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Quelques éclaircissements sur l'Ukraine


I am starting to get annoyed at the number of commentators who have no background in Orthodox ecclesiology and scant knowledge of Byzantine, Ukrainian and Russian history or about the contemporary realities of religious life throughout the former Soviet Union. These pundits nevertheless feel confident to deliver sweeping pronouncements about the Ukrainian Orthodox Church situation and its ramifications for the Moscow Patriarchate and the Orthodox Church as a whole. At a minimum, one would hope that anyone offering commentary would be well versed in the disputes over the interpretations of the canons of the Council of Chalcedon (451), the controversy over the creation of the Autocephalous Polish Orthodox Church nearly a century ago (in 1924), and the significance of the Pochaiv conclave (which attempted to create a unified Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 1942). Ignorance of these and other developments should be seen as disqualifying to offering anything that purports to be an expert opinion on the matter.

These historical points are raised not to play at trivia but to suggest that the crisis besetting Ukrainian Orthodoxy is not a result of the 2014 Maidan uprising and the subsequent Russian intervention, but has been percolating for a long while. Recent events have brought matters to a head, but did not create them. All of the above are playing themselves out in a fashion that, while overlapping with current geopolitical developments, have and will continue to exist independently of them.

Additionally, there is too much of a focus on top-down solutions; that somehow the pronouncements of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew will settle the matter. Some of the confusion here is assuming that the Ecumenical Patriarch enjoys a status in the Orthodox world akin to that of the Pope of Rome for the Catholic Church; that he has the ability to deliver a “final word” on any issue. The bottom line is that Orthodox Ukrainians will continue to determine what sort of Church administration they want.

Orthodox Christians in Ukraine—both those who would be considered active believers and those whose allegiance to religion is more nominal—can be subdivided into three broad groups.

The first and smallest—generally comprising those who would identify as ethnic Russians or who view Ukrainianess as a subset of a larger “all-Russian” identity— see no differences between Russians and Ukrainians and therefore no reason for separate church administrations. The separation of Crimea and the migrations from Donbass into Russia have reduced the numbers of adherents to this position remaining in Ukraine.

The second group consists of those who argue that Ukrainian Orthodoxy forms a distinct community but that Ukrainian Orthodoxy remains interwoven with Russian Orthodoxy (via common traditions, saints, etc.) so that a Ukrainian Church cannot and should not be sliced away from a larger whole. This group, for instance, would resist introducing modern borders to suggest that St. Sergius of Radonezh (inside the borders of Russia) or St. Efrosina of Polotsk (now in Belarus) are “foreign” saints. This group instead would lobby for the status quo of a series of autonomous churches across a larger spiritual/civilizational realm comprised by the Moscow Patriarchate. This view, however, has lost ground since 2014, and some Ukrainian Orthodox who would have been content to remain part of the Moscow Patriarchate are now concerned about the implications of a spiritual head residing in a hostile foreign country. For example, this is similar to how American Orthodox worried about remaining under the direction of a Patriarch under Soviet control and jurisdiction during the Cold War. Finally, there are those Ukrainian Orthodox who argue that Russian Orthodoxy is utterly separate and unrelated to Ukrainian Orthodoxy—and point to events such as Andrey Bogolyubsky sack of Kiev in 1169 as early evidence of Russian-Ukrainian antagonism. Even those who might concede that Russian Orthodoxy developed as a result of the conversion of Kiev would point out that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, certainly since the fifteenth century—was evolving separately from the Russian Orthodox Church and that it was unjustly merged with the Russian Church, first during the Russian Empire, then the Soviet Union.

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