Analysis Eastern Europe

An Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church?

Image by Chad Husby

Once an integral part of the Russian Empire, then the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, after the overthrow of the tsarist government, Ukraine has been finding its way culturally, linguistically, and now spiritually since the disintegration of the Soviet system. Although Orthodoxy is practiced currently in both Ukraine and the Russian Federation in an almost indistinguishable manner, there are proponents in the former who yearn for “autocephaly,” that is the state of being self-governing (autocephalous), with its own supreme bishop, while maintaining communion with other Orthodox churches.

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A recent article titled Ukraine May Get Its Own Church, But Not So Fast, by James Coyle (April 24, 2018), delves into the desire of some Ukrainian faithful to establish such a self-governing body of Christian Orthodoxy in Ukraine exhibited by a petition to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to grant them such status. The request was even supported by a vote in the Ukrainian Parliament which gave approval to the attempt by President Petro Poroshenko to garner an affirmative decision by the Orthodox prelate. While some in Ukraine favor such a new “Kiev-centric” church, there are diverging views both inside and outside of Ukraine. The canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church has its own views not shared by others who wish to establish a new organization of the same name. Who wants a new separate church and who does not?

In an attempt to learn more about the Ukrainian autocephaly movement, Tsarizm sat down with Igumen (a priestly monastic title) Theophylact of the Holy Trinity Orthodox Monastery and Seminary (Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia-“ROCOR) in Jordanville, Herkimer County, New York, to gain a deeper understanding of the current situation. A clear distinction between the canonical UOC and others wishing to use that term was drawn in the conversation below.

Father Theophylact (FT):

Let me give you some historical background to the question at hand regarding Ukrainian Orthodox autocephaly.

There was only one Orthodox, local church in what is now the Russian Federation and Ukraine, and that was the Metropolia of Kievan Rus’ established when St. Vladimir and his people were baptized in 988.  Later on as Kiev was continually taken over by the Central Asian drive, the metropolitan moved to Moscow.  At about the same time, much of what is now Ukraine was taken over by the Lithuanian Polish state.  The Uniate movement was given force by them, but eventually the Orthodox were granted their own metropolitan.  However, eventually this area came under the Russian tsars in Moscow according to the desire of the Cossacks who wanted to be under a strong Orthodox ruler.  

Only in the 19th century did a separatist movement start gaining force.  Nevertheless, when the Communists took over Russia, the Ukrainian government, still free at that time, tried to force the Orthodox to separate from the patriarch.  There was a vote in the parishes and the majority voted to remain faithful to the patriarch.  Many of the leaders of the separatist movement eventually fled to Poland, where they created the “Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” which was not recognized by any canonical Orthodox church.  Later on, the Greek Ecumenical Patriarch started interfering in those churches which due to the revolution had been forcibly separated from the Patriarch, and started creating “independent” churches under themselves.  

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This happened in Canada and the Americas among the Orthodox, but not in Ukraine, since there was no real desire there nor would the Communists want another church to have to control.  Since Communism has fallen, there has been complete chaos in Ukraine, with the foreign Ukrainian nationalists getting involved, the former Metropolitan Philaret of Kiev, who was not chosen patriarch when for the first time since the revolution the Russian Church had a free election for a new patriarch. He was resoundingly defeated.  So he created his own church structure.  The government of Kiev supports him, but his “church” is built on division and politics not on any sound theological reason.  

The majority of the faithful continue to support the canonical church, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which is under the Patriarch of Moscow.  It has to be remembered, that the patriarch is not the Patriarch of the Russian Federation, but the Patriarch of Moscow and of all Rus’, which includes what is now politically known as the Russian Federation, Belarus, Ukraine and Moldava.

J Froebel-Parker (JF-P):

Are there any liturgical differences? Is Old Church Slavonic used? Are the sermons in Ukrainian?


Outside of Ukraine, the UOC uses Ukrainian as their liturgical language.


What is the movement, albeit initiative to create an autocephalous UOC and who supports it?


The canonical UOC is already almost completely autocephalous.  The people support it, at present, under great persecution from the new government in Kiev.  People use this term to mean different things, depending on their political take of the situation.  Let me clear things up on my end.  The real UOC is the church jurisdiction which is together with the Moscow Patriarchate.  It is called officially the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, but the schismatics and those under the leadership of Constantinople also call themselves the “UOC.”  


Is the desire for autonomy supported by the majority in the canonical UOC?


They already have complete autonomy in the canonical UOC. 


If the UOC were to become independent, would it still be in communion with the Moscow Patriarchate and would it have its own Patriarch?

FT: There is no desire of the canonical UOC to be completely independent and have its own patriarch.


Thank you so much, Father, and Christos Voskrese!

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