Accusations against the UOC Council: fair or not?

Are the accusations of the UOC Council fair? Photo: UOJ

Since the UOC Council, there have been comments accusing the UOC of schism. Is this really the case and how do the accusers themselves look in the light of morality?

After the Council of the UOC, some bloggers have been sharply active, accusing it of illegitimacy, assuring in the near-term unification of the "new" UOC with the schismatics and Uniates, and, in fact, announcing that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is already in schism.

With a few exceptions, we will not cite the accusers or provide links here. Those who wish can find them on the Internet. The reasoning of the accusers is quite simple: since the UOC declared its full administrative independence, it has ceased its connection with the ROC, and therefore – with Orthodoxy as such.

What is schism

Before making accusations of schism against anyone, it is necessary to define it. The most authoritative opinion on this matter is the definition of heresy, schism and unauthorised assembly given by St Basil the Great in his Canonical Epistle to Bishop Amphilochius of Iconium.

The canonical rules of St. Basil the Great have the authority of the canons of the Ecumenical Councils because they were approved by the definition of the Sixth Ecumenical Council, also called the Council of Trullo or the Fifth-Sixth Ecumenical Council. The definition of St. Basil the Great is the following: "Thus they (old authorities – Ed.) used the names of heresies, of schisms, and of unlawful congregations. By heresies they meant men who were altogether broken off and alienated in matters relating to the actual faith; by schisms men who had separated for some ecclesiastical reasons and questions capable of mutual solution; by unlawful congregations gatherings held by disorderly presbyters or bishops or by uninstructed laymen. As, for instance, if a man be convicted of crime and prohibited from discharging ministerial functions, and then refuses to submit to the canons, but arrogates to himself episcopal and ministerial rights, and persons leave the Catholic Church and join him, this is an unlawful assembly. To disagree with members of the Church about repentance is schism.”

What are those opinions about “matters relating to the actual faith" that form the basis of the definition of schism? As an example, the saint cited different views on repentance. Here are more opinions of the interpreters of this rule.

"A schismatic is one who (goes astray) on some correctable subject" (Synopsis).

"Schismatics are those who have separated from the Church, such as the Donatists and the so-called Cathars and Hydroparastatae and Encratites" (Aristinus).

"A heretic is he who is alien to the faith. And if by some unknown question, he is a schismatic" (Slavonic Book of the Helmsman).

As can be seen, the decisions of the Council of the UOC do not meet the criteria for schism at all, because the Council has not expressed any opinion that would not be in agreement with the teaching of the Church.

On analogies with the Filaret schism

Some accusers claim that the UOC has gone "the path of Filaret". Filaret Denysenko's structures can be seen both as an arbitrary gathering and as a schism.

He separated from the canonical Church along with one bishop. And all his subsequent "bishops" are not legitimate, because they were "ordained" by him in a state of being defrocked and soon excommunicated from the Church. Thus, the acts of Filaret completely meet the definition of  "an unlawful assembly " because he was "convicted of crime and prohibited from discharging ministerial functions, and then refuses to submit to the canons, but arrogates to himself episcopal and ministerial rights, and persons leave the Catholic Church and join him". How can this be attributed to the UOC? Was His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry "convicted of crime and prohibited from discharging ministerial functions, and then refuses to submit to the canons"? I think the answer is obvious.

The Filaret structure could be considered a schism as well, since Denisenko from the very beginning of his activity began to create the so-called "parallel hierarchy" violating thus the doctrine of the Church: "…. in one church there shall not be two bishops" (Canon 8 of the I Ecumenical Council).

In our case, the UOC has not created any parallel hierarchy, and therefore the claims that it has followed "the path of Filaret" are completely unfounded.

Canons and autocephaly

There are no norms in the body of canon law that regulate the process of receiving/proclaiming/granting autocephaly. Therefore, by and large, it is not entirely correct to speak of the canonicity or non-canonicity of autocephaly as such. All we can be guided by are the precedents of Local Churches receiving autocephaly. They are quite different. For example, the so-called "Bulgarian schisma", when the proclamation of autocephaly by the Bulgarian Church was not recognized by Constantinople, lasted for about a hundred years. The Russian Church itself, which in fact proclaimed its autocephaly in 1448, was not recognized as such until 1589, that is 141 years. Today, there is the Orthodox Church in America, which received its autocephaly from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970, but only the Russian, Georgian, Bulgarian, Polish and Czechoslovakian Churches recognise this autocephaly. All others consider it to be part of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Because of the lack of canons on the granting of autocephaly, the accusers of the UOC do not usually cite any specific canons as an argument. The only exception is Canon 15 of the Local Council of Constantinople of 861, also known as Protodeutera.

It reads: "In case any Presbyter or Bishop or Metropolitan dares to secede or apostatize from the communion of his own Patriarch, and fails to mention the latter’s name in accordance with custom duly fixed and ordained, in the divine Mystagogy, but, before a conciliar verdict has been pronounced and has passed judgment against him, creates a schism, the holy Council has decreed that this person shall be held an alien to every priestly function if only he be convicted of having committed this transgression of the law.”

It seems to fit in with today because part of the UOC congregations does not commemorate Patriarch Kirill, and His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry after the Council commemorates him not “in accordance with custom duly fixed and ordained" but among other Primates of the Local Churches. But this is only at first glance. This canon is not really applicable in today's situation, inasmuch as it speaks of metropolitans, who headed the so-called metropolitan regions that had no independence, but not of the autonomous Churches, which did not exist in the ninth century. By the way, in the 1990 Letter of Patriarch Alexy II, there was not a single word about the commemoration of the Primate of the ROC.

Again, there are no canons regulating the process of receiving autocephaly, just as there are no universally recognized canons defining the rights of the autocephalous and autonomous Churches.

Today, when one speaks of the unity of the Church or of a schism, one speaks almost exclusively of administrative issues: who is subordinate to whom, who is in whose jurisdiction, who is "Church-Mother" to whom, and so on. However, the Church has always understood Her unity not as administrative but rather as eucharistic. The Church has always understood Herself as one Body of Christ. All of the systems of government of the Church in particular historical circumstances, all of the relationships between these parts of the one Body of the Church have a transitory significance and are only of value insofar as they serve the Church's mission on earth.

Are the autocephalous Churches such as the Polish, Georgian, Czech and Slovak Churches united with the Russian Orthodox Church and the whole Ecumenical Orthodoxy? And after all, they were once part of the ROC and their separation did not take place without problems. So why now, when the UOC does not even use the word "autocephaly" when neither the UOC nor the ROC declares a break in the eucharistic communion, why do some "preachers" talk about a schism?

Unfortunately, the UOC's accusers are following the direction set by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, namely, they are trying to find "convenient" quotations from the canons and various church documents that supposedly support their accusations. In doing so, they speculate on the texts of the canons, trying to use them not for the benefit of the Church. 

Unfortunately, such speculation has been resorted to since ancient times. For example, St Gregory the Theologian was removed from the See of Constantinople on the accusation that he had originally been ordained bishop of Sasima. He was deposed and took the See of Constantinople contrary to Canon 15 of the First Ecumenical Council which said, "Neither bishop, nor presbyter, nor deacon shall be transferred from city to city." This is despite the fact that this rule was not observed at that time (not to mention today) and that St Gregory's accusers included many bishops who were also blamed for violating this canon. St Gregory wrote on this subject in one of his letters: "Moved more by irritation than by reason, they saw in many things, including in my case, something very bitter, when they began to go over the laws that had not been in force for a long time, from which I was most of all and obviously free.”

This example does not call into question the authority of the canons but illustrates the point that attempts to apply the canons without ascertaining their true meaning, as well as the conditions in which they are applicable, do more harm, than good to the Church. Еven more harmful is the application of the letter of the canons without the love for God and neighbour commanded by Christ. But there is no love in the speeches of the accusers. And the good thing is that their position is not shared by the whole Russian Church.

Did the UOC have the right to change its Statute arbitrarily?

One of the points of accusation against the UOC many "prosecutors" name the absence of a resolution by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church on the decisions of the UOC Council. If there is no signature, it means that these decisions are invalid. And if they are invalid, it means that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church remains in an uncertain canonical status.

And if we look in the Statute of the ROC (Chapter X, paragraph 3), it becomes clear that indeed to change the Statute of the UOC, we need the approval of the Patriarch of the ROC: "The UOC in its life and activities is guided by the Resolution of the Council of Bishops of the ROC of 1990 "On the Ukrainian Orthodox Church", the Letter of Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia of 1990 and the Statute of the UOC, which is approved by its Primate and approved by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia".

However, the Statute of the UOC (amendments of 2007) does not mention anything about its approval by the Patriarch. Chapter I, paragraph 3 says: "The highest church authority and governing body of the UOC is the Council of the UOC, the Council of Bishops of the UOC and the Holy Synod of the UOC, headed by the Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine". Chapter XV paragraph 2 states that "the Council of Bishops of the UOC has the right to make amendments and changes to this Statute with the subsequent approval by the Council of the UOC".

Thus, all requirements of the own Statute were met by the Council of the UOC. Why do the Statutes of the ROC and the UOC formulate the same things differently? A question for canonists.

The ROC Synod's position

The meeting of the Holy Synod of the ROC took place on Sunday, May 29, 2022, after the Council of the UOC had taken its decisions and Metropolitan Onuphry mentioned Patriarch Kirill among all the Primates of the Local Churches in the Liturgy. Did this prompt a statement of schism or of any anticanonical actions? Or was the UOC put under reprisals? No, there was none of this. On the contrary – the ROC Synod resolution begins with the words: "To express full support and understanding for the archpastors, pastors, monastics and laity of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church".

Those changes to the UOC Statutes that testify to its complete independence and autonomy are not rejected or condemned as anti-canonical, but it is only said that they "need to be studied" and subsequently approved by Patriarch Kirill (this approval is mentioned above).

The only thing in the ROC Synod's decree that can be interpreted in any way as a conflict with the UOC is the last paragraph, which expresses "regret that in a number of dioceses of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church the commemoration of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia is ceased and that it contradicts Canon15 of the Council of Constantinople". Agree that the word "regret" is very far from condemnation or accusation of schism. And we have already analyzed the aforementioned Canon 15 above.

Thus, the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church is to understand the Ukrainian situation and to strive to preserve the highest eucharistic understanding of the unity of the Church, which is professed in the Creed: "I believe in One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church".

As can be seen, both Patriarch Kirill and the members of the ROC Synod have taken a balanced position, which inspires respect and gratitude. Thus, the ROC Synod supported the unity of the UOC, which, unfortunately, its accusers are trying to destroy.

War as an initiator of the UOC Council

In the set of canonical rules, we will not find the canons condemning armed aggression and those church structures that approve and support it (in fact, bless it). But there are no such canons, not because the war does not affect church affairs but because this is a matter not so much of canon law, as of moral norms, the commandments of God.

On May 27, 2022, the Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church clearly stated that war is a mortal sin. "The Council condemns war as a violation of God's commandment "Thou shalt not kill!" (Exodus 20:13)," says the first paragraph of the Resolution of the Council. In Russia and Ukraine, the views on the current war differ diametrically. And we can argue about this for a long time.

But one thing is certain for everyone – the fact that with its invasion Russia dealt the Ukrainian Orthodox Church such a powerful blow that it was not dealt to it by all the radicals and all the enemies of the UOC in the Ukrainian government combined. It was the invasion that brought the UOC to the brink of survival. It was the invasion that provoked brutal seizures of churches, bans on the UOC’s activities by local authorities and drawing bills to ban the UOC. Destroyed Ukrainian cities, hundreds of dead children, thousands of destitute and homeless, millions of refugees... For many Ukrainians, all this causes hatred of everything Russian, which in many cases is splashed out on the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, invariably referred to as the "Moscow Patriarchate". And it cannot be said that such a reaction has no basis at all. After all, the ROC practically supported the "special operation". It is very difficult to find bishops or priests of the Russian Church who have publicly opposed it.

And now from Russia and from Russians living in other, usually prosperous countries, accusations of the schism in the UOC are heard. And even from the point of view of ordinary morality, such a position does not look unimpeachable.

A little on the moral side of things

To follow the Council of the UOC, Fr Georgy Maximov, the Moscow priest, recorded a video in which he said that the UOC has gone into schism and it is impossible to receive communion there. The arguments are generalized rhetoric and a reference to Сanon 15 of the Council of Constantinople, Protodeutera, mentioned above. This is his opinion, which he has every right to express.

But it is the way he justifies this opinion that is unpleasantly surprising. Maximov tries to present the situation as though the participants of the Council were selected only from among the supporters of autocephaly, that majority of the Council was against the decisions taken (which does not even agree with the previous thesis), that these decisions were "pushed", that the Council could not express the position of the UOC, etc.

In fact, all was not so. And even Metropolitan Mitrofan, whom Maximov refers to, did not say anything of the kind. In particular, the Bishop said about the decision to change the original status of the meeting "the majority voted for it, our meeting became the UOC Council, which has the right to make decisions”. No one shut anyone's mouth. 

Archpriest Vasily Kucher said: "The first to speak out were the Donbass and Crimean bishops who participated in the meeting online. Then everyone from among those gathered in the temple came to the microphone. They spoke without any time limit, saying whatever they were thinking and whatever was hurting them. Everyone could speak.”

And such testimonies are numerous. An absolute majority of the participants of the Council supported its decisions. There were those who voted against (the same Metropolitan Mitrofan) and no one ostracized them, no one forced or accused the UOC of the schism. Moreover, one of the decisions of the Council (paragraph 7) provides the ruling bishops of the dioceses, with which communication during the war is difficult, to independently resolve important issues. This includes the possibility to be guided by the old Statute.

Why, then, are the accusers trying to defame the Council and discredit its decisions?

From the moral point of view, appeals to a confession from people who are far away from the war, and from persecution, to which the UOC is exposed today, look even more unpleasant. Sitting in peaceful and prosperous countries they call to suffer for the commemoration of Patriarch Kirill in a traditionally accepted way.

By and large, only those who have gone through them themselves or who are in the same danger as the people to whom they are appealing have the right to call for suffering. Christ called his followers to follow him to the cross because he himself went to the cross. You can say, "WE must suffer", but you cannot say, "YOU must suffer". And the position of the UOC accusers looks like this: you there suffer, and I will watch from the sidelines and criticize if you suffer wrongly. Fr Georgy Maximov speaks: "Normal fathers (priests – Ed.) are watching me. For them I say that you are in a situation where you have a choice: either bread or the cross.” By the way, a very revealing criterion for Fr Georgy Maximov is a criterion of "normality" or "abnormality" of priests – a subscription to his Youtube channel.

Another striking quote: "The criterion is very simple: if there is a commemoration of the patriarch, one can receive Holy Communion and other sacraments, if not, one cannot. And it's not just there I'm talking about, or canons, or the Synod in Moscow.”

This is despite the fact that no canon puts the validity of the Sacraments in direct dependence on the commemoration of the Patriarch! Moreover, the Patriarch himself holds precisely this position. Here it will be appropriate to recall the blessing of Patriarch Alexy to the clergy of the UOC, given back in 1990 at the Pochaiv Lavra. At that time, the Primate gave permission not to commemorate him in the parishes where this might cause rejection. So, according to Fr Georgy’s logic, all of these 30 years the parishes that did not mention the Patriarch with his ow blessing were in schism? Was communion in them invalid?

Why, then, is Fr Georgy inciting intra-church enmity where, on the contrary, all efforts should be made to restore peace and harmony? After all, such words are obvious appeals to rebellion. As well as appeals to priests to leave the "non-commemorating" bishops, leave their parishes and go to him (Maximov) for employment.

And what is most striking is the ease with which the priest sends those who have a point of view different from his own to hell. Quote: "I think that many of them may yet come to their senses and get off the path (of not mentioning Patriarch Kirill – Ed.), but while they are on that path, I do not recommend anyone to be their fellow travellers on the ROAD TO HELL."

Thank God, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church; and hopefully, the majority of the clergy and the faithful, are of a different opinion.

The results of such "godly" videos

There is no doubt that such videos, Telegram feeds and other means of communication result in confusion among the faithful, a division of the Church, enmity and misunderstanding. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused a bleeding wound, literally and figuratively, in relations between the peoples of Russia and Ukraine and, through this, in ROC-UOC relations. The accusers of the UOC are not trying to heal it, but instead are trying to stir it up and drive a wedge into it as deeply as possible.

It is encouraging that not everyone accuses the UOC. Patriarch Kirill and many priests find words of sympathy and support for the UOC and hope that in the future it will be possible to overcome current difficulties. For example, Metropolitan Hilarion, the head of the DECR MP, said: "The unity between the UOC and the ROC remains, we will continue to strengthen this unity.”

And here are the words of Patriarch Kirill, about whose commemoration the accusers are so concerned: "We fully understand that His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry and the episcopate must act as wisely as possible today in order not to complicate the life of its faithful people.”

And here is what the bishops of the UOC, whose dioceses are in the war zone and who, unlike outside observers, have every right to call for confession, say.

Metropolitan Luke of Zaporizhzhia and Melitopol: "I would like to draw your attention to the fact that the devil, who walks around like a "roaring lion looking for someone to devour", wants to confuse people's souls to create another schism within the Church. Here and there appear publications concerning the events of the Council. They accuse the clergy of the alleged schism and so on. I wish to say with full responsibility that none of this is true. When crucial issues are being decided, you cannot instantly label someone or make him the enemy of the people.’

And here are the words of Metropolitan Mitrofan of Horlivka and Slaviansk, who voted against the decisions of the UOC Council, but who nevertheless speaks about his unity with the UOC: "I believe that the decision was wrong. <...> I do not support or approve of it, but I will not do anything to harm our brethren. We commemorate both His Beatitude Metropolitan Onuphry and His Holiness Patriarch. <...> now we remain in unity with the ROC and, with God's help, we will keep unity with UOC.”
We all should pray for this unity and do everything in our power to preserve it.

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