A post-war Ukrainian religious reconciliation – A call from CEMES


By Dr Nikolaos Dimitriadis*
The Center for Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou” (CEMES), faithful to its vocation and its vision, has directed all its scholarly projects towards Orthodox unity, which has become vulnerable, hard hit by the decision of the last minute of certain Churches not to take part in the pan-Orthodox Council so awaited and prepared for almost a century. This situation deteriorated further after the decision of the Patriarchate of Moscow (MP) to break Eucharistic communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) and with the Churches which recognized the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) and, more recently , with the creation (December 2021) of a Russian Exarchate on the canonical territory of the Patriarchate of Alexandria.

Already before the creation of the OCU, the CEMES had started a project on the question of a single and unified Orthodox Church in Ukraine. This was studied through the “Primacy-Conciliarity-Autocephaly” triptych, and the final report was published in April 2019, under the title “Peace on Earth and Orthodox Unity. An Appeal to the Orthodox Academic Community”. The report stresses the need to consider “pragmatic proposals”, based on “the real situation”, taking into account that Ukrainians are “open to a closer relationship and even cooperation with their neighboring countries”, and to carry out “cultural cooperation, exchange of ideas and engaging the younger generation” of all the Churches towards mutual enrichment in the social and humanitarian field.

In light of Russia’s war against Ukraine, some CEMES members have expressed deep concern over the so-called “Russkii Mir” (“Russian World”) ideology (abbreviated to religious and secular imperialism) , which in many ways is contrary to the conciliatory and anti-nationalist tenor of the mission document of the Holy and Great Council “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in the World Today” and the document on social ethics Orthodox “For the life of the world”, published in 2020.

Indeed, the rupture of Eucharistic communion between the MP and the four autocephalous Churches which recognized the autocephaly of the OCU and its Primate, Metr. Epiphane should not be considered an isolated case; the absence of a deputy from the Holy and Great Council of 2016, his initial veto on the completion of the pre-conciliar document on autocephaly and the creation of the Russian African Exarchate were understood by many as an escalation for establish a new model of pan-Orthodox unity.

In this regard, it has been argued that the Holy Canons, being established in ancient times, cannot resolve current and more complex situations created in new political and geopolitical contexts. Those who follow this mindset may not go so far as to formally abandon the centuries-old canonical tradition established by the Ecumenical Councils, but they do offer a model of ecclesial unity without First-Protos, that is, say without primacy of honor and service (and with certain prerogatives), that all Orthodox, without exception (and without theological counter-argument) follow at all levels of Church life (diocesan, regional). CEMES does not argue that we should slavishly follow the Holy Canons without contextualizing their content; rather, it suggests that we must faithfully keep our canonical tradition, but interpreted dynamically. Otherwise, there is a danger of falling into a Protestant-style confederation of local, independent/national Orthodox Churches, a situation almost inevitable if the proposal to “leave the canons to their past” prevails. And if this happens, we can no longer speak of the “one Church” that we confess in the Creed, but of something foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology.

Unfortunately, for many centuries after the rupture of communion with Rome in the 11th century, many Orthodox unconsciously developed a “negative” identity: for them, Orthodoxy is not what tradition has bequeathed to it, but what others, mainly Catholics, are not. In other words: Orthodoxy is a synodal Church without primacy, that is, without this visible expression of the worldwide unity of the Church.
Today, synodality is no longer a taboo for the exercise of papal primacy: Pope Francis stressed that “in dialogue with our Orthodox brothers and sisters, we Catholics have the opportunity to learn more about the meaning of episcopal collegiality and their experience of synodality”. (Evangelii Gaudium, 246). The same correlation (or interdependence) between primacy and synodality at all levels of Church life has been affirmed in the official Orthodox-Catholic dialogue (see the documents of Ravenna and Chieti).
Thus, the refusal of some Orthodox to accept a visible head (a First-Protos, not in jurisdictional terms but in terms of service to unity) destroys the basis of Church unity. The imperious need to have a First-Protos at the universal level, especially in the light of its existence at all the other levels (diocesan, metropolitan), inevitably deprives the coherence of the global witness of our Church. Any new perception of Church unity, based on power or “numerical” superiority, as currently promoted, or even on the basis of a Church as the capital of a State or a dominant Empire, can hardly in itself have an immediate canonical or ecclesiological effect. .

The religious landscape of Ukraine is extremely important, not only because of the Russian invasion, that is, because of the aggression of another Orthodox state, nor because of the geopolitical status of the Ukraine; Present-day Ukraine has been for centuries the arena of encounter – or clash – between the two main theological and spiritual streams of Eastern and Western Christianity, namely Orthodoxy and Catholicism. Today it has become the land where the wounds of the past can either linger to the detriment of the Church’s image and her witness to the world, or be healed through a process of reconciliation that could lead Christianity into as a whole towards a new ecumenical era and – why not – towards the restoration of the unity of the Church.

Ironically enough, the granting of autocephaly to the OCU and the war in Ukraine led to a wider ecumenical renewal; religious reconciliation in Ukraine is now more possible than it was before the war. In this regard, the contribution of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC), which has openly spoken out in favor of Ukrainian autocephaly, should not be ignored.

The Greek Catholic Churches have historically developed in the geographical area where the current Russian-Ukrainian conflict is taking place. Many Orthodox now see these churches no longer as an obstacle to the peace of Ukrainian society, but as a strong protagonist of common witness and Christian collaboration. Thus, the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic community, once a problem in Ukrainian-Russian history, is one of the main actors in promoting social stability and ecumenical relations, in a way that even the ” Balamand Declaration” (1993) of official Orthodox-Catholic dialogue failed to ensure.

As for the canonical steps, a practical suggestion towards the reconciliation of Ukrainian Orthodoxy could be a provisional solution of a “dual jurisdiction”. Although this status is not fully canonical – even in the Orthodox diaspora it has provisional force – it seems to be the only possible solution to diminish the hatred developed over the past 30 years, exacerbated over the past two years.

This could guarantee the integrity of the two Orthodox Churches of Ukraine, their synodal constitution, the existence of a First in each of them, as well as the will of the two administrative bodies to be agents of communion and unity. and not of division and rivalry. . The primacy of the PE could serve not as an obligation to join the OCU, but as a canonical protection for the dioceses which will initially not want to join either of the two Churches. In addition, the canonical intervention of the EP ended in 2019 with the granting of autocephaly, with the return to canonical status of the millions of Ukrainian faithful and with the projection of the principles of unity and communion as the reason for the existence of the Church in Ukraine.

Another temporary solution could be the creation of an unofficial synodal ecclesiastical structure after mutual agreement between the UOC-MP and the OCU. This could be the kairos of Ukrainian inter-Orthodox reconciliation, especially after the non-commemoration of Patriarch Cyril of Moscow by many UOC-MP affiliated dioceses and parishes, after Patr. Kirill’s non-condemnation of Russia’s war against Ukraine.

This can be achieved if the model of the 1928 agreement between the European Parliament and the Autocephalous Church of Greece, which allowed the so-called “New Lands” of Greece to be temporarily administered by the Autocephalous Church of Greece, that is, with 6 bishops from the European Parliament and 6 from the Autocephalous Church of Greece forming the permanent Holy Synod, the main executive administrative body. In other words, the UOC-MP and the OCU should put aside their ecclesiastical civil controversy and agree to join forces in their Orthodox Christian witness. During this interim period, a Church administration can be established with a permanent synod consisting of a synod of all the Orthodox hierarchs, exactly on the model that works perfectly in the Church of Greece. All of this, hopefully, extending their synodality to the “royal priesthood” (both ordained and lay) and to all levels of ecclesiastical life, until full-scale reconciliation and maturity is achieved. , and that eventually a truly united Orthodox Church in Ukraine emerges.

Such solutions, or similar solutions, can reconcile, in a very short time, all the Ukrainian Orthodox by making them embrace each other and not fight each other and be an example for the rest of the Orthodox, and for the whole world, of this what does Christian love really mean?

*Dr Nikolaos Dimitriadis is Professor of World Religions, President of CEMES

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