After autocephaly

26 October 2018, 09:27

The tomos of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has transformed into a national idea for Ukrainians. It is essentially one of Ukraine’s ambitions on its way to the civilized European future that may well play a huge historical and nation-building role. Just a few years ago, getting so close to having its clerical independence recognized by the Ecumenical Orthodox Church was quite unthinkable for Ukraine. Ukrainians have always believed that autocephaly was inevitable, yet they never expected to get it in the near future. The greatest optimist in this issue has been Patriarch Filaret, the leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate. As leader of the united Ukrainian Orthodox Church (with the Moscow Patriarchate as part of it) back in the 1990s, he convened an assembly at the Kyiv Pechersk Lavra in 1992 and made sure that it adopted a request of autocephaly for Ukrainians to the Moscow Patriarch. He has been working ever since on fulfilling this idea. In 1992, Moscow brushed off the request while Filaret was dismissed and eventually excommunicated. 

Onufriy (Berezovsky), the current leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate [which names itself as simply the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church” while others specify by adding “Moscow Patriarchate” to it] also signed that request for autocephaly. It’s an uncomfortable autograph for someone who is now passionately opposing autocephaly for Ukraine. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has just recently posted a scanned copy of the 1992 request at its official website, showing that it is well aware of the history of the Ukrainian Church. 

The exarchs of Constantinople 

It has taken Moscow a long time to actually believe that the Ecumenical Patriarch will stand up to the wealthy Russian Orthodox Church. Nor can it bear to think that the Constantinople Patriarchate – small and located in the heart of the predominantly Islamic Turkey, but long-standing and firm in its faith – will clearly stand for fairness and the right of the Kyiv Church to lead its spiritual life independently from Moscow, thus challenging the Moscow Patriarch who sees himself as an Orthodox Pope with all the support from the Kremlin, Gazprom and FSB. 

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was not intimidated by the visit of the Moscow Patriarch Kirill in August. Kirill rushed back home immediately after negotiations to explain the failure to Vladimir Putin who has wanted to replace him with Tikhon Shevkunov for some time now. 

The fundamental clash between the Moscow Patriarchate and Constantinople over Ukraine is as follows: The Moscow Patriarchate sees autocephaly for Ukraine as a split, a diversion against Russia, a global conspiracy and treason. The Constantinople Patriarchate views it as a way towards the unification of the Ukrainian Orthodoxy which has been divided for over 25 years now, the reinforcement of the spiritual aspect of the Ukrainian nation, and an incentive for the development of Orthodoxy in general. 

“In my view, the future of Ukrainian Orthodoxy without a change of its canonical status brings fatally dangerous consequences to Orthodoxy as a thousand-year-old factor of self-identification for the Ukrainian nation,” Bishop Ilarion (Rudnyk), the current Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarch, said in his interview with the author of this article in 2005. “If the status quo of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine remains unchanged, it may lead to serious problems for the global Orthodoxy which will generally undermine its mission and place in the modern Christian world.” 

Just recently, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I went from promising to give autocephaly to Ukraine to actions following the meetings and discussions at the Synaxis. He appointed two exarchs, Ilarion Rudnyk of Edmonton from Canada and Daniel Zelinsky of Pamphilonfrom the US, both ethnic Ukrainians, — to prepare for the granting of autocephaly. These priests have been taking care of the religious life of Ukrainian diaspora and have now obtained the titles of exarchs as the Patriarch’s envoys to work on one specific issue. Their role is an equivalent of an ambassador in diplomacy. 

The appointment of these envoys was a breaking point on Ukraine’s way to autocephaly. Bartholomew came closer to the implementation of his historic plan. “We’re on the finish line”, Petro Poroshenko told the exarchs of the Ecumenical Patriarch to their consent. 

This shocked Moscow which, struck by its imperial ambition, has thought of nothing better than stepping on the path of division and self-isolation. On September 14, Moscow hosted the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church. As a countermeasure to the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarch, it decided to suspend the liturgical mention of him. The Synod also decided to stop mutual services with the hierarchs of the Constantinople Patriarchate and to stop the participation of the Russian Orthodox Church in the entities where they take part or chair. Interestingly, Metropolitan Onufriy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate suddenly got sick and appeared at the Synod via Skype. “We will have a consultation and inform you of our decision,” Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church told his subordinate in an unhappy and bossy manner and logged off. 

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This is not the first time that the liturgical mentions between the two Churches are suspended. The Moscow Patriarchy suspended the mentions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in its liturgy in 1996 when the latter restored the 1923 tomos and founded the Estonian Orthodox Church under its jurisdiction on February 20, 1996, appointing Bishop John of Karelia and All Finland as locum tenens of its leader. Moscow’s reaction was similarly hysterical then. It suspended liturgical mentions of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Eventually, however, it realized that this was leading it nowhere and accepted a compromise.

This is the most likely scenario now as all of the Moscow Patriarchate’s grandeur stands on the clay feet of bureaucracy and Gazprom. This time, however, the process will be longer and more painful. As the Kyiv Church irreversibly breaks away from the Moscow Patriarchate, both the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian state lose their imperial image, and the myths, including of “Moscow as the Third Rome” on which it had built its identity for centuries, vanish. The departure of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church means that the Moscow Patriarchate shrinks and is no longer the monster claiming absolute domination over other churches. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate accounts for about 1/3 of the Russian Orthodox Church. It is a serious loss. And the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church will have to think of going back to the title of Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, not of Moscow and All Rus as it is presently. 

Moscow’s schism 

According to most analysts, the decision to suspend liturgical mention of Bartholomew I is a step of desperation and helplessness. The Moscow Church has put itself against the entire Orthodox world, stepped on the path of schism and is punishing itself. Interestingly, other Orthodox churches met this drama from the Russian Orthodox Church quite calmly while the Ecumenical Patriarch is firmly moving towards the goal he has declared. 

His exarchs Daniel and Ilarion have confirmed this with the Patriarch’s address to the President of Ukraine. “This remarkable decision (referring to the appointment of exarchs) by the First Throne of Orthodoxy will undoubtedly contribute to the process of granting autocephaly for which we pray and work day and night. With this happy news from the Constantinople Mother Church, the First Throne of the Orthodox Christian Church, we sincerely congratulate you and believe in the beautiful process that we have launched together for the spiritual prosperity and independence of the Christ-loving and long-suffering Ukraine,” Patriarch Bartholomew wrote. 

RELATED ARTICLE: Filaret: A Statehood-oriented Patriarch

This firm position of the Constantinople Patriarch is outlined in a specific plan that is being implemented now. Experts expect most churches to side with the Ecumenical Patriarch in the event of granting autocephaly to Ukraine, even if not immediately. No church will reject full communion with it. Greek churches will be the first to show solidarity. They will probably make some comments in favor of Moscow and flirt with it (everyone needs money after all), but they will still stick to the position of Constantinople. Apart from that, the illegal and forced transfer of the Kyiv Metropole to the Russian Orthodox Church in the 17thcentury has a historical, canonical and theological side to it which the Greeks have described and justified anew, so it can hardly be ignored now.

Importantly, the Ecumenical Patriarch has publicly outlined the fundamental points on the Ukrainian Church: 

1. Ukraine is exclusively canonical territory of the Ecumenical Patriarch. The transfer of the old Kyiv Metropole to the Moscow Patriarchate in 1686 was illegal and temporary. 

2. The Moscow Patriarchate itself has no tomos of autocephaly and emerged as a result of self-declaration. “Even if you look at the history of the Orthodox Church in Russia, you will see that its autocephaly was self-proclaimed in 1448 when Metropolitan Iona was elected independently in Moscow, without consent from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Interestingly, the Orthodox Church in Russia was never granted tomos of autocephaly,” said Archbishop Job of Telmessos, another representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and ethnic Ukrainian. 

3. It is the Ecumenical Patriarch who has the exclusive right to consider appeals from the bishops, the clergy and the faithful of other national churches in situations where they fail to receive canonical protection of their rights within their proper church. This is important because it overrides the excommunication of Filaret, a metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the past and currently the Patriarch of Kyiv and All Rus-Ukraine.  

For the purpose of objectivity, we must look at a negative scenario as well. Is there any possibility that the granting of tomos to Ukraine will stop or reverse? In theory, anything is possible. In practice, this is highly unlikely. 

Firstly, the existence of the large Ukrainian Orthodox community beyond the orbit of “official” or canonical Orthodoxy undermines Ecumenical Orthodoxy, driving it on the sidelines of the religious world. Secondly, failure to complete the granting of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church, as promised, and backing down under Moscow’s pressure will undermine the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch. If this happens, the Moscow Patriarchate will most certainly fulfill its long-time dream of declaring itself the first throne in the global Orthodoxy. This would turn the Ecumenical Patriarchate into a negligible church. The stakes here are too high and the risks of not granting autocephaly to Ukrainians are greater than the risks of doing so. 

The assembly of Kyiv

The procedure of granting the tomos of autocephaly to Ukraine is fairly simple. The Synod of the Constantinople Patriarchate should vote to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. This is expected to happen anywhere between October 8 and 11. After this, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I signs the tomos, which is the certificate to grant autocephaly to Ukraine. This is followed by the assembly of the national Ukrainian Orthodox Church with the bishops who have signed the autocephaly request to the Ecumenical Patriarch. These include all senior clergy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate. We do not know how many of the latter have signed the request. Some speak of a dozen priests. Only Petro Poroshenko knows the exact number – the signatures were sent to the Ecumenical Patriarch through him. Heading the list of signatories from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate is Metropolitan Oleksandr Drabynko, the leader of the pro-autocephaly and pro-Ukrainian movement in that Church, a determined and consistent man. 

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An important fact of this unifying and de facto founding assembly of the national Ukrainian Orthodox Church is that only the signatories of the request will participate in it. Quite recently, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church has ordained Havryil, the Bishop of Rivne and Volyn, as the new archiereus. Experts suggest that this ordination is linked to the hope of the Church’s leaders to get more votes at the upcoming unifying assembly that will elect the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. 

The task of Sobor, the assembly, is to elect the head of Church. The candidate can have the status of Patriarch or of Metropolitan. For example, the autocephalous Polish Orthodox Church is led by a Metropolitan.

The fall of the patriarch

It is the election of the new leader that can trigger the most intense battle. Many observers assume that some senior clergy of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church can play a destructive role as it is traditionally less disciplined than the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate [The Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church – UAOC – one of the three major Orthodox churches in Ukraine, which was reestablished in 1990 – Ed.]. It is no secret that Moscow will do anything to prevent the election of Filaret, the Patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Kyiv Patriarchate and its long-standing determined opponent, as the leader of the national Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Russians are well aware of his remarkable organizational capacity and great experience. So, they realize that the newly recognized Church under his leadership will further establish itself as a pro-Ukrainian spiritual force and will not become a faceless satellite of the pro-Putin Moscow Patriarchy.

Analysts assume that the clergy of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church can be used to prevent the election of Filaret – its leader has already publicly discussed the need to have a “neutral” leader of the future Church. Some may suggest electing a representative of the Moscow Patriarchate, justifying this as a favor to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate and a way to attract more of its clergy into the newly-recognized Church. Others may suggest ethnic Ukrainian archierei from within the Constantinople Patriarchate as a way to making the newly recognized Church more canonical. 

However, such plans are obscure and unrealistic. Any candidate for the position of the Church leader, except for Filaret, will not have proper public support given Filaret’s authority and contribution into the revival of the unified national Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Moreover, most participants of the upcoming Sobor have received episcopal ordination or apostolic succession from Patriarch Filaret. This is a crucial historical factor.

Obviously, all the clergy willing to join the newly-established national Church will have a chance to do so, but this will be after the assembly that elects the leader. “We plan for all the clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Orthodox Autocephalous Church [who will choose to join the newly established Church – Ed.] to remain in their positions with their parishes. If any priest comes with half of his parish, he will run that half. If he comes with three hundred parishes, he will run those,” Patriarch Filaret explains the process of the future unification. His proposal is to accept the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate on the basis of brotherly love: “They are not strangers for us, they are one of us. All things of the past will be brushed off and forgotten, no matter what anyone says.” 


These words by Patriarch Filaret are an important element in the effort to resist the propaganda attack unfolded by Russia where it portrays autocephaly for Ukraine as a trigger of religious tensions and civil war. The only thing that can actually happen after the Orthodox community is structured with the autocephaly is a law the Verkhovna Rada will pass to reregister religious organizations in Ukraine. The parishes and the eparchies that do not want to join the unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church and prefer to stay with the Moscow Patriarch will be united under the umbrella of the church properly named as the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine. The fans of Russia, such as Onufriy, the current Patriarch of Moscow Patriarchate, should not find this too insulting. 

The Orthodox Hitchcock 

The Moscow Patriarchate spares no dark colors to paint the horrible prospect of life after the tomos for Ukraine. The Kremlin’s propagandists are pretty good at scaring people. Ionafan Yeletskikh of Tulchyn and Bratslav, both in Vinnytsia Oblast, has been lamenting about the inevitable prospect of Moscow Patriarchate’s churches taken away from it in Ukraine that comes under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. He has also suggested that the head of the new national Church will be Metropolitan Simeon of Vinnytsia who is now running the Vinnytsia Eparchy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate. 

“Your churches will be plundered, your taxes will be heading to Fanar [the area of Istanbul where the Ecumenical Patriarch’s residency is located – Ed.]”, Ionafan complains. So, what he calls taxes is now going to Moscow now? 

Metropolitan Mitrofan of Horlivka and Sloviansk in Donetsk Oblast joined this effort of intimidation by predicting an upcoming bloodshed between the supporters and the opponents of autocephaly in one of his recent sermons. Vadym Novinsky, an MP and curator of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate, has recently flown a group of hierarchs to a meeting with the Ecumenical Patriarch where he, too, blackmailed him with the upcoming blackmail if Ukraine were to receive the tomos.

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Moscow is predicting the same scary scenario. At one point, Rostyslav Pavlenko, Advisor to the President of Ukraine, had to reassure the clergy, saying that Ukraine guarantees the rights of the faithful of the Moscow Patriarchate after Ukraine receives the tomos. “Nobody will interfere with them practicing their faith and expressing their opinions freely; they will have the same protection from the state as the rest; provocations against them will be stopped as resolutely as any actions of violent resistance against autocephaly. The state does not differentiate between the Churches and the faithful of the different Churches,” he said. 

Autocephaly as geopolitics

Russia is afraid of autocephaly for Ukraine for one simple reason: the independence of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is a great threat to Russia’s imperialism. Incarnated in its current leaders, Russia resists becoming a normal European state because its current militarism has muffled the Russians and is helping keep them under control. Viktor Yerofeyev, a Russian writer, has recently stated that the split between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the potential autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church may well be one of the key monuments of Putin’s regime. 

Autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has for the first time put Putin’s Russia on a crossroads over its further self-identification. Russia has so far failed to come to terms with the realization that the history of the Kyiv Metropole unfolds away from Russia. Unfortunately, the only reaction to this that Russia has managed to generate so far has been hatred against Ukrainians and the rest of the world. 

By Yuriy Doroshenko 


Translated by Anna Korbut 

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