Russian influence over Ukraine as well being political and historical is also bound to faith. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church in splitting up with Moscow is aiming to loosen the Russias hold over Ukraine.

On October 11, in Istanbul, the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate restored the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church to full Orthodox communion, calling them to unite and form a new ecclesiastical structure. 

There is good reason to believe that that will happen without delay, and the Synod then intends to grant a tomos of autocephaly, recognising the independence of the new church. If the controversy over Orthodoxy in Ukraine that has raged since last April is any indication, the Moscow Patriarchate will not sit idly by and have its threats called a bluff.

The armed conflict as context

In order to understand the current movement toward an independent, autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine one must take account of the larger context of armed conflict in which it is taking place. After four years of fighting, Ukraine's war continues, according to a United Nations report "with no end in sight." 

Putin has achieved his goal of destabilising the insubordinate former Soviet state for refusing to be sucked into his neo-Soviet vortex. For his part, Ukraine's President Poroshenko can focus public attention on an enemy in his campaign for re-election in 2019. Oligarchic interests feed off each other, even across borders and battlefields.

Mercenaries on both sides of Ukraine's eastern front pursue their own ends – to make money or to die doing what they love most. Priests and ministers dutifully bury the dead, even as most of their leaders remain silent on the immorality of war. Instead, four years and over 10,000 casualties into the conflict, Ukraine's war with Russia is still being framed as a just war against an unjust aggressor. 

While such a perspective may be convenient for politicians concerned about declining ratings and for those who ship arms to Ukraine, it offers little in the way of long-term outlooks or strategies for peace-building.

Yet the critical silence of Ukraine's religious communities is only one dimension of their involvement. Long before the conflict, and with heightened intensity since its outbreak, a more pro-active strategy has been brewing inside the Orthodox Churches of Ukraine, one that in 2018 President Poroshenko took the momentous step of endorsing. Its name is autocephaly, and its geopolitical significance reaches far beyond any fraternal arrangements between churches in Ukraine. Its mere mention provokes heated social and political debates both at home and abroad.

In Orthodox Christian parlance, autocephaly refers to a principle of governance whereby decision-making authority is devolved from a higher, central authority to a local jurisdiction. Such delegation of power may occur amicably when the two parties achieve mutual understanding. But when agreement is lacking and the patriarchate withholds its blessing, a unilateral declaration of independence by the local church can amount to a rupture of relations. Then it is typically condemned as a schism, a breach of the "sacred unity" of the church. That much may serve as a rudimentary definition. As usual, the devil is in the details.

The idea of autocephaly has circulated in Ukraine for a long time and in diverse forms. With the outbreak of war, the mobilization of social solidarity quickly became a political priority. The goal of unifying three separate Orthodox jurisdictions is now recognized as a strategic imperative as well.

The decline of Russian Orthodoxy in Ukraine 

What was until recently Ukraine's largest Orthodox jurisdiction, the affiliate of the Russian Orthodox Church has deep historic roots that extend far beyond Soviet history into imperial Russian times. But since the eve of Ukraine's independence (1991) its fortunes declined as it suffered three successive, major departures.

First: in the late 1980s, under Gorbachev's reforms the Ukrainian Catholic Church of western Ukraine regained its legal status. After over 40 years of repression and coercive unification with Russian Orthodoxy, some three million members decided to leave the Moscow Patriarchate and rejoin their ancestral, Byzantine Catholic jurisdiction. The Russian Orthodox Church has viewed this reunion of the "Uniates" with the Church of Rome as a kind of schism. In effect, it was a reiteration of that church's original parting of ways with Orthodoxy in the 16th century.

Second: in 1992, the Russian Orthodox Synod asked its representative in Ukraine, Metropolitan Filaret Denysenko, to resign after his bishops' council had unilaterally declared autocephaly. Filaret obeyed, but then thought it over and un-resigned. Moscow then appointed a separate head for its church in Ukraine – Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan. Filaret and his loyalists joined forces with the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church to form the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate). For the Church of Russia this too was a schism, but a far more costly one. Numbering approximately 10 million members today and growing, the Kiev Patriarchate has numerically surpassed its rival in Ukraine and is now the largest Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

And finally, in early 2014, as Russian forces maneuvered and rattled sabres along the Ukrainian border, bishops of the Russian Church in Ukraine pleaded with Putin, and likely with the Moscow Patriarchate too, not to allow an advance on Crimea and into Ukraine's eastern regions. As their voices went unheeded, in protest Russian parish after Russian parish throughout Ukraine either bolted to another Orthodox jurisdiction or ceased to commemorate Moscow Patriarch Kirill in their services. Although this latest subversion is numerically the smallest of the three, its long-term potential is far more devastating. Calling into question the Russian Orthodox Church's credibility and moral authority, this dissent was not about differences of perspective but went to the very core of Russian Orthodox identity.


Each of these three departures from Russian Orthodoxy in Ukraine had its own particular rationale: restitution, autocephaly, and political sovereignty. But for the central authority in Moscow they represented a single, horrifying pattern – a hemorrhagic exodus that only escalated from bad to worse. In various moments and for different reasons, Orthodox Christians in Ukraine were deciding that the only way to be true to themselves and their communities would be to cut ties with Moscow.

This confluence of religious emigrations over the last four decades has produced a creative tension on a tectonic scale, in which something had to give. It is an ecclesiastical super storm, or mega-schism, and raises the key question about the future shape of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.

Short of Russia's complete military takeover of Ukraine and its strong-arm imposition of repressive "religious harmony" as seen in Crimea and Donbas, the proactive religious dimension of the Russian-Ukrainian war has crystallised around the goal of unifying Ukraine's Orthodox churches under the banner of autocephaly. The long, hard path of wrenching religious independence from Moscow may be one way of resolving the untenable position of a church that was loyal to an aggressor state.

It is not at all surprising that an idea of autocephaly should have emerged inside the Russian-affiliated Orthodox Church of Ukraine. Many of its bishops, priests and parishioners are ethnic Ukrainians. Over the decades of political independence, regardless of nationalist convictions or lack thereof, they came to understand themselves as citizens of a sovereign state. Their aspiration toward church autonomy was a natural extension of that sense of identity. While details of internal church debates between the advocates and opponents of autocephaly will only be uncovered by future research, it is clear that, even after Filaret's departure in 1992, Moscow-affiliated Ukrainian Orthodoxy still retained a significant constituency of devoted autocephalists.

One may wonder why the Moscow Patriarchate never granted autocephaly to its Ukrainian branch. In the present circumstances, such a move could have killed two birds with one stone: creating sufficient distance to neutralise anti-Russian sentiments, while maintaining normal relations with the patriarchate. In fact, the Ukrainian Church did receive a considerable degree of autonomy in self-governance as early as 1990, but that privilege fell just short of full recognition, in the absence of one magic word: autocephaly, recognising the right to elect one's own primate without external review. The crisis of Metropolitan Filaret's departure in 1992 no doubt hardened his opponents in support of a centralised church, both in Moscow and in Kiev. And the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war in 2014 effectively eliminated any prospect of benevolent decentralization.

Yet beyond its catastrophic polarisation of citizens, families and societies, the war also opened up opportunities for unification. For Orthodox Christians in Ukraine, their quest for autocephaly is bound up with the pursuit of church unity in Ukraine in support of the broader, political consolidation that can achieve more enduring results than weapons ever will.

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