by Andriy Fert
In late May 2022, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) held a local council to announce independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. But six months since, it is still being determined what that independence means. Metropolitan Onufriy of Kyiv commemorates heads of other churches in the way only primates of autocephalous churches do. Still, it doesn’t seem he ever asked them to recognize his church as autocephalous.
And if one looks at what the church’s representatives have been saying over the last months, it’ll strike one as a mixture of “everything is different now” with “nothing has really changed.” And there lies the first problem jeopardizing the UOC’s future: this church constantly fails to deliver an unequivocal message to its priests and the outside public.
Never before were the rank-and-file priests so visible and vociferous in discussions on the church’s future as they are now. In fact, the war has empowered the UOC’s non-monastic majority to raise their voices and take action. Left to deal with the daily consequences of the war, parish priests, for instance, had to find a way to cope with growing resentment against Moscow on the ground and make sure no one considered their parish a part of the Russian spy network. Bishops faced that challenge too, but hardly ever so acutely.
So, no surprise that it started with priests. First, they refused to commemorate Moscow Patriarch Kirill en masse then began to create informal groups to draft their vision of the future. Many left the UOC to join the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in protest or because their parishioners made them. And ultimately, it was mainly because of the enormous pressure from the priests that the bishops decided to convene the council on May 27.
The outside public, specifically state authorities, was also closely following the church’s life. Since 2014, the UOC has constantly been at odds with the state. But after February 2022, the central government took a very cautious and even neutral stance on the “UOC question,” citing non-interference to avoid any internal conflicts. Many local authorities, however, did not follow suit. Some of them, having no legal rights to do that, would ban the UOC’s communities or press them to join the OCU. The church filed lawsuits and was likely to win this battle.
But recently, the central government abandoned the non-interference strategy. Being asked about the UOC at the press conference, president Zelensky said anyone who undermined national security would be prosecuted and that he considered the possibility of giving more authority to the state agency responsible for religious policy. His words coincided with the avalanche of raids the Ukrainian Security Service conducted in the UOC’s diocesan residences and monasteries, including the most prominent one, Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra. What is more, two bishops are officially suspects under investigation. The crackdown is likely a message to the UOC that the state had grown tired of indecisive measures against “pro-Russian” clergymen and inconsistent progress on the path the church had taken in May.
Inconsistency is yet another problem the church faces. Having declared itself fully independent of Moscow, the UOC, in fact, did little to really enforce and cement this decision. Firstly, Metropolitan Onufriy did not attempt to reshuffle his Holy Synod. This crucial institution still includes hierarchs who, if not openly critical of independence, are highly against it. Moreover, many of them have extremely unpleasant images of pro-Russian functionaries, both among the priests and the outside public.
It is no surprise that in its current edition, the Synod is unable to effectively pursue any reform agenda and instead comes out with rather provocative decisions. Take, for instance, the latest Synod’s decree in November. Not only does it fail to condemn the collaborationism of some bishops in the Russian-occupied territories, but it also goes as far as to hail them “heroes.” That Synod also says nothing about the dioceses annexed by Moscow after the May 27 Council. Nor does it mention its members who refused to accept May 27 decisions and chose to stay with Moscow.
Six months later, the UOC does not hold any dialogue with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and, by extension, with Constantinople, which backs it. This leads the UOC to isolation both within Ukraine and abroad. The May 27 Council indeed spoke in favor of dialogue with the OCU on several conditions. But those conditions are practically impossible to meet, like the one demanding the OCU acknowledge the uncanonical status of their bishops. The OCU and Constantinople remain “bad guys” in mainstream UOC discourse, and the situation doesn’t seem to be improving. In addition, mutual hostility between the churches continues to rise thanks to the question of parishes’ transfers: as late as last week, the UOC Synod again refused to recognize the transfers calling them “takeovers” orchestrated by “radicals.” While not entirely untrue, such statements are still far from accurate and only stigmatize those who feel the urge to get away from what they see as the “pro-Russian” church.
On top of that, the church does little to rethink its Russian legacy in public worship or history teaching. A couple of weeks ago, the video with the UOC’s parishioners singing “Bell tolls, bell tolls over Russia, Mother Rus is waking up” in Kyiv-Pechersk Lava went viral. But it is not unusual; this church has a plethora of devotions—both authorized and vernacular—that draw on episodes from Russian history or invoke controversial saints, like Aleksandr Nevsky or Tsar Nicholas II. Rather than discuss these practices and find a way to properly amend them, the church opts for non-interference. As Nadieszda Kizenko points out in her entry for Public Orthodoxy, the UOC is tolerant to different liturgical texts. For example, there are three different texts on St. Volodymyr “to suit three different ideas of Volodymyr’s role in Christianity and in Rus history”—ranging from the Ukrainian idea of that to the Russian imperial one.
Such ideological heterogeneity in the liturgy, however, does not include active engagement with secular memory. Unlike its rivals, the UOC is not very active or creative in commemorating Ukrainian historical events, such as the 1932-33 famine or the 2014 Euromaidan protests, that are crucial to Ukrainian national identity. It doesn’t represent the victims of these events as martyrs like OCU does, nor does it sacralize their commitment to the national cause. This, in turn, makes the outside public suspicious and reinforces a “pro-Russian” image of the UOC.
In addition, practically every church history textbook used at the UOC theological seminaries still tells readers a story with the help of Russian or Soviet historical narratives. Those narratives argue that Ukrainians always wanted to be together with their Russian “brothers in faith,” and whenever they found themselves outside Russian borders, they always suffered and were persecuted. I studied several textbooks of this sort in 2019, and from what I know, they are still in use.
Six months after the May 27 Council, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church appears more multifaceted, decentralized, disorganized, and not moving forward. The state’s pressure and the growing frustration of priests and adherents are destroying the church edifice. To survive, the UOC has to be determined and consistent in its attempts to get away from the Moscow Patriarchate, neither of which it is now.
Andriy Fert is a historian at work on his PhD dissertation at Kyiv-Mohyla Academy in Ukraine. His studies focus on memory, lived religion, and church-state relations in late-Soviet and contemporary Ukraine.
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.