What is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church?

what is the ukrainian orthodox church

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) is one of Ukraine’s major religions, headquartered in Kyiv and including hundreds of parishes throughout the country.

Formation began four years ago by merging together independent branches of Orthodoxy in Ukraine; yet due to their links with Moscow Patriarchate they continue to face growing distrust among Ukrainians.

1. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the United States of America

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the United States of America (UAOC) is an American jurisdiction of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and dates back to late 1800s when Orthodox clergy in Ukraine organized a church council for reform measures within their movement. Today it remains one of the largest Ukrainian Orthodox jurisdictions outside Ukraine. As part of Ecumenical Patriarchate it traces its roots back to 1917 with reform measures being instituted at this point in time.

In 1949, several parishes of the UAOC joined with Metropolitan Theodorovitch’s church based out of New York City; this breakaway from Moscow Patriarchate meant that this Metropolitan’s authority over UAOC was not recognized by other Orthodox churches.

Since that time, the UAOC has been divided into two jurisdictions; Metropolitan Filaret Denysenko’s jurisdiction and that of Patriarch Mstyslav Skrypnyk. Both have strong support in America despite opposition from Moscow Patriarchate to their unification.

An important reason why the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the US remains disorganized is their inability to obtain canonical approval from both Greek and Russian Orthodox Churches. Reportedly, Patriarch Kirill of Russia told bishops from US churches to accept autonomy of Ukrainian church while Patriarch Theophilos II of Greece would not recognize its canonicity.

Not until the 1990s was the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church able to gain official canonical recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, when several diocesan bishops, including Vsevolod himself, were received into its fold.

This was a boon for the UAOC, as they could continue their mission of spreading Ukrainian Orthodoxy abroad and recruiting new members. But at the same time, their loyalty to Moscow Patriarchate became uncertain and some members began leaving their church.

Stand-up comedians based in Russia released a video attacking Orthodox priests and calling for their death, prompting many clergy members of UAOC to cease praying for Kirill in public worship and stop praying in his memory altogether. How long this situation will persist is unclear.

2. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate is one of three active Orthodox churches in Ukraine and maintains some independence from its mother church in Moscow; however, due to its close ties with Russia’s government it has been targeted by Ukrainian nationalists.

Throughout Ukraine’s conflict, Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church has shown support for Russian military’s military approach. He has acknowledged and applauded fallen soldiers while not criticizing attacks against civilians.

In February, a group of UOC MP priests officially disaffiliated themselves from their mother church over Patriarch Kirill’s support of Moscow’s invasion of Ukraine and “Russian aggression and war crimes.” Their reasons were listed as such.

They claimed that Patriarch Kirill’s statements were biased against them, reflecting more the views of Russian state rather than their parishes’ congregations. They encouraged other parishes to follow in their example.

Since the schism, numerous parishes have left the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate and joined the Ukraine Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Some parishes have even stopped commemorating Patriarch Kirill in Divine Liturgy or attending services together with him.

Although Ukraine is concerned about Moscow’s influence over Orthodox Christianity in their country, they have chosen not to ban the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Priarchate outright as this would violate religious freedom or breach European or international norms.

But this strategy could prove risky as it could destroy a key part of the Russian church in Ukraine – particularly with regards to its leader, Patriarch Kirill, who is so integral to Russian regime and Putin’s political elite that it cannot imagine life without his involvement.

He encouraged the ROC’s support for Russia’s war in Ukraine, which is causing great damage to both church congregations and clergy in both countries. He lauded Russian soldiers’ sacrifice, as if their deaths were “washing away” their sins; an idea which appears to have won over much of Russian military and civilian populations alike.

3. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP), commonly referred to by its acronym, is an autonomous member of Eastern Orthodoxy communion. Since 1991 it had been subordinate to Russia Orthodox Church; in 2019 their independence from it was confirmed by Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople — symbolically speaking “first among equals”.

Many saw Ukraine’s independence and self-governance of an Orthodox Church as a salvation in 2018. Its establishment was the result of decades of effort by believers who sought to create an entirely nationalistic institution free from foreign religious control.

In December 2018 a council of unification took an important step in ending centuries of Russian Orthodox control over Ukrainian religion, by dissolving other branches and creating one centralised Ukrainian Orthodox Church – or UOC. This signaled to Russia’s Orthodox Church that their hold over Ukraine will soon come to an end.

However, there have been disagreements within both the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and Eastern Orthodox community at large concerning its independence or part-ownership by Moscow Patriarchate.

Before Russia invaded Ukraine in 2014, the Kyiv Patriarchate was seen as the legitimate Orthodox church of Ukrainian state and was often at odds with Moscow Patriarchate. Russia’s invasion exacerbated these differences between churches. Additionally, their respective annexations of Crimea and Donbas by Russia in 2014 only added fuel to tensions.

After Russia invaded, Ukrainian politicians publicly expressed support for separation from Russia. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I furthered these views, believing an autocephalous church in Ukraine is necessary for long-term spiritual survival.

Filaret (Mykhaylo Denysenko), the Patriarch of the UOC-KP, has been actively engaged both politically and church affairs. He has worked to unite church groups that espouse Ukrainian culture together as well as any who do not enjoy canonical recognition in either Moscow Patriarchate or other churches that claim Orthodoxy.

4. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church

On Epiphany Sunday (Christmas Eve in Ukraine), Metropolitan of Kyiv Epiphanius received from Patriarch of Constantinople a tomos (book), bestowing autocephalous (self-governing) status upon what later became the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This monumental event not only marked history within Ukraine but was an eventful moment in Orthodox world as a whole.

But the ecclesiastical consequences of that decision were far-reaching and only worsened over time. Today, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church known as the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church or OCU no longer has canonical status within Orthodox Church Outside Russia and thus remains an official schismatic church according to Moscow Patriarchate guidelines.

This development marks a serious setback for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (UAOC), which has struggled since Soviet-era to recover its relationships with global Orthodoxy Church. At that time, under Soviet government supervision, Russian Orthodox Church unilaterally annulled 1924 Tomos issued by Constantinople Patriarchate and created their own canonical Church called Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Moscow Patriarchate (UOCMP).

Perestroika saw the revival of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). Under support from Ukrainian intelligentsia, His Eminence Metropolitan Moisei Koulik was appointed Bishop by UAOC Churches of Diaspora before returning home and leading it with authority under Tomos of Autocephaly granted in 1924 by Patriarch of Constantinople.

Since its formation in 2006, UAOC has continued its rapid expansion. Today it boasts over 300 parishes with approximately 50,000 members enrolled as members.

UAOC has established itself throughout Europe, the United States and Africa. Beyond Ukraine’s own parishes, UAOC-GB maintains its presence by hosting parishes there as part of an established and well-maintained presence there.

UAOC has become an integral part of the international Orthodox community, especially through its efforts to form relationships with other churches. Even as ongoing war threatens Donbas, its leaders remain confident about its future as an autonomous church.

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