Source: Public Orthodoxy
British Academy Fellow in the Theology and Religion Department, University of Exeter
First, I would like to say two things. From 2009 to 2019, I was quite involved in the life of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC)—from singing and helping a priest-monk at a local parish near Kyiv to assisting the bishop during international trips to translating for international ecumenical guests at Lavra, the metropolia, and the Kyiv Theological Academy. Second, I was among the authors of the recent statement against violence in resolving conflicts among church communities in Ukraine, which was drafted after violence was used by Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) supporters against members of a UOC parish around the usage of a church building in Ivano-Frankivsk. I am against violence and illegal actions in and around the church, wherever it happens.
However, in the context of international sympathies expressed to the UOC today, I have to admit that the social opposition and violence directed at this church in Ukrainian society is not an artificial construct of the Ukrainian authorities; it is, in my opinion, a reaction to the hidden structural violence, which has been present in the matrix of this organization since the 1990s and especially after 2014, when the leadership of the UOC changed. Of course, there are many kind people, good pastors, and positive local initiatives there. But there are also systemic issues which made it impossible for me to identify with the UOC in 2019 and which became unbearable for those in Ukrainian society currently involved in the resistance to Russian aggression.
In the UOC-MP—from the level of a local parish to that of the Kyiv Theological Academy and the Metropolia—personally or experienced by friends, I witnessed a lot of humiliation of human dignity explained from a “spiritual” standpoint. In my experience as a common parishioner, it was too often a place where you were systematically taught that you are too sinful to have a different opinion from your priest and/or bishop, to feel any good about yourself (especially as a woman who dares to think on theological matters), to have a voice; if something unfortunate happened to you, it was in most cases interpreted as your own fault and guilt, which you would have to humbly accept instead of trying to change anything except yourself. It could be done to you in a bold way—or in a more subtle way. If you were someone strong, confident, and in tune with the “main line,” you would probably not notice the many harmful behaviors and attitudes there. But if you were more vulnerable and thinking critically, it could be hard.
This structural violence is similar to the situation in the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), although in the UOC, it feels softer. Unfortunately, it is, perhaps, characteristic of large parts of the Orthodox world in general, including the OCU. But there is one peculiar aspect of the UOC, on the level of collective consciousness, which makes it different from the ROC: while the ROC constantly tells people in Russia how great they are as a nation, in the UOC, you often learn a rather caricatured picture of Ukraine and “Ukrainess” and interiorize an identity conflict: in sermons, speeches, and attitudes, you learn that we are somewhat different from Russians, but the Ukrainian language, culture, and history are rather second-hand, more primitive, sometimes even derogatory—to such an extent that praying in Ukrainian, or even praying with the Ukrainian pronunciation of Church Slavonic (which has different versions despite the attempts of Moscow to unify it) feels awkward and shameful. Yes, theoretically, UOC parishes are allowed to choose to pray in Ukrainian; in practice, though, the “moral” pressure against it has been so heavy during all the years of Ukraine’s independence that only Gospel readings and sermons are usually delivered in this language; the liturgy in Ukrainian was celebrated in only one parish in Kyiv that I know of, and in 2019, that parish immediately joined the OCU.
There are currently several grave events for which Ukrainian society cannot forgive the UOC. Among them is the notorious episode in 2014 when Metropolitan Onufry and two other bishops did not rise from their seats in the Ukrainian Parliament during the minute of silence in memory of the Ukrainian soldiers who fell in the east at the beginning of the Donbas occupation; those bishops were the only ones who remained seated as a way of protest “against war” and in “support of the people of the Donbas”.
Then, speaking of Holodomor, Metropolitan Onufry once famously said that this is “a punishment according to merit”—meaning that Ukrainians organized and deserved the tragedy of the 20th-century famine themselves (by abandoning the church).
This is typical of UOC logic that promotes self-guilt. Although Metropolitan Onufry condemned the Russian aggression at the very beginning, there are many people in the UOC, including my acquaintances, who still think that bombs fall on our heads rightly for our sins; those messages are also heard from some defenders of the Kyiv Lavra today. Sometimes the message “We are for Ukraine, we pray for the Armed Forces,” on the one hand, and “The war is happening for our sins” or “No one is guilty,” on the other hand, come from one and the same person (from a UOC bishop to a regular parishioner), causing a schizophrenic sensation. Repenting intonations may sound humble outside the context, but too often in the UOC, it appears that the main sin for which Ukrainians have to repent in this war takes the form of the Maidan protests in 2013, the “Revolution of Dignity.” Why? Because it “provoked Russia.” According to their logic, had we been humble, nothing would have happened.
By the way, when the Maidan protests started, my friends from the Kyiv Theological Academy were taught that order is important in public life and that in the Byzantine times, revolts were justly suppressed, in a violent way, for the sake of the common good. Meanwhile, Orthodox friends and officials in Russia were publishing essays and posts to social media on the non-violence of Jesus in response to the Roman occupation.
Among other actions that are now impossible to forgive and forget in Ukraine is the refusal by some UOC priests to conduct funeral services for fallen Ukrainian soldiers, starting from 2014 to the present day. Although those were individual cases and not a mass phenomenon, the absence of any reaction from the leadership stigmatized the whole UOC for the wider society. In the UOC, “Glory to Ukraine” is often considered an “ungodly,” “nationalist” greeting, while only “glory to God” is used. However, in the present context, the refusal to say “Glory to Ukraine” becomes a pro-Russian statement; many priests from both the OCU and UOC choose to say “Glory to God, glory to Ukraine!” as a much more reasonable solution.
Finally, the constant emphasis on the exclusive “canonicity” within Ukraine and a categorical refusal to form any dialogue with the “schismatics” (the OCU) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate—spiritually interpreted by too many UOC members as a temptation to speak with the devil, betray Christ, and go to hell—appears to be an obvious political manipulation. In light of the recent findings by the Ukrainian Security Service of the UOC members’ collaboration with the Russian Federal Security Service, the “spiritual” nature of this refusal causes a wide societal disagreement. Meanwhile, the unwillingness of the UOC Synod to make necessary structural changes to its Statute after the May 27, 2022, Council in Feofaniya to recognize and condemn the facts of collaboration in its ranks and appeal to global Orthodoxy only confirms their continuing dependence on Moscow.
In short, the UOC as a whole is not welcomed in Ukraine in spite of their participation in the humanitarian aid efforts and the service of many UOC members in the Ukrainian Armed Forces. As a whole, this church does not offer any coherent vision of its interaction with society and of its identity except for its being anti-OCU and still somewhat loyal to Moscow. Meanwhile, the “pure eschatology” it seems to be offering to the world now, pleading for help, disconnected from the Ukrainian social realities and still wired to Russia, feels like a dead-end. For many years, the UOC could afford to be violent inside and outside, not caring about the wider society. Now, the UOC cannot apply the logic of the “punishment according to merits” to itself because, from its own perspective, this logic is not applicable to a canonical church but only to individual persons and secular nations. Meanwhile, the Ukrainians who recognize the hypocrisy of the UOC as a structure are applying it to the UOC quite bluntly.
To conclude, I would like to quote Nicholas Sooy, the chair of the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, speaking of the essence of the Cruciform Church at the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA) 2023 conference: “The Church must take responsibility and acknowledge the collective guilt it bears for the deeds of its members and leaders. More than that, though, the Church must see itself as bearing the guilt of all humanity, for the Church is of Christ, and Christ set this as an example for us.” Today, complaining of persecutions, the UOC shows itself unable to take any responsibility—either for itself or for society and all humanity; it is paralyzed by half-truths, a long-standing co-dependency with the ROC, and a learned helplessness, which developed as a result of the systematic “abuse of humbleness” among its members. I do not see clear solutions to the situation around the UOC today. I am not fully satisfied with the actions of the state and the reaction from the OCU members, who often seem to escalate the confrontation rather than acting according to the law and the Gospel. But I still hope that, if there is a united church for Ukraine in the future, it will be able to be more honest before society and more responsible before God.