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New chances, new risks. Where Ukrainian Orthodoxy stands on the eve of independence

The St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv was founded in 1011, under the reign of King Volodymyr the Great, who ruled Kyivan Rus from 980 to 1015. (Photo:
The St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv was founded in 1011, under the reign of King Volodymyr the Great, who ruled Kyivan Rus from 980 to 1015. (Photo:
New chances, new risks. Where Ukrainian Orthodoxy stands on the eve of independence

Ukraine has completed the penultimate step before receiving a recognized Orthodox Church independent from Moscow. On 15 December, a Council in Ukraine convened to unify the existing three Orthodox Churches, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP), Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP), and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) into one single Church, which would then be granted the Tomos of autocephaly, or declaration of independence, from the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

The Council elected Epifaniy, a Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, as its Primate. While many in Ukraine are celebrating, others are less optimistic about the outcome of the Council and warn that the new Church has a long journey ahead before it is accepted by the family of world Orthodox Churches. Euromaidan Press talked to three experts in church issues to understand what happened at the historical event and what this heralds for the future of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

It finally happened

The Ukrainian church has a long history. Attempts to establish an independent church had started 100 years ago. Infographic:, translated by Euromaidan Press. Click to enlarge For a short history of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, see here.

“It’s an important achievement that the Council actually took place. There have been so many attempts to unite separated Orthodox Christians in Ukraine that have failed. The fact that today’s bishops were able to have this Council, under the conditions of such a formidable opposition by Moscow is an achievement of its own,” believes Nicholas Denysenko, Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University in the USA.

Nicholas Denysenko, Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University in Valparaiso, Indiana (USA).

The last time Ukraine tried to receive Church autocephaly was when President Yushchenko in 2008 asked the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the self-proclaimed UOC KP; the answer was that the churches in Ukraine had to unite first. This was the purpose of the Council – to dissolve the existing Church structures and establish a new one, which would be granted independence. However, only the UOC KP and UAOC have self-dissolved and joined the new Church. Most of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church subjugated to Moscow had boycotted the Council and punished those few members – two bishops and several priests – who did attend the Council.

Nevertheless, this is still an achievement, believes Fr. Denysenko – the UOC KP and UAOC have been separated since 1992. As well, the participation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the highest authority in the Orthodox Church, is important.

“The fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate not only participated but presided at the Council is an important step, meaning that there is no reversal to what happened on 15 December, as much as the Moscow Patriarchate will demand it. This is only going to go forward. It will be either slow or fast, but it will go forward,” says Denysenko.

Another important aspect of the unification of UOC KP and UAPC in the new Church is that for many years before, they were viewed as schismatic and their faithful were not in communion with world Orthodoxy. Previously, only faithful of the UOC MP, headed by Moscow Patriarch Kirill, were recognized as legitimate members of the family of 15 Orthodox Churches. This will now change.

Who was elected?

Metropolitan Epifaniy (left) of the UOC KP was elected as the Primate of the United Church at the Council. Here he receives a panagia from the exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch, Emmanuil, Metropolitan of France. Photo:

The process of voting at the Council was not scandal-free. Metropolitan Epifaniy, known as the protege of iron-fist Patriarch Filaret of the UOC KP, won in the result of an electoral interference: Filaret demanded that a UOC KP runner-up Metropolitan Mikhail rescind his candidacy, in the result of which Epifaniy won over his competitor, Symeon from the UOC MP.

Yuriy Chornomorets, professor, religious scientist

Despite the undemocratic procedure, the outcome is the best of options, says religious scientist and professor Yuriy Chornomorets.

“Epifaniy combines a sharp analytical mind and a capability to work systematically with special humility and kindness. He is a person who unites people, sets big goals and reaches them. Epifaniy is a leader of a new type who can bring together other talented leaders, work for results and not for fame, listen to everyone,” claims Yuriy Choronomorets.

He says that Epifaniy’s track record in the UOC KP suggests that the new United Church is in luck to have such a Primate.

Those qualities will be needed in the future life of the Church, Nicholas Denysenko believes: the fact that many bishops supported Epifaniy’s competitors means that their thoughts will need to be taken into account:

“I think this will be a challenge for Metropolitan Epifaniy; but now he has an opportunity to really depend on the other bishops in his Synod for advice, for council, and to work with them in moving forward. And this could be an important new development for the Ukrainian Orthodox Churches because many of them have depended on one authoritative figure in the past. So with the struggle comes the opportunity to do good.”

Incomplete unification

President Poroshenko (left) sits beside Metropolitan Emmanuil (second from left), the Ecumenical Patriarch’s exarch who presided over the Council on 15 December. Photo:
Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, PhD, Senior Lecturer at Stockholm School of Theology, former Chairman of the Department for External Church Relations of the UOC MP

Despite the high hopes that this Council would unite the separated UOC MP, UOC KP, and UAPC, this did not happen. Only two of the 90 bishops of the UOC MP were present at the Council, fewer than the 10 who had signed the appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch on granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church.

One of Constantinople’s requirements for granting autocephaly to Ukraine was that the new Church-to-be would be as inclusive and open as possible and that as many bishops as possible from the UOC MP participate in the Council.

So why did the UOC MP effectively boycott Constantinople’s attempts to heal a schism and give the Ukrainian Church independence?

According to Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, there are several reasons:

  1. Primarily, the position of the Moscow Patriarchate in Moscow and the UOC MP in Ukraine, which persuaded the autocephaly-leaning bishops to not attend the event. Russia has a special interest in the church in Ukraine since it lost most other outposts for its influence in the country since the Euromaidan revolution in 2014. The interest seems to be mutual, since the current leadership of the UOC MP has effectively affiliated itself with Russian interests. All other reasons the UOC MP put forward for resisting the Ecumenical Patriarch’s have no theological standing, Cyril Hovorun says: according to the canons of the Church, Constantinople is the Mother Church for Ukraine and has a right to take such decisive actions.
  2. The Ukrainian state didn’t do enough to encourage the bishops from the Moscow Patriarchate to take part, as it had promised the Ecumenical Patriarchate to do;
  3. The UOC KP, which enjoys the largest support of Ukrainians at present, wasn’t interested in the participation of bishops of the UOC MP, as Constantinople’s scenario envisioned.

    “The new Church has to be large, comprehensive, all-embracing, inclusive, accommodating all groups that wanted to join it, welcoming all groups, transparent, fair, and this didn’t happen. The Kyiv Patriarchate’s vision of the new Church was that the new church shouldn’t be really that new. They wanted a reincarnation of the old structure under the new name without changing very much in the structure of power, the ethos of the new Church. I should say that they managed it to a great extent,” says Cyril Hovorun.

    The theologian points out that had there been a fuller participation of the UOC MP in the process, the new Primate of the Church would carry the status of full-fledged Patriarch, not the somewhat lower-standing Metropolitan.

Yuriy Chornomorets believes that the low number of UOC MP bishops participating in the church independence process was caused by the Ukrainian state’s inaction in prosecuting UOC MP members acting as conduits of Russian interests amid the country’s undeclared war against Ukraine.

“The bishops of the UOC MP observe the total impunity of aggressive conductors of Russia’s information war, which starting from September 2014 work systematically under the direct leadership of ecclesial and secular Moscow on the all-Ukrainian and regional levels. Observing such a passivity of the Ukrainian state, the bishops conclude that Ukraine is a ‘failed state’ and wonder where Putin’s tanks will end up – in Kyiv or in Lviv,” Chornomorets told Euromaidan Press, adding that if Moscow’s agents in the information war are stopped, the position of the Ukrainian church leadership will change.

In his turn, Nicholas Denysenko believes that the UOC MP’s boycott of autocephaly is a symptom of the last 100 years.

“The Moscow Patriarchate has effectively redefined autocephaly as separatism and isolationism. But autocephaly is not separatism, autocephaly is independence in communion with all of the other Churches. So that logic of the Moscow Patriarchate is actually flawed: if autocephaly is just isolationism and separatism, then no one should be autocephalous; neither Greece, nor Bulgaria, Serbia, Albania – none of them should have autocephaly.”

As well, the UOC MP has been living for many years with a very negative picture of UOC KP’s 89-year-old leader Patriarch Filaret, Denysenko says:

As the Council approached, they simply weren’t able to reconcile themselves with the idea that someone that not only had been deposed but had been anathematized by the Church would be legitimate. I think that the fact that Filaret was still alive was an obstacle that made even those who were sympathetic to autocephaly hesitant because of all the things they have heard about this figure.”

Another reason for this outcome of the Unification Council was the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s rapid actions. For many years, the position of Constantinople was that the Ukrainian churches would need to unite before receiving independence. Its unexpected intervention bewildered some in the UOC MP and made them feel that Constantinople is interfering in their affairs.

“The only way that the Unification Council could have worked otherwise is if the process would have been stretched out over a longer period of time. But it seems that that was probably not acceptable to President Poroshenko. So another issue is that the process was very fast; it all happened over 2018, except for the upcoming issuing of the Tomos. That’s very fast; the Church moves slowly,” Nicholas Denysenko told Euromaidan Press.

What lies ahead for the new Church?

(L-R) Chairman of the Verkhovna Rada Andriy Parubiy, newly-elected Metropolitan Epifaniy, and President Poroshenko address Ukrainians gathered in front of the St. Sophia’s Cathedral in Kyiv after the conclusion of the Council. Photo:

The difficulties from conducting the Council itself already gives us a sense of what lies ahead, Nicholas Denysenko claims.

“It is impossible for anyone to expect that the process is going to suddenly become easy. All of the parties who are involved have operated independently up to this point. This is always challenging. If they made compromises for the Council, they’re going to have to continue to make compromises,” the theologian told Euromaidan Press.

However, this opens new opportunities before the new Church: hitherto, they have all had traditions of one-man-rule; now, they’re going to have to compromise and that may be the herald of a new, more democratic chapter of its life.

“There’s still a long way for the Church to go to arrive where it needs to go – that is to receive the recognition of the other Orthodox Churches in the world as a legitimate autocephalous Church. And also to begin a new chapter that doesn’t simply recirculate or revive the legacy of the Soviet-era Church or even the pre-revolutionary Church.“

On 6 January 2019, the Ukrainian Church autocephaly project will be completed: Metropolitan Epifaniy will receive the Tomos of autocephaly in Istanbul, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch. After that, Ukrainian Orthodox faithful will have two canonical options – the new independent church or the UOC MP. Parishes of the UOC MP (around 12,000) may choose to join the new Church (around 7,000 parishes, according to Metropolitan Epifaniy; this doesn’t match our data in the graphic below, however).

Click to enlarge

How many of them will do it remains unclear: Yuriy Chornomorets supposed that two-thirds of priests and laity will leave the UOC MP and its discredited leadership for the new Church; the process may be accelerated if the new Church is recognized by the 15 autonomous Orthodox Churches of the world.

Nicholas Denysenko believes that if the new Church proves to be stable and overcomes the initial period of transition, unification with the UOC MP will occur gradually and increase over time. The two UOC MP bishops in its Synod be ambassadors and create a welcoming atmosphere for those wanting to migrate. But first of all, a real dialogue will need to be established.

The UOC MP will resist it, but “no matter how many times they refuse to enter dialogue, the leaders of the new Church have to request dialogue and publicize requests for dialogue, for reconciliation, for unification,” Denysenko says. However, it’s realistic to expect that the Moscow Patriarchy will have some kind of presence in Ukraine for many decades to come: “This process of reconciliation will be long and before the Churches unite, there would have to be some kind of eucharistic concelebration first. It will take more than one generation to overcome a legacy of separation and difference.”

“Eventually, we should arrive at the situation when we have two jurisdictions in good relations with one another, in partnership with one another, peaceful coexistence as it is in other countries where there are several Orthodox jurisdictions. Only this will be a healthy development of the present situation. If this will lead to more strife, contradiction, tensions, and even religious wars, this situation should be corrected. The new Church cannot at any price encourage this kind of feelings, of rejection, of enmity, of hatred,” Cyril Hovorun believes.

Tensions may lie ahead: UOC MP faithful are widely regarded as traitors in Ukrainian society, a new law will oblige UOC MP parishes to include “Russian Orthodox Church” in their titles, and there have been calls for seizure of UOC MP property, especially – the major monasteries, or Lavras. Making sure there is no violence is the direct obligation of the Ukrainian state and its promise to international partners, firstmost – the Ecumenical Patriarch.

When will it be fully recognized by the rest of the world Orthodox Churches?

The Great and Holy Orthodox Council, convened by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Crete in 2016, gathered the Patriarchs of all Orthodox Churches except Russia, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Antioch. Photo:

The new Church will be legal once it receives its Tomos; however, whether it will be legitimate depends on its reception, or recognition, by the rest of world Orthodoxy, says Cyril Hovorun.

“The opposition from Moscow will be formidable and they will do anything they can to persuade the other Orthodox Churches in the world that what happened on Saturday was illegitimate. So the burden on the leaders of the new Church, especially on Metropolitan Epifaniy, is very heavy. They will need to be clear and decisive and as open as possible to show that they have arrived,” Nicholas Denysenko says.

He believes that the first Churches to recognize the Orthodox Church in Ukraine could be the Church of Greece, possibly the Church of Cyprus. His prediction is that within a year or two, at least half of the Churches in the world could, possibly, recognize it.

One of the problems standing before such a recognition is that the leadership of the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine is largely unknown to the other Orthodox Churches. The UOC KP, as a schismatic Church, was separated from the rest of the world. It is now crucial that the new leadership of the Church travels and meets people. Nicholas Denysenko suggests that this happens with the help of the Ecumenical Patriarch and suggests that contacts from Metropolitan Epifaniy’s time studying in Greece may help this endeavor.

Both Nicholas Denysenko and Cyril Hovorun believe that the world will also be watching whether the new Church will be open and inclusive, or will it slide into ethnophyletism, a sort of Church nationalism of which the Russian Church has been accused of, and where only Ukrainians are allowed in the Ukrainian Church.

There such a danger, Cyril Hovorun says, and the Ecumenical Patriarch is aware of this.

Constantinople chose its very name, the “Orthodox Church in Ukraine,” over the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” to convey a more universal, inclusive, and less ethno-centric nature of the new Church. The Statute of the Church indicates that it is a Church open for all people of Orthodox faith in Ukraine, regardless of ethnicity or language.

Now the new leadership of the Church has to live up to that promise, says Nicholas Denysenko, especially since Moscow will be running a campaign to portray the new Church as an attempt to create a state Church, or a national Church, and as a tool of the Ukrainian state.

“The other Orthodox Churches, however flawed they are, are unnerved about Ukrainian nationalism. They don’t understand how Ukrainians are discovering their identity, especially in this post-Maidan war period, and embracing patriotism, because they are not living in Ukraine and don’t understand the conditions of war. They don’t have the colonial and imperial past that Ukrainians have. If the leaders of this Church demonstrate that they are open to everyone, that no matter who you are in Ukraine if you are Orthodox, are invited to be part of this Church – this will go a long way for demonstrating arrival and legitimacy. And even public statements go a long way along with policies,” Denysenko told.

The state was quite active up to this point. That may be bad.

The Presidium of the Council, including Ukrainian President Poroshenko (third from the left). Photo:

The campaign for Ukrainian Church autocephaly was driven by President Poroshenko, who has been accused of using the Church topic in a bid to get reelected in 2019. However, without the State’s role, the Council would not have been possible, believes Cyril Hovorun. There were too many attempts of some church groups to prevail over others, and too little ability to agree with one another and to find common ground.

Should the state have stepped back and acknowledged that the Churches are simply not ready to unite? Perhaps, but then church independence would be delayed for another 100 years in Ukraine.

Now the state should not continue to interfere in the Church. Is that possible – I don’t know, because it seems that the state has enjoyed its role as a moderator of the bishops and will probably continue to play this role, which is certainly unhealthy. The state should step aside from this process. As was promised by the President, the role of the state will be to protect the Churches and to protect the choice of the people, which church to go to, and not to encourage or force them to change their jurisdiction. We will see to what point these promises will be kept,” says Cyril Hovorun. “We, including the journalists and civil society in Ukraine which so much supported the new Church, should be watchful, aware of the dangers and risks. There are real dangers of undesirable transformations within the Church from its very beginning, and because the civil society is active in Ukraine it should be active in this regard. It should be watchful, it should care about this Church, and it should warn if the Church goes the wrong way. Which is very likely to happen.”

Yuriy Chornomorets, however, says that the model for church-state partnership in the Ukrainian legislature makes creating any state Church impossible. Apart from the Orthodox, the Greek-Catholics, Catholics, Protestants, Jews, and Muslims take part in such a partnership.

Chance for reform

Metropolitan Epifaniy. Photo:

Perhaps the most intriguing question is whether the new status of the Church will lead to a new quality of the Church. Up to this point, all the three Orthodox Churches have been accused of too much hierarchy and not enough participation of laypeople in the decision-making process.

“Now we need to invite the laity to truly participate in the life of the Church. I don’t think anything bad would come of that. This is a good opportunity to put that post-Soviet legacy aside once and for all and to become a leading Church of the 21st century. I believe this can happen,” Nicholas Denysenko told.

According to him, the new Church has the potential to be a leader of inter-religious dialogue.

A lot of the Orthodox in the world don’t want dialogue with Christians of other denominations and other faiths. I think that the Church in Ukraine would contribute very much if they would be leaders of ecumenical dialogue. And Ukraine is a wonderful place to do this, it’s a multi-religious society.”

Cyril Hovorun also stresses that the new Church should exist in a mode of constant dialogue with other religious groups in Ukraine, appreciate the religious diversity of Ukraine, and warns against attempts to establish a monopoly over religion in Ukraine.

He believes that the Statute drafted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the new Church is a recipe for being a normal Church; therefore, there should be no attempts to deviate from it.

“To be open, inclusive, to all groups from other jurisdictions in Ukraine, to be friendly, not to build its identity on negating and rejecting something, but on embracing and holding to something.[…]

The most important thing is to hold to the Gospel and Christ’s message – after all, that is the most important thing in the Church. The leadership of the Church should be accountable to the people, to the faithful. […] The lay people should be real stakeholders in the new Church, so there should be communication within the Church, between the different strata of this Church, and communication between the Church and other religious groups in the Ukrainian society.”

In his view, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church now has a chance to embark on its own aggiornamento, an Italian word to describe the new position of the Catholic Church after Vatican II, which radically changed its relationship with modern society, making it more open and dynamic.

Meanwhile, Yuriy Chornomorets says that the new Church should implement the values of open European Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

“In the mythology of the Russian Orthodox Church and Russia, Prince Vladimir’s baptism of the Kyivan Rus in 988 founded a new civilization which differed from the West. In the rhetoric of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, however, the baptism of Rus meant joining Europe and entering the worldwide culture and civilization. Ukrainian Orthodoxy should be not only the largest in numbers, but also become a leader in the processes initiated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate on opening the internal potential of Orthodoxy as a driving social force that can influence the humanization of capitalism, the improvement of the environmental and cultural situation, the change of values in the post-industrial era.”

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