Ecclesiology, Global Orthodoxy

The Great and Holy Council and the Ukrainian Problem

Published on: February 11, 2016
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As the Orthodox Churches continue preparations for the Great and Holy Council, which will take place June 16-27, 2016, in Crete, one of the primary unresolved problems is the schism of the Church in Ukraine. While the council itself did not formally address the Ukrainian matter, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow stated that the council will not consider the possibility of granting Ukraine autocephaly, a position he said is supported “unequivocally” by Patriarch Bartholomew (Mospat.ru, 1/27/2016).

Readers who have followed the Ukrainian issue in the press are probably familiar with the post-Soviet narrative on the schism in Ukraine. In April of 1992, Metropolitan Filaret (Denysenko) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church formally requested autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate. The Moscow Patriarchate denied the petition, as four of the thirty-two Ukrainian bishops did not support it. The Moscow Patriarchate asked Metropolitan Filaret to resign, and he agreed; but he rescinded his resignation when he returned to Kyiv from Moscow, stating that he made the promise under duress. Following a May 1992 Kharkiv council which elected Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan) as the new primate of the Church in Ukraine, Metropolitan Filaret joined the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church in its council of June 25-26, 1992. At this time, the church changed its name to Ukrainian Orthodox Church Kyivan Patriarchate. This brief sequence of events is the point of reference for the contentious Ukrainian issue, as the Moscow Patriarchate views the Kyivan Patriarchate as uncanonical and illegitimate.

The problem with this narrative is that those who analyze the history through the lens of the post-Soviet period ignore a much longer sequence of events which contributed to the 1992 split. The movement for autocephaly in the Church of Ukraine began in 1917 during the revolution. As the Russian Church began a process of charting its post-Tsarist course, the Church in Ukraine also contemplated its future. Would the Church be autonomous or autocephalous? Would it restore ecclesiological principles prevalent prior to its annexation to the Moscow Patriarchate in 1686? For Ukraine, the question was naturally impacted by the history of Church-state relations. Ukraine was no longer a part of the Russian empire. The oaths of fidelity its bishops had sworn to the Tsar were no longer valid. A new course was necessitated by the political and ecclesial changes of the times.

The bishops in Ukraine were holdovers from the synodal, Tsarist era, and were conservative, but they permitted the creation of an All-Ukrainian Orthodox Church Council, which recommended an All-Ukrainian council to determine the course of the Church in Ukraine. Patriarch Tikhon blessed this council’s convocation, and it occurred in a few fragmented sessions in 1918, interrupted by the chaos of civil war and competing governments. Despite evidence showing a Ukrainian majority favoring autocephaly, the council voted for autonomy and also rejected the use of vernacular Ukrainian in the liturgy. Historians agree that the largest mass of Ukrainians favoring autocephaly were removed as delegates from the council to swing the pendulum against autocephaly. In 1921, a smaller group of Ukrainians—the holdovers from the 1918 council—held their own council and rejected the legality of the 1918 council, which they claimed was manipulated by bishops who continued to serve the Tsar despite the fall of the monarchy. This 1921 Church acted on its own in the absence of assistance from within the Orthodox world, and was stigmatized by its decision to consecrate bishops without participating bishops, which infected the Ukrainian autocephalous movement with the reputation of canonical illegitimacy up until this day.

The 1921 Church grew rapidly in the Soviet period until the regime began persecuting it in 1924 and liquidated it in 1930. Given its illegitimacy, one would think that the movement would die.  But the movement for autocephaly revived rather rapidly, first in Poland and then Ukraine, during World War II. The autocephalous movement was cultivated by the diaspora Ukrainian community and returned to Ukraine in 1989, when the Soviet government legalized the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. The third rebirth of this Church also witnessed to rapid growth, and its course changed in 1992 when it received Metropolitan Filaret and split into two groups, one a smaller autocephalous cohort, and the other, the Kyivan Patriarchate.

Some familiarity with the intricacies and details of this movement is needed to understand the schism in Ukraine. Two things should be immediately clear: the movement for autocephaly is not attributable to Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko) of the Kyivan Patriarchate, nor was it born in 1992. The autocephalist movement is nearly one-hundred years old and has withstood Soviet liquidation and the blood of World War II. Readers should also know that autocephalist protagonists have appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for assistance since 1921 and have done so frequently and consistently up until this day. There is ample evidence to suggest that the Ecumenical Throne has heard their appeal and wants to complete their integration into global Orthodoxy. One area of deficiency requires more comprehensive explanation: the history and identity of the pro-autocephaly cohort.

Where should one begin? I suggest that the movement for Ukrainian autocephaly is quite similar to the movement for Church renewal in Russia. Both movements peaked in the early Soviet period, but development was stifled by revolution, World War II, and persecution by Stalin and Krushchev in particular. The continued existence of a critical mass of autocephalist Ukrainians attests to its resilience: organic growth has resumed in the post-Soviet period, and the time has arrived for global Orthodoxy to meet its people and learn its history.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

    Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

    Emil and Elfriede Jochum University Chair and Professor of Theology, Valparaiso University

    Nicholas Denysenko serves as Emil and Elfriede Jochum Professor and Chair and concurrently as associate professor of theology. He received his undergraduate degree from the University of Minnesota (1994), and his graduate degrees at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary (M.Div., 2000) and The...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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