“A Tomos of autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarchate would legitimize the schism in Ukraine. We must support the canonical church.”
“Autocephalists are not ‘church people’. They are nationalists who seek to exploit the Church, and autocephaly will sever communion with the Orthodox Church.”
“The schism in Ukraine began in 1992 when Metropolitan Filaret violated the canons and inaugurated the autocephalous movement.”
“The Americans are the architects of the present project for Ukrainian autocephaly even though the vast majority of Orthodox in Ukraine are opposed to it.”
I constructed these four sentences as a synthesis capturing the most popularly circulated clichés about the history and contemporary situation of the Church in Ukraine. These ideas are not essentially distillations taken from translations published on websites about Orthodoxy, and not necessarily official Church websites, but media services—we do not always know who administers these services—that browse the Web for “Orthonews” and then republish it.
For the general public, the Ukrainian Church issue entered the spotlight with the Euromaidan phenomenon in 2013, which evolved into Russia’s forceful annexation of Crimea and then the catastrophic war in Donbas. Experts such as Antoine Arjakovsky and Cyril Hovorun referred to Church ministry among the people on the Maidan as the beginnings of a new and hopeful ecumenical movement in Ukraine. When St. Michael’s cathedral became a temporary hospital for the wounded, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP) was re-introduced to a general audience as the Church to which the monastery and cathedral belong. When Ukraine’s Parliament formally requested that the Holy and Great Council in Crete grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine in 2016, the UOC-KP was no longer merely an outcast Church that happened to open its doors to the wounded during the Maidan.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s (EP) commitment to establishing one canonical autocephalous Church in Ukraine that would include Orthodox outside of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) became obvious in the events that have occurred since President Poroshenko publicly announced the imminence of a canonical Tomos during this past Bright Week. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has declared its determination to complete the implementation of the process of granting autocephaly to the Church in Ukraine following the meeting with Moscow Patriarch Kirill on August 31.
In principle, one would assume that this action of the Ecumenical Patriarchate would be a source of joy and relief to the Orthodox world as it would signal the end to a schism that began in 1921—not in 1992, as is erroneously reported and circulated on a daily basis. My own sampling of support for Ukrainian autocephaly among Anglophone Orthodox indicates disinterest, opposition, and most of all, ignorance about the facts.
Let’s begin with the first statement stating that a Tomos legitimizes the schism. The only way to understand the schism in Ukraine is to learn about its origins and development. Fact: the Kyivan Metropolia was essentially subordinated to Moscow beginning in 1686, and the terms of Kyiv’s ecclesial relationship with Moscow were violated by the latter, according to several recent statements of the EP. An examination of the beginnings of the movement for autocephaly in Ukraine show that its proponents advocated for liturgical Ukrainization, an agenda item that had already been developed and proposed to the Moscow Council of 1917-18, and sought to restore and renew the Kyivan Metropolia as it was before it was subjugated to Moscow. There is no doubt that aspirations for establishing a sovereign Ukrainian republic coincided with and cross pollinated the autocephalous movement, but the core value dear to the original architects of Ukrainian autocephaly was to restore and renew authentic local Church life. The firm opposition of the bishops in Ukraine, who not only rejected Ukrainization proposals, but also arranged for the removal of pro-autocephaly delegates to the All-Ukrainian council of 1918 that ultimately voted for autonomy, cast a shadow on the sincerity of the Muscovite commitment to dialogue. Therefore, the architects of autocephaly decided to assume control of their own destiny by taking a risk and consecrating a hierarchy without the liturgical participation of bishops. Orthodoxy’s rejection of the canonicity of the 1921 Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church permanently stigmatized Ukrainian autocephaly. It was perceived as a fascist movement for a national Church, and this stigma hampered the efforts of Orthodox Ukrainians in Poland to accomplish the same goal, establishing a local, Orthodox Church in Ukraine that prayed in the language of the people, when they attempted to establish a canonical Church in Ukraine with the advocacy of Metropolitan Dionisyi of Warsaw in 1942.
A slight shift in the trajectory of historical events might have permitted different outcomes for the Church in Ukraine. In 1922, the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine not only adopted Ukrainization, but called for complete autocephaly and dialogue with the UAOC. Severe Soviet persecution of both Churches prohibited this dialogue from bearing fruit. In October of 1942, the autonomous and autocephalous Ukrainian bishops reached an agreement of union at the Pochaiv monastery. While the union was not initially received by the episcopate of the autonomous Church, their leader, Metropolitan Oleksii Hromadskii, expressed a willingness to continue negotiations for resolving differences. But a united Ukrainian church was neither in the Nazi nor Soviet interests, and Oleksii’s tragic assassination along with the end of the war and the annexation of Western Ukraine to the Soviet Union again disrupted unification.
A resolution was in sight in 1991-2, when Metropolitan Filaret, who seemed to understand that there was no way to eradicate the autocephalous movement that exploded in Western Ukraine in 1989, managed to galvanize the support of the episcopate in Ukraine and petitioned Moscow for autocephaly. Eventually, three bishops withdrew their support, and Filaret decided to join the UAOC in June of 1992, a situation that resulted in the existence of three Churches in Ukraine: the UAOC, the KP, and the MP.
A close examination of the entire history of the Church in Ukraine demonstrates that the schism began in 1921, not in 1992, and that Filaret joined a church that had already declared itself to be a patriarchate. He was neither the author of autocephaly nor the pioneer of schism in Ukraine.
The assertion that the American government designed the autocephalous movement is one of the most ridiculous and blatantly false conspiracy theories ever concocted.
If autocephaly is separatism, how can any Orthodox support it in good conscience for any particular local Church or patriarchate?
The problem with the false assertions presented at the beginning of this post is threefold. The most glaring problem is one of sources. Who is the author of the Ukrainian narrative? One cannot claim that websites like orthchristian.com are the only English-language sources available to inquirers. Historians such as Bohdan Bociurkiw, Frank Sysyn, and Serhii Plokhy outlined the essential chronicle of Ukrainian aspiration in accessible publications. Natalia Shlikhta is one of the best historians of the modern Ukrainian Church, and she publishes frequently in English. Why are these authors ignored in favor of media services that publish distilled news online?
The answer to this question is a condemnation of our methods for reading and learning in our age, one that applies to all current issues reaching far beyond the Church crisis in Ukraine. It is a crisis of information literacy, of attaining the capacity to select sources and distinguish news from opinion, of recognizing and honoring true authorship and pursuing information to shape our analysis, as opposed to imposing what we want to believe on the sources themselves.
I wrote a book on the Orthodox Church in Ukraine to offer a source of information that would give readers a more complete view of the modern history of aspirations for autocephaly [see an interview about the book on YouTube]. My work is an attempt to honor those who established a foundation: Bociurkiw, Sysyn, Plokhy, Shlikhta, along with Iryna Prelovska, Tetiana Ieleseeva, Andrii Smyrnov and many, many others who were trying to reframe the narrative by disentangling it from authors who revised it to fit their political agendas. For the Orthodox clergy and faithful who don’t know what to make of the Church in Ukraine, I hope that my book will be informative and reliable, and might appear on the syllabi of Church History courses. I share the intent of every honest scholar: to inform with precision, clarity, and humility before those who created the path. Ultimately, though, the choice lies with the reader: one is free to choose to continue to circulate spurious information. Those who adopt this path only flame the fires of schism.
Nicholas Denysenko is the Emil and Elfriede Jochum University Chair and Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University. He is an ordained deacon of the Orthodox Church in America.
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.