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In Ukraine, Constantinople Is Rushing in Where Angels Fear to Tread

The leaders of the new Orthodox church of Ukraine may find that becoming a popular church is much more difficult than becoming a state church

On the eve of national elections in 2019, the President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, has set himself the ambitious task of dismantling the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, an autonomous and self-administered part of the Russian Orthodox Church, and creating a new, single national church out of the many Christian denominations in his country. His controversial initiative has re-opened old confessional wounds in Ukraine and threatens to divide the Christian world.

It is no secret that the cardinal sin of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, in the eyes of the government, has been its refusal to support the war in Eastern Ukraine. Its head, Metropolitan Onufry, calls it a “fratricidal conflict” and a “civil war.” To critics who complain of his lack of patriotism, Onufry replies: “If I serve God and fulfill his commandments, then I am in fact a true patriot. But if a person disdains the word of God, then no matter how much he may beat his breast, he is no patriot . . . Our church is and has always been patriotic. Its patriotism consists in calling upon people to live with God.”

With the establishment of a new national Orthodox church around the self-proclaimed Kyivan Patriarchate, however, Ukraine will have a de facto state church. Should president Poroshenko have his way, the fate of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church, once the nation’s largest, will serve as a poignant lesson to others about the dire consequences of contravening the political establishment. Other denominations will be tolerated, but all pretense of a separation between church and state, as mandated by the Ukrainian Constitution, will be stripped away.

How will the average communicant respond to these political intrigues? The Ukrainian government seems to be counting on the fact that most Orthodox Christians perceive little or no distinction among the various Orthodox churches. But if Ukrainian Orthodox believers were indeed yearning for autocephaly, then surely such a migration would have already taken place in the 26 years since the creation of the Kyivan Patriarchate.

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Indeed, the number of people identifying themselves with the Kyivan Patriarchate rose dramatically in the years following independence, and again since 2014, but not necessarily at the expense of membership in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which also gained new adherents. Whenever parishes actually “switched sides,” sadly, it has often been accompanied by scandal and violence.

Currently, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has over 11,300 parishes and 200 monasteries, while the Kyivan Patriarchate has over 5,000 parishes and 60 monasteries. Religious commentator Tetiana Derkach estimates that 30% of the former will switch to the latter after autocephaly is granted, while Filaret, the head of the Kyivan Patriarchate, believes that at least two-thirds will join the new “Ukrainian church.”

It is hard to predict exactly how the process will unfold. A “soft” scenario might resemble the establishment of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s Exarchate in Estonia. In 1993, the synod of the Orthodox Church of Estonia in Exile was re-registered as the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church. Then, in 1996, the current Ecumenical Patriarch renewed the tomos that his predecessor had granted to it in 1923. This created two Orthodox jurisdictions in Estonia.

Why did Estonia not explode? Because, although the government made its preferences clear by suspending the legal status of the Orthodox Church of Estonia (OCE) affiliated with the Patriarchate of Moscow, each parish was allowed to choose its own affiliation. The government turned a blind eye to the fact that services continued in the unregistered OCE churches, which was finally allowed to register as the Estonian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate in 2002. Today, the Estonian Apostolic church has two-thirds of all parishes, while the Estonian Orthodox Church (MP) retains 85% of the flock. Some Ukrainian politicians, however, seem to embrace the idea of a direct conflict. They advocate a “hard” scenario of expropriating the property of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, and the enactment of the draft legislation already prepared for this purpose.

There is, however, another historical precedent that may be relevant. The Bolsheviks too saw the Orthodox church as hostile to their new regime. To split the church, they sponsored a more “progressive” version of the Church and lured a number of bishops into joining it. This “Renovationist Church” received considerable support from overseas, not least of all from Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory VII.

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The Soviet government supported law suits launched by the Renovationists overseas, and succeeded in seizing many church assets. One consequence of this has been the current division of Orthodox parishes in North America along predominantly ethnic and parochial lines. By the 1930s, however, the Renovationist movement had run its course. It never attracted many followers, and when the government no longer saw any need for it, they simply shut it down. Will a similar fate ultimately befall the Kyivan Patriarchate? Despite being shunned by the rest of the Orthodox world it has survived and, with the support of the current Ukrainian government, some would even say thrived. But its fate is now inextricably intertwined with that of the current government. What happens when the government changes?

With its latest decision to lift the anathema and reinstate Filaret in his former rank as Metropolitan of Kiev, the Synod of hierarchs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople also de facto annulled the independence of Kievan Patriarchate. This would seem to be a step away from autocephaly. Moreover, the Patriarch’s decision to assert personal control over his Ukrainian jurisdictions (stavropegia) thrusts Constantinople directly into Ukrainian politics, since now he alone will appoint (and remove) the leadership of the church. Since the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church does not recognize his authority to do so, the government will presumably have to step into enforce Constantinople’s decisions.

Whether Kiyv will find it any easier to deal with Constantinople than with Moscow is very much an open question. Should their interests conflict, looming in the background is the question of whether Constantinople will actually grant autocephaly to the churches it has torn away from Moscow. The example of the Orthodox Church in Estonia, which went through a very similar conflict in the late 1990s, and yet is still under Constantinople’s jurisdiction, is certainly worth pondering.

We also do not yet know what the response of the other Local Orthodox Churches will be. So far eight patriarchates (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland, the Czech Lands and Slovakia) have voiced grave concerns over Constantinople’s actions. Given their seniority and ecclesiastical authority, the objections of the three ancient patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem will be very influential in determining how the Orthodox world interprets these events.

If the past is any guide, the outcome of this very worldly conflict may ultimately rest with a singularly unworldly group—the monastics. As Mitrokhin observes, “The core of believers who take part in all the prayers take their lead from the monastic abbots. And if the abbots say that they don’t want anything to do with this [autocephaly], then their parishioners won’t accept it either . . . the bishops and priests—will happily transfer their loyalties, but this force will be useless without its ordinary rank and file parishioners.” In sum, the leaders of the new Orthodox church of Ukraine may find that becoming a popular church is much more difficult than becoming a state church.

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Perhaps the only thing we can be certain of is that Poroshenko and the patriarchs have unleashed a process that will add considerably to the overall messiness of Ukrainian politics, and leave much bitterness in people’s hearts, long after they are gone.

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