The military actions of Russia against the sovereign nation of Ukraine, the lack of archpastoral support for Ukrainian Orthodox Christians by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and the Russian Orthodox (ROC) ecclesial community, and their simultaneous approval of the military aggression against the Ukrainian state and Ukrainian people by the political leadership of Russia—all these have led to an irreconcilable contradiction between the official status of the Patriarch in relation to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the reality of the situation. The declarations by many hierarchs and individual priests in Ukraine that they are ceasing to commemorate the Patriarch were a consequence. The ecclesial life of Ukrainian Orthodoxy thus now exists in a new reality. It is an open question, however, what canonical form this new reality should take.
The polemics that have arisen around these new realities of church life haven taken three general directions:
A 2007 Act of Canonical Communion of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) with the Russian Orthodox Church Moscow Patriarchate (Russian: Акт о каноническом общении Русской Православной Церкви Заграницей с Русской Православной Церковью Московского Патриархата) reunited the two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church: the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and the Moscow Patriarchate.
On May 17, 2007, I stood in a modest headscarf at the Church of Christ the Savior Cathedral next to my sister and aunt. Two of my sisters, their husbands, two cousins, and life-long friends were in attendance as singers and clergy. They had come from the United States on a specially chartered flight. I had flown from Armenia where I was working for an American international development project and had gone to a great deal of trouble waiting on endless lines for a Russian visa.
The President of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin, came out holding a candle, displaying exemplary church demeanor and remaining for most of the service. I stood perhaps 30 feet away from him. He appeared suitably devout. We prayed hard. The ROCOR choir sang like angels above us. ROCOR clergy read litanies. We felt welcomed home. The next day we attended the blessing of the Butovo execution field venerating the graves of executed believers.
I did not personally decide to reunify the ROCOR to the Moscow Patriarchate in 2007. I was not at any of the meetings. (Indeed, there was controversy because at the All-Diaspora Council on the Sunday of the Myrrh-Bearing Women—when the issue was decided by ROCOR—there was absolutely no participation by women, which was not typical of church life in emigration.) But I plead guilty because I viewed the issue legalistically. I had read the ROCOR documents, I knew that the ROCOR charter was “temporary,” until the cessation of godless communism in Russia, and I thought that we were legally there. In 1991, when the USSR fell apart and churches reopened, I thought that the time was near.
Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is still uncoiling, but the destruction he is inflicting on the people of Ukraine has already succeeded in uniting the fractious Orthodox churches in Ukraine around defense of their homeland. He has also ensured that the Patriarchate of Moscow—so closely aligned with Vladimir Putin—has no future in Ukraine, whatever its canonical claims. The Orthodox Church is devoted to preserving good order and canonical tradition, but there are times when canons must yield to reality, and in Ukraine, it should have been obvious decades ago that Moscow’s ecclesiastical oversight of Ukraine was impossible. Certainly after 2014 with Putin’s annexation of Crimea, his carving out of Donbas, and his war of occupation that left 14,000 Ukrainians dead in eight years. This was a glaring pastoral reality that Patriarch Bartholomew recognized in granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2018 despite canonical controversy. Now, among the Orthodox churches in Ukraine faced with uniting against Moscow’s monstrous war, there is already talk of a union council. And maybe the rest of the Orthodox world will eventually catch up and see the pastoral wisdom of Patriarch Bartholomew’s action.
Here, the history of the Church of England during the American Revolution in 1775-1783 offers some valuable lessons. As David L. Holmes wrote in an important article on which this essay is based:
Technically speaking, the Anglican Church in America was an innocent bystander in the American Revolution. But since it lived in the neighborhood of one of the participants and was intimately related to the other, it emerged with a terrible beating. The war raised questions of patriotism, of loyalty, and of the obligations of Christians at a time of war…
(David L. Holmes, “The Episcopal Church and the American Revolution,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 47, No. 3 (September, 1978), pp. 261-291, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42973625, 261.)
Since the start of the invasion of Ukraine by Russia, the West has displayed a significant level of unity and solidarity with Ukraine. Comprehensive sanctions against Russia’s leadership coupled with military support to the Ukrainians have been at the forefront of the Western response. Before the invasion happened, we also witnessed intense and repeated, albeit unsuccessful, diplomatic efforts with the purpose of derailing Putin’s plans.
The same level of solidarity, which now requires a possible refit to better address the increased calls for protection of civilians, has been absent in the Orthodox world. A number of Orthodox churches failed even to call out and condemn Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. After the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) scored several recognitions in 2019 and 2020, the enthusiasm for new recognitions has arguably slowed down. Ever since the granting of the Ukrainian autocephaly in January 2019, the Russian Orthodox Church has been weaponizing the question of the OCU’s recognition by devising and delivering a counter-recognition strategy.
The undecided group of churches that have neither leaned explicitly towards Moscow nor the Ecumenical Patriarchate, namely the Romanian, Bulgarian, and the Georgian Orthodox Church should have done the right thing and recognized Ukrainian autocephaly the moment Patriarch Kirill attempted to deflect and blame external evil forces for the war Putin waged against Ukraine. By staying idle on the matter, they are missing a chance to lend support to the OCU, which would further solidify this church but also provide hope to those in the UOC-MP who are taking steps to cut the cord with Patriarch Kirill.