05 May 2018


His Holiness Metropolitan Onufriy (Berezovsky) of Kiev

So, here’s my (as usual) not-so-hot take on the entire Ukrainian autocephaly question.

The usual ‘sides’ have formed up, as is to be expected. The post-Maidan Ukrainian government led by Petro Poroshenko, in concert with the two schismatic jurisdictions in the canonical territory of the Ukraine, have made a request to the Œcumenical Patriarchate to grant a tomos of autocephaly for a unified Ukrainian church. Somewhat more troublingly, they have been supported by a statement of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox churches in the Americas, which are under His All-Holiness Œcumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s omophor. On the other side, there is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church led by His Holiness Metropolitan Onufriy of Kiev, which released a statement condemning the request by the government and imploring the Phanar not to act on it. In this, Metropolitan Onufriy was supported by the Synod of Bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia. It’s necessary to note that there are justice concerns involved here from a standpoint of political theology. But these are utterly drenched in various levels of thick theopolitical irony.

I cannot, and don’t intend to, pretend to be a neutral party here. I was chrismated in the Moscow Patriarchate – the sister church of the UOC under Metropolitan Onufriy. And I currently attend a church in the Orthodox Church of America, whose hierarchical standing (but not our canonicity) are currently in question as a result of this same spat between the Œcumenical Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Moscow and All Rus’. More on that later.

As to the question of political theology and justice, the statement from Metropolitan Antoniy of Borispol’ and Brovary (of the UOC) is by far the most straightforward and simply-worded. His objection to the request for a tomos is threefold. Firstly, the ŒP’s actions abrogate the principle of churchly hospitality due to the recognised Orthodox Church by her sister churches. Secondly, his objection to ‘opening parallel structures’ of different local churches on the same canonical territory as a ‘threat to civil peace’ is in fact rooted in the Œcumenical Patriarchate’s own condemnation of the phyletist heresy in 1872. And thirdly, his objection to the civil government’s origination of the tomos request amounts to an objection against cæsaropapism.

These are very strong arguments, and the fact that they are put forward in so admirably elegant and profound a way, does distract a bit from the overall context. After all, it’s not as though the Moscow Patriarchate (for all I dearly love her) hasn’t ignored the demands of churchly hospitality herself on occasion. And although the Moscow Patriarchate has very good historical reasons to be wary of cæsaropapism, there are good historical reasons for those historical reasons! Even as Moscow has produced wondrous paragons of ‘foolish’ self-abnegation, loving service to the needy and profound unworldly wisdom, still she connived to a degree in her own subjection to her calculating and cynical sæcular princes.

The disestablishment of the Patriarchate by decree of Tsar Pyotr I, which had been bestowed upon Saint Iov by Œcumenical Patriarch Jeremias II (Tranos) of Constantinople 132 years prior, actually did break the Church down into a mere bureau of the civil government until it was restored to Patriarch Saint Tikhon in the very throes of the October Revolution. Again, the irony is delicious: it’s only on account of the Russian Holy Synod’s subjection to the civil government – in the person of Chief Procurator Konstantin Pobedonostsev – that she was able to take such a strong stand on behalf of Constantinople against the Bulgarian phyletists in 1872. Only Moscow’s long direct experience of cæsaropapism allows her sister church in Kiev to speak out with such force against it now!

On the other hand, an irony of a far different sort shrouds the pronouncements of the Ukrainian churches abroad. In marked contrast to the perfunctory statement issued by Metropolitan Antoniy, the letter signed by six Ukrainian-American bishops is distinguished by flowery and often breathless language loaded down with references to ‘tortuous subjugation’, ‘foreign’ domination, ‘visible enemies’ (and note the deliberate juxtaposition which likens these ‘foreigners’ to devils!). It rests on a cunning and carefully-selective – far from ‘simple’ – reading of Church history, in which the primary dates of note are the Baptism of the Rus’ in 988, and the dubious incorporation of the Kievan Metropolia into the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1686. This version of Church history can be disputed, but as presented here it is meant to appeal first and foremost to national pride and honour, and secondly to national humiliation and the need for its redress.

It’s actually somewhat uncanny, how accurately the lay Church historian Gyorgi Fedotov managed to tease out and describe the three spiritual-political trends in the Christianity of the Rus’. Unfortunately, thanks to the historical ironies surrounding this intra-Church spat – most of them self-inflicted – too many of us are tempted to dismiss the substantive justice of the Moscow Patriarchate’s claims on the basis of its history of cæsaropapism. Even when MP clerics refuse to take sides in civil conflict, and make reasoned arguments in appeals to hospitality, humanity and political justice, the cynicism of their political past makes them look insincere.

But what about the autocephaly question itself? I hear you ask. As a layperson in the OCA, all I’ve got to say here is: if you’re looking for autocephaly in the Ukraine, take a number and grab a seat.

If there’s a frozen crew, those of us in what used to be the old Metropolia are it. As my coworker Dan P— at St Herman’s says, the older generation of the OCA are basically honkies (and although the way we are is not the way we used to be, my friend – I have zero problem being numbered among them). A ragtag assortment of (half-)Native Alaskans, Russian sailors, Ukrainian homesteaders, Rusin and Serbian miners, Greek freedom fighters and Syrian street pedlars, we weren’t the most respectable bunch.

And then right about 1920 it really started to hit the fan. The Sergianists tried to seize our Church property. Ethnic enclaves in the United States started peeling away – starting with the Ukrainians (1918) and the Greeks (1922). Russian white émigrés, who had been coming over in increasing numbers since 1905, reasserted themselves as ROCOR. Understandably, our hierarchs attempted to assert temporary independence from the Moscow Patriarchate, which resulted in our being held in ‘canonical limbo’. Patriarch Aleksiy I of Moscow issued us a tomos of autocephaly only in 1970 – a tomos which has been recognised only by the Slavic churches (Russia, Bulgaria, Serbia, Czechoslovakia and Poland), plus Georgia. Georgia’s autocephaly, granted by the Church of Antioch, followed a remarkably similar process, so that isn’t particularly surprising. Constantinople still refuses to recognise our tomos, although we remain in communion with them and with the other Orthodox churches.

Again, though, this process remains drenched in various historical ironies. To give one modest example: Georgian autocephaly was abrogated by the Russian Holy Synod after the former’s annexation in 1801, ostensibly for the same reasons that Constantinople rejects ours. But once you get past the various theopolitical sophistries, what it really boils down to is that the Phanar simply doesn’t like even the hint of handing over canonical jurisdiction over the Americas to a bunch of honkies. By their lights, American converts and Carpatho-Rusin immigrants in particular were still barbarians.

All things come to he who waits, though. Historically speaking, it’s never been wise for autocephaly decisions to be made ‘in the heat of the moment’. The Greek reactions to the 1970 tomos make for interesting reading, not least because they haven’t aged well. There were, for example, political suspicions – valid perhaps at the time, but now and in retrospect certainly not so – that the new ‘Orthodox Church in America’ was in fact an attempt to further Soviet influence on the American continent. Our experience may be instructive in this regard. Even so, the Greeks had a point: granting a tomos of autocephaly at the height of Cold War paranoias left many American Orthodox Christians in an untenable position. They would do well to take a leaf from their own book. Today, the situation of civil war in the Ukraine and the high sæcular tensions between the Ukraine and Russia that have resulted, create as much suspicion around talk of autocephaly as the Cold War did 48 years ago.

The fact that this request for autocephaly comes from a sæcular government driven by questionable ideological commitments ought to give anyone pause – not just the bishops of ROCOR. In short: if you believe that Jesus saves (and not the princes and sons of men), get back in line.

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