Friday, July 11, 2014

Window on Eurasia: Two ‘Mutually Exclusive’ Tasks Face Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate

Paul Goble

            Staunton, July 11 – As it chooses a successor to Metropolitan Vladimir, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church faces two “mutually exclusive tasks”-- survival as a church in an independent Ukraine and survival as part of the Russian Orthodox Church – and it lacks the unified hierarchy and understanding of Ukrainian society and the Moscow Patriarchate needed for that.

            According to Yuri Chernomorets, a specialist on Orthodoxy in Ukraine, Vladimir was able to cope with these challenges by not addressing them directly whenever he could and by not creating through the selection of bishops who would have ensured unity within the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (

            But his approach will not be available to his successor not only because of changes in Ukrainian society which can no longer understand why a church in Ukraine should be subordinate to Moscow in any way but also because of the divisions within his church and of the failure of the Moscow Patriarchate to appreciate the new realities in Ukraine.

            Initially, Chernomorets continues, any leader who is chosen will probably try to continue Vladimir’s combination of a wait-and-see approach and of balancing pro-Moscow and pro-Ukraine forces in the hierarchy.  But that approach is increasingly unsustainable, and consequently, the future of the UOC MP is very much at risk.

            At the very least, such an approach by the UOC MP will cost the church its influence among Ukrainians, with an increasing number of parishioners, priests and bishops transferring their allegiance to the UOC of the Kyiv Patriarchate. In an effort to block that, the UOC MP will have to become more unified and consistent.

            But any pursuit of unity carries with it the risks of alienating still more, as does any effort to promote itself institutionally and ideologically in Ukrainian society, Chernomorets argues.

            At the same time, in order to preserve its links with the Moscow Patriarchate, the UOC MP will need to pursue its de facto complete independence, to seek recognition as an autonomous church, and gain the risk to independently provide spiritual sustenance to the Ukrainian diaspora, thus challenging Moscow in another way.

            Regardless of whether those conditions can be created, the church specialist say, “only a manager who is capable of decisive actions in a complex situation of unceasing crisis will be able to preserve the UOC” of the Moscow Patriarchate because he will face challenges from Moscow, from Ukrainian society and from other Orthodox hierarchies.
            All this, together with “the internal weakness of the UOC, the impossibility of a turn to Russophilism without the loss of the sympathies of believers, society and the political class will force the leadership of the UKP to choose the strategy of Metropolitan Vladimir.” But that strategy won’t work for long.

            Eventually, Chernomorets argues, “someone will begin to act radically: either some groups within the UKP or the leadership of the ROC MP or Ukrainian society for which the preservation of the links of the UKP with Moscow is no more than an element of the Soviet empire” which it rejects.

            But there is an even deeper problem, one that few in either Kyiv or Moscow are prepared to face.  “In Russia, a tie with the state is the condition of the survival and development in the Church. In Ukraine, on the other hand, the main factor for the preservation of church life and structures is the link with society.”

            According to Chernomorets, “the leadership of the ROC MP works only with the government and the business elite; everyone else” is a powerless “mass” that can be “manipulated by slogans.”  That “approach has not worked in Ukraine” in the past, and it won’t work in the future.

            “The most important task” of the ROC MP in Ukraine, although it is not one that Patriarch Kirill or those around him fully accept, Chernomorets continues, is the creation of “a single Orthodox Church in Ukraine on the basis  of the UOC” rather than on the basis of “alternative jurisdictions.”

            To that end, the UOC needs to choose a leader – and the Moscow Patriarchate needs to accept as necessary and legitimate – someone with “a moderate pro-Ukrainian position” ( a pro-Russian one would split the church), with a willingness to negotiate with the ROC MP on possible changes, with the ability to articulate a “common agenda” for everyone in Ukraine, including ethnic Russians, and with the ability to win out over other Orthodox hierarchies in Ukraine.

Such a combination of skills won’t be easy to find, Chernomorets says, but there are members of the hierarchy who do have them. Not surprisingly, they are being attacked by those who oppose one or another element, and the attacks often take the form of praise for the late Metropolitan Vladimir.

But Vladimir’s approach, however well it worked in the past and however much authority he had because of that, won’t work anymore or at least not for long, and that is something both the UOC MP and the ROC MP need to recognize if the UOC MP is to survive rather than become increasingly marginalized and irrelevant.

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