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The Ukrainian Orthodox Church has decided to abandon the Moscow Patriarchate. Explaining what this means

In Kyiv on May 27, the Local Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate was held, which decided to completely abandon the ROC. All references to the Russian Orthodox Church were removed from the charter of the religious organization, while leaving the ROC was never announced. What does this mean in practice and is it possible to consider that the UOC has become a new independent church? Explains religious scholar Dmitry Gorevoy especially for the Present Tense.

Chronology of events

Initially, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) did not plan to hold a Local Council; on the morning of May 27, a meeting of the clergy, laity and bishops was scheduled. In such a meeting, as in the Local Council, all church layers participate, but the meeting does not have the authority to make important decisions. Only the Local Council has such a prerogative – as the highest governing body of the church.

Therefore, when Metropolitan Onufry (the head of the UOC of the Moscow Patriarchate) convened only a meeting of the clergy, many observers regarded this as an attempt to “let off steam” and an unwillingness to make any serious decisions. However, the meeting quickly ended – and on the same day an emergency meeting of the Holy Synod began. This is the main working body of the church, which consists of senior metropolitans. In theory, they should govern the church in the period between Councils. However, the fact that Councils are rarely convened turns the Synod into a real governing body, although, according to the charter, it does not have such powers. This practice has been established for a long time, and in Soviet times it acquired the name “Metropolitburo”.

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The session of the Synod did not last long, its main task was to convene the Council of Bishops. And already the Council of Bishops approved the convocation of the Local Council. Such a complex bureaucratic sequence is needed to comply with all statutory procedures, as well as to demonstrate that all church governing bodies agree with decisions. According to observers, this is a kind of reinsurance for Metropolitan Onufry – proof that the rejection of the Moscow Patriarchate is not his personal decision.

Does the rejection of the ROC mean autocephaly?

The word “autocephaly” is not in the decisions adopted by the Council. The UOC-MP avoids it in every possible way, since over 30 years of church confrontation between the Moscow and Kyiv Patriarchates, it has gained negative connotations from the position of one of the parties. The fact is that the Ukrainian church has been striving for autocephaly since the early 90s, when it was ruled by Metropolitan Filaret. However, his attempts in Moscow were condemned, he himself was anathematized, and the very word “autocephaly” began to be associated with schism and conflicts – although this term itself is neutral and denotes only the independent status of the church.

Diploma of Patriarch Alexy II, issued to Metropolitan Filaret of Kyiv, which refers to the “independence and self-sufficiency of the UOC-MP”. Kyiv, 1990

Without directly declaring autocephaly, the Local Council of the UOC this time used the words “independent and independent.” On the one hand, this looks like an application for autocephaly. On the other hand, the UOC-MP has been “independent and independent” since 1990, but not autocephalous.

The Local Council also decided that from now on, the UOC-MP will independently brew myrrh (the fragrant oil used during worship), and not receive it from Moscow, as before. This is also an important point, since self-creation is one of the factors of independence. However, this does not mean that churches that do not brew myrrh themselves are not autocephalous. For example, the Jerusalem Patriarchate, as well as the autocephalous churches of Greece, Albania, Cyprus and Ukraine (OCU) do not brew myrrh themselves, but receive it from the Ecumenical Patriarch. On the other hand, in the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra before the revolution of 1917, there was an ancient tradition of chrismation, although the Kyiv Metropolis was not then autocephalous.

Did the UOC leave the Moscow Patriarchate?

It is not yet clear. There is no direct statement in the resolution of the Local Council that the UOC-MP is withdrawing from the ROC. Formally, the UOC-MP, even being “independent and independent”, can remain a part of the ROC. However, if it officially becomes autocephalous, then it will no longer be able to stay within the framework of the Moscow Patriarchate. But just proclaiming a new status is not enough, it needs to be recognized by others. And, most likely, neither Moscow nor Constantinople recognize such a status. The ROC will not want to let go of its branch, which makes up a third of all communities, and the Ecumenical Patriarch recognizes only one autocephalous church in Ukraine – the OCU.

Now the situation with the UOC-MP can be compared with the model of a secular federation: the subject has all the formal bodies of independent power, but there are also federal structures. For the UOC-MP, such federal structures are the Synod and Councils of the ROC. At the same time, the subjects of the federation can be considered “independent and independent” in its composition – as long as they do not proclaim state sovereignty.

Foreign parishes – a sign of independence?

One of the important points of change was the decision to open parishes of the UOC-MP abroad, in places densely populated by the diaspora. The fact is that this is another prerogative of the autocephalous church. Each national Orthodox Church tries to spiritually nourish its diaspora and thus keep its members from complete assimilation in a foreign cultural space. The Russian, Georgian, Bulgarian, Serbian, Romanian and Macedonian churches have such diaspora parishes. However, the rest of the churches (Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Cyprus and Hellas) consist of ethnic Greeks – that is, in fact, five different churches represent one ethnic group. Therefore, they decided that outside the borders of these churches, the Greek diaspora would be led only by the Patriarch of Constantinople. However, in addition to the Greek diaspora, Constantinople insists on its right to minister to the entire diaspora in principle: they say that Orthodoxy is not divided along national lines, but strictly along territorial lines. According to this logic, each local church has its own borders, and everything beyond them should be subject to the jurisdiction of Constantinople. Many churches disagree with this. Before receiving the tomos, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine had a number of communities in Europe and the United States and was forced to abandon them in favor of Constantinople in exchange for recognition of autocephaly.

The UOC-MP previously could not create parishes abroad, and, for example, Ukrainian labor migrants were fed by the priests of the ROC. Kyiv did not like this, since the clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church, on the one hand, protected them from spiritual assimilation, but turned them in the other direction – towards Russian self-identity. Active attempts to achieve the right to the diaspora were made by the previous head of the UOC-MP, Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan), but because of the general pro-Ukrainian attitude in Moscow, he was refused. The current Metropolitan Onufry (Berezovsky) had not previously been distinguished by an active pro-Ukrainian position and was not interested in diaspora issues. However, Moscow has granted small concessions over Onufry’s head to one of his subordinates: the ardent critic of the recent Council and one of the most pro-Russian hierarchs in Ukraine, Zaporozhye Metropolitan Luka (Kovalenko), was allowed to open several communities in Sweden.

Observers note that, like the decision to make peace, the opening of parishes abroad means not so much opposition to the Russian Orthodox Church, but another attack by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church against the autocephalous OCU – which is higher in status, but does not have such privileges.

Will Ukraine pray for Patriarch Kirill?

The decisions of the Local Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church also indicate that from now on the communities of the UOC-MP will stop praying for Patriarch Kirill. This is perhaps the only change that the congregations will feel in practice, since the issues of the charter of the church do not concern ordinary believers in any way, and most of the parishioners have never read the charter at all.

The question of the commemoration of Patriarch Kirill by Metropolitan Onufry himself remains open, since according to the canons, it is Onuphry who must commemorate his boss, but the prayers of ordinary communities are not obligatory. It is this system that operates in the Greek churches: each community commemorates its regional metropolitan, and he already commemorates the patriarch. If Onufry refuses to commemorate Patriarch Kirill, this will mean that he is no longer subordinate to him and has actually left the Russian Orthodox Church.

Without clarifying yet what will happen with the mention of Cyril, the UOC-MP is already declaring that Onufry will commemorate the heads of other Orthodox churches. Such a commemoration is also an indicator of independence, the prerogative of the heads of autocephalous churches to mention their peers. In addition, for Onuphry, the issue of commemorating other patriarchs is further complicated by the fact that the Moscow Patriarchate broke communion with several of them after gaining independence in 2019 by the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU): we are talking about the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Alexandria, as well as the head of the Church of Greece . Moreover, Onufry himself did this twice: once – at the Synod in Moscow, the other – at the Synod in Kyiv. This happened because the Kyiv Synod at the local level duplicated the sanctions of the Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Is it true that the OCU also prays for Kirill?

Representatives of the UOC-MP, in disputes with opponents from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, pointed out to them that the head of this church, Metropolitan Epiphanius, also prays for Patriarch Kirill of Moscow. Epiphanius indeed commemorated Patriarch Kirill during the divine service – but not as a subordinate of the elder, but as an equal of an equal. This is the prerogative of the heads of autocephalous churches. In the same way – as an equal – Kirill is commemorated by the Ecumenical, Jerusalem, Georgian, Serbian or Bulgarian patriarchs. In the UOC, until recently, Kirill was commemorated precisely as their leader – in every parish.

The war put an end to the disputes: Metropolitan Epiphanius stopped commemorating Patriarch Kirill after the start of a full-scale Russian attack on Ukraine on February 24, 2022.

How did Moscow react to the refusal of the UOC?

From the side of the Moscow Patriarchate there was a surprisingly restrained reaction to the refusal of the UOC from the Russian Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeev stated that nothing extraordinary had happened, that the UOC-MP only once again confirmed the status it already had. The speaker of the Russian Orthodox Church, Vladimir Legoyda, said that the church would not comment on the decisions, since the UOC-MP did not officially appeal to the patriarch on the issue of revising its status.

The only one who reacted harshly and aggressively was Alexander Shchipkov, Legoyda’s deputy, who has recently occupied the niche of “church Zhirinovsky”: that is, he makes the most harsh and provocative statements. He called the decision a split, and the “customer of the split” is the US State Department. However, a few hours later his post was deleted.

When will it become clear whether the UOC has “left” the Moscow Patriarchate?

Observers note that the “rejection” of the Russian Orthodox Church, loudly heard in the news, does not yet clarify how serious the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s intentions are to “divorce” the Moscow Patriarchate – or whether these statements may be some kind of special operation to cover up remaining ties with Moscow. The patriarchate itself did not bring clarity, which pretends that nothing significant has happened. So far, the decisions of the UOC-MP look like a hybrid, and each side can see what they want in them: the pro-Moscow party will insist that the UOC-MP has not formally left the ROC, while the pro-Ukrainian party will say that they have nothing to do with the ROC. And paradoxically, both sides will be actually right – at least until the final text of the new charter of the UOC-MP is published.

***

At the divine service on Sunday, May 29, Metropolitan Onuphry actually mentioned all the heads of churches, except for those with whom he broke communion. In the language of church protocol, this means that now Onufry has become truly independent, and the UOC-MP has become autocephalous. However, so far this is only a self-proclaimed autocephaly. Whether any of the other churches recognize it is not known.

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