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Why Ukraine needs a free and recognized Orthodox Church

These golden church domes are of a pear-type shape common for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Photo:
Why Ukraine needs a free and recognized Orthodox Church
It’s hot times for the Church in Ukraine. The Orthodox Church in Ukraine, now subordinate to Moscow, could become independent aka autocephalous, fulfilling a long-lasting dream going back to the first attempts at Ukrainian independence. President Poroshenko’s appeal to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church was supported by the Parliament and delivered to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on 10 April 2018. A decision is expected in July. Some say that an independent Ukrainian Church is a matter of national security, others – that it is merely a PR move by Poroshenko prior to elections. Apart from that, there’s the Church schism to be considered: for the last 26 years, Orthodoxy in Ukraine has been split in between the unrecognized yet popular Kyiv Patriarchate, the Moscow Patriarchate, and the minor Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun. Photo: Euromaidan Press

Euromaidan Press sat down with Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, Acting Director of Huffington Ecumenical Institute, Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, former Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) , to talk about the prospects of Ukraine getting its very own Church and what it would mean.

EP: The Ukrainian church structure is rather complex. Why does Ukraine have such a structure? And what structures are we talking about when discussion autocephaly?

Cyril Hovorun: The Ukrainian Church structure is indeed rather unusual. In most Orthodox countries, there is one single church. The idea of one Church for one nation reflects Orthodox Church ecclesiology as it developed in the past, particularly in the Middle Ages, and I would say it is normative in the Orthodox countries. In this sense, Ukraine is not normative; however, this does not mean it is not normal.

Editor’s NoteCurrently, the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine are divided between three Church formations – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP, subjugated to the Russian Orthodox Church), Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP, formed in 1992), and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC, formed in 1921 and reestablished in 1942). 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. It 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.

“Canonical” means “legitimate,” one which is recognized as a church by other Orthodox Churches, which recognize one another and are in communion with one another.

EP: How many Churches are we talking about?

Cyril Hovorun: We are talking about 15 Churches worldwide. Some of them are headed by patriarchs, i.e. patriarchates, some are not but are nevertheless autocephalous churches. In this sense, autocephaly is a normal status for an Orthodox Church. It is the only form in which a church unit exists. It’s one of the most ancient and most popular form of church organization.

Canonical territories of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches. Photo:, click to expand

EP: What does “autocephaly” mean?

Cyril Hovorun: The Orthodox Church doesn’t have a pyramidal structure as the Catholic Church has. It doesn’t have a Pope. There is a commonwealth of Orthodox Churches, similar to the British Commonwealth. Autocephalous churches which belong to this family are independent from one another but at the same time, they are in a close relationship with one another, particularly – in eucharistic communion. It means that I, as a member of the Russian Church, can go to the Bulgarian Church and take communion there. That is a direct implication for me as an ordinary member of my Church.

For imperial Russia, it was important to keep the Ukrainian Church under its umbrella to preserve the integrity of Ukraine in the Russian empire.
Applied to Ukraine, it means that only one Church is in communion with the rest of the Orthodox Churches, that is the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, the so-called Ukrainian Orthodox Church. It means that the members of this Church can go to Cyprus, to Greece, and partake in Eucharist there. The other two churches are not recognized, meaning that their members would not normally be able to take communion in other churches worldwide. Sometimes they do if they are not asked. But if they tell that they belong to the Kyiv Patriarchate, the priest would normally not be able to give communion to that person. And that is the consequence of this non-recognized status of the other Orthodox Churches in Ukraine, UOC KP and UAOC.

It’s not so much whether those Churches are non-canonical pe se, as are the implications of this status of the Church for the faithful who belong to those churches. Those members feel as sort of second-class members of the Orthodox community. They are not allowed to take communion in other Churches, they can’t be fully received even if they go to pilgrimages for instance to the Holy Land or Mount Athos.

EP: Why did these Churches form in the first place?

Cyril Hovorun: They reemerged in Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Ukrainian state. I said “reemerged” in the sense that they did not emerge from scratch. There were precedents in the XX ct. The moment when the independent Ukrainian state, the Ukrainian People’s Republic was established in 1917, attempts to establish an independent Ukrainian Church were made as well. Again, rather unsuccessfully, because the pressure from Russia was huge, and when Soviet Russia occupied Ukraine, they eventually crushed any attempt to establish an independent Ukrainian church.

Since then, it has become a sort of rule for the Russian state to prevent the independence of the Ukrainian church, because this would secure a common political space where Ukraine would be included. For imperial Russia, it was important to keep the Ukrainian Church under its umbrella to preserve the integrity of Ukraine in the Russian empire.

The new independence of Ukraine in 1991 prompted attempts to reestablish an independent Ukrainian Church. The Russian state opposed those attempts as they opposed them pat the start of the XX ct.

So, the non-canonical unrecognized status of two Ukrainian Churches owes itself to a great extent to Russia. We observe how the efforts of the Russian politicians, not only the Church but also the Russian diplomacy and state machinery, have increased to prevent this from happening.

In Ukraine, the institute of Church autocephaly, which is the most ancient form of Church governance, is sometimes interpreted as an instrument of colonization or decolonization, even though this institute appeared and was adopted by the Church before any colonial kind of idea.

EP: You mentioned that Russia prevents Ukraine from establishing an autocephalous Church because it doesn’t want the country to create its own political space. However, Ukraine now has a secular state, the Church is separated from the state. How can we talk about a political space?

Cyril Hovorun: Ukraine is certainly not a religious state, according to its Constitution. It’s not a theocracy, it doesn’t have an established Church in the same sense as some European countries have, like Germany or Finland.

The ideology of the “Russian world” is religious as such, it’s not a secular ideology. Its religious rhetoric rides on the counterposition of the east and west, of the presumably holy, religious, spiritual East, and godless West
At the same time, the Ukrainian society is ultimately religious, it’s more religious than most European countries, its religiosity can be compared to the Polish society. In the political and social discourse, religion plays a very important role in Ukraine.

This religious discourse played a very important role during the Euromaidan revolution. Maidan was a political phenomenon, a manifestation of the people who wanted political change. At the same time, the way how the demands of the people were expressed in Ukraine was not secular, it was religious. People articulated political and social concepts through religious symbols and they participated in everyday prayer on the Maidan. A lot of priests and bishops ascended to the scene of the Maidan and addressed people.

One of the most famous photographs from the Euromaidan revolution: a cross above the clashes between protesters and riot police during night attempts to disperse the protest camp, 11 December 2013/ Nina Beroieva

Read also: The Church in the Bloodlands

So, Maidan was a religious phenomenon in some sense, and this exactly indicated the priorities and ways in which Ukrainian people express themselves. Even if Ukrainians don’t go necessarily to church regularly, they still understand themselves in a religious sense, a sort of cultural Christianity. That’s why the idea of autocephaly stirred so much controversy and interest in the Ukrainian society.

Besides that, the Russian aggression against Ukraine was also expressed, articulated and moved by religiously charged rhetoric. The ideology of the “Russian world” is religious as such, it’s not a secular ideology. Its religious rhetoric rides on the counterposition of the east and west, of the presumably holy, religious, spiritual East, and godless West. It renders the conflict in Ukraine in the terms of the counterposition of the Orthodox civilization and the opposite civilization, like the Catholic, Protestant or atheist civilizations.

This rhetoric has been constructed by the Church and it means that the aggression against Ukraine has a religious dimension, just as the Maidan had a religious dimension even though it was a political and social phenomenon. They are the opposite side of two very different interpretations of religion. I think the interpretation of the Maidan was non-violent, and interpretation of religion as a constructive force, as one that can help build civil society. Through the “Russian world,” Russian aggression against Ukraine is another interpretation of religion as a force that rebukes democratic and civic social values.

Priests leading an interconfessional prayer on the Euromaidan stage. From the book “Maidan and the Church”

Given that the rhetoric of the Russian world is religiously charged, that the Russian aggression features a very strong religious dimension, many people who come to fight to Ukraine on the Russian side, they are motivated religiously.

The status of the Ukrainian autocephaly is no more solely an issue for the churches; it is now a political issue, a security issue if you want. To a great extent, it’s a precondition for the survival of the Ukrainian state and society. Hence the concerns regarding the status of the Ukrainian church, because Moscow has used this status since the collapse of the Russian empire as an instrument to colonize Ukraine. So, the issue of autocephaly for the Ukrainian state is a chance for the decolonization for Ukraine.

EP: But maybe this idea of autocephaly is a PR move by Poroshenko?

Poroshenko articulated the concerns of many Ukrainian Orthodox Christians: ecclesial recognition by the world-wide orthodoxy, liberated from Russian neo-imperial rhetoric and activities
Cyril Hovorun: Certainly, it will contribute to his electoral campaign, and it has already become a part of his campaign. It’s not a coincidence that Poroshenko initiated this step when the campaign began. I should say that initiatives to change the ecclesial situation in Ukraine began after the Maidan. There were initiatives from the Churches to offer a solution to this ecclesial-political issue during the war of Russia against Ukraine. Poroshenko for most of his time as president impeded any solution to this issue. He came up with this initiative only recently. I think his rationale is complex. It may be personal, as he’s a faithful member of the UOC MP. It can be political: he understands that this issue contributes to the war. But it’s also political because it may contribute to his reelection. If it will be successful, it will give him a very strong chance to get reelected for the second time. If he fails, because this initiative is now so grossly associated with his name, his chances to get reelected will decrease dramatically.

Although this initiative is presented as political, what Poroshenko did is just articulated the concerns of many Ukrainian Orthodox Christians: ecclesial recognition by the world-wide orthodoxy, liberated from Russian neo-imperial rhetoric and activities. He and many people who help him to promote the idea in the Ukrainian political establishment also associate themselves with the UOC MP. And they represent the many Ukrainian Orthodox who disagree with the policies and rhetoric of the Russian Church but don’t have an alternative canonical Church to go to. This creates a very severe dilemma for their consciousness.

On the one hand, they want to go to a canonical church, to be in communion with the rest of the Orthodox Christians worldwide. The only outlet for this communion is the church of the MP; at the same time, they disagree with the rhetoric, the statements, and sometimes, with the absence of statements which sometimes is more telling. Like on war: while the other Churches are outspoken on war and aggression, the UOC MP has never condemned the war. It has never even named the war by its proper name, as war. This creates obstacles for people who go to that Church. So, this is a major concern for many, including people from the political establishment who go to it. I cannot read thoughts, but I think that Poroshenko himself as a personality and a Christian has problems of this sort.

Representatives of the UOC MP, including Metropolitan Onufriy, were the only ones remaining sitting while President Poroshenko read aloud the names of soldiers honored as Heroes of Ukraine while fighting against the Russian-separatist forces in Donbas on 8 May 2015. Later, the press service of the UOC MP explained the sit-in as a protest against war as a phenomenon. Photo:

So, they are giving chance to those people facing these dilemmas to go to a canonical Church and feel relieved that they do not subscribe to the Russian aggression, Russian rhetoric when they go to church, and improve their spiritual life. To be fair, this should be done by the churches: it is the business of the churches to relieve people from political agendas. But unfortunately, the churches themselves don’t contribute that much, particularly UOC MP. So, the politicians interfered. Maybe it’s not the perfect scenario of solving this problem, but it’s the only possible one at this moment.

EP: How would this autocephaly look like? Who would get it in Ukraine, what would happen afterwards?

Cyril Hovorun: It’s still not 100% clear what it will look like. But I can say for sure that it will not be given to any existing Church, but a new structure will be established from the existing elements. Diocesan [administrative-territorial – Ed.] structures of the existing Churches will be included in this new Church, and autocephaly will be given to this new structure. Probably, most of the communities that will enter this structure belong to the Patriarchate of Kyiv. But it is also expected that many communities and even dioceses of the Moscow Patriarchate will join it, as well as the third tiny UAOC. There are also expectations that communities from the Greek Catholic Church will join eventually, because so far in the situation of Russian aggression against Ukraine, many members of the UOC MP left and joined the Greek Catholic Church, as for them, it was the only recognized legitimate alternative. They may come back to this new established Church.

I think the procedure will ride on the precedent which existed in 1924 when after the collapse of the Russian Empire part of the Russian Church in Poland was granted autocephaly by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. This was done in a unilateral way, without consultations with other Churches, referring to the fact that before the end of the XVII ct. that Church belonged to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

EP: Is Church autocephaly for Ukraine a new idea?

Cyril Hovorun: The Church of Kyiv was established in the X ct. as a Metropolis of the Church of Constantinople and it existed as such until the end of the XVII century. So, we can say that the Ukrainian Church, even though at that time it was called the Church of Kyiv, for most of its history existed under the umbrella of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

A monument to Prince Volodymyr, who baptized the Kyivan Rus in 988 and thus laid the foundations of the Kyiv Church, stands on the hills of Kyiv

When the Church of Kyiv was established in the X ct., it became an integral part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and existed as such for a long time. But after the Tatar-Mongol invasion of the XIII ct. which devastated central Kyivan Rus and divided its heritage between two emerging principalities – Moscow and Lithuania-Poland, a division emerged within the Church of Kyiv.

One part, as part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, went to the northeastern part of what was then Kyivan Rus and became the Church of Moscow. In 1448, it proclaimed unilaterally, without consultations with another Church, its autocephaly, which was illegal and remained illegal for 150 years. At that time, the Church of Moscow was schismatic and not in communion with other Churches.

Another part of the Church remained faithful to the Ecumenical Patriarchate till the XVII ct., and its center moved to the territories of the Polish-Lithuanian state, and then it was given to be managed by Moscow, remaining an integral part of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. At that time, the Moscow Church was already recognized by the rest of the Churches, thanks to the effort of the Russian Tsars.

After the Tatar-Mongol invasion devastated Kyiv in 1240, the Kyiv Church was split in two. One part laid the foundation of the Church of the emerging Moscow principality, which grew into the UOC MP.

We can see a similar “managing” situation, in Greece, where some dioceses are given to be managed by the of the Autocephalous Greek Church, but still belong to the Patriarchate of Constantinople. And they are obliged to commemorate the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In the Moscow Church, this tradition of commemorating the Patriarchate of Constantinople was abolished very soon after the transaction of the part of the Kyiv Church at the territories of the Polish-Lithuanian state. And because of the violations of the conditions of passing this Metropolis of Kyiv to Moscow, the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the XX ct. claimed its rights back, and that was the rationale of the Tomos for the autocephaly of the Polish Church in 1924. I assume that the same rationale will be invoked in the Tomos granted by the Patriarchate of Constantinople to Ukraine again.

It’s ironic that the Church which was uncanonical for 150 years, which separated from the canonical Church, now accuses its sister in doing the same.
Regarding the Tomos, it’s important to understand that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not creating something new, but is claiming back its own rights. However, now Constantinople is ready to give autocephaly to this Church, and this is new. In 2008, under President Yushchenko, there was another attempt to establish an independent from Moscow Church in Ukraine. Then, while Yushchenko aimed for an autocephalous Church, Constantinople had a different vision about this Church, it wanted it back under its jurisdiction. There was a clash between these two models, which was one of the reasons why the initiative failed.

Nowadays, Constantinople seems to have agreed to grant independence to the Ukrainian new Church. But this story did not begin in 2008, it began in XIX ct. Then, the Ottoman Empire and Habsburg Empires, which included vast Orthodox populations (although they still constituted minorities in those empires), experienced a national awakening and struggled for independence, sometimes with wars against the imperial centers. At that time, autocephaly became a big issue for those empires, as autocephaly was a vehicle for the national independence of Orthodox nations: the Greeks, Serbs, Romanians, Bulgarians, Montenegrins, Macedonians, and so forth.

A stamp celebrating Romanian Church autocephaly, granted in 1885

In the beginning of the XX ct., the same movement continued regarding the Russian Empire. After its collapse, the Orthodox nations felt they were not Russians, they claimed their own national identity, continuing the same anti-imperial trend of the Balkans, and claimed autocephaly for themselves. Some of those claims succeeded, some failed. For instance, the Polish Church succeeded. The Polish state was established at the beginning of the XX ct. after the collapse of the Russian empire, and the Church managed to get its independence in 1924. Also, the Finnish Church succeeded. It was an intrinsic part of the Russian Church, and they managed not to get complete independence, but they were satisfied with an autonomous status within the Church of Constantinople.

Ukraine was also engaged in this national struggle at the beginning of the XX ct. But because the Ukrainian state failed, it could not enforce an autocephalous Church. The Ukrainian independence movement was quashed by Soviet Russia and this applied to the Ukrainian Church as well. Until the Ukrainian state reemerged again in 1991, carrying hopes for a Ukrainian Church with it.

EP: What’s in Ukrainian Church autocephaly for Russia?

Cyril Hovorun: In the situation of war and Russian aggression, Russian political influence has diminished significantly. There are practically no Russian institutions on Ukrainian soil, at least formally, except one: the Church. And the Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine has become closer to Russia than it used to be before the war.

After the Orange Revolution of 2004, the UOC MP tried to distance itself from Moscow, tried to prove it is really a Ukrainian Church which understands the aspirations of Ukrainian society. It became effectively independent under Metropolitan Volodymyr, who passed away in 2014.

The new Primate of the Ukrainian Church, Metropolitan Onufriy, it seems, did not continue this line. People who emerged to the leadership of the Church collaborated with the regime of Yanukovych very closely, and they continued somehow to function in the line of the successors of Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, the Opposition Bloc. They affiliated themselves quite obviously with Russian interests. Sometimes they function as representatives of those interests. For Russia, this is important, because given the lack of other outposts of Russian interests on Ukrainian soil, the Ukrainian Church is one of those scarce resources that the Kremlin uses. Unfortunately, the Church does contribute to that. It does not distance itself from the influence of the Kremlin.

EP: Why have the UOC MP representatives affiliated themselves with the Party of Regions and its successor, the Opposition Bloc?

Cyril Hovorun:  I can’t answer this question. One can assume it has to do with different forms of support of the leadership of the Church by the figures in the Opposition Bloc. What is obvious is the deep involvement of an oligarch and member of the of Opposition Bloc, the MP Vadym Novinsky. He is one of the most influential figures of this political force and is very deeply involved in the matters of the Church. He advocates the interests of the UOC MP and, I think, influences those interests, which raises concerns about the influence of oligarchy on the Church.

Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun. Photo: Euromaidan Press

It’s a big issue for Ukrainian society, the role of the oligarchy. Most Ukrainians detest the idea that oligarchs should influence politics. Unfortunately, this applies to the Church too, and even on a greater scale. We are now entering a new electoral cycle, elections will happen in one year, and the Party of Regions, which is now the Opposition Bloc, wants revenge, and they will use the Church as a vehicle of this comeback. Unfortunately, the Church yields to these political interests and plays on their side.

The battle for Church autocephaly became the battle for Church diplomacies in a sense.
I want to emphasize again that there is a huge difference between some leaders of the UOC MP, who seem to play on the side of political figures, and the majority of the faithful of this Church. Some leaders I’ve mentioned lead the Church to a confrontation with Ukrainian society, unnecessarily. This confrontation is not something which the Church would naturally support. I don’t see any reason for a clash between Ukrainian society and the Church. However, the Party of Regions aka Opposition Bloc, in order to get support in the next electoral cycle, needs this confrontation, because it can come back to power only riding on it. In this, it coincides with the interests of the Kremlin, which wants to divide Ukrainian society. Hence, all this rhetoric about the persecution of the Orthodox in Ukraine, which people in Europe hear from the UOC MP, the Opposition Bloc, and the Kremlin. These are usually false statements which contribute to the confrontation, as there are no persecutions. The only thing that happens is that all religious groups in Ukraine are being treated equally in front of the law. From the perspective of the UOC MP, which was privileged in Yanukovych’s time, this is interpreted as persecutions against the Church.

EP: What do the other Orthodox Churches think about Ukraine’s autocephaly?

Cyril Hovorun: It’s difficult to predict the statements of the other Churches. The battle for Church autocephaly became the battle for Church diplomacies in a sense. Moscow sends its representatives to different Churches to persuade them not to support this movement towards normalization of the church life in Ukraine, and the Ukrainian state tries to use diplomatic means and to persuade the other Churches to support the Ukrainian cause. Who will win – we will see. Unfortunately, the issue of recognition from other Churches has become politicized. Many political factors are at play here. Pressure upon the Ecumenical Patriarchate from the Turkish government, for instance. Also, governments in other Orthodox countries will play some role, and those governments will be motivated or demotivated economically and politically by the Kremlin. So, unfortunately, politics will play an important role in the process of recognition by other Churches. What is needed, even though the Ecumenical Patriarchate will make its decision unilaterally, it will also pursue the process of recognition of the autocephalous Church by other Churches.

EP: Anything else you would like to add?

Cyril Hovorun: Yes. I believe the model of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Church which is being considered nowadays is a model of plurality. 10 years ago, the model promoted by president Yushchenko was one single Church which will unite all the Orthodox under its umbrella. This would be easy to manage by the state, obviously. Nowadays, we are talking about a different model, it’s a model of one of several recognized jurisdictions in Ukraine, meaning there will be no monopoly of any Church structure and no monopoly from the state upon any Church. It will contribute to diversity in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, and this diversity will be legitimate, canonical. I think it will contribute to the change of mentality regarding religious issues. The idea of one single Church, though it is normal for the Orthodox world, doesn’t help the current situation in Ukraine. If the Orthodox accept the idea that there can be several canonical Churches in one state, they will more easily appreciate the other religious diversity in the country. The Ukrainian society is very religious, it’s not secular, and it’s religiously diverse. There are many Protestants, Catholics of different sorts, Muslims, Jews. I think Ukrainians learned to appreciate this religious diversity, especially on the Maidan. The autocephaly of the Orthodox Church will contribute to the diversity of this landscape.

EP: So you’re saying UOC MP is not going anywhere?

Cyril Hovorun: No, it will stay, and it’s good that it will stay because it will contribute to this diversity.

EP: Let’s hope that everything works!

Cyril Hovorun: No, everything will not work. Let’s hope that something will work.

/Interview by Alya Shandra

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