Professor Zenon Wasyliw
In a letter published in the Kyiv Post on July 30, Zenon V. Wasyliw, professor of history at Ithaca College in Ithaca, NY caught my attention. The thing that puzzled me was that the Orthodox Church in America was not universally recognized by the world-wide orthodox community as an autocephalous Orthodox church.
Here is the Kyiv Post news article:
According to Zenon Wasyliw, Putin, Medvedev and Kirill are a powerful Russian troika engaged in joint political and religious manipulations.
His Beatitude Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan), leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarch), addressed representatives of local Orthodox churches under the presidency and invitation of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew last October. He cited the vibrancy, growth and strong structure of his church. He noted continued dialogues striving toward church unity with representatives of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kyivan Patriarchate and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church that are not canonically recognized. The three combined jurisdictions would number over 17,000 Ukrainian parish communities.
Despite these impressive statistics and sincere efforts toward unity, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarch) is not officially recognized as a particular church. It is not accorded the same status as that of the world’s 15 autocephalous Orthodox churches. Metropolitan Volodymyr was only a guest speaker at the Phanar. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church is officially a branch of the Russian Orthodox Church.
An article on Patriarch Kirill’s enthronement, published in the Orthodox Church of America’s official publication, The Orthodox Church, cites Metropolitan Vladimir (or Volodymyr) of Kyiv as one of the Russian Church’s two senior hierarchs. There is never any mention of a Ukrainian Orthodox Church. This status evolved politically under Russian tsarist expansive imperialism and Soviet control of and collaboration with the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate. We now live in post-colonial and post-Soviet times that call for an honest acceptance of autocephalous self-governance for Orthodox Christians in Ukraine.
Patriarch Kirill opposes “political orthodoxy,” yet the Russian Orthodox Church closely collaborates with Russian leaders Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev in spreading a Russian nationalist (some say proto-fascist) message in Russia and the “near abroad.”
Putin, Medvedev and Kirill, a powerful Russian troika, engage in joint political and religious commemorations of the White General Anton Denikin, supporting and echoing Denikin’s denigration of Ukrainians, the political canonization into sainthood of Tsar Nicholas II, his wife and five children, in support of a reactionary Russian imperial ideological foundation of Autocracy, Orthodoxy and Russian Nationality with its legacy of chauvinistic policies and pogroms.
Many other examples bring to question whether Patriarch Kirill’s visit is a political mission to re-engage a reactionary past of a revived vision of Russian imperial control over Ukraine.
The Russian Orthodox Church remains silent on many recent and current human rights abuses by the Russian state, such as the suspicious deaths of journalists critical of the government, the assault upon the human rights group Memorial, the censorship and political control of history, among many others.
The Russian troika should accept that Ukrainians have their own identities and values in a post-colonial and post-Soviet space. Good relations between Ukraine and Russia are important and should be based on mutual respect and equality, not spheres of influence through ecclesiastical control. Only a self-governing, autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church can spiritually respond to Ukrainians’ unique and varied identities, developments and issues. The Russian Orthodox Church in Russia has its own issues and concerns it needs to attend.
Serge Schmemann, son of the famous Orthodox theologian, notes in the April 2009 National Geographic the catastrophically low level of monthly church attendance in Russia, estimated at 10 percent to less than 1 percent. Ukraine, on the other hand has a far higher level of belief and liturgical participation. Metropolitan Volodymyr has stated that over 70 percent of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church membership is found in the nationally conscious and linguistically Ukrainian European oriented western half of Ukraine, in contrast to the Eurasian orientation of Russian Orthodoxy.
The only true realizable path toward self-governance is the return of a Kyivan-Ukrainian Orthodox Church Metropolitan in union with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as was the case prior to its political assimilation into the Moscow Patriarchate in 1686. Those of Russian nationalist orientations in Ukraine can be served by Russian patriarchal clergy, as is done in the United States. But it is evident that Patriarch Kirill, with the political influence of Putin and Medvedev, will not acknowledge this right.
An Autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church, with its primate in Kyiv and not Moscow, will best serve the spiritual needs of its faithful and the realities of daily life. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church would then join world Orthodoxy as an equal to the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches of Albania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Georgia, Greece, Romania, Russia, Serbia, Slovakia and the four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Autocephaly is not a myth reality.
I wrote to Professor Wasyliw:
"Dear Professor Wasyliw,
"Your observations in the July 30 edition of the Kyiv Post regarding Patriarch Kirill and political orthodoxy are interesting. I agree with your last comment. However, I am puzzled why you did not include the Autocephalous Orthodox Church in America in your list. Was this an oversight?
"Arseny Pavel (Eugene) Kovalenko, Ph.D.
St. Dimitri of Rostov mission parish
Orthodox Church in America
Los Alamos, New Mexico"
The good professor replied:
"Dear Dr. Kovalenko,
"Christ is Among Us!
Thank you for the email. My list of autocephalous Orthodox Churches came from the October 2008 official gathering of Primates of Autocephalous Churches at the Phanar, which did not include the OCA as the OCA's autocephaly is not yet universally recognized by world orthodoxy. I did refer to the autocephaly of the OCA earlier in my piece, but it was edited out. I welcome further questions or comments.
"Zenon V. Wasyliw
Professor and Chairperson
Department of History
Coordinator of Social Studies Teacher Education School of Humanities and Sciences Ithaca College..."
"...Your response surprised me! However, having now read the Message of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches (Phanar, October 12th, 2008), I understand how this could have happened. The OCA was at that very moment without a functioning metropolitan and thus not in a position to send an appropriate representative of rank.
"From your historical perspective can you explain why, other than the above situation, the OCA is not yet universally recognized by world orthodoxy? You are aware, I’m sure, that the OCA received autocephaly from its Russian Orthodox parent in Moscow in 1970. Is this the problem, given the state of the ROC in the Soviet Union in those days?..."
Professor Wasyliv again replies:
"I have been following developments in the OCA both through the official website and OCANews.org. Metropolitan Jonah does offer an explanation regarding non-recognition by the Ecumenical Patriarch and by a number of Diaspora Churches. Patriarch St. Tikhon was indeed a strong influence during a very brief period of Russian Orthodox church/state separation as a result of the Russian Revolutions of 1917. His funeral was one of the last large public religious manifestations in the USSR prior to Stalin's attempted destruction of the Church. The Russian Orthodox Church prior to 1917 had tremendous resources and moral support of the Tsarist imperial state at its disposal, including North America. Many Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Churches in North America were constructed through the generosity of the Tsar. The very impressive church in Coaldale, PA comes to mind. With the mission also came a strong Russian nationalist identity that sought to gather and assimilate Carpatho-Rusyns and Galician Ukrainians into a Russian identity and Russian liturgical practices. This is why there exist Carpatho-Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox jurisdiction under the Ecumenical Patriarchate and significant Eastern Catholic jurisdictions of both backgrounds. Although church nationalism was not unique to Russian jurisdictions, but also Greek, Serbian, Ukrainian, etc... I would argue that currently Patriarch Kirill has strong ties with the Russian political leadership that moves to glorify and possibly implement a mythical pre-reform Russian Imperial past. The inclusion of ROCOR through the direct intervention of both Putin and Medvedev is a case in point along with human rights abuses, denigration and criticism of democratic ideals and non-recognition of religious expressions beyond core denominations. This is where Ukraine differs with truly open religious freedom, almost on the verge of anarchy. I hope I am wrong about Patriarch Kirill, but I have yet see evidence to the contrary regarding his political involvement.
"The OCA was indeed granted autocephaly by Moscow in 1970. This was not decided in collaboration with or affirmed by other canonical churches. This was also granted during a period when the Russian Orthodox Church was closely supervised by the Soviet state and reportedly collaborated with Soviet state authorities. The OCA has and continues to retain strong ties with the Moscow Patriarchate as Metropolitans Theodosius, Herman and now Jonah accumulated frequent flier miles through many trips to Moscow, and according to OCA News, the first two church leaders were engaged in questionable financial transactions when in Moscow and in the United States. But this is an issue outside of my authority and not for me to judge. I believe in the idea of a multicultural and not simply assimilated American Orthodox Church with room for ethnic churches to exist alongside assimilated "American" parishes as transnational identities and diasporas are a reality with global migration and communication. There are many very good and decent people in the OCA. I personally know and respect a number of the clergy, but the initiative and leadership has to be somehow shared and not simply a jurisdictional assimilation into the OCA.
"I was very surprised to read on OCA News that there are 23,000 members nationally in the OCA compared with much higher earlier estimates of 1 million. I believe Metropolitan Jonah cites the more accurate figure of 100,000. I believe other jurisdictions face similar membership figures and declines. In the end, we are all on a similar mission of spreading the word and faith and can work together. By the way, I am a member of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA under the Ecumenical Patriarch. I am a communicant of the Ukrainian but English speaking St. John parish in Johnson City, NY http://www.stjohnuoc.org a one hour commute, was married in a Greek Orthodox Church and have attended OCA services...