Orthodox Christians in Ukraine are split between those still recognizing Moscow’s authority and those who have asserted independence.
The fear of incursion by Russian troops and a planned visit to Ukraine by the Ecumenical Patriarch make a rapprochement hard to envisage
Despite the decreased number of parishioners, the small church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the centre of Lviv in western Ukraine still has three liturgies on Sunday. Yurii Fediv, a local deacon, told me that the number of attendees had dropped by around 80 to 90 per cent during the last year. Most had chosen to stay at home during the pandemic; others had switched to other parishes in the suburbs. Fediv’s parish had been one of the first in Ukraine to break ties with the Moscow patriarchate in November 1989, two years before the collapse of the Soviet Union. The struggle for recognition of the independence, or autocephaly, of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine culminated in a Unification Council in Kiev in December 2018, which brought together the leaders of the various branches of the pro-autocephalous movement into a new Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU). On 5 January 2019, Bartholomew I (inset), the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, signed the tomos that officially recognised the OCU and granted it autocephaly, making it independent of the Russian Orthodox Church. Furious Russian Orthodox leaders immediately accused the Ecumenical Patriarch of fomenting schism and have urged other Orthodox Churches to continue to recognise Ukraine’s existing Moscow-linked Church.
Fediv told me that polemics concerning who was “more Ukrainian” and “genuinelyautocephalous” are mostly over, so his former parishioners no longer need to travel nine miles or more to attend services. Their nearest church is likely to be an OCU parish. Fediv, who is 39, was one of the youngest delegates at the Unification Council. He argues that granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine was simply the climax of a natural process and not a revolutionary act; it is normal for autocephaly to follow political independence.
A recent poll by the Razumkov Centre, an independent think tank in Kiev, found that 30 per cent of Orthodox believers in Ukraine declare allegiance to the OCU and 22 per cent say they preferred to stay in the Moscow patriarchate; the largest group, 44 per cent, highly likely non-practising, describe themselves as “just Orthodox”.
To some extent, the division between Orthodox Ukrainians mirrors political divisions. But it doesn’t work that way in every region. In western and central Ukraine, where the Moscow patriarchate is quite strong, people aren’t pro-Russian, but many insist on the canonicity of the Moscow patriarchate and regard the OCU as schismatic. The new independent Church and the pro-Moscow Church are both preoccupied with cementing their structures and resolving internal problems. Having lost around 500 parishes and much of its faithful during the last two years, the Moscow patriarchate has concentrated on holding on to its property. The OCU is short of well-trained priests, because many of the parishes that joined it from the Moscow patriarchate did not bring their pastors with them. Among ordinary believers, the fevered polemics of two years ago have begun to cool. While tensions between Ukraine’s two versions of Orthodoxy remain high, many in the OCU are optimistic that one day all Ukraine’s Orthodox Christians will be reunited, and communion restored between Kiev and Moscow.
Vira Markovich, 75, a daughter of Volodymyr Yarema, who was the first Ukrainian priest to break with the Moscow patriarchate in 1989 and later became the primate of one of the independent Churches, believes that if there was goodwill on the other side, the OCU would be open for dialogue without hesitation. Fediv is less sure, pointing out that the current fear of invasion by Russian troops makes rapprochement with Moscow hard to imagine any time soon. Russia’s proxy warfare in eastern Ukraine and its annexation of the Crimea in 2014 converted former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko from being a parishioner of the Moscow patriarchate into an enthusiastic supporter of autocephaly for the Church in Ukraine. His populist successor, Volodymyr Zelenskyi, elected in May 2019, initially distanced himself from religious affairs, but his government has had a change of mind. To the horror of the Russian Orthodox Church, he has invited the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, to Kiev to celebrate the thirtieth anniversary of Ukraine’s independence this summer. But it seems that the government won’t intensify its support for the OCU, to avoid adding to the tensions within society. The OCU has shown that it can exist without special treatment or direct support. It has overcome splits and internal conflict without significant losses, and has built a pretty effect ive system of governance. But a lot more work needs to be done: its theological educational system has suffered during its isolation from the rest of the Orthodox world, it lacks specialists in ecumenical dialogue and its structures are an unwieldy blend of inherited bureaucracies. Sixty-five-year-old Roman Maksymovych, a surgeon and a lay activist who was among those who sought autocephaly from the ecumenical patriarch in 1989, says that after the Unification Council and the signing of the tomos he begged friends not to surrender to euphoria. Now he’s arguing that his contemporaries, who bear the baggage of the past, should make way for the younger generation.