UOC and autocephaly: do we need it or not?

24 May 2022 14:00
The UOC is awaiting a meeting of the bishops, priesthood and faithful. Photo: UOJ The UOC is awaiting a meeting of the bishops, priesthood and faithful. Photo: UOJ

The meeting of the bishops, priests and laity of UOC will discuss the future status of the Church. We present the positions of supporters and opponents of autocephaly.

On 12 May 2022, the Holy Synod of the UOC in its communiqué announced the convening of a meeting of the episcopate, priests and laity. Church circles immediately stated that the issue of the autocephalous status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will be considered there. We will find out soon enough whether it is true or not. But now we would like to discuss the positions and arguments of supporters and opponents of autocephaly. Today we can see that supporters are more active, and opponents are mostly silent. But does it mean that they have nothing to say? Let's try to understand the problem and weigh up the pros and cons.

For and against: who is right?

Today the topic of autocephaly or full independence of the UOC is what most conversations in the Church, about the Church and outside the Church boil down to. Autocephaly is considered to be the only way out of the situation in which the canonical Church found itself after the start of the war of the Russian Federation against Ukraine.

The arguments of the supporters of the UOC’s autocephaly are known and, in principle, quite justified: the banning of the activity of our Church in many regions of the country, the work to destroy our dioceses in the west of Ukraine, the widespread seizure of churches by the OCU, the threat of a complete ban by the authorities, and, importantly, the general negative attitude to our Church in society. We can see that all these phenomena are only gaining momentum and it is obvious that we need to respond to this.

But the position of supporters of the UOC’s current status remains very convincing (for the church people): believers do not want any experiments. They must be sure that in the church they go to for worship, the church Sacraments will remain church Sacraments: Confession, Communion, Baptism, etc.

The faithful want to be sure that in their church the Sacraments will remain Sacraments.

Autocephaly is granted by the Mother Church; in the case of the UOC, it is the Russian Church. It is good if such consent is received. And if not?

Yes, many "autocephalists" give examples when the Local Churches, announcing the self-proclaimed autocephaly, for some time remained in isolation, and then they were still recognized. The most recent example is that of the Macedonian Church. But how many of us are willing to be in this status for half a century (like the Macedonians, for example) just because the current political situation demands it?

We guess not. That is why the UOC is now facing a very difficult task – to preserve its canonical status (canonical - in the most literal sense) and at the same time to stop (or minimize) the actual persecution, which is getting increasingly worse.

No one probably knows the exact recipe for how to achieve this.

Now the UOC, in fact, may be threatened by a schism in two senses:

  • An exit from the canonical field of Orthodoxy,
  • The breakdown of its structural and territorial unity.

Therefore at the forthcoming meeting of the episcopate, clergy and laity (which in its composition is more like a Local Council), we need to carefully consider each decision and certainly hear each point of view.

For and against: who is louder, who is more numerous?

The Church is a territory of freedom. In general, the whole world created by God came into being because God is Love, and Love without freedom is impossible. That is why the Church must be alien to all instruments and elements of coercion. We, as children of the Church, can and should discuss various issues that cause us apprehension, perplexity or misunderstanding. The Apostle Paul says: "No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval" (1 Corinthians 11:19), but unfortunately, very often Orthodox Christians do not hear these words. Especially when emotions prevail over reason.

Nowadays we hear the voices of supporters of autocephaly very loudly. They write messages to the "ancient patriarchates" demanding a trial of Patriarch Kirill, hold anonymous votes in favour of autocephaly, constantly saying that it is needed, and literally demanding that the clergy immediately resolve the issue.

Of course, these people have a right to their opinion, they can and should express it. But those who disagree with them have exactly the same right. Can they raise their voices in support of the status that the UOC has now? It is very difficult for them to do so. Any attempt to explain their position will inevitably be met with accusations of sympathy for the "Russian world", the Russian Federation, Putin personally, etc. That's why they are mostly silent now. Does it mean that there are no such people in the UOC? No, it does not.

Yes, the "autocephalists" reign in social networks, in all kinds of appeals and interviews, they form the media agenda now. But one cannot be guided by this in the Church’s decisions. And it is quite possible that the opponents of autocephaly will be the "voice of the silent majority" in the UOC.

Acquire the Spirit of Peace… 

Unfortunately, the way "autocephalists" act raises a lot of questions. It is, to put it gently, not quite what is expected from the Orthodox believers. Very often these people (including priests) are simply shocking with their aggression and rudeness in promoting their own point of view. More than once, I have witnessed how a conversation about autocephaly between UOC priests has boiled down to insults and settling personal scores. They do not watch their words or the emotion of their statements.

Things can be quite sad on social networks. For example, there are pastors who allow themselves to publish disgusting caricatures of Patriarch Kirill and insult him with obscene words. They also mock the vicar of the Kyiv-Pechersk Lavra and literally demand that the bishops "decide whether they are with Ukraine or with Putin" (and if they are with Christ? – Ed.). Often their statements are very difficult to distinguish from the hateful rhetoric of the enemies of the Church.

In face-to-face meetings and conversations, "autocephalists" often have no control at all over foul words addressed to the ROC, the hierarchy of the UOC or their fellow believers who have a different opinion. Emotions, aggression, trivial heated arguments – that is the atmosphere in which the pressing issues of the existence of the Church are being “discussed” now.

And here we must remind such pastors that Christians are people of peace. Yes, there is war now. But priests must not defend the truth or their own righteousness by shouting, aggression and swearing. And all that is going on today with many "autocephalists" (at least those that are "in sight"), unfortunately, is characterized by a lack of peace. But Seraphim of Sarov did not say for nothing the phrase: "Acquire the Spirit of Peace and a thousand souls around you will be saved.” A peaceful spirit for a priest is not even a wish, it is his professional duty. Otherwise, he would not be able to lead his flock in the right direction.

A peaceful spirit for a priest is not even a wish, it is his professional duty. Otherwise, he would not be able to lead his flock in the right direction

About responsibility for the Church

It is hard not to notice that many supporters of the UOC’s autocephaly literally press the Primate and the bishops with demands of an immediate break with the ROC, the announcement of autocephaly, etc. Their arguments usually boil down to the following: "We need to break up immediately, and then we'll see." And if we do not see anything good from here, what then? After all, the responsibility for the fate of the Church lies with the clergy, not with the clergy-bloggers. And it is vitally important to preserve the unity of our Church, of all its faithful – both "pro-Ukrainian" and "pro-Russian".

We must all be "pro-Christian" in the first place. We have been through a great many trials together and have repeatedly proved our faithfulness to Christ and to the Church. Now we take communion from the same cup. Can we become people who look at one another through the darkness of enmity rather than the light of the Eucharist? These are the questions we must all face. We must all feel responsible for the Church because autocephaly is not a "let's try", it is forever.

Occupied territories and the threat of occupation of the Lavra

There is another problem in acquiring autocephaly (apart from canonical and many others) – the reaction of the faithful of the occupied territories to it. For example, the Crimean dioceses are still part of the UOC. In fact, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is the only structure in the Crimea that is entirely subordinate to Ukraine. Will these dioceses remain as part of the UOC in the event of its complete break with the Russian Church? And even if so, will the Russian authorities approve of it? The same applies to the "DPR", the "LPR", the presently occupied territories: parts of the Donbass, Kherson, Melitopol, etc. Will the priests there be allowed to decide freely, or will they hint that they need to act according to the "party line"?

We should not be "pro-Ukrainian" or "pro-Russian". First and foremost we should all be "pro-Christian".

And in this sense, we need to return to the problem of the split of the UOC as a single territorial structure. The eastern dioceses voluntarily or under compulsion (let us not forget the problem of the occupation) can simply join directly the ROC. One can take different views on this, but the faithful of these regions will remain in the canonical Church anyway.

But in the west and in the centre, communities are transferred en masse to the OCU. Clouds are also gathering over the Kyiv-Pechersk and Pochaiv Lavras. On 23 May, the Synod of Sergei Dumenko structure decided "in order to overcome the consequences of the non-canonical subordination of this monastery to the authorities of the Moscow Patriarchate, to form within the OCU a religious organization called the Holy Dormition Kyiv Pechersk Lavra (male monastery)". The OCU also demanded that the authorities give them one of the temples of the Upper Lavra. This means that an attack on the main shrine of Ukrainian Orthodoxy has already begun. There is no doubt that the same fate awaits the Pochaiv Lavra.

Therefore, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church faces very difficult challenges. How to solve them?


"What is impossible with man is possible with God" (Luke 18:27) – how many times have we each read these words of Christ? And how often have we thought about their meaning? Probably, not very often. Today we have exactly the situation where these words acquire their true meaning.

The decisions of the church councils have always been made by the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Now it is the time of God's Providence for His Church in Ukraine.

This Providence is manifested by the fact that the Lord has put the true pastor at the church helm - His Holiness Metropolitan Onuphry, who has cared about saving his soul and the flock entrusted to him all his life. There are many examples of the main care of His Beatitude is faithfulness to the holy canons of the Church. We believe that now Metropolitan will solve all our doubts for the benefit of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and its faithful.

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