The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), which is not an independent organization but, in fact, an exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), is living through some hard times. Eventually, it may lose its “traditional name” and be officially referred to as the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine (ROCinU). However, this issue has not yet been legally resolved. But it seems that this innovation is not far off. And since the title ROCinU adequately reflects the essence of this church, it is obviously time to use precisely this title.
“Church monopoly” being destroyed
In the past, this ROCinU had great influence and was supported by the Ukrainian authorities as the “only canonical Orthodox Church” in Ukraine. As for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), they were not considered as such.
And although the authorities made certain gestures towards these churches and offered some support, they remained “second-tier” religious organizations to them. The ROCinU enjoyed a kind of “canonical monopoly.” In addition, the number of its parishes and monasteries significantly prevailed, compared with parishes, monasteries and other structures of the UOC-KP and UAOC.
At various official meetings and celebrations (both in Kyiv and on the ground), it was the representatives of the ROCinU who were favored. Especially obvious was the support for this religious organization during the rule of presidents Leonid Kuchma and Viktor Yanukovych.
However, the Russian-Ukrainian war, which erupted in 2014 and continues to this day, has made a crack in this “canonical monopoly.” High-ranking representatives of the ROCinU took an anti-patriotic position, often doing this demonstratively. Also known are the facts of their support for “canonical Orthodox” militants and “separatists” in Donbas.
This one way or another influenced both Ukrainian society as a whole and the country’s government. The idea of church independence became especially relevant.
Therefore, the unification of the UOC-KP and UAOC, the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), which was also joined by some hierarchs and believers of the ROCinU, at the Council of Bishops on December 15, 2018, was a natural phenomenon.
Despite the difficult process of formation, the OCU has proved itself a solid religious organization, having received a tomos, that is, recognition, from the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
This was the second and quite significant crack in the “canonical monopoly” of the ROC. After all, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has recognized that the OCU Ukraine’s canonical church. As for the ROCinU, it actually turned out to be a church operating someone else’s canonical territory. And its head, Metropolitan Onufriy, is simply a hierarch of a non-native church.
Of course, the ROC and its branch, ROCinU, made a lot of efforts to slow down the development of the OCU and its recognition by other Orthodox churches. The ROC even severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And although these attempts have borne some fruit, the process cannot be stopped. To date, the OCU, in addition to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has been recognized by the churches of Greece, Cyprus, and Alexandria.
The significance of Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit
But perhaps the biggest crack in the ROCinU’s “canonical monopoly” was caused by the Ukraine visit of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on August 20-24. It is noteworthy that the hierarch was met on not only by the head of the OCU, Metropolitan Epifaniy, along with the clergy, but also by Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal. On the same day, the patriarch met with President Volodymyr Zelensky.
During the meeting, the president thanked Bartholomew for the visit and noted that one of the factors that the aggressor has been using against Ukraine as a hybrid weapon is a religious one. It is clear that there was a hint at the ROC. This is, so to speak, the political aspect of the visit. One way or another, the incumbent Ukrainian government is starting to realize the need for Ukraine’s ecclesiastical independence for the country’s normal development. And here the “once canonical” ROCinU is superfluous. However, representatives of this irganization have recently been trying to a show off some sort of “Ukrainian patriotism.” But it is rather a camouflage due to the latest circumstances, of which many are aware.
However, the visit of the Ecumenical Patriarch was primarily of ecclesiastical significance. Thus, on August 22, he co-performed with and Metropolitan Epifaniy a service in Sophia of Kyiv with the participation of the OCU clergy, that of Mount Athos, and about 15,000 believers. It was a service “on equal terms” – by the two heads of churches. It was expressed in a symbolic way as each of them held a scepter – a symbol of primacy in a church.
The patriarch had many meetings, including at the state level. Also, he took part in a meeting of the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations (although it was ignored by ROCinU representatives), the volunteer and veterans’ forum, and the celebrations on the occasion of Ukraine’s Independence Day, etc.
In addition, there were various meetings with believers, public figures, and politicians. Many of his supporters had been preparing for the meeting. Ahead of his arrival, the books entitled “Bartholomew I: 30 years of patriarchal service in the context of Ukraine” and “Ba BARTHOLOMEW: Apostle and Visionary” by Archdeacon John Chryssavgis were released in Ukrainian.
The patriarch’s opponents from the ROCinU had also been on guard. They organized a number of rallies. However, ROCinU leaders seemed to distance themselves from them, entrusting this task to the so-called Myriany NGO, their informal front organization. In the end, the latter made no particular stir. As a rule, these rallies would self-disperse whenever the patriarch was to appear. It looked like a well-staged show.
Chance for ROC
Metropolitan Onufriy and the ROCinU clergy deliberately avoided meetings with Bartholomew. However, the ROCinU doesn’t seem to have severed ties with the Ecumenical Patriarch. In turn, the latter did not make any sharp statements targeting them.
This gives reason to believe that the leadership of the ROCinU still has a chance, despite the position of the Moscow Patriarchate, to establish relations with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This chance remains weak, of course. Yet much will depend on how events develop further, both ecclesiastically and politically.
It is important that Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit to Ukraine has confirmed that the OCU is an independent actor. Prior to the visit, opponents of the church deliberately spread rumors that the patriarch might take the tomos back. In this way, the new church would lose canonicity. The visit as such, the worship service, and the meetings the patriarch had in Ukraine showed this wouldn’t happen.
Bartholomew has made it clear that Ukraine must have and has its own autocephalous church. And this church is the OCU. Therefore, ROC leaders and supporters finally need to realize that they have lost their “canonical monopoly” and may become outcasts in Ukraine. Therefore it is necessary to look for a way out of the situation, and one way or another – to reach an accord with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the OCU.
Petro Kraliuk, Chairman of the Academic Council at the Ostroh Academy National University, Professor, Distinguished Worker of Science and Technology of Ukraine, for Radio Svoboda