The Orthodox Church of Ukraine: Can Relations with the Russian Orthodox Church Be Normalized?

Andrii Krawchuk is Professor Religious Studies and Past President at the University of Sudbury (Canada)

Any serious treatment of this question must begin with a sober assessment of the formidable and, in the short term, seemingly insurmountable obstacles to peaceful coexistence of Christian communities: armed conflict, political states, geopolitical priorities, and identity politics. These obstacles raise the question of the creative capacity and independent agency of Orthodox churches – is there such a thing, or in the final analysis do churches have no choice but to submit to superior forces?

The War

Although the Russian-Ukrainian war initially polarized but eventually consolidated the multiethnic Ukrainian society, immense efforts of propaganda continue to undermine that solidarity. In the religious sphere, the war brought to light a glaring discrepancy between today’s Orthodox Church of Ukraine (formerly the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, UOC-KP and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, UAOC), which unequivocally supports the sovereignty and independence of the country, and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP), which has tried to accommodate pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian elements under the aegis of neutrality.

Caught between the threat of brute military force on one side anxious to exercise its “right to protect” and the countervailing aspiration toward the non-discriminatory ideals of Europe, the government of Ukraine will be well-advised to refrain from direct intervention or coercive legislation – leaving up to citizens the free choice to vote with their feet, and protecting that right for all. Yet it is not only the politicians of Ukraine who became convinced that autocephaly was no longer merely a religious imperative, but a political and strategic one as well. Many citizens of Ukraine grasped this too, and the irregular situation of a so-called “fifth column” will not go away as long as the conflict continues. Indeed, its long-term effects may endure even after the conflict is ended.

If the OCU chooses to be pro-active, it will not wait for the end of armed hostilities. Even as it attends to pressing matters of internal regularization and governance, it will look outward to other members of the Orthodox community, with whom it must establish normal relations in order to actualize its autocephaly and authentic Orthodoxy. Geographic proximity and historical connections surely played no small part in the alliance now forged with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but the present war can temporarily cloud the no less important geographic proximity, as well as the cultural and historical connections with the neighbor to the northeast. If the OCU chooses to be pro-active, it will give serious thought – beyond the war – to the long-term objective of restored, normalized relations with the ROC.

The OCU’s first point of contact with the church of Russia is through its next-door-neighbor on the home front, the UOC-MP. Even at risk of internal criticism, the challenge is to meet and exchange views about the normalization of relations between the two Orthodox communities in Ukraine. If both sides can agree they are not competing to be the one and only legitimate Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and that they share a core civic loyalty to Ukraine, fruitful dialogue toward the long-term restoration of relations may be possible. While the war certainly remains a principal obstacle to Orthodox normalization, and autocephaly introduced new challenges into an already complex situation, skeptics may be reminded that for decades before autocephaly and before the war, all the religious communities of Ukraine began meeting on a regular basis to discuss matters of concern. And now, despite the war and debates surrounding the OCU, the All-Ukrainian Council of Churches and Religious Organizations continues to meet regularly – pro-Ukrainian and pro-Russian institutions at one table. It may be time to draw upon the experience of this forum and to move on to urgent matters of the day – setting aside the facile solidarity of “conservative consensus” around “traditional values” and addressing instead ecclesial relations that must be healed if the churches are to claim a credible voice in the civic space.

Orthodox Christianity’s “Inevitable” Accommodation with States

We refer here to the idea of a deterministic inclination in Orthodox Christianity toward “symphonia” with the state. Historical narratives that posit such a tendency have recently been put to rest by Cyril Hovorun and others. We may also recall the autonomist position of Non-Possessors in Russia, the vibrant life of Orthodox Churches in pluralistic environments, and historical instances of coercive state power that forced the Church either to accommodate or perish. While the Church possesses the moral capacity to discern the limits of rendering unto Caesar it cannot always exercise that freedom in action. In still other contexts, from Constantinian Christianity onward, the Church joined the state in suppressing religious minorities, Christian and non-Christian alike.

In light of this, the question facing the OCU is: will it voluntarily submit to the state’s agenda and subscribe to political/ideological discourses that other and demonize the “enemy aggressor?” Or will it resist that kind of cooptation?

In order to show a capacity for independent agency in the public sphere, the OCU must be prepared to lend guidance and practical wisdom to the state as it moves toward democracy, and to demythologize the fallacy that the only authentic form of Orthodoxy is in partnership with the state. The only alternative for the Church would be to bow to Caesar, and to renounce its right to speak truth, in and out of season, in the public sphere. In that second scenario, churches do not even take the initiative in mending inter-ecclesial relations, but surrender the task to politicians, who will undertake it under the banner of the “state interest.”

Daunting though it may appear, the challenge for Ukraine’s churches to take the initiative in religious affairs is not insurmountable. For one thing, the state is committed to separation from church affairs – though President Poroshenko could have used a reminder to that effect in the elections of 2019. In addition, the OCU and the UOC would likely prefer to forge their relationship on their own. They also share a common interest in promoting a political culture in which state interference in religion is neither desirable nor acceptable. So outside of the supposedly “traditional,” symphonic model of Orthodox relations with states, there is plenty of room and common interest in Ukraine for constructive initiatives by the churches – without political assistance.

 The Polarizing Repercussions of the Propaganda War

One does not need to have followed the Russian-Ukrainian war very closely to realize that in addition to the catastrophic loss of life on the front, the traumatization of families and communities, the displacement of millions of people from their homes, and the devastating losses in infrastructure – there has also been a sustained war of words, competing versions of the truth, and deliberate lies manufactured in the name of propaganda, a battle for the minds. If the goal of the war was to destabilize, then in many respects it has succeeded, no less on the front lines and throughout the country as in minds and hearts.

Reflecting the same social reality as their constituencies, the churches of Ukraine too have been traumatized and torn in their loyalties, sustaining a profound impact from the information war. This topic is vast, and we must limit ourselves to a specific term that has been thrown about in polemical fashion, yet which must be deconstructed once and for all – if there is to be a dialogical encounter between the Orthodox churches of Ukraine. The term is “schism,” and it must be eliminated from the religious vocabulary of this conflict for any dialogue to be fruitful.

In the discussion of autocephaly over the past year, frequent reference was made to the pastoral effect of autocephaly – that it healed an immense anomaly and open wound. Not the wound of one person who was excommunicated (and whose excommunication was subsequently annulled), but the wound of millions of Christians, who were shunned and marginalized on the grounds that they were “uncanonical” and “shismatic.”  …

The term must be recognized first of all as profoundly hurtful to Christian communities that lived in good faith, and secondly as inapplicable in light of the regularization and recognition of the OCU as autocephalous. Surely the time of canonical restrictions and polemics is behind us now.

If they are effectively to address the institutional impact of the propaganda war, both churches must come to terms with their own emotional and spiritual investment in the language and discourse of separation and polarization. They must determine whether, in the name of fundamental Christian solidarity, they are prepared to face criticism from their own communities. They must decide if they are willing to educate – and fraternally correct – their communities on the moral imperative of peaceful coexistence with other Christians. It is an immense undertaking, and all too easy to dismiss as unrealistic. But if the two churches are not yet fully invested in the discourses of polarization, they will need to mobilize theological will and fortitude. If they can enter the crucial exchange with mutual commitment and a desire to work together as Christian communities, the Orthodox churches of Ukraine could demonstrate prophetic agency and show convincingly that they have not fallen, as spiritual and moral casualties of the war.

 Toward a Two-Church Solution

Autocephaly changed little in the public sphere: what were previously three legally recognized churches are now two. Life goes on, even for those who may have been bewildered to be told that they are “no longer uncanonical.” In other countries, political and ecclesiastical officials may continue to regard the UOC-MP as the only canonical church, but this is the perspective of external observers, a perspective familiar to those of us who ourselves are external observers. Nevertheless, in Ukraine, the OCU is an official, registered ecclesial entity with legal recognition and status. According to the law of the land, the status of Ukrainian Orthodox citizens formerly belonging to the Kyivan Patriarchate and the UAOC has not changed either. They were members of legally registered churches before, and they have neither lost legal protections nor gained new ones now as members of the OCU.

The UOC-MP continues to lose members, who switch to other jurisdictions, but the church has neither disappeared nor will do so in the foreseeable future. Under the watchful eye of neighboring compatriots, who are always ready to exercise their “right to protect” civil and human rights as they see fit, the parliament of Ukraine cannot attempt to harmonize religious life through legislative or police action. In a paradoxical way, Russian vigilance may prevent Ukraine from replicating the kind of brutal “normalization” of religious life that took place in Crimea and Donbas.

In terms of state law, the OCU and the UOC-MP have every opportunity to co-exist as they did before. Nor does canon law impede the coexistence of different Orthodox jurisdictions in the same country, as is evident in North America and elsewhere. In majority Orthodox Ukraine, short of an all-out invasion and the imposition of ecclesiastical uniformity, the practical question is about the nature of relations between the two Orthodox churches, relations that they must work out for themselves.

A two-church solution is possible, but much will depend on the spirit in which the parties make it happen. Their capacity for creative, independent agency will be put to the test. Can they hammer out good relations on their own for mutual benefit, or will they take instructions from superior political and ecclesiastical authorities? If the OCU takes pride in its ecclesiastical autocephaly, then surely independence from the state is no less vital to its proper functioning as a Christian church. And if the UOC-MP is truly independent in governance then the time has come to witness to that fact as a juridical person with the same civic responsibilities as any other Orthodox church in any other country. The fundamental option to act with civic responsibility without interference (that is, to live and act as autocephalous), if it is taken by both churches, will enable their effective action – and cooperation – in rooting out isolation, competition, distrust, and conflict. On the other hand, if they render unto Caesar and submit to external ecclesiastical authorities, their mutual relations and internal life will be vulnerable to co-optation and manipulation by extremists and provocateurs.

Return to the Introduction to the Conversation.