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Waiting for an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine

An attempt to restructure the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has raised questions formerly unknown to parishioners and politicians alike.

June 21, 2018 - Mykhailo Cherenkov - Articles and Commentary

St Vladimir's Cathedral Kyiv, Ukraine Photo: maxpixel.net (cc)

This summer Ukraine, which is defending its independence in a confrontation with Russia, is waiting for news from the church front. Church leaders, politicians and ordinary parishioners are eagerly awaiting news from the Patriarch of Constantinople. And this general expectation in itself is a very new situation for Ukraine as a “post soviet” and nominally “Orthodox” nation.

We as Ukrainians unexpectedly became first hand witnesses and participants of the return of religion into politics. Previously we saw it only in books or in reports from foreign countries. Now it happens in Ukraine as well.

Moreover, what is happening here is of great importance for the region, for the whole of Europe and the wider world. It seems that it is right here that the fate of Orthodoxy is being determined, and the future of those countries that are historically connected with the Orthodox tradition is redefined.

Nowadays, the issue of the future of having One Local Orthodox Church in Ukraine has become the number one issue for the whole society, and not just for the church.

We used to read that in Byzantium the Trinity was debated on the streets and at the markets. Now we can see it in our context. Men in the villages violently fight for this concept and women pull each other’s hair.

The issue of having One Local Orthodox Church in Ukraine touches the core of what the church is all about and how it relates to its people; how much it is dependent on its history and its hierarchs, and how much it depends on the ordinary parishioners and their contemporary requests; how much Orthodoxy is capable of internal transformations for the sake of serving society; how much it is willing to reckon with the presence of other churches and respect a different choice.

So far we see how heavy artillery and high diplomacy work in this issue. But the daily public diplomacy with ordinary people has not been set into motion yet. And this means that the church remains the subject of political bidding, but not the choice of ordinary people. The church remains a symbol and a resource, but not a community of living people who are able to become a driving force and independently determine the future of their people and their church.

Religion brings peace when it involves the most ordinary people in the decision-making process, maximising the circle of participants, treating them with respect, caring about their education and health, upbringing and nurturing.

Religion stirs up a war when it does not take into account the diversity of opinions, dignity and freedom of people; when instead of responses to the essence of the issue it gives only a reference to ancient rules or decisions of certain authorities.

Despite the fact that supporting having One Local Orthodox Church, Ukrainian politicians have been on the right side of history, if they ignore a grass-roots diplomacy, they risk bringing more harm than good.

If they do not take into account the opinions and decisions of ordinary people, then any decisions made at the top in closed rooms or chambers can always be appealed.

The trouble is that this situation has revealed a very sad truth. There is no communality neither in the Moscow Patriarchate nor in the Kiev Patriarchate. In fact, there are separate small communities here and there, but no one has a united and powerful church community. Therefore, even the organised Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the oligarch-paid campaign to collect signatures to the Patriarch of Constantinople provided dozens of thousands of appeals, but not hundreds of thousands or millions.

When church or state politicians refer to the people, we see mummers, clergymen, fools and drunks on the streets. Apparently, therefore, the president realised that it was useless to solve the problem from below, and took the initiative on himself.

However, if the church body, the church community and the church consciousness are not awoken, if the influential minority is not created to lead the church movement for the renewal and reconciliation, then it is not entirely clear to whom the Tomos of Autocephaly will be handed, even if it is handed over at all.

Documents, confessions, symbols do not change much in the church if they do not respond at all levels, if they do not resonate with the general mood, if they do not mobilise grassroots movements.

In this regard, Ukrainian Protestants demonstrate a qualitative growth. They were able to bring half a million parishioners to Khreshchatyk on the Thanksgiving Day on September 17, 2017. They were able to organise dozens of thousands of people in support of family values ​​on April 4, 2018 and June 2, 2018.

These actions show not only good organisation, but also strong self-organisation of the church communities, with a high level of grass-roots initiatives.

Returning to the main issue of our days. Even the correctly posed question of having One Local Orthodox Church in Ukraine will not have a solution unless all levels of the religious community participate in the decision-making process; if the church does not encourage the initiative of parishioners and the freedom of their self-determination; if the church will rely on political power, rather than on its own maturity.

The issue of autocephaly, issue of recognition, issue of canonical status – all of them are secondary. They need to be answered only after we answer the questions of paramount importance: What is the church? Whose is the church? As Protestants joke, we must understand that the church is not where we go, but what we are.

If the church – is us, or rather, if the church is Christ in the midst of us, then the issue of having One Local Orthodox Church in Ukraine will be resolved positively – now or after, with or without the help of Constantinople. If the church can revitalise its community and develop grass-roots diplomacy, it can help build civil society. If Orthodoxy in Ukraine shows the dynamics of development, the entire Orthodox, and the entire Christian world as a whole, will come into motion and will be able to correct its civilisational processes in Eurasia and Europe, overcoming the “track” effect and opening up new opportunities for peaceful diversity.

Mykhailo Cherenkov is a Professor at the Ukrainian Catholic University in Lviv. He also serves as the executive field director of Mission Eurasia Field Ministries (formerly the Association for Spiritual Renewal or ASR), Mission Eurasia’s national affiliate in Ukraine

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