If that sounds political, it is. But when it comes to a Ukrainian Orthodox Church anywhere in the world, the political is also cultural and spiritual – and personal, as in my case.
August 9-12, 2018, in Saskatoon SK, I attended the celebration of the 100th anniversary of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada (UOCC). In 1918, just as the first immigrants were burying their first dead, the Church got its start in that city when a group of disaffected Ukrainian Catholics (thus far the majority of Ukrainian immigrants to Canada) and “progressive” (read: social democrat) intellectuals decided to organize a Ukrainian Orthodox Church, a Church with which, in short order, members of my grandparents’ family affiliated. And so it came to pass that I was baptized into the UOCC in an Edmonton parish: how could I let the ancestors down by not showing up to celebrate their foresight in once again becoming Orthodox?
Besides, excited rumours were circulating that His All Holiness Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople (aka Istanbul), New Rome and Ecumenical [Highest Dignitary] Patriarch, the Spiritual Head of World Orthodoxy, First Among Equals, was about to grant – or commit to granting – independence to the much-beleaguered Ukrainian Orthodox Church in Kyiv.
What a spiritual gift to our Jubilee celebrations in Saskatchewan if that were true!
But I am getting ahead of myself. And this is complicated history, which I will try to make as easy to follow as I can. After all, there was once a time when I couldn’t make head or tail of it myself. (I welcome easy-to-understand correction of egregious errors.)
The UOCC was a new creature in Ukrainian Orthodoxy: made-in-Canada, with no connections with any Church in Ukraine, least of all with the only legal Orthodox entity on Ukrainian lands, the Russian Orthodox Church, headed by the Moscow Patriarch. So, inspired in part by the practices of Presbyterians, for example, in Alberta who ran missions among the Ukrainian settlers, the UOCC decided its lay members, men and women (!), would have a voice and vote in the Church’s administrative matters, right up to the top stratum. (Remind me sometime to tell you what it is like to vote for a Bishop – think incense, Holy Water and ballot box combined.) Matters of doctrine and rites, of course, were reserved for the clergy. But everyone together wanted consistency with Eastern Christianity, the mother lode of Ukrainian spiritual legacies.
By the time I was seven years old, the UOCC had almost 300 congregations, 70 priests and 110,000 adherents. It would grow from there but, sadly, on its 100th birthday, the demographics are not hopeful. Even so, the UOCC may be embraced as “the Light of Truth for Contemporary Orthodoxy,” according to Very Reverend Fr. Roman Bozyk, Dean of Theology at St. Andrew’s College at the University of Manitoba, at a special symposium at the Jubilee. By which he meant – anticipating skepticism – our “heritage of Canadian mentality: a mosaic of influences, the British heritage of fair play, with clergy and laity working together. Our lay groups, especially women’s, are fundamental to our strength.” And, then, possibly as a nod to what was coming down the pike from Constantinople and Kyiv: “We do not change our practices to please a Czar.”
Ukrainians – or, rather, the people who would become Ukrainians – were baptized into Eastern Christianity in 988 when Prince Volodymyr (Vladimir) of Kyiv chose Byzantine (Greek) over Roman (Latin) Christianity. Constantinople thus became the Mother Church of the Kyivan Church. Grievously, in 1240, Kyiv fell to the Mongols, who razed it, but to the north a heretofore small fishing village, Moscow, gained prominence, and by 1453, when Constantinople (Byzantium) fell to the Ottoman Turks, the Grand Duchy of Moscow declared itself the Third Rome (after Imperial Rome and the New Rome of Constantine’s city). In 1686, after a series of ruinous wars, the Ukrainian Orthodox church was separated from Constantinople and subordinated to the Moscow patriarchate, the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople remaining spiritual head of both.
Moving smartly along…we arrive at the 1920s and a brief period when the Bolsheviks allowed a Ukrainian Independent Orthodox Church to function but in 1927 its Spiritual Head was arrested by the NKVD and executed in 1937. The early 1930s and again after the Second World War saw the destruction of tens of its bishops, thousands of its priests and tens of thousands of its lay activists. And we finally arrive at the break-up of the Soviet Union and the independence of Ukraine in 1991, the arrival of Bartholomew I to the Ecumenical Patriarchal Throne in Constantinople (Istanbul), the looming split of the Orthodox Church in Kyiv from the Moscow Patriarchate – and (coincidentally?) the reception of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada into the Ecumenical Patriarchate, bringing us into communion with the four Ancient Patriarchates – Jerusalem, Alexandria, Antioch and Constantinople (but not, alas, with Rome, another long story).
From this point on, Church business in Ukraine becomes increasingly complicated and, to my mind, messy, but not without interest to us Ukrainian-Canadians, Orthodox and Catholic. Fights over property, defrockings and excommunications, meddling of nationalist political groups, expose of former NKVD agents and informers within the Russian Orthodox Church…Under the presidency of Vladimir Putin in Russia, church relations became strained to the breaking point. After Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, there began a wide-spread movement of Ukrainian parishes from Moscow’s patriarchate to that of “schismatic” and unrecognized Kyiv (almost half of the Russian Orthodox Church’s parishioners live in Ukraine).
With the Russian-sponsored war and occupation of eastern Ukrainian territory also in 2014, Ukrainian Orthodox faithful were confronted with images of Russian priests blessing Russian soldiers and weapons to the front, making visits to volunteers of the “Russian Orthodox Army,” where Russian soldiers are photographed kissing an icon of Putin, with Patriarch Kiril of Moscow, far from condemning the Russian invasion and occupation, calling President Putin a “miracle from God” – well, how can any self-respecting Ukrainian Orthodox Christian stay with a Church that requires her to pray for the well-being of Patriarch Kiril? Asia News reports that the 1030th anniversary of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus was celebrated in Moscow by Patr. Kiril – because he has been barred from Ukraine. The Kyivan Patriarch, Filaret, had already suggested that Putin is “possessed by Satan.”
This brings us to current events in the Fall of 2018, hastened by a request, in April, 2018, by the Parliament of Ukraine to Patr. Bartholomew that he grant full independence to the break-away UOC – Kyiv Patriarchate. Naturally, Moscow objects but broad support comes from Ukrainian Orthodox bishops abroad. Patr. Bartholomew is the soul of discretion until September 7 when he indicates he is in favour of granting Parliament’s request. This “bombshell” explodes a mere week after Patr. Kiril visited Constantinople, during an admittedly “frosty” meeting, after which the Russian delegates did not even stay for dinner.
A propaganda war heats up: Moscow “slams” Constantinople and warns against “fake news” coming from that source. Constantinople is of the belief that it never did “hand over” the territory of Ukraine to the Russian church in the first place (i.e. in 1686). “The Moscow Church is a daughter of the Ukrainian Church, which is a daughter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.” Besides, it was medieval Kyivan Rus that was baptized, not Russia. Publicorthodoxy.org reports that Russian military intelligence has sought to “hack and surveil His Holiness Bartholomew” as reported by Associated Press: what did Patr. Kiril know and when did he know it?
By this time international media are chasing this story. I read items from Kyiv Post, Economist, TASS, Washington Post, Greek Reporter, Christian Today, Tablet, Irish Times and Eurasia Daily Monitor, among others, as Google Alerts pop up in my Inbox. Atlantic Council reports: “It’s no exaggeration to write that the granting of autocephaly [independence] from the Russian Orthodox Church to Ukraine’s millions of Orthodox believers is as significant as the disintegration of the USSR for Ukraine.”
From my perch in Canada, I am amazed. That Orthodoxy – usually a footnote in the annals of (Western) Christendom – is so interesting to outsiders.That unfamiliar (Greek)vocabulary circulates: Exarch, Patriarch, Ecumenical, Synod, Metropolia. That the faces and voices of Orthodox clergy are posted on social media. That the spiritual hunger of Christians neither Roman Catholic nor Protestant has become news!
So perhaps you can understand what a joy it was for me to see, just a few days ago, the video and photo of Ukraine President Pyotr Poroshenko in Kyiv, greeting UOCC’s very own Bishop, His Grace Ilarion, an envoy along with American Archbishop Daniel, of the Ecumenical Patriarch, “dispatched by the spiritual leader of the world’s Orthodox Christians,” as AP reported, “to prepare for establishing a Ukrainian church that is ecclesiastically independent from the Russian Orthodox Church.”
What a birthday present for the ancestors!