The military actions of Russia against the sovereign nation of Ukraine, the lack of archpastoral support for Ukrainian Orthodox Christians by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and the Russian Orthodox (ROC) ecclesial community, and their simultaneous approval of the military aggression against the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian people by the political leadership of Russia—all these have led to an irreconcilable contradiction between the official status of the Patriarch in relation to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the reality of the situation. The declarations by many hierarchs and individual priests in Ukraine that they are ceasing to commemorate the Patriarch were a consequence. The ecclesial life of Ukrainian Orthodoxy thus now exists in a new reality. It is an open question, however, what canonical form this new reality should take.
The polemics that have arisen around these new realities of church life haven taken three general directions:
1. Labeling the non-commemoration of the Patriarch as a schismatic act and a violation of the way church hierarchy is ordered. This position can be seen in Patriarch Kirill’s official reaction to the letter of protest from Metropolitan Evlogy of Sumy and Okhtyrka. This position has its adherents, who see themselves as defenders of loyalty to the hierarchy and as martyrs. Part of the UOC still regards such a position as the only one possible. Given the tendency to ban the UOC as a religious organization in Ukraine, however, this position will lead to a further marginalization of the UOC and is therefore unpromising.
2. There is an ongoing debate about the transfer of UOC parishes to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). However, this idea does not have widespread support, despite all expectations and declarations to the contrary. Several obstacles prevent such a transfer:
- 2.1 Firstly, for many, the transfer is perceived as an ethical problem (as opposed to the unification of the UOC and the OCU, which was first framed as a unification of the UOC and the UOC-Kyiv Patriarchate, but then became a transfer, which implies something else altogether). The situation deteriorated when bishops and clergy of the OCU, with the help of aggressive radicals, initiated a series of measures for the transfer of UOC parishes. That, combined with state-supported negative rhetoric, prompted a sharply critical stance within the UOC to the very idea of shifting. The UOC did not want to end up in the role of a victim losing its subjecthood in exchange for unity with a numerally much smaller ecclesial structure, so it formulated some positions which made a transfer unacceptable. As a result, from the point of view of the OCU, any moves to its side looked like “victory and capture,” and from the point of view of the UOC as betrayal and impotent capitulation to an aggressive opponent and conqueror. This situation persisted until the start of the war on February 24.
- 2.2 Secondly, there is a principle of “collective responsibility” whereby the unlawful activities of some individuals (including priests) become grounds for accusation against the entire UOC. A significant part of the UOC clergy does not share the pro-Russian or pro-separatist rhetoric, but—because of pressure from radicals and representatives of the OCU—the UOC is forced to share responsibility for the unlawful actions of various individuals (bishops, priests, laypeople) simply because they belong to the that church. As a result, UOC clergy and the laity believe there is a bias against them and a deliberate injustice done to them and to their church—which, they think, came from the OCU’s antichurch ideology and attempts at conquest, which tried to use the situation to improve its own status within Ukrainian society. Moreover, as can be seen in the rhetoric of OCU leaders, the OCU has no concept of unification that would not mean discrimination against the UOC. In fact, an overarching concept for a unification is no longer being discussed. This, for the UOC clergy, means an underprivileged and inferior position. Both sides are actively forming their positions and consolidating their supporters (witnessed by the competitive character of mass events like cross processions, which both sides practice).
- 2.3 Thirdly, the lack of real, constructive dialogue between the OCU and the UOC. Just about all the public statements from both sides are confrontational and show a lack the readiness to accept the subjecthood of the other. This shows itself in harsh rhetoric and in the tendency not to accept the other side’s justifications of its position. Further, the actions by the state in support of the OCU (for example, the legislative initiatives of the Ukrainian Parliament) have not only impeded the unification of the Orthodox communities in Ukraine but have actually created new occasions for confrontation.
As a result of all the considerations, the idea of a simple “transfer to the OCU,” or even a unification on equal terms, is unacceptable and threatening for the majority of the UOC clergy. This conviction prompts the UOC clergy, which has overwhelmingly rejected the position of the Moscow Patriarch regarding the war in Ukraine, to seek alternative pathways for independence from the ROC while preserving canonical unity with world Orthodoxy.
3. The lack of viability of both these possibilities—status quo vis a vis Moscow, or transfer to the OCU—have prompted the clergy and the laypeople of the UOC to seek alternatives for their ecclesial belonging. Several eparchies and parishes see promise in an initiative to obtain canonical autocephaly with the First Hierarch of the UOC, Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv and All Ukraine, who has received numerous written requests to that effect. But there аre concerns as to whether the UOC First Hierarch, who has obtained significant trust and in whom a large share of the episcopate links their hopes, will in the end decide to take the responsibility for the fate of Ukrainian Orthodoxy upon himself (his pause in responding after the statements came in speaks to this).
As an alternative, some UOC hierarchs are ready to discuss a unification with other local Orthodox Churches—neither OCU nor ROC—the canonical status of which is irrefutable. Such consultations are already taking place, according to the information available. The success of this direction will depend on several external and internal factors. It will also depend to a high degree on the personal qualities of the main actors who will be making decisions and on the degree of trust placed in them by clergy and the faithful.
Thus, at the moment, several positions have emerged that might bear fruit as practical actions for creating a new configuration of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. The choice of one or the other depends on several objective and subjective factors as well as on the military and political results of the ongoing war. The only thing one can say definitively is that ecclesial life as it existed before February 24, 2022, is no longer possible.
Fr. Georgiy Taraban is an archpriest of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the secretary of the Sumy and Okhtyrka Eparchy.
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