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18 July 2014


Paying their respects: Orthodox priests and worshippers gather round the coffin of Metropolitan Vladimir during a memorial service in Kiev on 5 July

Paying their respects: Orthodox priests and worshippers gather round the coffin of Metropolitan Vladimir during a memorial service in Kiev on 5 July

Canon Michael Bourdeaux writes:

FEW - if any - church leaders of modern times have had to navigate through such a lethal minefield as Metropolitan Vladimir of Kiev.

The whole world knows of the tensions, bordering on civil war, which have overwhelmed Ukraine in recent months. The part played by the Church in all this has received less attention than the political crises - the expulsion of President Yanukovych and the election of a successor; but Ukrainians are, by and large, religious people; so issues of faith have played a significant part behind the headlines.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, and the democratic Ukrainian vote for independence, the Orthodox Church found itself in a precarious position. The Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine, as it had always been, was canonically subject to the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, but Ukraine had always provided more than its share of loyal priests for Russia.

In Kiev, from which the Christian faith had originally spread throughout the lands of the Eastern Slavs after the conversion of 988, there was a sharp tussle that led, eventually, to the secession of a faction of believers who became the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) under the controversial Patriarch Filaret (Denysenko), who was not recognised by world Orthodoxy, let alone the Moscow Patriarchate. The majority of the churches remained loyal to Moscow, and it was into this imbroglio that Metropolitan Vladimir was appointed, with the brief of steering millions of believers towards political loyalty to Kiev, and Christian adherence to Moscow.

This the Metropolitan did with exemplary judgement until the ugly, Moscow-inspired political conflict exploded earlier this year, by which time he was mortally ill. He died on 5 July, aged 78.

Born Viktor Sabodan into a Ukrainian peasant family in 1935, his outstanding ability and commitment to the Christian faith led him to become a doughty opponent of the universal Soviet atheism that surrounded him. Though never a dissident, he showed how it was possible to build a church career within the system, but without yielding to the compromises made by several of his contemporary church leaders.

From the theological seminary in Odessa, he took the monastic name of Vladimir. He served successively in the Russian Ecclesiastical Mission in Jerusalem, became Bishop of Zvenigorod still in his thirties, and, in 1973, became rector of the Moscow Theological Academy (where I met him and found him a warm and delightful character).

After a succession of senior appointments, he is reported to have missed out on being elected Patriarch of Moscow in 1990 by a handful of votes, but his appointment as Metropolitan of Kiev, in 1992, gave him maximum scope for his diplomatic talents.

On the one hand, he confronted a schism with the Kiev Patriarchate, and, on the other, he had to steer his own people to maintain a kind of divided loyalty to Kiev and to Moscow.

There were bound to be serious tensions with the strong character of the Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill. These came to a head in the early months of this year, as tensions in Ukraine exploded; but ill health forced his resignation in February. The Ukraine that he knew changed for ever before his eyes while he was on his sick bed.

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