UARU
Autocephaly for Ukrainian Orthodox Church: Coming Soon?
5 September, 2018

Phanar is a small, former Greek district of Istanbul and home to the Constantinople Patriarchate. These days the Constantinople Church is not large (around 2 million believers) but is considered the most important of all the Orthodox patriarchates.

Its authority stems from the history and respect for the continuous traditions of Constantinople. When paganism was the main religion in Ukraine, Russia and many other now-Orthodox countries, a powerful church was forming in this territory. Its interpretations of Christianity are still relevant to many Christians around the world today – and not just Orthodox Christians.

Patriarch Kirill, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church came here, surrounded by security guards and journalists with Russian state media, to discuss Ukraine with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the head of the Constantinople Church.

Hromadske was also on the ground to see how the historic meeting unfolded.

Rules of Church Etiquette

Two dozen pilgrims from Ukraine flew in especially for the talks and were waiting on the streets in the hope of seeing Patriarch Kirill. The pro-autocephaly believers gathered from all over Ukraine: from Kyiv to Rivne. Dressed in traditional Ukrainian shirts called vyshyvanka, they wanted to greet Kirill. But the Patriarch, along with his entourage, drove into Phanar through a different entrance.

Ukrainian churchgoers gather outside the Ecumenical Patriarchate residence in Istanbul, Turkey on August 31 when the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, arrived for talks with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

After a short traditional greeting ceremony at the church, Patriarch Kirill headed upstairs to the Ecumenical Patriarchs’ throne room where Bartholomew was already waiting for him. The hellos, the three kisses (traditional for Orthodox believers) and the short introduction speeches are all that the journalists were able to see.

Security stationed outside Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s residence in Istanbul, Turkey on August 31. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

Those who were present noticed one interesting detail in terms of church etiquette. Bartholomew addressed Kirill as “Your Beatitude” – a title given to metropolitan bishops and heads of the churches that are inferior to the Constantinople Patriarch, while Kirill addressed Bartholomew as “Your Holiness,” recognizing his superiority.

READ MORE: Ukrainian Orthodox Church Closer to Receiving Autocephaly

Bartholomew mentioned some of their mutual acquaintances such as Metropolitan Nikodim who was Kirill’s patron and mentor during the Soviet era. It is Nikodim who was responsible for relationships with other Churches at Soviet-period Russian Orthodox Church. During his short life, he set the tone for Moscow’s relations with other religious denominations. In response to this unexpected trip down the memory lane, Kirill added that he has known Bartholomew since 1977, when both of them were young bishops at their respected churches.

The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew sat down during his meeting with Patriarch Kirill at the Ecumenical Patriarchs’ throne room in Istanbul, Turkey on August 31. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

There’s only seven years between the two leaders – Moscow’s Patriarch Kirill is younger than Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew – but the tension between the two churches dates back much further. Moscow has been challenging the authority of the Constantinople church over Orthodoxy for generations. But now Kyiv lies at the heart of this dispute.

The church representatives discussed Ukraine for two and half hours. After the discussion, Patriarch Kirill quickly left Phanar. When asked how the meeting went, the head of the ROC retorted “Well. Well.” Later at the airport he was more talkative but still failed to mention Ukraine even once.

Inside the Ecumenical Patriarchs’ throne room in Istanbul, Turkey on August 31. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

“The conversation was very orthodox, a conversation between two brothers who recognize their responsibility for the state of Ecumenical Orthodoxy, and the state of human souls. Very nice meeting, very nice atmosphere it was,” Kirill said. “We discussed all the burning issues of today. I hope we will continue working together to make this world a better place.”

Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, addressed Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew as “Your Holiness” recognizing his superiority. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

From the Constantinople Patriarchate’s side, the meeting was commented on by the Metropolitan Emmanuel of France (Adamakis) who is in charge of the Ukrainian autocephaly question.

The hellos, the three kisses (traditional for Orthodox believers) and the short introduction speeches are all that the journalists were able to see during the church representatives’ meeting in Istanbul, Turkey on August 31. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

“This [Constantinople] Church has all the opportunities in the whole world. The Ecumenical Patriarch, with his long life experience in the most important of all the Orthodox Churches, plays a special part in this question. Hence why the decisions and sometimes the solutions emerge from here,” Emmanuel said. “The main question discussed was the situation in Ukraine. As you know, there has been over 25 years of schism in Ukraine and the Ecumenical Patriarch has taken the decision to consider all possible ways to grant the Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly. It is this decision that was approved in April and we are in the process of implementing it. This is what the Ecumenical Patriarch informed Patriarch Kirill during the meeting. The two Church leaders met up and discussed these questions in a sincere and brotherly way and I think this is the way we should act in the future.”

The Tomos of Contention?

Emmanuel’s words were interpreted differently in Ukraine and Russia. The pro-autocephaly believers in Kyiv saw it as a green light for granting the Tomos. Moscow, however, says that nothing of that nature was implied by Emmanuel and it’s too early to speak about the autocephaly.

Kirill’s departure from Istanbul did not signal the end to the talks about Ukrainian Church’s independence, quite the opposite: they have only just started.

The Synaxis (that’s what the bishops’ assembly is called in Greek) was gathered in Istanbul’s biggest operating Orthodox church, the Hagia Triada, on September 1. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

More than 100 bishops from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople flocked to their Patriarch for the Council, which convenes every couple of years. The Synaxis (that’s what the assembly is called in Greek) was gathered in Istanbul’s biggest operating Orthodox church: the Hagia Triada (Holy Trinity).

More than 100 bishops from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople flocked to their Patriarch for the Council, which convenes every couple of years. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

But decisions cannot be taken at the Council, the bishops state. Their job is to advise. The participants of the Council spent three days talking about the various aspects of the potential independence of Ukraine’s Orthodox Church. Patriarch Bartholomew set the tone for the meeting. There were several paragraphs in his opening report about how Moscow has systematically ignored Constantinople’s opinion on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church over the past centuries:

“Already from the early 14th century, when the see of the Kyivan Metropolis was moved without the canonical permission of the Mother Church to Moscow, there have been tireless efforts on the part of our Kyivan brothers for independence from ecclesiastical control by the Moscow center,” Bartholomew’s statement reads. “Indeed, the obstinacy of the Patriarchate of Moscow was instrumental in occasionally creating repeated mergers and restorations of ecclesiastical eparchies, uncanonical elections of Bishops as well as schisms, which still afflict the pious Ukrainian people.”

The assembly, which took place on September 1 at Istanbul’s Hagia Triada, was started by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (R). Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

To solve the issue of autocephaly, the archbishops discussed the rights of their church to present a Tomos to Ukraine – a document on independence. This right does exist – the bishops are unanimous on this. At the same time, the bishops insist on the fact that the Constantinople Church remains the “Mother Church” to Kyiv, so to speak  the church, Kyivan Rus inherited Christianity from and with which Kyiv lost its ties due to political difficulties during Medieval times. This “Mother Church” status was strongly highlighted by the Metropolitan Elpidoforos of Bursa, one of the most respected and influential theologians at the Constantinople Church. He briefly commented on the ongoing discussion and advised Ukrainian believers not to worry.The Council at Istanbul’s biggest operating Orthodox church, the Hagia Triada, on September 1. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

“Repeating the message from the Ukrainian nation’s Mother Church to our beloved spiritual children, previously voiced by His Holiness: everything will be alright. Trust your Mother,” he said.

Little disagreements only started at the Council when Metropolitan Emmanuel (Adamakis) spoke. Tasked by Bartholomew and the Synod, he spent six months traveling around the world and visiting local Orthodox churches, all to discuss the question of granting Ukrainian Orthodox Church autocephaly. Emmanuel is also in close contact with the Ukrainian government. In fact, his last visit to Ukraine wasn’t that long ago: when Kyiv celebrated 1,030 years since adopting Christianity in July.

READ MORE: 1030 Years of Christianity: Is Ukraine Ready for a United Orthodox Church?

When the questions and answers time came, several bishops expressed their doubts. Is this decision not premature, what if the Tomos becomes a political PR tool or bone of contention in Ukraine, they wondered. These concerns were expressed by individuals who have not followed the events in Ukraine. Those bishops who do not understand the Ukrainian reality were explained the real state of things by the church representatives who have Ukrainian roots. And there were several of them present in Istanbul: Metropolitan Yurij (Kalistchuk) of Winnipeg and Canada, Archbishop Daniel from Chicago, and Bishop Ilarion of Edmonton and Western Canada. They are representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox churches outside of Ukraine and under the Constantinople Patriarchate.

The Council at Istanbul’s biggest operating Orthodox church, the Hagia Triada, on September 1. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

No statements were made after the discussion. They just discussed the risks and problems that can arise with autocephaly considering Moscow’s opposition to the move.

The last day of the Council was spent discussing Macedonia. This country has an Orthodox Church, which voluntarily separated from the Serbian Orthodox Church, and is now in a condition similar to Ukraine. The only difference is that the schism here has been in place for half a century. It is very well possible that the Macedonian question will be resolved at the same time as the Ukrainian one. This was suggested by the aforementioned Metropolitan Yurij.

The Council at Istanbul’s biggest operating Orthodox church, the Hagia Triada, on September 1. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

“But, you know, no one here resolves anything,” he said. “The decisions are made at the Synod and we here just listen to the information so that we know what’s going on. In my opinion, it’s great that both – the question of Ukraine and the question of Skopje – are discussed here. The only thing we can do is hope. I don’t know what the next actions will be but I have faith that the decision is now actually approved, that things are moving forward, that the autocephaly for Ukraine will be announced. But when this will happen, how it will happen is still under question.”

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew reads a prayer before starting the Council at Istanbul’s Hagia Triada on September 1. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

Everything that’s been said at the Council was noted down and sent to the Synod – the Church leadership, which comprises some of the highest-ranking bishops of the Constantinople Patriarchate. The Synod, along with Patriarch Bartholomew, will be the ones to take the final decision on the autocephaly.

An Orthodox believer places a candle at Istanbul’s biggest operating Orthodox church, the Hagia Triada, on September 1. Photo credit: Oleksandr Popenko / Hromadske

The next Synod meeting is scheduled for October.

READ MORE: Will Ukraine Get Its Own Unified Orthodox Church?

/By Saken Aymurzaev

/Translated by Maria Romanenko and Sofia Fedeczko