The creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) on December 15, at a Unification Council in Kyiv attended by representatives of three previously divided Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine, is a seismic event in world Christian history that could also have significant geopolitical repercussions.
For centuries, Orthodoxy in Ukraine was subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, as Ukraine itself was subjected to Russian suzerainty (sometimes under the guise of Soviet “republicanism”). After the Soviet crack-up, Ukrainian Orthodoxy fractured into contentious, rival churches. Now, an independent Ukraine insisting on cultural as well as political independence from Russia will have an “autocephalous,” nationwide church independent of the Moscow Patriarchate. That new reality will be formalized once the “first among equals” in world Orthodoxy, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, grants the OCU what is known as the “tomos of autocephaly” — a kind of ecclesiastical diplomatic recognition of the OCU’s self-governing status and its independence from Moscow.
Speaking to a large crowd in Kyiv’s Sofiivska Square after the Unification Council created the new, unified church and elected 39-year-old Metropolitan Epiphanius as its leader, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko said that the establishment of the OCU was as significant an event in modern Ukrainian history as the country’s 1991 declaration of independence from a crumbling Soviet Union. Poroshenko then reminded the throng that Russian president Vladimir Putin had described the USSR’s demise as “the geopolitical disaster of the 20th century”; the creation of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, Poroshenko claimed, is a “second geopolitical disaster” for Putin, but “this time the scale is not of the century, but of the millennium.” That claim requires a little unpacking.
The first phase of Vladimir Putin’s attempt to re-create some form of the old Soviet empire in the Russian “near abroad” has unfolded under the banner of the Russkiy mir, the “Russian world,” which, Putin claims, extends far beyond the boundaries of today’s Russian Federation. Politically, of course, the “Russian world” as Putin expansively conceives it was born of conquest (as it was maintained by aggressive cultural Russification). Historically and culturally, however, the notion of an extensive Russkiy mir encompassing today’s Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus rests on the claim that Russia is the sole legitimate heir of the baptism of the Eastern Slavs in 988, by which the Rus’ tribes became part of a then-undivided Christian world. This was, and is, a historical lie; the baptism of the Rus’ took place near today’s Kyiv and a flourishing Orthodox Christianity, including colossal monasteries and magnificent gilded churches, could be found in today’s Ukraine when Moscow was a raw, primitive forest inhabited by wolves and bears. But however historically dubious, Moscow’s claim to be the sole legitimate inheritor of the baptism of Rus’ has underwritten Russian imperialism since the days of Peter the Great.
Religion is rarely thought a factor in contemporary world politics. But Putin’s attempts to resurrect the Russkiy mir depended in part on the cultural magnetic field created by the claim of Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow to ecclesiastical sovereignty over the Orthodox churches in Ukraine and Belarus. That claim has now been falsified by the creation of the OCU. So the work of reconstructing a true (and, in the best sense of the term, “usable”) history of Christianity among the Eastern Slavs can now proceed, absent the burden of Muscovite claims to hegemony over all other Orthodox Churches in the Russian near abroad. And that effort, as President Poroshenko indicated last Saturday, will further deconstruct Putin’s geopolitical project of reconstituting something resembling the old USSR, which was premised on a re-creation of the near-abroad Russkiy mir. Those who imagine that religious conviction and passion have little to do with world affairs beyond the bloody borders of jihadist Islam might think again.
The creation of an autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine was not without its difficulties, however, and as the new, unified church looks forward to the grant of the tomos on January 6, those challenges should be noted.
While one understands that Petro Poroshenko, as a faithful son of Orthodoxy, feels considerable satisfaction at the birth of a unified and independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, the large role he played in engineering the drive for the creation of the OCU suggests some future cautions. As an evangelical enterprise, Orthodoxy has been hobbled for centuries by its not infrequent dependence on state power. In the independent Ukraine of the mid and late 21st century, a “national Church” may enjoy some social status as an expression of patriotic sentiment. But it will have no more claim on the religious loyalty of Ukrainians than Catholicism has on the people of rabidly secular Ireland today. Christianity in the 21st century must be proposed and offered; contemporary Christianity does not thrive where the Church depends on old ethnic-national transmission belts, and it never thrives under the heavy hand of state power.
A healthy amount of breathing room between the OCU and the Ukrainian government would therefore seem important if the new, unified church is to get about the task of helping convert a country whose citizenry still bears the scar tissue of Homo sovieticus and whose civic culture was deeply wounded by seven decades of Sovietization. That breathing room will also make a tough job easier: the reconciliation to the new OCU of the Ukrainian parishes whose overseeing bishops did not participate in the Unification Council because of their commitment to the Russian Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow. Handling the situation of these parishes, which today compose about half of the living parishes of Russian Orthodoxy, will be a test of the dexterity of the new OCU. No doubt that test will be complicated by Russian Orthodox machinations supported by the Kremlin; charting a course that both honors religious freedom and challenges spurious Muscovite claims to church properties is going to be difficult. The Ukrainian state can be helpful in these matters, but it ought not have a dominant role beyond maintaining the rule of law (and, of course, defending the country should Putin use intra-church property fights as an excuse for further aggression). It would be ironic, and counterproductive evangelically, if Czar Putin’s relationship to Russian Orthodoxy were mimicked by President Poroshenko. And whoever holds the Ukrainian presidency in the future, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine ought not play the traditional role of the Russian Orthodox Moscow Patriarchate — chaplain to the czar, in whatever guise he appears.
Then there are the intra-Ukrainian and international ecumenical implications of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodoxy.
The drive for unification and autocephaly within Ukrainian Orthodoxy was quietly supported by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, whose leader, Major Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, described the unification project as a matter of righting a historical and cultural wrong and opening up new evangelical and ecumenical possibilities in Ukraine. A unified Orthodoxy in Ukraine, Shevchuk argued, would also eliminate sacramental scandals. None of the previously contending Ukrainian Orthodox churches recognized the others’ baptisms, a theological absurdity that led to pastoral harshness: Ukrainian soldiers who died in defense of their country were too frequently denied Christian funeral rites and burial by one of the divided Ukrainian Orthodox churches if the dead soldier happened to belong to another Orthodox jurisdiction.
Shevchuk’s thoughtful and measured approach to all this was not always appreciated in a Vatican that, for four decades, has bet heavily on Russian Orthodoxy as its chief bridge to the Christian East — a deference rewarded by the Moscow Patriarchate’s ongoing demonization of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church as an “aggressor.” Perhaps Rome will now listen more carefully to its point man on the ground in Ukraine, whose instincts and judgment have once again been vindicated by events; perhaps the Holy See will rethink its Russophilia, which is in serious need of a reset after the Moscow Patriarchate described the drive for Ukrainian Orthodox unity as a Vatican plot; perhaps now Major Archbishop Shevchuk, leader of the largest of the Eastern Catholic churches, will be given the cardinal’s red hat he has thus far been denied. But whatever Rome does, Epiphanius, the new Orthodox metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, should certainly look to his Greek Catholic neighbor for counsel and a wise example. For during and since the Maidan revolution of dignity in Ukraine, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, led by Shevchuk, has been a model of a “public” church that is not a lapdog church or a chaplaincy to state power. The new, unified OCU should study that model very carefully — as should President Poroshenko and other Ukrainian politicians.
The birth of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine also has international ecumenical implications. For a long time, Russian Orthodoxy has claimed to be the “Third Rome,” which implies a tacit hegemony within world Orthodoxy. That claim is based both on demography (Russian Orthodoxy having the largest number of congregants in Eastern Christianity) and on independence from state power (which was a sad joke, for Russian Orthodoxy was arguably more subservient to the Kremlin than the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was to the Turkish government). Now, however, the number of Russian Orthodox faithful will seriously decline because of the establishment of the OCU. And with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew having shown both nerve and skill in guiding the creation of the OCU from a distance, his authority within those parts of world Orthodoxy not under Moscow’s thumb (or on its payroll) will be enhanced.
The shifting templates of world Christianity do not often reshape the surface of world politics in the post-modern world. The creation of the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine may well be an exception. And in any case, it is good news for the future of the Christian cause, and for Christian unity.
— George Weigel is the distinguished senior fellow of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
This article was originally published on National Review Online