After 93 days of war, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP) has definitely broken with Russia, perhaps.
In a May 27 council decision, the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC)-affiliated body declared its “full self-sufficiency and independence,” condemning the three-month dispute as “a violation of God’s commandment: You shall not kill!”
Such condemnation was not new. On the day the invasion began, UOC MP Metropolitan Onufriy called it a “repetition of Cain’s sin”. But in dry ecclesial language, the statement went like a bomb.
He “adopted the relevant amendments” and “considered… doing Chrisme”.
Chrism, the anointing oil for baptism and other liturgical rites, was last made in Ukraine in 1913. Its manufacture is a typical sign of autocephaly, the autonomy of a branch of the ‘Orthodox Church.
Always on the tone, the UOC-MP reiterated its position.
“We express our disagreement with … Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia,” he said of the ROC leader, “concerning the war in Ukraine.”
Kirill has always supported Russia’s “special military operation”.
In 2018, the breakaway Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) was granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I. Rejected by Kirill and the UOC-MP, the act formalized the national schism . (A third much smaller Ukrainian Orthodox Church has joined the OCU.)
Friday’s statement from the UOC-MP council continued to echo the ROC’s rejection. OCU bishops lack apostolic succession, he said, while overseeing the forced seizure of churches to transfer jurisdiction. The UOC-MP said it was willing to engage with the OCU if these divisive issues could be resolved.
And then he symbolized division.
The following day, during the Holy Liturgy, Onufriy referred to Kirill as his fellow primate, not his hierarch (superior). No mention was made of any connection to the ROC Moscow Patriarchate.
Andrey Shirin said these “unheard-of” developments were “really remarkable”.
“The ongoing war in Ukraine is a crisis on many levels — political, economic, humanitarian,” said the Russian associate professor of theology at the John Leland Center, a Baptist seminary in Virginia. “This is another chapter in the theological crisis.”
The consequences could be felt “for centuries”.
Onufriy had tried to keep a middle ground, Shirin said. UOC-MP spokesman Archbishop Kliment confirmed on Saturday that the Ukrainian government had exerted pressure for such a decision to be taken, but told Agence France-Presse that the decision was motivated by ordinary devotees. A poll at the start of the war found that 65% of UOC-MP members supported Onufriy against the invasion. And in recent weeks, hundreds of UOC-MP priests have signed an open letter calling on Kirill to face a religious tribunal.
The esteem of the Patriarch of Moscow among his Ukrainian faithful has fallen below 20%, against 50% ten years earlier.
Kirill could declare the declaration void, Shirin said, and perhaps replace Onufriy with a more flexible leader in Ukraine. Or he could try to work with his Kyiv counterpart to preserve as much unity as possible.
Kirill’s first answer suggests the latter, Shirin said. Announcing his “full understanding” that Onufriy and his church “should act as wisely as possible today so as not to complicate the lives of their believers”, Kirill warned on Sunday against “spirits of malice” who seek to divide the Orthodox people of Russia and Ukraine.
Cyril Hovorun said the statement from the UOC-MP council was long overdue.
“The UOC-MP is in a much worse position now than it was in 2018,” said the Ukrainian priest and professor at Stockholm School of Theology. “Society doesn’t trust her, many people openly hate her, and those who remain members have to continually apologize.”
The only way out is dialogue with the OCU, Hovorun said, which hardline bishops from both churches may try to block. But despite the appearance of an ultimatum, the UOC-MP declaration could be an opening.
“There is now a new opportunity for Orthodox unity in Ukraine,” he said. “The May 27 meeting created momentum.”
But for Roman Lunkin, the momentum is in the opposite direction.
“The partition of Ukraine has taken place,” said the director of the Center for Religious Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences. “What was evident at the start of the special operation has now officially taken place in the Church sphere. Logically, he will now follow politically.
Last week Henry Kissinger, the former US Secretary of State, recommended a settlement through Ukraine ceding territory to Russia. In 2014, Russia annexed Crimea and backed separatist rebels who seized control of parts of Ukraine’s eastern Donbass region.
Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has insisted that peace talks begin after his country’s sovereign borders are restored. The UN said 14 million Ukrainians have been displaced from their homes, including 6.6 million refugees abroad.
Lunkin noted that the UOC-MP said it would respond by establishing dioceses outside Ukraine. But internally, bishops would be given independent authority to guide the church where central leadership is “complicated.”
Lunkin interpreted this simplification of spheres of influence to mean that churches in occupied areas will be able to determine their own status, i.e. de facto governance by the ROC.
“The schism in the church,” he said, “is a schism in the country.”
But is it even a schism?
It may be hard to tell, noted OrthoChristian.com, until the adopted changes are revealed. But Nikolai Danilevich, deputy head of the Department of External Church Relations of the UOC-MP, said on Telegram on Friday that, as he “dissociated” himself from the Moscow Patriarchate, “in its content, the statutes of the UOC -MP are henceforth those of an autocephalous church”. ”
Alexander Webster noted the wording.
“He used strange phrases rather than declaring autocephaly,” said the American archpriest and retired seminary dean of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia. “Dating back to the earliest centuries of Christianity, canon law makes it impossible for any segment of the Orthodox Church to unilaterally declare independence.”
Bishop Kliment, who welcomed the statement, elsewhere declared that the UOC-MP did not actually sever ties with the ROC. In fact, the church has already been independent for three decades. In 1990, before Ukraine’s independence from the Soviet Union, the Moscow Patriarchate granted autonomy under its jurisdiction.
ROC spokesman Vladimir Legoyda said on Saturday that the church had not received any official notification from the UOC MP. According to reports, half of the UOC-MP dioceses had already stopped mentioning Kirill in their official prayers.
But at least one important site continued. A day after the UOC-MP changed its statutes, a deacon of the kyiv Caves Monastery, founded in 1051, prayed for “our great lord and father, His Holiness Patriarch Kirill”, followed by a blessing for Onufriy.
Following Constantinople’s granting of autocephaly to the OCU, a 2018 survey found that 29% of Ukrainians identified with the new independent church, 23% said they were “just Orthodox” and 13% belonged to the MP UOC linked to Moscow.
By 2020, the numbers had risen to 34% OCU, 14% UOC-MP. And last month, 74% of Ukrainians expressed support for the UOC-MP to sever ties with the ROC (up from 63% in early March), with 51% backing an outright ban.
More than 400 parishes have changed allegiance since the invasion.
Webster lamented these developments.
“As blatant or unjustifiable as fratricidal Orthodox warfare may be,” he said, “we cannot allow it to fracture the body of Christ.”
Bradley Nassif, a former professor of biblical and theological studies at North Park University, noted the “sad irony” of their shared faith.
“The way forward lies in the church’s own gospel, which teaches that healing begins with the humility of self-criticism,” the author said. The evangelical theology of the Orthodox Church. “It is summed up in their famous prayer: ‘Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner.'”