What ROC Bishops’ Conference decided on Ukraine
There is a paragraph in the decisions of the ROC Bishops’ Conference dedicated to Ukraine and the UOC. What does it say?
On July 19, 2023, the Bishops’ Conference of the Russian Orthodox Church took place at the Holy Trinity Sergius Lavra. During the meeting, Patriarch Kirill presented his report, and some of its theses directly or indirectly related to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC). Additionally, one point in the final resolution of the Council directly concerns the UOC.
What did the Patriarch and bishops of the ROC say, and how should all this be perceived in Ukraine?
What is the Bishops’ Conference?
Bishops’ Conferences were convened three times: in 2010, 2015, and now in 2023. The ROC Statute mentions the Bishops’ Conference only in the 13th point of the 2nd section "Local Council". It states that "All bishops who are members of the Local Council constitute the Bishops’ Conference... The task of the Conference is to discuss the decisions of the Local Council that have particular importance and raise doubts in terms of compliance with the Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition, dogmas, and canons, as well as the preservation of church peace and unity."
In this case, there is no mention of any Local Council, and this Bishops’ Conference is rather like an incomplete Bishops’ Council. After all, out of the 400 bishops whom the ROC Patriarch considers "his own", only 250 gathered in Moscow. Almost no one came from abroad: neither from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) nor from the Baltic countries, nor from the Paris Archdiocese.
From this perspective, the decisions of the Conference are unlikely to have a "binding" character for the entire Church; rather, they indicate some issues that need to be "taken into account". What did the bishops of the Russian Church decide regarding the UOC?
ROC and 'military confrontation'
It should be noted that the first 4 points of the resolutions were devoted to "the calamities experienced by our peoples" and "military confrontation", without specifying the conflicting sides, without any moral assessments or calls to stop the bloodshed. Most likely, this silence (very eloquent) indicates an attempt by the ROC to "rise above the conflict". This assumption is confirmed by the words of Patriarch Kirill, who said in his report that "on both sides of the battle line are children of the unified Russian Orthodox Church".
One would think that elementary logic suggests that if children of the unified Church are killing each other, the main task of the leader should be to immediately stop these killings. However, there was not even a hint of such an appeal. The ROC Patriarch once again reiterated his thesis that the war in Ukraine is metaphysical, where the "Christian civilization" is fighting against the anti-Christian. Consequently, the ROC is obliged to support the "Christian" side, which means the Russian Armed Forces.
Patriarch Kirill's quote: "Let us pray for our warriors... and for the victorious triumph over those who are fighting against Holy Rus." It is hard to imagine that the head of the ROC is referring to the soldiers of the Armed Forces of Ukraine (AFU) here, just as in his words of support for the clergy who are assisting the army: "Parishes have collected and continue to collect material assistance and resources to provide the soldiers with necessary items, protective gear, and medicines. I support these deeds. May they be blessed by God!"
Agreeably, we cannot assume that the Patriarch is talking about UOC parishes that support their defenders in the Armed Forces of Ukraine.
In this sense, we are once again convinced of the correctness of all the decisions made at the Council in Feofaniya regarding the separation from the ROC. How can the UOC be a part of the Moscow Patriarchate when the latter unequivocally supports the actions of the Russian army? This contradicts conscience, morality and common sense.
If the ROC does indeed want to "rise above the conflict" and demonstrate that its children are "on both sides of the confrontation", it can easily do so – by calling for peace among those who initiated this war. Because in all other cases, attempts to portray themselves as "above the conflict" are nothing but deceit and deception.
ROC and UOC
In the 6th point of the Resolution, the Bishops’ Conference addressed the situation in Ukraine. As we mentioned earlier, no serious decisions regarding the UOC were made: there were no accusations of schism, let alone any mention of autocephaly. The cautious stance of the "neutral party" prevailed, and it was precisely reflected in the final Resolution.
The Conference expressed sorrow that "the clergymen and laity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church are being forced to renounce God's truth and pushed towards schism." However, what exactly was meant by "schism" remained somewhat unclear. It could either refer to forcing the UOC to unite with the OCU or, perhaps, the Russian bishops were referring to the decisions made at the Council in Feofaniya, where the UOC broke ties with the Russian Church.
The phrases that the UOC faces "threats, slander, and persecution," while striving "to preserve church unity" and engaging in a "confessor's feat, courageously raising their voices in defence of this unity" are also ambiguous. All of this is indeed true. However, the UOC understands unity not in an administrative sense but in a eucharistic sense – as unity in Christ, not under Patriarch Kirill.
What is the external expression of church unity?
The Bishops’ Council did not comment on the decisions of the Council in Feofaniya. However, Patriarch Kirill did not overlook the fact of ceasing the commemoration of his name. In his report, he pointed out "a series of canonical irregularities undertaken against Orthodoxy and church unity". But from this "series", he cited only one example: "In several eparchies and parishes in territories where the states exert pressure on the Church, the mention of the patriarch's name, as provided by canons, has ceased."
Firstly, speaking about Ukraine, the Patriarch is systematically commemorated only in the occupied territories (and even there not in all churches). Secondly, the word "states" is in the plural form. Which "states" does the Patriarch mean – Lithuania, Moldova? Or is he referring to the states where the Archdiocese of Western European Parishes of the ROC operates? According to our information, the Patriarch's name is mentioned only in the church in Rue Daru, and exclusively during the services of Metropolitan John.
Furthermore, Patriarch Kirill states that mentioning his name is "one of the external expressions" of the God-commanded church unity. And those Ukrainian hierarchs or priests who do not mention his name "lacked courage or conscience".
The Eucharistic unity between the UOC and ROC, unity in Christ, continues to be preserved; no one has broken it. However, when it comes to administrative unity... Here, the question of conscience comes to the forefront.
If the Primate does not oppose the killing of some members of the "united" Church by others, what ecclesiastical unity can we talk about?
With what feeling should a father who lost his only son in the war mention as the "Great lord" a man who supports that war? Perhaps, there are some ascetics capable of doing so. But does Moscow have the moral right to demand such commemoration from Ukrainians? And, moreover, can we say that such people "lack courage or conscience"?
The Patriarch continued his thought by concluding that "the cessation of commemoration is an open door to sliding into schism". At the same time, he stated that the sacraments performed in the "non-commemorating" churches "remain valid". However, there is one "but" – "until the Church renders a synodal judgment on the apostasy of certain hierarchs and clergymen into schism." How should we interpret such words? After all, schism is a canonical offence and a sin. And sin is either here or not. So, what does the phrase "until the Church renders a synodal judgment" mean? We might be mistaken, but there is a sense of a hidden threat - as if to say, "Misbehave, and we will punish you."
However, the Bishops’ Conference remained silent about the necessity to "observe canons" concerning commemoration; there is nothing about it in the documents.
The results of the Bishops’ Conference turned out to be much less significant than expected, including in the context of the ROC-UOC relations. At the same time, new nuances have emerged indicating that the distance between the Churches is increasing, and it is definitely not the fault of Ukrainians. It is clear that many bishops of the Russian Church are entertaining the hope that they can sort things out after the war. However, the war may drag on for years. And we already need a dialogue on urgent and crucial issues. A genuine dialogue, not a monologue in the “I am the boss and you are a fool" style. For now, such a discussion is not expected. But that does not mean it won't happen in the future.