Four months ago, a UOC (Ukrainian Orthodox Church) Council in the Feofaniya monastery in Kyiv introduced fundamental changes into the Church’s statutes. That Council has already become a historic event—with possible implications for world Orthodoxy. But properly understanding the logic of its decisions means understanding what happened in the UOC after the Russian army’s full-scale invasion into Ukraine.
Before Russia launched the war against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the UOC was in a complicated position. Although it had been internally independent for many years, Ukrainian society (influenced by mass media) referred to it as the “Moscow Church,” accusing the UOC of secret connections with the Russian government and working against the interests of Ukraine. On the very first day of the war, however, the UOC’s First Hierarch Metropolitan Onufry categorically condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine, calling it “the sin of Cain” (fratricide) and appealing to Russian leadership to immediately cease military actions and to seek a diplomatic resolution of any problems. For many of his opponents, this was utterly unexpected.
The war also prompted serious internal discussions about the further fate of the UOC. UOC priests (especially those in the western dioceses) began to refuse to commemorate Patriarch Kirill at church services.
Some local Ukrainian authorities started to ban the activity of UOC parishes. Other districts, even if they did not actually enforce such bans, exercised informal pressure on UOC priests, demanding they leave the UOC. At the end of March, two proposals to the Supreme Rada proposed a full ban on UOC activity. Although the local decisions contradicted current legislation and although the legislative proposals had no chance, both palpably affected public opinion.
Under this pressure, several UOC communities moved to the OCU (Orthodox Church of Ukraine). While some did so voluntarily, many such “transfers” were not the result of the parishes’ free decision but were a de facto takeover. Although the central authorities (the Office of the President of Ukraine, for example), did not officially support the decisions of the local authorities against the UOC, they did not prevent them in any way, either. Understandably, this worsened the relations of the UOC both with the state authorities and the OCU.
In this highly complicated situation, the UOC’s Holy Synod decided on May 12, 2022 to convoke a meeting of bishops, priests, and laypeople in Kyiv. Although the country was in a state of war, Metropolitan Onufry managed to convoke the council in Feofaniya Monastery by May 27. Technology made it possible for delegates from eparchies in occupied territories (then more than a dozen) to join, so that bishops, priests, monks, and laypeople from all UOC dioceses took part.
The May 27 meeting opened with a quorum sufficient for a Council. However, as per the Statutes, a decision about the convocation of a Council had to be made by the full assembly of UOC bishops. The UOC bishops did support the idea of conducting a full UOC Council with the participation of clergy, monastics, and laity. It also approved this Council’s agenda—which included changing the statutes of the UOC.
In the afternoon, delegates reconvened: now not merely as meeting attendees, but as the Council of the UOC. This Council introduced key changes into the Statutes and into the status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. All provisions establishing the dependence of the UOC on the ROC were removed. These included:
- the UOC’s being linked to other Local Churches through the ROC,
- the UOC’s being a self-governing Church аs part of the ROC,
- the UOC’s being guided by the rulings of ROC Local and Episcopal Councils,
- the UOC’s elected Primate having to receive the blessing of the Patriarch of Moscow,
- the commemoration of the Patriarch of Moscow in all UOC churches,
- the Metropolitan of Kyiv’s being a permanent member of the Holy Synod of the ROC.
The Council also resolved “to resume the preparation of holy chrism [myrrh] in the UOC” and “to activate the mission of the UOC abroad.”
The Council of May 27 thus made a serious step towards the UOC’s full canonical independence. But the word “autocephaly” did not appear either in the Council Resolutions or in the revised Statutes. That is, there was no declaration of autocephaly at the Council. In its current form, the UOC Statute contains no provisions for its canonical dependence on other Local Churches. Nor is there a provision characteristic for autocephalous Churches—the obligation of the Primate upon election to send irenic letters to all Local Churches. The Statute does not mention whether the UOC First Hierarch must commemorate at liturgies all the Primates of Local Churches in accordance with the diptychs.
How did the UOC’s former opponents react? Some (predictably) declared that the UOC was only claiming that it has separated from Moscow, while in fact maintaining links with the Patriarchate. The Holy Synod of the OCU declared on May 31 that it “welcomed and supported all efforts aimed at final elimination of the Moscow Patriarchate’s power over the Church in Ukraine.” The Synod expressed happiness regarding the UOC’s “consent in principle” to dialogue with the OCU, while expressing regret that the UOC’s Council maintained its break in eucharistic communion with the Churches that recognized the OCU.
More critical OCU assessments came in unofficial comments. Archbishop Evstratii (Zoria), Speaker of the OCU’s Holy Synod, for example, wrote on his Facebook page on May 28 that although the UOC Council decisions represented progress, they were nonetheless written so as to “allow one to interpret them in precisely the opposite way,” and dismissed the UOC Council resolutions as “decorative elements.” Others criticized the UOC’s reference to the deed of Patriarch Alexey of Moscow in the first paragraph of its Statute. But that is there only to note that the UOC dates its contemporary existence from this document, when the Ukrainian exarchate was abolished and the UOC created in its stead. The rest of the new Statute clearly testifies that the UOC sees itself as a fully independent Church.
There is one question fairly aimed at the UOC: what then is now our canonical status? No autocephaly has been declared. What exactly does this mean?
We must frankly admit that this is a complicated question. And it can hardly be decisively resolved in the near future, all the more while the war is going on. For me personally, it is obvious that the scale of the “Ukrainian Church question” has long been so massive that it can only be resolved at a pan-Orthodox level. Patriarch Bartholomew’s unilateral attempt to solve this question essentially ended up а failure, as the question was not only not solved, but became even more tangled. The Council of May 27 means to me an important declaration and point of departure for the future. It is commendable that the UOC restrained itself from so reckless a step as unilaterally declaring autocephaly. That would have been a step into nowhere.
Finally, there is the matter of relations between the UOC and the OCU going forward. The Council’s resolutions express hopes for a future dialogue—but note the fundamental problems which remain. That sums up where we are, for better or worse. The level of tension that persists in UOC-OCU relations—unfortunately—does not allow for the possibility of an honest and open dialogue. Such a dialogue (if we approach it seriously) will take years, if not decades. Still, even as the UOC Council noted the problems which hinder a peaceful dialogue, it did not reject out of hand the possibility of a dialogue. That is surely something positive.
* * *
Only four months have passed since the UOC Council. Although it is too soon to fully assess its results, some are clear. First, the Council removed the tension that accumulated in the first months of the war both in the UOC and in its relations with the state: in many regions the pressure on the UOC noticeably declined (although it did not fully cease); some communities which before May 27 had resolved to transfer to the OCU decided to return to the UOC.
The changes in the UOC statute have already sparked far-reaching discussion about the future of Ukrainian Orthodoxy within the UOC itself and outside its bounds. Now we need a calm and qualified debate. But the very fact of such discussions makes me happy. Our Church and our people are not afraid of them. We are ready to discuss the accumulated problems and with God’s help to seek a resolution to the complicated “Ukrainian Church Question.”
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