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.
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.
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has caught the attention of the public for multiple reasons. The humanitarian catastrophe, the sheer horror of ceaseless shelling, the shooting of protesters in the streets, the attacks on nuclear plants, the threats to assassinate President Zelensky and other leaders, and the war on democracy.
One of the underreported consequences of Russia’s attack is the betrayal, isolation, and devastation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). UOC-MP clergy, faithful, and property are also under attack. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine surprised many, including Metropolitan Onufry, the primate of the UOC-MP. The tone of Metropolitan Onufry’s appeals to President Putin has been urgent, and his pleas continue to go unheeded. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) repeated his appeal for the unity of the Russian Church, anchored in the indivisibility of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus as one people – a historical narrative he shares with Putin. In a rambling sermon on Cheesefare Sunday, Patriarch Kirill justified the invasion of Ukraine by complaining about gay parades and repeating Putin’s assertion that Ukraine has slaughtered the people of Donbas for eight years.
The ROC’s abandonment of the UOC-MP has led it to a crossroads. Bishops and clergy in Ukraine, witnessing to devastation and brutality, called for an immediate stoppage of commemorating Patriarch Kirill in the Liturgy. This act is essentially a form of protest, and not a break in communion, as long as Metropolitan Onufry continues to commemorate Kirill. The angry letter sent by Metropolitan Evlogy of Sumy did not escape the ROC’s notice, however. The ROC warned Metropolitan Evlogy that failing to commemorate the patriarch at Liturgy was a violation of the canons.
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.