Ukrainian believers are holding their breath, waiting for the ruling of the Ecumenical (Constantinople) Patriarchate that is processing an appeal of a number of Ukrainian Orthodox churches and government, requesting a Tomos, a special document authorizing Ukraine to institute its Local Autocephalous Orthodox Church.
Ukrainian Orthodoxy has traveled a long winding and thorny road to reach this goal. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the auspices of the Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC KP), established soon after gaining national independence, headed by Patriarch Filaret, has gained the reputation as the true national Church that belongs to the Ukrainian people and support from a large number of Ukrainian believers. Moscow, however, refused to set the Ukrainian Church free and recognize its independence. It started combating this Church, sparing no dirty techniques. The UOC under the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC MP) was promptly instituted and proceeded to promulgate the Russian World view, with UOC KP being a constant target of religious attacks, including accusations of heresy, rift, and of being uncanonical.
There is also the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) that plays an important part in religious life. It dates back to the 1917-21 Ukrainian Revolution. It was established in 1921 and functioned until the Moscow Bolsheviks started their pogroms (1936-37). It was reinstated during WW II and continued to function after the war in the US, Europe, Canada, and Australia with strong ethnic Ukrainian communities.
Talks on uniting UOC KP and UAOC and gaining the right to establish a Local Orthodox Church under the auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate have practically continued throughout the decades of Ukrainian national independence. This has been a long and slow process.
Russia’s aggression against Ukraine has given an impetus to the issue. Ukrainian officials have met with the Ecumenical Patriarch on more than one occasion, reaffirming the resolve of the Ukrainian people and political quarters to return into that Patriarchate’s embrace.
What is happening inspires hope in the hearts of Ukrainian believers, considering that all UOC KP and UAOC bishops signed an official appeal addressing Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, requesting formal, canonical reinstatement of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under his auspices by issuing a Tomos allowing its autocephaly. President Petro Poroshenko held long talks with the Ecumenical Patriarch and submitted a formal petition to the same effect (supported by an almost constitutional majority of votes at of the Verkhovna Rada). Ukrainian Speaker Andrii Parubii had met with the Patriarch before. The Permanent Conference of Ukrainian Orthodox Bishops Beyond the Borders of Ukraine asked the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant the Ukrainian request. The Ecumenical Patriarchate began the official process of considering the said appeals. President Petro Poroshenko made a formal statement to the effect that the ruling of the Ecumenical Patriarchate should be expected before the 1,030th anniversary of baptism of Ukraine-Rus’ – i.e., this July.
Archimandrite Kyrylo Hovorun, ex-head of UOC MP department of external church affairs, recently declared that the Tomos granting Ukrainian Church autocephaly is ready, that it was drawn up by “one of the best canonists of the Orthodox world… The texts he writes are canonically faultless… This Tomos will be an excellent example of canonicity and no one will be able to find any faults with it. The Tomos is ready.”
What does this mean for Ukraine? Autocephaly is a status granted a local Church as part of the Ecumenical Orthodox Church. An autocephalous Orthodox Church has jurisdiction over a certain territory where no other Churches can operate in the same status. It is autonomous and operates independently, on behalf of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It cannot be an hierarchical or administrative unit of another Orthodox Church. A local autocephalous Church is usually self-governed.
For Ukrainians, this kind of Church means restoring historical justice, returning to the historic roots in the first place. Kyivan Rus’ was baptized by Constantinople in AD-988, thus joining the rest of the civilized world. Rejoining the Ecumenical Patriarchate will signify Ukraine’s final liberation from Moscow’s age-old spiritual slavery. The Local Orthodox Church will serve as a reliable spiritual support for Ukrainian statehood, finally and eternally denying Russia its age-old imperial influence on the minds of a considerable number of Ukrainians. All those pernicious Russian World ideas will quickly be reduced to a handful of marginal characters.
For the Ecumenical Patriarchate, reinstating Ukraine with its millions of adherents under its auspices will mean strengthening its position in the Eastern Orthodox community and the rest of the civilized world. Also, it will have nothing to lose if the Moscow Patriarchate refuses to recognize the Tomos granting Ukraine the right to have its autocephalous Church. Canonically speaking, the Russian Orthodox Church has no way to interfere with the Ecumenical Patriarchate passing a ruling in favor of Ukraine.
As it is, the ROC and Russian political leadership are in a state of shock over the Tomos proceedings. There are threats directly addressing the Ecumenical Patriarch and there are Russian secret agents operating in Ukraine, feverishly seeking ways and means of discrediting Ukraine’s appeal for autocephaly and preventing a positive ruling from Constantinople. There are statements by former members of the Party of Regions, currently making up the Opposition Bloc in parliament, and by UOC MP hierarchs, there is a Moscow-engineered campaign of collecting signatures by UOC MP adherents, addressing a letter of protest to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. A print shop in Khmelnytsky oblast was found to have prepared thousands of protest appeals that were sent to the UOC MP parishes where parishioners were forced to sign them. Moscow is well aware that it is losing an important bridgehead in its war against independent Ukraine. They are determined to fight and win at all costs. In fact, there are many UOC MP parishes in Ukraine that act on orders from the Russian Orthodox Church, so losing them would mean losing a tangible degree of influence in the Eastern Orthodox world, as well as a lot of hard cash,
A number of experts believe that granting Ukraine the autocephaly Tomos will remove the last canonical obstacle for hundreds of UOC MP parish priests and thousands of parishioners to join the Ukrainian Local Orthodox Church. The Russian Orthodox Church’s ratings are noticeably on a downward curve. Eventually, the UOC MP in Ukraine will begin to marginalize – they will have to formally recognize their foreigner status.
Politically speaking, granting Ukraine the right to create its own Local Orthodox Church will be the most powerful asymmetric blow to Russia, given the current “proxy war.” No conventional weapons could have caused a more devastating damage to imperial Russia and the Putin clique than the emergence of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Ukrainian believers are offering up prayers for their age-old cherished dream to come true, so they can have their own Church. We are all hopefully waiting for the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s ruling.