Phyletism and the Case for Ukrainian Autocephaly

by Nicholas Denysenko

In my previous post, I introduced the Ukrainian problem and its significance for the forthcoming Great and Holy Council to be held in Crete in June 2016. Having argued that the movement for autocephaly in Ukraine originated nearly one-hundred years ago and is beginning to mature only in this post-soviet period, a formidable obstacle to Ukrainian autocephaly can be addressed: the problem of phyletism.

Phyletism is a modern phenomenon whereby the organization of Church life occurs on basis of ethnic or national identity. Phyletism violates the universalist spirit of the Gospel because it identifies the Church as a space exclusively reserved for one ethnic people, a type of elitism that tends to breed hatred for other peoples. In 1872, the local synod of Constantinople condemned phyletism, with reference to a controversy which emerged within the Bulgarian Church, as leading Bulgarians sought to hold jurisdiction over all persons of Bulgarian ethnic origin.

In his essay on phyletism, prominent Orthodox theologian Kallistos Ware states that the criterion for church organization is not ethnic, but territorial. John Zizioulas also sharply critiques the tendency for autocephalous Churches to adopt nationalist agendas, a temptation he views as endangering “the Church’s very survival.” In modernity, as Orthodox Christians emerged from the ashes of broken empires, they began to reconfigure their ecclesiastical communities in ways that configured to the new political reality of nation-states, predicated on nationalist identity. With nations defined by territorial and spatial boundaries, it was conceivable to transform the ancient models of ecclesial autocephaly within that newly-defined national space. Throughout these processes of national emergence and turbulence, public intellectuals who contributed to the formation of principles and structures holding up the state, emphasized the role of religion as a proverbial glue which unifies people.

In the case of Ukraine, a fledgling nation attempting to emerge from the collapse of the Russian empire in the early twentieth century, some of its leading ideologues iterated principles designed to serve as foundation of the state and the Church. For Ukraine to emerge as a nation with her own distinct identity, the Ukrainian language would become both legal and privileged in the new state. Both state and Church ideologues emphasized the importance of promoting vernacular Ukrainian. In fact, it was a series of conflicts concerning the legitimacy of using vernacular Ukrainian for the liturgy which became the fault line dividing progressive intellectuals within the Church from the more conservative Synod in the years 1918-1921. The steadfast commitment to vernacular Ukrainian by the Church progressives resulted in the separation of pro-autocephalists from the autonomous Ukrainian Church.

The question of the veracity of using vernacular Ukrainian in the liturgy functions as a suitable case study for distinguishing phyletism from a legitimate aspiration for autocephaly among Orthodox Ukrainian. The most sonorous refrain of the autocephalous movement was its desire to restore the Kyivan Metropolia and its traditions. Ukrainians have consistently asserted that the Kyivan Metropolia enjoyed its own distinct liturgical, cultural, and ecclesiological traditions until its annexation by the Moscow patriarchate in 1685-86. Following its annexation by the Moscow Patriarchate, the Kyivan Metropolia was Russified, especially during the reigns of Empress Catherine II and Tsar Nicholas I. When Ukrainians requested autocephaly in 1918 and afterwards, their attempt to establish vernacular Ukrainian as a legitimate liturgical language was a way of inaugurating the recovery of the Kyivan Metropolia. This effort was not a restoration, especially since the Kyivan Church had always prayed in Church Slavonic, but could be called a recreation (to borrow the term from Hyacinthe Destivelle), an attempt to honor the distinctness of Kyivan identity in the conditions of the twentieth century. The attempt to recreate the Kyivan Metropolia was also to honor what the apologists referred to as de facto autocephaly, if not de jure.

The process of recreating the Kyivan Church entailed some derussification, a task consistently enacted by the Ukrainian autocephaly movement to this day in order to unearth Ukrainian distinctiveness. The removal of Russian elements from the Church by the autocephalists, combined with the unfortunate polemics exchanged between Ukrainians and Russians through the course of the revolution, the catastrophic famine of 1932-33, World War II, the Cold War, the collapse of the USSR, and the Euromaidan, can lead to the assumption of phyletism. The truth is that Ukrainians could never wholly eradicate Russian elements from Ukrainian Church life, an impossible task given the history of cultural cross-pollination between the related peoples.

An honest assessment of the Ukrainian case for autocephaly is that it is consistent with the trajectory of global Orthodoxy since the mid-nineteenth century and aspires to recreate the Kyivan Church. The objective of the contemporary movement is to establish a healthy Orthodox Church of Kyiv. It is inevitable that some of the leaders of this Church will be patriots, especially in the nascent post-Soviet period of Ukrainian sovereignty. As Ware notes, patriotism is a positive quality and need not be buried. Global Orthodoxy could assist the recreated Kyivan Church to avoid the danger of phyletism by ensuring that its statute and pastoral initiatives honor the multinational constituency of contemporary Ukraine. Lastly, an autocephalous Church in Kyiv also has the capacity to counterbalance the recently rehabilitated ideology which has resurfaced in global Orthodoxy: the notion of a dominant global empire supported by its largest organ, the Church.

Nicholas Denysenko is Associate Professor of Theological Studies and Director of the Huffington Ecumenical Institute at Loyola Marymount University.