An independent Church in Ukraine: peace-maker or warmonger?

ZOiS Spotlight 31/2018 by Regina Elsner (19 September 2018)

Saint Sophia Cathedral in Kiev, Ukraine. © OlegMit / Alamy Stock Foto

A “declaration of war” was how several representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church, on 8 September 2018, described the decision of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to appoint two exarchs to Ukraine as part of its preparations to grant autocephaly – independence – to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev), Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations in Moscow, called it a “mean and perfidious” step. Since then, the media have been full of warnings of a religious war, a breakdown of inter-church relations, and conspiracy theories involving political string-pullers from the US and Russia.

In April 2018, Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko reiterated his request to the Patriarch of Constantinople to grant autocephaly to a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church, arguing that this was necessary to strengthen unity and peace within Ukrainian society. In May 2018, the bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which falls under the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate but is vested with rights of wide autonomy, expressed support for continued efforts to achieve unification of the Orthodox churches in Ukraine. At the same time, however, they counselled against autocephaly, on the grounds that this would simply lead to further divisions.

In the Ukrainian autocephaly debate, peace and unity, on the one hand, and war and unavoidable schisms, on the other, tend to be mentioned in the same breath. This is about power, political influence over the churches, and a tug-of-war between Moscow and Constantinople. Nowadays, there is barely any mention of the original purpose of the autocephaly process: the longing of Ukrainian Orthodox believers for a united and independent church in ecclesial union with world Orthodoxy.

Flagrant entanglement of politics and Church

As the theologian George Demacopoulos observed back in 2015, we cannot overstate the destructive effect of the rise of national – autocephalous – churches for the cause of Christian unity. The desire for national churches, the belief that every new or restored nation-state has a right to its own independent church, is an open door to nationalist sentiment, even if this was not part of the original plan. If Ukrainian Orthodox believers wish to avoid the seductive power of nationalism, they should do their utmost to boost their autocephaly ambitions’ immunity to this type of misuse. Since the latest attempt to achieve autocephaly was initiated by the Ukrainian President himself against the backdrop of the war with Russia, this is likely to be extremely difficult. The narrative of Ukrainian autocephaly is so deeply entwined with national identity that the matter of confessional identity – in other words, the commonalities with the Moscow Patriarchate – is rarely given a hearing.

Throughout history, efforts to achieve autocephaly were never just an internal matter for the churches but were always linked to a desire to align – or realign – national borders to political interests. Even so, the entanglement of Church and politics in Ukraine is particularly flagrant. Parallels with the political arena, in which Ukraine has at times been treated purely as a bargaining chip by the major powers with an eye to their own geopolitical interests, are obvious. Are the Church leaders in fact capable of pursuing a pathway to independence that serves the interests of the faithful?

In that sense, and notwithstanding all the provisos of canon law, the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s decision to appoint plenipotentiaries can be seen as a hopeful sign: it means that the shaping of the Church has reverted to Ukraine itself, at least for now. In view of the belligerent rhetoric from Moscow, however, the prospect of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church genuinely becoming an instrument for social peace seems remote.

Opportunities and risks

Based on the four main categories of peace ethics – law, justice, violence and power – some of the risks and opportunities arising in the further process can be identified.

Law: In terms of canon law, no specific rules governing the autocephaly process currently exist in world Orthodoxy. Nor is there any prospect of Moscow and Constantinople resolving their power struggle. However, compliance with Ukrainian secular law on religion will play a key role in ensuring that the pathway towards the Church’s new configuration is a peaceful one. Secular law guarantees every citizen of Ukraine the freedom to choose whether to join, establish or leave a religious organisation. And Church property, for its part, can only be protected from radical excesses if the legal institutions defend existing independent ownership rights and takes firm action against violence.

Justice: The search for historical justice is seen as one of the causes of the ecclesial conflict in Ukraine. If justice is to be the key to a peaceful solution, an academically robust appraisal of historical and canonical processes is required, but even more a dialogue about (possibly differing) truths and reconciliation. In the interests of participatory justice, not only should Church leaders talk to one another, but as many believers as possible from the various churches must be actively involved in this process. It is noteworthy that a few weeks ago, the Open Orthodoxy Network called for this type of open dialogue on the future of Ukrainian Orthodoxy. If the exarchs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople are willing or able to position themselves as moderators of dialogue, this will undoubtedly smooth the way towards a peaceful solution.

Violence: The multidimensionality of violence – physical, structural and symbolic – is exemplified by the dispute over the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. In that sense, the increasingly inflammatory rhetoric emanating from the official statements is especially problematical. By their failure to unequivocally disown acts of violence perpetrated in the name of Orthodoxy in recent years, Russian Orthodox Church leaders have inflicted more damage than their rhetoric of the Gospel message of peace can dispel. The next critical step, however, is how the Orthodox Church deals with the issue of its own structures of violence: its strict hierarchies, lack of transparency in decision-making, and clericalism.

Power: Ukraine’s historically evolved plurality of religions means that it is difficult to speak of – or instrumentalise – one single “predominant” Church. This plurality appears to offer the best prospect of a peaceful future for Ukraine’s Orthodox churches. It gives them the freedom they need to embrace not nationalist ideas but people. As the prerequisite, however, the existing and future churches must oppose preferential treatment and stand firm against the associated tactical use of religion by political elites for their own ends. The often-repeated slogan that the churches’ authority is not of this world can help to guarantee their independence from politics, provided that this doctrine is not ignored in practice.

Overall, it is clear that autocephaly is a double-edged sword in times of conflict and is highly unlikely to deliver the peace-making effect on society that Petro Poroshenko and many others are hoping for. The future of Ukraine’s Orthodox churches will mainly depend on how actively and freely the faithful in Ukraine can participate in their churches’ development, even if the power struggle among leaders escalates.


Regina Elsner is a research associate at ZOiS. Her current research project deals with the socio-ethical discourse of the Russian Orthodox Church between theological sovereignty and political adaptation.