War and Genocide in the Name of God

Media coverage of Russia's war on Ukraine tends to conclude that Putin is trying to cement his legacy by forcing Ukraine to serve Russia’s geopolitical and economic interests. My research on the conflict among Orthodox Christians on the Ukrainian issue shows that many factors contributed to Russian enmity toward Ukrainians and the decision to invade. What follows takes a closer look at the Russian weaponization of Orthodox divisions in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill’s explanation that the war was being waged to defend Russia from the social threats posed by the West is the first main topic. The rest of the discussion focuses exclusively on Ukraine and how its Orthodox Churches responded to the war. 

A Metaphysical Battle of Good and Evil, Light and Darkness

Patriarch Kirill endorsed Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in sermons delivered from the beginning of the war up until the time of writing. Kirill’s sermons echo the narrative of the Russian Federation by asserting that external forces have assembled to destroy Russia and its civilization. Kirill employs language in his sermons to stir up patriotism—he refers to the need to preserve the unity of the Russian people and to defend the Fatherland. Kirill’s most controversial point is that the war fought on the ground is not only a battle to defend one’s borders, it is also a metaphysical battle of good against evil and darkness versus light.

Cheesefare Sunday and the Triumph of Orthodoxy: Setting the Tone

Kirill established his foundations for justifying Russia’s invasion in two sermons delivered in the early period of the war. He delivered his initial remarks on 6 March 2022, Cheesefare Sunday, which customarily begins Lent for Orthodox Christians worldwide. “Cheesefare” refers to the last day believers are allowed to consume dairy products until Pascha (Easter). The primary theme of the day is not bidding farewell to cheese but forgiveness. The Gospel appointed to the Divine Liturgy is Matthew 6:4–14, where Jesus commands his disciples to forgive sins. Every Orthodox and Byzantine Catholic community begins Lent with vespers later on Sunday (evening service). Vespers includes a solemn rite of forgiveness—each participant greets the other people present, one at a time, asks for forgiveness, and bows down before them in a gesture of humility. The theme is to begin the season of Lent with peace.

In his sermon on Cheesefare Sunday, Kirill plunged into the justification for the war by going straight to its most contested space—Donbas. He complained that the real war taking place in Donbas was one of values and accused the Ukrainian state of fighting for false freedoms by defending the civil rights of the LGBTQ community to hold a gay parade. Kirill proceeded to condemn same-sex relationships as sinful on the basis of the Bible and declared that an attempt to argue that this sin does not violate God’s law is the beginning of the end of human civilization. The Russian patriarch’s words were neither random nor haphazard on the eve of the Lenten fast. He emphasized gay parades to illuminate his and the ROC’s [Russian Orthodox Church] opinion on what sin really is.

Kirill then turned his attention to justifying Russia’s attack on Ukraine. He complained that the people of Donbas had suffered for eight years and that the world remained silent in that time. Next, he attempted to connect the suffering of the people of Donbas with Christ’s command to forgive on Cheesefare Sunday. The patriarch stated that forgiveness could not be separated from justice—such a separation would amount to “capitulation and weakness.” He argued that forgiveness had to be on the right side—the side of light, the justice of God, the divine commandments, and the revelation of Christ himself.

Kirill’s justification of the war depends upon the next part of his sermon, where he elaborates that the struggle is not only physical but metaphysical. Those who are fighting on the ground are the defenders of God’s law, the ones who promote holiness and refuse to confuse or mix it with sin. The message is quite simple. Kirill was attempting to establish that the war on the ground was a battle to defend Christian truth. In other words, he has been implying that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a holy war.

Round 2: The War as a Triumph of Orthodoxy

Kirill continued to justify the invasion of Ukraine by connecting it to the commemoration of the first Sunday of Lent—the Triumph of Orthodoxy. The Triumph of Orthodoxy remembers the final Orthodox victory over iconoclasm in the year 843. It is a story about bishops, monks, and emperors that fall into apostasy and destroy the holy images and of those that defend the practice of venerating icons. The word “triumph” itself is suggestive—there are winners and losers, those on the right and wrong sides.

Kirill began his sermon by discussing the sacrifices saints made to defend the faith, often suffering torture and humiliation, and, in many cases, death and martyrdom. He suggested that one must be ready to sacrifice everything for the sake of defending the Orthodox faith. After reviewing the violent and sacrilegious acts committed by iconoclasts, Kirill suggested that the world is witnessing another example of state violence against and persecution of the Church, this time in Ukraine. He identified the persecution of the UOC-MP [Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate] in particular, arguing that the persecutors mock UOC-MP believers as from the “Church of the Occupiers” and try to force them to attend another Church, presumably the OCU [Orthodox Church of Ukraine]. The patriarch intensified his polemic when he claimed that the Church has a right to resist state interference in internal Church affairs, and then compared the Ukrainian government with Jewish authorities through a reference to the Gospel of John 19:38 (“for the fear of the Jews”). This declaration came off as thoroughly anti-Semitic, as President Volodymyr Zelensky of Ukraine is Jewish.

Kirill’s sermon ended with an insightful section. He prayed for the unity of the Russian Church in general and for the UOC-MP and Metropolitan Onufry in particular. Kirill then clarified what he means by Russians: all of the people of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus. He repeats, the three nations are one people of faith united in one Church. Kirill’s appeal for Church unity revealed his greatest fear—losing the Orthodox Christians that had remained a part of the ROC in Ukraine. The foundational myth of the Russkii Mir doctrine—the eternal and fraternal unity of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus—was the basis of his appeal, designed for two audiences: the leaders of the UOC-MP and the upper echelon of the Russian Federation.

Patriarch Kirill’s bestowal of the icon of Our Lady of Augustow to General Zolotov, the head of the Russian National Guard, at the end of the rite of the Triumph of Orthodoxy was probably the most powerful gesture that conveyed the spirit of the justification of the invasion. Our Lady of Augustow was a wonderworking icon that reportedly protected Russian soldiers during World War I. Zolotov expressed confidence that the Mother of God would bring victory to Russia over the “Nazis” in his remarks to the people gathered for the rite of Orthodoxy in Christ the Savior Cathedral in Moscow. The handing over of this historical icon was an act of weaponizing Christian relics in the name of violence. In other words, by giving the icon to the general, Kirill was suggesting that Mary, too, supports Russia’s war on Ukraine.

In his sermon on Sunday, September 25, 2022, Kirill described the war as an “internecine” conflict and prayed that it would end soon. His claim that God forgives the sins of soldiers who die in the line of duty drew international attention and criticism. The public comment was clearly designed to reassure the Russian public that the invasion of Ukraine was just.

These three sermons delivered by Patriarch Kirill are the primary cornerstones of his position on the war. He depicted Ukraine as the battlefield in which a spiritual war for truth and fidelity to the gospel was being waged. He asserted that the Ukrainian government was using force to impose external values on the people of three nations—Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus—and used historical instances of defending the Orthodox faith as inspiration for defeating a radical state. He continued to justify the invasion seven months after it began by reassuring the ROC’s faithful that the sins of soldiers were forgiven because of their fidelity to their oaths.

Kirill’s comparison of the pressure placed on the UOC-MP with the travails endured by Christians during the iconoclastic crisis is one of the most important themes threaded through the ROC’s metanarrative on the war in Ukraine. Kirill consistently identified the ROC as the victim of external aggression, in this case suffering from the pressures imposed by the Ukrainian government. His argument resembled that of the Russian Federation, that the United States and NATO are threatening Russian security through Ukraine.

The explicit mentioning of the persecution of the UOC-MP is what Kirill used to justify the war. Ironically, in his attempt to claim that others threaten the unity of the Russian Church by opposing the UOC-MP, he dismantled the final ecclesial foundation the ROC had in Ukraine when the UOC-MP took its first step away from the ROC in May 2022.

Patriarch Kirill’s statements validated the Russian aggression in Ukraine that escalated with the beginning of the full-scale invasion in February 2022. The ideas of Europe threatening Russian security, the notion of the unity of three nations in one Church organization, and the mission of Russia defending itself from external threats while simultaneously saving the West existed before the launch of the invasion. Patriarch Kirill’s sermons during the course of the war did not introduce any particularly new ideas or insights into the ROC’s core beliefs. His sermons and public statements confirmed two important realities. First, the leadership of the ROC, along with much of its rank and file, believed the aforementioned narratives on the unity of the people and Russia’s destiny to defend Christianity. Second, the defense of the invasion and the promulgation of the metanarratives demonstrated the loyalty of Kirill and the leadership of the ROC to the Kremlin’s war on Ukraine.

The OCU and the War: Political Theology and Solidarity with the Ukrainian People

The OCU’s response to Russia’s invasion has been assertive. They shared a common Ukrainian perspective on Russia’s invasion: the only new thing the war introduced was a major escalation in violence and atrocities. The war did not begin in February 2022—it started in 2014 when Russia invaded Crimea and assisted the separatists in Donbas. The OCU’s messages to the Ukrainian people include expressions of solidarity, harsh condemnation of Russian aggression, appeals for the removal of Patriarch Kirill from his office, and, above all—an urgent plea for unity to the UOC-MP.

Consistent Care for Ukrainian Armed Forces

The OCU constructed a political theology during the course of the war, one that is likely a work in progress at the time of this writing. Its appeals and declarations also address practical pastoral matters by answering questions about the kinds of services that can be held in war environments.

In his sermon on Cheesefare Sunday, Metropolitan Epifaniy of the OCU addressed the question of how it would be possible to forgive during the conditions of war. He stated that it is necessary to achieve victory over the aggressor (Russia) and turned to the conditions that had begun to afflict Ukraine as Russian missiles struck, including the feasibility of dietary fasting. Epifaniy blessed the people to modify the dietary fast as they navigated the conditions of the war. He also addressed the traditional Orthodox liturgical services of Lent—the entire season is rather rigorous, with services held in many parishes on most or all days. Epifaniy blessed parish clergy to modify services and laity to confess their sins privately in the event that war would prevent them from observing the customary liturgical rhythm.

Epifaniy consistently threaded the message of victory and peace throughout his sermons. He called upon the people to pray for a military triumph. He developed these themes further in the sermon offered at the rite of forgiveness later in the day on Cheesefare Sunday. He reflected on the meaning of Lent and the Paschal feast and identified the season as both Christ’s suffering and the people’s co-suffering with Christ. Epifaniy described the nature of Christ’s suffering as blameless. Christ did not do anything to provoke the suffering inflicted upon him. He told the people that they, too, were blameless in their suffering, stating that Ukraine had no ill will toward Russia. He described the path of Lent as one of seeking the victory of truth, good, and light. In this manner, he illustrated Christ’s solidarity with the Ukrainian people; they are co-suffering together, and they would be glorified as victors just as Christ was glorified in his resurrection.

On March 7, 2022, the OCU’s holy synod instructed the faithful to observe Lent to the best of their ability, reassuring clergy that abbreviating services for the sake of serving one’s neighbor is faithful to God’s commandment. The synod instructed the people to pray for the armed forces and to do everything necessary to defend their country.

Defeating a Mighty Opponent

Metropolitan Epifaniy continued to develop a robust political theology in his sermon on the Triumph of Orthodoxy. He preached on the figures mentioned by the letter to the Hebrews, with special emphasis on Moses, Gideon, and David. He developed the theme of overcoming an enemy who is mightier than any other and instructed people to look to Moses, who defeated Pharaoh and liberated the people from slavery through faith. Gideon’s victory was also improbable—he defeated the Midianites with a mere three hundred. David, of course, slew Goliath, the last examples of three improbable victories over a mighty foe made possible through faith. Epifaniy explicitly connected the extraordinary feats of these prophets, kings, and heroes of the Old Testament, victories achieved only through faith in God, with the Ukrainian response to Russia’s assault on Ukraine.

Epifaniy added a wrinkle to his sermon of liberation theology on the Sunday of Orthodoxy. He announced the necessity of replacing the traditional rite of Orthodoxy—an intense service that celebrated the heroes of the faith while condemning the traitors—with a service of thanksgiving (moleben’) for Ukrainian soldiers and the entire nation for its protection in the face of Russia’s war. Epifaniy asserted that the battle against sin and injustice was the priority, one that warranted a replacement of the traditional rites.

Epifaniy’s sermon on the Sunday of Orthodoxy provides a glimpse into the OCU’s public appeal to the Ukrainian people. The OCU used the occasion of the notion of a triumph of Orthodoxy to express solidarity with a people confronting an ominous opponent. Epifaniy’s references to Moses, Gideon, and David were designed to inspire the Ukrainian people to believe that faith in God can lead to victory. The stakes are not limited to the battle, though. Ultimately, the purpose of defeating the mighty foe is to eradicate the legacy of Russian colonialism in Ukraine.

An Urgent Appeal: The War and Achieving Orthodox Unity in Ukraine

The OCU on the UOC-MP

Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, complete with missiles and accusations of genocidal atrocities, changed the calculus for the OCU. They used everything at their disposal to place maximal pressure on the UOC-MP and bring them to the negotiating table. At the OCU synodal meeting of March 21, the bishops appealed to the UOC-MP to lay aside all differences for the sake of unity. The bishops proposed that “hierarchs, clergy, monasteries, and religious communities” of the UOC-MP should examine the OCU’s tomos of autocephaly again and “enter into canonical unity with the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.” The proposal included a soft landing for UOC-MP communities taking the step of uniting with the OCU; eparchies of the UOC-MP that make such a decision would remain as they were previously. In other words, UOC-MP structures would not simply be absorbed by the OCU. This line was designed to function as an olive branch for the UOC-MP, a gesture indicating equality were the two Churches to unite.

The OCU issued two statements on the situation of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, with an urgent appeal to unite, aimed for the broad audience of the general public. The Synodal Statement of May 16 began with a complaint— the OCU synod criticized the UOC-MP for continuing its media campaign to discredit the OCU during the war. The OCU accused the UOC-MP of collaboration and declaring that its leaders supported and disseminated the Russkii Mir ideology throughout Ukraine. The synod described the Russkii Mir as “fascist,” claiming that it was one of the foundations justifying Russia’s attack and had led to the Russian occupation, the killing of Ukrainian citizens, and the attempt to completely destroy Ukraine and erase Ukrainian identity.

As a result, the synod was explicit and unforgiving in its condemnation of the UOC-MP and its role as a vessel of the Russkii Mir. In the statement, they mocked the UOC-MP for its obedience to Patriarch Kirill and humiliated them for receiving national awards from Putin. The most scathing part came when the OCU blatantly accused the UOC-MP of collaborating with Russia at a Churchwide level. They first accused the UOC-MP of refusing to adjudicate collaboration “among its own clergy.” They upbraided the UOCMP for claiming that the OCU contributed to Russian aggression against Ukraine because of the tomos of autocephaly. The synod then claimed that the UOC-MP took no action in response to all the problems and potential solutions; they did not, for example, make a public denunciation of ROC propagandists, respond to the invitation to dialogue with the OCU, or take concrete action to separate from the ROC. The synodal statement ended with an urgent appeal to the bishops, clergy, and faithful who remain in the UOC-MP to free themselves from Russian influence and take concrete action for unity.

The tone of the statement shifted from accusatory to conciliatory. The synod promised the UOC-MP that unity is not absorption and conformity to the interior culture of the OCU. Parishes could continue their traditions and elect to pray in Church Slavonic. Unity would not require a shuffle of pastoral assignments. The most important parts of this conciliatory section are the desire to lay aside the differences of the past for the sake of unity and an emphasis on the legitimacy of the tomos of autocephaly. The two Churches disagreed vehemently on the significance of the OCU’s tomos. The OCU was using the war as an opportunity to renew its argument on the legitimacy of the tomos to both the UOC-MP and the Ukrainian people.

As the war dragged on into the summer of 2022, the OCU convened its council of bishops and made a much more detailed and stronger appeal to the UOC-MP. In his speech to the bishops on May 24, 2022, Epifaniy laid out an appeal and plan for unification in the context of war. Arguing that the OCU was actually larger than the UOC-MP on the basis of sociological surveys, Epifaniy stated that four hundred religious communities, one hundred and twenty clergy, and two monasteries had initiated the process of departing from the UOC-MP and uniting with the OCU. The war, the surveys indicating affiliation with the OCU, and the transfer of communities from the UOC-MP to the OCU were all pretexts for finishing the process voluntarily.

Epifaniy prefaced his framework for a unification process by asserting that the OCU does not support aggression aimed at clergy, faithful, and communities of the UOC-MP. The effect of an actualized unification of the UOC-MP and OCU would be the complete removal of Orthodox Ukrainians from Russian influence, a significant contributor to Ukraine’s defeat of Russia. His speech included the use of sharp tools—he did not spare the UOC-MP from harsh criticism. Epifaniy noted that Russia’s war against Ukraine was and remains hybrid; it is not only a military campaign but is also waged through economics, energy, politics, and the informational sphere. He accused Patriarch Kirill of the ROC of blessing the war and allowing the ROC to become part of the Kremlin’s governmental apparatus. He also noted that the ROC was an instrument of Kremlin propaganda.

Epifaniy went on to explain that he had commemorated Kirill during the Divine Liturgies when he presided, but that Kirill’s blessing of the war necessitated his removal from the OCU’s diptychs. Epifaniy mentioned the 1872 declaration of ethnophyletism as a heresy by the synod in Constantinople. He claimed that the Russkii Mir ideology was a variant of this heresy, that Krill was a co-creator and propagandist of the teaching, and that the Orthodox Church should convene a tribunal against Kirill to hold him accountable for his actions. He concluded his review by referring to the Paschal epistle he sent to the heads of the other Orthodox Churches where he called for a Church tribunal, since “one cannot hold the chalice and the pastoral staff in hands covered with blood.”

Keeping in mind the audience—Epifaniy was explaining the situation of the UOC-MP to the bishops of the OCU—he mentioned the possibility that the UOC-MP would convoke a council that would change its statute and distance itself from the ROC. He also noted that they might try to connect the gathering to the one held in Kharkiv in 1992. These words were either prescient or based on good intelligence, as this event did, indeed, take place, just a few days later.

Epifaniy dismissed the possibility of establishing preconditions for a possible union of the Churches. He claimed that Orthodox people and society in general were waiting for the UOC-MP to take “real steps” toward a separation from the ROC. He framed the rest of his appeal with references to past attempts at dialogue, the validity of the EP’s [Ecumenical Patriarchate] decision to receive the clergy of the UAOC [Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church] and UOC-KP  [Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate] without new ordinations, the uncanonical presence of the ROC in Ukraine, and the fact that the UOC-MP missed a chance for the creation of a canonical autocephalous Church in Ukraine by refusing to participate in the 2018 council.

Epifaniy attempted to correlate the EP’s canonical resolution of the Ukrainian situation to the recent reconciliation between the Church of Serbia and the Ochrid Archbishopric in Northern Macedonia. The Churches had been estranged for fifty-five years, and the Serbs not only recognized the legitimacy of the Ochrid Church but also granted it autocephaly. Epifaniy suggested that such a path remained possible for the UOC-MP and OCU regardless of their differences on canonical order in Ukraine.

OCU—Summary of Positions

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine did not fundamentally change the OCU’s public identity. As a community consisting of generations of believers who had pursued autocephaly since the late Soviet era, the OCU had a legacy of opposing Russian threats to Ukrainian sovereignty and blatant Russian aggression. Official Church statements and correspondence repeatedly stated that Russia started the war with Ukraine in 2014, so that the events of 2022 were a major escalation of a war that had already been waged for eight years. Throughout that time, the OCU defended Ukrainian culture and literature. The major change occurred in 2018–19, when the external intervention of the EP transformed the OCU’s status from a Church of questionable legitimacy into the autocephalous Church of Ukraine.

Refusals to recognize the OCU notwithstanding, the creation of the OCU, an autocephalous Church recognized by other Orthodox Churches, gave the new Church and its leaders a public platform. The OCU built upon the trust attained by the KP with the people during the Maidan Revolution of Dignity in 2014. Some theologians bristled at the attempt of politicians like Poroshenko to exploit the tomos of autocephaly for their personal gain. In 2018–19, the OCU did not waver from making public appearances with Poroshenko. The ROC and UOC-MP used the OCU’s connection to Poroshenko as a key component of their argument that the OCU was nothing more than a political project.

When the war started, the OCU’s investment in political partnerships and their accompanying narratives proved to be valuable capital in addressing the Ukrainian people. They were able to argue that they had warned about Russian aggression and the ideological dangers of the Russkii Mir for over eight years while the UOC-MP had attempted to maintain neutrality in a strict anti-war position. They were also able to refer to the tomos of autocephaly as a true symbol of separation and independence from the ROC and Russian colonialism. The OCU used their position of solidarity with the Ukrainian people and rejection of Russian colonialism to appeal for Church unity before the Ukrainian populace.

The UOC-MP in a Liminal or Grey Space

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine took most of the world by surprise. Perhaps no community was more surprised by the invasion than the UOC-MP. In the days immediately following the attack, bishops, clergy, and entire eparchies responded angrily. The clergy of Volodymyr-Volyn’ demanded that Onufry convoke a council to declare autocephaly. Metropolitan Evlogiy of Sumy—an eparchy close to the Russian border, somewhat remote to proUkrainian sentiments in the Church—condemned the attack and ceased commemorating Kirill during the liturgy.

Officially, the UOC-MP responded clearly but tersely. The UOC-MP issued a brief statement asserting their support for Ukraine’s sovereignty and territorial integrity. The leaders declared war to be a sin, described the invasion as a modern episode of Cain and Abel, and included a clear reference to Russia’s attack on Ukraine. The statement included some equivocation. For example, the leaders called upon both Putin and Zelensky to do everything in their power to stop the war, even though Russia was the aggressor.

One week after the attack, on March 4, Onufry made public statements at a special prayer service for peace in Ukraine. Acknowledging the suffering of the Ukrainian people and referring to the rapidly expanding refugee crisis, Onufry appealed directly to Putin to stop the war. Onufry also called on “the Russian side and the Ukrainian side” to meet at the table of negotiation to resolve all issues. This appeal, made just over one week after the attacks began, sustained equivocation—the text mentions that there are always problems among neighboring countries that can be resolved only through dialogue. Onufry ends his appeal by stating that the unity given by God is the only eternal unity, whereas the agreement created by the sword is temporary and limited.

Cain, Abel, and Repentance

The UOC-MP’s theological message in the early part of the war was somewhat restrained. Onufry used the Bible story where Cain murders Abel to characterize the war. This was an important step for the UOC-MP—a public acknowledgment that Russia is the aggressor and is murdering innocents.

The second theological message concerned the Lenten season. Onufry encouraged the people to pray and fast and to repent of their sins. He did not explicitly connect the need to repent with responsibility for the war, so the absence of nuancing left that potential interpretation open. The third theological theme was the condemnation of war as a sin. At the highest official level, the UOC-MP maintained consistency with its position since 2014—they remained opposed to all war. The fourth matter related to Church discipline. A number of deaneries, eparchies, and individual clergy within the UOC-MP advocated for separation from the ROC and the establishment of autocephaly. While officials publicly referred to the need for a Churchwide discussion of the issue, they also sent clear signals warning of the potential pitfalls of separatism. The public messaging referred to “canonical” processes, a suggestion that advocacy for separation from the ROC could cause great damage to the Church.

The Four Hundred—a Public Appeal for a Church Tribunal to Remove Patriarch Kirill

One can only perform so much damage control in the midst of a crisis. The UOC-MP could not credibly appeal for calm and patience during the course of the war. Clergy were confronting a painful reality on the ground— the complete devastation of people’s lives. Andrii Pinchuk, a priest of the Dnipro Eparchy, composed a long letter to the patriarchs, asking them to convene a Church tribunal to hold Patriarch Kirill accountable for his role in using the Russkii Mir doctrine to justify Russia’s attack on Ukraine. Over four hundred priests affixed their signatures, with many more offering private support because of the threat of reprisal from their bishops. The letter was published by Fordham University’s Public Orthodoxy Forum and disseminated broadly.

This letter represents the opinion of a core group of clergy and faithful within the UOC-MP on the war. The clergy made four specific requests of the leaders of the world’s Orthodox Churches: to condemn Russia’s military campaign in Ukraine, to demand that Russia end the war and return the occupied territories to Ukraine, to evaluate Kirill’s public statements on the war through the lens of Scripture and tradition, and to assess the Russkii Mir doctrine. The last request had a second “lever”—to remove Kirill from office in the event the patriarchs condemned the doctrine.

This open letter is one of the two most important documents of the UOC-MP in the war period (as of this writing). The letter caused a stir among Orthodox because it confirmed internal opposition within the UOC-MP to the ROC. The larger issue was the desire of many clergy and faithful to formally separate from the ROC. The letter clearly stated that refusing to commemorate Kirill during the liturgy was not sufficient. The author declared that it was no longer possible for them to remain “in canonical submission” to the ROC.

If the appeals of the individual eparchies of the UOC-MP to convene a council and declare autocephaly cracked the door open for a separation, the letter opened the door wide. Leaders and observers outside of the UOCMP misunderstood the letter to some degree. It states a desire to depart from the ROC, but it does not mention the OCU at all. The problem was that the appeal to the patriarchs brought the question of the status of the UOC-MP into question. If the UOC-MP was no longer part of the ROC, where did it belong?

The letter caused people throughout the OCU to double down on the urgency for unification. The cohort of people within the UOC-MP who desired separation from the ROC did not, however, respond affirmatively to the appeal for negotiating a new arrangement with the OCU. Pinchuk himself stated that the matter needed to be handled carefully, especially since many rank-and-file members of the UOC-MP had questions about the legitimacy of OCU ordinations because of the canonical sanctions that had been imposed on the UOC-KP and UAOC.

While the letter did not move the UOC-MP’s needle toward the OCU, it did deepen the crack separating the UOC-MP from the ROC. As Kirill continued to justify the war and criticism of Russian aggression remained largely nonexistent, relations between the UOC-MP and the ROC worsened. A handful of important bishops of the UOC-MP maintained their loyalty to Moscow, especially Metropolitan Antony and Metropolitan Pavel. Onufry, however, became estranged from Kirill. Sergei Chapnin reported that they no longer communicated over the phone, and Onufry, bearing the brunt of Ukrainian anger toward Russia for the abject violence unleashed on the people, had to take some kind of concrete action to express solidarity for the people without causing a schism within the UOC-MP.

The UOC-MP’s Council on May 27, 2022

The pivotal moment for the leaders of the UOC-MP took place on May 27, 2022, when the Church convened a council to discuss the response to the war and its relationship to the ROC. This gathering is the second important event in the life of the UOC-MP during the war period. In short, the meeting produced unprecedented changes. The Church expressed its disagreement with Patriarch Kirill about the war, removed all references to the ROC from its statute, affirmed its sovereignty and independence, announced the decision to resume making its own chrism, declared the necessity of dialogue with the OCU, and established conditions for the dialogue. The meeting caused an uproar within the Orthodox community, and the language of the documents produced by the meeting created obstacles for interpretation. The bottom line is that the UOC-MP took a cautious step away from the ROC yet essentially moved into a liminal space that is not easily defined. This move gave the UOC-MP freedom to either pursue canonical autocephaly or to return to the bosom of the ROC.

The UOC-MP’s statement was a public signal to both the ROC and the Ukrainian people. The removal of the ROC from the official statute signaled the UOC-MP’s rejection of Kirill’s support for the war. The message presented to the Ukrainian people was much more important, however. The UOC-MP was trying to present itself as a Church standing in solidarity with the Ukrainian people. In this sense, the most important part of the statement concerned the statute of the UOC-MP. The statement argued that the UOC-MP is actually more independent than the OCU, and that the OCU’s tomos remains an obstacle to unification. The message to the ROC, however, was much less clear. On the one hand, the public statement of disagreement with Kirill and the decision to update the statute constituted a decisive step away from the ROC and toward autocephaly. The language of the statement and the media discussion of the event revealed the UOCMP’s caution.

The UOC-MP avoided technical, canonical language in its wording. The event on May 27 was initially called a meeting (зібрання) and not a council (собор), though the official publishing arm of the UOC changed the title of the event to собор shortly afterward. The Church affirmed its independence through two key words—самостійність and незалежність—but the documents avoid the technical canonical term of autocephaly. The document even avoids the word autonomy. The selection of terms demonstrated the desire of the Church to present its case to the broader Ukrainian public without actually taking a concrete step toward voting on or declaring autocephaly.

The other related clue is the decision of the authors to express their disagreement with Kirill. This falls far short of the condemnations issued by the authors and signatories to Pinchuk’s letter. The UOC-MP did not officially sever communion with the ROC nor did it call for a Church tribunal to hold him accountable. Commentators attempted to decipher the meaning of the decision: Was this a step toward some kind of autocephaly, even if it would be hybrid? It is possible that the UOC-MP intended to occupy the liminal space of de facto independence without de jure autocephaly.

The section on dialogue with the OCU had multiple purposes. On the one hand, it was an important step for the UOC-MP to acknowledge that the war had moved the needle to a point where resuming dialogue was necessary for the sake of the Ukrainian people. On the other, the UOC-MP established its positions on the obstacles to unity. It essentially set conditions on the dispute over the language of the tomos and the sacramental validity of the OCU’s ordinations, the most difficult issue of all. The UOC-MP asserted that the OCU’s statute is actually “not autocephalous” and claimed that its status prohibited the kind of freedom necessary for Church activity.

The UOC-MP’s Future

The May 27 UOC-MP Council elicited immediate analysis from several corners. Sergei Chapnin noted the divisions within the UOC-MP, with several bishops and key figures opposed to separation from the ROC and especially autocephaly. Chapnin’s observation on internal opposition to autocephaly is astute not only because of certain conservative stakeholders but also because of the breadth of the UOC-MP. The Eparchies of Simferopol and portions of Donetsk and Luhansk remained within the UOC-MP despite Russia’s occupation of these regions. After Russia’s invasion began, the Simferopol Eparchy blessed Russian soldiers taking part in the “special military operation.”

The internal opposition in the UOC-MP to autocephaly and complete separation from the ROC made it impossible to create unanimous consensus on taking a more concrete step one way or another. Immediately after the invasion started, some eparchies and clergy called for a council to vote on autocephaly. Let us consider the implications of the desired outcomes of the pro-Ukrainian and pro-Moscow cohorts of the UOC-MP. If the council had adopted autocephaly, both the ROC itself and its agents in the UOC-MP would have immediately declared it to be illegitimate and schismatic. The ROC would have imposed canonical penalties on bishops and clergy who supported autocephaly. This course of action fits the pattern established by the ROC since 1920—to simply remove pro-autocephalist Ukrainians from the Church by deposing them from holy orders and, on occasion, anathematizing them. If the UOC-MP Council decided to change nothing at all, they would risk angering the masses of clergy and laity desiring some kind of meaningful change. The flow of parishes from the UOC-MP to the OCU would continue with no change at all. The decision to create a new liminal space that removes all dependence on the ROC without declaring canonical autocephaly was an ecclesial version of stopping the bleeding.

The UOC-MP and the Liminal Space—How Long?

Stopping the bleeding is a metaphor for avoiding further injury and beginning the healing process. By taking a decisive step away from the ROC, the UOC-MP essentially secured precious time to determine its future. How much time will be needed before the next step should be taken? The bleeding metaphor helps us understand the situation—the UOC-MP needs to heal the source of the bleeding to become whole again. The main source of the Church’s bleeding is its relationship with and dependence upon the ROC.

There are varying opinions on the significance of the UOC-MP’s decisions. Chapnin asserts that the UOC-MP has a few choices. One of them is to essentially remain in this grey space for an indeterminate period of time, just as the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) remained in isolation from the ROC until the reconciliation of 2007. Vladimir Bureha argues that the UOC-MP’s action in revising the statute is consistent with its earlier history and the relationship it had with Moscow since 1990. The key is the new statute given to the UOC-MP in 1990 that declared its sovereignty and independence, a type of autonomy without the official designation. The primary threads of connection to the ROC are communion with global Orthodoxy through the ROC, the confirmation of the election of the metropolitan of Kyiv by the patriarch of Moscow, and the confirmation of UOC-MP statutory changes by Moscow.

Bureha notes that the UOC-MP has made several key decisions without the confirmation of the ROC since 1990, often without public commentary. He adds that the ROC attempted to assert itself in UOC-MP affairs beginning in 2007, so there certainly has been both attention to and tension with the UOC-MP on just how much independence they have in governing their own affairs. The controversial Kharkiv Council of May 1992 is an example. The UOC-MP changed its statute before setting aside Metropolitan Filaret and electing Metropolitan Volodymyr as its new primate. Bureha notes that the statute change was necessary for the election, and that the ROC never confirmed those 1992 changes. He adds that Patriarch Aleksy II implicitly acknowledged the UOC-MP’s right to govern its own affairs.

Bureha’s argument on relative independence is based on his study of patterns—he mentions several examples where the UOC-MP made changes that were ignored by the governing apparatus of the ROC. There are exceptions to these patterns, and Bureha notes them, so one cannot argue that the evidence demonstrates the complete independence of the UOC-MP.

The point is that the UOC-MP took advantage of their relative independence and acted by removing the texts stating its dependence on the ROC. The removal of such passages from the statute gives the appearance of Church independence—autocephaly—without actually declaring it, hence our grey space. The grey space made it impossible for the ROC to take punitive action. The holy synod of the ROC declared that revisions to the UOC-MP’s statute had to take place in accordance with the correct procedure, including the approval of the patriarch of Moscow. The ROC publicly stated its intent to examine the actual statutory changes, but the text was not officially released at the time of the May 27 gathering. Bureha also noted that the proposed statutory changes were based on a document leaked to the public. The ROC could not publish any official reaction on an unofficial document. Any reaction made to the media by the ROC was nothing more than a personal opinion.

The question of the UOC-MP’s future path remains uncertain. Dialogue with the OCU will require multiple years of meetings to find common ground after decades of enmity. Onufry makes public gestures of true independence; for example, he commemorated the primates of the local Churches at the liturgy he served after May 27, a ritual practice reserved for the primates of autocephalous Churches. Such public gestures may be meaningful for people who want to see evidence of a decisive step away from Moscow. The changes are not, however, the final establishment of an autocephalous Church. Bureha observed that the other Orthodox Churches and the ROC are unlikely to recognize the UOC-MP’s new statute until the war is over. I believe that the UOC-MP will be unable to sustain its current position of “not yet.”

As long as Russia continues its war campaign in Ukraine, pressure will build on the entire Church to make a choice, and some eparchies may leave the UOC-MP en masse, to both the OCU and the ROC, if the UOC-MP refuses to leave the liminal space and make a final decision. The current policies of the Ukrainian government are placing severe duress on the UOC-MP, evidenced by the proposed law outlawing the ROC in Ukraine, the SBU investigations to expose and remove collaborators, and the government’s restrictions on the UOC-MP’s use of the Kyiv Pechers’ka Lavra. Clergy and laity within the UOC-MP continue to request firm verification of the Church’s independence from the ROC in interviews and public appeals. The UOC-MP’s leaders continue to take their time.

A recent interview with Bishop Sylvester—the rector of the Kyiv Theological Academy and Seminary—is revealing. Bishop Sylvester attempted to argue that the UOC-MP is truly independent, making references to the new statute throughout the interview. He dismissed the possibility of declaring autocephaly, stating that such a move is a “path to nowhere.” He claimed that the UOC-MP needs the support of the other local Orthodox Churches before taking concrete steps and promised that this was coming in the near future. Synods and bishops can offer next steps at a future date, but Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is straining the people’s confidence in their Church leaders.

The Revised Statute and Its Significance

The revised statute of the UOC-MP has taken on significant meaning in the time that has elapsed since the May 27, 2022, council. UOC-MP spokespeople tend to refer to the statute as granting the UOC-MP greater independence than the OCU, a claim that presumably removes the need for a declaration of autocephaly. Members of this Church body have used public forums to ask Church leaders to verify the new position of the Church in terms of its relationship with the ROC and the rest of global Orthodoxy. Olena Bogdan and Oleksander Tkachenko asked Metropolitan Onufry to deliver the revised statute to the state service for ethnopolitics and freedom of conscience. Last, the fine detail of the statute could potentially clarify the degree of independence the UOC-MP was claiming for itself. The revised statute has always been the primary source for responding to the requests for clarification on the UOC-MP’s status, but the leaders of the Church never made it public. The statute became public when religious scholar Andrii Smyrnov published it on his Facebook page.

The main changes to the statute concern its removal of references to the ROC and the patriarch of Moscow. The administration and governance of the UOC-MP in adherence to the statute would be independent, because there are no clear dependencies on the ROC or participation in its life. The revised statute refers to the hramota of Patriarch Alexy II in 1990 as the authoritative document guaranteeing the independence of the UOCMP. The limits of independence are subject to the interpretation of the hramota and the meaning of the words used to define independence in the statute—namely самостійною and незалежною. The statute uses terms loosely affiliated with the concept of autonomy in Orthodox jurisprudence. Varying interpretations of the statute could become problematic within the UOC-MP and among other Orthodox at any point in time. All Orthodox understand autocephaly as the technical term denoting complete independence, regardless of differences in the minutiae of the statutes of this or that local Orthodox Church. The absence of autocephaly as a canonical term denoting complete independence could permit bishops of the UOC-MP or of other Orthodox Churches to challenge its actual self-governance.

The real change concerns the removal of most of the references to the ROC in the document. On the one hand, the removal was both a gesture of withdrawal and disapproval and also an attempt to dare the ROC into challenging the UOC-MP. On the other hand, the decision to revise a statute by removing references without introducing strong language of self-assertion (autocephaly) was cautious and possibly an internal compromise. It would be easy enough to restore the dependencies in the next iteration of the statute. The UOC-MP’s reluctance to make the revised statute public and the cautious maneuver of simply removing dependencies reveal the Church’s willingness to take only modest steps of separation from the ROC. Government agencies and some members of the clergy and laity have caught on to the UOC-MP’s cautious approach and are calling upon the leaders to take more concrete and permanent steps of separation and independence.

In summary, then, the May 27 council of the UOC-MP was significant because it marked the largest gesture of departure from the ROC. The UOC-MP left the door open for any possibility—either complete autocephaly, a merger with the OCU, or a return to the ROC. The situation can be described only as precarious. It is likely that the outcomes of the war on the ground will push the UOC-MP into making a more permanent change. Until that time arrives, the UOC-MP might be content to remain within the proverbial grey space. The Ukrainian government’s investigation of the UOC-MP is likely to hasten the process of a firmer decision.

EDITORIAL NOTE: This essay is excerpted from The Church's Unholy War, used by permission of Wipf and Stock Publishers, www.wipfandstock.com, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Featured Image: Photo by The Presidential Press and Information Office, Patriarch Kirill at 2023 Moscow Victory Day Parade; Source: Wikimedia Commons, CC BY 4.0.


Nicholas Denysenko

Nicholas Denysenko is Emil and Elfriede Jochum Professor and Chair at Valparaiso University. He is the author of The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation.

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