Michael MacKay, Radio Lemberg, 15.12.2018
The unification council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church takes place in Kyiv on December 15. This event has been 332 years coming. The year 1686 was the last time the Orthodox Church in Ukraine was independent and chose its own head. The gathering of hierarchs on Saturday marks the end of the irregular annexation of the Ukrainian church by Moscow, and a return to its proper seat in Kyiv.
Delegates to the council will come from the three churches that are uniting: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyiv Patriarchate; the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church; and the Moscow Patriarchate. 10 bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate have confirmed that they are attending. They are participating in spite of the opposition of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Patriarch Kirill (Vladimir Gundyayev) has taken the Russian Orthodox Church out of ecclesiastical communion with Constantinople and cut it off from its mother church in Kyiv.
The delegates to the unification council will begin proceedings on Saturday with a short service. The President of Ukraine, Petro Poroshenko, will address the assembly. The creation of a new, unified, independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine will be announced. A charter will be approved, and then there will be the election of a leader. The new Primate of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – who will be the new Metropolitan of Kyiv – will be chosen in two rounds of voting. The first round is a ratings ballot, with the three participants gaining the highest number of votes going through to the second round. The second round will elect the Primate.
In spite of Russian efforts at disruption, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul (the Archbishop of Constantinople, Bartholomew I) and his exarchs in Ukraine and the Ukrainian patriarchs have proceeded cautiously toward the grant of a tomos of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The Ecumenical Patriarchate appealed for the “peace of Christ” over the proceedings of the grant of autocephaly to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. There is no cause for violence: people are not being coerced and property is not being seized. But because there have been ‘predictions’ of violence by the Moscow church and by Russian propaganda outlets, Ukrainian authorities are taking all precautions to protect the peace.
The U.S. Embassy in Kyiv gave an advisory on December 14: “On Saturday, December 15, a vote regarding autocephaly for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will take place at the St. Sophia Cathedral in Kyiv (Volodymyrska St., 24). Large crowds are expected in the area. Crowds and protests are also expected at other religious sites throughout the country.”
Ukraine does not have a state church and has constitutionally-protected freedom of religion. Nevertheless, the restoration of an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church which chooses its own Primate from among its hierarchs is considered a national liberation in Ukraine from Muscovy imperialism. The means by which the seat of power in the church moved from Kyiv to Moscow in the year 1686 is now recognized to have been uncanonical, meaning illegal to the church.
The war that the Russian Federation is waging against Ukraine speeded up the creation of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Ukrainians united against Russian aggression and the social-cultural remnants of the occupation of Ukraine by Muscovy. When the priests of the Moscow Patriarchate sided with the invaders of Ukraine over its defenders, the legitimacy of the Russian Orthodox Church was destroyed in the eyes of many Orthodox believers in Ukraine. With no understanding of Ukrainian sensibilities, the Moscow Patriarchate lost its hold over Ukraine. Putin lost Muscovy’s hold over Ukraine for the same reason.
Christianity came to Kyiv and its surrounding lands in 860 A.D. under the Ecumenical Patriarch, Archbishop of Constantinople Photius I. The Ukrainians (“the people of the land”) live today in the same place as their Kyivan Rus’ ancestors. Ukraine has had a tradition of Christianity for 1,158 years. The creation of a new, unified, independent Ukrainian Orthodox on 15 December 2018 has a depth of meaning and a resonance in history that goes back more than a millennium. It is difficult to overestimate the importance of autocephaly to a free, independent, and sovereign Ukrainian nation in the heart of Europe.