October 11, 2018, Thursday


Autocephaly Granted to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and the Holy Synod of the Greek Orthodox Church today announced the decision to grant autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.

The decision goes against the wishes of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This could lead to a division within Orthodoxy between Constantinople (the Greek Orthodox) and Moscow (the Russian Orthodox).

Many in Ukraine will celebrate this decision, as it supports the national identity of Ukraine.

But, the decision could bring tension, and even chaos, as it may not be clear in the weeks and months who has the title to hundreds of churches in Ukraine.

Therefore, many Christians, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, may lament the fact that the decision seems likely to cause a division inside Christianity, between Christians — inside Orthodoxy, between Russians and Greeks — at a time when Christian unity, in an increasingly secularized world, seems essential to prevent the marginalization, oppression and persecution of the Christian faith and Christian believers.

It has been my constant hope, and my work for many years, to try to assist in “building bridges” between Catholics and Orthodox — acknowledging all that separates us, but hoping that what unites us might inspire us to work together on common projects, and prepare for that time when we might overcome our doctrinal divisions and find again that unity which existed in the first millennium.

It was therefore my hope that some sort of agreement between Constantinople and Moscow might have been possible before the announcement by Constantinople of this decision.

I continue to hope that Christians will agree that what unites them is more important than what divides them.

A brief note: Ukraine is predominantly Orthodox, and in the east of the country, near Russia, almost entirely so. There are more than 30 million Orthodox in this country of more than 40 million people. In the west, near Poland and the borders of the old Holy Roman Empire, there is a strong presence of Ukrainian Greek Catholics, numbering several million, who are in union with Rome. They celebrate Mass according to the Byzantine rite, so their liturgies are “Greek” but their ecclesial loyalties are with Rome. (They are sometimes, as in the interview below, called “Uniates” because they re-united with Rome, leaving Orthodoxy.) Over the past thousand years, there have been many ebbs and flows in this picture, and much conflict. In recent centuries, the Orthodox in Ukraine were under Moscow. In 1991, with the break-up of the Soviet Union, a Metropolitan in the Russian Orthodox Church who was a candidate to become the Patriarch of Russia was not elected. His name was Filaret (his last name was Denisenko). He is now about 90 years old. He took the decision to break away from his own Church (Moscow Patriarchate) and establish a breakaway Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate). Many joined him, but only a minority. His decision was condemned by Moscow, and by global Orthodoxy as well, and Filaret and his Church were declared “uncanonical” and “schismatic.” So that is the “schism” within Russian Orthodoxy that many refer to. What is now happening is, in a certain sense, the “rehabilitation” of Filaret, and the recognition of a Church similar to his, but including other smaller Orthodox Church groups as well, into one “autocephalous” Ukrainian Church centered in Kiev, separate from Moscow. The argument is that in this way the “Filaret schism” can now be healed, uniting all the Orthodox inside Ukraine. But this proposed way of healing the schism would result in Moscow (Russian Orthodoxy) losing about one-third of its bishops who are in Ukraine and would theoretically “go over” to the new autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. So Moscow opposes this decision by Constantinople.


Announcement, and Response


(1) the official announcement of the autocephaly decision as it appears on the website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (the bold-face words are my own emphasis) and

(2) a Russian Orthodox response to the idea of Ukrainian autocephaly.


Official Text (link)

(1) Announcement (11/10/2018) (link).

Presided by His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch, the Holy and Sacred Synod convened for its regular session from October 9 to 11, 2018, in order to examine and discuss items on its agenda.

The Holy Synod discussed in particular and at length the ecclesiastical matter of Ukraine, in the presence of His Excellency Archbishop Daniel of Pamphilon and His Grace Bishop Hilarion of Edmonton, Patriarchal Exarchs to Ukraine, and following extensive deliberations decreed:

1) To renew the decision already made that the Ecumenical Patriarchate proceed to the granting of Autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine.

2) To reestablish, at this moment, the Stavropegion of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Kyiv, one of its many Stavropegia in Ukraine that existed there always.

3) To accept and review the petitions of appeal of Filaret Denisenko, Makariy Maletych and their followers, who found themselves in schism not for dogmatic reasons, in accordance with the canonical prerogatives of the Patriarch of Constantinople to receive such petitions by hierarchs and other clergy from all of the Autocephalous Churches. Thus, the above-mentioned have been canonically reinstated to their hierarchical or priestly rank, and their faithful have been restored to communion with the Church.

4) To revoke the legal binding of the Synodal Letter of the year 1686, issued for the circumstances of that time, which granted the right through oikonomia to the Patriarch of Moscow to ordain the Metropolitan of Kyiv, elected by the Clergy-Laity Assembly of his eparchy, who would commemorate the Ecumenical Patriarch as the First hierarch at any celebration, proclaiming and affirming his canonical dependence to the Mother Church of Constantinople.

5) To appeal to all sides involved that they avoid appropriation of Churches, Monasteries and other properties, as well as every other act of violence and retaliation, so that the peace and love of Christ may prevail.

At the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the 11th of October, 2018

From the Chief Secretariat of the Holy and Sacred Synod

(2) Response. (link)

Below is an interview with Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the “Foreign Minister” of the Russian Orthodox Church.

This interview was given two days ago, on October 9, before this decision was announced, but it explores the consequences of such a decision were it to be taken, as it has been taken.

I have known Hilarion personally since 1999. I have collaborated with him on several projects. He is a composer of music, a thoughtful writer, and he speaks perfect English (he took a degree at Oxford). So he is a man with considerable intellectual and cultural capacities. Born in 1966, he is also a man whose life has straddled the end of the Soviet Union (which dissolved in 1991, when he was 25). He grew up under Communism, but has lived his adult life for 27 years in the “post-Soviet confusion” of the 1990s and, since 2000, under the government led by Vladimir Putin.

Hilarion has been willing (to the alarm of many conservative members of his Church) to reach out to Christians in the West, including Catholics like myself, without downplaying the fact that our theologies have different emphases, and even differing doctrines, and a cultural experience shaped by very different factors. Yet, he has always been a staunch opponent of autocephaly in the Ukraine.

Below he outlines some of his reasons.

Metropolitan Hilarion: “If the project for Ukrainian autocephaly is carried through, it will mean a tragic and possibly irretrievable schism of the whole Orthodoxy”

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of the Moscow Patriarchate department for external church relation, has given an interview to the Greek newspaper Ethnos tis Kiriakis. (link)

– Your Eminence, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has published for the first time some historical documents that prove that the Ukrainian Church has never withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical throne. We would like to hear your opinion on this problem.

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev: The official site of the Patriarchate of Constantinople has published only two documents about a move of the Metropolis of Kiev to the Moscow Patriarchate… The documents are well known in our country and have been published since the 19th century. The preface (introducing these documents) abounds in inaccuracies and ungrounded conclusions.

But we are glad to have a possibility for a discussion, though distant, and ready to broaden the academic outlook of our opponents. Now it is at least clearer what reasoning they wish to rely on.


By the end of this year, we plan to publish a substantial study that includes hundreds of sheets of archive documents – many of them will be really published for the first time. Some of them are already available on the Orthodox Encyclopaedia portal.

Naturally, it is impossible to discuss this body of testimonies in a brief interview. I can only say that allegations about a “temporary nature” of the Metropolis of Kiev’s transfer to the Moscow Patriarchate come from a tendentious and scientifically unscrupulous interpretation of the documents signed by Patriarch Dionysios in 1686.

Believe me, we are ready for an objective and fundamental discussion.

Moreover, we have proposed a serious dialogue on this matter to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, a joint conference.

So far no response.

After all, the case in question is very important as it concerns many millions of Orthodox Ukrainians.

– As the main spokesman for the opinion of the Moscow Patriarchate, you have become a target for unfavorable comments because of your rhetoric with regard to the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the Ukrainian problem. Some believe that such a rhetoric does not correspond to Christian ideals. Is this criticism against you unfair, and why is it happening in such a way?

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev: I am partly familiar with this criticism. Sometimes it becomes utterly absurd.

(Hilarion here narrates accusations against him that he says are false.)

Actually, I as a Christian and scholar am profoundly upset by such a style of polemics.

We wish our brothers could have an objective information and could have a better and deeper knowledge of the history of the Russian Church and her situation today, and of the Ukrainian Church problem.

It would be more beneficial for us all and then our dialogue could be more productive.

Recently the English version of the report made by His Grace Bishop Makarios of Christopolis at the recent Synaxis of the Constantinople hierarchy, entitled “On the Ukrainian Church Problem” was published.

One can only wonder how little the author of the report, made to such an important forum, is acquainted with the history of the Ukrainian problem.

A confusion of facts of the history of our Church, mistakes in dates, a confusion of Councils and non-canonical jurisdictions of Russia and Ukraine… Suffice it to say that several “synaxises” of Russian “Renovators” and schismatics of the 20th century are enumerated there as “Councils” of the canonical Church.

It is terrible to imagine that such “studies” could become the basis for an official position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate!

– A few days ago you published a photograph depicting Ukrainian President Poroshenko as an altar boy who takes part in a procession with the cross held by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, though a few years later, already the President, he takes communion from the hands of a Uniate archbishop. How, in your view, can this exposure help solve the Ukrainian problem?

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev: I did not publish these photographs. They have been going around on the Ukrainian segment of the Internet for a few years now, and they have appeared on Greek sites as well. It is a fact that [Ukraine’s President] Mr. Petro Poroshenko took communion with the Uniates [the Ukrainian Greek Catholics].

The evolution of the Ukrainian President’s religious beliefs is his private affair.

For the last several years there has been a complete change in the power and political agenda in Ukraine, and the political influence of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church has considerably grown.

Thus, the chairman of the Ukrainian parliament and a majority of deputies who wrote already in 2016 an appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch about “a review” of the 1686 documents and the granting of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are Greek Catholics.

Perhaps, all this has somehow influenced the religious views of Mr. Poroshenko.

But it seems to me that neither the power nor the political agenda should influence the situation of a Church in a country and interfere in her internal life.

The more so that these politicians do not confess Orthodoxy even nominally.

The Ukrainian authorities make no secret of the fact that autocephaly for them is a political task.

Petro Poroshenko said it in clear voice on several occasions.

The canonical Church in Ukraine [the Russian Orthodox Church loyal to Moscow] is subjected to political and administrative pressure, as discriminatory bills aimed against her are registered in the parliament; her churches are captured; her clergy and faithful are beat up by members of radical organizations.

But the Ukrainian Church problem is, first of all, an internal problem of healing the schism and restoring the unity of the Church.

It can be done only by the Church herself — politicians are helpless. The politicization of Church life only divides people ever deeper.

– You have stated that a possible granting of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church will bring about a schism within Orthodoxy. How are we to understand that? The 1054 schism was caused mostly by dogmatic differences between the Old and the New Rome. Are there any conditions of this kind today?

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev: As for the events of the Great Schism, the doctrinal differences between East and West went side by side with jurisdictional ones.

Theological disputes did take place even before 1054 and continued after it.

However, the final rupture happened already after the Crusades when the Popes of Rome began establishing parallel Latin sees in the East and installing their bishops in them in spite of the fact that there already was an Orthodox hierarchy there.

It is precisely what made the schism an accomplished fact and eliminated the possibility for dialogue.

In our time, we see new attempts to establish a parallel hierarchy in the territory of Local Churches and hear the allegations that one autocephalous Church can have exclusive powers over other Churches.

I do not wish to predict further developments but there is every reason to fear that if the project for Ukrainian autocephaly is carried through, it will mean a tragic and possibly irretrievable schism of the whole Orthodoxy.

– The Ecumenical Patriarchate believes that autocephaly will help heal the local schism which has existed among the Orthodox faithful in Ukraine for 13 years now and that the Moscow Patriarchate has failed to settle it for these years and that it allowed to prolong it for so long and take on a gigantic scale. Is it really so?

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev: The Church canons provide for only one way to healing a schism — repentance and return to the Local Church with which unity was broken.

In the case of Ukraine, it is within the Russian Orthodox Church, not with the Patriarchate of Constantinople, that a schism was perpetrated, and for this reason, any attempt to heal a schism bypassing the Russian Church is outside the canonical domain.

It should be taken into account that ignoring sacred canons shakes up the whole system of the Church organism.

Schismatics in other Local Churches are well aware that if autocephaly is given to the Ukrainian schismatics, it will be possible to repeat the same scenario anywhere.

That is why we state that autocephaly in Ukraine will not be “the healing of the schism” but its legalization and encouragement.

As far as our Church is concerned, she has never given up her attempts to heal the schism in Ukraine on canonical principles.

The latest testimony to it is the appeal of the Metropolitan Filaret Denisenko of Kiev, which he sent less than a year ago to the Bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church with a request for forgiveness. That was surely preceded by a dialogue and negotiations.

It is necessary to understand that the schism of Ukrainian Orthodoxy was artificially inspired in the early 1990s of the 20th century by then secular authorities of the country.

All these years since, it has existed as exclusively a political project and supported by nationalist political forces in Ukraine. In doing so, they stopped at nothing.

There are at least two schismatic hierarchs who died in very strange circumstances literally on threshold of their return to the Church fold, which they had already resolved to do.

Their destiny created an atmosphere of fear among many who wished to reconcile with the Church.

Most probably, the same reason explains the strange behavior of the leader of the schismatics Denisenko, who, as was mentioned above, went to meet the Church half way, suddenly, within a few hours, changed his position and denied all this steps towards reconciliation.

Anyway, we are not to blame for the failure of that attempt, just as many others.

The fault lies with all those who support the ideology of schism.

Thirty years is a long time, of course. But we will not forget that some Church divisions continued even considerably longer and then were still overcome. So, there are no reasons to lose hope, under the conditions, of course, that all the Local Churches will act in solidarity in face of a schism, not ceasing to manifest the unity of the body of the Church of Christ.

– Apparently, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is determined to take the path of granting autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church. Two exarchs have already been sent to promote a normal completion of this process. What will be the further steps of the Moscow Patriarchate?

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev: We consider the appointment of exarchs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to Ukraine as an invasion of this Church in the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is a grave violation of Church law.

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church has appealed to the Primates of Local Orthodox Church to hold a pan-Orthodox discussion on the Ukrainian problem.

I know that this appeal has been met with a response from Primates.

We are still ready for dialogue.

And we will use every opportunity for explaining patiently to our opponents the tragic danger of the steps they are taking in Ukraine.

Reluctant as I am to speak about it, but if these steps lead to entering into communion with the schismatics, we will have to rupture fully the Eucharistic communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

– The Orthodox flock in the whole world are following the developments in the Ukrainian problem with evident concern. Through centuries the Ecumenical and the Moscow Patriarchates have walked hand in hand every time overcoming arising difficulties. Is not what unites you greater and more important that what divides you?

Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev: The Lord Jesus Christ said to His disciples, Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other (Mk. 9:50).

We have always believed and continue to believe that the Holy Orthodox faith uniting our Churches will ultimately prevail over the present differences, which have been brought about by attempts at the interference of the powers of this world in Church life.

Nevertheless, the preservation of our common Orthodox witness demands common efforts today in the name of the maintenance of the old canonical order, which, to our great grief, is being destroyed now by unilateral actions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.


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