Good Fences Make Good Neighbors: Autocephaly, Legitimacy, and Unity in Ukrainian Church Life

By: Nadieszda Kizenko

November 21, 2019

Orthodoxy in Ukraine: Ecumenical and Theological Perspectives

The decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) to establish with the help of the contemporary Ukrainian authorities a new church in Ukraine, the “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” (OCU), and to grant autocephaly (independence) to this church, has had massive repercussions. Unity within Orthodoxy has splintered, Orthodox relations to other Christian churches are endangered, and the future of the Orthodox Church itself is uncertain.

These massive developments are all the more surprising given that they did not stem from any underlying theological disagreement. All parties involved share the same creed, celebrate the same liturgy, and have no differences in matters of faith. The argument is rather about church structures, about power, and about influence. The core problem is that there is no consensus in Orthodoxy about how a church can gain autocephaly. The EP claims that it has the right of granting autocephaly, and the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) ascribes that right to the respective “mother church.” Historical evidence is unclear and sparse.

But those are the broad principles. Let us consider how, concretely, they have evolved in Ukraine. 

In Ukraine, there is an Orthodox church which has since 1990 been called the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” (UOC). That church is in communion with the ROC and enjoys a high degree of self-administration. Until 2018, the EP recognized it as the only canonical church in the country—not the two smaller break-away churches. The UOC never applied for autocephaly. Indeed, the OCU was created from a minority of dissenting Orthodox bishops against the explicit will of the UOC. 

According to Orthodox ecclesiology, you cannot have two bishops in any one place: only one of them can be the legitimate bishop of a region. Therefore, it is canonically inconceivable for there to be two competing churches in one country. But the decision made by the EP has led to just that: the existence of two churches in Ukraine, one of them getting its canonicity via the EP, the other via the ROC. It will now be impossible to say who the “real” Orthodox bishop in any given city or region is: two men in black will claim to be, and each will have a point in his favor. The EP’s decision has therefore touched the very foundations of Orthodox ecclesiology.

In the background lies an ongoing conflict between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow. The EP has the first rank in the canonical order of Orthodox churches. But that primacy was given to that church (via Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon) when Constantinople was the capital of the Roman Empire. Today, it has only a few thousand believers in its own territory (the Turkish Republic), and also claims responsibility for the Orthodox in the “diaspora,” that is in countries where there is no established Orthodox church. The ROC is by far the largest Orthodox Church, though the number of its members is debated. It is number 5 in the canonical order. Traditionally, some churches (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Cyprus, Greece) have had a closer connection to the EP, and some others (Bulgaria, Georgia, Poland) are closer to Moscow. The claim of the EP to be responsible for the diaspora has led to numerous conflicts, for example in Estonia. 

There is also an ecumenical dimension. Metropolitan Onufry, the head of the UOC, labelled the creation of the OCU a Roman Catholic enterprise—an assumption vehemently rejected by the Roman Catholic Church. One reason for his characterization was likely that the OCU was ardently welcomed by the “Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church” (UGCC), and that the head of the UGCC, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, announced that his church could now be in communion with both Rome and Constantinople. The UGCC has also long proclaimed the idea of “Churches of the Kyivan Tradition,” which holds that the origin of a church and its cultural affiliation are more important than its confessional affiliation. Moreover, the UGCC seeks to be recognized as a patriarchate. The Roman authorities have so far consistently refused this claim, acknowledging the head of the UGCC only as a “major archbishop” (as opposed to the title of patriarch they grant, say, the Copts united with Rome). That is not surprising. For if they were to accept this title (Shevchuk as patriarch), the head of the UGCC would be “the patriarch of Kyiv.” Leaving aside the self-proclaimed “Patriarch” Filaret, that dubbing would mean that a Catholic would be the only patriarch of a city so important for the history of Orthodoxy. And that, needless to say, would be a provocation for all Orthodox. The Vatican has made very clear that it regards the debate as an inner-Orthodox affair, and that it has no intention of interfering in this question. It will recognize the OCU only once all Orthodox churches have done so.

The EP has justified its action on the grounds of re-establishing unity. Its idea was that all the Orthodox in the country should unite and form the new church. However, that did not work, as the UOC bishops were not interested in forming a new church. They maintained that they were the only canonical Church in Ukraine, and everybody else could just join them. The UOC is still larger than the OCU in terms of bishops, parishes, and likely also the number of faithful. It is not clear how the EP now relates to the UOC. Nevertheless, the de facto split contradicts any argument of seeking to promote unity. 

There is, to be sure, a group which has benefited from the EP’s action—the previously uncanonical Ukrainians who did not want to be under the then-exclusively canonical, and still canonical, UOC. Now, thanks to the EP, those formerly schismatic Ukrainians are canonical and unified to a canonical body. Yes. But that canonicity has come at a cost. That cost is the undermining of the principle of canonicity itself. With its decision, the EP acted in a way which they knew would not be accepted by many Orthodox churches—not because these opposing churches were pro- or anti-Ukrainian, but because they thought the action was beyond the EP’s legitimate sphere of authority. The EP has indeed made its point in underlining what it regarded as its prerogative. Whether it was worth undermining Orthodox unity is another matter.

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