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Analysis & Opinion
15.07.11 Brotherly Love
By Andrei Zolotov, Jr.

The latest meeting of the top Council of the Moscow-aligned Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) produced little tangible result, but nonetheless stirred deep passions among believers and underscored rising tensions along the spiritual frontier between Orthodox and Western Christianity.

KIEV, Ukraine/On the eve of the Council meeting, rumors circulated that the 75-year-old head of the UOC, Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev and All Ukraine, would retire, with his ambitious young secretary Archbishop Alexander (Drabinko) of Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky and Vishenyovoe poised to take over. In the last few days Kiev has witnessed numerous celebrations of Metropolitan Vladimir’s 45th year as a bishop, and he received a Hero of Ukraine award from President Victor Yanukovich. Metropolitan Vladimir’s personal authority has ensured that his church enjoys a good deal of independence from both the Ukrainian government and Moscow, and has helped keep the peace among various interest groups within his Church. But he is visibly frail.

The tension surrounding his successor was heightened by the fact that behind any church-related discussion in Ukraine looms the politically and emotionally loaded issue of relations with Moscow and the schism in Ukrainian Orthodoxy itself. The UOC’s decision to hold its own Council reinforced its autonomy, with Moscow church officials reportedly only finding out about the meeting on the Internet.

With Moscow or Against Moscow?

“The reason for a lot of the worry is that the majority of members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate refuse to accept the idea that they should be torn off from the Mother Russian Church,” said Archbishop Ionafan of Tulchin and Braclav. “A group of clerics and laymen within the church has been trying to push this issue for 20 years now, and people feel like they are living on a volcano.”

Finding a majority view in these church debates is tough. And rightly so, because church tradition insists that matters of principle should be decided not by a majority, but through either a revelation of the truth or by consensus.

But there are clearly opposing schools of thought within the Ukrainian Orthodox community on unity with Moscow. The pro-autocephalous movement, which emerged in Ukraine in the early 20th century, was reborn in the late 1980s and early 1990s and led to the appearance of two church structures which remain unrecognized by the International Orthodox Christian community: the Kiev Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church. Together, these churches account for about 4,000 parishes, or at least one quarter of all Orthodox communities in Ukraine. For Ukrainian nation builders, having their own church, which is not linked to Moscow, is one of the main symbols of national independence. Creating “a unified local Ukrainian Church” was an unfulfilled idee fixe of the former President Victor Yushchenko. As for the current President Victor Yanukovich, there were some expectations in the beginning of his term that he would favor the UOC – the Church he is a member of and with whom his Party of the Regions has extensive ties in Eastern Ukraine. But quite soon his religious policy became much more balanced.

Last but not least, the recent election of the young and well-educated Supreme Archbishop Svyatoslav (Shevchuk) as the new head of the third largest Ukrainian religious institution, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, is a major challenge to the fragmented Orthodox Christians in the country. The largest branch of Byzantine-rite Catholicism, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, considers itself to be the heir to Prince Vladimir’s Kiev baptism in 988 and has a great deal of public authority in the country.

Self-Rule and Autonomy

The UOC received the status of “self-rule with the rights of broad autonomy” in 1990. This means that it installs its own bishops and elects a primate, who has almost all the prerogatives and regalia of the head of an independent church. It has its own Synod and can convene its own Councils, but remains part of the framework of the Moscow Patriarchate. But this position has been somewhat shaken recently. Unlike his predecessor, Patriarch Kirill has launched an active Ukraine policy. He visits the country several times a year and is strongly promoting his concept of “Russky Mir” (Russian World) – the unity of people that comprised the former Russian Empire under the aegis of the Russian Orthodox Church. Without questioning the autonomy of the UOC, he has declared himself much more than its figurehead. At the same time, some UOC members and hierarchs have begun to speak about the need to return to the Soviet-era system of running the Church in Ukraine.

“Over the past 20 years, people in the UOC got the impression that they decide themselves what to do,” said the Secretary of the Synod of the unrecognized Kiev Patriarchate Bishop Yevstraty (Zorya). “Now this is coming up against the personality of Patriarch Kirill, who is a centralizer in character. Metropolitan Vladimir and the UOC have for over one and a half decades tried to create an image of a Ukrainian Church, not a Russian Church in Ukraine. Patriarch Kirill has leveled all this work,” he said.

The Russky Mir concept has been largely rejected in Ukraine, including in the UOC. “We cannot call upon people to return from the schism into the canonical Ukrainian Church, while at the same time call on them to enter the Russian world – that’s nonsense,” said a high level UOC representative, who wished to remain anonymous.

The Council Intrigue

It was in this context that the reportedly weakening health of Metropolitan Vladimir unleashed a chain of actions both real and rumored. On June 14, the UOC Synod decided to expand its membership from seven to ten people. This board of senior bishops, from whose ranks the temporary head is elected when the Metropolitan of Kiev dies or retires, co-opted three influential Ukrainian bishops: Archbishop Alexander (Drabinko), the 34-year old longtime secretary to Metropolitan Vladimir, recently appointed head of the UOC External Affairs Department; Metropolitan Pavel (Lebed) of Vyshgorod and Chernobyl – the vicar of the preeminent Kiev Monastery of the Caves, one of the founders of the Party of the Regions and a deputy of the Kiev City Council, he is also a man with a very dubious reputation here; and finally Metropolitan Hilarion (Shukalo) of Donetsk and Mariupol, a powerful bishop from the region intimately connected to the current Ukrainian authorities. All three have thus positioned themselves as potential successors to the Kiev See.

Two weeks later, on June 28, the Synod met again and decided to call the UOC Council, which includes all Ukrainian bishops plus elected representatives of clergy and laity for July 8. The second such Council in UOC history was called in ten days, and elections had to take place within three or four days – terms which were absolutely unrealistic for any decent nomination and election process as well as for an open discussion of the agenda. In a similar vein to Russian State Duma Speaker Boris Gryzlov’s famous comment that “the Parliament is not a place for discussions,” the UOC Press Secretary, Archpriest Georgy Kovalenko, said at a press conference here that “the Council is meeting not for discussions, but to adopt concrete decisions on a concrete set of issues.”

Clearly, such a statement did not dispel concerns, despite the fact that the Council was immediately renamed a Jubilee Council, saying that its main task was to mark the 20th anniversary of independence for the Ukrainian Church and state, as well as the 45th anniversary of Metropolitan Vladimir’s consecration as bishop.

According to several sources in the UOC, it was the power struggle within the church that was the main reason the Council was called, because it was utterly necessary to immediately legitimize the expansion of the Synod. But Archbishop Ionafan considers such a statement “an autocephalist trap.” He stressed that according to the UOC Statutes, Ukrainian bishops elect the Metropolitan of Kiev from among all the bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate. This point gave rise to speculation that both the patriarch’s closest aide Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev) of Volokolamsk, as well as the Patriarch himself, are eligible to be elected to the Kiev See when it becomes vacant. And these speculations, in turn, are stirring fears that “Moscow’s hand” is ready to take away the independence of the Ukrainian Church.

Although deriding the rumor as “stupidity,” Archishop Ionafan said nonetheless that he would have welcomed the election of Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeev) as a “great gain for the UOC.”

“I am convinced that he would have become a 100 percent Ukrainian,” he said.

Collisions of the Statute

Several experts predicted that the Council would approve the UOC Statute, and some amendments to it, which contradicts the Moscow Patriarchate Statutes. For example the UOC statute keeps silent about some prerogatives for the Patriarch of Moscow. In response, the pro-Moscow faction led by Metropolitan Agafangel (Savvin) of Odessa and Izmail presented its amendments. Long-distance polemics ensued, involving those close to the Moscow Patriarchate, while Moscow church officials remained silent due to the delicacy of the issues.

Ultimately, several days before the Council, a carefully worded letter of blessing sent by Patriarch Kirill to Metropolitan Vladimir was published. In it, the patriarch thanks the Metropolitan of Kiev for “notifying” him about the Council (something he did not have to do, but apparently nonetheless did), gives his blessing for the Council (which is not required), wishes its members “wise decisions aimed at strengthening the unity” of the Russian Orthodox Church and overcoming the divisions within Ukrainian Orthodoxy and, with a clear hint at the internal strife, wished “unhypocritical brotherly love.”

According to Archbishop Ionafan, at a morning meeting of bishops, Metropolitan Vladimir took all the amendments to the Statute off the agenda and a special commission was set up to consider the amendments, under the chairmanship of Metropolitan Hilarion of Donetsk. However, after the break, the Council adopted a resolution, which approved the Statutes as of 2007 and, at the same time, all the Synod’s decisions, including those making amendments to the Statute. The decision says that the Statues take effect immediately, while the Russian Orthodox Church Statutes require that they be submitted for the patriarch’s approval.

The UOC leadership is trying to underestimate the importance of the Statutes. “It is the Statutes for the Church and not the Church for the Statutes,” Archpriest Kovalenko told journalists here.

Interim Results

Although major contradictions were either lifted or postponed, the decisions of the Kiev Council have created a number of legal collisions that need to be resolved. The way the Council was prepared reflects serious suspicion between church authorities in Kiev and in Moscow.

The appointment of Metropolitan Hilarion of Donetsk as the chairman of the commission on the Statutes also somewhat raises his stakes in the upcoming battle for the Kiev See. At the same time, the problems of moral standing and public reputation of some of the leading Ukrainian bishops could at any moment deal a heavy blow within the Church.

Strategically, though, the knot of contradictions surrounding the relationship between the Ukrainian and Russian Orthodox churches is unlikely to be resolved soon, because their identities are too closely interwoven. The Russian Church sees Kiev as its motherland and traditionally underestimates the Ukrainian otherness and aspirations to freedom. At the same time, the supranational character of the Moscow Patriarchate is primarily based on the fact that it includes a Ukrainian as well as a Russian component. Without each other, the two churches might be tempted to slide toward nationalism and become more dependent on their respective governments. In Ukraine, part of the Church considers itself Russian and another part indentifies itself as opposed to Russia. Everybody understands that succeeding today from the Moscow Patriarchate, even in the most legal of possible ways, would lead to another schism within the UOC. But even without changing the present status of the UOC within the Moscow Patriarchate, the UOC leadership will inevitably try to fill its autonomy with more and more meaning. That, in turn, will be perceived in Russia and by Ukrainian Russophiles as “steps away from Moscow.”

According to Russian political scientist Andrei Okara, cases when a Ukrainian figure seemingly loyal to Moscow or St. Petersburg suddenly turns away and begins to defend Ukrainian independence, occur century after century in both state and church relations. “It’s a paradigm of Russian-Ukrainian relations throughout history – since the middle of the 17th century,” Okara said. “Because Moscow wants vertical relations between senior and junior members and Kiev wants horizontal relations of equality.”

The next visit by Patriarch Kirill to Ukraine is scheduled to take place in two weeks time. The story continues…

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