Inter-Orthodox Relations

On the Way to a Unified Orthodox Church in Ukraine Challenges and Perspectives

Published on: March 9, 2023
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On February 16, the second face-to-face meeting of initiative groups of clergy and laity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was held in Sophia National Sanctuary Complex in Kyiv. Its final appeal we published on Public Orthodox earlier. Now we follow up with the impressions and comments of one of the participants from the UOC.

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For the first time, the meeting began with a moleben, a common prayer in the church. We prayed for the unity of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, for Ukraine and its defenders, for victory, and for all who suffer the sorrow and pain of war. Before the official part started, we had time to socialize and get acquainted. It was the first time we were joined by authorized representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC): officers of the Department for External Church Relations and the Kyiv Theological Academy. At the beginning of the roundtable, each participant (about 30 people, the largest part being the UOC group) briefly outlined his expectations. Speeches were delivered by two representatives of the church “initiative groups” (hereafter an “IG”) and the head of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic and Religious Affairs (DESS), Victor Yelensky. All three addresses are published. Elena Bogdan, former director of the DESS, also participated in the meeting as a co-organizer and moderator of the first meeting. It was the initiative of the IGs to invite the DESS to join our discussions.

The following common points were expressed in the addresses by the representatives of the Churches:

  1. A call to refrain from condemning each other and from hostile rhetoric;
  2. The goal of the dialogue should be unification, a unifying Council;
  3. Concrete steps leading to this goal are necessary;
  4. The goal of the meeting is to appeal to both Churches to begin an official dialogue.

Archpriest Igor Kovrovsky (of the Bila Tserkva diocese) spoke on behalf of the UOC. He listed things that, in addition to a shared Orthodox faith, already unite representatives of both Churches today. He also discussed a painful question for the UOC: that of the forcible seizure of churches and the forcible transfer of communities to another jurisdiction, often initiated not by members of the religious community but by the local authorities. To reduce mutual tensions, he called for a moratorium on the re-registration of parishes, at least those around which there is acute confrontation and suspicion concerning the legality of the transfer. Having noted the active patriotic stance of all the members of the UOC IG and of that significant part of the UOC whose views it represents, he called for a rejection of the idea of the UOC’s collective responsibility for the actions of individual collaborators and “Russian world” propagandists in its ranks. The first steps toward harmonization: joint funeral services for killed defenders of Ukraine; joint molebens; and the importance of preaching Christian love, tolerance, and respect in relations with one another. He suggested that the state authorities initiate negotiations between the branches of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. He called for a refusal to impose preconditions for inter-church dialogue: “You cannot begin a serious conversation preliminarily insisting precisely on your truth and looking for a better position. To conduct dialogue from the standpoint of the love commanded to us by Christ means, first of all, to demonstrate a sacrificial attitude. Each side’s sacrifice will be in setting aside its ambition for the sake of the common goal.”

The speaker from OCU IG, Archpriest Vladimir Vakin, rector of the Volyn Orthodox Theological Academy, called for solving the problem of unification first and foremost in its ecclesiological dimension. Theses of his address: Locality, autocephaly is an expression of the unity of the Catholic Orthodox Church in local contexts. Therefore, the dialogue should aim at unification, not the peaceful coexistence of two different entities, similar to how representatives of other confessions coexist. Otherwise, this ecclesiological anomaly will intensify the pan-Orthodox crisis, will not lead to a resolution of hostility, and will also play into the hands of Moscow, which consciously amplifies the crisis. The first practical step is the restoration of the UOC’s communion with those churches with which it has broken off communion. The ideal is a unifying council, but based on the realities of the confrontation, transition models can be proposed, such as joint working groups that would set specific dates for unification, so that the two churches “begin to live together” while remaining in their canonical administrative structures, with two primates, and unity would be expressed through a periodically held council, which would determine the representation of the two structures in a common Synod. All dioceses would remain “in their own right,” and options would gradually be developed to solve the problems of the coexistence of several bishops in one city. The ultimate goal of this period is to determine the election date of a single hierarch (3-5 or more years in advance), after which the status of the Patriarchate can be requested. This could be another model, but it is necessary to start its elaboration.

The head of the DESS, Victor Yelensky, noted in his address that his State Service and the state welcome the idea of unification and support it. Referring to Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev’s maxim about the differences between the Orthodox and Catholics, he said that when he thinks about the differences that separate Ukrainians of different Orthodox jurisdictions, he hears about canons and references to various church documents. This recalls an official who does not read the Constitution but refers only to departmental instructions written years ago: “Because the ‘Constitution,’ the Gospel, speaks clearly about this unity, and to refer to ‘bylaws’ in these circumstances is perhaps not entirely fitting.” He mentioned nine existing draft laws that arose under the influence of a large public request to ban the activities of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine, and he presented a draft law “on preventing the activities of structures associated with the centers located in the country that commits military aggression against Ukraine,” which is most likely to be adopted. He added that after communicating with many representatives of the UOC, he does not understand the value of such a connection with this center, with Patriarch Kirill, who, during the war, expressed sympathy to anyone but those suffering from the war in Ukraine blessed by him. “Those who cling to this connection have chosen the path of confrontation not only with the state but primarily with Ukrainian society and their faithful.” He noted that the state is interested in unification “so that there were no winners and losers…I put my hope in your initiative for your combined efforts. Apart from you (clergy and laity), hardly anyone will do this work.”

The points made in these speeches were then discussed, particularly the obstacles to unification, the takeover of churches by force (or obstruction of the will of the congregations), the mutual prejudice among the faithful of both churches, and the future joint appeal of the IG to the two Churches was discussed. As a result, a joint working group was formed that would prepare the appeal after the meeting. The issue of problematic ordinations was briefly touched upon, and it is worth noting that the majority of the UOC IGs shared their conviction that the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to admit them into communion was legitimate.

The meeting was fruitful, the dialogue was honest and mutually respectful, and the UOC working group participants, when talking about the difficulties in creating a joint appeal, perceived the result as a clear miracle (both sides were able to make such mutual compromises).

However, it would be wrong to put a period here. We should at least briefly describe the real mood among the parishioners and clergy of both Churches.

Both the UOC and the OCU retain a high level of distrust and mutual hostility, and this has been nurtured over the years. If in the past the UOC constantly insisted on its sole canonical legitimacy (as opposed to the former UOC-Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church), now both Churches mutually accuse each other of non-canonicality: the UOC denies the legitimacy of tomos, and the OCU insists that the UOC has lost its canonical status. Both publicly claim to be the largest churches in Ukraine.

Many members of both Churches see overcoming the divisions only in the process of joining the other Church to theirs. However, after the war began, it is unlikely that anyone believes that it is possible for the OCU to join the UOC.

Even in the patriotically minded part of the UOC, where many recognize the OCU as part of the Church and do not consider them schismatics, the desire to preserve the UOC as an independent, autocephalous structure prevails. There is a clear unwillingness to unite, at least in the near future. (Reasons vary: “They are not like us”; “They are worse”; “How can we unite with those who seize our churches by force”; “They force us to transfer, and this causes only protests.”) The case at the annual meeting of the Kyiv diocese, where one of the oldest clergymen, addressing Metropolitan Onufry, called for the proclamation of autocephaly, to seek recognition from the local Churches, and to proclaim Blessed Onufry as patriarch, is telling. The overwhelming majority of the clergy in the hall met the proposal with thunderous applause and shouts of support.

Among the apolitical part of the UOC and the part for which it is important to preserve the canonical connection with Moscow (these are the followers of a peculiar ecclesiology that equates “proper canonical status” with “grace” and fear breaking with Moscow and non-recognition by the other local Churches, or those who believe in a special Russian messianism, that Russia is “the last outpost of Orthodoxy, resisting the morally decaying West”) most often see the OCU as “schismatics” and “renovationists” (their markers are a service in Ukrainian instead of Church Slavonic, the declaration of the near-term switch to the New Julian calendar), and as passive agents of ecumenism (the active agent, in their opinion, is Constantinople). In these circles, the sentiments “They seize our churches by force,” and “They are not like us at all, they are terrible” are especially strong, and many support conspiracy theories (“The world behind the scenes wants to destroy Orthodoxy with the hands of Constantinople”). A very common perception in the UOC is that it is not the faith that dominates the OCU but Ukrainian patriotism.

The option to discuss the question of dialogue is limited by the absence of internal dialogue within the UOC, between clergy and laity on the one hand and the episcopate on the other, and also between the episcopate and the Primate. The paradox of the situation is that different groups interpret the decisions of the UOC Council in May 2022 in a variety of ways (whether the UOC has already separated from the Russian Orthodox Church or not, whether this is the beginning of separation, or a diversionary maneuver to restore previous relations over time), and almost no one exactly knows what Metropolitan Onufry thinks about these decisions and what his vision for the future of the UOC is. At the same time, he remains the only person in the UOC able to consolidate the majority of its faithful around a particular task (whether a proclamation of autocephaly or the need for an official dialogue with the OCU).

The episcopate of both Churches is heterogeneous; I do not know exactly their fears of unification, but I know that for part of the OCU episcopate, it is a fear of being absorbed by the will of the larger UOC episcopate in the conciliar process.

The OCU seems to be more open to dialogue, and the Primate of the OCU has expressed his willingness to engage in dialogue without preconditions. However, in my opinion, the internal level of unwillingness for unification in it is higher than in the UOC. 

In the OCU, there are strong sentiments: “We are patriots, they are collaborators”; “They had time to define their position with respect to the Russian Orthodox Church, they did not want to, now we do not want to unite with them”; “They are Kremlin agents, the priesthood is the FSB in cassocks.” Even among those who see the heterogeneity of moods in the UOC, the following prevails: “Yes, of course, there is a patriotic part, but they are hostages of the Moscow system”; “But you will never break away from the Moscow patriarchate”; “If we unite, we can turn into the ROC #2.” To the official name of the UOC, in conversation, or in publications, many will be sure to add: “MP.” A great achievement of the first meeting, for example, was the agreement by the OCU participants to reject this “obligatory” addition or to call the UOC a “Moscow church.”

At all three meetings and at the mutual discussions between meetings, at some point, the OCU representatives said, “We don’t understand what prevents you from simply going to the OCU” [instead of these dialogues of unification – author’s note].

Representatives of the OCU are particularly sensitive to the non-recognition of their sacraments by the UOC. For a very long time, the UOC has been promoting the idea of a “complete lack of grace” in the UOC-Kyiv Patriarchate (and later in the OCU), calling them “artists in Orthodox vestments” and practicing re-baptism. To this day, in some UOC-affiliated media, one can find: “so-called Metropolitan Epiphany,” “citizen Dumenko” (also about him), and “Turkish patriarch” (about the Patriarch of Constantinople).

Since in modern Ukrainian society, there is a high percentage of those with magical consciousness, this strategy of struggle with the opponent was successful for some time (because the essence of magic is the belief in a correctly performed, including “legal” ritual) but generated great reciprocal hatred from the OCU. Now that the OCU is “in favor” as the UOC once was during the Kuchma and Yanukovich presidencies, the temptation to take advantage and suppress the hated opponent is almost irresistible.

The overall background to the dialogue that the Churches have begun is extremely challenging. However, many participants believe that “The things which are impossible with men are possible with God” (Lk. 27, 18), and there are many people in both Churches who are depressed by this mutual hostility and division.

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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.

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  • Archimandrite Seraphim (Pankratov)

    Archimandrite Seraphim (Pankratov)

    Rector of Elisabethan Monastery of Mercy in Zhuravnoe Village, Sumy Diocese of the UOC and Teach at Sumy Theology Seminary

    Archimandrite Seraphim (Pankratov) is the rector of the Elisabethan Monastery of Mercy in Zhuravnoe Village, Sumy Diocese of the UOC. He is teaching at Sumy Theological Seminary. He was the initiator and coauthor of the first open letter to the UOC about the termination of the commemoration of the M...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.


Public Orthodoxy is a publication of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University