The latest appeals for a “Tomos of Autocephaly” for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with its center in Kyiv, under the authority of Constantinople, have been made in separate measures – one religious, the other political.
A statement of unity between the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate was issued to Constantinople. President Petro Poroshenko appealed for autocephaly for Ukraine’s Orthodox Church while visiting Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, while a week later, Ukraine’s Parliament echoed the appeal with 268 voting in favor. The Opposition Bloc in Parliament voted against the measure and sent a letter of appeal to Patriarch Bartholomew complaining that the move would exacerbate a split in Orthodoxy in Ukraine. The same party members, who previously belonged to the Party of Regions, called this a PR stunt for Mr. Poroshenko in the upcoming presidential campaign.
The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate has voiced its displeasure with the move. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokalmask, head of the department for external church relations for the UOC-MP, said: “…We believe that this initiative, despite all the information noise that has been raised around it, will have the same fate as the initiatives of previous years, and again we remind that the solution of the Ukrainian church problem is possible only in a canonical way.”
The Permanent Conference of Ukrainian Orthodox Bishops Beyond the Borders of Ukraine (UOC-U.S.A. and Diaspora, UOC of Canada, who are under the Ecumenical Patriarchate) issued a letter of support for the appeal to Patriarch Bartholomew to grant autocephaly to Ukraine.
Very few details have been made available on the process for recognition by Constantinople.
Since Ukraine’s official baptism into Christianity by Byzantine bishops from Constantinople in 988, the Metropolitan of Kyiv had been recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate until 1686. In 1686, Moscow subjugated the Metropolitanate of Kyiv under the Russian Orthodox Church, which lasted until 1924, when the Ecumenical Patriarch Gregorios VII granted a Tomos (proclamation) of Autocephaly in establishing several autonomous Churches on territories of the new states that were formerly part of the Russian Empire. During Ukraine’s brief independence in 1918-1919, the Ukrainian government passed a law allowing for the founding of the UAOC, and continued the movement toward autocephaly.
On October 21, 1921, Archpriest Vasyl Lypkivsky was consecrated as bishop and installed as Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine for the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church by the priests and laypersons present at the First All-Ukrainian Orthodox Church Council. By 1924, the UAOC had grown to 30 bishops, 1,500 priests and deacons serving in 1,100 parishes that included nearly 6 million faithful. The Church was initially encouraged by the Soviets as a counterweight to the Russian Orthodox Church, but later it was targeted as an expression of Ukrainian nationalism. In 1927 Metropolitan Lypkivsky was arrested by the Bolsheviks; he was executed by the NKVD in 1937.
In September 2015, during the Convocation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew met with Metropolitans Antony and Yuri (UOC-U.S.A., UOC-Canada, respectively), and Bishops Daniel (UOC-U.S.A.), Hilarion (UOC-Canada) and Andrew (UOC-Canada). The position of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the U.S.A. and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada, which since 1995 have been under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, at that time sought to overcome divisions in Orthodoxy in Ukraine through the patronage and mediation of Constantinople under Patriarch Bartholomew.
Other acts of unity between the UOC-KP and the UAOC have come in the form of statements, as the one in March 20, 2003, following their meeting in Constantinople. The statement expressed a plan to overcome specific divisions, with the final goal of recognition by Constantinople.
Encouraging signs toward unity include the widespread shift of parishes and faithful in Ukraine from UOC-Moscow Patriarchate to the UOC-KP (33 percent in 2016, 44 percent in 2017), motivated by patriotic sentiments in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and annexation of Crimea.
Recent actions by the clergy and hierarchs of the UOC-MP have drawn the outcry of the majority of Ukraine’s Orthodox faithful. Most notably, a UOC-MP cleric chose not to bury a child who was baptized by the UOC-KP, evidence emerged showing that clergy of the UOC-MP had given shelter to and blessed Russian soldiers fighting in eastern Ukraine, and the fact that the UOC-MP has not issued a statement of condemnation against the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Other Orthodox faithful have complained that they cannot pray for Patriarch Kiril of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose clergy bless Russian soldiers and weapons used in Ukraine.
This move to right a historical wrong is another example of the emergence of a renewed Ukrainian national identity in the shadow of centuries of Russification under Moscow. Ukraine has demonstrated that there is a separation between church and state, but Russia’s Patriarch Kiril executes the will of the Kremlin in expanding Russian hegemony as Moscow seeks to be recognized as the Third Rome.