If there is a war with Turkey tomorrow: canonical ties of the OCU

20 November 2023 09:56
If there is a war with Turkey tomorrow: canonical ties of the OCU

Let's imagine that DESS will examine the OCU’s Statute for ties with the aggressor. What will it find out? We’ll try to figure it out to see how autocephalous the OCU is.

Today, there is only one aggressor state, and that is Russia. But times are changing, and the aggressor may change (or be added). What if the words of the President of Turkey about a possible "war of the Cross and the Crescent" become a reality? What if Ukraine, supporting Israel in the conflict with HAMAS, and Turkey, supporting the Palestinians, find themselves on opposite sides of the barricades? What if Turkey, whose politics increasingly resemble the policies of the Ottoman Empire, remembers that Crimea once belonged to it?

Of course, we all wish that new wars would never start and wars already waged would end but nevertheless… To many, Russia's invasion of Ukraine seemed impossible until February 24, 2022. In general, let's hope that all that has been said remains just "fantasies". Yet let's imagine what the results of the religious expert examination of the Statute of the OCU regarding canonical ties with Turkey and the Patriarchate of Constantinople based in that country could be.

The OCU has three statutory documents in accordance with which it carries out its activities. These are the Tomos issued by Patriarch Bartholomew on 6 January 2019, the Statute of the OCU adopted by the so-called "Local Unification Council" on the basis of the yet-to-be-issued Tomos on 15 December 2018, and the Statute (regulations) on the governance of the OCU, adopted by the Council of Bishops on 27 July 2023. The last document was adopted with the aim of "more detailed regulation of the statutory issues of the OCU’s life", it is the most voluminous document, as much as 76 pages, which repeats and details the Statute of the OCU. We will not consider it since the question of interest to us about the canonical relationship of the OCU with the Patriarchate of Constantinople is revealed mainly in the Tomos and the Statute of the OCU of 15.12.2018.

Unity (subordination) with the Patriarchate of Constantinople

The very first paragraph of the Statute of the OCU reads as follows: "The Orthodox Church of Ukraine is part of the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church and is inseparably united with the Mother Great Church of Christ in Constantinople and through Her with all other Orthodox Autocephalous Churches."

As we can see, there is the same wording here as in the Letter of Patriarch Alexy II, which was issued to the then Metropolitan of Kyiv Filaret in 1990 and which testified to the formation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in the status of autonomy. In that Letter it read as follows: "The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, united through our Russian Orthodox Church with the One Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, without a conciliar decision of the entire Orthodox Catholic Fullness, may not change anything concerning the dogmas of faith and the holy canons.”

This wording is very strange and unknown to canonical law. More details on this can be found in the article "Passions for the Letter of Patriarch Alexy II". We won't repeat the arguments mentioned there on this matter.

However, after reading the Statute of the UOC and the Statute of the OCU, one cannot help but wonder why in the UOC case this construction of "united through" indicates autonomy, and in the OCU case – autocephaly?

It is evident that an autocephalous Church, in the full sense of the word, cannot be united with the entire Orthodox Church through another Church. In other words, the first point of the Statute of the OCU reveals to us that, despite the title "autocephalous", the OCU is subject to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Supremacy of the Tomos

The second paragraph of the "general provisions" of the Statute of the OCU calls it "autocephalous" and is worded as follows: "The Orthodox Church of Ukraine is autocephalous, according to kenotic (through self-sacrifice) status granted to it from the martyred holy canonical body of the Mother Church of Constantinople, i.e. the Most Holy Apostolic Ecumenical Throne, and is guided, as befitting, by the Holy Scripture, Sacred Tradition, divine and sacred canons, and the sanctified practice of the Church, guided in accordance with the Patriarchal and Synodal Tomos, by which it was granted autocephalous status on January 6, 2023, as well as in detail – by the Statute that corresponds to them."

In this section of the Statute, one can feel the authorship of the Constantinople bishops, under whose leadership the so-called "Unification Council" was held on 15.12.2018. This means that the Phanar painfully (kenotically) tore away from itself the Ukrainian Church, which it had acquired just a month before, on 11 November 2018, when it decided to annul the transfer of the Kyiv Metropolis to the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate in 1686. It should be understood that the Phanar "suffered" in granting autocephaly to the OCU because that's precisely what the Statute says.

Next comes the enumeration of the grand titles of the Phanar, among which is "Ecumenical." This is the self-designation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, intended to impress ordinary people that the authority of this patriarchate allegedly extends to the entire universe. However, this is not the case. In sacred terms, the Patriarch of Constantinople is exactly the same as any bishop, and in administrative terms, the same as the head of any other Local Church.

It is also worth noting that the Statute gives preference to the Tomos when it comes to possible disagreements regarding the status and administration of the OCU. If compared with the Letter of Patriarch Alexy II and the Statute of the UOC, the latter does not say that the Letter has supremacy. Indeed, this cannot be the case, as the Letter says nothing about the governance of the UOC; it simply states that it is independent and autonomous. Whereas the Tomos regulates in sufficient detail the manner and methods of managing the OCU, and disagreements could indeed arise on this basis. For example,

the Phanar could easily claim, if desired, that all decisions of both the Local and Hierarchical Councils of the OCU are invalid on the grounds that these governing bodies are simply not prescribed by the Tomos.

It only mentioned the Metropolis of Kyiv and the Synod under it.

The third point of the "general provisions" of the Statute says that matters not provided for by it shall be considered by "a mixed Commission appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate". Actually, this is a reference to the wording of the Tomos, which says that "for the resolution of significant issues of ecclesiastical, dogmatic and canonical nature, His Beatitude Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine, on behalf of the Holy Synod of his Church, should appeal to our Most Holy and Ecumenical Patriarchal Throne".

Can you imagine that in a completely independent Church, questions not provided for by its Statute would be considered by a commission appointed by another Church?"

Point 4 of the "general provisions" also refers to the provisions of the Tomos. It states that only Orthodox Christians residing in Ukraine can be members of the OCU. Beyond its borders, "Orthodox Christians of Ukrainian origin in the Orthodox diaspora henceforth have pastoral care from the eparchial hierarchs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate."

Let's recall the wording in the Tomos: "The Holy Church of Ukraine... cannot appoint bishops or establish parishes outside the state; those already existing henceforth are subject, according to the order, to the Ecumenical Throne, which has canonical authority in the Diaspora, because the jurisdiction of this Church is restricted to the territory of the Ukrainian State."

Isn't it somewhat demeaning for an "autocephalous independent Church"?

The next confirmation of the OCU's dependence on the Patriarchate of Constantinople is found in the section that describes the powers of the Bishops’ Council of the OCU. In the first point, it is stated that the Bishops’ Council "must take care of the unity with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and other Orthodox Autocephalous Churches".

Major issues

The Tomos states that the OCU is obligated to refer all important questions to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, i.e., it cannot decide them independently. It should be understood that the determination of which specific questions fall into the category of "important" is not made by the OCU but by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

If the Ecumenical Patriarchate wishes, it can annul any decision of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) by calling the question "important." This will be done in full accordance with the Statute of the OCU, which gives supremacy to the Tomos.

Also, another provision of the OCU Statute stipulates that any changes in it are possible "exclusively in the spirit of the Tomos".

The third provision of the Council of Bishops' mandate elaborates on this obligation of the OCU to appeal to the Phanar for the resolution of important issues. It is formulated as follows: "On the most important issues that require joint discussions and actions for the better support of the Orthodox Church, the Holy Council of Bishops in Ukraine appeals to the Ecumenical Patriarch, who willingly provides assistance and announces the necessary decision to the Holy Council of Bishops of the Church of Ukraine." In other words, it is explicitly stated that the OCU does not consult with the Ecumenical Patriarchate and does not seek its opinion, which may then be considered or disregarded. It is stated that the Patriarch of Constantinople announces his already-made decision to the OCU.


The fourth provision of the Council of Bishops’ powers concerns the stauropegia of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Ukraine: "The decision of questions concerning the drafting and approval of the internal rules of the Patriarchal stauropegia belongs exclusively and solely to the Ecumenical Patriarch."

There is a fairly common practice when one Church has parishes and even monasteries on the territory of another Church and, accordingly, manages them at its discretion. But such structures are called "metochia", and they cannot open and operate without the consent of the Local Church on whose territory they are located. Here we deal with stauropegia, i.e. structures which the Primate removes from the sphere of administration of the local bishop and subordinates directly to himself. Their existence is a confirmation that the Patriarch of Constantinople is in fact the head of the OCU and has the right to manage its stauropegia on the territory of Ukraine.

Today, the Phanar has only one stauropegion – St Andrew's Church in Kyiv, however, according to media reports, according to agreements reached in 2018 between Patriarch Bartholomew and then Ukrainian President Poroshenko, the Phanar is to be given approximately 20 of Ukraine's most historically significant monasteries and churches.

Chrism and canonization of saints

The corresponding provision of the powers of the Bishops’ Council of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) reads as follows: "Taking care of receiving holy chrism from the Mother Church of Constantinople. In addition, it canonizes saints for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine and prepares proposals for the introduction of new saints into the general liturgical calendar, presenting them for judgment and approval to the Great Church of Christ in accordance with the longstanding tradition of the Eastern Orthodox Church."

"The Great Church of Christ " is another self-designation of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, intended to emphasize its universality and singularity, and if taken literally, it suggests the substitution of the entire Church of Christ with itself.

Receiving holy chrism from another Church is not considered a mandatory sign of subordination, but independent chrismation signifies genuine independence, based on purely practical considerations. As is known, the Holy Spirit descends on the newly baptized through the anointing with chrism. Formerly, this occurred through the laying on of the hands of the apostles and later bishops, but it was soon replaced by the practice that exists today. Now, let's imagine that the "Mother Church" does not provide chrism. What happens next? After some time, the reserves of already obtained chrism run out, and there is nothing to replace it, consequently halting the performance of the sacrament of Baptism. Such was the interdict in the practice of the Middle Ages.

A similar situation arises with canonization. Each Local Church independently approves the veneration of saints. There is no order that the veneration of saints canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate becomes mandatory for all. The obligation of the PCU to follow the lead of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in this regard also indirectly indicates dependence on it.

The right of appeal

The corresponding section of the Statute of the OCU is explicitly titled "Appeal (Ἔκκλητον)." It states: "A clergyman of any rank, finally condemned by his ecclesiastical authorities to any punishment, may exercise the right of appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch, in accordance with sacred canons (9 and 17 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council) and the longstanding practice of the Church."

The provision in the Statute of the OCU regarding appeals directly attests to its subordination to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

If we read the rules specified in this section, which refer to the Fourth Ecumenical Council, we will see that they indeed identify the Patriarch of Constantinople as the ultimate appellate authority. However, all commentators on these rules, especially the ancient ones, point out that this applies only to the Local Constantinopolitan Church and to no other.

For example, the interpretation by Zonaras (12th century) goes as follows: "But the Patriarch of Constantinople is not appointed as a judge over all metropolitans without exception, only over those who are subordinate to him. For he cannot compel metropolitans of Syria, or Palestine and Phoenicia, or Egypt to appear before his court against their will. Metropolitans of Syria are subject to the judgment of the Antiochian Patriarch, and the Palestinian ones to the judgment of the Patriarch of Jerusalem, while the Egyptian ones must be judged by the Patriarch of Alexandria, from whom they receive their ordination and to whom they are specifically subject."

In general, these canons of the Fourth Ecumenical Council are aimed at preventing clergy from litigating among themselves in secular courts rather than affirming the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople. They point to the existing system of jurisdiction within the Local Church for this purpose.

Canon 17 also establishes a 30-year period, after which changes in the boundaries of dioceses become unalterable, precluding the possibility of dispute. If the legal analogy is applied to this Canon, it prohibits the Patriarchate of Constantinople from demanding the return of the Kyiv Metropolis after its 300-year inclusion in the Moscow Patriarchate. Therefore, it indicates the illegitimacy of the creation of the OCU and the entire initiative in general.


Summarizing the above, it can be stated that the following points indicate the subordination of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine to the Patriarchate of Constantinople:

  • The OCU is connected to Orthodoxy through the Patriarchate of Constantinople;
  • The Tomos of the Patriarchate of Constantinople has supremacy over the Statute of the OCU;
  • Issues not covered by the OCU Statute are resolved by a Commission appointed by the Patriarchate of Constantinople;
  • The OCU has the right to take spiritual care of Ukrainians only within the country. Beyond its borders, the Patriarchate of Constantinople takes charge of them;
  • The OCU is obligated to seek resolution of important issues from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and these decisions are made independently by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and announced to the OCU;
  • The Patriarchate of Constantinople has its stauropegia within the territory of Ukraine;
  • The OCU receives holy chrism from the Patriarchate of Constantinople;
  • The Patriarch of Constantinople is the final judicial authority for the OCU, which means it can cancel any of its decisions regarding any clergy.

In conclusion, based on a religious examination of the OCU’s Statute, it can be concluded that the OCU is not simply "canonically connected" to the Patriarchate of Constantinople but is directly subordinate to it. This conclusion is drawn solely from the text of the OCU’s Statute. When considering the Tomos dated January 6, 2019, this subordination is even more explicitly stated. Furthermore, the OCU cannot be fully called autocephalous, considering all the aforementioned limitations on its activities.

Certainly, in the event of a conflict with Turkey, it cannot be seriously argued that the OCU's apparent subordination to the Patriarchate of Constantinople could impact Ukraine's national security. Similarly, we cannot seriously say that the wording of the Letter of the UOC by Patriarch Alexy undermines this security. The state needs either to completely ban the slightest mention of links between Ukrainian denominations and any foreign centres or respect the Constitution and stop repressing its own citizens.



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