Church and State in Ukraine and the Power Politics of Orthodox Christianity


On Feb. 3, 2019, the St. Sophia Orthodox cathedral in Kiev was surrounded by a heavy security detail. Inside, 200 invited guests witnessed the ceremonial enthronement of Epiphanius Dumenko as head of the recently formed Orthodox Church of Ukraine (with the title of metropolitan of Kiev and all Ukraine). The cathedral square was empty of people, a stark contrast to the mass crowds that had gathered to celebrate the creation of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine just this past December.

On Google, the search words “Epiphanius enthronement” bring up a spate of poorly translated English-language articles from both Russian and Ukrainian sources. Globally visible media, of the CNN and BBC variety, are missing from the conversation. This is a strong contrast to the journalistic feeding frenzy that accompanied the church’s creation two months ago. One might be tempted to think of Epiphanius’s enthronement as a non-event, so little interest did it apparently generate from both the Ukrainian public and the international journalistic community.

Except a non-event is, of course, an event of its own special kind. It can tell us much about the problematic nature of sweeping predictions and of hitching one’s interpretation of the world to black and white, teleologically coherent narratives. More specifically in this case, the way in which the ecclesiastical crisis currently gripping Ukrainian Orthodoxy made global headlines this past fall should serve as a cautionary tale about the dangers of misinterpretation and hyperbole feeding into an increasingly hysterical “New Cold War” narrative.

As this is a follow-up to an article that appeared in these pages — which describes in detail the stakes and players in the Ukrainian ecclesiastical crisis — I will only briefly summarize the basic facts of the situation here before teasing out their implications. To make a convoluted and long story short, as of 2018, Ukrainian Orthodox believers could attend services at churches belonging to three distinct Orthodox jurisdictions. One was the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, so-named to reflect its acknowledgment of the patriarch of Moscow as its spiritual head, and which in practice enjoyed independence from Moscow in its internal affairs, befitting its status as an “autonomous” (to use Orthodox ecclesiological terminology) church within the larger Local Orthodox Church of Russia. The other two, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, had both broken from Moscow (and each other) and visibly incorporated elements of anti-Russian Ukrainian nationalism into their respective raisons d’être. All three, at least until the annexation of Crimea by Russia and the military conflict in the Donbas and Luhansk regions, operated within a legal system that clearly separated church and state and did not privilege any of the churches while maintaining cordial working relations with all of them.

Of the three, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate benefited from its connection to Moscow in a distinctive way: By recognizing the patriarch of Moscow as its head, this Ukrainian church ensured its own canonical status in the larger, global Orthodox communion. In other words, prior to 2018, the heads of all the other major so-called Local Orthodox Churches (of which there are either 14 or 15, depending on how one looks at it) recognized the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate as the legitimate Orthodox church of Ukraine, refusing to welcome the other two jurisdictions into the canonical fold.

As the relationship between Ukraine and Russia deteriorated in the wake of the unfortunate events of 2014, so too did the relationship between church and state in Ukraine begin to change. For reasons of political expediency — calculations of the electoral type, but also perhaps a genuine desire to consolidate the Ukrainian nation around a religious organization not tied, even if only by spiritual bonds, to the “northern aggressor” — President Petro Poroshenko made clear his desire for Ukraine to have one, and only one, independent (in Orthodox terminology, “autocephalous”) Orthodox church. Into the breach stepped Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who in December of 2018 offered a helping hand by proposing to issue a “Tomos of Autocephaly,” a document that would grant a putative Ukrainian Orthodox church canonical recognition by the senior-most Orthodox cleric in the world.

What happened next, however, was not the creation of an independent, canonical Orthodox church in Ukraine, pace most Western media covering the topic. Rather, since December 2018, Ukraine has two Orthodox jurisdictions instead of three. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church put their differences on ice and merged into one church — the Orthodox Church of Ukraine now headed by Epiphanius — while the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate refused to participate in a unification process shepherded by Constantinople and the Poroshenko government (the new church received the Tomos from Patriarch Bartholomew on Jan. 6, 2019). More problematically, in terms of the new church’s canonical recognition by the rest of the Orthodox communion, Epiphanius’s enthronement was attended by only one high-ranking representative from a Local Church — Metropolitan Emmanuel of Gaul, of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Most of the other Local Churches have, so far, either vocally or quietly voiced their support for the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Onuphrios of Kiev. Tellingly, Patriarch Theophilus of Jerusalem — the head of the historically oldest Local Church — refused to meet with Poroshenko when the latter visited Jerusalem in January, while demonstratively receiving a group of pilgrims from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate the next day. For some of the Local Churches, such as the Patriarchate of Serbia, support for Onuphrios is clearly motivated by the fear that Constantinople would eventually decide to offer autocephaly to other groups seeking to break off from their own respective Orthodox churches. The one exception has been the Orthodox Church of Georgia, which, given that country’s own recent history with Russian invasion, could be reasonably expected to support those Ukrainians seeking to shed ties with the Russian Orthodox Church. Even here, however, the Georgian bishops have announced that their faithful are so divided on the subject of whether or not to recognize Epiphanius’s church as canonical that the Georgian church simply cannot, at this time, decide one way or another.

A related prediction has also failed to materialize: After Patriarch Bartholomew announced his intention of granting a Tomos to Ukraine in September 2018, the Russian Orthodox Church reacted by cutting off all relations with the Church of Constantinople. Media headlines trumpeted this as the biggest split in global Christendom since the Great Schism of 1054, which, of course, was the breaking apart of Christianity into the Catholic West and Orthodox East. The world’s Orthodox Christians, we were told, would be expected to pick sides between the patriarchs of Moscow and Constantinople, perhaps irrevocably destroying even the idea of inter-Orthodox unity. In reality, however, no such division has occurred — at least not yet.

Instead, the other Local Orthodox Churches have so far responded by either saying nothing at all or by calling for a pan-Orthodox council that would resolve the question of Ukrainian autocephaly in a way that would be acceptable to all the parties involved (pending such a resolution, as mentioned above, these same Local Churches continue to extend canonical recognition to the Ukrainian Church headed by Metropolitan Onuphrios). A few days before Epiphanius’s enthronement, high-ranking representatives of 11 of the Local Churches (i.e., the vast majority) gathered in Moscow to celebrate the tenth anniversary of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow’s own ascension to the patriarchal throne. No censure followed from Bartholomew of Constantinople (who did not attend or send representatives). Similarly, there have been no calls by Moscow for the other Local Churches to break off relations with Bartholomew. In other words, yes, the two most important Orthodox Churches in the world have had a major falling out, but no, this has not resulted in the split of global Orthodox Christianity into two warring camps. The others have, it seems, simply decided to let the “big boys” fight it out.

So much for the predictions regarding global Orthodoxy. In terms of Ukraine, the perceived wisdom of the pundits last December told observers to expect two things: first, a mass voluntary transfer of believers from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate to the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine and, second, a concerted effort by the Russian government to stop it, perhaps even through military invasion. On the day the Tomos was granted, a journalist from a highly respected Western news organization asked me if I thought Russian President Vladimir Putin would invade. Obviously, no such thing has happened, despite the temptation to paint the Kerch Straits incident as an attempt by Moscow to stop Ukrainian autocephaly. Nor is it likely to in the future. As the internal Ukrainian religious situation stabilizes, I predict that the issue will recede far down on the Russian government’s list of “things to do.” Having gained exactly nothing through its interference in the Donbas, a region presumably strong in pro-Russian sentiment, it is more than unlikely that at this juncture Moscow is contemplating a march on Kiev, even with the tempting excuse of defending Orthodox Christianity. Any statements emanating from the Putin regime condemning the granting of autocephaly by Constantinople may reasonably be regarded as expressions of ire for domestic consumption, with no plans to do anything about changing the realities on the ground.

When it comes to the voluntary integration of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate into the new, government-favored Orthodox Church of Ukraine, this too, so far at least, has not occurred. Of the 90 bishops who, prior to December 2018, recognized Metropolitan Onuphrios as their head, only two have so far joined Epiphanius. Of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate’s approximately 12,000 parishes, a hundred or so have chosen to switch camps, a symbolic loss for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate to be sure but, in terms of percentages, not hugely significant. Others may follow, but for the moment the vast majority of the canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s clergy and faithful have stayed put.

The fact that they have done so in the face of increasing legal pressures on Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (the Ukrainian parliament has passed discriminatory bills aimed at making it less attractive to belong to a church “with administrative ties to a foreign power”), as well as widely-publicized incidents of intimidation from Ukrainian ultranationalist groups (which have included such unpleasant episodes as physical violence against priests and a few torched church buildings) raises a number of serious questions. So far, the Poroshenko regime and its supporters have attempted to paint the reluctance of Onuphri’s flock to switch sides as caused by “fear of Moscow,” ”pressure from Moscow,” ”loyalty to Putin,” or variations on that theme. One might, perhaps, be tempted to ascribe pro-Russian sentiment to at least some of the clergy and faithful of the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine, but to assume that such sentiments have driven a potentially life-defining choice by millions of believers, thousands of clergy, and 88 bishops seems a stretch.

A more believable driving factor would be the fear of joining a non-canonical jurisdiction, a church that is so far not recognized by any of the Local Churches other than Constantinople. Indeed, it is in fact the case that wide swaths of Ukrainian believers who acknowledge Metropolitan Onuphri as their head would prefer to be independent of Moscow. “Pro-autocephaly” feelings are broadly shared by the clergy and numerous bishops. These same believers and clergy see themselves as Ukrainians and the church they belong to as Ukrainian first and foremost — the designation “Moscow Patriarchate” is an acknowledgment that their canonical status depends, for now, on Moscow and not a reflection of their loyalty to an anti-Ukrainian regime. The Ukrainian government’s failure to understand this has, so far, resulted in an unnecessary and potentially quite tragic deepening of an inter-Orthodox crisis within the country. One can only hope that the failed predictions discussed here might give pause to those tempted to fold future developments on this complicated front into a “New Cold War” narrative.



Irina du Quenoy holds a Ph.D. in Comparative Government from Georgetown University. Her research focuses on religion and politics, with a particular emphasis on the Orthodox Church. She taught at the international relations and European studies department of Central European University from 2008 to 2012, subsequently moving to Beirut, Lebanon. She returned to the United States in 2018, and is the Managing Editor of the Journal of Intelligence and Cyber Security as well as a Research Fellow at the Georgetown University Berkley Center for Religion, Peace and World Affairs.

Image: The Presidential Administration of Ukraine