Will Orthodoxy in Ukraine Miss a Chance?

by Thomas Bremer

Image: iStock.com/Haidamac

On May 27, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) declared its independence from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), of which it had until then been a branch. The reason is very clear: it disagrees with its (former) supreme hierarch, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who has supported the Russian war against Ukraine. The UOC did not use the word “autocephaly.” But if it succeeds in staying independent from the ROC, it will in fact have an autocephalous status—albeit one for the time being not recognized by any other Orthodox Church.

On Sunday, May 29, Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv commemorated all first hierarchs of local Orthodox Churches except the ones who have recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, including Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America. Ukrainian Orthodoxy thus now continues to be in an awkward situation. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was granted autocephaly in January 2019, regards itself as the only canonical Church in the country. The UOC thinks the same about itself. World Orthodoxy is split over this question. Though numbers are not decisive in such questions, the UOC is much larger in terms of parishes (which are registered with a state office). The OCU claims to have more believers, but the sociological surveys it cites are not reliable (they ask, e.g., about affiliation with the “UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate,” which was never the name of the Church and which implies a Russian structure). In the last months, hundreds of parishes have changed jurisdiction from the UOC to the OCU. The UOC says that many of these transfers were carried out with violence, or by a decision made by the political authorities, not by the parishes themselves. But even if all of them were voluntary switches, it would hardly change the overall picture.

Both Orthodox Churches have not only been competitors; they have had virtually no dialogue, at least not at the level of the hierarchy. Mutual accusations were and are being brought forward. The OCU charges the UOC with supporting Russia in the war (and of having supported Russia earlier politically) and with being a Russian Church. It frequently uses incorrect names for the UOC that the UOC regards as derogatory (for example, “Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine”). The UOC, for its part, says that the OCU does not have a valid hierarchy, as it lacks apostolic succession. Some of its representatives therefore call the OCU head, Metropolitan Epifany, simply “Mr. Dumenko.” The UOC also accuses its rival Church of supporting the violent takeovers of parishes and claims that the OCU’s autocephaly is not real. There are contacts between believers, and there even seem to be people who attend services in both Churches, thus rejecting the split in Ukrainian Orthodoxy. But the official level is characterized by mutual ultimatums, accusations, and silence.

In its official decision to leave the jurisdiction of the ROC, the UOC expressed hope for a dialogue with the OCU—but one based on certain conditions. The OCU answered with a statement welcoming the readiness for dialogue—but it too expressed its own doubts and charges. Despite this mutual wariness, there seems to be a window of opportunity for a rapprochement of the two Churches. It is very clear that neither structure will disappear, and neither will simply join the other one. There will thus continue to be two Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. They can exist as they have until now—in competition and mutual rejection—or they will have to find a way to deal with this uncanonical situation.

If the Churches want to coexist in a peaceful and noncompetitive way, they will both have to fulfill some conditions. A dialogue can take place only if both sides accept each other as a partner, as someone with whom they will try to work for a common goal. If ultimatums are set as a precondition for dialogue, it is bound to fail. That requires both sides to make concessions—to avoid offensive language, for example, and to accept the position of the other as the starting point for any conversation. There will be people on both sides who will try to undermine these attempts and to provoke the other by using insulting terms. It must be made clear by both Church leaderships that those using such language are individuals, and that it is not the official position of the respective Church. One would also have to find ways to deal with the fact that in many places of Ukraine, there will be parallel hierarchies. It will be impossible to say who the Orthodox bishop of a given place is, as there will be two. That is uncanonical, but perhaps the best solution, and certainly better than having one canonical and one uncanonical bishop in each place.

The largest problem between the Churches is the validity of their ordinations. That is not a question which can be resolved in Ukraine. It is an all-Orthodox problem, and so long as the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow are in schism, there will be no generally accepted solution. Therefore, the UOC and the OCU should simply not address or discuss the problem—but that does not mean to ignore it. They might consult the history of the ecumenical movement, which shows what a practical solution might look like. When the Church of South India, which consisted of episcopal and non-episcopal Churches, was established in 1947, it was decided that no one was to be re-ordained, but that in all future ordinations, bishops would participate and impose hands on the candidates. Thus within a generation a hierarchy was created which was beyond any doubt within the apostolic succession. Not discussing the question made it possible to come to such an agreement. A similar solution could be found also for Ukrainian Orthodoxy. That requires, however, the insight that there are only two possibilities: for both sides to make concessions, or to have two fighting Churches in Ukraine—for more than one generation.


Thomas Bremer teaches Ecumenical Theology and Eastern Churches Studies at Münster University, Germany.

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.