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Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis edited by Andrii Krawchuk & Thomas Bremer

30 June 2017

Michael Bourdeaux reflects on Ukraine’s politically split faithful



Scars of war: door to the Russian Orthodox Iversky Monastery, shelled during a battle for Donetsk airport, 2015

Scars of war: door to the Russian Orthodox Iversky Monastery, shelled during a battle for Donetsk airport, 2015

Churches in the Ukrainian Crisis

Andrii Krawchuk and Thomas Bremer, editors

Palgrave Macmillan £66.99

FOUR Orthodox Churches in one country in dispute with each other: what could be more esoteric? The answer is that this collection of essays illuminates a subject that is vital to European security and thus affects us all.

First, the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, despite all appearances, is not “Orthodox” at all: it is Catholic and comes under the jurisdiction of the Pope, though must never be called “Roman Catholic”. Yury P. Avvkumov’s incisive chapter explains its history as an attempt at the end of the 16th century to unite Orthodox and Catholics on Polish soil.

Frequently vilified since by the Russian Church, then suppressed by the Soviets in 1946, and never unambiguously accepted by the Vatican, because it has a married priesthood, it nevertheless has an honourable history as the cradle of Ukrainian independence. After its vigorous but illegal underground mission, Mikhail Gorbachev finally permitted it to flourish and regain its churches stolen by the Orthodox. Moscow’s Orthodox leadership, to its shame, vilifies the Ukrainian Greek Catholics to this day; but worshipping in St George’s Cathedral in Lviv is an uplifting spiritual experience. Leaving disputes far behind, nearly 4000 parishes celebrate Ukraine’s nation­hood and independence.

Many Ukrainians urgently wish that the three “regular” Orthodox Churches, one in their theology but divided in their politics, could unite.

Communist oppression alone is responsible for the schism. Originally reduced almost to nothing during Stalin’s purges of the 1930s, the Russian Orthodox Church flourished, comparatively speaking, in the post-war years. Nearly half of all its parishes were on Ukrainian soil. Independence, under an “exarch”, was nominal only: Ukraine and Russia seemed an indissoluble whole. Then came their political separation in 1991, which left some 17,000 “Russian” parishes in what was now an independent country.

In the wave of enthusiasm for independence, Metropolitan Filaret abruptly abandoned his loyalty to Moscow and established a new “Kiev Patriarchate”. World Orthodoxy, led by the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew of Constantinople, could not accept the legitimacy of these 4700 breakaway parishes; nor was the new Patriarch, Filaret, well regarded beyond his own Church, having had close ties with the KGB. An additional complication was the emergence of about 1200 parishes belonging to an “Autocephalous” Orthodox Church, a revival of a long-suppressed initiative dating from the few years when Ukraine was inde­pend­ent after the collapse of the Tsarist regime.

This short book explains all this complexity with clarity. The Kremlin’s violent intrusion into Ukraine’s affairs, with the seizure of Crimea and the invasion of the Donbas region, threatens the security of Europe. There are huge tensions within the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), leading to about 500 parishes embracing the Kiev jurisdiction. As Krawchuk and his collaborators brilliantly set out, however, the massacre of demon­strators in the centre of Kiev in
2014, ordered by Russia’s puppet, Yanukovich, has undoubtedly vitiated Ukrainian loyalty to Moscow for all time.

It is a shame that the binding of such an important book of only 240 pages should fall apart at a first read­ing, and that it should be on the market for a small fortune (£66.99).


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

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