In a single week the number of universally recognised Local Churches has apparently gone up from 14 to 16. First, the Serbian Orthodox Mother-Church granted autocephaly to the Macedonian Orthodox Church. Thus a schism that has lasted well over fifty years has at last been overcome and the 1.5 million Orthodox of North Macedonia have now entered back into communion with the Serbian Orthodox Church and hopefully with the whole Orthodox family. There is rejoicing at this.
However, today (27 May) a Council (not Synod) of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, meeting in Kiev, has declared its autocephaly (without ever using that actual term), though it has not been granted it by the Mother-Church in Moscow. This is problematic, as the Mother-Church must first grant autocephaly, as in the Serbian example. We fear problems and divisions ahead. Of course, we well understand why the Kiev Council has been forced into this by the Kiev government and by the general tragic situation. A great many canonical Ukrainian Orthodox churches were being stolen, closed or handed over to schismatic groups by the nationalist Kiev government authorities in Central and Western Ukraine, as the UOC was under Moscow. Here there are many questions:
Was the decision reached freely? Was this the only solution? In declaring full independence, does the Council actually mean autocephaly? How will out-of-touch Moscow react? Should centralised Moscow have granted the Ukrainian Church at least autonomy previously, as we and others have long suggested? (For example, our March article on the possible reconfiguration of the Russian Church, suggesting large-scale autonomy, and many other articles years before that). What will happen as the UOC enters into negotiations with other groups, many of whose members left the Church only for political reasons? Will there at last be unity in the Ukraine, as the UOC wants to negotiate with at present schismatic groups in the Ukraine? How will this affect the Diaspora? What about churches, clergy and people in the Diaspora that are largely Ukrainian-dominated (like one in London)? Will the Ukrainian Orthodox Church accept or open churches in the Diaspora, as it suggests it will do in its Council’s statement?
Of course, we do not even know the borders of the future Ukraine. So far Russian forces have completely taken or almost taken five largely Russian-speaking provinces: Donetsk, Lugansk, Kherson, Zaporozhe and Kharkov. Given the rout of the Kiev forces, with hundreds deserting or surrendering every day, Russia may also soon take Odessa, Nikolaev and Dnipropetrovsk, so as to join up with Transdnestria.
Thus, it now looks as though all these more heavily-populated eight provinces of the Eastern Ukraine/Novorossija will, as the Crimea did in 2014, join Russia. Presumably, they will also, with their 20 million population (half the total of the Ukraine), also Join the Russian Church, still leaving it with some 130 million faithful. This will leave the sixteen provinces of Western and Central Ukraine, with some 10 to 15 million Orthodox, under the new Ukrainian Orthodox Church – presuming that Western provinces do not return to Poland, Romania and Slovakia, so restoring the 1930s borders. However, with the remnants of the routed Ukrainian Army collapsing in the Donbass and rumours, but only rumours, of an imminent coup d’etat in Kiev, the situation is very fluid.
We, canonically and safely living our Orthodox lives in a sister-Church, can only pray for Metr Onuphry and all concerned. We have as fathers steered the ship of the Church to remain outside devious political pressures and keep ourselves free. This, as everywhere, has been essential in order to retain the multinational ethos of the Church and protect our flocks and our churches. We all want a situation where all are free to worship God in the Orthodox manner.
The Russian Church has been in chaos for well over a year now, in the Diaspora, in Lithuania, which also seeks autonomy, and above all in the Ukraine. It has been thrown left and right by sinister political forces and has even rejected its own most faithful members of half a century’s standing because of raison d’etat. But God is not mocked. You will see. All of this was predicted.