By Paul Goble
The Universal Patriarch of the Orthodox Church, Bartholemew I, has decided to grant autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, according to a Greek church site, giving a major victory to Kyiv and inflicting an even larger geopolitical defeat on the Moscow Patriarchate and the Kremlin.
Archbishop Yevstraty Zorya, the press secretary of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate, citing the Greek outlet Orthodoxia.info, says that Bartholemew informed Moscow Patriarch Kirill about his decision during the latter’s recent visit to Constantinople (nv.ua/ukraine/events/varfolomej-proinformiroval-hlavu-rpts-o-svoem-reshenii-otnositelno-avtokefalii-est-osnovanija-dlja-sderzhannoho-optimizma-upk-kp-2491600.html).
Yevstraty added that the headline in the Greek source could be translated as “The Die is Cast! Ukraine is Receiving Autocephaly.” He said that Patriarch Kirill left his meeting with Bartholemew “in not the best spirit.” But Ukrainians are celebrating what will be a major victory for them.
A spokesman for the Universal Patriarch told Orthodoxia.info that “no one wants yet another split,” something Moscow has threatened if Constantinople proceeded. “Everyone wants unity in the Church.” But he added the Universal Patriarchate won’t be guided in its action by “threats from anyone,” a clear rebuff to Moscow.
According to the spokesman, the Universal Patriarch took the decision about offering autocephaly to the Ukrainian Church in April and is now in the process of implementing it. And in the months since, Constantinople has signaled that it intends to meet Ukraine’s request although it has not provided a specific date.
It is important to recognize what the grant of autocephaly in Ukraine will and won’t do. It will elevate the status of the Ukrainian church and underscore its separation from Moscow, but it won’t end the existence of the Moscow Patriarchate’s network of churches in Ukraine, although it will undoubtedly cause many of them to shift their subordination to Kyiv.
Most important, it will undermine the Moscow Patriarchate’s claim to speak for all Orthodox on the former Soviet space and cost the church itself a great deal of its income given that half of its existing congregations are in Ukraine rather than in Moscow. And it will call into question Moscow’s claim to be the largest Orthodox church in the world.
Obviously, Moscow both religious and secular isn’t going to accept this without a fight. But the decision of the Universal Patriarch means that Ukraine has won a major victory, one that it is likely to build on in the future and one that may serve as a model for other post-Soviet states as far as Orthodoxy is concerned.