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.
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.
After Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, the question of the further existence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate became critical. Patriarch Kirill did not condemn the aggression and did not call the aggressor by name. He did not express any condolences to the families of the dead Ukrainians. Most of the Ukrainian episcopate condemned the invasion, but it was at a complete loss and failed to take an active anti-war stance. The initiative fell to the hands of parish clergy, a situation unprecedented for the post-Soviet space. First, at the initiative of priests in 22 dioceses, it was decided to stop commemorating Patriarch Kirill during the liturgy. The next step was an appeal to the Primate of the UOC-MP, Metropolitan Onufry, calling for a Council of Bishops to withdraw from the jurisdiction of Patriarch Kirill.
However, the most striking and bold initiative was an appeal by Archpriest Andrii Pinchuk to the primates of the Local Orthodox Churches, demanding a church trial against Patriarch Kirill. He admitted that he had intended to collect about 100 signatures, but in five days he collected 437, with priests from the vast majority of the dioceses in Ukraine responding. The letter was also supported by a significant number of priests who did not dare to put their signatures for fear of being subjected to repression by their bishops, but in private conversations with Fr. Andrii admitted to fully supporting him.
By today, an appeal was already sent to the heads of the churches, including Patriarch Kirill himself. But so far, there has been no response to the letter.
It is hard to guess what will be the reaction of the addressees, but there is certain dissatisfaction with the overcautious position of most of the primates of the Orthodox Churches.