The Ukrainian Church's Quest For Ecclesiastical Autonomy

Maria Lipman & Sergey Chapnin
27 Sep 2018

Ukrainian President Poroshenko meets with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (credit)

► Many among Ukrainian clergy and its government are anxious to gain full ecclesiastical autonomy for Ukrainian Church. The Ecumenical Patriarch appears willing to grant such status to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. But this issue is ecclesiastically complicated and politically fraught. We offer a view of the ecclesiastical, legal and political aspects of the decision to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church.

The word “autocephaly,” hardly in common use until this summer, has suddenly become part of the vocabulary of the daily news. “Autocephaly” means full ecclesiastical autonomy, and the current story is about the Ukrainian Orthodox Church seeking a legitimate autonomous status recognized by the highest authority of Eastern Christianity.

Ukraine is the second largest Orthodox Christian nation after Russia, but unlike many other national communities of Eastern Christianity—which include Greece, several countries in Eastern Europe and the Balkans, as well as a few communities in the Caucasus and the Middle East—it does not enjoy ecclesiastical autonomy. Originally, there was no distinction between the Russian and Ukrainian Churches—the Christianization by Rus' took place in Kiev in the 10th century, before Moscow even existed. The issue of Ukrainian church autocephaly has arisen on various occasions in the more recent past, and this debate intensified following the collapse of the Soviet Union, when the Ukrainian church split, with the largest part remaining under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate (see more on this in Sergey Chapnin’s piece below). It is hardly surprising that the Ukrainian Church’s pursuit of autocephaly has gained new urgency in recent years: the incorporation of Crimea into the Russian Federation led to a war in Donbas that plunged Russia and Ukraine into a severe conflict. The efforts of part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to achieve an autonomous status have outraged the Russian Orthodox Church, which describes the developments as “a new schism.” 

Though the status of the Ukrainian Church is essentially an ecclesiastical question and, as Chapnin explains, a fairly intricate one at that, it instantly became strongly politicized, drawing in organizations and political figures from Ukraine and Russia as well as far beyond their borders. The leader of the Crimean Tatars recently discussed Ukrainian Church autocephaly with Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdogan, while the head of the non-canonical Ukrainian Church, Filaret, went all the way to Washington, DC, where he addressed the Atlantic Council attempting to persuade the United States to support the Ukrainian Church’s pursuit of autocephaly.  Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko personally visited Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul. The Ecumenical Patriarch is a descendant of the Byzantine patriarchs, deemed one of the most enduring world institutions. Though his residence is currently in Turkey, not Byzantium, he is still considered “first among equals” in the realm of Eastern Christianity. Patriarch Bartholomew has informed Russian Patriarch Kirill that he is willing to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but he has not yet pronounced his final ruling. Other Eastern Christian Churches have been largely evasive thus far; it is not entirely clear which of them would support the Ecumenical Patriarch’s ruling and which might side with the Russian Orthodox Church, which has threatened to cut off relations with the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate, if it grants autocephaly to “schismatics.” Maria Lipman

Kiev Pechersk Lavra, a major center of Eastern Orthodox Christianity in Ukraine and the whole of Eastern Europe (credit)

The Orthodox Church in Ukraine Will Become Independent Despite Russian Protests

Sergey Chapnin, a prominent Russian expert on ecclesiastical matters, explains the intricacies of granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church.

For the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (OCU) would undoubtedly be an outrage, but Ukraine is no longer frightened by what Russia thinks. Moreover, an appropriate mode of granting autocephalous status to the Ukrainian Church has been found: the OCU will likely be awarded autocephaly in the near future by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

Kirill, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, has invariably and firmly turned down the OCU's petitions for autocephalous status. His reasons: it is not “canonical Orthodox Christians” who are asking for autocephaly and such a move is not necessary. The views of politicians and “non-canonical Orthodox Christians” are of no interest, he contends. The former should not interfere with Church affairs and the latter are schismatics: they should repent first, then join the canonical Church, and only after that will somebody listen to them.

For many years, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew shared Patriarch Kirill's view, although always adding that substantive steps should be taken toward overcoming the schism in the OCU. Non-canonical Orthodox Christians are too numerous—millions of people—and they should be brought back to the canonical Church, he would say. Yet in the past 30 years, no real steps toward overcoming the schism have been taken; autocephaly may have been talked about, but there has been no progress in this direction.

Orthodox Churches move slowly, and the uncertain situation vis-à-vis the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church could have persisted for decades. However, Church factors have been reinforced by political ones, with the latter playing a decisive role in pushing Patriarch Bartholomew to reconsider his stance. In April 2018, he decided to grant autocephaly to the OCU on his own, without the Russian Orthodox Church. The ROC has warned that it will take a hard line in response, even threatening a schism that might be as grave as the schism of 1054.

The Russian Orthodox Chruch threatened to cut off relations with Constantinopolitan Patriarchate thereby stripping it of its claim to being "ecumenical" (credit)

The Large Ukrainian Church

It should be noted the OCU meets the formal requirements for autocephaly. It has all the institutions needed for full-fledged ecclesiastical life: numerous dioceses, parishes, monasteries, religious seminaries, and educational and charitable organizations. It claims the status of national church of Ukraine, an independent, universally recognized country, which is in complete accord with how Orthodox Christianity understands the concept of an autocephalous Church.

"A large number of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians have ties to Russia and the ROC. To them, autocephaly implies a forced separation from Russia that they will seek to oppose by every means possible."


Several factors complicate the situation. First, Orthodoxy in Ukraine is currently split into three churches that do not communicate with each other. Two of these are the non-canonical ones mentioned above. Second, autocephaly is always associated with a manifestation of national identity and is likely to animate nationalist ideas, including fairly radical ones. Third, a large number of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians have ties to Russia and the ROC. To them, autocephaly implies a forced separation from Russia that they will seek to oppose by every means possible.

The largest of the Ukrainian churches is the canonical (that is, recognized by Orthodox Churches of other countries) Orthodox Church in Ukraine, under the jurisdiction of the Moscow patriarchate (OCU MP). This means that it is subordinated to the ROC, yet enjoys broad autonomy. OCU MP includes over 12,000 parishes and over 200 monasteries, including the two largest ones, Kiev Pechersk Lavra and Pochayiv Lavra.

The second is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kievan Patriarchate (OCU KP), founded by metropolitan Filaret (Denysenko). In 1990, Filaret was the most likely candidate for the Russian Patriarch following the death of then-Patriarch Pimen. However, he did not become Patriarch, but rather a schismatic, and was later anathematized by the ROC Bishops' Council. This has not prevented him from heading the second largest Church in Ukraine, which has over 5,000 parishes. Filaret remains an influential figure in Ukrainian society.

The third and smallest Orthodox Church in Ukraine refers to itself as the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). It has just over 500 parishes and is largely insignificant.

For the two non-canonical churches, autocephaly is a unique chance to achieve canonical status. As such, they are keen to be granted autocephaly under any conditions, seeing it as an opportunity not to be missed.

Meanwhile, OCU MP, the canonical church, is generally happy with its current status. Only individual members actively support the idea of autocephaly. The possibility has not been ruled out that if a unified national church were to be established, some OCU MP parishes would seek to remain subordinated to the ROC. The “pro-Moscow” faction is quite straightforward about its intention to oppose autocephaly by all available means.

The creation of a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church would hardly be a rapid process, but once established, this Church would be one of the largest Orthodox Churches in the modern world, bringing together about 15,000 parishes.    

An International Law Crisis

My reference to the creation of a “new” church was no accident. Patriarch Bartholomew does not have the authority to grant autocephaly to any of the existing churches. He will first have to restore the old Kievan metropolitanate, which was up until the end of the 17th century under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Only then can he grant legal autocephaly. This complicated solution seems to be the main one under consideration.

The complex knot of problems related to autocephaly is due to ecclesiastical law. The canonical law of the Orthodox Church remains uncodified to this day, with the result that the mechanism for granting autocephaly has not been defined. The Ecumenical and Moscow patriarchs therefore hold radically different views on the necessary prerequisites and procedures for autocephaly, leading to heated debates as to who has the authority to grant legal autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church and how this can be done. 

"The Ecumenical and Moscow patriarchs hold radically different views on the necessary prerequisites and procedures for autocephaly, leading to heated debates as to who has the authority to grant legal autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church and how this can be done."

Whereas the Ecumenical patriarch draws on his authority—which dates back a millennium, to the height of the Byzantine empire—and the historical episodes in which autocephaly was granted to various churches, the Moscow patriarchate appeals, first and foremost, to the сurrent state of affairs. It claims a special status for itself by virtue of being the largest and most influential Orthodox Church in the modern world. It also cites the current status of the Ukrainian Church “within” the Moscow patriarchate.

Thus, the Ecumenical Patriarch insists that he has sufficient authority to grant autocephaly without the formal support of other Churches. (His predecessors enforced this right seven times in the last two centuries.) Meanwhile, the Moscow Patriarch has suggested an alternative format, never before acted upon: the Church, to which the part seeking autocephaly belongs, will decide whether to grant it or not, and then all other “regional” Churches will endorse the decision.

In 1970, the ROC granted autocephaly to its parishes in the US and Canada by framing them as a new Church - the Russian Orthodox Church in America (OCA). The Ecumenical Patriarch, however, has not recognized that Church and continues to regard it as a Metropolia of the ROC. The OCA has held this ambivalent status for almost half a century.

The issue is that there is no effective mechanism on which Orthodox churches can rely to reconcile their positions. Back in 2016, the convening of a Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete for the first time in a millennium appeared to present an opportunity. It was, however, an opportunity the ROC missed: two weeks before the Council opened, Patriarch Kirill refused to participate.

"Patriarch Bartholomew chose to act as he sees fit, with no regard for Moscow's opinion. What stances the other regional churches will take remains an open question, making the current situation even more uncertain."

This time round it is Patriarch Bartholomew who has chosen to act as he sees fit, with no regard for Moscow's opinion. What stances the other regional churches will take remains an open question, making the current situation even more uncertain.

Religion Intertwined with Politics 

The steps discussed above, however, are not in themselves sufficient to launch the process that would eventually lead to the OCU being granted autocephaly. For one thing, the Ecumenical Patriarch needs allies. Before taking action, he should be certain that a significant share of Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians support—and even call for—autocephaly. But even that would not be enough.

A number of new political factors have played a key role in both Ukraine's decision to demand autocephaly and the Ecumenical Patriarch's decision to grant it, chief among them the war in Donbas. This war has triggered irreversible mechanisms that have exacerbated the ecclesiastical conflict around Ukrainian autocephaly. Since the armed conflict broke out, Patriarch Kirill has not visited Ukraine, apparently afraid that the Ukrainian authorities would turn him away at the border. This concern is directly related to the fact that the ROC is the Kremlin's political ally, and Patriarch Kirill himself appears to have close and confidential relations with President Putin. 

Besides, the Ukrainian government has officially designated Russia an “aggressor,”  even though the Russian government has flatly denied their country's involvement in the war in Donbas. Ukraine insists that it has solid evidence that Russia not only supplies arms to Donbas, but has also deployed its servicemen to participate in the armed conflict

From a religious perspective, death is a central issue. It is inseparable from the issue of salvation and the afterworld. The “why” and “how” of death are powerful questions for a believer. Facing death up close, as in a war, intensifies the religious mind’s eschatological bent. Why do I bring this up? According to UN data from 2017, over 10,000 people have been killed in the armed conflict in Ukraine. Since a majority of Orthodox Christians belong to the OCU MP, they also account for a majority of those killed. This means that people of the same faith—members of the same Russian Orthodox church—are killing each other in an armed conflict while the top clergy (the Moscow Patriarch and the ROC Holy Synod) confine themselves to vague statements of hope that the conflict will stop.  Those Ukrainians who have lost their loved ones in the war wonder, “Why was my son killed at the hands of a mercenary who came to fight for the ‘Russian realm’ and Holy Russia? Why hasn't Patriarch Kirill done anything to stop this war?”

"Members of the same Russian Orthodox church—are killing each other in an armed conflict while the top clergy (the Moscow Patriarch and the ROC Holy Synod) confine themselves to vague statements of hope that the conflict will stop."

In Orthodox Christianity, the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” has long since lost its universal nature, and the words from the Gospel of John, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends,” are interpreted as directly blessing war. In the case of Ukraine, however, the ROC might be well advised to revive an old ecclesiastical rule that says that those who shed blood will be banned from communion. This rule could be applied to all those mercenaries from Russia, Belarus, and Serbia who consider themselves Orthodox Christians.

It is no surprise that in the first months of the war, a considerable share of OCU MP parishes stopped mentioning the Moscow Patriarch during services. Although the Russian Orthodox Church requires every priest to mention the Patriarch during a service (a refusal to do so is regarded as a major violation of church rules), none of the “non-mentioners” has been punished. Apparently, the Moscow Patriarchate’s thinking was something along the lines of, “It’s OK if they don’t mention the Patriarch—it is much more important to keep them under Moscow’s jurisdiction.” As a result, Patriarch Kirill lost his role as spiritual leader in Ukraine and will hardly be able to re-claim it in the near future.

Another important political factor is the direct involvement of Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko. Contacts and written exchanges between him and Patriarch Bartholomew have continued for several years, and on April 9, 2018, Poroshenko paid a personal visit to Patriarch Bartholomew to discuss the problem of granting autocephaly to Ukrainian Church. Prior to this visit he had secured the support of the Verkhovna Rada, the “non-canonical” churches, and even several representatives of the canonical church (whose names remain unknown). In the following months, the Ecumenical Patriarch repeatedly demonstrated interest in the issue of autocephaly.

Some experts believe the president's interest is purely pragmatic: in the fall of 2018, Ukraine entered a new election cycle, and the successful creation of an independent Church would significantly strengthen Poroshenko's electoral position. Whatever the case may be, government support is an important factor, and for Patriarch Bartholomew perhaps even a decisive one.

From a historical perspective, there are examples of government support playing a key role in the granting of autocephaly. For instance, the autocephaly granted to the Greek Orthodox Church in 1833 was initiated by the Greek National Assembly and proclaimed by a special declaration on behalf of the Greek king, Otton I. Although the autocephalous status of the Greek Church was not recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch for another 17 years, its canonical status was finally settled in 1850.

History Instead of Divinity

To the Moscow Patriarchate, OCU independence is a highly sensitive issue. Today, various interpretations of history, rather than religious doctrine, are most likely to be referred to as the basis of Orthodox traditions; the theological debates of earlier centuries are therefore no longer relevant. All major ecclesiastical conflicts have evolved as ideological ones and are built around various historical interpretations.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Orthodox Church found itself in a state of turmoil across the post-Soviet space. The single concept of Church history that had been written in Russia during the previous 200 years was destroyed. This concept was implicitly imperial: it began with the history of the Church in the Roman empire, then moved to the Byzantine empire, and progressed to the Russian empire and the Soviet Union. Some aspects of church history were barely touched upon, while others were rejected outright.

Today, alternative narratives of Church history are emerging in Moldova (influenced in part by Romania), in Ukraine and Belarus (where it is emphasized that these territories adopted Christian Orthodox faith before the Moscow princedom and regard Contantinople as their mother church). In Estonia, where a church under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch had existed in the interwar period, a diocese under the same jurisdiction was re-established following the collapse of the Soviet Union, and this caused a temporary break in communion between the Moscow and Ecumenical Patriarchates.

The ROC, however, still believes that the key to understanding all current proceedings is the notion of Russia as an empire and, accordingly, the Russian Orthodox Church as the Church of the Empire. From this standpoint, it does not really matter to the ROC whether or not Moscow is a “Third Rome”; one can use the secular variety of this concept—the “Russian realm.” But the essence remains unchanged: all the territories that have ever been part of the Russian empire remain under the auspices of the ROC's “pastoral care” and are its “canonical territory.”

As a result, both top clergy and rank-and-file believers think of the ROC as a mega-Church. None of the 15 other regional churches can be even compared to the ROC in terms of territorial expanse and financial resources. Its political ambitions—to be the leader, the first in everything—are in line with this status. The ROC holds sway over the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, the Baltic countries, etc. Administratively and financially, these Churches enjoy broad autonomy, but ideologically and in terms of formal administration they are expected to contribute to the image of a single Russian Church.

It is an important ideological discourse: the Russian empire fell, the USSR collapsed, but the Church—despite Communist-era persecutions—has preserved its territory within the imperial borders and today brings together Orthodox Christian communities in those countries that became independent states after the collapse of the Soviet Union.

The trouble is that to this day, the ROC does not admit that there are alternatives to the “imperial perspective” in the post-Soviet space. The presence of such alternatives requires them to act in a flexible way, negotiate, and look for a new balance of forces and interests.

But the Ukrainian Church has moved toward autocephaly, and there is no way to halt this process. It might be wise for Patriarch Kirill himself to offer autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church or to grant it jointly with Patriarch Bartholomew, but he is apparently not considering such options.

As a result, the loss of Ukraine will be a heavy blow to Russia's ecclesiastical identity, which took shape during the period of Church revival in post-Soviet Russia. It will be a long and painful experience not only for Patriarch Kirill and his inner circle, but also for all those who admire the idea of the “Russian realm.”

"The loss of Ukraine will be a heavy blow to Russia's ecclesiastical identity, which took shape during the period of Church revival in post-Soviet Russia."

Paradoxically, however, in the long run, the result will be positive: the collapse of the imperial mythology will enable a more sober view of the modern world; the long-term schism in Ukraine will be overcome; a new autocephaly will lead not to a division of the church, but a consolidation of its unity. Russians and Ukrainians will not lose the ability to pray or go on pilgrimage together, nor to venerate common relics and sacred images. Meanwhile, the Orthodox Churches of Ukraine and Russia will continue to develop, but will no longer depend on each other either institutionally or politically, since the Church in Ukraine will never have the same status as the ROC does in Russia—that of a de facto state religion—nor will it seek to achieve such status.



Sergei Chapnin is an Associate Researcher of the Postsecular Conflicts Project (University of Innsbruck), Chief Editor of Dary (Gifts) almanac on contemporary Christian art and culture, and a Member of the Association for (Post-)Soviet Theology and Study of Religion (PAST).