The Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Moscow Patriarchate: split or maneuver?

Is the part of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church that remained in communion with Moscow really breaking with Kirill—or just pretending to?

By Willy Fautré


Bitter Winter (01.06.2022) – – On 27 May, the Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) decided to amend the Church Charter concerning its relations with the Moscow Patriarchate due to the current military invasion of Ukraine by the Russian Federation and the ensuing internal conflicts and divisions in its midst. An official resolution was issued. What does this step really mean and what does it not mean?

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) under existential threat

In recent months, a number of local authorities in many regions of Ukraine have banned the activities of the UOC and re-registered their communities in the OCU (Orthodox Church of Ukraine/ Constantinople Patriarchate), sometimes on their request, sometimes on the priest’s sole request without the approval of the parishioners, sometimes under pressure of the local parishioners and against the priest’s will.

These processes began after the OCU received in January 2019 the Tomos, a decree of autonomy, from Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeus I of Constantinople and the Eastern Orthodox Church, but Russia’s war on Ukraine reinforced and accelerated the transfers of parishes exponentially.

Being almost on the verge of a full ban by the Ukrainian Parliament, which perceived the UOC as a Russian Trojan horse in Ukraine, the UOC decided to convene a Council to amend its Charter.

Moreover, there were rumors that the OCU, with the support of the civil authorities, was going to take away from the UOC the Kiev-Pechersk Lavra Men’s Monastery, also known as the Kiev Monastery of the Caves, inscribed as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The autocephaly issue

It is in this context that the question of UOC’s possible autocephaly was raised but this status can only be granted by the Mother Church, i.e., the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). If there is no agreement of the ROC, the self-proclaimed autocephaly can be interpreted as a church split or schism (as the Kiev Patriarchate of Filaret was once perceived in the Orthodox world).

For the UOC itself, it would also be a risk of losing its canonical status.

The arguments of the “autocephalists” were that the consolidation of the independence in the Charter of the UOC in one form or another minimizes the risks of a complete ban by the Ukrainian Parliament, as well as the transfer of parishes. Especially since some of the parishioners’ communities and some clergy also changed their attitude towards the ROC after the outbreak of the war.

Moreover, parts of Ukraine’s territories in the East and the South are being (temporarily?) controlled and annexed by Russia, which already imposes its rules, its administration, and its personnel on the remaining local population. In this fluid and unstable situation with an unpredictable future, local UOC priests might stay in place but they might also be quickly replaced with President Putin’s blessing by Patriarch Kirill of Moscow who would consider them unreliable.

For all these and other reasons, a move to autocephaly would seem unwise by the UOC at this stage.

What did the UOC Council really decide and not decide?

In their resolution, the members of the UOC Council agreed

  1. to condemn the war “as a violation of God’s commandment”
  2. to “disagree with the position of His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Rus on the war in Ukraine” to adopt appropriate amendments, “all of which testify to the full independence and autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church”

Noteworthy is that only the words “independence” and “autonomy” appeared in the document, never “autocephaly.” Moreover, there is no reference to the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) with which the UOC has been “in communion” for over thirty years.

This omission in the resolution is not a mistake or due to chance. It is intentional and coherent with the objective really pursued: to avoid a ban by the Ukrainian Parliament on the ground of limiting the actions of “church communities with management centers in Russia.”

It means that the changes in the Charter are only meant to consolidate the UOC’s independent status. which dates back to the breakdown of the Soviet Union in 1990 when the Church was granted self-government by a decision of then Patriarch Alexy of Moscow and All Russia.

Autocephaly or secession from the ROC is not on the agenda of the UOC and there is no sign of schism inside the family of the Russian Orthodox Church. Religious scholars are not inclined either to consider the resolution of the UOC as going into a split with Moscow Patriarchate.

“The commemoration of Patriarch Kirill by Our Beatitude remains, and through him the canonical connection,” Archpriest Nikolai Danilevich, Secretary of the Department for External Church Relations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, told “Strana,” an online media now banned in Ukraine.

The future will tell us if this highly political maneuver will be successful or not, in the short term, and if the compromise between the doves and the hawks inside the UOC will hold over time, according to the unpredictable developments of Russia’s war on Ukraine. In case of an apocalyptic scenario, a total invasion and occupation of Ukraine by President Putin followed by the sole recognition of the UOC, all the other Orthodox Churches would become illegal, as it is the case in Crimea, while the UOC could easily restore its “full communion” with the Moscow Patriarchate.

Photo: Metropolitan Onufriy with other UOC dignitaries. Credits

Further reading about FORB in Ukraine on HRWF website