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The Great Orthodox Council ended. Now what for Ukraine?

Heirarchs of the Orthodox Church at the Monastery of Gonia in Crete. Photo:
The Great Orthodox Council ended. Now what for Ukraine?
Edited by: Interview by Alya Shandra

On 26 June 2016,  the Great Orthodox Council finished its work on Crete, following more than 50 years of preparation. According to experts, its main accomplishment is the fact that it took place at all, despite the active measures that the Russian Orthodox Church took to hijack the assembly.

290 delegates took part in the Council, including 25 bishops and 6 observers from each Church. Representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate, Georgian, Bulgarian, and Antiochian Churches did not come. Members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church were not present either.

Cyril Hovorun, PhD, Senior Lecturer at Stockholm School of Theology

On the eve of the Council, Ukrainian MPs appealed to the Constantinople Patriarchate with a request to grant autocephaly, or self-governance, to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (currently part of the Moscow Patriarchate), but Ukraine was mentioned only once in the context of the ongoing conflict in the final documents. Nevertheless, the appeal of the Ukrainian Parliament was widely discussed in the corridors. The final decision about autocephaly depends on the Patriarch of Constantinople, or Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I. Euromaidan Press asked Cyril Hovorun, PhD, Senior Lecturer at Stockholm School of Theology, to tell about its achievements and consequences for Ukraine.

How was the Ukrainian question discussed at the Council?

It wasn’t explicitly present at the Council, not being part of the agenda. The agenda was pre-scheduled since the 1960’s, and it was hard to include anything new, especially since the Ukrainian issue is a problem for the Russian Church. Nevertheless, the participants of the Council were well aware of the Ukrainian situation. The appeal of the Ukrainian Parliament, even though it was addressed to the Ecumenical Patriarch, was discussed widely in the corridors.

The Ukrainian issue was discussed during breaks in the proceedings of the Holy and Great Council in Crete. Photo:

Regarding the outcome, there is only one reference to the Ukrainian situation, the so-called Encyclical.

The Council promulgated two messages – the Brief message and the Encyclical. There is no reference to Ukraine in the Brief Message, and only one reference in the Encyclical, and it’s not satisfactory, in my opinion. There are only a couple of words referring that the Council is aware of the troublesome situation in Ukraine. There were more references to the situation in the Middle East, the situation with the refugees. There are two bishops that were kidnapped in Syria a long time ago and they are still kept in detention somewhere. The Council called for the liberation of these bishops.

Nevertheless, I would not treat this silence on Ukraine as discouraging in general, because as far as we know from the discussions in the corridors, they were very much concerned with Ukraine, and I hope there will be some outcome from the follow-up of the Council.

What will be the follow-up of the Council?

The Council has sent some powerful messages. Even though it has not addressed the Ukrainian situation, it has condemned the war, condemned situations when politicians abuse religion. And this is exactly the description of what’s happening in Ukraine – we have a war, we have abuse of religion by politicians, in particular – of the “Russian world,” which constitutes a mixture of political ideology and religion.

Orthodox canonic law is not clear on how a church actually proclaims its autocephaly. Did the Council provide any additional guidance on this matter?

The Council adopted a document on Autonomy as a way of securing independence for some local churches. Speaking of the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, it has not reached that status of autonomy.

The status of Autonomy means that a Church is independent in its internal life, but its elected primates should be approved by the so-called “Mother Church”. Right now, the Primates of the Ukrainian Church are approved by Moscow. There are 4 Autonomous Churches today: Finland and Estonia under the Ecumenical Patriarchate; in the Russian Church the Church in Japan and China are autonomous.

A document on proclaiming autocephaly was on the agenda, but it was dropped. The Churches could not agree on the procedure of signing the Tome granting autocephaly, the quarrel being predominantly between the Church of Moscow and Constantinople, so it was decided to not include it in the agenda. However, it could be included to other meetings of the same sort. Moreover, by not including the document on autocephaly in the documents of the Council, the Church of Constantinople reserved the right of acting unilaterally. From the perspective of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a Tomos, or declaration, from the Patriarch of Constantinople would be sufficient to proclaim the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.

That’s why, speaking from the Ukrainian perspective, the fact that the Council didn’t discuss the document on Autocephaly isn’t bad for Ukraine.

Some experts claim that an Autocephaly will only be beneficial for Ukraine when its internal schism is healed. Do you see any positive dynamics in creating a united Local Ukrainian Church?

Currently, the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine are divided between three Church formations – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (meaning – subjugated to the Russian Orthodox Church), Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (formed in 1992), and the Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church (formed in 1921). From the three, only the one under the Moscow Patriarchate is canonical, meaning it’s in communion with the rest of Orthodox Churches. The other two are regarded as schismatic by world Orthodoxy.


While traditionally believers identifying with the Moscow Patriarchate outnumbered those of the Kyiv Patriarchate, Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine tipped the scales. The reason lies in the concept of the “Russian world,” backed by the Russian Orthodox Church, has been widely regarded as an ideology driving the Russian-backed militants in Ukraine as well as reinforcing militaristic, xenophobic views of the Russian populace who give their support to Vladimir Putin, enabling Russian aggression against Ukraine.

The situation is tense and the status quo in the positions of the Ukrainian churches is unlikely to survive. The political and social transformations will inevitably bring changes to the Churches. How it would change it’s not clear. I don’t believe that one single independent Ukrainian church will be possible, because not everyone will be happy to be part of this one church. Neither is everyone happy now, and that’s why changes are inevitable, because people are unsatisfied with what they have.

I’m pretty sure that reconciliation must take part before any autocephaly can take place. And these changes must be not from above, but from the grassroots level. Yuschenko’s  [President of Ukraine during 2005-2010 – Ed.] efforts to create a single local Church from above were opposed. Now, civil society plays a much more important role in reshaping the entire society, including the Churches. The grassroots movement of the faithful, their desire to change things can materialize itself in a new configuration of the Churches. This movement towards one Church or one large independent Church should be on the grassroots level instead of imposed by politicians.

In general, what is your assessment of the result of the Council?

I’m pretty happy about the Council. It was an important event for the entire Orthodox community worldwide. It will have also implications for the Ukrainian situation. Even if we take the messages of the Council, they are fully applicable to Ukraine.

One of the messages that was promulgated by the Council can be interpreted as follows: “when there is a conflict between the State and Society, the Church should take part” – this justified the position of the Churches that took the side of the Euromaidan protesters.

I think it is unfortunate that there were no representatives of the Ukrainian Church of the Moscow Patriarchate at the Council, even though they were supposed to be there. The Moscow Patriarchate declined to go at the last moment. Even before the decision of the Church, some members of the church decided not to go, and this is an indication of the increasing isolationism of the Church. If the decisions of the Council are accepted in Ukraine as the voice of the global community, it will benefit our country.

How large is the probability that the Russian Church will reject the provisions of the Council? If so, what will be the reasons?

It’s still difficult to say – all options are possible. If the Council will be rejected, it will happen because of political reasons covered by theological excuses. If it happens, it will be a general reflection of the isolation, autarky of the Russian Church. And this will also impact the Ukrainian Church, which is on the same page.

Patriarchs sat at the opening session of the Holy and Great Council in Crete. Photo:
Patriarchs sat at the opening session of the Holy and Great Council in Crete. Photo:

Was the Russian Church accused of the heresy of ethnophyletism?

The Archbishop of Cyprus openly stated that the Churches that didn’t attend the Council suffer from ethnophyletism. Actually, ethnophyletism has become a major topic for the entire Council. The final documents have referred to ethnophyletism, a condition when a Church takes matters of the nation to be more important than those relating to Christianity.

How does the concept of the “Russian World” apply to ethnophyletism?

The Russian World is an instance of ethnophyletism. Ethnophyletism, which was condemned in the Balkans in the XIX century, was a kind of ethnophyletism with a very strict national identity which undermined any other kind of identity, including the ecclesial one. The “Russian World” is not exactly nationalism in the Balkan meaning of the term. It’s a kind of imperialism, which is not necessarily ethnic, but it runs on the issue of language and values pertinent to a particular civilization. It’s an extended version of ethnophyletism when the ethnos has been replaced by a concept of civilization.

What are examples of this Russian World ethnophyletism?

Perhaps the best translation of the old ethnophyletism to our time is the isolationism which led the Russian Church to not be present at the Council – because it has its own national agenda which is so important that the Church decides not to go to the pan-Orthodox event. This means that the national agenda is more important, being a Church of a separate civilization is more important than staying in the family of Churches. I think this is how ethnophyletism works now.

Are there any signs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate reaching out to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate?

There are signs. I don’t know if and which way it will happen, but there are many chances. the Council opened up many opportunities for many Churches, this is why I really regret there were no people from Ukraine attending. But there were bishops of Ukrainian origin that played an important role in the Council. the Primate of the Ukrainian Church in the US, Metropolitan Anthony was a member of the delegation; another one was Archbishop Job, speaker of the Council. He is of Ukrainian origin from Canada. So, Ukraine was represented through its diaspora.

Edited by: Interview by Alya Shandra
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