Ukraine: defining and redefining Orthodoxy

            I returned a couple of days ago from accompanying the Archbishop of Canterbury to Kyiv, to meet church leaders and learn something of what they and their people have experienced this year.  It would be extremely presumptuous of me – foolhardy even – to go on to pretend that I have anything more than a passing knowledge, after this one trip and the media and material I’ve read, of the complexity of Ukraine’s religious and political situation.

            But there is one matter that has been preoccupying me during and after the trip (and clearly I am speaking only for myself here).  The dominant religious tradition in Ukraine is Eastern Orthodoxy, but it has not one but three manifestations.  One I shall put to one side.  It is the Greek Catholic Church, formerly called the Ruthenian Uniate Church, which can be traced back at least to the forced realignment of Orthodox churches with the Papacy during the years of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  Whatever the origins of this church as a distinct religious tradition today, it has a large following particularly in some western provinces of Ukraine, and its cathedral in Kyiv, and is firmly within the Roman Communion and not, despite its Greek rites, what I want to attend to here.

            The other two manifestations of Eastern Orthodoxy in Ukraine – and the names can at first be very confusing – are the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC).  The former, the OCU, is the result of a recent unification of two churches which had attempted to break away from the Russian Orthodox Church immediately after the First World War, had been suppressed by the Soviets, and had then re-emerged after the fall of the Soviet Union.  In 2019 the united church was granted the decree or Tomos of autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, and it is now affiliated to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  This very brief sketch of its history give some indication perhaps of how easy it might be to assume that OCU is the authentic voice of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.  Its identity and existence is almost inextricably bound up with the existence of an independent Ukrainian state.

            But then there’s the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.  At least before February 2022, it was almost certainly the largest church in Ukraine, spread across the entire country.  It is frequently described as the ‘Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Moscow Patriarchate’ (UOC-MP) to distinguish it from OCU, and to demonstrate that its affiliation until very recently was with the Moscow Patriarchate.  When people talk about the ‘Russian Orthodox Church’ in Ukraine, this is what they mean.  UOC have a large network of parishes, eminent theologians, cathedrals, a significant presence at the ‘Lavra’, the historic ‘monastery of the caves’ on the eastern edge of Kyiv.  They too see themselves as authentically Ukrainian, and yet their identity – obviously – is much more directly associated with the history of the Russian church than is, seemingly, that of OCU.

            But the question that arises now is this.  With Ukraine at war with Russia, what do you do with the ‘Russian’ identity of UOC?  You can see at once how the leaders of UOC find themselves in an extremely vulnerable position.  They have condemned the Russian invasion (perhaps not vociferously enough for some), mobilised their people to resist the Russian forces, and declared their independence from Moscow.  But their leadership includes many who were educated in the years of the former Soviet Union, and by culture they remain ‘Russian’.  In the dire circumstances in which Ukraine now finds itself, fighting for its very existence, with the most intense and unimaginable pressures facing its political leaders, it is hardly surprising that UOC finds itself being pushed hard on its Russian identity.  The President of Ukraine recently signed into force a measure which could lead to the effective suppression of Russian Orthodoxy in Ukraine, even though it seems the vast majority of UOC’s members are Ukrainian patriots who also want to see the Russian forces expelled from their country.  The ‘Lavra’ has been transferred from UOC to OCU control.  The very future of this church now as a self-declared, independent entity seems uncertain. 

            But in all this, an outside observer might wonder whether there is an ongoing confusion between two cultural/political/historical ideas of Russian Orthodoxy.  Unquestionably, to the Moscow Patriarchate, there is only one authentic Orthodox church in Ukraine – the UOC.  Even though the UOC has declared itself independent, the Moscow Patriarchate continues to recognise its clergy and hierarchy as properly canonical.  To the Moscow Patriarchate, the OCU is not even a church – it is a sect in schism from the Church.   If the tanks come back, then – as most certainly Ukrainians know – something like a forced realignment with the Moscow Patriarchate would take place.  This is, really, a national, political reading of Russian Orthodoxy that obliterates the independent voice of the Ukrainian people.  But this is not what the UOC now represent.  Instead, they are aligned with the defence of Ukrainian national independence.  Theirs is a cultural, ecclesiastical idea of Russian Orthodoxy, which should have little or no overlap with the imperial claims of Moscow.

             For Anglicans, I can think of one situation which bears some comparison.  During the American Revolution, many Anglican parishes in the thirteen breakaway colonies continued to describe themselves as Church of England, used the Book of Common Prayer, and even continued to pray for the King.  They were suspected by others of being traitors to the rebels’ cause.  Indeed, many colonial clergy in America were loyalists, and opposed to the Revolution.  They had a hard time in the immediate aftermath of the British withdrawal in 1783 in convincing their fellow American citizens that they could be trusted, and that they could become loyal citizens of the new republic.  They had to suspend direct ecclesiastical relationships with the Church of England for a time, eradicate royal references from the liturgy, and seek validation for their ordained ministry from the ‘dissenting’ bishops of the Episcopal Church in Scotland.  They had to reconfigure their polity to embrace a model of authority closer to that of the new constitution of America than was the dominant Anglican model, that of the Church of England.  In time, the tensions grew less, though they have never entirely disappeared. 

            It is probably much too early to consider whether or not a union of the two Orthodox churches in Ukraine could come about.  But surely one thing is clear – at least to me.  If it is to come about, there will need to be a constructive approach by each church to the other.  Pace St Augustine, truthful, honest affiliation cannot be compelled.  The national-political idea of Russian Orthodoxy, expressed in the suspect form of the Russky mir ideology, has to fall away from the discussion of church relations in Ukraine.  Russian Orthodox in Ukraine who are sincere Ukrainian patriots need to be free to find a space in civil society in which they can continue to stay true to their church’s traditions, including their historic debt to the Russian church, but separate themselves in all other ways from the political morass created by Putin’s invasion and the Patriarch’s evident support for it.

December 2022

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