The Ukrainian Church: A Multigenerational Divorce

by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko

In the last few days, a number of announcements appeared about the Ukrainian Church controversy. After President Poroshenko announced that the unification council will take place at St. Sophia Cathedral on December 15, a spurious text that appeared to be some version of the statute for the Church drafted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) circulated on the Internet, copies of the letters of invitation to participate in the council were posted on social media by multiple bishops, and a copy of the letter from Patriarch Bartholomew to Metropolitan Onufry dated October 12 also appeared. Those who are interested in this issue, especially Orthodox clergy and laity throughout the world, watched spellbound as the news appeared and then reacted. In other words, the responses are no different than quick analyses ordinary people post on political news flashes. On the theme of the Ukrainian Church issue, a handful of responses have become clichés. Observers favor either the Moscow Patriarchate (MP) or the EP in the canonical clash; people call for the Ukrainian schismatics to return to the canonical church; critics denounce Russian aggression and the complicity of the MP in the war in Eastern Ukraine; and people offer the now stereotypical “thoughts and prayers.”

Observers strain Google’s capacity to lead us to the truth by searching for quick, neat profiles on all of the leaders and land on any number of web sites claiming to possess the absolute truth. We might find what we want to find: another layer of incriminating evidence exposing the faults of Metropolitan Filaret, a photo of a grotesque icon demeaning Russia (or Ukraine), a headline announcing the seizure of a church, and through it all, we select the sources that support a viewpoint we have chosen to adopt.

Amidst all of this, the most important fact of all is lost, and it is the fact that we all need to confront as soon as possible: the Ukrainian Church crisis is a messy, nasty divorce, and the stories that assign blame to the parties involved have been handed down from one generation to the next.

I’m describing the divided Orthodox people of Ukraine as divorced because all of the people affected by it belong to the same family tree. The divorce began as a domestic dispute in 1918, when the advocates for autocephaly claimed that they were treated unfairly and illegally during the proceedings of the 1918 all-Ukrainian council. Instead of submitting to the demands of the bishops, they adopted their own path. The first step was to register parishes that prayed in Ukrainian, but when the bishops imposed canonical sanctions, the advocates for autocephaly severed relations by creating their own Church, claiming that they couldn’t trust the bishops on the basis of numerous broken promises. For their part, the bishops, along with their faithful and clergy, issued a counter-accusation that the advocates for autocephaly were violating their part of the covenant by establishing their own church without the blessing of the bishops, and by circumventing the established laws of the Church. The estranged partners blamed one another with vigor: the Ukrainian autocephalists dismissed the bishops as traitors who loved the Tsar more than they loved God and abandoned their responsibility to care for their flock. The bishops and faithful of the MP called out the autocephalists for lawless rebellion by calling then schismatics and graceless.

Soviet persecution of the Church did not permit the estranged spouses to reconcile, but the damage was done, because the family story narrating the blame game became multigenerational. The dispute between the next generation of Orthodox Ukrainians in German-occupied Ukraine during World War II was no less vicious. The dispute migrated abroad and returned with vigor to Ukraine at the end of the Soviet period in 1989, with a whole new cast of characters to blame. It’s remarkable that the same accusations originally announced in 1918 have survived until 2018. Now, Metropolitan Filaret fits the profile of the “cheating spouse” while Metropolitan Onufry is the traitor who has no compassion for his family.

The only real chance to bring the families of the original estranged spouses together for potential reconciliation has occurred in the post-Soviet period, and it has failed miserably, with only limited meetings for negotiations. Counselors, therapists, and pastors are familiar with the destructive power of divorce, especially its capacity to stigmatize and deepen divisions in extended families. An adolescent inquires about an uncle on the wrong side of the dispute and hears all kinds of awful stories about that demon. What reason does that adolescent have to reach out to his estranged uncle—whom he has never met—when all he will receive is a rebuke at best, and abuse at worst?

In the 100-year old Ukrainian Church divorce, it’s simply safer to keep things as they are and avoid that nasty uncle.

That was the case until 2018, when the EP decided to try to reconcile these estranged family members. The process has been messy, and it’s not only because of the enmity between the Kyiv Patriarchate (KP) and the MP. The KP and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) have been at odds since 1992, so it’s no surprise that organizing the unification council has been slow and bumpy. If the council goes through, it will begin a process of reconciliation—one that will not be complete until all of the family members in the Ukrainian Church are at peace with one another. Broken relationships don’t heal immediately—they require time, patience, love, and the application of therapy to the scar tissue. Most of all, they require an end to the destructive behavior that started the problem in the first place. The Ukrainian Church crisis won’t end until all sides declare and observe a permanent ceasefire in the polemical war and the blame game. Continuing the warfare of insults only pushes those who could be reconciled deeper into their corners of separation, giving them more reason to fear the first step of a dialogue of reconciliation.

To do so, they’re going to need a lot of help from those of us who are content to observe and react. Our thoughts and prayers are not enough – we need to stop partaking of the sin by withdrawing from participation in the blame game, because when we add our voices to the polemical condemnations, we become like the crowd of kids that stands in a circle and kicks the one we have implicated. We need to encourage the estranged parties to come together to begin resolving their differences. And most of all, we need to show compassion to everyone involved in this long, bitter dispute. We bear a burden of responsibility because we claim to be Christians: if our goal is to elongate this tragic battle and deepen the embitterment of the estranged parties, we can claim to be religious, but we won’t be Christian.


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.