Ukrainian Autocephaly: Notes after the Archons Virtual conference call
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On Saturday, January 26, 2019, for approximately ninety minutes, a virtual conference call was held on the topic of Ukrainian Autocephaly. This event was the first of the kind sponsored  by the Order of Saint Andrew the Apostle, Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in America.

The panelists were His Eminence Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, Representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate; Rev. Nicholas E. Denysenko, PhD, Valparaiso university (Emil and Elfriede Jochum Professor and Chair); Vera Shevzov, PhD, Smith College Professor of Religion, Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies.
The debate was moderated by Archon George E. Demacopoulos, PhD, Fordham University Co-Director, Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

Please find here a few notes.

The purpose of the event was “to have a spiritual exchange and share sacred wisdom”.

Three main and distinct issues were identified by the moderator:

  • The reconciliation of Orthodox in Ukraine, with three separated groups, and the healing of this division
  • The possibility of autocephaly in Ukraine. Before that, there were 14 other autocephalous Churches in world Orthodoxy. Ukraine had been seeking it for many years. How did this process of granting autocephaly work?
  • The reaction of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Other aspects are the political repercussions, and what the situation means for the future of Orthodoxy.


The three panelists were first given five minutes to make a general statement on the issue.

Metropolitan Emmanuel was invited, as being very familiar with all aspects of the issue, and being appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to work the details of the granting of autocephaly in Ukraine.

Metropolitan Emmanuel stressed the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate could not remain silent, after the many appeals they received from Filaret and many people who wanted autocephaly. He is hoping that more bishops and faithful will join the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, and that it will be recognized by world Orthodoxy.

Rev. Nicholas E. Denysenko highlighted historical elements, showing among other things that the autocephalous movement started back in 1917. At the time, the first feature was the question of language used in Church services, Ukrainian vs. Church Slavonic.
Now this is primarily a dispute among Ukrainians. He also noted that supporters of autocephaly became more numerous after the Maidan revolution.

Vera Shevzov insisted on the complexity of the issue, based on the large diversity among the regions in Ukraine. Depending on their location, Ukrainians have very different historical memories. These geographical differences are reflected in polls about the views on the topic at hand.
Thanks to her scholarly background, she highlighted the importance to consider “the impact of the Soviet experience” on the Ukrainian people. Part of the problem was also Stalin’s policy to separate national identity and religious identity.
She quoted a passage by Nobel Prize Winner Svetlana Alexievich in the opening pages of Second-hand Time, as a good illustration of the background to keep in mind here:

Communism had an insane plan: to remake the ‘old breed of man’, ancient Adam. And it really worked … Perhaps it was communism’s only achievement.  Seventy-plus years in the Marxist-Leninist laboratory gave rise to a new man: Homo sovieticus. Some see him as a tragic figure, others call him a sovok. I feel like I know this person; we’re very familiar, we’ve lived side by side for a long time. I am this person. And so are my acquaintances, my closest friends, my parents. For a number of years, I travelled throughout the former Soviet Union – Homo sovieticus isn’t just Russian, he’s Belorussian, Turkmen, Ukrainian, Kazakh. Although we now all live in separate countries and speak different languages, you couldn’t mistake us for anyone else. We’re easy to spot! People who have come out of socialism are both like and unlike the rest of humanity – we have our own lexicon, our own conceptions of good and evil, our heroes and martyrs. We have a special relationship with death. 


The panelists were then able to ask questions to one another.

Vera Shevzov asked, why this granting of autocephaly now?
How is it possible that Filaret’s status of anathematization was suddenly reversed? On what basis?
Metropolitan Emmanuel answered, “I don’t think this was a just decision”. According to him, the anathematization of Filaret was not just, because it was not based on dogmatic reasons.

Then the question of a pan-Orthodox synod was raised: what about a pan-Orthodox synod to study the issue?
Metropolitan Emmanuel answered that what the Ecumenical Patriarchate did was also part of synodality. He wondered, why ask for a synod now, when the issue was dropped in Geneva during the preparation of the Council of Crete?
Dr Shevzov reacted saying she felt it was so rushed. And she sees a lot of confusion on the ground. According to her, there must be something that makes all the bishops of other autocephalous Churches pose and not come to congratulate Metropolitan Epifaniy, the head of the new Church.
In response to Metropolitan Emmanuel about synodality, Rev. Nicholas highlighted the difference between the Council of Crete and the convening of a synod on a specific question.
It was also noted that prior to these very recent events, there had been appeals for a synodal solution made by Metropolitan Volodymyr, the former Ukrainian primate (Moscow Patriarchate).


Then questions were asked by online listeners.

The first question was about the canonical status of the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Why is it specified in the tomos that the Orthodox Church in Ukraine is not allowed to have parishes  anywhere but in Ukraine, when all other autocephalous churches do have parishes in the diaspora?
Metropolitan Emmanuel mentioned that the situation of the Ukrainian Church was very different in the diaspora, for instance in the US and Canada.

The next question focused on possible political elements at play, such as the annexation of Crimea, the ongoing fighting in Eastern Ukraine, and the pressure from the US. And how the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision might impact its reputation.
Metropolitan Emmanuel explained that the granting of autocephaly would have been easier without the annexation and the Eastern Ukraine combats. He also said there had been no outside pressure. But they really had to respond to the numerous appeals for autocephaly coming from many people in Ukraine.
He also wondered, why the Ecumenical Patriarchate granting autocephaly to Ukrainian seems so strange when it granted autocephaly to many other Churches, “under the same circumstances”?

The question was raised about the role of President Poroshenko in all this, and even at the Unification Council itself. Why this prominent role?
We are crossing here into “political religion”, and it’s good to keep in mind that there was also a lot of pressure of the opposition, against autocephaly this time.
Is it blatant interference, or tying to use religion for political benefits?

Dr Shevzov then asked a clarification about the expression “Mother Church”. She referred to a 2015 PEW poll. When asked about their spiritual leader, most Ukrainians mentioned their own bishop. Only 17% of Ukrainians answered it was the Moscow Patriarchate, and only 7% said it was the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
She was puzzled by the fact that Constantinople calls itself “the Mother Church”, whereas in Ukrainian texts, as well as Georgian ones, for hundreds of years, “the Mother Church” was actually referring to the Russian Church.
Metropolitan Emmanuel expressed his strong surprise, and reminded that the Russians did not baptize themselves.

Next question was, why did the Ecumenical Patriarchate go forward with the process of autocephaly when Metropolitan Onufriy, the canonical primate, didn’t want it?
Metropolitan Emmanuel said the canonical Church had been all along invited in the process of reflection, but they never accepted to meet with the Constantinople representatives.
He repeated that millions in Ukraine were asking for autocephaly, so this was not interference on the part of Constantinople. He added that some Moscow Patriarchate bishops did want to come to the Unification Council, but they were forcefully prevented from doing so.
Another panelist gave the information that actually, earlier on in the process, four Moscow Patriarchate bishops had actually been to Constantinople to talk about this issue.

Dr Shevzov explained how, as a lay person and merely on the basis of common sense, she understands why Metropolitan Onufriy could not accept to talk with the Constantinople Patriarchate representatives. His own predecessor had been very cautious as far as Filaret was concerned. Plus, as being the canonical bishop, Metropolitan Onufriy’s hesitation can easily been understood. And wasn’t it offensive to invite him at a Council on his own territory?

If you missed it, the conference is now available in streaming

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About the Author

Emma Cazabonne

Emma Cazabonne

Beside an anthology on Cistercian texts, Emma Cazabonne has translated and published articles on Cistercian spirituality, the Middle Ages, and Orthodoxy. She converted to Orthodoxy in 2008. Her husband is an Orthodox priest. If you are interested in having your book translated into French, she can be contacted here Newsletter

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