Which Orthodox Church in Ukraine is the Largest?

by Thomas Bremer

Drawing of Ukrainian church
Image Credit: iStock.com/L_Kramer

From the moment the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch early in 2019, it has competed with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) not only over canonicity but also about the number of parishes and the number of faithful. Each claims to be the only canonical church in the country, and also the largest, but numerous transfers of parishes from the jurisdiction of the UOC to that of the OCU (and a few the other way around), the situation of the war—and thus the preoccupation of the authorities and the faithful alike with more urgent problems—make it almost impossible to arrive at reliable data. On September 13, 2022, the head of the State Service for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience, Olena Bohdan, publicly described the UOC as being the largest religious “network” in the country. A few days earlier, a leaked document showed the administration of the Ukrainian Security Service for the city and the district of Kyiv as saying that the transfers of faithful from the UOC to the OCU present a threat for national security (since parish meetings of those preparing transfers can lead to open conflicts, and since “transfers can foment interconfessional hatred”). The Synod of the OCU reacted on October 18 with a statement claiming that state authorities hinder the transfer of parishes from the UOC, “which has only 4% public support.”

The question of which church is larger remains open, however. There are two ways to count: by number of parishes or by number of faithful. Regarding parishes, the Ukrainian authorities have very thorough statistics. Every religious community that wants to exist legally in Ukraine has to register with the aforementioned State Service and to provide data regularly about numbers of parishes, clergy, training institutions, etc. We have these statistics for many years, enabling us to see the dynamics of the growth (or decline) of religious communities. To interpret these numbers, several elements are important:

1. The number of parishes includes “active” and “inactive” ones. In the years of tensions between the Orthodox communities, some have established parishes in order to be present in a certain region, but some such parishes never actually operated.

2. The category “parish” does not say anything about its size. It can be a large cathedral in a city where on a Sunday several services are held, with hundreds of participants in each, or a small village church where 15 believers show up on an average Sunday. Each would count as one parish.

3. After the establishment of the OCU in early 2019, several hundred UOC parishes switched to that church. By the end of September 2022, there were 1,151 such cases. The UOC disputed most of these transfers and challenged them in court. In many cases, parishes seem not to have switched but to have split: part goes to the OCU and another stays with the UOC. The parish is thus transferred to the OCU, but the UOC establishes a new parish in the same town or village. That means that both churches grow (in terms of the number of parishes).

4. The statistics reflect the status as of January 1 of each year. After the war broke out, the situation changed in many places. A proper registration of the transfers is often impossible, and no one can give reliable data on the situation in occupied territories and in war zones. Some information suggests that the Russian authorities do not allow any other church except the UOC (or even the Russian Orthodox Church) in the territories under their control.

All that said, let us try to look at the latest statistics (January 1, 2021). The UOC had 12,406 parishes, among them 239 inactive and 89 non-registered. The OCU had 7,188 parishes, among them 457 inactive and 328 non-registered. There are seven more Orthodox Churches in Ukraine, but none of them has more than 79 parishes, so they are not statistically significant.

These numbers show that, when we look at the number of parishes, the UOC is by far larger. There are huge regional differences. In some districts (oblasts), one church can be ten times larger than the other (and vice versa).

In this context, the number of clergymen is also interesting. Both churches have far fewer clergy than parishes (the UOC 10,510 for 12,406 parishes; the OCU 4,572 for 7,188 parishes). Here the regional differences are extremely important. The OCU has only one out of 25 districts with more clergy than parishes, the UOC one in 10. Two extreme examples: In Cherkassy district, the UOC has only 255 ministers for 569 parishes. In Vinnytsia district, the OCU has 129 clergymen for 422 parishes.

Now the number of believers. There are no official statistics, whether by the churches or by the state. Sociologists have tried to establish data by using surveys. The most prominent public opinion institute in Ukraine, the Razumkov Center, has conducted surveys over many years and published the results. Here too one needs to bear some things in mind:

1. Many Orthodox Ukrainians (some 36%) define themselves, when asked for the concrete church to which they belong, as “simply Orthodox.” They do not want to identify with one of the Church organizations, but they want to stress that they are Orthodox.

2. The researchers themselves concede that frequently the responders do not know the name of their church. When one group of people is asked about its Church belonging, and after some other questions the one on church belonging comes up again but with the churches listed in a different order, one gets significantly different results. People obviously see the first church on the list which seems to fit and check it. The fact that the names of the churches are so similar also contributes to this phenomenon.

3. The surveys partly use correct names for the churches, and partly names which are not the official ones. The UOC is in the questionnaires called “Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate.” This is not its name, and it never was. In a situation when Russia has attacked Ukraine, and the Moscow Patriarch defends that attack, it is hard to imagine that people who belong to the UOC would check that field. In addition, the names of the heads of the churches are frequently added to the name of the Church. Metropolitan Epifany (OCU) is much more present in the public sphere, media, etc., than his UOC counterpart Metropolitan Onufry; that also makes it more likely that people will check the Church next to Epifany’s name.

Before the war, a field study was done by simply counting the churchgoers in some places. The result was very sobering. Despite the high degree of piety and church attendance that sociologists had found for many years, many fewer people actually showed up at services. In many places, if all those who said they would attend did so, the existing church buildings could even not accommodate the faithful. It would be interesting to pursue more and better-coordinated research, but that is impossible under the circumstances of war. Studies show, however, that the UOC faithful are more attached to their parishes, are more active in them, and more frequently attend services than those of the OCU.

This data leads to the conclusion that we cannot make any reliable statement about the number of faithful. The 4% number quoted by the OCU is not robust. With the limitations noted above, the UOC is larger in terms of parishes. Even if the war made hundreds of parishes shift to the OCU, the difference still is large. In terms of public support and identification with one of the Churches, the OCU seems to be stronger.

But one should ask whether the point is in numbers. A resolution of the Ukrainian church question will not be reached by marginalizing one of the two churches or by fostering transfers. New forms of coexistence, even cooperation, must be found to overcome the situation. Such an outcome seems unlikely, however. Instead, both churches compete with each other in a competition no one can win.

Thomas Bremer is a retired professor of 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.