The Moscow Patriarchate is rapidly losing influence in Ukraine and may be dissolving from below. These trends could open the way to the formation of a single autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, independent of Moscow, and undermine the influence of Patriarch Kirill and his Church at home and abroad. More than half of all the parishes of the Moscow Patriarchate and a significant share of its bishoprics, including many whose incumbents were selected by Kirill, are in Ukraine. Thus, the likelihood that many if not most of them will soon shift their allegiance to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church not only will represent a significant reduction in the size and wealth of the Moscow Patriarchate but also will reduce Kirill’s influence in the Kremlin and in Orthodox Church discussions worldwide.
Were the Moscow Patriarchate to lose all of its parishes and bishoprics in Ukraine—something that is not likely to happen overnight—the Russian Church would cease to be the largest Orthodox denomination in the world. But even if only a sizeable share of them do—and there are indications that is already happening—the influence of the Moscow Church and Patriarch Kirill, personally among the Orthodox and as a spokesman for Orthodoxy in conversations with the leaders of other Christian denominations, will fall. Furthermore, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church emerging from this shift would become a major player in the Orthodox and Christian worlds. As a result, Moscow is going to fight this as much as possible and deny the obvious as long as it can.
In late April 2015, Patriarch Filaret, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, called for the unification of all Orthodox churches in Ukraine so that Russia could no longer influence that country through its religious institutions. In turn, the Ukrainian GORDON news agency asked four experts to discuss these developments, which have the potential to determine not only the outcome of the struggle for Ukraine but also the fate of Orthodoxy as a political and moral force in Russia and more generally. Their judgments, rather than the notoriously unreliable statistics about religious affiliations, are especially valuable in that regard (Gordonua.com, May 12).
Vladimir Fesenko, the head of the Kyiv Center for Applied Political Research, argues that “the current leadership of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate has made a very serious error by shifting from formal neutrality” about the conflict in Ukraine to open support for the Russian side and opposition to the Ukrainian. “This can have very sad consequences for this Church and for its place” in Ukraine. As he asserts, it has already alienated many of the Orthodox parishioners, who are voting with their feet, as well as part of the clergy, who are increasingly critical of their bishops and of the Moscow patriarchate.
Andrey Zubov, a Russian commentator who used to teach at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (MGIMO), says that the influence of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine is falling so rapidly that even many of the hierarchs in Ukraine itself are now thinking about shifting to the Ukrainian Church. Unfortunately for them, their parishioners do not know that their priests and bishops feel this way and are leaving the Russian Church even more rapidly than the hierarchy is shifting its own feelings. For rank-and-file members of the Moscow Patriarchate churches in Ukraine, he says, the key event was the decision of Patriarch Onufria not to stand in honor of those Ukrainians who had died defending their country. That was an insult that few are prepared to forget and that many feel they must respond to by leaving the Russian Church.
Father Bogdan Timoshenko, the head of the social services department of the Peryaslav-Khmelnitsky and Belotserkovsky bishopric of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate, says that his experience tells him that over the course of the last year, churches subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate “are losing their positions very quickly.”
Moscow Patriarchate churches are not so much transferring their alliance, although that is happening, as losing their memberships to Kyiv Patriarchate congregations. What that means, Father Timoshenko says, is that the Moscow Church is disintegrating and dissolving and is ever less in a position to talk about uniting with the Ukrainian one.
As a result, the Ukrainian priest continues, there will soon be “a single Orthodox church in Ukraine, strong and recognized by the entire world,” the product of the collapse of the Moscow Church there and the shift of its members, priests and hierarchs to the Kyivan one, rather than any formal unification.
And finally, Aleksandr Paliy, a Ukrainian political scientist and historian, argues that the Moscow Patriarchate has brought all this on itself by becoming a political weapon for the Kremlin rather than an organization supporting genuine religious faith. Ever fewer Ukrainians identify with the Moscow Patriarchate. When people cease to believe in a Church, he suggests, it ceases to exist—and that is what is happening to the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine.