The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: Understanding the Past and Next Steps

By Nicholas Denysenko, Valparaiso University, Indiana, USA | The recent announcement by the synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that it will grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has generated a variety of reactions throughout the Orthodox world. Many Orthodox people do not know much about the Church in Ukraine. News has circulated about a schism that occurred in 1992, and the existence of two separatist Churches alongside the canonical Church.

Nicholas Denysenko, Valparaiso University, Indiana, USA

The schismatic churches are known as the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) headed by Metropolitan Makarii (Maletych), a small body geographically clustered in Western Ukraine, and the Kyivan Patriarchate (KP), a much larger body headed by Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko), who was deposed by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1992 and anathematized in 1997. These schismatic bodies have been depicted as fascist, nationalistic rebels who use politicians for state support to overthrow the longsuffering canonical Church, known as the UOC-MP. The global community of Orthodox Churches knows only this narrative because schismatic Churches are excluded from official communication: therefore, the narrative created by the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) itself is accepted as absolute truth.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision to overturn Moscow’s canonical sanctions on Filaret and Makarii and restore them and their faithful to the Church suggests that the narrative presented by the MP concealed the truth from the rest of the Orthodox world. The whole truth is complex, so this article presents aspects of key events in the modern history of Orthodoxy in Ukraine to show how the crisis evolved to this point, and what to expect after the official establishment of the canonical autocephalous Church in Ukraine.

The struggle for Ukrainian autocephaly began in 1917 when the Tsarist regime collapsed. The pioneers of Ukrainian autocephaly strongly desired to renew the ancient Kyivan Metropolia as an autocephalous Church, one that would be equipped to confront modernity by introducing Ukrainian to the liturgy. When both the Moscow Council (1917-18) and the controversial All-Ukrainian council (1918) defeated proposals for introducing Ukrainian to the liturgy, the struggle for autocephaly became relentless. The architects of autocephaly viewed the prohibition of Ukrainian for the liturgy as yet another example of Tsarist attempts to use coercion to subordinate Ukrainians to Russia and restore the myth of “one unified Rus’” centered in Moscow.

From the very beginning, Ukrainians publicly declared that the subordination of the Kyivan Metropolia to Moscow in 1686 was uncanonical, and appealed to Constantinople to grant the Church autocephaly by sending Oleksander Lotocky, the minister of cults, to Constantinople in 1919-20 to begin the process of creating an autocephalous Church in Ukraine. While this process collapsed because of the dreadful conditions in Ukraine and the emergence of an uncanonical Church in Kyiv, the Tomos of autocephaly granted to the Church in Poland in 1924 was based, in part, on renewing the Kyivan Metropolia in the parts of Ukraine under Polish rule.

The canonical autocephalous Church in Poland not only permitted Ukrainian for the liturgy, but also established an autocephalous episcopate in Ukraine under German occupation in 1942, keeping in mind that they hoped the Germans were eradicating the Soviet menace. Unfortunately for the Ukrainians, the devastation of World War II put an end to their hopes for renewing their native Church tradition. The MP was the only Orthodox Church legal in Ukraine from 1946-1989, a body made larger by the coercive liquidation of the Greek Catholic Church at the pseudo-council of L’viv in 1946.

The Ukrainian situation changed in 1989 when Gorbachev’s policies permitted the return of both the Greek Catholic Church and the canonical UAOC to Soviet Ukraine. The struggle for autocephaly gained energy and was reborn in West Ukraine, and in 1990, the UAOC held a council declaring themselves a patriarchate, electing Patriarch Mstyslav (Skrypnyk) as the first Ukrainian patriarch. At the time, the MP in Ukraine was an exarchate led by Metropolitan Filaret (Denysenko) – the very same person who now leads the KP. He resisted the UAOC and dismissed it, but also called for more autonomy, and the MP responded by grating the MP in Ukraine broader autonomy and self-governance in 1990.

Unable to stop the autocephalist movement, especially when Ukraine became independent in 1991, Filaret and his episcopate appealed to Moscow for canonical autocephaly in November 1991 and again in April 1992. Moscow denied both appeals and claimed that Filaret was trying to force his bishops to support autocephaly. Appearing before the patriarch and the synod in Moscow, Filaret promised to retire, but upon returning to Kyiv, he claimed that he was enduring a personal Golgotha, refused to retire, and expressed his commitment to autocephaly. In May of 1992, the episcopate of the UOC-MP gathered in Khrakiv without Filaret and elected a new primate, Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan). While the MP deposed Filaret, he appeared in a unification council of the UAOC in June 1992, and the UAOC split into two bodies: the UAOC and the KP. Filaret was deputy to patriarchs Mstyslav (died 1993) and Volodymyr (Romaniuk, died 1995), and was elected as patriarch in 1995. Moscow anathematized him in 1997, and he appealed these canonical sanctions to Constantinople and the other Orthodox patriarchs.

Since 1997, each of these three churches has developed in step with Ukraine’s often painful adjustment to independence. The UAOC is small and remains committed to autocephaly. They have engaged both the KP and UOC-MP in dialogue, and expressed hope that Constantinople would take canonical action to unify the Churches in Ukraine. The KP has grown considerably because of their consistent expressions of solidarity with the Ukrainian people, especially in the recent epic events of the Maidan, annexation of Crimea, and Russian aggression in Donbas. While the KP has fewer clergy and parishes than the UOC-MP, recent sociological data published by the Razumkov Center suggests that they a majority of Orthodox adherents belong to the KP. It is crucial to note that the UAOC and KP are the successors to the canonical 1942 UAOC established by the Church in Poland on the basis of the 1924 Tomos from the Ecumenical Throne. These two churches have embraced Ukrainization by regularly using vernacular Ukrainian for liturgy, but dogmatically, they share the exact same faith as that claimed by all the Orthodox Churches in the world.

The increase in the prestige of the KP is attributable, in part, to Filaret. His status as the champion for Ukrainian autocephaly is ironic, since he opposed both autocephaly and Ukrainization when he was metropolitan of Kyiv and locum tenens of the patriarchal throne of Moscow following the death of Patriarch Pimen in 1990. Many doubted the sincerity of his conversion from opponent to advocate of autocephaly, and he was also accused of violating his vow of celibacy by having a common-law wife and children. The MP’s delegitimization campaign against Filaret was and remains fierce, and somehow he has survived it all. The clergy and faithful of his church are exceedingly loyal to him, and he will be the topic of much discussion as the process of formal autocephaly nears completion.

Unfortunately, Filaret remains an obstacle for many in the UOC-MP who are sympathetic to autocephaly. Despite their decision to remain with Moscow in May 1992, the UOC-MP declared its commitment to pursuing canonical autocephaly until it withdrew its petition in 1996. A battle for power and identity took place within the UOC-MP during this time. Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan) encouraged mild Ukrainization, understanding the diversity of opinions and allegiances within his church.

He also remained open to dialogue with both the UAOC and KP, and resisted attempts to politicize the Church coming from the Russian nationalistic organization “One Fatherland” in Odessa, a process culminating with a synodal statement condemning “political Orthodoxy” in 2007. Metropolitan Volodymyr was embattled during the final years of his tenure, as a coalition of bishops led by Metropolitan Agafangel (Savvin) of Odessa attempted to subvert his authority and revise the statute of the UOC-MP to reduce its autonomy and conform it to Moscow.

Metropolitan Agafangel’s coalition was a real incursion of Russian nationalism among the bishops of the UOC-MP. Their refusal to condemn Russian aggression and to pray for Ukrainian soldiers who died in the war in Donbas has mobilized clergy and laity to seek autocephaly. For many of these clergy and laity, Filaret’s controversial past has been an obstacle.

This brief summary of past events leads us to the rapidly developing situation before us today. When the Ecumenical Patriarchate essentially annulled the canonical sanctions against Filaret and Makarii, they cleared a path for a real unification of Churches in Ukraine, so that clergy and laity need not fear the pollution of canonical illegitimacy. One can expect the convocation of a unification council with the election of a new primate, followed quickly by the announcement of the formal Tomos of autocephaly. Essentially, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is responding favorably to the original petition of the Church in Ukraine: the restoration of the Kyivan Metropolia and its transition to a canonical autocephalous Church in Ukraine. (It is not yet clear if the autocephalous Church will be a metropolia or patriarchate). Restoring canonicity to Filaret and Makarii was a way of recognizing their Churches as canonical; this step equips the Ecumenical Patriarchate to complete the process by overseeing the unity of canonical bodies into one Church.

Initially, the new Church in Ukraine is likely to resemble its antecedents of the UAOC and KP: it will be a Ukrainian Church that worships in Ukrainian and expresses its solidarity with the Ukrainian people. Eventually, there is hope that the new Church will unite with those who remain in the MP in Ukraine, and this will become possible if the two Churches commit to reconciliation and dialogue. This scenario can become reality if everyone agrees to put enmity and delegitimization campaigns to death, and embrace former enemies as brothers and sisters in Christ. But the autocephalous Ukrainian Church will also need to learn how to avoid becoming a national Church.

Canonical autocephaly will be defined as victory over Russian nationalism: replacing a Russian world with a Ukrainian world will smear the legitimacy of the new Church if it openly promotes ethnophyletism. That said, there is hope for the new Ukrainian church. The bishops, clergy, and laity who have openly declared their support for autocephaly are generally committed to ecumenical dialogue and building the new Church on the basis of the Gospel and the Orthodox principle of conciliarity while shedding the chains of post-Soviet neo-imperialism. As the Orthodox world adjusts to the tragic schism triggered by the MP’s angry reaction to Constantinople’s decision to grant Ukraine autocephaly, they have an opportunity to meet the Orthodox Ukrainians who are seeking to be the Church that serves Christ and whose core values are of the kingdom of God. Perhaps they will find that they have much more in common with the Ukrainians once they get to know them.

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