Inter-Orthodox Relations, Religion and Conflict

Inter-Orthodox Relations in the Symbolic Field of Ukrainian Society

Published on: May 23, 2023
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The last year has been a difficult and conflictual one in Ukraine. It seems that war has become a way of life and thinking. It reanimates conflicts, exposes people’s feelings, opens old wounds, provokes intolerance and the search for an enemy, embitters, and most importantly, it makes people believe that there are simple solutions to complex issues; everything seems to be divided into two poles: black and white, our own and others’. In this wave of polarized thinking, society wants maximum clarity and certainty. Any secrets, ambiguities and mistakes, negligence and even silence that can be interpreted in different ways cause irritation and suspicion in the public mind. Everything must serve survival, and everyone must be together for the sake of the common victory.

Society reacts rather ambiguously to the presence of anything Russian in the country’s public space. The Russian language becomes a trigger and is labelled as a threat when it is symbolically associated with aggression in the minds of most Ukrainians. The boundaries of using Russian are defined by everyone personally; however, when it is manifested in public space and claims to political significance or public positioning of Russian identity, it becomes a challenge.

This situation has affected the perception of religion, and Orthodoxy in particular. Any religiosity and faith as a private matter, in any language, is not a problem to Ukrainians: they speak, pray, preach, and write not only in Ukrainian but also in Russian. The problem arises when religious symbolism comes into conflict with socio-political symbolism. Normally, religion should not cause resistance, but contribute to the social order. It gets worse when religious language does not meet public expectations. But the most critical situations happen when religion shows disrespect for what is considered sacred in the society, i.e., when it does not honor the dead, express grief for losses, condemn aggression, or is openly identified in the public consciousness with the bearers of Russian mentality and identity.

This is the situation the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) found itself in. Several power lines have come together at once, causing a conflict situation. Everyone understands that thousands of UOC communities do not want to move to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU); this is their right, and the UOC is not persecuted in Ukraine for this. But conflict arises when the rhetoric of the church’s speakers and its decisions violate the symbolic field of social harmony. It concerns the refusal of the UOC to clearly dissociate itself from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). The inconsistent decisions of the UOC Council left the question of dependence on the ROC unanswered; in times of war, such uncertainty is perceived as concealing ties with the church of the aggressor country.

The next factor is the behavior of the UOC speakers and its hierarchs, which seems incomprehensible to many Ukrainians. They communicate little with society and the government and close themselves off from dialogue. I am convinced that society would be more understanding of the UOC if its leadership directly addressed the people, admitted the mistakes of individuals, told its own but clear truth about the prospects for relations with the OCU and the ROC, and condemned the activities of outspoken collaborators. Instead, the UOC washes out carriers of Ukrainian identity, spokespersons who could speak to society, and brings to the fore those who are incapable of direct and honest dialogue. At the forefront of the UOC we see those who are tainted in the eyes of society by bribery, opportunism, and internal sympathies for the “Russian world.”

The UOC makes another mistake when it presents the escalation of the Orthodox crisis in Ukraine as a conflict between the church and the state, which allegedly decided to “take away” the Lavra and is facilitating the “seizures” of churches. If we look at it more broadly, we have a conflict between the UOC and Ukrainian civil society in which the state mostly reacts spontaneously, trying to take into account the mood of the society and assessing the level of threat to national security. That is, in Ukraine, there is no conflict between the church and nonbelievers, or the church and a secular and nationalistic state. There is a conflict between structures with different symbolic fields and interests. For the UOC, the main task is to preserve its corporate unity, to retain all its resources and presence in all territories. The fate of society and the state is secondary to them. The narrative of “preserving canonicity” dominating in the UOC is intended to oppose the OCU, which for most UOC believers is not a church. And the government and society do not see the point in structures that oppose their own interests to the expectations of society. The government sees the goal as the unity of the whole society, in which religion becomes part of the symbolic field of a Ukraine, united for victory.

The conflict between the UOC and civil society is grave. Over the past ten years, Ukrainian society has changed dramatically, going through a long way of transformation caused by political conflicts, the events of the Maidan, and Russian aggression. Meanwhile, the leadership of the UOC remained unchanged, and recently even moved in the opposite direction. The conflict between the church corporation and the civil society is caused by the disproportionality, neglect, and backwardness of the church leadership towards public demands and sentiments.

The UOC found itself trapped in its own prejudices, which had been forming for a long time, based on the fear of schism. They believe that “whoever is not with us is against us,” whoever is not in our structure is a schismatic. They present political ideologies of the Russian Orthodox Church about “Holy Rus’,” “one nation and one church” as the Gospel of Christ. Society does not care about structures; it values the decency and solidarity of ministers who see human suffering and are ready to make drastic decisions for the sake of God’s love and truth.

Ukrainian society remains tolerant; it accepts the existence of a variety of religious beliefs. But when it does not see solidarity with the pain of the people, it concludes that the church is not fulfilling its direct functions before God. Society intuitively considers itself part of a single church, while the leaders of the UOC divide society into friends and foes. There is also an ecclesiological conflict in Orthodoxy about different understandings of the nature of the church and its vocation. The essence of this conflict is simple: if there is already an Orthodox Church of Ukraine recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch, then why do we need an additional structure that is also in union with the church of the aggressor country and pursues an opaque and incomprehensible policy in the midst of Ukraine?

Many of the faithful and priests of the UOC are torn between their duty to the church and to the structure. They are hurt by the position of their own leadership, so they are looking for a dialogue. But many of them lack the freedom from prejudice to recognize the OCU as an equal church. I am convinced that there is a need to make a choice concerning how we understand serving God. This is an existential choice of perceiving the other as equal, and it is a conciliar choice to recognize another church next to us. There is no need to hide behind the prescriptions of tradition. In tradition, one can find examples of preserving structures, ranks, rites, and church authority, but one can rethink tradition as a basis for eternal and living service to God in new conditions. Structures and corporations should be responsible to the present and not to protect the past. And until Christians individually or collectively (synodally) tell themselves the truth—that we are one in Christ and in one Ukraine—there will be no peace and harmony in Ukraine.

The UOC leaders’ assessment of the situation is significantly influenced by their theological position. The position of the UOC leaders is extremely conservative; they profess theological fundamentalism and isolationism. They regard all those who do not share their confidence in their own model of ecclesiology as schismatics. The position of theological authoritarianism is covered in the UOC by the rhetoric of defending piety and fidelity to the canons. In reality, it is a hidden repressive rhetoric of usurpation of power, which is potentially conflict-prone.

How dependent is the UOC on the ROC at this point? The problem is not only that these ties exist, that they are hidden and camouflaged. The problem is that the UOC is a structure similar to the ROC in terms of its tasks, church-political narratives, and theological exclusivism. There may be clergy and believers who disagree with the leadership and are committed to dialogue with the OCU, society, and the government, but this has little effect on the style and theological position of the leadership. As long as the church is led by the team of Metropolitan Onufriy, no fundamental changes can take place. It seems more beneficial for them to be portrayed in the media as suffering from persecutions. Such tactics do not lead to conflict resolution.

Is the OCU ready for dialogue? How does the OCU appear in the public consciousness? With the tomos and the support of the authorities, the OCU has received a huge deposit for the future. It actively advertises in the symbolic field of the media that it is national, Ukrainian, patriotic, and it is perceived as a Ukrainian church by the majority, because it forms the Ukrainian identity and symbolizes the unity of religion and people. However, the OCU carries a heavy burden of the past: grievances, its own corporate interests, a desire to seize the moment and expand to the maximum. This is not only an ideal goal, but also a hidden interest of the institution to dominate. To a certain extent, the situation with the UOC is beneficial to it, because it allows the OCU to feel that a just retribution for decades of humiliation has come. It is ready for a dialogue with the UOC on its own terms, which it is trying to speed up to deprive its competitor of advantages. It is very desirable that the OCU does not repeat the mistakes of the UOC in its interaction with the authorities and does not alienate those priests and lay people who are ready to change jurisdiction with all its statements and actions.

What does society expect from the church in general? It wants both structures to forget about corporate interests and unite in a common symbolic field for the sake of love, to make decisions that do not contradict the will of God, conscience, and the expectations of society. For the Church is not only canons, shrines, and corporate interests; it is a conductor of the light of life, peace, and love, a medium of communion with Christ. The Church has repeatedly chosen new paths that have changed it in history, and these changes have not been a betrayal of the Truth and God. Sometimes change is the way to preserve the Truth and fidelity to God!

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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.

About author

  • Hennadii Khrystokin

    Professor, Department of Advertising and Public Relations, National Aviation University (Kyiv, Ukraine)

    Hennadii Khrystokin has over 25 years total experience teaching in Ukrainian higher education institutions. He has been a lecturer of philosophy, philosophy of science, media philosophy, philosophy of law, religious studies, and the basics of Christian culture. He is the author of about 140 scientif...

    Read author's full bio and see articles by this author

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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