Presided over by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople recently announced a number of decision points related to the granting of autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine.
The announcement from the Ecumenical Patriarchate was not a surprise to anyone following this file, since Constantinople has been meticulously telegraphing its approach—and the reasoning behind it—for many months. You would have never known this, however, given the apoplectic response from Moscow and its satellite of supporters.
When Ukraine gained its independence in 1991, many Russians, including senior politicians, characterized this development as a Western strategy to weaken Russia. It was argued that Ukrainian independence would lead to nuclear war between the two countries. For some, it was simply inconceivable that “Little Russians,” as Ukrainians were disparagingly characterized, would want independence. The philosophy of those espousing “Greater Russia” saw Ukrainians as the same people—certainly not existing as a separate nation-state.
Around the same time in 1991, there was yet another formal attempt to create an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) through a resolution adopted by all Orthodox bishops in Ukraine—including, ironically, then-Bishop Onufriy, who currently leads the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in Ukraine. Thirty years later, Russia continues to meddle in the internal affairs of a sovereign state and attempts to exert its influence there through the presence and activities of the ROC.
It’s hard to overstate the importance of Ukraine to Russia: in addition to Greater Russia and the Russian World, there is Holy Rus. As Patriarch Kirill has asserted, “Russia, Ukraine, Belarus—that is Holy Rus!” During Kirill’s highly political 2009 visit to Ukraine (a country that he, and his key lieutenant, Metropolitan Hilarion, cannot now enter), he characterized that country as the “holy land,” calling Kyiv “the southern capital of Holy Rus” and “our Jerusalem and Constantinople.”
The ROC, it must be understood, attaches considerable importance to its history, which evolved out of Kyiv. An independent UOC indirectly removes approximately half a millennium of Orthodox history from exclusive Russian ownership.
Ukraine’s national independence splintered Russian national identify, and Ukraine’s ecclesiastical independence will similarly splinter Russian spiritual identity. Just as Ukraine’s national independence lessened Russia’s status as a great power, Ukraine’s ecclesiastical independence will poke a major hole the ROC’s pretensions to being the “Third Rome”—a sixteenth-century imperialist propaganda play. (Note, Constantinople is “New” Rome; there is no “Second Rome.”)
Moreover, just as Ukraine’s national independence caused overreactions and heated rhetoric (such as the fevered declaration that it could lead to nuclear war), Ukraine’s ecclesiastical independence has already caused the ROC to break both ecclesiastical commemoration of His All-Holiness and Eucharistic communion with the Church of Constantinople.
Constantinople’s calmness versus Moscow’s madness shows how little spiritual maturity some loyal to the latter have, and how underdeveloped the ROC’s ecclesiastical phronema (mindset) is. Observers need only to contrast the sober approach and pastoral perseverance exhibited by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, with the wild accusations and bombastic pronouncements hurled by some Russian hierarchs. This point should not be lost on other local Orthodox churches and their clergy. For today the target is Constantinople, but tomorrow it could be them, if their interests do not align with those of Moscow.
For the ROC, Ukrainian autocephaly is an existential crisis—it has little to do with Church canons, or the pastoral care of Ukrainians (which is a primary concern of Constantinople, who desires to see all of the Orthodox faithful there within the canonical Church), and certainly nothing to do with Jesus Christ. While Russia sees itself as Ukraine’s “big brother,” the latter’s autocephaly is one century in the making and follows the examples of Greece, Georgia, Bulgaria, Romania, and Serbia, among others, before it.
An ecclesiastically independent—and canonical—UOC will attract a number of clergy and parishioners to it, since the canonical monopoly previously enjoyed by the ROC in Ukraine was a unique value for some of the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine.
While the reasons why the UOC will now achieve independence, after 100 years of asking and patiently waiting, will be left to church historians and scholars to decipher, two events have accelerated this process and should not be overlooked.
First, Russia’s 2014 invasion of Ukraine; as I have written elsewhere, it is rather ironic that Russian President Vladimir Putin has served as a catalyst for the unification of Orthodoxy in Ukraine. Second, the ROC’s duplicity in relation to the Holy and Great Council in Crete, which included multiple commitments to participate before eventually declining to attend. It is peculiar that Moscow and its supporters are now calling for pan-Orthodox discussion regarding Ukrainian autocephaly, when it is in general these same individuals who rejected collaboration in Crete.
Wanting to be preeminent in global Orthodoxy, the ROC may now be third in terms of the number of parishes (not church precedence), behind both Romania and Ukraine. How things unfold will be watched carefully by many, but one thing is certain: Ukraine autocephaly has the potential to be a seminal event in the history of Ukraine, of Russia, and of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.
Evagelos Sotiropoulos writes for several Orthodox websites as well as for Huffington Post Religion.
Photo Credit: Photo of a memorial service to the victims of the famines of 1932–33 in Ukraine, via Wikimedia Commons.