Four months ago, a UOC (Ukrainian Orthodox Church) Council in the Feofaniya monastery in Kyiv introduced fundamental changes into the Church’s statutes. That Council has already become a historic event—with possible implications for world Orthodoxy. But properly understanding the logic of its decisions means understanding what happened in the UOC after the Russian army’s full-scale invasion into Ukraine.
Before Russia launched the war against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, the UOC was in a complicated position. Although it had been internally independent for many years, Ukrainian society (influenced by mass media) referred to it as the “Moscow Church,” accusing the UOC of secret connections with the Russian government and working against the interests of Ukraine. On the very first day of the war, however, the UOC’s First Hierarch Metropolitan Onufry categorically condemned Russia’s attack on Ukraine, calling it “the sin of Cain” (fratricide) and appealing to Russian leadership to immediately cease military actions and to seek a diplomatic resolution of any problems. For many of his opponents, this was utterly unexpected.
The war also prompted serious internal discussions about the further fate of the UOC. UOC priests (especially those in the western dioceses) began to refuse to commemorate Patriarch Kirill at church services.
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.
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.
With its autonomous church in Ukraine, the Moscow Patriarchate could not accept the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s actions to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine (OCU) in 2018–2019. The Moscow Patriarchate severed its relationships with Constantinople and other primates who recognized the OCU and searched for ways to emphasize conciliarity within Orthodoxy while at the same time ignoring the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s position. The decision to establish the Patriarchal Exarchate of Africa at the turn of 2022 was a nonaccidental result of this development.
The Moscow Patriarchate had already cut ties with Constantinople in 2018 before the tomos was handed to the OCU in January 2019. By October 2018, the entire Constantinople Patriarchate was considered tainted. The Moscow Patriarchate referred to Constantinople as schismatic, stopped mentioning Patriarch Bartholomew’s name in the liturgy, and dissolved the eucharistic connection with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. For the Moscow Patriarchate, finding a new way to cooperate within global Orthodoxy was essential.