Which Way Forward for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP)?

The Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine Volodymyr of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), or the UOC (MP), died on July 5, 2014 after a prolonged illness. His death came as no surprise to anyone in the Church as he was not very active for months. The question now becomes – who will the Synod choose as its new leader? How will they steer the Church: towards Moscow or away from it? The answer to that question is very important – not only to Ukrainians in Ukraine but to those outside of Ukraine who still hold allegiance to the UOC (MP).
Andrij Yurosh, a religionist and contributor to the Religious Information Service of Ukraine, believes that this Synod will be one of the most important for the UOC (MP). For even though the Church is placed under the guidance and direction of the Moscow Patriarch, about 70% of its bishops are now part of that younger generation of Ukrainians who grew up with an independent Ukrainian state (that younger generation that was so determined about displacing Yanukovych from power). And although eight of the twelwe Metropolitans and Archbishops on the Synod Council are part of the older generation, who were educated in the old Soviet seminaries and have had the concept of Russian unity imbedded in their minds, there will soon be a major generational shift in the UOC (MP) – for surely those eight will not last that much longer.
Yaroslav Lozowchuk, a faithful of the UOC (KP) in Regina, Saskatchewan, has indicated that this new generation is one of the most independently intellectual groups and is a by-product of the late Metrop Volodymyr’s transformation of the UOC (MP) in Ukraine.
So, who will lead the Church into the future? Russia favours a candidate that they could use to their favour. Metropolitan Volodymyr was certainly very close to ex-President Yanukovych (although there are reports that Yanukovych’s gang tried to kill Volodymyr for his pro-Ukrainian stance). The same situation will certainly not be true now: not only has the Presidency of Ukraine changed, but so have the people and many will not be happy with a severe Russian loyalist at the helm of their church.
Moscow Patriarch Kirill would certainly back the election of either Metropolitan Onuphrius (Berezovsky) or Metropolitan Antony (Pakanycz), both being conservative backers of the Church’s Moscow-leaning traditions. However, as Lozowchuk also points out, even Onuphrius has the capability of thinking independently from the Kremlin and has established one of thte best pastoral educational facilities in his area (which includes housing and educating about 400 orphaned handicapped children). “What they did in 15 years in that area should be an example of what Ukraine can do”, says Lozonwchuk. However, the issue of Ukrainization of the faithful is still a question. Lozowchuk admits that even in this educational facility there are only Russian or Roman signs, but no respect to the Ukrainian language.
There are, of course, a few dark horses in the race for the leadership: Metropolitan Philip (Osadchenko) and Metropolitan Simeon (Shpatsky). Philip is interested in the spiritual education of his flock and missionary work while Simeon has been called “charismatic” with an outstanding personality and a close association with President Poroshenko. The most controversial figure to emerge into the Ukrainian mainstream in all of this is however Metropolitan Oleksandr (Drabynko). Many Ukrainians would like to see Oleksandr running the Church as he was one of the most vocal advocates of unification with the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) – so vocal in fact that he was kicked out of the Holy Synod for his “destructive actions” only to be allowed back in last year (his history with Church politics and conspiracies is as intriguing as a detective novel).
Whomever the Synod decides to appoint, the UOC (MP) “will have to learn to live again”, as Kateryna Schotkina stated in Dzerkalo Tyzhnia Online. However, this problem of the UOC (MP) goes far beyond the loss of a long-time figure head; with the war in Ukraine, the Church needs to re-examine its stance with Moscow. Many analysts, including Paul Golde from The Interpreter, have pointed out that because of its support for Kremlin policies, the UOC (MP) is not only losing its influence in Ukraine but it’s also losing parishioners. Kyiv blocked Patriarch Kirill from entering the country and he made (or was forced to make) the conscious decision to not go to Metropolitan Volodymyr’s funeral – this would not have been possible one year ago.
If the Synod of the UOC (MP) is truly interested in its own survival, it will use the upcoming August 13th Council to re-examine its position, not only towards Moscow but also towards Ukraine. Of course there are positives and negatives to this situation: it looks like unification with the Kyiv Patriarchate is serious discussion now.
Lozowchuk indicates that it’s an “80-20 split in favour of unification” even within the UOC (MP). Lozowchuk continues that there is now an “honest and open discussion” about this and the intellectual element of the Church has very serious demands in this process. Lozowchuk believes thay the negative is the Diaspora’s historical inability to open up a serious dialogue with the UOC (MP). We haven’t made any effort to engage with the priesthood since we ourselves have our own specific reflections, discussions and perspectives about the UOC (MP). He also believes that we isolate ourselves from them and see them as enemies when in reality they are a serious influence in Ukraine and we should engage with them in open dialogue about the future of the Orthodox Church – one that is united or maybe even one that is not.
Whatever happens next month however, the UOC (MP) will be changed forever. It can no longer count on the Ukrainian state to be its primary political supporter and in any case, most of the new-found Ukrainian politicians are not keen to be visibly associated with a pro-Kremlin religious institution. Whomever they elect as their new head, the UOC (MP) will have to be very different in their approach to Ukraine and Ukrainians. In order to survive, it needs to stop declaring Ukraine a part of Russia – a Russia, if you recall, which is increasingly belligerent towards Ukraine. In order to survive the death of their leader and a war with their “brethren” church – the UOC (MP) must start seeing Ukrainians as unique and different from Russians. Or the people themselves will make that choice for them.