Nicholas Denysenko

Orthodox Church of Ukraine


988:  Grand Prince Volodymyr accepted Orthodox Christianity. Baptism of Kyiv into Orthodox faith.

988:  The first native metropolitan of Kyiv, Ilarion, was appointed.

1240:  Mongolian invasions ruined Kyiv.

1240:  Kyiv became an important Orthodox minority in Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth.

1448:  Orthodox Metropolia in Moscow declared autocephaly (independence).

1450:  The Patriarchate of Constantinople restored Kyivan metropolia.

1596:  The Orthodox episcopate of Kyiv Metropolia entered into a union with the Church of Rome.

1620:  Patriarch Theophanes of Jerusalem restored the Orthodox episcopate of Kyiv Metropolia.

1686:  The Patriarchate of Constantinople granted the patriarch of Moscow permission to ordain metropolitan of Kyiv.

1918:  The All-Ukrainian council of Orthodox church met in three sessions. The council adopted autonomy and retained Church Slavonic as the language of liturgy.

1921 (October 1-14):  The All-Ukrainian church council created the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC).

1930:  The UAOC was liquidated under duress by Soviet authorities.

1941:  The Autonomous Orthodox Church of Ukraine emerged at Pochaiv monastery during German occupation.

1942:  Metropolitan Dionisiy of Orthodox Church of Poland established temporary administration of the new UAOC in Ukraine.

1944:  Bishops of UAOC went into exile outside of Ukraine. Parishes were absorbed by the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC).

1946:  Stalin and leaders of ROC convened council in L’viv that liquidated the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) and absorbs it into ROC. The council attained the unofficial title of pseudo-council of L’viv.

1989:  UGCC and UAOC attained legal status and returned to Ukraine during Gorbachev’s reforms.

1990:  UAOC declared itself a patriarchate and enthroned Patriarch Mstyslav as its first primate.

1990:  Patriarch Aleksy II of Moscow granted hramota to the Orthodox exarchate in Ukraine and granting it broad autonomy.

1990:  The Patriarchate of Constantinople received the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada and restores them to communion.

1991:  Ukraine declared independence.

1992 (April): The Metropolitan Filaret and episcopate of UOC requested autocephaly from the patriarchal synod of ROC.

1992 (May): The Patriarchal synod of ROC instructed Filaret to retire at the meeting in Moscow and he agreed. Filaret withdrew his agreement upon return to Kyiv and the ROC deposed him from holy orders.

1992 (May):  The UOC convened council in Kharkiv without Filaret, elected Metropolitan Volodymyr as the new primate, and committed to the process of attaining canonical autocephaly.

1992 (June):  The UAOC convened an all-Ukrainian council with hopes of unification with UOC, but only Filaret and one other bishop attended. The council dissolved UAOC and created Kyiv Patriarchate (UOC-KP), appointing Filaret as deputy to Patriarch Mstyslav. Mstyslav rejected the council and the minority of UAOC remained independent of UOC-KP.

1993:  Patriarch Mstyslav died and the UOC-KP elected Patriarch Volodymyr (Romaniuk) as the new primate.

1995:  Patriarch Volodymyr died. The UOC-KP elected Filaret as the new patriarch.

1995:  The Patriarchate of Constantinople received the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the United States of America and restored them to communion.

1997:  The ROC anathematized Filaret.

2004:  The Orange Revolution took place in Ukraine.

2008:  President Victor Yushchenko invited Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to Kyiv to preside at 1020th anniversary of Baptism of Rus’ and to unify Ukrainian churches. Bartholomew came and delivered a speech, but unification failed.

2013:  The UOC hosted the 1025th anniversary of Baptism of Rus’ celebration, including a visitation of presidents Yanukovich, Lukashenka, and Putin.

2013:  The Maidan Revolution of Dignity began.

2014:  Maidan continued, Russia annexed Crimea and supported separatists in Donbas. Metropolitan Volodymyr (Sabodan) died, UOC elected Metropolitan Onufry (Berezovsky).

2015:  The Patriarchate of Constantinople sent exarchs to Ukraine to unify UAOC and UOC-KP. Unification efforts failed.

2016:  The Pan-Orthodox Council of Crete takes place. Verkhovna Rada issues appeal to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to grant autocephaly to Ukrainian Orthodox churches.

2018 (April):  President Petro Poroshenko made an agreement with the Patriarchate of Constantinople to unify UAOC, UOC-KP, and UOC into a new church and grant it autocephaly.

2018 (October):  The Patriarchate of Constantinople annulled the canonical penalties on UAOC and UOC-KP and restored them to communion.

2018 (October): The ROC severed communion with the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

2018 (December 15):  The Unification Council took place at St. Sophia cathedral with delegations from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, Poroshenko, UAOC, UOC-KP, and two bishops from UOC. The Council created a new church, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), and elected Metropolitan Epifaniy (Dumenko) as primate. The UOC rejected the merger.

2018:  Verkhovna Rada passed two laws that required religious organizations with centers in aggressor states to change their names, and revised the process for religious communities that wished to change their affiliation.

2019 (January 6):  The Patriarchate of Constantinople granted tomos of autocephaly to OCU.

2019:  The Orthodox Churches of Greece, Alexandria, and Cyprus recognized OCU and normalized relations. ROC severed communion with bishops, parishes, and clergy of these churches.

2019:  Volodymyr Zelensky won Ukraine’s presidential election.

2022 (February 24):  Russia invaded Ukraine.

2022 (May 27):  The UOC convened council, expressed disagreement with Patriarch Kirill of the ROC, removed references to ROC from statutes, and defined itself as independent.

2022 (December):  President Zelensky proposed a new law that would ban ROC from Ukraine altogether. State Security Service of Ukraine (SBU) began investigations of UOC clergy and parishes to expose and prosecute collaborators.

2022 (December):  Ukrainian officials paused UOC’s lease of Kyiv Pechers’ka Lavra monastery and called for a review of terms.

2023 (January):  Ukrainian officials permitted OCU use of Uspens’ka and Trapezna cathedrals of Kyiv Pechers’ka Lavra monastery for holidays.

2023 (February):  Ukraine’s Department of ethnopolitics and freedom of conscience hosted a meeting of UOC and OCU clergy. Participants issued a public declaration calling for support for unification of the churches and condemnation of Russian military aggression.

2023 (March):  The Ukrainian government terminated the lease agreement between the UOC-MP and the state, and ordered the UOC-MP to leave the premises while state officials assessed the property. The UOC-MP refused to leave and made numerous public appeals for support.

2023 (April):  Ukraine’s state security service (SBU) placed Metropolitan Pavlo (Lebid), abbot of the monastic community at the Kyiv Pechers’ka Lavra, under house arrest for sixty days.


Ukrainian Orthodoxy has a select number of founders and benefactors. Prince Volodymyr of Kyiv was glorified as “equal-to-the-apostles” and compared favorably with the emperor Constantine in the hagiographical literature. He is typically considered the founder of Kyivan Christianity, along with his mother, the Princess Olga, and perhaps the founders of the Orthodox monastic tradition in Kyiv, saints Anthony and Theodosius of the Kyiv Pechers’ka Lavra monastery. There are a number of important figures of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in the modern era as well. These include church leaders such as Metropolitan Peter Mohyla, and patrons of education and the arts like Prince Konstantin Ostrozsky and Hetman Ivan Mazeppa.

A number of figures contributed to the rapid evolution of Ukrainian Orthodoxy in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The dream of an autocephalous church (truly independent from an external overseer and self-governing) began to take shape in 1918 (Denysenko 2018:20-23). A cohort of Ukrainian clergy and laity successfully obtained the blessing of Patriarch Tikhon, who had been enthroned as patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church in 1917, to convene an All-Ukrainian council that would decide on the statute and course of the church in Ukraine. This council took place in four sessions in 1918 in the midst of the turbulent and violent battle for control of Ukraine (Denysenko 2018:20-23). Proponents of autocephaly and Ukrainization constituted a majority in the beginning of the council. By summer of 1918, the presidium had removed many members of the pro-Ukrainian group from the constituency. The council elected Metropolitan Antony (Khrapovitsky), a conservative monarchist, as the leader of the church in May 1918. The council adopted autonomy instead of autocephaly, and retained Church Slavonic as the language of liturgy. These decisions alienated and embittered the pro-Ukrainian elements.

The All-Ukrainian council was, interrupted by outbreaks of war and the transfer of leadership from one government to another. Witnesses testified to an autocephalist majority at the council, along with a strong movement for Ukrainization of the Church, especially through introducing Ukrainian to the liturgy. A handful of events resulted in a bitter separation of the autocephalists from the presiding bishops of the council. These include the unilateral removal of pro-autocephaly delegates and their replacement with representatives loyal to the bishops, and the ultimate defeat of proposals for Ukrainization and autocephaly.

The autocephalists pursued Ukrainization by registering Ukrainian-language parishes with the Soviet government in 1919-1920, and eventually came into conflict with the patriarchal bishops (Prelovska). By 1920, all of the clergy who served in Ukrainian parishes were either suspended or deposed from holy orders (Prelovska). Their desperate search for the support of canonical bishops failed, despite the relationship created by Ukrainian minister of cults, Oleksander Lotocky, with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople from 1919-1920 (Drabynko 2018:347-57). The autocephalists convoked an All-Ukrainian Council in October 1921 and created the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC), a church committed to Ukrainization and modernization (Sokhan’). With no bishops participating in the council, the assembly ordained Archpriest Vasyl (Lypkivsky) as the metropolitan of Kyiv through an innovative conciliar rite of ordination involving priests, deacons, and laity (Denysenko 2018:43-46). [Image at right] No Orthodox Church recognized the UAOC because of its controversial ecclesiological innovation, and the Soviet authorities began the process of liquidating it in 1927.

Despite the heat of their conflict with the UAOC, the patriarchal Church in Ukraine declared autocephaly, and adopted Ukrainization and sobornopravnist’ during a conciliar gathering in 1922 (Bociurkiw 1979-1980:100). The patriarchal council also called for dialogue with the UAOC, but these measures were never implemented and lacked the support of Patriarch Tikhon. The failure of the patriarchal Church to implement the conciliar declarations inspired four bishops of the Church to convoke their own council in Lubny in 1925 that declared autocephaly and adopted Ukrainization (Bociurkiw 1979-1980:104). The severity of the Soviet regime’s persecution of the Church prevented the realization of all of these aspirations for Ukrainian autocephaly.

The Treaty of Versailles resulted in the creation of an independent republic of Poland that included millions of Ukrainians and Belarussians. The Orthodox Church of Poland followed the pattern of Orthodox Churches in independent nation-states by pursuing autocephaly. When the ROC refused to grant Poland autocephaly, the Church, with the assistance of the state, received autocephaly from the EP in 1924 (Wynot 2014).

Ukrainian bishops in the Polish Church pursued Ukrainization through a variety of initiatives, such as publishing theological journals, serving as theological faculty, and introducing modern Ukrainian to the Liturgy. When the Soviet Union absorbed the territories of West Ukraine that had belonged to Poland in 1939, the Church endured a brief, but fierce period of persecution, one that ended only briefly when the Germans occupied Ukraine. This experience engendered the enmity of Ukrainians for the USSR, along with its ideologies and policies. The reconfigured political borders required adjustment on the part of the bishops during the German occupation. One cohort of bishops reverted to the autonomous status adopted at the 1918 council; another cohort of bishops, led by Archbishop Policarp (Sikorski), pursued autocephaly with the support of Metropolitan Dionisiy of Warsaw. Dionisiy blessed the establishment of the UAOC in Ukraine as a canonical Church.

The co-existence of the autonomous Church with the UAOC was embittered on account of their sharp dispute on the canonicity of the 1918 Ukrainian autonomy (which had never been realized) and the 1924 tomos of autocephaly. The 1942 UAOC’s decision to receive the clergy of the 1921 UAOC without a new ordination intensified the polemical hostilities of the Churches (Denysenko 2018:81-83). Despite this obstacle, Metropolitan Oleksy (Hromadsky), the leader of the autonomous Church, signed an act of union with three bishops of the UAOC on October 8, 1942. The autonomous bishops rejected the union and called for the convocation of an All-Ukrainian council, but the war prohibited meaningful progress. The UAOC hierarchy fled abroad in 1944-1945, while the majority of the clergy and people were absorbed into the ROC following the Yalta agreement that annexed West Ukraine to the USSR in 1945. The Ukrainian autocephalous movement migrated West and remained vibrant in Canada and the United States during the period of the Cold War until the eve of the Soviet Union’s collapse.

Mikhail Gorbachev’s policies of glasnost and perestroika unleashed new religious freedoms that liberated the UGCC and the UAOC from the ROC. In 1989, both the UGCC and the UAOC became legal religious organizations (Sysyn 2003:88-89). Saints Peter and Paul parish in L’viv became the cell of the rebirth of the UAOC. Within one year, and handful of bishops left the MP for the UAOC, and the UAOC convoked a council, declared itself a patriarchate, and elected Metropolitan Mstyslav (Skrypnyk), the primate of the UOC-USA, as its patriarch. The rapid growth of the UGCC and UAOC necessitated a response from the patriarchal exarchate in Ukraine, and the ROC accused both churches of exploiting radical nationalism to seize parish properties illegally.

The return of the UAOC to Ukraine inaugurated a series of ecclesial reconfigurations that established a new and diverse Orthodox landscape.  The ROC responded to the emergence of the previously illegal churches by revising the statute of the Ukrainian exarchate and elevating it to the status of a self-governed Church with broad autonomy (Sysyn 2003:90). At this point, the Ukrainian Orthodox exarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church became known as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate.

Soon after Ukraine became independent, the UOC-MP petitioned the ROC to grant them autocephaly, initially in November 1991, and again in April 1992 (Denysenko 2018). Moscow denied the request and demanded that Metropolitan Filaret (Denysenko 2018) resign as the metropolitan of Kyiv. Filaret agreed, but rescinded his promise upon returning to Kyiv. Soon afterwards, in May 1992, the UOC-MP episcopate met in Kharkiv, without the convocation and participation of Filaret (Plokhy 2003:133). The episcopate elected Volodymyr (Sabodan) as metropolitan of Kyiv. The Kharkiv council committed to the process of obtaining autocephaly through a canonical process. In June 1992, the MP deposed Filaret from holy orders.

In June 1992, the UAOC convoked a Church council and received Filaret. Filaret was appointed deputy to Patriarch Mstyslav and the Church was renamed Kyivan Patriarchate (UOC-KP). A minority cohort of the June 1992 council rejected the merger and remained the UAOC. Following the death of its last patriarch, Dmitry (Jarema) in 2000, the UAOC reverted to a metropolia and awaited Constantinople’s intervention in the Ukrainian schism.

From 1992 to 2018, the three Orthodox Churches in Ukraine regarded one another with mistrust and hostility. The UAOC and UOC-KP attempted to negotiate union from 1995 to 2015, but all efforts collapsed. The UOC-MP engaged both the UAOC and the UOC-KP in dialogue until 2011, when relations with the UOC-KP worsened considerably.

In 2012, an uneasy status quo defined the Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Three Orthodox churches coexisted, but bitter memories of past injustices separated them. All three churches claimed to be the legitimate successors to the Orthodox church of the Kyivan metropolia. Their parishes were concentrated primarily in Western Ukraine. Each church claimed to represent all Ukrainian people. The three churches appeared to accept the reality of coexisting with one another, without pursuing the Orthodox ideal of unity in shared communion.

The Euromaidan Revolution of Dignity in 2013 marked a turning point for the churches. The UOC-KP was the leader of the Orthodox churches in demonstrating its support for the protesters on the Maidan. Their conversion of St. Michael cathedral into a makeshift hospital for wounded protesters symbolized this solidarity. [Image at right]

Russia’s seizure of Crimea and support for separatists in Donbas in 2014 placed enormous pressure on the UOC-MP in particular. Their new leader, Metropolitan Onufry, urgently appealed to Patriarch Kirill of Moscow to intervene and stop Russian aggression. The next year, however, Onufry and the other leaders of the UOC-MP adopted an anti-war position and stirred up controversy when they refused to stand to honor fallen soldiers in the Ukrainian Parliament. Russian aggression combined with the UOC-MP’s neutral position caused some parishes to change their affiliation, leaving the UOC-MP for the UOC-KP.

In 2018, Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko made the surprise announcement that his administration was working with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople to unify the churches and grant autocephaly to a single Ukrainian church (Denysenko 2020:426-27). The UAOC and UOC-KP met in December 2018 to unite into the OCU. [Image at righ]Two bishops from the UOC-MP joined them. The vast majority of the UOC-MP rejected the new church. The ROC severed all ties with the EP, and the three churches that recognized the new OCU (those of Greece, Alexandria, and Cyprus). A new status quo replaced the old one; the OCU emerged as an officially recognized autocephalous church and had more support than its autocephalous predecessors.

The onslaught of the pandemic in 2020 temporarily halted the organic process of evolution in interchurch relations. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022 essentially smashed the status quo, leading to a sequence of events, mostly concerning the UOC-MP.

Bishops, priests, and entire eparchies placed enormous pressure on the UOC-MP to break its ties with the ROC. Some eparchies and deaneries appealed publicly for autocephaly. The UOC-MP took one step away from the ROC in May 2022 when it expressed its disagreement with Patriarch Kirill, removed most references to the ROC from its statute, and called for a renewed dialogue with the OCU. These decisions did not persuade the Ukrainian government or the people. Parishes resumed the process of transferring affiliation to the OCU.

In December 2022, the state revoked the UOC-MP’s privilege of using the two cathedral churches in the upper portion of the . The OCU obtained permission to conduct divine services in those temples at that time. [Image at right] The Ukrainian government terminated the rent-free lease the UOC-MP had with the state for using the monastery complex and asserted that the church had made additions and performed repairs in violation of the lease’s terms. The state evicted the UOC-MP from the premises, and church leaders responded by making numerous public appeals for intervention and a formal legal appeal to Ukraine’s constitutional court.

Ukraine’s SBU placed Metropolitan Pavlo (Lebid) under house arrest for suspicion of collaboration with Russia. Pavlo’s case was the most sensational of a larger campaign of investigating the UOC-MP for collaboration. The events of spring 2023 led to two outcomes. First, the state used its power strategically and tactically to place maximum pressure on the UOC-MP to make a complete and permanent break with the ROC. Second, the UOC-MP had been accusing the Ukrainian state of discrimination for a number of years leading up to the war. The state’s decision to devote considerable resources and energy to investigating the UOC-MP validated the UOC-MP’s claims for some observers. A glimmer of hope for reconciliation between the UOC-MP and OCU had emerged at grassroots levels with instances of dialogue. The state’s active campaign against the UOC-MP complicated the potential reconciliation of the churches because of the emotions stirred up by the process.


The OCU and UOC confess the Orthodox faith. The Orthodox Church believes that Jesus Christ is the Incarnate Son of God, perfect God and perfect human. Orthodoxy confesses the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, without the filioque clause. The Church upholds the doctrines that Jesus has risen from the dead and ascended into heaven, that he is the second person of the Trinity, worshipped and glorified with the Father and the Holy Spirit, and that Christ will judge and raise humankind to eternal life at the end of time. Both churches affirm the authority of the first seven ecumenical councils, and the veneration of Mary, saints, and icons.


The OCU and UOC both observe the Orthodox Byzantine rite of liturgy. These churches follow the Orthodox church year calendar, and both churches emphasize the Baptism of Rus’ on July 28 as a major holiday. A few differences separate the OCU and UOC. First, the UOC uses Church Slavonic as its primary language of liturgy and prayer. The UOC follows the practice used by most of the Orthodox churches of the Slavic tradition in this regard, such as the Russian, Serbian, and Bulgarian churches. The UOC permits parishes to use modern Ukrainian for services, bible readings, and sermons.

The OCU uses modern Ukrainian for its liturgical services, bible lessons, sermons, and teaching. The OCU follows the traditions established by its predecessors in the UAOC and UOC-KP. One important issue is the method of translation. The OCU’s translation differs from those used by the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church and the Ukrainian Orthodox churches in the diaspora.

Another important difference in the practices of the UOC and OCU concerns the canonization of saints during the post-Soviet period. The OCU has canonized new saints and retained saints previously glorified by the UAOC and UOC-KP. Many of these saints feature Ukrainian identity. These include St. Yaroslav the Wise, the grand prince of Kyiv in the eleventh century, and St. Petro Konashevych-Sahaidachnyi, hetman of the Zaporizhian Sich in the early seventeenth century (Pomisna website 2023). The new saints introduced by the OCU represent the OCU’s sacralization of church contributors to modern Ukrainian identity. The canonization of Konashevych-Sahaidachnyi stands out because it symbolizes the sanctification of a Ukrainian leader who defended Ukrainian autonomy in opposition to the encroachments of Warsaw, the Ottoman empire, and Moscow.


Organizational structure and leadership have been the cause of controversies in Ukrainian Orthodoxy, especially in the modern period. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople established Orthodoxy in Kyiv in the tenth century. The Ukrainian church belonged to the structure of the EP from 988-1686, most of its history. The EP authorized the patriarch of Moscow to ordain the metropolitan of Kyiv in 1686 (Tchentsova 2022:45). The documents do not indicate a change of jurisdiction, but the leaders of the Russian Orthodox Church interpreted the authorization as a ceding of jurisdiction and assumed governance over the Ukrainian church. The Ukrainian church belonged to the structure of the ROC from 1686 until 2018. The Ukrainian church did not attain complete autocephaly until 2018, even though large groups of clergy and parishes claimed to be independent in various periods of modern Ukrainian history, from 1921 up until 2018.

The creation of new Orthodox structures in Ukraine included variations in organization and leadership. The Ukrainian church did not have a formal, canonical status of autonomy during the time of its life under the EP, but it enjoyed a considerable amount of self-governance because of the distance of Constantinople from Kyiv. The ROC’s absorption of the Ukrainian church was parallel to the process of russifying Ukrainians cities and institutions during the imperial period. Kyiv remained an important religious center because of the popularity of its shrines and monastic life, but the church did not have autonomy.

The creation of the UAOC in 1921 introduced new principles of organization and leadership. The UAOC issued canons that allowed its bishops to be married, and limited the authority of its metropolitan and bishops (Sokhan’1999:478-79). The bishops shared governance with the rest of the clergy and laity, and there was no standing synod to veto or ratify proposals from conciliar gatherings. The UAOC’s governing principle was sobornopravnist’ (Sysyn 2003:33-36). The council itself was not only the highest authoritative organ of church governance, but the council shaped all of church life. The ordination of the first two bishops of the UAOC represented the conciliar character. The entire assembly placed their hands on the ordinands, and it was the council itself that elected and presented them for ordination. The UAOC’s notion of conciliarity emphasized the church acting as a single organism, with horizontal lines of authority. The UAOC did not tolerate privileged classes in the church. Monasticism was discouraged, and the laity shared power with the clergy at all levels.

The UAOC’s injection of egalitarianism into Ukrainian Orthodoxy had a limited impact. Orthodox Ukrainians in Poland did not adopt the UAOC”s version of sobornopravnist’. When the Orthodox Church of Poland created the temporary administration of the UAOC in German-occupied Ukraine of 1942, the church resumed the traditional leadership style and structure prevalent in Orthodoxy. The Ukrainian churches of the diaspora incorporated some elements of sobornopravnist’, but most of the authority still resided with the bishops.

The 1921 UAOC had introduced sobornopravnist’ and new canons with the hope of modernizing the Orthodox church and creating a new organizational blueprint for Orthodoxy in Ukraine that departed from the pattern of the ROC. The UAOC’s egalitarianism stood in contrast to the ROC’s vertical structures of patriarchy.

Orthodox Ukrainians did not retain the modernized structures of the UAOC, but they did make changes to their organizational structures on many occasions. The first change occurred with the return of the UAOC to Ukraine in 1989. In this instance, the church elevated its status to that of patriarchate (Denysenko 2018). Heightening the church’s stature was a way of demonstrating its equality to the ROC, which is also a patriarchate. This was a strategic decision aimed at persuading the Ukrainian people of the antiquity and dignity of the UAOC. The change in canonical status also made the idea that the Ukrainian church should possess patriarchal status permanent.

The late Soviet period witnessed to fluidity in organizational structures and leadership styles in the Ukrainian churches. The UAOC’s election of Metropolitan Mstyslav was an attempt to begin the process of desovietizing the church in Ukraine (Wawrzonek). The creation of the UOC-KP (a merger of the majority of the UAOC and two bishops of the UOC-MP in 1992) resulted in Metropolitan Filaret’s retention of governing power in the Ukrainian church. After serving three years as deputy patriarch to Mstyslav and Patriarch Volodymyr (Romaniuk), Filaret became the patriarch of the UOC-KP from 1995-2018. He resumed his patriarchal tenure when he revived the UOC-KP in 2019. Filaret governed as a dictator within the structure of the church, investing authority and power into the office of patriarch.

The leadership styles of the UOC-MP and OCU incorporated more collegiality. The unification council creating the OCU required the participation of clergy and laity from eparchies representing the churches, along with the bishops. The OCU rotates the members on its ruling synod to ensure consistent fluidity and representation. The statute encourages the metropolitan to consult with the EP on matters pertaining to global Orthodoxy, to reduce the risk of isolationism. It is crucial to note that the ROC and UOC-MP have criticized the text concerning the EP in the statute because they argue that it represents the OCU’s subordination to the EP.

The UOC-MP’s autonomous status (1990-2022) granted it self-governance in almost all aspects of its life. The UOC-MP relied on collegiality, much like the OCU. Its only nominal dependence on the ROC was in the ratification of statutory changes and the patriarch’s confirmation of the election of a new metropolitan of Kyiv, and presidency at his enthronement. The UOC-KP, OCU, and numerous scholars and analysts asserted that the UOC-MP was much more dependent on the ROC in reality. The UOC-MP’s organizational structure changed on May 27, 2022, when it adopted a new statute that removed most references to the ROC and patriarch, except for the one concerning the hramota of 1990 that granted the UOC-MP broad autonomy. The UOC-MP became an independent church. Leaders conducted their internal activity independently, but they did not declare autocephaly. This decision to become independent without declaring autocephaly had antecedents in Orthodox history. The independent status caused some confusion, especially since Ukrainians had become familiar with the concept of autocephaly throughout the post-soviet period, and particularly during the process of creating the OCU. Many Ukrainians and outsiders believed that the UOC-MP remained secretly dependent on the ROC and functioned as a Trojan horse for the Russian Federation. Disagreements on the practical significance of the UOC-MP’s decision increased tensions and instability within Ukraine during the time of the war.

Ukrainian Orthodoxy presents a diverse cast of leaders who have shaped the modern path of the church. Metropolitan Vasyl Lypkivsky and Volodymyr Chekhivsky were groundbreaking in their attempts to modernize the church through egalitarianism and Ukrainization. Metropolitan Ilarion Ohienko pursued Ukrainianization during his tenure as bishop of Cholm and completed his ministry in Canada. Metropolitan Mstyslav was the public face of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, a defender of religious rights during the Soviet era, and a crucial bridge figure who provided leadership in the late and post-Soviet periods.

Metropolitan Epifaniy of the OCU and Metropolitan Onufry of the UOC-MP had the unenviable tasks of leading their churches during the brutality and violence of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. They may provide to be the most important figures depending on the course of the war and the fate of the embittered politics dividing Ukrainian Orthodoxy. The most important leaders, however, were their predecessors: Patriarch Filaret and Metropolitan Volodymyr.

Patriarch Filaret is noteworthy for many reasons, especially for being a man of contradictions. [Image at right] Groomed by the Soviet system to lead the Ukrainian church during the Cold War, Filaret was a conservative prelate who trumpeted the official position of the ROC on Ukrainian autocephaly and the UGCC. Filaret staunchly opposed modernization and Ukrainization and was a harsh critic of the return of the UGCC and UAOC to Ukraine in 1989. Filaret promoted the unity of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus in the ROC and accused the UGCC, UAOC, and Ukrainian nationalist politicians of seizing parish property illegally.

Filaret interpreted the rapidly changing Ukrainian environment wisely and hastened to gather the support of his bishops for obtaining autocephaly from the ROC. The ROC’s negative response included a demand that Filaret retire. By all appearances, Filaret would avoid the fate of his predecessors by fading into the background without canonical sanction. His decision to take up the mantle of Ukrainian autocephaly surprised all parties. Pro-Ukrainian stalwarts viewed him dubiously and interpreted his decision as one of personal ambition. Others believed his long tenure of church presidency and knowledge of the political and religious dynamics of Ukraine and Russia could steer the Ukrainian church to a successful transition in autocephaly. When Filaret became patriarch in 1995, he dominated Ukrainian church life for the next twenty-three years.

Filaret slowly built an institutional church, one with theological academies for training clergy and offices devoted to various ministries. Global Orthodoxy’s rejection of the UOC-KP, bolstered by the ROC’s sanctions on Filaret, prevented the church from customary relations with sister churches that would have enriched its educational institutions in particular. Filaret took the lead in pushing through Ukrainization, publishing modern Ukrainian translations of the Bible, liturgical, and theological texts.

Filaret’s most important contribution is his corpus of speeches, lectures, and sermons. He is not a remarkable theologian or ideologue, but he was by far the most defiant and subversive Ukrainian religious leader who opposed Russian religious colonialism and imperialism. Filaret consistently aligned Ukrainian autocephaly and the necessity of retaining a patriarchate with Ukrainian national sovereignty and territorial integrity. Filaret’s steadfast defense of autocephaly led him to criticize the content of the tomos of autocephaly given by the EP to the OCU. Filaret appealed for the immediate elevation of the OCU to the status of patriarchate, for their own consecration and distribution of chrism, and for the removal of references to the EP in the statute. Filaret’s criticisms of the statute and eventual departure from the OCU led to a recurrence of the debate on his motivations. Some explained that Filaret simply desired to rule the OCU as patriarch and pushed for a statute revision for his own personal gain. Others believed that Filaret wanted to demonstrate the equality of the Ukrainian church with other patriarchates. There is probably some element of truth in both arguments. The primary takeaway concerns Filaret’s legacy: he will be remembered as the most vocal and controversial proponent of Ukrainian autocephaly.


Two issues challenged the Orthodox Church in Ukraine up until 2018. The first issue was its statute. The entire Orthodox Church of Ukraine had never reached a consensus on a complete commitment to self-governance and total independence. The second issue concerned the internal identity of the Church. Orthodox Ukrainians had abandoned the flattened ecclesiology of shared governance with bishops having limited authority by adopting Orthodoxy’s mainstream hierarchical structure. Ukrainians disagreed vehemently about Ukrainization platforms internally. The UOC-MP sustained a conservative course by continuing to use Church Slavonic as their liturgical language. At the national level, the UOC-MP was bilingual, using both Russian and Ukrainian in its internal communications, sermons, and catechesis. The OCU continued the course established by its autocephalous antecedents by adopting Ukrainian for all activities, both pastoral and administrative. Language has been the most significant identity marker for competing cohorts within Ukrainian Orthodox for its entire history, and this trend continues in the twenty-first century. The UOC-MP preference for Church Slavonic keeps it close to other Slavic churches that prefer Church Slavonic to the modern vernacular. The retention of Church Slavonic grants the appearance of conservatism, whereas adopting the modern vernacular for liturgy suggests openness. The differing uses of liturgical language is not merely a dispute over tradition. Each church’s understanding of itself is at stake.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine placed enormous stress on the mutually exclusive self-understanding of each church. The OCU responded by demonstrating its solidarity with the Ukrainian people and issuing an urgent appeal for unification with the UOC-MP. The UOC-MP endured much more turbulence because of its longstanding association with and dependence upon the ROC. Its decision to distance itself from the ROC in May 2022 was an attempt to convince the Ukrainian people of its support for Ukraine.

The Ukrainian government employed this arsenal of tactics against the UOC-MP because it was not convinced that the UOC-MP had truly severed its ties with the ROC. The government suspected that the Russian Federation was manipulating the UOC-MP to create discord in Ukraine. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine moved the needle by creating a new sense of urgency for the UOC-MP. The church leaders had attempted to argue that its autonomous status granted it more independence than the OCU, and that it was truly support Ukrainian sovereignty and territorial integrity. The SBU’s investigations yielded various levels of collaboration. The Ukrainian media reacted strongly to the presence of pro-Russian literature in parish communities, but this did not violate Ukrainian law. The SBU did uncover individual instances of collaboration, including bishops who participated in public celebrations of the annexation of Ukrainian cities, and clergy who cooperated in assassination plots. The most controversial case concerned Metropolitan Pavlo (Lebid), the abbot of the monastic community of the Kyiv Monastery of the Caves. The public nature of the property disputes and the state’s campaign to remove pro-Russian figures from the church had an impact on the Ukrainian public. The war-weary people began to oppose the UOC-MP. The tendency for parish communities to leave the UOC-MP for the OCU increased during the war. The drama at the Lavra and the uptick in parish transfers strained the already poor relations between the UOC-MP and the OCU.

In summary, Orthodoxy in Ukraine has four main challenges. The churches need to come to terms with their connections with Russia and the ROC, they need to normalize relations with the other sister Orthodox churches, interactions with the state require attention, and the urgency for finding consensus on the current mission and identity of Orthodoxy in Ukraine is dire.

The long process of the russification of the Orthodox church in Ukraine began to crumble with the end of the Soviet era and Ukraine’s independence in 1991. Two events signified the end of this process, the creation of the OCU in 2018, and the UOC-MP’s revision of its statute in 2022. The restructuring of Ukrainian Orthodoxy does not remove the components of Russian Orthodoxy that were added gradually over a period of over three-hundred years. Orthodox Ukrainians will be contending with the question on how to relate to the ROC and how to address Russian elements in the Ukrainian church for decades. The process of revising the relationship with the ROC and considering programs of de-russifying and Ukrainianizing the church will be dominant factors in Ukrainian church life for years to come.

The excommunication of the Ukrainian churches that sought autocephaly damaged the reputation of the Ukrainian churches among the sister Orthodox churches. The other Orthodox churches did not have normal relations with Ukrainians that were not subordinate to the ROC until the EP slowly began the process of rehabilitating the autocephalist churches. The stigma of illegitimacy has caused the other Orthodox churches to hesitate in renewing relations with the OCU in particular. The war added additional stress to Ukrainian Orthodoxy. Creating normal relations with the sister Orthodox churches is high on the list of priorities for the Ukrainian churches.

The Ukrainian governing authorities have tended to favor one of the Orthodox groups over the other in Ukraine, depending on the orientation of the government. The recent drama at the Lavra exposes the Church’s blind side in its relations with the state. The entitlement enjoyed by the UOC-MP proved to be finite. The Orthodox churches are likely to attempt to redefine their relations with the state to maximize church security, sustainability, and flexibility.

It is not unusual for a large church to have constitutive cohorts with differing views on mission and identity. The issues dividing Orthodox Ukrainians have had an ill effect on society, especially in the post-Soviet period. Most of the attention has centered on seemingly irreconcilable issues of difference. The churches have not attempted to build upon shared values and common interests. For Ukrainian Orthodox to become a stable organization that contributes to societal flourishing, the churches will have to seek consensus on mission and identity. Progress on questions of self-governance, Ukrainization, and the approach to engaging modern society are likely to shape the future course of Orthodoxy in Ukraine.


Image #1: Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) ordination assembly.
Image #2: St. Michael cathedral.
Image #3: The UAOC and UOC-KP meeting in December 2018 to unite into the OCU.
Image #4; Pechers’ka Lavra monastery.
Image #5; Patriarch Filaret.


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Publication Date:
17 May 2023