On May 27, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) declared its independence from the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), of which it had until then been a branch. The reason is very clear: it disagrees with its (former) supreme hierarch, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, who has supported the Russian war against Ukraine. The UOC did not use the word “autocephaly.” But if it succeeds in staying independent from the ROC, it will in fact have an autocephalous status—albeit one for the time being not recognized by any other Orthodox Church.
On Sunday, May 29, Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv commemorated all first hierarchs of local Orthodox Churches except the ones who have recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, including Metropolitan Tikhon of the Orthodox Church in America. Ukrainian Orthodoxy thus now continues to be in an awkward situation. The Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was granted autocephaly in January 2019, regards itself as the only canonical Church in the country. The UOC thinks the same about itself. World Orthodoxy is split over this question. Though numbers are not decisive in such questions, the UOC is much larger in terms of parishes (which are registered with a state office). The OCU claims to have more believers, but the sociological surveys it cites are not reliable (they ask, e.g., about affiliation with the “UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate,” which was never the name of the Church and which implies a Russian structure). In the last months, hundreds of parishes have changed jurisdiction from the UOC to the OCU. The UOC says that many of these transfers were carried out with violence, or by a decision made by the political authorities, not by the parishes themselves. But even if all of them were voluntary switches, it would hardly change the overall picture.
American Orthodox leaders, inevitably on one or other side of the widening Greek–Slavic divide in world Orthodoxy, typically echo the voice of the peculiar foreign “Mother–Church” to which each hierarch is canonically bound. So Archbishop Elpidophoros, Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA) in the USA, although expressing his sympathy for the hapless Russians being “deceived and victimized by their leaders . . . both civil and religious,” clearly echoed Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s decisive condemnation of “Moscow’s obsessive ethnophyletism and promotion of its Russkiy Mir agenda.”[i] No less pointedly, Archbishop Elpidophoros placed the “responsibility for condoning such unrighteousness . . . squarely on the leadership of the Russian Church and clearly on Patriarch Kirill.” By comparison, the overall transparency of the two statements posted on the website of the “only autocephalous American Orthodox Church”—to repeat the usual mantra of the Orthodox Church in America (OCA)—falls somewhere between the obscurity of the first statement (from OCA Metropolitan Tikhon [Mollard]) and the half–clarity of the second statement (from the bishops of the OCA Holy Synod).
In his statement of 24 February 2022, Metropolitan Tikhon refers ethereally to “the distressing developments in Ukraine” and repeats the exact verbal subterfuge which the Russian Federation used to announce their invasion: he asks, using the first person, that “President Putin put an end to “the [not his] military operations.”[ii] Within twenty–four hours after this anodyne request was publicly criticized,[iii] the OCA Holy Synod posted a more politically robust statement which correctly identifies the “military operations” as “the war of aggression waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.” An informed reader can discern and a prudent not to say sympathetic one can appreciate the ecclesiastical menace which, one can reasonably conjecture, obstructed the OCA’s public progression from obfuscation to half–clarity: the possible annulment or, more likely, effective neutralization of the fifty–year–old ROC tomos granting the (always contested in “Greek” world Orthodoxy) “Russian autocephaly” of the OCA.
War changes many things, primarily people’s minds, but also the usual flow of time. What takes years or even decades in peacetime takes a few months, or sometimes even days, during war.
On May 27, the Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), the highest governing body of the church, after much debate, expressed its disagreement with Patriarch Kirill’s support for the war in Ukraine and adopted amendments to the Statute of the UOC, “Testifying to the full self-sufficiency and independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”
It is beyond the scope of this report to analyze in detail the decisions of the UOC Council—not all of the documents have been published, nor have there been official statements from the hierarchy. My aim is to explain the logic of Metropolitan Onufry’s actions, because I hope that this will allow me to put the decisions of the Council of the UOC into the appropriate context.
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: