Greek Orthodox Church becomes first to affirm newly-independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine

Archbishop of Athens and All Greece, the primate of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church of Greece Ieronymos II (left) congratulates the primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Metropolitan Epifaniy. Photo: fb page of Metropolitan Epifaniy 

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The Greek Orthodox Church has essentially recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) which in January 2019 was granted autocephaly, or independence, from Moscow by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in a move that angered Russia and caused what some termed the greatest Christian schism since 1054.

On 12 October, a Council of the hierarchs of the Greek Orthodox Church convening in Athens adopted a proposal of its primate, Archbishop of Athens and All Greece Ieronymos II, to ratify a previous decision of the Synode of this Church (the administrative organ) proclaiming “the canonical right of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to grant autocephaly, as well as the privilege of the primate of the Greek Church to further pursue the issue of the recognition of the Church of Ukraine.” According to a report by Ukrainian broadcaster TSN, 80 hierarchs of the Council voted in favor while seven asked to postpone the decision.

The meeting of the Council in Athens on 12 October 2019. Photo: snapshot from TSN report

The full communique was published by the website romfea.gr and a translation to Ukrainian was provided by the website religionpravda.com.ua.

Ukrainian Metropolitan Epifaniy has thanked the Church of Greece and its primate for the decision:

“I am grateful to my Brother in Christ, His Beatitude Ieronymos, Archbishop of Athens and all Greece, President of the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, and Brother Hierarchs of the Council of Hierarchs, for today determining to support and follow the canonical and historical decisions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, opening the possibility of full interaction between our two Local Autocephalous Churches in all spheres.

The histories of our two ancient nations, Greece and Ukraine, include many shared pages of friendship and cooperation. The establishment of full Eucharistic unity and official relations between the Local Churches of Greece and Ukraine is a new page that will forever be bound in our history and in our hearts.

I hope that in the near future I will have the pleasure of visiting Athens, close to my heart, and personally conveying our feelings of love and respect to His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos, Brother Hierarchs, and the entire Church of Greece.”

The decision of the Council of hierarchs is predated by numerous meetings of Synod committees of the Greek Church which had examined the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarch (or Patriarch of Constantinople), the primate who is “first among equals” in the world family of Orthodox Churches, to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. The Moscow Patriarchate, which had until the historical decision made in January 2019, been the only canonical, or legitimate, Orthodox Church in Ukraine, has denied the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s right to such a step, claiming that only it could make decisions on autocephaly of its “daughter Church” and broke off relations with Constantinople. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) had immediately followed suit; this step was seen by some commentators as the “largest schism in Christianity” since 1054 when the Church splintered into what became the Catholic and Orthodox branches of Christianity.

However, the Greek Synod, having studied the matter, decided that the Ecumenical Patriarch was right all along. One of the reasons for such a decision is most probably the fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople had established the Kyiv Metropolia when the medieval Kingdom of Kyivan Rus was baptized in 988 and maintains that the Moscow Patriarchate, after splitting off from Constantinople in 1448 had unlawfully engulfed the Kyivan Church in 1696 despite only being given managerial rights.

In the Orthodox Church, unlike the Catholic Church, the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarch is not enough to call the independence of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church a done deal. The move has to be yet approved by the rest of the Orthodox Churches (15 or 16, depending on whether you count the Orthodox Church of America) in an act of conciliarity termed “reception.”

After Constantinople granted the Tomos, or “declaration of independence,” to the newly-created Orthodox Church of Ukraine on 6 January 2019, Moscow launched a campaign to thwart this reception by using its geopolitical leverage to coax other Orthodox Churches to defy Constantinople. According to the TSN report, such attempts were undergoing even while the Council was taking place, as activists claiming they were acting with the approval of the UOC MP handed out leaflets to Council members depicting the supposed horrors that Church autocephaly has brought to Ukraine, most of these being claims of discrimination and religious intolerance against the UOC MP. Most of these claims are false – as of today, the UOC MP operates freely and despite an ongoing process of migration of parishes to the OCU still holds the majority of parishes in Ukraine – if, arguably, not the majority of believers.

The granting of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church was an especially painful step for Russia, which is in the sixth year of its undeclared war against Ukraine, the goal of which is to keep the former Soviet country within Moscow’s geopolitical sphere of influence. The UOC MP is considered a major player in this war, providing ideological leverage to Russia’s ideas of a “Holy Triunite Rus” consisting of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus which, the legend goes, are destined to stay together or else defy divine providence.

The decision of the Greek Orthodox Church, one of the largest Orthodox Churches in the world which is considered to have state status in Greece, opens the path for further reception of the OCU into the world family of Churches and may spur the migration of more UOC MP parishes to the newly-formed structure, which was formed mostly out of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, two structures which were until December 2018 considered schismatic. The migration process had moved fast in the first months following the Tomos but has lately slowed down, not least because of the internal crisis of the OCU caused by the schism of its “creator,” Metropolitan Filaret.

Which churches could be next in line to recognize the OCU? Experts speak about the Churches of Georgia, Romania, and Bulgaria. Meanwhile, the next step for affirming the decision of the Greek Church will happen on 19 October, when Metropolitan Epifaniy will be named among other primates of the Orthodox Churches at a solemn liturgy.

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