Most people who have written about the tensions between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) after the Russian invasion tend to focus on one thing: who is commemorated. This is not surprising. Accepting the authority of this bishop, but not that one, is an easy shorthand for where one stands on all sorts of other issues. The recent UOC decision not to commemorate Patriarch Kirill anymore was emblematic of its clerics’ denying Russian claims, attacks, and brutality. The UOC’s subsequent declaration of independence opens the door to dialogue with the OCU.
The focus on commemoration and canonicity, however, may obscure other, less obvious challenges. Even before February 24, the differences between the UOC and OCU went well beyond which bishop one was willing to follow. The liturgical choices of both churches—what language they use, which saints they invoke, which hymns they sing, which icons they venerate, what wording they use for such traditionally State-glorifying services as those to the Elevation of the Cross, which national holidays or traumas they commemorate and how—indicate divergent approaches. Any future rapprochement will need to consider those divergences as well.
Take the issue of language. Using Ukrainian as a liturgical language was part of the Ukrainian national project for the OCU from its inception, as it was for the UAOC in 1917-18 and the KP. After the Russian invasion, Ukrainian as a liturgical language is even more central to the OCU’s national project. The UOC, by contrast, argued that Church Slavonic, shared by all Slavic traditions, was a valuable link to early Rus—and therefore used both Ukrainian and Ukrainian-inflected Church Slavonic (z vymovoiu, Kyivs’kyi izvod). After the war, the UOC has begun using more Ukrainian in liturgy.
With saints, the central issue is whether someone is regarded as “good” or “bad” for Ukraine. If a Rus-era saint was more associated with imperial Russia, such as Prince Alexander Nevsky, OCU practice was to quietly ignore him, preferring instead to serve the “universal” (i.e. Byzantine-era) saint of the day. This was especially the case when a canonized Rus-era figure is perceived to have damaged the Ukrainian national cause, as with Andrei Bogoliubskii, the 12th century prince who attacked Kyiv, seizing its celebrated Theotokos icon for his own cathedral in Vladimir, after which it became known as the “Vladimir” icon.
Marian icon devotion proved political in other ways. Despite the Okhtyrka/Akhtyrka icon’s enduring veneration in Kharkiv and Sumy, for example, because the icon is associated with Sloboda Ukraine’s incorporation into the Russian empire, the OCU rejected it. Even when both the OCU and UOC agree on national saints like Vladimir (Volodomyr), who earned the “equal-to-the-apostles” title for the adoption of Orthodox Christianity for himself and the land of Rus’ ca. 988, they found different solutions for describing him. Because the old ROC service had emphasized Vladimir’s links to the Russian emperor, the OCU eliminated any references to rulers, emphasizing the assembled Ukrainian faithful, with the Grand Prince of Kyiv at their head. Its Volodymyr texts were both more Ukraine-oriented and more “democratic.” The UOC, reflecting its multiple constituencies, offered three different texts to suit three different ideas of Volodymyr’s role in Christianity and in Rus history, so that UOC priests and singers could choose among them depending on their own preferences.
Perhaps the most telling difference in liturgical veneration of saints came in the second week after Pentecost, designated in Slavic Orthodox Churches for the commemoration of all the saints of any given nation (the first week after Pentecost is All Saints). In the OCU, that week commemorates all saints of Ukraine. In 2021, Metropolitan Epifany led a service and an “all-Ukrainian prayer” on the Cossack graves marking those fallen at Bohdan Khmelnytsky’s 1651 Berestechko battle at the Georgiev monastery in Rivne. By contrast, although the UOC discussed the all-saints-of-Ukraine subject in 2015, noting that the first such service came in the 17th century at the initiative of Petro Mohyla, and that the best date might actually be the Sunday after July 15/28 marking St Vladimir, nothing came of that initiative. This year it might.
Some national saints initially commemorated only by the KP (Yaroslav the Wise, Petro Mohyla) have been adopted by both the UOC and the OCU. Particularly telling was the UOC canonization of Petro Kalnyshevsky, the last Hetman who after Catherine II’s destruction of the Zaporozhian Sich spent the last twenty-seven years of his life incarcerated in Solovki. Coming as it did after the Euromaidan deaths of 2014 and the war’s start in Eastern Ukraine, Kalnyshevsky’s canonization seemed to hopeful patriots in the UOC to be an acknowledgment of the real violence wrought against independent Cossacks by the imperial state, particularly the emphasis on Zaporizhzhia (he is listed as the “righteous warrior Petro Zaporozhzhs’kyi”). It will be curious to see what happens in both churches when the feast is commemorated this year, on June 13/26.
Recent political events pose the most challenges. Before the war, the famine of 1932-3 (Holodomor), a cornerstone of Ukrainian memory culture since independence, was reflected liturgically in different ways in the UOC and the OCU. UOC tendency was to do what Church leadership officially prescribed. The OCU’s participation was more vocal, more diverse, and more enthusiastically engaged with secular memory culture. The OCU was also more inclined to use forms of Holodomor commemoration developed in the North American diaspora in the 1950s-mid 1960s (for example, referring to Holodomor victims as martyrs).
Commemoration of those who perished in the 2014 Maidan was more politicized. Ukrainian Greek Catholics, who together with KP clerics dominated the religious aspect of the Maidan protests, dubbed the “heavenly hundred” as “new martyrs,” acclaiming them in a Stations of the Cross prayer as “rebelling against the evil that dominated our state, against the aggressors from the East, from Moscow swamps.” The OCU also commemorated those perished as “all warriors of the Maidan killed by Russian aggression,” took part in joint memorial processions with Greek Catholics, and celebrated panikhidas commemorating “fallen ATO warriors” (soldiers fighting in Eastern Ukraine). The UOC limited itself to panikhidas for the Orthodox fallen. However, because the Russian invasion has affected the UOC constituency especially powerfully (most churches in Eastern Ukraine are UOC), the UOC has now introduced more patriotic intercessions, including akathists before specially venerated icons, litanies against the invader, and singing Marian hymns like Tsaritse moia preblagaia before local Marian icons (such as before the Korsun icon in Sumy).
Before the war, although many in both the UOC and the OCU shared the desire for a canonical church in the local tradition, their liturgical approaches reflected different interpretations of what that meant. The OCU’s plurality of liturgical expression, its multiple translations of Ukrainian, and its greater ecumenical initiatives, meant more liturgical experimentation, like incorporating Patriarch Bartholomew’s “ecological molieben” into the Church New Year (September 1/14). The OCU’s attitude to the past was selective (in the sense of being focused on one narrative of Ukrainian history) and their attitude to the future expansive. With less emphasis on external forms like head-coverings for women, and a less hierarchical clergy-laity relationship, the OCU seemed to be evolving in the overall direction of UAOC in 1917-18, the Paris Exarchate in the 1920s-1950s, the OCA in the 1960s-1970s, or (in its emphasis on nation-building and secular memory culture) the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church.
By contrast, the UOC’s overall liturgical practice before the war was conservative, emphasizing ceremony and hierarchy. The UOC’s attitude to the past was inclusive in the sense of having a diversity of narratives (Rus, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, the Russian empire, and the USSR), their attitude to the present conservationist, and their attitude to the future cautious. Clerics shared the desire of their flocks for a “sacral” atmosphere and for conveying the sense that liturgy is a link to the past as well as to the living body of Christ. In this sense they could be compared to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in America (with its maintenance of liturgical Greek), the Estonian Orthodox Church in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, or the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia.
Before February 24, neither the UOC nor the OCU—or both—could be regarded as an embodiment of either pure tradition or innovation. Neither—or both—could claim to speak for “true” Ukraine. After the Russian invasion, both sides may be coming closer to a coherent Ukrainian liturgical narrative. The most pro-Russian elements, such as the Sviatohirsk Lavra, are largely under Russian occupation and have voiced their preference for the ROC. The most potentially charged holidays—the second Sunday after Pentecost, the feasts of St. Olha, St Volodymyr, and Ss. Borys and Gleb—are just around the corner. Celebrating the same rites might be one way of signaling unity. And perhaps engaging the war and its ghastly effects in liturgy may bring about a rapprochement that would not been possible otherwise.
Nadieszda Kizenko is Professor of History at the University of Albany.
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.