There are very few occasions in our lives—critical, pivotal events—that are truly life-shattering. We Orthodox describe them as kairos moments. World War II was one of these. In my lifetime, there was 9/11. Institutions and individuals are defined by such moments. We might recall how the Roman Catholic Church failed to stand up to Mussolini and Hitler; thankfully there was the selflessness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his staunch resistance to Nazi dictatorship. Or we might remember the hostility and conspiracy spawned by the attack on the Twin Towers; thankfully there was the selflessness of first responders and sacrifice of those whose lives are memorialized at Ground Zero.
Among these moments, I would include the invasion of Russia in Ukraine—arguably a life-changing moment for the autocephalous churches that comprise global Orthodox Christianity. The recent meeting between Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Porfirije of the Serbian Orthodox Church—where the latter was thanked for supporting victims of a war blessed by the former—was exasperatingly hypocritical and shameful. More than anything else, the episode is representative of the present decline of the Orthodox Church as an institution.
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.
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.