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.)
Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has caught the attention of the public for multiple reasons. The humanitarian catastrophe, the sheer horror of ceaseless shelling, the shooting of protesters in the streets, the attacks on nuclear plants, the threats to assassinate President Zelensky and other leaders, and the war on democracy.
One of the underreported consequences of Russia’s attack is the betrayal, isolation, and devastation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). UOC-MP clergy, faithful, and property are also under attack. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine surprised many, including Metropolitan Onufry, the primate of the UOC-MP. The tone of Metropolitan Onufry’s appeals to President Putin has been urgent, and his pleas continue to go unheeded. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) repeated his appeal for the unity of the Russian Church, anchored in the indivisibility of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus as one people – a historical narrative he shares with Putin. In a rambling sermon on Cheesefare Sunday, Patriarch Kirill justified the invasion of Ukraine by complaining about gay parades and repeating Putin’s assertion that Ukraine has slaughtered the people of Donbas for eight years.
The ROC’s abandonment of the UOC-MP has led it to a crossroads. Bishops and clergy in Ukraine, witnessing to devastation and brutality, called for an immediate stoppage of commemorating Patriarch Kirill in the Liturgy. This act is essentially a form of protest, and not a break in communion, as long as Metropolitan Onufry continues to commemorate Kirill. The angry letter sent by Metropolitan Evlogy of Sumy did not escape the ROC’s notice, however. The ROC warned Metropolitan Evlogy that failing to commemorate the patriarch at Liturgy was a violation of the canons.
The establishment of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) created division within the global Orthodox world. Yet, what has received less attention is the effect of the Ukrainian autocephaly on other Christian denominations and ecumenical institutions. Inevitably, and sometimes unwillingly, these churches were drawn into the conflict and forced to choose sides between Constantinople (and the new Ukrainian church) and Moscow.
At the international level, the clash between Constantinople and Moscow has led to the withdrawal of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) from the inter-Orthodox and ecumenical commissions, which are chaired by the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This act endangered relations which the Orthodox had with other churches on a number of levels: Moscow’s withdrawal has put the ecumenical role of the assemblies of Orthodox bishops, which exist in many countries of the diaspora, in jeopardy. It has also threatened multilateral and bilateral dialogues, such as theological dialogue with the Catholic Church, as well as the functioning of various international ecumenical bodies.
Much has happened in the time that has elapsed since Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in 2018-19. The world continues to struggle through the pandemic. Natural disasters are destroying lives at home and abroad. Pictures of Afghans trying to flee the Taliban stun our consciences. Europe’s longest ruling dictator continues to brutalize citizens of Belarus.
When COVID brought the world to its knees in 2020, I thought that it would create a much-needed ceasefire in the longstanding informational war among Orthodox Ukrainians. Surely, the most hardened participants in confessional polemical warfare would cool off.
I was wrong. Anger continues to percolate among some Orthodox inside and outside of Ukraine. Opponents of the decision to grant autocephaly to the OCU were incensed by Patriarch Bartholomew’s acceptance of President Zelensky’s invitation to visit Ukraine on the occasion of the thirtieth year of national independence.
Among the patriarch’s opponents, clergy and laity came together to demand that he take responsibility for his actions in Ukraine and meet with them. The group is named “Myriane” (laity). They held a prayer vigil on August 21, the day of Bartholomew’s meetings with President Zelensky and the Ukrainian Parliament.