The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: War and “Another Autocephaly”

by Sergei Chapnin | Русский

War changes many things, primarily people’s minds, but also the usual flow of time. What takes years or even decades in peacetime takes a few months, or sometimes even days, during war. 

On May 27, the Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), the highest governing body of the church, after much debate, expressed its disagreement with Patriarch Kirill’s support for the war in Ukraine and adopted amendments to the Statute of the UOC, “Testifying to the full self-sufficiency and independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”

It is beyond the scope of this report to analyze in detail the decisions of the UOC Council—not all of the documents have been published, nor have there been official statements from the hierarchy. My aim is to explain the logic of Metropolitan Onufry’s actions, because I hope that this will allow me to put the decisions of the Council of the UOC into the appropriate context.

It is not surprising that, confronted with a lack of information, commentators are divided into two antagonistic camps. Some believe that the UOC is simply salvaging its reputation, that the distancing from Moscow is insincere and coordinated with the Moscow Patriarchate. Others believe that this is an important step towards the autocephaly of the Church and true independence from Moscow.

From the first days of the war, a number of UOC dioceses refused to commemorate Patriarch Kirill in protest of his anti-Ukrainian stance, and this decision received the tacit support of Metropolitan Onufry. A little later, there were efforts to hold a council to make a decision “about the future of the Church,” which many understood to be the groundwork for a complete separation from the Moscow Patriarchate. Metropolitan Onufry was slow to convene the council, and his inner circle, Metropolitan Anthony (Pakanich) and the oligarch deacon Vadim Novinsky, took an openly pro-Moscow position. It is hard to assess how well Metropolitan Onufry understood the mood of the Ukrainian flock in the initial months of the war. Yet Onufry understood Patriarch Kirill’s position: while during the pandemic the Patriarch called him almost every week, he did not call him even once during the three months of the war. For Onufry, Kirill’s silence spoke volumes.

The situation changed dramatically on May 12. On that day there was a meeting of the Holy Synod of the UOC, whose documents were prepared as usual by Metropolitan Anthony, the Chancellor. There was not a single word about holding a council in these documents. Until that point, Moscow had made every effort to maintain the current status quo and did not approve the gathering of any council. The first surprise occurred during the gathering of bishops. Metropolitan Onufry demanded that the Synod’s decisions include a response to the calls of the clergy and that a meeting with clergy and laity be held. Thus, the Synod declared:

“In the near future a meeting will be convened with the participation of bishops, priests, monks and laity to discuss the problems of church life that have arisen as a result of the war, which concern us all. At the same time, we emphasize that we must do everything we can so that a discussion on this or that issue will not lead us out of the canonical field and lead to new divisions in the Church.”

The Synod debated this rather vague wording for two hours, and there was resistance among some of the members.  Nevertheless, Metropolitan Onufry succeeded in organizing a council that included laity and clergy.

To be sure, some within the Synod sought to remain with Moscow, and they bitterly opposed the proposed Council. To counter their efforts, Metropolitan Onufry took the preparation of the meeting into his own hands and actually removed Metropolitan Anthony, his Chancellor, from preparing the substantive part of the Council. This was the second surprise. This had never happened before.

Obviously, this was a difficult decision for Onufry, but the only possible one. On the one hand, he had absolutely no prepared team to organize such a meeting, and on the other hand, if Metropolitan Anthony and Vadim Novinsky had had access to the draft documents, Moscow would have known the scenario of the upcoming meeting in advance and would have been able to counteract it effectively.

Metropolitan Onufry decided to act quickly and decisively. He scheduled the council for May 27, just 13 days after the decision to hold it. In the interim, he received a significant number of letters from various parishes, which helped him realize the real attitude of the clergy and laity. 

The main disadvantage of moving so quickly was that there was no procedure for nominating delegates to the Council. Only two dioceses elected delegates. In the other 50, delegates were appointed by the ruling bishop. And these were not always people with theological training.

None of those assembled on the morning of May 27 had any idea what they would be doing, what the agenda was, or how to address it. Metropolitan Onufry’s grandiose plan was not revealed until midday. At the very end of the meeting, at which the majority of the assembled spoke in favor of the independence of the UOC from Moscow, Metropolitan Onufry announced an emergency meeting of the Holy Synod (a select group bishops) that, in turn, immediately convened a Council of Bishops, which in turn announced a full Council of the UOC with the participation of clergy and laity.

It must be said that this audacious plan of Metropolitan Onufry worked. Moscow’s supporters were confused, and their resistance was not as effective as expected. In fact, the main opponents of Metropolitan Onufry were Vadim Novinsky and Metropolitan Luke (Kovalenko) of Zaporizhzhia. 

If at the morning meeting there was about 60% support for separation from Moscow, by the afternoon gathering, which assessed amendments “on independence,” there was 70%-80% support. And this is the result of a unique situation within the present-day Orthodox world: for many of those gathered, Metropolitan Onufry’s popularity is so high that they are ready to follow him, even if they themselves doubt or oppose separation from Moscow.

At the Council, Metropolitan Onufry himself did his best to avoid using the word “autocephaly.” He spoke of “independence,” thereby confusing both his opponents and even some of his supporters.

It has been four days since the Council, but the changes to the UOC Charter have still not been published. There are no official comments from Metropolitan Onufry on the results. 

I assume that his silence is deliberate. The situation in the Church and in the wider Ukrainian society is so complicated that Metropolitan Onufry wants to see how many supporters he has, what arguments his opponents have, and how many of them are there. 

We might note that Metropolitan Onufry’s actions were not all successful. He did not use his support at the Council to reconfigure the membership of the Holy Synod. The Synod continues to include some of his opponents. He did not dismiss the odious and openly pro-Moscow Metropolitan Pavel (Lebed), who was the abbot of the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra. 

It remains unclear how Metropolitan Onufry will engage the primates of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches in order to communicate this historic series of events and, perhaps, his plan for further steps.

Obviously, the decisions of the Council drastically change the balance of power: internally the UOC, having separated from Moscow, has become stronger, but at the same time it has become significantly weaker. Strictly speaking, the UOC has lost its clear canonical status and is teetering on the verge of a schism. During a major war, this is understandable, but in the long run, this status should be changed. Given that a re-subordination to the ROC is no longer possible, I see only three ways to establish the long-term situation of the UOC:

  • 1) Joining/uniting with the OCU, which has already acquired the Tomos of Autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarch—but judging by the harsh wording of the Council regarding the OCU, this path will be challenging and time consuming; tangible results are likely to take a very long time.
  • 2) Create an Exarchate (or several exarchates under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Ukraine)—but this requires the consent of the Ecumenical Patriarch, above all, and it is not guaranteed that the representatives of Metropolitan Onufry can successfully carry out such negotiations.
  • 3) Obtain de facto recognition of at least some of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches for the existence of a “gray zone”—there is no clear autocephalous status, but local Churches will not break communion, because it would be crazy to push into schism the Church that has 52 dioceses and more than 12,000 parishes, and which itself is not willing to split. This way can be called “ROCOR 2.0,” which is very likely what Metropolitan Onufry’s main plan is.

One day after the UOC Council, the Moscow Patriarchate responded to Metropolitan Onufry and the entire Ukrainian Church with poorly veiled threats. However, it is clear that Metropolitan Onufry is not afraid of them.

It is difficult to say how difficult and painful the path to UOC autocephaly will be. However, now it is important to help Ukraine’s largest religious community acquire a new status. The solidarity of the local Orthodox Churches with the UOC could manifest itself in this. Obviously, in recent years the churches have been rather feeble in showing solidarity. Perhaps the time has come when it is worth showing it?


Sergei Chapnin is editor-in-chief of «The Gifts» (Дары), a magazine of contemporary Christian culture, and curator of exhibitions on contemporary Christian art. Previously he was editor-in-chief of the Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate and deputy editor-in-chief of the Moscow Patriarchate Publishing House.

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.