Ukrainian Orthodox Church autonomy likely to strain Orthodox, ecumenical relations

The move of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) toward granting autonomy (or autocephaly) to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will likely have global repercussions for Orthodox churches and beyond, according to recent reports. On September 7, an EP announcement stated that, “within the framework of the preparations for the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine,” the Patriarch had appointed two exarchs (legates) in Kyiv, Archbishop Daniel of Pamphilon (USA) and Bishop Ilarion of Edmonton (Canada)—to the anger of the Moscow Patriarchate (MP). A week earlier, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow had paid a visit to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople in an attempt to prevent such a move. The desire of sectors of Ukrainian Orthodoxy for independence from the Russian Orthodox Church is not new and has been strongly connected to national aspirations. During the Soviet period, Ukrainian Orthodox groups had organized abroad and some of them came under the authority of the EP. In 1990, they supported sympathizers in Ukraine who organized a Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church.

Moreover, after Ukrainian independence in 1991, part of the established Orthodox Church in the country decided to form its own autocephalous church, while the MP granted autonomous status to those large segments of Orthodox clergy and faithful who remained under its jurisdiction. Thus there are now three Orthodox bodies in Ukraine, but only the last one is recognized by worldwide Orthodoxy, although this would change with the granting of autocephaly by the EP. The MP warned that such a move would lead to a break of communion and possible schism (, September 9). The EP claims that, as the mother church of both Ukraine and Russia, it never relinquished its rights on Ukraine to the MP, while the MP claims that Ukraine has been part of its canonical territory for centuries and accuses Constantinople of ignoring historical reality. Moreover, it sees the EP as attempting to create for itself a role similar to that of the papacy.

As an immediate measure, any joint celebration between bishops of the MP and bishops of the EP was suspended. Repeated statements from EP representatives present the decision to grant autonomy as irreversible. The only uncertainty is the time that it will take. If communion is broken between the two patriarchates, it would be difficult for other Orthodox churches to keep a neutral stand. While immediate repercussions in the home countries of Orthodox churches would be limited, the impact on Orthodox communities established in other countries around the world would be a major setback. Inter-Orthodox organizations and assemblies of bishops from different jurisdictions would probably stop functioning. In addition, the ecumenical partners of Orthodox churches would face difficulties, even if they are careful to stress that Ukraine is an internal Orthodox issue. At the worldwide ecumenical level, if the new autocephalous Ukrainian Church recognized by Constantinople would apply for membership in the World Council of Churches (WCC), one does not know how the MP would react and if it would leave the WCC, in which it represents the largest Orthodox body (Tribune de Genève, October 1). In the background of these conflicts are political allegations that the EP is acting as a supporter of U.S. policies toward Ukraine and that the MP is an extended arm of Russian attempts to keep control over Ukraine.