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:
Most people who have written about the tensions between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) after the Russian invasion tend to focus on one thing: who is commemorated. This is not surprising. Accepting the authority of this bishop, but not that one, is an easy shorthand for where one stands on all sorts of other issues. The recent UOC decision not to commemorate Patriarch Kirill anymore was emblematic of its clerics’ denying Russian claims, attacks, and brutality. The UOC’s subsequent declaration of independence opens the door to dialogue with the OCU.
The focus on commemoration and canonicity, however, may obscure other, less obvious challenges. Even before February 24, the differences between the UOC and OCU went well beyond which bishop one was willing to follow. The liturgical choices of both churches—what language they use, which saints they invoke, which hymns they sing, which icons they venerate, what wording they use for such traditionally State-glorifying services as those to the Elevation of the Cross, which national holidays or traumas they commemorate and how—indicate divergent approaches. Any future rapprochement will need to consider those divergences as well.
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:
Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine is still uncoiling, but the destruction he is inflicting on the people of Ukraine has already succeeded in uniting the fractious Orthodox churches in Ukraine around defense of their homeland. He has also ensured that the Patriarchate of Moscow—so closely aligned with Vladimir Putin—has no future in Ukraine, whatever its canonical claims. The Orthodox Church is devoted to preserving good order and canonical tradition, but there are times when canons must yield to reality, and in Ukraine, it should have been obvious decades ago that Moscow’s ecclesiastical oversight of Ukraine was impossible. Certainly after 2014 with Putin’s annexation of Crimea, his carving out of Donbas, and his war of occupation that left 14,000 Ukrainians dead in eight years. This was a glaring pastoral reality that Patriarch Bartholomew recognized in granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine in 2018 despite canonical controversy. Now, among the Orthodox churches in Ukraine faced with uniting against Moscow’s monstrous war, there is already talk of a union council. And maybe the rest of the Orthodox world will eventually catch up and see the pastoral wisdom of Patriarch Bartholomew’s action.
Here, the history of the Church of England during the American Revolution in 1775-1783 offers some valuable lessons. As David L. Holmes wrote in an important article on which this essay is based:
Technically speaking, the Anglican Church in America was an innocent bystander in the American Revolution. But since it lived in the neighborhood of one of the participants and was intimately related to the other, it emerged with a terrible beating. The war raised questions of patriotism, of loyalty, and of the obligations of Christians at a time of war…
(David L. Holmes, “The Episcopal Church and the American Revolution,” Historical Magazine of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Vol. 47, No. 3 (September, 1978), pp. 261-291, https://www.jstor.org/stable/42973625, 261.)