No official dialogue has thus far been established between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (under the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction until May 2022) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (which received autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2019), yet this is not an insurmountable obstacle to the informal dialogue on the grassroots level. Active priests and lay persons from both communities, supported by the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic and Religious Affairs (DESS) and several NGOs, are engaged in this dialogue. Their second meeting occurred on February 16, 2023, in the National Sanctuary Complex Kyiv Sophia. Before the meeting, participants prayed together for Ukraine; for the unity of Orthodoxy in Ukraine; and for soldiers, captives, the wounded, refugees, and volunteers. Archpriest Georgy Kovalenko conducted the prayer service. All other participants in the priestly ranks were without their epitrachelions, but they all prayed together. We publish the final document of this meeting below.
I. Russia’s military aggression against the sovereign Ukrainian state was the culmination of centuries of imperial pressure on our people’s spiritual and cultural identity. Guided by imperial chauvinistic ideology, under the slogans of the “Russian world,” Russia has always denied the right of the Local Ukrainian Church to exist. The Russian Orthodox Church invades the canonical territory of Ukrainian Churches and blesses Russia’s occupation and war crimes on the territory of the Ukrainian state.
II. In this challenging time, it is crucial to preserve the Ukrainian people’s spiritual unity, which originates in the ancient Kyivan Orthodox tradition. Therefore, we strive to achieve the unification of all Orthodox Ukrainians in one conciliar and local (autocephalous) Ukrainian Orthodox Church, recognized by the entire Orthodox Christian community. We realize that the way may not be easy, but it is our duty to start this movement.
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.
“We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul,” President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, on December 1, 2022, stated in reference to the need to ensure the spiritual independence of the country. He signed the decree with measures to counter religious organizations and figures affiliated with the aggressor state: the Russian Federation. Zelensky’s rule was based on the decision of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDCU). Immediately after the presidential statement and decree appeared in public, numerous publications emerged in the media and social networks trying to argue that these measures meant a ban on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), headed by Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv. However, these conclusions are hasty and mostly based not on an analysis of the text of the decree and the decision of the Security Council but on counter-propaganda and widespread hatred directed against the UOC.
The Security Council’s decision was preceded by several public scandals, the most notorious of which was the November 12 performance of a song referencing Russia in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the main monastery of the UOC. President Zelensky even had to comment on the scandal. The Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) searched the Lavra a few days later. A month before that, the SSU had searched the home of one of the UOC bishops, Metropolitan Jonathan of Tulchyn. The second notable scandal was connected with the too-soft decisions of the UOC Synod on November 23 concerning bishops who began collaborating with the Russian occupation authorities. There are five bishops in Crimea and Metropolitan Arkady of Roven’ki (Luhansk area), who transferred their dioceses into the direct jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, and also former Metropolitans Josef of Romny and Yelisey of Izyum, who fled to Russia after the liberation of the territory of his diocese by the Ukrainian army. The UOC Synod did not impose any sanctions against these bishops. There is no doubt that the facts of collaboration with the aggressor state disturb Ukrainian society, and the state must respond to them.
One of the keystone prerogatives claimed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate is its jurisdiction over the so-called “diaspora”—regions not included within the geographic boundaries of the other Autocephalous Churches. She insists that this exclusive extraterritorial jurisdiction is rooted in Canon 28 of Chalcedon which states:
[O]nly the metropolitans of the Pontian, Asian, and Thracian dioceses, as well as the bishops of the aforementioned dioceses among barbarians are ordained by the aforementioned most holy throne of the most Holy Church of Constantinople.
But that’s not what the canon explicitly says; it’s an interpretation. On its face, the canon seems to refer only to bishops who belong to the dioceses of Pontus, Asia, and Thrace, who are ministering among certain barbarians. The standard canonical commentators—Zonaras, Balsamon, Aristenos—all interpret the phrase literally, referring to specific barbarian groups who were adjacent to Pontus, Asia, and Thrace. At the turn of the 19th century, St Nikodemos repeats this interpretation in the Pedalion. The modern theory is nowhere to be found.