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Ukrainian Orthodox elect new Metropolitan

22 August 2014

By Michael Bourdeaux


Careful owners: Patriarch Filaret (second from left), with Major-General Yuri Obleuhov, of the border service of Ukraine, wait as a car, bought by the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, is given to border guards on Good Friday

Careful owners: Patriarch Filaret (second from left), with Major-General Yuri Obleuhov, of the border service of Ukraine, wait as a car, bought by t...

DESPITE rumours circulating in Moscow that several rival candidates were being promoted to further Russian interests, the Ukrainians themselves have spoken. On 13 August, the Bishops' Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) elected the acting Metropolitan Onufri of Chernovtsy and Bukovina as its leader.

He had been fulfilling this position since 24 February, after Metropolitan Vladimir resigned for reasons of ill health (Obituary, 18 July), and three days after the flight from Ukraine of President Viktor Yanukovich. The election does not, therefore, presage any significant change of policy for his Church. But an agenda of immense complexity lies ahead for Metropolitan Onufri.

His immediate tasks are twofold: to secure the integrity of his own Church, and at the same time to maintain his canonical allegiance to the Moscow Patriarchate. These have all the marks of being irreconcilable. President Putin and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow have spoken with a united voice in welcoming the election. President Putin's message reads in part: "I am convinced that, in these difficult times for Ukraine, your activities as a spiritual leader will help to bring reconciliation and mutual understanding among people, and to restore accord and stability in society".

The basic problem in effecting the reconciliation of which President Putin speaks is this: the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) is riven with division. Metropolitan Onufri's first public act on his promotion to acting head last February was to write to Patriarch Kirill, urgently requesting him to intercede with President Putin to stop threatening the territorial integrity of Ukraine - a plea that went unanswered. Metropolitan Onufri now knows that there is a strong element in his Church, not least among the bishops themselves, urging a break with Moscow and secession to the Ecumenical Patriarch-ate.

Such an outcome would undermine the authority of Patriarch Kirill in Russia itself: Ukraine has for decades been the strongest part of Moscow's jurisdiction. A further imbrogilio is whether the Orthodox in the Crimea, snatched from Ukraine in a coup, now belong to Moscow or Kiev.

Quite apart from potential schism within Metropolitan Onufri's own Church, there is the long-standing one with the other two Ukrainian Orthodox Churches - the Autocephalous Church and the Kiev Patriarchate. The former is small, tracing its origin back to the short-lived period of Ukrainian independence after 1917; the latter is larger, fiercely patriotic and anti-Moscow, but led by Patriarch Filaret, who is not recognised by any other Orthodox Church, and whose past affiliation with the Soviet authorities and present personal life are deeply controversial.

It may be that the ultimate destiny of the Orthodox in Ukraine would be unity and independence, but Metropolitan Onufri is not in a position to work towards these at present.

Canon Michael Bourdeaux is the President of the Keston Institute, Oxford.

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