From the moment the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch early in 2019, it has competed with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) not only over canonicity but also about the number of parishes and the number of faithful. Each claims to be the only canonical church in the country, and also the largest, but numerous transfers of parishes from the jurisdiction of the UOC to that of the OCU (and a few the other way around), the situation of the war—and thus the preoccupation of the authorities and the faithful alike with more urgent problems—make it almost impossible to arrive at reliable data. On September 13, 2022, the head of the State Service for Ethnopolitics and Freedom of Conscience, Olena Bohdan, publicly described the UOC as being the largest religious “network” in the country. A few days earlier, a leaked document showed the administration of the Ukrainian Security Service for the city and the district of Kyiv as saying that the transfers of faithful from the UOC to the OCU present a threat for national security (since parish meetings of those preparing transfers can lead to open conflicts, and since “transfers can foment interconfessional hatred”). The Synod of the OCU reacted on October 18 with a statement claiming that state authorities hinder the transfer of parishes from the UOC, “which has only 4% public support.”
The question of which church is larger remains open, however. There are two ways to count: by number of parishes or by number of faithful. Regarding parishes, the Ukrainian authorities have very thorough statistics. Every religious community that wants to exist legally in Ukraine has to register with the aforementioned State Service and to provide data regularly about numbers of parishes, clergy, training institutions, etc. We have these statistics for many years, enabling us to see the dynamics of the growth (or decline) of religious communities. To interpret these numbers, several elements are important:
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.
I categorically refuse to pay an entrance fee for a church, out of principle. When I was in Bratislava, and the Catholic cathedral charged a very small fee, I did not enter. When I returned to the wonderful Cathedral Church in Trogir, Croatia, two years ago, it was selling entrance tickets—so I relied on my memories. I once had the privilege of a private tour to the Sistine Chapel; I would not have paid to see it. In my view, there is a fundamental difference between a house of prayer which must be open to everybody, and a museum which can charge entrance fees.
However, the boundaries between churches and museums are frequently blurry. One does not pay to enter St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome, but the mere fact that they have to have a person standing next to the entrance to bar visitors with dogs, ice cream cones, shorts, or bathing attire shows that many people do not regard it as a place for prayer, meditation, and adoration of God, but rather as a must-see during their visit to Rome. In St. Petersburg, St. Isaac’s Cathedral was supposed to be transferred to the Russian Orthodox Church in 2017, but public outcry kept it a museum, with only occasional services. Now, a woman in trousers and her head uncovered can enter, walk around, and look closely at the paintings on the iconostasis—unless she enters the side nave dedicated to church use. Then, most likely an elderly woman will come and reproach her for not being properly dressed. I like the solution I saw in Krakow, Poland: the back part of St. Mary’s Basilica can be entered for prayer free of charge; tourists who want a better look at the famous altar woodwork must pay at another entrance.
When the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly to the newly established “Orthodox Church of Ukraine” (OCU), it intended to create a single local Church which would basically comprise all the Orthodox believers in that country. The name of the new Church as it appears in the tomos, namely “Most Holy Church of Ukraine,” implies that idea, as do several statements of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in the course of 2018 in which he underlined the need of unity for Orthodoxy in Ukraine. The OCU affirmed this as well, calling itself on its website for a long time the “only” or “single” local Church (yedina in Ukrainian, a term which is difficult to translate), and stating on its home page, “Our Church is open for all!” The main idea was to unite Orthodoxy in Ukraine.
It is well known that the till-then only canonical Church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), rejected the initiative. Several hundred parishes changed their jurisdiction, but there was no landslide movement toward the OCU; the UOC still remains the largest Church in the country. In fact, self-proclaimed “Patriarch” Filaret split off from the new Church (though he has only marginal support) so that the attempt to re-establish unity obviously failed. Realistically, for a long time to come there will be two large Churches in Ukraine, one acknowledged by Constantinople, the other by Moscow. Continue reading →