An act of spiritual independence

14 December 2018, 10:00

On October 11, the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate made a decision to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Bishop Ilarion, the envoy of the Ecumenical Patriarch to Ukraine, described it as a declaration of independence of its own kind. Earlier, Petro Poroshenko said that the tomos of autocephaly for Ukraine was a symbol of Ukraine’s spiritual independence, an equivalent of the Act of Independence. 

Between the declaration and the act of independence, some basic developments have to take place. These include the establishment of institutions for the new Church and the election of its patriarch who will receive the tomos, i.e. the certificate recognizing the independence of the Church. The fact that the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate passed the abovementioned decision means that Ukraine has fulfilled its key tasks. President Poroshenko spoke about this in his address on October 14, the Day of the Defender, at St. Sophia Square in Kyiv. The Law on the Freedom of Consciousness and Religious Organizations mandates that the government supports churches and religious associations, including through interaction with international religious centers. The talks on autocephaly between President Poroshenko and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the long-lasting preparations are part of that support. Now that the decision on the independence of Ukraine’s Church is here, the role of the leaders of Ukrainian Orthodox churches in further progress becomes more crucial. 

According to that decision of the Constantinople Synod, none of Ukraine’s Orthodox churches is now considered non-canonical or unholy. All of Ukraine’s Orthodox clergy is recognized by respective peer priests and hierarchs. Therefore, it us now their task to create together, or “constitute” in the language of Church, the Ukrainian National (pomisnameans that the territory of the Church matches the state borders of Ukraine) Autocephalous (independent of anybody and self-governing) Orthodox Church. In order to do this, they have to convene a Sobor, an assembly, and elect a leader. The exarchs or envoys of the Ecumenical Patriarch are helping the Ukrainian Orthodox clergy in this. 

The process is now closer to the finish line. How long it will take Ukraine’s churches to get there, how exactly the process will unfold and what will follow depends on many factors. Quite a few have been taken into account at the earlier stages. As a result, ever since the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate launched the procedure of granting autocephaly to Ukraine as a response to the respective request from the Ukrainian President supported by the Verkhovna Rada as the representative of the nation, the process has been unfolding as planned and approaching a productive culmination. 

This slow but steady implementation is the result of the invisible preparatory work spanning years before April 2018. President Poroshenko defined the support of autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church as one of his priority policies from the very early days of his presidency. This is based on a number of reasons. 

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Firstly, Orthodoxy had been divided in Ukraine for many decades. The churches that did not recognize Moscow’s supremacy were considered “non-canonical”. This automatically discriminated their parishioners: among other things, canonicity is about communication with the other Orthodox communities in the world, mutual recognition of sacraments etc. After the war broke out and the churches took different stances on the illegal annexation of Crimea, Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, help and support to the Ukrainian military – and especially after some extreme cases where non-Moscow Patriarchate parishioners were denied sacraments, the majority of the orthodox in Ukraine began to refer to themselves as the followers of the Kyiv Patriarchate first and foremost. The number of the followers of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate almost halved. As a result, most Ukrainians who consider themselves Orthodox found themselves beyond the canonical global Orthodox Church. This situation looked increasingly absurd both to the Ecumenical Patriarch and the leaders of other national churches. 

Secondly, the Russian aggressor utilizes the church and religion as tools in its hybrid war. These range from symbolic elements, such as mandatory mentions of Patriarch Kirill, the current leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, in sermons, to rejection of sacraments for the people baptized in other churches. Moscow uses the church to help the militants and spread messages of hatred and division. Obviously, many hierarchs and priests of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (of Moscow Patriarchate – Ed.) had nothing to do with these actions. Still, subordination of their church to Moscow pushes them in front of a difficult dilemma. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate is an integral part of the Russian Orthodox Church. It practices some mandatory rituals which Ukrainian society finds difficult to understand, such as the mentions of Patriarch Kirill or sacraments exclusively for those baptized in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate. 


Thirdly, as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said in one of his speeches, Ukraine will be granted autocephaly because it is entitled to it. It is a large country where the majority of the population considers itself orthodox. Therefore, it is entitled to having its national Orthodox Church. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate does not qualify as such church. Therefore, Ukraine has faced the need to create or “constitute” its independent Church. 

Having the title of honor of first among equals in the Orthodox world, the Ecumenical Patriarch has a number of powers. One is to recognize autocephaly of other churches and pass decisions on appeals from representatives of the churches that have been punished. These powers were discussed at the Synaxis of the Ecumenical Throne Hierarchs in September 2018. Moscow is contesting them but most other churches recognize them.  After all, it had been Constantinople that had recognized the autocephaly of the Moscow Church in the past. 

With all these factors in mind, the Ecumenical Patriarch acts according to a plan that is in line with canons and tradition. At the first stage of the autocephaly process, Constantinople received the respective request from Ukraine’s secular authorities (President supported by Parliament) and clergy. This allowed the Patriarch to launch the procedure. Communication of the decision to other national churches as the second crucial stage began in late spring and took almost all summer. The other national churches are 14, plus there is the Orthodox Church in America whose autocephaly had been granted by the Russian Orthodox Church but not recognized by Constantinople. 

The leaders of these churches have different titles, including nine patriarchs, three archbishops and two metropolitans. All of them, however, have an equal status of independent churches – the title of the leader only matters for the order of mentioning during sermons. The stance of every Church was important as Russia would appeal to them against the decision on autocephaly. It had succeeded in pushing three Churches to not attend the All-Orthodox Sobor in 2016, so this time the communication had to be taken seriously. Both the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Ukraine’s President with his team spoke to the leaders of virtually all Orthodox Churches. Representatives of the Russian Church have done the same thing. As a result, an absolute majority took a neutral stance that was in favor of Ukraine. They decided that the Ecumenical Patriarchate was acting correctly, while they would wait and see what happens next. Russia’s attempts to form an anti-Constantinople front failed. Not every Church likes the commanding tone and the sense of supremacy in which the Russians tend to conduct dialogues. The world is changing, and exactly that has been demonstrated to the Russians. 

Following the Synod’s decision of October 11, Ukrainian hierarchs are now the key players. The talks between them will not be easy given the long history of relations between the Churches and individuals within them. Still, neither fiery words nor hasty judgments should interfere with the ultimate goal of establishing an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church. 

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Russia views this stage of the process as its last chance to prevent Ukrainian victory. The primary tools from its hybrid arsenal include lies, fakes and propaganda, from twisting the position of national Churches to injecting hysterical messages about “attacks of nationalists” which are not backed by either nationalists or any attacks. Its other tools are attempted provocations, attacks against important sites (Kyiv Pechersk Lavra first and foremost, as well as other monasteries and churches). Resistance against these attempts includes proper work of security services and law enforcers, as well as calm and caution from the citizens. Peaceful Day of the Defender on October 14 where law enforcers acted effectively shows that Ukraine has plenty of tools to resist this strategy. However, the aggressor is meanwhile preparing the next steps. 

Ukrainians should keep calm up until they receive the tomos, and after that, especially as communities take voluntary decisions to switch to other churches. Ukrainian laws are designed to allow for such peaceful switch or compromises between different citizens. It is the communities that own the churches, which are entitled to decide whether they want to switch, have different parishes serve in their church in turns, or whether they opt for some other kind of a deal. If peaceful solutions of these issues require further improvement of the legislation, the Parliament can do that. 

Finally, the fourth goal is to prevent the traditionally Ukrainian scenario whereby internal conflicts block the result. But the ongoing war has taught Ukrainians to overcome disagreements and unite forces. Ukrainian hierarchs will need this experience, while the exarchs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate will facilitate the compromise.

Translated by Anna Korbut 

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