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Nicholas Denysenko: After the Council: Challenges Facing the Orthodox Church of Ukraine

When Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko initially announced that the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) would grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the promise seemed overconfident at best, and delusional at worst. For decades, global Orthodoxy has recognized the canonicity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), and dismissed the Kyivan Patriarchate (KP) and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) as uncanonical schismatics.

The events of 2018 unfolded with one surprise after another. Clergy, laity, and students of Church history were stunned when Patriarch Bartholomew informed Patriarch Kirill of the EP’s intention to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. On October 11, the EP annulled the canonical sanctions against Patriarch Filaret and Metropolitan Makarii and restored their faithful to communion. The MP responded by severing communion with the EP, and the EP followed through on their plan by sending two exarchs to Ukraine to prepare a unification council, originally scheduled for November 22. The council took place on Saturday, December 15 in Kyiv’s St. Sophia Cathedral, culminating in the adoption of the statute of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), the unification of the KP and UAOC, along with two bishops of the UOC-MP, and the election of 39 year-old Metropolitan Epiphaniy as the primate of the OCU.  

The December council resembles the 100 year-old autocephalous movement in Ukraine: it was a struggle. Much of the conciliar struggle concerned the election of the new primate. The EP was determined to establish the OCU with a new leader, so Patriarch Filaret and Metropolitan Makarii agreed to recuse themselves from candidacy. As the face and voice of the post-Soviet period of the Ukrainian autocephalous movement, Filaret was determined to establish continuity in the OCU by advocating for his preferred candidate, Epiphaniy. When Metropolitan Michael of Lutsk emerged as a contender, the fragile union forming at the council was threatened, and Michael was pressured to rescind his candidacy, leaving Epiphaniy and Metropolitan Symeon of Vinnytsia as the two finalists. The KP’s solid majority resulted in Epiphaniy’s election, though the final outcome was close – 36 votes for Epiphaniy and 28 for Symeon. When the council concluded, Patriarch Bartholomew greeted Epiphaniy, and he will receive the Tomos of autocephaly from the EP on January 6, the feast of Theophany.

Post-conciliar Analysis

Critics of the December council will characterize Epiphaniy as a puppet of Filaret, as Filaret prepared Epiphaniy to assume leadership of the KP after his death. It is convenient to view Filaret as a shadow primate, the secret power behind the Kyivan throne who issues instructions on Church policy to the young primate of the OCU. Both advocates and opponents of Ukrainian autocephaly suggest that Epiphaniy’s KP legacy will hinder the migration of UOC-MP bishops and parishes to the OCU. Optimists refer to balance among the bishops of the OCU: the strong support for Michael and Symeon will encourage Epiphaniy to take a collegial approach to administering the Church in the immediate post-Tomos period. Symeon and Metropolitan Oleksander (Drabinko) can assist him in cultivating relationships with bishops, clergy, and faithful of the UOC-MP who are sympathetic to autocephaly, but uncertain about the leaders of the newly-constituted OCU.

Naturally, the news of the council’s struggles remain a hot topic of discussion in all circles. Poroshenko himself said that the council nearly collapsed as many as five times during the course of the day. These difficulties suggest that the OCU’s union is fragile, but we must consider the modern history of Orthodoxy in Ukraine to consider the realization of any type of union. Observers are familiar with the enmity between the KP and UOC-MP, but the UAOC and KP have also been divided since 1992, and numerous attempts to reconcile through dialogue collapsed. The UAOC valued the Ukrainian legacy of sobornopravnist’, a principle similar to sobornost, but placing even more emphasis on the participation of laity and rank-and-file clergy in Church administration. The UAOC and KP were never able to overcome their disagreements on the title and internal ecclesiology of the Ukrainian Church, and their failure to convene a unification council sponsored by the EP in 2015 was a temporary blow to the unification process. On Saturday, this unification was realized in spite of a long history of division. One of the council’s achievements is the beginning of union, with the UAOC and KP forming the OCU.

Three Challenges Confronting the OCU

Three formidable challenges confront the nascent OCU: obtaining the recognition of global Orthodoxy, navigating their relations with the Ukrainian state, and reconciling with the UOC-MP. It seems reasonable to expect that some of the sister Churches will recognize the OCU on the basis of the EP’s devoted patronage, but others are unable to overcome the stigma of illegitimacy borne by Ukrainian autocephaly over the course of one-hundred years. The OCU is going to need even more patience as Orthodox leaders study the canonical situation in Ukraine. The polemics of the Ukrainian state and the rigorous position of the UOC-MP are complicating matters. The MP has caricatured Ukrainian autocephaly as an illegitimate nationalist and political project since 1918. President Poroshenko’s active participation in the council contributes to the depiction of the OCU as an aspirational national Church, and world Orthodoxy is allergic to this possibility. Russian aggression in Donbas and Crimea explains Poroshenko’s depiction of autocephaly as victory over Russia, but this will not be an adequate position for the OCU. Poroshenko has repeatedly stated that the state’s part in the formation of the OCU is complete, and the OCU needs to clarify its relationship with the state in a public manner to make it clear that the Church’s doors are truly open for everyone – even those who do not self-identify as Ukrainian patriots.

The OCU also needs to handle its relationship with the state with great care. First, a change in Ukrainian state leadership is likely in the spring of 2019, despite Poroshenko’s role in the formation of the OCU. Second, Ukrainian Church leaders – along with numerous scholars – have criticized the MP for promoting the Russkii Mir initiative, acting as a tool for Putin’s geopolitical agenda, and claiming Ukraine in general, and Kyiv in particular as a Russian holy city. Sustaining a Church policy that features anti-Russian propaganda and Ukrainian patriotism will inspire no confidence in the OCU on the part of sister Orthodox Churches.

The UOC-MP’s response to the December council was predictable: they declared that the OCU remains schismatic, that the UOC-MP remains the only canonical Church in Ukraine, and they suspended both Symeon and Oleksander. The convocation of the December council and the formation of the OCU only hardened the UOC-MP’s position, and they will refer to anti-Russian polemics and promotion of Ukrainian patriotism as instances of ethnophyletism in an attempt to sustain the stigma of illegitimacy associated with Ukrainian autocephaly. The most formidable challenge confronting the OCU in general and Epiphaniy in particular is the project of reconciling with the UOC-MP. The practice of responding to ecclesial aggression with a blow in return only hardens mutually exclusive positions. Also, this strategy has failed repeatedly. The only viable avenue for the OCU is to act pastorally and reach out to the UOC-MP with the radical love commanded by Jesus Christ in the Gospel of St. Matthew. If the OCU shows that the Church has space for everyone, including those who have been their most fierce adversaries for the last thirty years, the OCU will begin the post-Tomos period on the basis of the highest canonical authority in Christianity: the Gospel of the Lord.

The eyes of global Orthodoxy are on the OCU. Will the new Church in Ukraine try to sustain the imperial and Soviet legacies of symphonia with the state and the promotion of political ideologies? Or will the OCU begin a new chapter of Orthodox Church life rooted in conciliarity, openness to the world, inclusion of all people in the life of the Church, emphasis on the word of God, and the radical love commanded by Jesus Christ? The challenge facing the OCU seems impossible, and it is overwhelming. Only one thing is certain: no one can accomplish such feats on their own. Church leaders need the prayers of their faithful, and the divine grace given freely by God. Time will tell if the OCU and the faithful of world Orthodoxy will respond to the unique challenges confronting the Orthodox Church in the 21st century.


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.