For the past two years, the Russian Church has been accusing Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of failing to overcome divisions in the Ukrainian Church, which, on the contrary, have become more acute than in pre-tomos times. The accusations voiced by the Moscow Patriarchate intensified on the eve of His Holiness’s upcoming visit to Ukraine.
That’s according to Ukrainian religious expert Oleksandr Yefremenko.
Such messages from representatives of the Danilov Monastery and its branch in Ukraine are unfounded and untrue. After all, the formation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and the obtaining of the long-awaited tomos was a solution to a long-standing issue, complicated by the position of the Moscow Patriarchate. To see proof of this, it is worth recalling the history of the Ukrainian church issue.
The struggle of the Ukrainian people for the Local Church began at the beginning of the past century. It entered an active phase with the perestroika events and the collapse of the Soviet Union. It was at this time that religious confrontations arose between Orthodox and Greek Catholics in the west of the USSR over church property. Disputes between the faithful were sometimes so intense they took on the features of a full-fledged religious war.
Attempts by the Moscow Patriarchate to resolve the situation peacefully were in vain. Even the expansion of rights of the Ukrainian Exarchate within the ROC and its transformation into an “independent and sovereign Church” in unity with the Moscow Patriarchate didn’t help. Ukrainians who lived in the epicenter of church battles did not a priori accept at least a prayerful or illusory dependence on Moscow.
According to witnesses, even the word “Orthodox” was perceived as hostile and associated with Russia. Although this position clearly contradicted church canons, it was actively pursued by part of Ukrainian public in the same western regions of Ukraine. That is why masses of believers migrated from Orthodoxy to the Greek Catholic Church, which only then resumed its operations.
The situation harmed both the Ukrainian Church and the entire Orthodox Church. Decisive measures were required to address this difficult issue, which was bringing more and more negativity. It was then that part of the Orthodox clergy began to appeal to their leadership in Moscow and Kyiv to grant the Ukrainian Church full canonical autocephaly. In their opinion, this could save the future fate of the Orthodox Church in the region.
At the time, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Church was revived in Lviv region. However, its uncertain canonical status became an obstacle for many believers who didn’t want to lose unity with the global Orthodoxy. Although the autocephalous movement was gaining momentum, it could not solve the main problem – the reasons behind confrontation.
With each passing day, it was becoming clearer that the only way out of this deadlock was a full-blown legitimate autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, which would be recognized by other Local Orthodox Churches. This was also facilitated by political processes developing in Ukraine. The proclamation of state independence opened doors to opportunities for the canonical autocephalous status. And shortly after the adoption of the Act of Independence, on November 1-3, the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra hosted the Local Council of the Ukrainian Church, which unanimously decided to appeal to the Moscow Patriarch to grant full independence to Ukrainian Church.
The attempt has failed, but not for dogmatic or canonical reasons. It was because of the unwillingness of the ROC leadership to let Ukraine navigate its independent way. The Council of Bishops, held in the summer of 1992, didn’t deny the future granting of autocephalous status to the Ukrainian Church, only postponing the issue to be decided by the Local Council, which, incidentally, wasn’t convened until 2009. And the ROCinU itself has never abandoned its desire to have an independent status, only from time to time emphasizing how untimely that would be.
The following events further complicated the already difficult situation. The shift of the former head of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine, Metropolitan Filaret, along with part of the clergy and faithful, from the ROCinU to UAOC and the formation of the UOC of the Kyiv Patriarchate aggravated the difficult issue even more.
The Russian intelligence network, acts of subversion by Russian secret services on the territory of Ukraine, and the destructive policies by hierarchs and clergy of the Moscow Patriarchate were bringing the issue of autocephaly to a dead end.
However, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew tried to get the issue out of the deadlock. At his initiative, a number of meetings were held with all parties to the church conflict. With his blessing, there were joint groups were set up with the participation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, ROC, members of unrecognized Ukrainian church communities, and the Ukrainian government. However, none of them yielded any significant result due to Moscow church’s actions.
Thus, many ordinary believers, who at the dawn of independence had been seeking a positive solution, started perceiving the issue of autocephaly as “heresy,” which will inevitably lead to anathema and a curse. Thus, the available option was to leave things where they are.
The events of 2014 and the subsequent war in eastern Ukraine once again hurt a bleeding wound that wasn’t healing anyway. The uncertain position of the ROCinU leadership on the issues of Crimea and war, as well as open support of the militants by individual clerics further deepened discontent of the general public, part of which at the time still remained in the bosom of the Moscow Patriarchate, from which they just had nowhere to go.
After all, the will to be in unity with the entire Orthodox community forced them to remain in this church. The logic of such clerics and laity was obvious. Although there were patriotic and independent church communities, their uncertain status was one of the greatest obstacles. At the same time, nominations for top clergy posts, including that of Filaret, was unacceptable to many.
The only thing left was hope that the church leadership will finally side with its people and eventually break off Moscow shackles. However, the statement by ROC leader Patriarch Kirill (Gundyaev), who claimed they would never accept autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church, ultimately buried all hopes. This also became a kind of sign for Constantinople, which throughout this period was offering Moscow the opportunity to resolve the Ukrainian issue on its own. Now all masks are off as it became clear that Moscow wasn’t even going to try. Thus, millions of Ukrainians would in fact be left to fend for themselves if not for the decisive action by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
Constantinople, as the Mother Church, resolved the difficult Ukrainian issue in a relatively short, even record time. It granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and returned millions of Orthodox Ukrainians to church unity.
Some important conclusions must be drawn given the above. First, the reason for the division in church was due to the destructive stance of the ROC leadership. Secondly, they couldn’t have resolved the issue a priori as they weren’t interested in doing so. Thirdly, Constantinople gave every opportunity and made considerable efforts to overcome the split, including by providing a tomos of autocephaly. Therefore, any accusations by the ROC are baseless and meaningless. Today there’s no division, but rather the consistent destructive stance of the ROC, which refuses to accept the realities of today and to live by the canons, while only seeking its own hegemony over Ukraine.