By Kadri Liik, Momchil Metodiev, Nicu Popescu*
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, the ecclesiastical landscape in Ukraine became greatly diversified. Three different Orthodox churches emerged – an unusual situation in the Orthodox world, where “one country, one church” has become an accepted norm. In Soviet times, Orthodox churches in Ukraine were simply part of the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1990 the Moscow Patriarchate established the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate by granting the Ukrainian Exarchate the status of autonomous self-governing church under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.
This included the duty to mention the Moscow Patriarch at each church service as the recognised head of the church. The move did not give the new church the right of independent foreign policy, which was still supposed to coordinate its positions on different issues in the Orthodox world with Moscow. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate claims to have more than 11,000 parishes on the territory of Ukraine. Until recently, it was the only internationally recognised Orthodox church on the territory of Ukraine.
In 1992 a new institution was established that became known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kyivan Patriarchate, headed by Patriarch Filaret, a former archbishop of the Russian Orthodox Church who had sought to become the Moscow Patriarch in 1990, but lost to Alexy II. Moscow immediately declared the new church schismatic, while other Orthodox churches refused to recognise it. Nonetheless, having become the second strongest church in Ukraine, it now claims 4,281 parishes.
The third institution – the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, which claims around 1,200 parishes – was effectively a church in exile in Soviet times. It was created after the Russian revolution and, in the following decades, was supported by Ukrainian emigrants before being reinstated in Ukraine in 1990.
Finally, Ukraine also has the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, an eastern-rite church. The largest Uniate church, it claims 3,828 parishes – mainly in western Ukraine – and has more than four million followers who practice the eastern rite but accept the primacy of the Pope.
This divided church landscape, though, came to contrast markedly with Ukrainian public opinion. By late 2018, 54 percent of Ukrainians supported the creation of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent from Moscow. Only 19 percent opposed it.
Autocephaly and Ukrainian unity: an inevitability?
Church observers in Moscow admit that the situation in Ukraine was unusual, and that steps should have been taken to regularise it – preferably by the Moscow Patriarchate itself. One prominent Russian deacon and church affairs commentator, Andrei Kuraev, has all but advocated such an approach: “Moscow should have accepted that Ukrainian church autocephaly was inevitable, and should have offered this autocephaly to Kiev itself, rather than for wait for Constantinople to do that. This would have ensured a strong spiritual relationship between the Ukrainian and Russian church in the future”. But this view is rare in Moscow: church leaders had long preferred to ignore the problem. “Kirill inherited that situation with three churches, but for ten years he did nothing – just pretended that we were united, that the problem did not exist”, says Ksenia Luchenko, editor of Orthodox website pravmir.ru.
Against this background of war and politics – and in the absence of any leadership on this from the Russian patriarchate – the then Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko set about addressing the issue, partly to benefit from it politically. In April 2018, he sent a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople requesting autocephaly for Ukraine. Two of the existing church structures in Ukraine – the Kyivan Patriarchate church and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church – supported his request. And his initiative bore fruit.
The role of the Ecumenical (Constantinople) Patriarch
The influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is primarily based on the historical tradition that places Constantinople as the first among equal Orthodox churches. This gives it the right to convoke Pan-Orthodox Councils with the consent of other churches and to preside over them. Secondly, the Ecumenical See has a wide network of international contacts with all Christian churches. Most important among these contacts are the traditionally good relations between Constantinople and Rome that began after the 1960s.
Elected in 1991, Patriarch Bartholomew is regarded as an ambitious leader who wants to defend and even increase the status of the Ecumenical Throne. He has built on the legacy of Athenagoras (patriarch from 1948 to 1972), promoting reconciliation and dialogue between the Christian denominations. Bartholomew is known for his active position on ecological issues; Pope Francis recognised his contribution in this area in his encyclical “Laudato Si” in 2015.
The weakness of the Ecumenical Patriarchate lies in the fact that it is neither supported nor defended by a powerful state, as it is located in Istanbul. But this is also a strength, since none of the other Orthodox churches and countries suspect the Ecumenical Patriarchate of facilitating intervention by other states – which makes it a recognised arbiter of disputes between Orthodox churches. An important symbolic strength of the Ecumenical Patriarchate also lies in the fact that it controls the spiritual centre of Orthodoxy – Mount Athos, in Greece. Although some of the monasteries in the Monastic Republic of Mount Athos are traditionally connected with other countries – such as Serbia, Bulgaria, and Russia – all of them are within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch.
When ECFR met the All-Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, he was explicit about the impact of Poroshenko’s démarche: “The Ukrainian church asked for autocephaly seven times, and we did not answer their petitions before. But this time we also received petitions from the Ukrainian president and parliament. One could see a united Ukrainian desire for autocephaly. I also received private messages in favour of autocephaly from multiple bishops who are in the Ukrainian church under the Moscow Patriarchate”.12 His motivation was also religious. He wanted to bring millions of Ukrainians who belonged to the uncanonical churches of Ukraine into the fold of the canonical Church. The patriarch also said he felt it was unfair for the 500,000 believers of the Polish Orthodox Church, and the 100,000 Orthodox believers in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, to have independent churches while 40 million Ukrainians did not.
*Τhis article is part of a research for ECFR. Romfea.news will republish extracts from the paper in the following days