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A Ukrainian National Church — Ukraine’s hopes and Moscow’s traps

Patriarch Filaret, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate.
Article by: Vitaly Portnikov
Translated by: Anna Mostovych

The letter that Patriarch Filaret, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), sent to the Bishop’s Council of the Russian Orthodox Church has become a pretext for the exchange of pronouncements and propaganda. But the reactions of the Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities to the very existence of this letter may conceal what is most essential: for the first time since the declaration of the independence of the UOC-KP, its head has officially appealed to the Bishop’s Council of the Russian Orthodox Church with a proposal for a dialogue, and this proposal was not only considered but also given a positive response.

The Bishop’s Council has formed its own commission for such a dialogue and, in fact, has recognized two simple facts: that the UOC-KP is really a church and not a “group of comrades” and that the partner in the dialogue with this church organization is the Russian Orthodox Church and not the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). Therefore, the decision on the dialogue and the fact that a representative of the Russian Orthodox Church, and not the UOC-MP, heads up a commission responsible for its realization points out once again who is the real church institution and who is simply a unit within that institution.

Metropolitan Onufriy, head of the UOC-MP, at his residence. On the wall, a portrait of Moscow Patriarch Kirill, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kyiv. January 4, 2017.

Let  us leave the deliberations and conclusions on the canonicality or non-canonicality of the churches to the faithful and the scholars of church law. Since the time of the Apostle Paul, the church has been not only a religious and moral institution but also a political one. In Orthodoxy this is apparent more that in any other Christian denomination, and this is precisely why church borders, as a rule, duplicate state borders. The Ukrainian schism and the Russian Orthodox Church’s refusal to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is not proof of the Moscow Patriarchate’s deep concern about canonicality.  It is first and foremost the hope that the state borders will change sooner or later and that Ukraine will return to Russia again. And in this hope Patriarch Kirill does not differ from President Putin.

Time is on the side of the Kyiv Patriarchate

The creation of the commission for negotiations with the UOC-KP may be a recognition of the fact that less and less of this hope remains. The Russian Orthodox Church cannot ignore the facts. More and more communities of parishioners are leaving the alien Moscow church for one of their own, and the naming and renaming ploys of the Russian Orthodox Church can no longer help.

In the UOC-MP itself there are increasing numbers of supporters of autocephaly. Yes, these people would like to receive autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate but they no longer want to be in the Russian Orthodox Church. Time itself is on the side of the Kyiv Patriarchate. Sooner or later the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine may face the same situation as the Serbian Orthodox Church in Macedonia. There is an unrecognized Macedonian Orthodox Church in Macedonia, but there is simply no canonical Serbian Church in the country. Incidentally, it was in Macedonia that the Russian Orthodox Church suffered a serious defeat recently. Its mediation in the negotiations between the Serbian and Macedonian churches ended with the result that the Macedonian church turned to another Orthodox Church — the Bulgarian one — with the request that it be recognized as the mother church and granted autocephaly. For Patriarch Kirill this is not a welcome sign.

Vladimir Putin and Moscow Patriarch Kirill at a meeting of the Bishop’s Council of the Russian Orthodox Church. Moscow, December 1, 2017.

The longer the Russian Orthodox Church refuses to provide autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the smaller the territory of Moscow Orthodoxy in Ukraine will become. And when the UOC-KP unites the church parishes in most of the country and squeezes out the Russian Orthodox Church and its affiliate, the UOC-MP, from Ukrainian religious life, it will be able to appeal to the Orthodox Church of Constantinople to recognize it as the mother church and to grant it autocephaly. This will be the end of the Ukrainian schism and sooner or later Moscow will have to accept it.

Understanding the danger

But we should not assume that Patriarch Kirill, an experienced church politician, does not understand this simple truth. This is why he may consider granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian church. However, let us just imagine what the Russian version of this autocephaly would look like. Patriarch Kirill grants autocephaly to the UOC-MP and, after negotiations, the UOC-KP unites with this new independent Ukrainian church. The church is not based in Moscow, but it has its heart in Moscow. And now let us simply consider which church will swallow the other one. What will be the composition of the Synod of the new united Ukrainian Orthodox Church? What will be the language of the services? What will be the attitudes of the priests? This is why I would not hurry with the negotiations and why I would not rejoice if autocephaly is granted soon.

We will be able to talk about a real Ukrainian church in our country only when the territory of Moscow Orthodoxy in Ukraine — and in people’s hearts– continues to shrink.

But then the question arises: why is Patriarch Filaret appealing to the Bishop’s Council? Does he not understand the danger of speedy unification?

Naturally, Patriarch Filaret is a no less an experienced church politician than Patriarch Kirill — probably even more so. The young Kirill learned church politics from the two pillars of the church at the time — the Metropolitans Nikodim and Filaret. So I think the hierarchs understand each other’s intentions perfectly. But for Filaret, the negotiation signifies the recognition of the very fact that the church exists, the church that he has nurtured through all these decades of Ukrainian independence. Moscow’s traps are not a reason for renouncing Ukrainian dreams. Filaret may simply be seeking to leave a single autocephalous and canonical Ukrainian church for his descendants, in whose churches they will never again commemorate the Moscow Patriarch.

Translated by: Anna Mostovych
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