On February 16, the second face-to-face meeting of initiative groups of clergy and laity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was held in Sophia National Sanctuary Complex in Kyiv. Its final appeal we published on Public Orthodox earlier. Now we follow up with the impressions and comments of one of the participants from the UOC.
For the first time, the meeting began with a moleben, a common prayer in the church. We prayed for the unity of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, for Ukraine and its defenders, for victory, and for all who suffer the sorrow and pain of war. Before the official part started, we had time to socialize and get acquainted. It was the first time we were joined by authorized representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC): officers of the Department for External Church Relations and the Kyiv Theological Academy. At the beginning of the roundtable, each participant (about 30 people, the largest part being the UOC group) briefly outlined his expectations. Speeches were delivered by two representatives of the church “initiative groups” (hereafter an “IG”) and the head of the State Service of Ukraine for Ethnic and Religious Affairs (DESS), Victor Yelensky. All three addresses are published. Elena Bogdan, former director of the DESS, also participated in the meeting as a co-organizer and moderator of the first meeting. It was the initiative of the IGs to invite the DESS to join our discussions.
The following common points were expressed in the addresses by the representatives of the Churches:
A call to refrain from condemning each other and from hostile rhetoric;
The goal of the dialogue should be unification, a unifying Council;
Concrete steps leading to this goal are necessary;
The goal of the meeting is to appeal to both Churches to begin an official dialogue.
In late May 2022, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) held a local council to announce independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. But six months since, it is still being determined what that independence means. Metropolitan Onufriy of Kyiv commemorates heads of other churches in the way only primates of autocephalous churches do. Still, it doesn’t seem he ever asked them to recognize his church as autocephalous.
And if one looks at what the church’s representatives have been saying over the last months, it’ll strike one as a mixture of “everything is different now” with “nothing has really changed.” And there lies the first problem jeopardizing the UOC’s future: this church constantly fails to deliver an unequivocal message to its priests and the outside public.
“We will never allow anyone to build an empire inside the Ukrainian soul,” President of Ukraine Volodymyr Zelensky, on December 1, 2022, stated in reference to the need to ensure the spiritual independence of the country. He signed the decree with measures to counter religious organizations and figures affiliated with the aggressor state: the Russian Federation. Zelensky’s rule was based on the decision of the National Security and Defense Council of Ukraine (NSDCU). Immediately after the presidential statement and decree appeared in public, numerous publications emerged in the media and social networks trying to argue that these measures meant a ban on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), headed by Metropolitan Onufry of Kyiv. However, these conclusions are hasty and mostly based not on an analysis of the text of the decree and the decision of the Security Council but on counter-propaganda and widespread hatred directed against the UOC.
The Security Council’s decision was preceded by several public scandals, the most notorious of which was the November 12 performance of a song referencing Russia in the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra, the main monastery of the UOC. President Zelensky even had to comment on the scandal. The Security Service of Ukraine (SSU) searched the Lavra a few days later. A month before that, the SSU had searched the home of one of the UOC bishops, Metropolitan Jonathan of Tulchyn. The second notable scandal was connected with the too-soft decisions of the UOC Synod on November 23 concerning bishops who began collaborating with the Russian occupation authorities. There are five bishops in Crimea and Metropolitan Arkady of Roven’ki (Luhansk area), who transferred their dioceses into the direct jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church, and also former Metropolitans Josef of Romny and Yelisey of Izyum, who fled to Russia after the liberation of the territory of his diocese by the Ukrainian army. The UOC Synod did not impose any sanctions against these bishops. There is no doubt that the facts of collaboration with the aggressor state disturb Ukrainian society, and the state must respond to them.
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.