I won’t spend too much time describing the controversy that has enveloped the question of Ukrainian autocephaly in recent years. The discourse has shifted so rapidly from the 1990s to 2014, and continued to be exacerbated by an increasingly polemical, political environment. In the midst of such polemics it’s entirely necessary for at least some to try and provide a sober view of the situation. In this article I will attempt to present the case for the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) in as favourable a light as possible, extrapolating from that premise that the actions of His All-Holiness Bartholomew in materializing this principle were legitimate and justified even if unfortunate.
My intention is not necessarily to convince. As it stands, the debate has transcended the realm of the discursive, and taken on an emotional, political, and polemical nature, such that an exchange of legitimate grievances is inevitable. Rather, my intention is to do away with any notion that proponents of the OCU advance an inherently, obviously, and indefensibly cynical policy guided by bad faith and a genuine lack of virtue.
The fundamental premise of my argument is that inasmuch as “national autocephaly” is a normative expression of Orthodox ecclesiology (though I disagree that it’s a particularly justifiable one,) Ukrainians can draw upon their ecclesiological history and national identity to provide a justification for also having an autocephalous church. Moreover, inasmuch as autocephaly is a messy process generally, the issue of resolving the Ukrainian question must start from the premise that bringing millions of Ukrainians out of schism and into the Church is a goal, rather than the outcome of any higher premise. Ukrainians deserve an autocephalous church (if anyone does), and if millions of them are in schism by means of this legitimate desire, then it is also legitimate to find means by which to bring them back into the fold in accordance with their desire.
A brief note on autocephaly
The history of autocephaly in Orthodoxy has never been an easy one. From a primitive development of primacy in the wake of Apostolic missions which had the penultimate realization in the Pentarchy, to the eventual splintering of this arrangement as nations began to express their Orthodox identities in socio-political realities that lay beyond the borders of the Roman Oekumene.
Polemically we often describe a neat arrangement of local independent churches which exist in some level of cooperation with one another, tolerating flashpoints of debate at various points but maintaining a general unity. The principle of this is unity is of course, the Orthodox faith, shared and unadulterated, buffered by a respect for canonical boundaries.
A simple glance at the history of the matter will show that these conflicts were frequent and subject to political intrigues to a significantly greater degree. One shouldn’t forget the decisive victories of the Bulgars against the Romans, which secured for its church not only autocephaly but a Patriarchate. I don’t know of any “right by conquest” canonical arrangement that justified this, just as I know of no justification for why the Ottoman yoke could subject the newly conquered ecclesial territories of Serbia and Bulgaria under Constantinople once more, nor the pseudo-autocephaly that the same Ottomans subsumed under Constantinople in the form of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria.
The Bulgarian Church only received its autocephaly once again after a unilateral declaration, wherein the Ecumenical Patriarchate deposed Patriarch Antim I, declaring the Bulgarian “Church” anathema, a fate identical to that of Met. Filaret Denysenko. This new Bulgarian Church was likewise rife with accusations of not only liberal-nationalism, but also of entertaining the Unia in order to secure its position. This position was confirmed by no less than a Council in 1872, with Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem present to both uphold the excommunication of the Bulgarian Church, and declare it heretical on the basis of ethnophyletism. Only in 1945 was the schism formally lifted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and only in 1953 did Bulgaria likewise receive its Patriarchate.
One should speak also of the Georgian Church, an ancient Patriarchate subjugated under not merely the Moscow Patriarchate, but under the canonical aberration that was the Russian Orthodox Church after the Petrine Reforms and abolition of the Patriarchate. Georgia’s ancient rights were paved away indefinitely, and only through a unilateral declaration of autocephaly from Moscow did they regain their dignity, unrecognized and entirely separated from the rest of the Church in formal schism until 1943, when Stalin’s compulsion forced the Russian Church to recognize the autocephaly of the Georgians.
One of the most egregious examples I could mention would be the Albanian Orthodox Church, established by a rather eccentric liberal-nationalist Freemason, Fan Noli. Proclaimed in 1922 against the will of Constantinople, they received their consecrations from the Serbian Church and took considerably belligerent action against the Greek clergy which remained operative in the land. Only in 1935 did the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognize the autocephaly of the Church.
It should be clear to anyone that a de jure arrangement for granting autocephaly, if it exists in any agreeable form in our Church, has been the exception if it has been practiced at all. I can think of hardly any autocephaly that was either seized unliterally, or granted by some other machination, where one can speak of a wholly legitimate and amiable separation between churches into this arrangement. One can only ask why Ukraine is different.
Ukrainian Ecclesial History
The “natural unity” of the Church of Rus’ likewise remains an enigma. While many would say that the contemporary reality of Ukrainian nationhood and statehood is enough of a premise on its own, I would go further to say that the canonical order within Ukraine under Moscow was a normative aberration, not a de jure arrangement.
In light of the Mongol yoke and the complete destruction of the city of Kyiv, the Metropolitans of Kyiv and all Rus’ shifted their residence to northern Rus’, first in the city of Vladimir, and later to Muscovy. The separation between the northern Rus’ states (which would consolidate nationally and politically as “Russia”) and the southern Rus’ states (which would have a similar process as “Ukraine”) was reflected in the ecclesial dimension. With the absence of a resident Metropolitan of Kyiv to govern the eparchies of southern Rus’, the Ecumenical Patriarchate blessed the elevation of a Metropolitan of Halych, to be elevated in 1303, operating independent of the nominally Kyivan Metropolitan operating in northern Rus’.
By the fourteenth century, Constantinople recognized a formal distinction between these Rus’ eparchies, in those of Greater Rus’ (Megale Rossia), and Little Rus’ (Mikra Rossia). The Metropolia of Halych would eventually give way to a separate Metropolitan of Kyiv ruling over the eparchies of southern Rus’ in 1458 as the “Metropolitan of Kyiv, Halych and all Rus'”. It is this Church which would be lead by St. Petro Mohyla, and would remain an entirely separate entity from the Russian Church (which by this point had properly become the Moscow Patriarchate) until 1688.
The natural view has often been that the political reunification of the Rus’ until the Treaty of Pereyaslav in 1654 was a long-awaited natural restoration of the true order. This could not be further from the truth. Besides the fact that this treaty was short-lived, this treaty also demanded the formal protection of the Metropolia of Kyiv as a See under the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The transfer of the ecclesial province of Kyiv to Moscow in 1686, as interpreted even by Patriarch Dositheos of Jerusalem, maintained that the province was de jure that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, who should still be commemorated in its liturgies. Moscow’s rule was only to consecrate the Metropolitans of the See, and its canonical rule only normatively and passively accepted through a mere lack of resistance.
Foundations of Autocephaly
Thus far I have demonstrated two things. Inasmuch as national autocephaly exists, it is also a routinely messy process. Defrocking, anathema, accusations of heresy are common and frequent, and many churches which are commemorated in the diptychs of today were the schismatc-laymen of yesterday. Many of these saint-bearing churches were established under considerably more egregious circumstances than today’s OCU.
The foundations of the OCU lie in several church bodies. The most prominent of these is that of Met. Filaret Denysenko, former Metropolitan of Kyiv under the Moscow Patriarchate, who most infamously lead the former Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP). The minority body among autocephalists within Ukraine itself was the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC). Understanding the relationship between these is key to understanding the OCU, why it does in fact have valid ordinations, and this relationship produces other relevant examples for us to understand.
Following a national revival taking place from the Slavophile Ukrainian movements of Mykola Kostomarov and Taras Shevchenko, drawing all the way to the Social-Democratic and National-Liberal movements of the early twentieth century, the ecclesial environment of the Russian Church was shaken by internal strife. Among these was the ardent request by Ukrainian faithful to allow an increased role for their language and identity to be reflected in the liturgy.
The resulting “first incarnation” of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, lead by Vasyl Lypkivsky is a frequent subject of polemic. If the claim is that the Ukrainian autocephalists are without valid Apostolic Succession, the legitimacy of the criticism lies here. The “Metropolitan” was “consecrated” by no Bishop, but by a group of agreeable priests and laymen. Fortunately for our purposes, the UAOC of this incarnation eventually collapsed.
The genuine origins of the UAOC lie in the Polish Orthodox Church. The Polish Church is important to note here, because the basis for its autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarchate lies in the same reasoning used for the OCU. Though Poland was governed by Moscow, the Ecumenical Patriarchate appealed to its authority, primacy, and ultimately, de jure governance of the territories of Ruthenia of the Kyivan Metropolia as a basis upon which to elevate the hierarchs of the Polish Church into an autocephalous body in 1924 (against the desire of the Russian Church, which did not recognize this autocephaly.)
The first primate of this Church, Metropolitan Dionizy, would be the one to consecrate all the Bishops of what was the “second incarnation” of the UAOC. Despite lacking the same standing as an autocephalous body, these Bishops at no point received proper censure, defrocking, anathema, or any other such process by their mother Church. Among these Bishops were Met. Ilarion Ohienko, who was elevated as Bishop of Cholm, and Patriarch Mstyslav Skyrpnyk, who was elevated as Bishop of Pereyaslav. These two Bishops largely formed the canonical basis of two emigre churches, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada (UOCC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA (UOCUSA), and the latter eventually becoming “Patriarch” of Kyiv upon independence.
No one would genuinely argue that the Church reformed in 1942 with these legitimate consecrations was fundamentally graceless. If such an argument is to be made, it must be extended to the bodies to which these Bishops belonged in the diaspora. Both of those churches, despite formally being in schism, were received by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in their full dignity, recognized Apostolic Succession, and with no repetition of sacraments.
Tying into the “sacramental rigourism” question, we must conclude either that these were graceless Bishops indeed who were received through economia, or that they were Bishops indeed, merely normalized in the order of the Church and brought into full communion. In both cases, this sets a model for why the OCU may be accepted as it was.
At any rate, it is precisely these bodies that form the basis of the UAOC that we saw just before the creation of the OCU. As such, we must recognize an autocephalous-schismatic body within the OCU that was not subject to the laicization and anathema that Denysenko was.
I must be candid in stating that at no point have I ever supported Met. Filaret Denysenko as a leader. My personal convictions had thoroughly been identified with autocephalists within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), where I had been baptized, and where I’ve solely communed in each of my trips to my homeland. My personal reservations about him aside, he nonetheless remains the figurehead of Ukrainian autocephaly, and is the main target of polemics against it.
I will only spend a few words discussing this matter. Denysenko’s character aside, the main argument remains that Denysenko is formally a layman, having been defrocked and anathematized by Moscow. This argument is based on the view that Filaret had created his own church in a formal schism from Moscow, and that this “Filaretian” church is a standalone basis for the UOC-KP.
However, it is important to note that before any of these processes of laicization took place, Denysenko had already entered into schism. Taking the clergy loyal to him, Denysenko joined the UAOC in a formal Sobor that did not elevate him to the Patriarchate, but rather elevated the aforementioned Met. Mstyslav Skrypnyk.
Thus, the origin of the UOC-KP is hardly even Filaret Denysenko himself, but rather his reception into this body, which then produced the Kyiv Patriarchate, where Met. Filaret only ascended as its third Patriarch.
If the explanation is difficult, it is because the situation is difficult. No less nuance should be applied here, and dogmatic statements avoided, as would be applied in aforementioned cases such as Georgia, Bulgaria, and Albania, which all existed outside of the Church and whose consecrations and orders are dubious according to a “strict” interpretation.
The Contemporary Situation
However much we may disagree on national origins, it is abundantly clear that with their own state and own sense of nationhood, Ukrainians also have a right to ecclesial self-determination. With the mess of things created by one canonical body, and two major schismatic, autocephalous bodies within Ukraine, millions of Orthodox Ukrainians, fully Orthodox in their faith, conviction and practice, found themselves outside of canonical communion with the Church.
The premise is absolutely simple. Those who are Orthodox in faith and have an ardent desire to be united to the body of the Church, should be brought in. The caveat here is simply that the circumstances under which these would be brought it are unacceptable by virtue of the fact that their conviction and desire for an autocephalous church is legitimate.
I have made no mention of Met. Filaret Denysenko’s Sobor, where a unanimous decision was made by all present hierarchs, including both Met. Onufriy Berezovsky and Met. Volodymyr Sabodan to request autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate. This request was denied, spurring the schism to follow.
At any rate, Moscow’s claim has been that they would not grant autocephaly because the “canonical Church did not request it.” This is a simple statement to make when any who do make the request find themselves censured or removed entirely.
His All-Holiness Bartholomew upheld Moscow’s decisions on these matters despite recognizing the ultimate goal for Ukrainian autocephaly. Simply put, this was prudent for all the reasons we agree– if there is a hope of autocephaly, there is no reason for an incursion by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Under Met. Volodymyr of Blessed Memory, such a hope was routinely inspired, entertained, and encouraged in an autocephalist faction of the UOC-MP. Following his death in 2014 and political upheaval, this group had been all but silenced in their ambitions. This was closely followed by an increasingly polemical attitude by the UOC-MP towards the “graceless schismatics,” which were declared mere political organizations, who not only did not have orders, but did not have baptisms. A rather ironic contrast to the policy of the MP, which receives Roman Catholic clergy in the dignity of their orders.
What is to be done? The base premise has been rendered entirely null in the face of a faulty sense of justice. Millions of Ukrainians are told not only that they must repent and return to the canonical church under Russia, but that they are also not baptized, and must be received as pagans! This is treatment that the majority of the Church does not even reserve for Protestants.
The Ecumenical Patriarch
The nature of the prerogatives of the primus inter pares of our Church is debated, but regardless of what side on lies on, there are three factors to the actions of His All-Holiness in Ukraine.
The first factor is the simple fact that any hope for adequate discourse in Ukraine had collapsed in 2014. With one side entrenched beyond measure, and the other side now emboldened by a favourable political situation and growing rapidly, no hope for a unification lead by the Moscow Patriarchate remained.
Secondly, the prerogatives of the Ecumenical Patriarch in his primacy at the bare minimum provide a universal role in mediating disputes, and interjecting if needed. This argument is much more thoroughly elaborated on in this document.
Thirdly, Ukraine in particular has a connection to Constantinople by virtue of its de jure authority, which was not rescinded in 1686. If Constantinople could produce a church for Poland using this logic, then we must acknowledge an exact parallel, lest we inadvertently question the origins of that church and its Apostolic dignity as well.
In sum, the situation demands it (lest we wait until Moscow storms Kyiv militarily to restore order,) Constantinople has a unique authority within the space of these eparchies, and ultimately, and can rely upon its primacy and authority in order to interject in this matter.
His All-Holiness performed his duty by normalizing the ecclesial status of both the UOC-KP and UAOC, both of whom have their origins in the same “Apostolic” body as the UOCC and UOCUSA which were received in a similar fashion. His authority to do this stems both from his office as Ecumenical Patriarch, as well as his unique authority within Ukraine. This processes was consummated in a Sobor which united these two disparate bodies along with two bishops from the UOC-MP, culminating in a Tomos of autocephaly.
To say that this was an imprudent or illegitimate action is still possible, but to speak of it as a fundamentally evil action which could be guided by no understandable logic is entirely disproportionate.
There are several elements that I have not addressed in this article, and likewise arguments that have not been developed in warranted detail. Each topic covered here, from the history of autocephaly, to the history of Ukrainian ecclesiality, Ukrainian autocephalist movements, and the contemporary situation, warrant not merely a blog article but an entire book unto themselves.
Nonetheless, my intention was to illustrate why the situation in Ukraine is not unlike similar situations where achieving autocephaly took churches decades of full schism from the Church, with the situation often normalizing under political circumstances. I sought to address any arguments that could be made where an autocephaly process could not be undertaken due to the “nature” of the OCU, which is regarded as a graceless body of the unbaptized. Clearly, this has been addressed.
Ultimately, my premise stands. Millions of Ukrainians find themselves now in communion with the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, confessing a common faith. They are in communion with the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria, and the Churches of Greece and Cyprus, with many others having expressed openness to dealings with this Church (Romania, Georgia) and have refused to condemn it as such (Albania).
This process could have very easily taken place under the purview of Moscow itself. Much ink has been spilled and many precious pixels wasted on calls for a Pan-Orthodox Council to discuss the matter. These types often forget that the Ecumenical Patriarchate had called for discussions on the proper manner of granting autocephaly to be determined at the Council of Crete. This topic of discussion was vetoed by Moscow. In essence, Moscow could have both used its considerable clout within Orthodoxy to help establish a common standard for the process, and applied the process in such a way that wouldn’t even require recognition of Denysenko or the UAOC. They could have very well granted the UOC-MP full autocephaly, greater freedoms than the Tomos of the Ecumenical Patriarch did, and entirely done away with the raison d’etre for the schismatic bodies.
Far from prudent, justified, or charitable, the response was merely to entrench and await the inevitable day when an unprecedented miracle occurs and the schismatics return to the fold, or are forced to do so once Ukraine has been re-integrated into the Russian political space. Amidst many unfortunate and difficult outcomes, Moscow alone had the freedom to pursue the most amicable one, and their failure to do so left us with a very messy response by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which nonetheless brought the faithful of Ukraine to its bosom to partake of the common chalice.