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Ukrainian autocephaly

While the status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is often discussed as a political issue, it is important to bear in mind the traditional competition between the Moscow and Constantinople patriarchates.

December 18, 2020 - Thibaut Auplat - Articles and Commentary

Saint Sophia Cathedral, Kyiv. Photo: Juan Antonio Segal flickr.com

Two years ago, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) began the long and difficult process of declaring ‘self-governorship’, or ‘autocephaly’. This process was complicated by a range of political and theological issues. Today, some questions remain unanswered regarding the church’s status, and the issue has continued to create tension within the Orthodoxy, especially over the recognition of this new church. Before presenting what the current situation is, we intend to put back these events into their cultural, political and theological context.

Orthodoxy in Eastern Europe: a cultural, theological and political issue

On January 5th 2019, Bartholomew I, the Patriarch of Constantinople, granted Ukraine a “Tomos of autocephaly”. Translated from ancient Greek, tomos means ‘volume’ or ‘book’, whilst autocephaly could be rendered as ‘the fact of being independent’. In this context, the patriarch’s decision refers to a document announcing the creation and recognition of the OCU by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. In other words, this created a new church in Ukraine that is self-governing, unlike the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP)”. Until this date, this Moscow-based body had been the only recognised Orthodox Church in Ukraine and remained under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

This decision has led to a number of cultural, theological and political questions that are closely related and difficult to analyse as independent issues. Orthodoxy, for Russia and Ukraine, has been an integral part of their cultural identity since Kievan Rus’ adopted Christianity in the 10th century. This is exemplified by the idea that Moscow is the “Third Rome”. This concept flourished in the 16th century and argues that the city ‘succeeded’ Constantinople (The ‘Second Rome’) following its fall in 1453. Philotheus of Pskov, the monk who created this theory, explained this succession in theological terms. Overall, he argued that the first two Romes fell because they had betrayed Christianity.

This idea of a “Third Rome” also hints at another important fact that the Moscow and Constantinople patriarchates continue to compete for leadership within Orthodoxy. Whilst Moscow claims this position on the basis that it has the largest number of believers, Constantinople emphasises that it has inherited the ambiguous status of primus inter pares (“first among equals”) from historical church law.

At the same time, Moscow’s traditional control over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church through the UOC-MP has often been viewed as a means of strengthening Russian power in the country. Such ‘power’ is both theological and political, with the Russian Orthodox Church’s decisions often influenced by both concerns. As a result, former President Poroshenko lobbied for autocephaly partly as a way of making Ukraine more independent from Russia. Furthermore, the fact that pastoral issues do not seem to be a crucial problem makes the political nature of this question even more clear. Although clear statistics do not exist, it seems that a large number of believers simply identify as “Orthodox” without distinguishing between the Russian and Ukrainian churches. Nowadays, it seems that the UOC-MP still has the largest amount of believers, even though trends point to a shift in favour of the OCU.

Proclaiming autocephaly: who was right, Moscow or Constantinople?

There are various official justifications regarding the granting of autocephaly. These are based on tradition and canon law but are now actively challenged by the ROC. The Russian church owns many assets in Ukraine and continues to hinder the development of the independent Ukrainian church.

Let us first turn to the theological aspect of this question of legitimacy. This involves examining the aforementioned canon law and tradition and how they could possibly justify the new church’s creation. Firstly, the Constantinople patriarchate may have difficulties justifying its arbitration in a conflict which does not belong to its territory or jurisdiction. Ukraine belongs to the territory of the ROC and Constantinople a priori should not intervene. Despite this, Constantinople maintains that it has a right of arbitration even outside its territory. This claim is based on canons nine and seventeen of the 451 Council of Chalcedon that under certain conditions gives Contantinople the right of arbitration outside its territory. Simultaneously, tradition suggests that Constantinople also possesses the ability to grant autocephaly, since all modern autocephalies since the 16th century have been approved by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, often linked to political issues. These arguments are understandable but are easy to challenge. The ROC naturally rejected them as illegitimate.

From the Russian point of view, Ukraine’s autocephaly has led to practical problems beyond issues related to the country’s cultural importance and the centrality of Orthodoxy within Russian identity. As aforementioned, the ROC owns numerous properties in Ukraine and probably more monasteries than the OCU. A change of church affiliation means that the ROC risks losing these assets alongside its general wealth and influence.

The ROC has fought the independent Ukrainian church on two fronts. On the one hand, it has directly challenged the very idea of the church’s autocephaly. On the other hand, it has tried to increase its influence in other territories. This is particularly clear in Korea, where Constantinople was already an active religious force. Indeed, in 2018-19, around the time that Ukrainian autocephaly was proclaimed, the ROC expanded its influence in the area by creating a Patriarchal Exarchate in South-East Asia. The church also created a Diocese of Korea and appointed Archbishop Theophan (Kim, Alexey Illarionovich) as a hierarch. Since Constantinople was already active in this territory, the new Russian diocese now effectively challenges its authority. The Russian church’s decision is difficult to justify according to canon law because it goes against the principle of territoriality (“one city, one bishop, one Church”), according to which a bishop should not operate outside their boundaries particularly if the territory is already under the jurisdiction of another Orthodox church.

Recognition of the Ukrainian autocephaly within Orthodoxy

The efforts of the ROC to challenge autocephaly made it difficult for other churches to recognise the new body in Ukraine. So, the Albanian, Czechoslovak, Polish and Serbian Orthodox Churches who have a strong relationship with the ROC, , have not recognised the OCU. The ROC has a strong presence in Israel, so the Church of Jerusalem also did not recognise the autocephaly. Other churches cannot afford to take such a clear position. The Church of Antioch, for example, would like to stay on good terms with Constantinople. Being close to the government of Bashar al-Assad, however, it cannot reject the ROC given the backdrop of the civil war in Syria. Only the churches close to Constantinople, such as the Greek Church of Athens, the Church of Alexandria and more recently the Church of Cyprus, have recognised the autocephaly. As a result, the ROC officially cut ties with these churches and stopped commemorating their patriarchs, just as it did with the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

So, what conclusions can we draw from all of this? First, it seems that Russian Orthodoxy outside Russia still often possesses a political agenda capable of influencing Orthodoxy as a whole. Today, Ukraine’s autocephaly remains even though it is seen more and more as a purely political matter. The tomos has not been rescinded and some parishes continue to change from the ROC to the OCU. Russian and Ukrainian politics’ recent shift to other matters, especially the ongoing Covid crisis, could help set a status quo that would eventually legitimise the OCU’s position. This recognition of de facto realities helped other autocephalies in the past.

In comparison to President Poroshenko, who lobbied strongly in favour of the autocephaly, Zelenskyy does not seem to share this belief in the importance of religion regarding Ukraine’s independence. He tends to consider the topic a private matter. Therefore, he does not express much on the topic of religion. However, within Orthodoxy the problem of autocephaly still does not seem to be a settled matter. On September 16th, President Stevo Pendarovski of North Macedonia sent a formal request to Bartholomew I to grant autocephaly to the North Macedonian Orthodox Church, which currently has an autonomous statute within the Serbian Orthodox Church. By granting autocephaly to the church in Ukraine, Bartholomew I seems to have set a potentially dangerous precedent.

Thibaut Auplat is a recent MA graduate of European Interdisciplinary Studies at the College of Europe in Natolin. Agrégé de grammaire, he also holds a MA in Classics from Universität Hamburg and Aix-Marseille Université.


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