by Rev. Dr. Nicholas Denysenko
In the four months that have elapsed since the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), the process of adjusting to the new situation has been challenging for both the OCU and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). The OCU has been enduring the growing pains of stabilizing Church life after the unification council, while the UOC-MP has sought to sustain its inner unity and keep parishes from migrating to the new church.
Recently, a new wrinkle has emerged in the Ukrainian Church situation. In a series of interviews with the Ukrainian media, Filaret, the former patriarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), insists that he remains patriarch and that he is governing the OCU together with Metropolitan Epifaniy, primate of the OCU. Filaret has also suggested that the OCU can immediately elevate its status from a metropolia to a patriarchate by convoking an All-Ukrainian council and revising the Church’s statute.
Filaret’s public position on the situation of the Ukrainian Church compromised the situation when he invited numerous bishops of the OCU to St. Volodymyr cathedral in Kyiv for the commemoration of St. Macarius, Metropolitan of Kyiv on May 14. Metropolitan Epifaniy was not initially invited to the celebration. When invitees publicized the event, the media noticed that Filaret issued the invitation on the stationary of the recently annulled UOC-KP. Filaret claimed that the UOC-KP continues to exist, and that only the one who founded the Church could liquidate it. Soon afterwards, Filaret explained that Epifaniy was failing in his duties of governing the OCU, and that it was Filaret’s duty—as patriarch—to guarantee the unity of the Ukrainian Church by convoking an all-Ukrainian council. In an astonishing display of narcissism, Filaret claimed that he has the authority to convoke such a council because he was and remains the patriarch.
This bewildering series of events leads to a realization: Filaret intends to assume control of the OCU, and is preparing an action to transform the OCU into the “UOC-KP 2.0.” Filaret hopes that the implementation of his plan will result in his restoration as OCU patriarch.
Filaret’s aspirations expose numerous problems for the OCU and for him, personally. For the OCU, Filaret’s willingness to share his hopes for restoring the patriarchate and ambition to continue to govern the Church validates the shadows of doubt cast on the inner life of the OCU by the sister Orthodox Churches. Some Orthodox Church leaders are not opposed to the OCU and its autocephaly, but are concerned that Filaret is acting as a shadow primate. Filaret’s public statements disclose his desire to manipulate OCU policies, and warrant an examination of the interior life of the OCU.
As for Filaret, his actions leading up to the unification council contradict his public claims to authority and desire to recreate the UOC-KP. In recent days, several clergy have posted photos of Filaret’s letter to Patriarch Bartholomew in which he recuses himself from candidacy for the office of metropolitan of Kyiv. Filaret also signed the letter agreeing to the annulment of the UOC-KP, since its clergy and faithful had participated in the merger that resulted in the OCU. Furthermore, the unification council elected Epifaniy as its primate legally, even though the process was complicated and messy. While the OCU appointed Filaret, Metropolitan Makariy, and Metropolitan Symeon as permanent members of the OCU’s holy synod – as the senior bishops representing the three Orthodox Churches in Ukraine – Filaret’s title of patriarch is only honorary. His appeal to his patriarchal office is self-contradictory because he himself signed the letter annulling the Church he governed as patriarch, and participated in the council that elected Epifaniy as primate.
Filaret’s public position is a desperate act to reclaim the authority he had during his tenure as patriarch of the UOC-KP. Filaret seems to be acting vindictively since he expected Epifaniy to share the authority of primatial governance with him. Even if Epifaniy had a “gentleman’s agreement” to co-govern with Filaret, or to simply carry out Filaret’s orders, it has no canonical bearing on the life of the OCU. The problem is that the OCU agreed to the terms of autocephaly presented by the EP: a metropolia that seeks counsel from the EP and receives its chrism from her. A hasty and unilateral rewriting of the OCU’s statute would suggest that the OCU simply used Constantinople to receive the Tomos, with no regard for the principle of rotation among members of the synod or for the new relationship forged with the EP.
Early indications suggest that the majority of the bishops of the OCU are opposed to Filaret’s plan, as several eparchies have published letters of support for Epifaniy and the current statute of the OCU. Despite his invitation and public appeal for preserving the unity of the Ukrainian Church, only four bishops of the OCU joined Filaret in concelebrating the liturgies commemorating St. Macarius on May 13-14.
This setback notwithstanding, Filaret continues to enjoy formidable prestige as a visible religious leader in the Ukrainian public, so he has some power. Reports have circulated that Filaret strictly controls the finances of the Church and is already using his power to prohibit funding for Epifaniy and his initiatives.
Filaret’s greatest problem is that his power play is visible to the entire world—the Orthodox outside of Ukraine are witnessing his activities in plain sight. A simple narrative does not adequately depict a complicated figure like Filaret, who was appointed exarch of Ukraine in 1966 and dominated Orthodox Church life through the Cold War, the collapse of the Soviet Union, and the entire post-Soviet period. Filaret alone has survived his opponents and doubters, and the UOC-KP grew steadily during his patriarchal tenure. It is unlikely that Ukrainian autocephaly would have come to pass without Filaret’s persistence in pushing for it while speaking forcefully and powerfully about Ukraine’s conflict with Russia in recent years.
Filaret’s past, however, seems to be catching up to him in this most recent episode. After promising to resign as metropolitan of Kyiv in 1992, Filaret claimed that he was coerced into the decision, and reversed course. Denied the authority he had as metropolitan of Kyiv and locum tenens of the Moscow Patriarchal office (after Patriarch Pimen’s death), Filaret was appointed deputy to Patriarch Mstyslav of the UAOC and ascended to the position of patriarch only three years later. The harshest accusation against Filaret was that he led the Church into schism in 1992. That he recognized an opportunity to claim authority and exploited it for his own gain is certain.
As of now, it seems clear that Filaret lacks sufficient support to follow through on his plans. His past suggests that the absence of supporting bishops will not deter him. In 1992, the UAOC expected Filaret to bring the majority of the UOC-MP’s episcopate with him into the unified Church, and only one bishop accompanied Filaret. The merger still took place (with a minority rejecting it and remaining in the UAOC), giving birth to the UOC-KP “1.0.” Filaret is quite capable of overseeing a process that reincarnates the UOC-KP 2.0. But if he convokes a council that revises the statute and makes the OCU into a patriarchate without the support of Epifaniy and the other bishops, Filaret’s motivations will be exposed, and he will be guilty of both schism and opportunism.
The dilemma confronting the OCU’s synod is how to address this crisis. To date, the OCU has simply ignored Filaret’s public proclamations, in an attempt to honor his contributions to obtaining autocephaly and avoid a scandalous public escalation. Unfortunately, it seems that the Filaret is determined to attempt to seize the authority originally given to him in 1966 one final time. The OCU will be forced to act.
The creation of the OCU promised the possibility for a new era of Orthodox Church life in Ukraine, and a group of Ukrainian intellectuals seized the opportunity by presenting ten theses for Orthodox Church life that emphasized participation of the laity in all aspects of Church life, transparency in governance, and a spirit of openness. Now bearing the name “desyat’ tez” (ten theses), the group recently issued a powerful letter protesting Filaret’s aspiration and calling for all Orthodox to support the young OCU. Desyat’ tez is appealing for an end to secret agreements made by the elite, for the elite, behind closed doors. They are using the public forum of social media to expose the ambitions of those who would seek to exploit the Church for their own gain. Metropolitan Epifaniy in particular has made multiple public gestures that honor the overtures of the laity.
The OCU has an opportunity to demonstrate that they have indeed “turned the page” in the history of Orthodoxy in Ukraine by refusing to succumb to nostalgia by transforming the OCU into the UOC-KP 2.0. They must deal with Filaret firmly and definitively, even if the imposition of canonical sanctions are required. The OCU will demonstrate their solidarity with the Ukrainian people if they respond to Filaret swiftly and decisively. The Orthodox world is watching, too—and a rebuttal of the attempt of a career prelate to claim authority regardless of the damage done to the Church that obtained autocephaly after a 100-year struggle would go a long way towards earning the respect of the Orthodox Churches who have expressed doubts about the OCU and its ambitions.
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.
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