I have many vivid memories from my first visit to Ukraine in 1993, taken with my brother and grandfather. During our stay in Tetiiv (approximately 80 kilometers west of Kyiv), our family hosts asked us to walk with them to the family cemetery. This visit occurred after a few days of conversation that were simultaneously tense and joyous, as we learned about our family’s perspectives on faith and politics along with their concerns about post-Soviet Ukraine. All of these concerns were put aside as we walked from grave to grave, with most of the family members unable to hold back tears for the departed loved ones who were murdered during the course of the Holodomor of 1932-33. This memory reminds me how long Ukrainians have been caught in the crossfire of wars and revolutions, as the imperial powers to their West and East have fought to expand their borders and increase their power. The memory of the Holodomor united us in spite of our differences because we all felt the sting of violent murder in the name of someone else’s gain, even if it was passed on to us.
Ukraine attained statehood in 1991 following 74 years of colonial occupation. When Ukraine initially sought to establish a sovereign republic after the fall of the Tsarist regime in 1917, the Orthodox Church in Ukraine began the natural process of re-organizing its life in rhythm with the aspiring nation. The decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire established the pattern for the rise of the nation-state and the reconfiguration of Orthodox Church life in alignment with the new borders, as was the case for the churches in countries like Serbia and Bulgaria. The establishment of the multinational Soviet empire and its decisive turn to centralization in Moscow halted the autocephaly movement in Ukraine until 1989, when Gorbachev’s policy of openness restored legal status to the previously exiled Greek-Catholic and Orthodox autocephalous churches. Following initial resistance to the rapidly growing autocephalist movement, the patriarchal exarchate in Ukraine obtained greater autonomy from Moscow in 1990 and petitioned Moscow for autocephaly in November 1991 and April 1992.
The colonial leaders of church structures reacted to the powerful subversive actions of independence seekers with powerful responses, and the Moscow Patriarchate attempted to snuff out the autocephalous movement by imposing severe canonical sanctions on Metropolitan Filaret (Denysenko), whose tenure as primate of the Ukrainian exarchate was controversial. Moscow applied these sanctions to those who remained loyal to Filaret by depicting them as schismatics who are not Christian, opting for canonical akribeia. The autocephalists were undeterred by Moscow’s response – they received Filaret and continued to organize and grow church life in the post-Soviet period of Ukraine. The autocephalous churches had several conflicts with the Moscow Patriarchate, often over a series of epic political events including the Orange Revolution of 2004 and the Maidan of 2013-14. While Moscow continued to the sole possessor of canonical legitimacy in Ukraine, the autocephalist groups asserted their solidarity with the people throughout these events. As a result of the increasing mutual exclusivity of the autocephalists and the Moscow Patriarchate, the autocephalist churches grew steadily. Currently, slightly more Ukrainian Orthodox faithful belong to autocephalist churches than profess allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchate, a statistic that demonstrates the resilience of the autocephalist movement.
Since the first Ukrainian autocephalist movement in 1921, the other Orthodox churches have refused to recognize the legitimacy of Ukrainian autocephaly. Their isolation from communication with the Orthodox world prevented Orthodox clergy and faithful from getting to know the autocephalist communities. Unable to achieve reconciliation, the autocephalists repeatedly appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate to recognize them. To the surprise of most Orthodox, President Poroshenko announced the imminence of a tomos of autocephaly in April 2018, and since then, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has taken several concrete steps towards restoring the autocephalists to communion with the Church by annulling the canonical sanctions imposed by Moscow and re-claiming Ukraine as their canonical territory on October 11, 2018. Moscow delivered a predictable counterpunch by severing communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, accusing them of the heresy of papism, and declaring them to be partakers of the schism. For Moscow, the only resolution to this crisis is for the schismatics to obey the conditions imposed by Moscow by repenting and returning to the Church. Despite these fierce responses, the Ecumenical Patriarchate remains undeterred: they have declared their commitment to healing the schism and granting autocephaly to the church in Ukraine, arguing that this church meets all of the criteria required for the canonical status of autocephaly. They also claim that it was necessary for them to take action since Moscow failed to resolve the schism over the course of 26 years.
Media outlets continue to speculate on the details and dates of the unification council that will assemble all of the Orthodox bishops in Ukraine who wish to be pastors in the new church and the timing of the issuing of the Tomos. All indicators point to November 22 as the date of the council, with the official tomos of autocephaly to come shortly afterwards. It is possible that the council and the Tomos could be delayed, but they are still imminent because the Ecumenical Patriarchate is determined to see Ukrainian autocephaly through to actualization.
To date, Orthodox response to events in Ukraine has been tepid. A handful of churches have called for a synaxis of hierarchs to resolve the issue, and the Serbian and Polish Churches have rejected the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision to restore autocephalist clergy and faithful to the Church. Most of the criticism of the Ecumenical Patriarchate centers on the allegation that he abused his power by interfering in the internal affairs of another church. Other Orthodox observers are also quick to validate the martyr identity claimed by the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine, declaring their fear that the creation of this new church through coercion will result in violence and bloodshed.
For his part, the Ecumenical Patriarch claims that Ukraine deserves an autocephalous church, and he acknowledges that Ukraine has suffered immeasurably as the battleground of hostile, external, and imperials powers in the twentieth century. He seems to be the only Orthodox leader in the world to acknowledge the crimes committed against the Ukrainian people, from the Holodomor to Russian aggression in Donbas. The appeals of other Orthodox leaders to protect the Moscow Patriarchate from violence is contradicted by their deafening silence about the atrocities committed in the occupied territories of Crimea, Donetsk, and Luhansk against people of other faiths. One strains to find a single Orthodox protest on the expulsion of Crimean Tartars and numerous acts of murder, torture, and severe persecution perpetrated against non-Russian Orthodox peoples to defend Russian Orthodox culture. This silence exposes the tendency for the rest of the Orthodox world to turn their heads away from Ukraine while occupiers exploit the people and convert their soil into new graveyards. The Ecumenical Patriarch’s decision to create an autocephalous church in Ukraine is one piece of a puzzle that seeks to secure Ukraine while conforming to the canonical norms of Orthodox Christianity. Perhaps other Orthodox leaders will follow his lead and contribute to the transformation of Ukraine from a colony at the mercy of occupiers to a sovereign state that no longer has to apologize for its venerable legacy of fidelity to Christ.
Nicholas Denysenko is the Emil and Elfriede Jochum University Chair and Professor of Theology at Valparaiso University. He is an ordained deacon of the Orthodox Church in America.