthodox cathedrals and monasteries for Russia, including the Kiev Pechersk Lavra.

Despite the fact that Moscow wishes to be considered the leader of the Orthodox world, losing religious control over Ukraine will deal a heavy blow to Russia’s spiritual leadership in the Orthodox world. This will also weaken the Kremlin’s political influence in the Post-Soviet area and hinder the implementation of its “Russian world” project, as without Ukraine, any mega-political project envisaged by Russia is doomed to failure.


Strengthening Ukraine’s Statehood and Identity

The autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church is not a mere religious issue for Ukraine – it is an event of historical importance, which will make Ukraine’s political independence complete. This will be a victory over Russia’s imperial, as well as Soviet past and an important step towards forming the Ukrainian state and its identity. Having an autocephalous Church will reduce Russia’s political and religious influence in Ukraine, which is considered to be the main hindrance to the formation of Ukrainian statehood and identity.


Boosting Poroshenko’s Ratings

Granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church coincides with the 2019 Presidential Elections in Ukraine. Poroshenko took the burden of negotiating with the Patriarch of Constantinople on himself, which will facilitate the growth of his low ratings for the Election Day.


Confrontation between Orthodox Churches

Confrontation between the Russian and Constantinople Churches will lead to an inevitable split in the Orthodox world, the signs of which were already showing during the 2016 Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church on Crete, when the Russian Church and several other Orthodox churches did not attend the meeting. The creation of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church may also encourage others to apply with similar requests to the Russian and Constantinople churches, which will further inflame the confrontation. Granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church will likely cause Russia to strengthen pressure on other Orthodox churches, to compel them to distance themselves from the Patriarchate of Constantinople as well, and as a last resort, if Russia itself decides to do this, even fully sever the Eucharistic unity with Constantinople.

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