lunedì 28 novembre 2022

Is the "heart" of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church still with Moscow?

(Peter Anderson)
The Holy Synod of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) decided on November 23 to make its own Holy Chrism (Holy Myrrh) as opposed to receiving it from Moscow. (link) (English)  At its Council on May 27, the UOC had stated that it “considered” the restoration of making its own chrism without stating that it would in fact make its own.  However, now the decision has been made.  The making of Holy Chrism is considered a prerogative of an autocephalous church, although a considerable number of autocephalous churches receive their Holy Chrism from the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  The decision made by the UOC on November 23 is another step taken by the UOC to show that it is now truly independent of Moscow.  Interestingly, the tomos given by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) requires that the OCU receive its Holy Chrism from the Ecumenical Patriarchate.  Thus, the UOC can now claim a right which the OCU does not have – a point to be made in the bitter competition between the UOC and the OCU.

The Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate has not yet stated its reaction to the assertion by the UOC that it would make its own chrism.  However, Father Nikolai Balashov, former deputy head of the DECR and now a special advisor to Patriarch Kirill, seems to minimize the importance of this decision. (link) He states:  “In the Russian Church until 1917, there was a practice that myrrh was brewed in Moscow and Kiev.  But then no one perceived this as a threat to the unity of the Church, it was not in question.”  He also remarks:  “Will this help our Ukrainian brothers avoid the persecution and harassment that they are now experiencing?  I don’t think so.”  Father Nikolai’s remarks seem to be consistent with the approach now taken by the Moscow Patriarchate.  According to this approach, the UOC has not really severed its relationship with the Moscow Patriarchate.  This approach is very understandable because to say that the UOC has severed the relationship would involve the very painful acknowledgement that the Moscow Patriarchate is now a far smaller church than it was before.  Rather, the Moscow Patriarchate contends that the changes in the statute of the UOC and the decision relating to chrism-making are the results of the extreme and improper pressures placed on the UOC by political or social forces in Ukraine.  In Moscow's view, to label the UOC as a schismatic church or to impose harsh discipline would only drive a further wedge between the UOC and the Patriarchate and would make future reconciliation more difficult.  Moscow’s hope is that when the current hostilities and high emotions are over, the UOC will be content to live under the Moscow Patriarchate while enjoying great autonomy and at the same time preserving the spiritual and historic bond of Holy Rus’.

In an interview on November 28, Vladimir Legoyda, Chairman of the Synodal Department for Relations between the Church, Society, and the Media, took this same approach. (link) He stated: “All her steps [steps by the UOC] are attempts by the canonical Church to survive under this [enormous] pressure.  On our part, to make harsh statements in such conditions would mean to perceive the situation not as it is.”

Ironically, the OCU and its supporters seem to agree with the Moscow Patriarchate that the UOC has not in fact left the Moscow Patriarchate.   From the perspective of the OCU, the changes made by the UOC are to give an appearance of separation and complete independence while at the same time preserving a bond with the Moscow Patriarchate.   See, for example,  (link) (charter changes only masked and concealed the dependence of the UOC on the Moscow Patriarchate).  As a practical matter, the OCU uses this alleged connection with Moscow as an argument for the Orthodox in Ukraine to be part of the OCU and to avoid the UOC.

The Ukrainian government through the State Service of Ukraine for Ethno-Politics and Freedom of Conscience (DESS), headed by Olena Bohdan, has made inquires to the UOC concerning its independence from the Moscow Patriarchate.  In November, a letter from Metropolitan Onufry, primate of the UOC, to Olena Bohdan was leaked on the Internet. (link) The text of the letter (on which the Google translation tool works) as well as critiques of the letter can be found at (link).  In the letter Metropolitan Onufry responds to a request from Bohdan to explain Article 1 of the general provisions of the revised charter.   This Article refers to the document given by Patriarch Alexy II to the UOC in 1970 (the text of the 1970 document can be read at (link) and is the only place in the revised charter where the Moscow Patriarchate is still referenced.

On November 25, an interview of Bohdan was posted in which she discusses the current situation of the UOC. (link); (link) This interview, of course, postdates her receipt of the letter from Onufry.  A number of her conclusions are favorable to the UOC, which has in turn publicized them on its website. (link) (independence of UOC); (link) (criminal proceedings have been opened against less than one percent of UOC clergy).  Also, the Union of Orthodox Journalists, a strong supporter of the UOC, has posted on its website five articles in English relating to Bohdan’s answers. (link) Bohdan’s conclusions include the following:  With respect to dependence and subordination of the UOC to the Moscow Patriarchate, there is currently no reason to believe that a dependent or subordinate relationship exists.  Although organizational ties no longer exist, the canonical relationship (through the 1970 document from Alexy) was not severed so as to avoid losing canonical connection with other Local Orthodox Churches.  However, this does not mean that the UOC communicates with the other Local Orthodox Churches through the Moscow Patriarchate, as the OCU now communicates directly with those other Churches without any coordination with the Moscow Patriarchate. 

In my opinion, many of Bohdan's conclusions are correct.  At the Council on May 27, the leadership of the UOC was faced with a difficult goal – to remove all controls of the Moscow Patriarchate over the UOC and at the same time not cause other Local Orthodox Churches to break their relationship with the UOC on the grounds that it has now become a schismatic church.  The UOC attempted to accomplish this goal by deleting all references to the Moscow Patriarchate or Russian Orthodox Church from its charter, except leaving in the charter the reference to the 1970 document.  Also, the UOC sought to reach this goal by avoiding the use of the word “autocephalous” which would be a “red flag” to Moscow and other Local Orthodox Churches.  True, this course of action taken by the UOC leads to some ambiguity.  However, this calculated ambiguity has caused the Moscow Patriarchate and other Local Orthodox Churches to refrain from labeling the UOC as schematic.  On the other hand, the UOC has in practice acted as an autocephalous church.  This has included such actions as ceasing of the commemoration of Patriarch Kirill in the Liturgy, the resignation of Onufry from the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate, the failure of the UOC to submit its revised charter to Moscow for approval, and the resumption of myrrh-making.  In my opinion, the UOC has been amazingly successful to date in maintaining complete independence in practice while avoiding being labeled as a schismatic church.

The question remains as to whether the “heart" of the UOC still remains with the Moscow Patriarchate.  According to the Moscow Patriarchate, the steps taken by the UOC in amending its charter and in taking other actions to show independence are the product of the “enormous pressures” placed on the UOC in Ukraine.  According to the OCU, the steps were taken to mask and conceal the dependence of the UOC on the Moscow Patriarchate.  Are these views of the Moscow Patriarchate and of the OCU correct?  First, one must realize that the UOC is a very large religious body with millions of faithful, approximately 10,000 priests, and approximately 100 bishops.  Certainly, with such large numbers, there are those whose hearts remain with the Moscow Patriarchate.  But what about the “mainstream” of the UOC?  In this regard, I share the view of Metropolitan Mark of Berlin and Germany (ROCOR) who stated several months after the invasion of Ukraine:  “I find it difficult to believe that the Ukrainian part of our church wants to stay with the Russian [part].” (link) My concurrence with the opinion of Metropolitan Mark is not based on any inside information, but simply on human nature.  The members and leaders of the UOC are suffering in this war to the same extent as are members of Ukrainian society in general.  UOC members are serving in the Ukrainian armed forces.  They are burying their family members, relatives, and friends.  They are seeing the destruction to their country caused by missiles, bombs, and artillery.  They read the news of civilians killed and of mass graves.  They now suffer in the cold and the dark as the result of the destruction of Ukrainian infrastructure. They read the words of Patriarch Kirill relating to the Russian armed forces and his clearly taking the side of Russia in the war as opposed to being strictly neutral.  Considering human nature and these events, it is very difficult to believe that the mainstream of the UOC, including its leadership, would view the Russian Federation under Putin or the Moscow Patriarchate under Kirill with favor.  Under all of these conditions, I personally believe that the expressed desire of the UOC to leave the Moscow Patriarchate is very credible and is not a mere facade.

Peter Anderson, Seattle USA