The Ukraine Orthodox Church has a historic opportunity to gain independence from Moscow, whether it can grasp this opportunity is anyone's guess.
From recent media coverage of current developments in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, one might assume that the Moscow Patriarchate's affiliate in Ukraine is at the centre of the controversy around autocephaly.
To be sure, it is implicated to a degree and it does run the risk of losing some members, who may choose to defect. But it is not the main driver towards autocephaly. Though some of the Russian Church's members may support more independent governance or even autonomy, Nikolay Mitrokhin of Bremen University has correctly observed that their numbers are not that large. Indeed, Ground Zero is found elsewhere.
The key initiators of the current autocephalous movement are the two other Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. One is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under Kyiv Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko), who broke ties with Moscow in 1992, took the helm of the new church in 1995, and was excommunicated by Moscow two years later. The other is the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, established in 1920-21 through the controversial consecration of bishops by priests and a unilateral declaration of autocephaly.
Excluded from communion with a patriarchal Church and worldwide Orthodoxy, both churches were isolated and operated in a kind of twilight zone. Legally registered in Ukraine, they were founding members of the country's Interreligious Council, but outcasts in the eyes of world Orthodoxy because Moscow considered their baptism invalid and shunned their members like heretics of a bygone age.
That changed on October 11, when, to the horror of the Moscow Patriarchate, Patriarch Bartholomew and his synod stood up to Patriarch Kirill and recognised these estimated ten million Orthodox Christians as legitimate. On the ground, it was business as usual for the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox believers, who never gave a hoot about Moscow's canonical histrionics. But the symbolism of this step and the way it set the stage for autocephaly marks a historic shift inside Ukraine and far beyond its borders.
The two churches now have canonical recognition, a regularisation of their status as Orthodox institutions. Their next goal is full-fledged autocephaly, and Patriarch Bartholomew spelled out the path: once they unite to form one church, their request will be granted.
The Russian Orthodox Church Reacts
The Russian Orthodox Church took this as an affront – interference in the internal affairs of its "canonical territory." But the Russian-Ukrainian conflict has severely eroded the credibility of that claim for both Ukrainians and Russian citizens of Ukraine.
Over the past two decades, the Moscow Patriarchate invested much time and resources to construct the vision of a "Russian world," a thinly-veiled restoration of the USSR, with Ukraine coming to its senses and returning to fold of the one, big, "happy family." But now, with autocephaly putting a monkey-wrench in that plan, it appears that the Russian Church had no Plan B.
In announcing the Moscow Patriarchate's rupture with Constantinople on October 15, its head of external relations Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) admitted that it had "no other choice". That was very telling. Closely aligned with the Putin regime, and with its liberal faction totally neutralised, the church was in no position to articulate a vision for the future apart from the larger geopolitical agenda.
Since the beginning of the war in 2014, its discourse on Ukraine has consistently centred on the hegemonic power of the "Russian world" and the tacit hope that the land grabs that began in Ukrainian Crimea and Donbas would soon overtake the entire country. Then Russian Orthodox harmony and solidarity could be imposed, yet again, by force. But when the regime paused in its expansionist advance, the church was caught flat-footed, its discourse locked in the paradigm of geopolitical escapades.
What can be expected next from the Russian Church?
In the foreseeable future, especially if the autocephalist project comes to fruition, the venting and raging will continue as long as there is "no other choice". Ultimately, time will tell who else will align with Moscow in its bid to force Patriarch Bartholomew to undo what he has done. Now the propaganda machine will have him in its sights, and fake news and media spin cannot be far behind.
In fact, they may have already scored some points. Though Ukrainian autocephaly is not yet a fait accompli, international media have taken to equating the very notion of a unified Ukrainian Church with schism, which Christians consider to be one of the lowest forms of hubris. Now, since it is a basic principle of the neo-Soviet agenda to use religion to undermine Ukraine's independence, there can be little doubt that the formula "Ukrainian autocephaly = schism" comes from only one source – Moscow.
The Promise and Challenges of Autocephaly in Ukraine
First of all, it is clear that time is of the essence. Historic opportunities for fundamental change present themselves only rarely. While ecclesiastical independence has been discussed frequently since Ukraine's independence in 1991, this is the first instance of the political will and the resolve of churches to pursue the goal.
The whole process that found its way to Constantinople was only possible because of an unprecedented convergence of circumstances and an alignment of political and religious priorities in Ukraine. All participants in this initiative are keenly aware that the window will not remain open indefinitely. The stakes are high and the die is cast.
What difference can autocephaly make in Ukraine?
It would certainly put to rest numerous issues for Orthodox Christians in Ukraine. The canonical legitimacy that was declared in October would be confirmed and entrenched. It would enable the normalisation of relations with other Orthodox churches – except, predictably, for one hold-out to the north and any other satellites (Belarus, no doubt, and then perhaps the Church of Serbia), that might want to echo Moscow's protestations.
The crowning jewel of canonicity and autocephaly – the act of unification – would be an uplifting precedent at the very birth of a new church, hailed by Orthodox communities throughout the world, and no doubt by other Christians too.
That said, autocephaly cannot realistically be expected to answer all questions and solve all problems. If a successful process of unification now depends on exemplary wisdom, selfless courage, and fortitude, those same virtues will have to go into overdrive once autocephaly becomes a fact.
For one thing, the organisational, relational, and diplomatic challenges of constituting and consolidating the new institution will be staggering. For another, the temptation to pursue the pattern of a "symphonic" partnership with the state may prove irresistible, but it would have grave consequences for democratic and pluralist values. Autocephaly will raise as many, or perhaps even more questions than it answers.
In itself, the new ecclesiastical status would not be a panacea in Ukraine. Even if all remaining hurdles are negotiated and the goal is achieved, the new Church will face formidable challenges.
Having won the title, it will need to become an authentic, autocephalous Orthodox Church in all its practical operations; having struggled for a path distinct from that of Russian Orthodoxy, it will need to resist the urge to replicate Soviet habits, such as the model of a state church; and having stood up for European integration and values, it will need to show resolve and not succumb to half-way measures. The new Church will have to face those challenges with wisdom.
No less urgently, the present state of emergency, conflict, and crisis cry out for moral leadership with the courage to cut through all obstacles, to build bridges, and to bring peace. The new Church can be a constructive participant in that mission if it chooses.
Very shortly after its establishment, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine will define its fundamental options, its vision, and long-term strategy – for better, or worse.
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