On January 6, it received the tomos of autocephaly—the documentation of its independence among Eastern church bodies—from one Orthodox heavyweight, the Patriarch of Constantinople, despite the vociferous opposition of another heavyweight, the Patriarch of Moscow.
バルトロメオス１世（左）とエピファニー総主教（写真：The Presidential Administration of Ukraine）
To understand the significance of the biggest Christian schism since the Protestant Reformation, unfolding since last fall and formalized this weekend as Eastern churches celebrated Christmas Eve, a brief history is in order.
Geopolitical winds shifted, however, and in 1686 the Patriarch of Constantinople—considered within Orthodox leadership to be the first among equals—placed the patriarchate of Kiev under the ascendant patriarchal church of Moscow.
In the modern era, geopolitical and religious winds continued to blow. In 1991, Ukraine became an independent nation. The following year, a breakaway bishop (or metropolitan, in Orthodox parlance) established an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church based again in Kiev, joining a smaller Orthodox schism from 1990 in staunch opposition to the canonical Moscow-affiliated church. Neither group was recognized by the patriarchs of Moscow or Constantinople.
In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and pro-Russian separatists (with reported Russian backing) occupied two Ukrainian territories on the eastern border. The conflict has resulted in more than 10,000 Ukrainian deaths, with 2.5 million people displaced.
And in April 2018, the president of Ukraine flew to Constantinople (now Turkey’s Istanbul), to ask Patriarch Bartholomew for a tomos of autocephaly.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow immediately followed, protesting the political interference in church affairs.
“Autocephaly is part of our pro-European and pro-Ukrainian state strategy,” said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who also described it as “a matter of our independence and our national security.”
Patriarch Kirill is also closely connected to politics, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin “a miracle of God.” In 2016, Putin erected a statue of Vladimir the Great, the historic prince of Kiev, at the Kremlin, indicating Russia as his true heir.
On October 15, Moscow cut ties with Constantinople, severing the world’s largest Orthodox church from its historic home. Russia accounts for roughly half of Orthodoxy’s 300 million believers; Constantinople, only 3,000.
Bartholomew asked the three Orthodox entities in Ukraine—the Moscow-affiliated patriarchate and the two schismatic Ukrainian bodies—to dissolve. On December 15, they would gather for a unity synod to create one new church, electing their own autocephalous patriarch.
All but 2 of the 90 Moscow bishops boycotted, and the new Ukrainian patriarch, Epiphanius, prayed to “complete the unification of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, for an end to the war, and for a just peace in Ukraine.”
Polls cited by Cyril Hovorun, a theologian and head of a Ukrainian monastery who has previously served with both the Ukrainian Orthodox Church’s external relations department and the Moscow Patriarchate’s education ministry, indicate 75-80 percent of Ukrainians are Orthodox; 56 percent of these identify with the formerly schismatic patriarchate in Kiev, while 16 percent identify with Moscow; 19 percent say they are simply Orthodox.
Andrey Shirin, who moved to the United States from Russia more than 25 years ago and currently works as an associate professor of divinity at the John Leland Center for Theological Studies, said that traditionally, neither Russian nor Ukrainian evangelicals take sides in inter-Orthodox conflicts.
Webster explained that the 1686 document used the words “henceforth and forevermore,” in reference to Moscow’s jurisdiction. And ancient canons of the church forbid one patriarch from interfering in the territory of another, let alone reversing local excommunications or laicization of clergy.
But so far it has been politics interfering with religion, and Webster, a retired US army chaplain, chides the US government in particular: the State Department, its ambassador to Ukraine, and its ambassador for religious freedom have all endorsed Ukrainian autocephaly—even citing the Orthodox theological term.
This law is currently appealed to Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, though the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine would retain its civil status and remain free in worship. But some reports cite security pressure on its priests to support or transfer into the newly independent Ukrainian body.
“In normal situations, we would be against government interference in religious life,” he said. “But in light of Russian aggression, using the Russian Orthodox Church for their political goals, the [Ukrainian] government must take steps to protect the nation.”
Over the past two decades, evangelicals joined the three Orthodox church leaders and other religious leaders in the All Ukraine Council of Churches and Religious Organizations, buttressing relations. They received assurances that in the case of autocephaly, the newly formed Ukrainian church would not act as the Orthodox in Russia and support the rollback of minority freedom.
Currently the task of forming it falls on Orthodox leaders, who Shirin says are in a very difficult position. They are entwined in national loyalties, geopolitical ambitions, local cultures, and spiritual responsibilities.