After years as part of Russian Orthodoxy, Ukraine’s Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) attained independence in 2019. It was recognized by Constantinople, which serves as the spiritual hub for global Orthodoxy.
Splitting from Moscow did not automatically signal that OCU was pro-West, according to one expert. Any enforcement by government must respect religious liberty guaranteed under Ukraine’s constitution, they say.
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The Head of the Holy Ukrainian Orthodox Church
The leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of America (UOCA) is an outspoken critic of Russia’s invasion of his native Ukraine. He contends that churches connected to Moscow serve as Kremlin propaganda tools and support fighters involved in Ukraine’s civil war, which has claimed over 10,000 lives so far. But his church maintains an ambivalent stance towards Russia; although they condemn Putin’s attack they want to distance themselves from Russian influence altogether.
Late 2018, Ukrainian bishops initiated a process to gain independence from the Russian Orthodox Church – or autocephaly. This meant taking control over their church and property while creating confusion in Moscow. However, this move set off alarm bells.
Politics also played a role, as Russia attacked Ukraine and many Ukrainian politicians such as former President Petro Poroshenko voiced support for an autocephalous church for Ukraine. This caused friction between competing church factions.
One of the main obstacles to unity is that the Ukrainian church needs recognition by Constantinople or Ecumenical Patriarchate before becoming independent and taking full control over its properties and becoming independent. Before it can take full control and become independent, however, they must first receive their Tomos or document that grants autocephaly; currently waiting for this decision from Patriarchate of Constantinople.
It remains uncertain what the final result of this debate will be, however. One possible solution would be for both Constantinople and Moscow to officially recognize the church; however, this could create further division among Orthodox Christians worldwide.
One possible option would be for the OCU to be granted autonomy but not autocephaly, giving it rights over its church property but not making decisions for all Orthodox Church members as a whole. This would be similar to the Anglican Church in America which has its own jurisdiction while not belonging to an international communion of Anglican churches.
OCU has taken important steps toward autonomy, such as issuing an official statement condemning Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and refusing to honor Kirill as its leader during public worship services; in addition, it has stopped using Russian-produced sacramental oil – all significant steps but do not provide for complete independence from Moscow Patriarchate which Ukraine desperately requires.
Metropolitan Epifaniy was tonsured in 2007 as a monk before being appointed bishop of Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky and Bila Tserkva in 2012. Later that same year, in May, his church broke away from Moscow to form its own independent Orthodox church. However, it did not declare itself “autocephalous,” the gold standard of independence in Orthodox Churches, to avoid creating further divisions within its community and offending other Orthodox groups that had not agreed with the Ukrainian church’s move. Instead, it sent a strong symbolic signal by stopping public worship services featuring Kirill as leader of the church and blessing its own sacramental oil instead of using Russian supplies – seen as a significant symbolic step. While this did not cut all ties with Moscow church.
Now, the new church is set to receive its Tomos from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Metropolitan Onufriy will no longer serve as primate of this church. He retains his title of Metropolitan of Kyiv and all Ukraine, however; but no longer acts as its canonical leader.
His Holiness the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby expressed his sorrow over Russia’s invasion of Ukraine at Lambeth Palace this morning and expressed thanks for Christian prayers for healing for Ukraine as well as guidance for those in authority there.
He voiced particular concern for the thousands of Ukrainians killed and injured during this conflict, as well as those persecuted by pro-Russian forces. Furthermore, he advocated that church should reach out to these victims.
He added that the UOC-MP must work towards peace and reconciliation in Ukraine despite its difficult situation, the Church must serve as a meeting ground where people of different religions can come together and learn from one another and should not be used to fuel hatred or divide. Instead, the Church should help make Ukraine a place of hope and prosperity, according to him.
Archbishop Yevstratiy of Chernivtsi is one of the leaders of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church, meeting with Anglican bishops, Jewish and Muslim leaders as part of efforts against Russia’s invasion. Travelling throughout Ukraine to meet church leaders as well as visit sites of wartime atrocities. Engaging with politicians and civil society groups on an array of issues related to Russia’s military aggression towards Ukrainian churches and people. He remains concerned over any damage this may cause them.
He works to bolster Ukraine’s spiritual independence, prevent social divisions, and safeguard national interests. Additionally, he hopes that churches will act as protectors of secularism in Ukraine while upholding Ukrainian religious freedom and protecting Ukrainian religious liberty. Specifically, he intends to make joining inter-Christian bodies such as World Council of Churches or Conference of European Churches easier for churches.
His church, Orthodox Church of Ukraine, is an outgrowth of Russia-linked Orthodox Church of Ukraine; millions of its parishioners have since severed ties due to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s war against Ukraine. In 2019, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople will issue a decree granting autocephaly (independence), making this Orthodox church one of many independent ones globally that remain part of larger Christian community.
On his trip, Archbishop Chaput met with Ukrainian clergy and visited Cetinje Monastery. Here he worshiped at shrines including St. Peter of Cetinje’s relics, Life-Giving Cross fragments and fragments from Saint John the Baptist’s hand. Additionally he met Metropolitan Epifaniy who shared remarkable tales about living and ministering amidst war’s atrocities.
The meeting allowed the Church of England to share its values and demonstrate its dedication to creating justice and peace around the globe. Furthermore, this event reaffirmed their ongoing support of Ukraine including humanitarian fundraising activities and welcoming refugees. Furthermore, two leaders discussed Christ’s teaching on love as it pertains to each faith they practice as well as future ecumenical relationships that could emerge.
As a result of Russia’s actions in Ukraine, church disputes have become a proxy battleground. President Petro Poroshenko endorsed autocephaly as part of his effort to oppose Russia’s annexation of Crimea and support for separatist rebels in eastern Ukraine; but due to division within his church body and increasing tensions with Moscow he has struggled to unify it and escalate this dispute further.
Filaret Denisenko, leader of Moscow-based Patriarchate of Constantinople (Russia-backed), led bishops from UAOC in an attempt to gain official autocephaly approval from Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople (EPC), while this move was opposed by UOCKP who has traditionally supported Moscow Patriarch for centuries.
While Denisenko does not hold canonical bishop status, his church still boasts numerous parishes and its hierarchy has long claimed that its separation from Russian Orthodoxy is valid; many members of society also support it. Unfortunately, however, world Orthodoxy has yet to give its blessing for full recognition of UAOC.
Poroshenko attempted to resolve their rivalry during his presidency by creating a church that would be based in Kyiv but would operate under Constantinople’s authority, yet this wasn’t enough to end their schism; rather, members from both churches began joining OCU instead of UOCKP.
OCU leaders have promised to protect the church from political pressures. Yet recently, security services have conducted searches of church property and arrested clergy seen as supporting Moscow Patriarchate; prompting some to question its independence.
Ukraine’s church issue is complex. While its agenda does not align with that of the state, it remains an integral institution that has helped shape this country for centuries. Furthermore, Ukraine’s constitution guarantees religious freedom – thus necessitating transparency from government enforcement of this law – a task which requires patience and perseverance from officials.