Autocephaly for Ukraine About More Than Religion

Publication: Eurasia Daily Monitor Volume: 15 Issue: 128

(Source: Videoblocks)

The Universal Patriarch in Constantinople is moving to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly, that is, the status of a Church with its own canonical territory and able to choose its own hierarchs. This has been a slow-moving process until recent weeks, when Constantinople Patriarch Bartholemew I named two exarchs from North America to oversee this effort in Ukraine itself. As a result, most attention has heretofore been devoted to the religious consequences of this move. But now that Ukrainian autocephaly appears imminent, it is becoming increasingly clear that the conferring of this status is about far more than religion. Moreover, it will not be a single event but rather a longer string of developments that have far-reaching social, political and even security consequences for all involved.

For Ukraine, achieving autocephaly is a great victory—both religious and political (, September 10). Having an internationally recognized national Orthodox Church co-terminus with the borders of the country will not only underscore Ukraine’s exit from Moscow’s orbit but promote national integration. Over time, autocephaly will likely mean that most of the congregations and bishoprics now subordinated to the Moscow Patriarchate will pass over to Ukrainian administration. Of course, this process will take years and is likely to be slowed by Russian interference and even by Russian-inspired violence because, once it is completed, the autocephalous Ukrainian Church will displace the Russian one as the largest Orthodox Church in the world (see EDM, July 26). This is something Moscow religious and political leaders almost certainly will not tolerate (, September 12).

But if autocephaly is a victory for Ukraine, it is also fraught with a risk perhaps even greater than the near inevitability of Russian interference. The diversity of Orthodox administrations in Ukraine (the Moscow Patriarchate, the Kyiv Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, to name just the three largest ones) has both reflected and helped to promote pluralism in that country. Whereas, the formation of a single national Orthodox Church carries with it the risk of the emergence in Ukraine of the caesaro-papist approach of Orthodoxy in many countries. Although Kyiv might initially be glad to exploit such a consequence, it could ultimately lead to the imposition of a kind of ideological straightjacket like the one the Moscow Patriarchate has sought to impose on Russia. Indeed, some are already warning of this danger (, September 10).

For Russia, autocephaly for Ukraine is a major defeat—again, for both political and religious reasons. In the Kremlin’s view, it represents the end of President Vladimir Putin’s dream of a “Russian World” (Russkiy mir) combining, at a minimum, the three Eastern Slavic nations—Russians, Ukrainians and Belarusians—which he continues to view as one people. And more immediately, it deprives Moscow of one of its major levers within Ukraine, making it more likely that Kyiv will be able to continue its course away from Russia toward the West. In the case of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, the defeat is more total. Not only has the Universal Patriarchate already rejected Moscow’s claim of a canonical territory including Ukraine, but it has declared that Moscow, because of its illegal interference in Ukraine, can have no voice in what happens there with regard to autocephaly (, September 7;, September 8).

Moscow Patriarch Kirill is an especially big loser. With autocephaly, he will lose about half of his Church’s parishes, nearly half of its bishoprics (many of which are headed by churchmen he appointed), and a great deal of his Church’s income. He has already been shown to be ineffective in promoting Moscow’s wishes, with Constantinople having turned him down flat. And he has responded in a way that signals his defeat, talking about splitting the Orthodox world and creating “an Orthodox Vatican” in Russia with himself as an Orthodox “pope”—threats few (see EDM, December 12, 2017) in the Orthodox world outside of Moscow are likely to support for long (,, BBC News—Russian service, September 6, 2018).

The loss of the Ukrainian bishoprics will tilt the balance within the Russian Church away from Kirill’s more moderate positions to conservatives like Pskov Metropolitan Tikhon Shevkunov, a former spiritual advisor to Putin and now the odds-on favorite to succeed Kirill. Indeed, there is evidence that the Kremlin may hasten this process by bringing criminal charges against some of Kirill’s subordinates (, September 11). Moreover, some Russians are already talking about cutting Moscow’s losses in the case of the Ukrainian Church and focusing inward, exactly the opposite of what Putin—and even more Kirill—want (, September 3;, September 12).

But the looming Ukrainian autocephaly may soon be compounded by other Russian losses as well. Already, there is some talk that the Orthodox in Belarus may seek autocephaly, given that the Constantinople-approved basis for Ukraine’s claim—that its territory was never part of Moscow’s canonical territory—applies to them equally (, September 10;, September 11). And Moscow’s retreat may not end there: There are continuing problems having to do with Church subordination in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia; and earlier this month, Moscow was forced to give a kind of bribe—$1 million—to the Orthodox eparchate in Tajikistan in an effort to counter the opening of parishes there loyal to Constantinople (, September 11).

Finally, for other countries, the prospect of Ukrainian autocephaly has become part of the broader conflict with Russia and its aggressive policies in Ukraine and elsewhere. The United States, for example, has just signaled that it will do what it can to help Ukraine achieve autocephaly, yet another way in which that change in the status of the Ukrainian Church has moved far beyond the religious realm to the political and security ones (, September 12). By dramatically pouring fuel on the fire of the Ukrainian Church’s autocephaly question, the Russian military intervention in Ukraine four and a half years ago continues to generate far-reaching consequences the Kremlin apparently did not imagine.