Orthodox churches escape Moscow Patriarchate’s long shadow?

The Orthodox landscape in Ukraine continues to shift quickly as the war intensifies, with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) recently announcing it will cut its ties with Moscow. The church had been losing members, clergy, and parishes as well as facing severe legal restrictions, according to a report in The Pillar (May 23), a Catholic newsletter. Anatolii Babynskyi reports that even though leaders of the UOC-MP condemned the invasion, the church increasingly faced censure and outright banning in much of Ukraine, although banning activities of the Moscow Patriarchate is difficult since most parishes do not mention it in their registration documents. The alleged break with the Moscow Patriarchate comes as some UOC clergy have been accused of aiding and abetting Russian military and amid a steady exodus of parishes and a shrinking percentage of Ukrainians saying they are affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate: during February and March, that number fell from 15 to 4 percent, according to the polling firm InfoSapiens.

The May 27 assembly of the UOC-MP decided—apparently with the support of a wide majority of its participants—to express its disagreement with Patriarch Kirill and affirm its independence, while refraining from using the word “autocephaly.” But while presented as a full enforcement of the autonomous status the church was granted in the early 1990s, there is no real doubt about the meaning of the decisions taken, with statutes being stripped of all references to the church as subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate. At the same time, the UOC leadership refuses to see its decision as a schism. As the church’s archpastor, Metropolitan Onuphry will continue to commemorate Patriarch Kirill along with other Orthodox primates—as he already did on the Sunday following the assembly—while continuing to refrain from commemorating Patriarch Bartholomew, due to the latter’s decision to grant autocephaly to the rival Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). Parish priests will commemorate their bishops and bishops will commemorate the primate, Metropolitan Onuphry (Orthodoxie.com, May 29).

However, three dioceses in eastern Ukraine have not accepted the decisions and the changes, feeling that a self-administered status under the Moscow Patriarchate continues to be the best way to go. They will not implement the decisions made by the May 27 assembly (Orthodoxie.com, May 30). Another important decision by the assembly was to start providing pastoral support to the many Ukrainians who have been forced into exile by the war, which means that, starting with Europe, one more Orthodox jurisdiction will soon start ministering to its flock in the diaspora. It remains to be seen if the new situation will lead to a rapprochement or even to a union between the UOC and the OCU. The UOC has stated that it is open to renewed negotiations, but that questions regarding the canonicity of the OCU hierarchy need to be clarified and solved. Moreover, a condition for dialogue would be for the OCUto stop the seizure of churches and the forced transfers of parishes from the UOC” (Russia Today, May 27).

Metropolitan Epifaniy (OCU in December 2018 (RFE/RL).