UKRAINE: Breakthrough in Orthodox Unification?

by Anna Vassilyeva, Keston News Service, 25 July 2001

Following an agreement reached during a visit by a mixed delegation of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (UAOC) and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate (UOC KP) to Istanbul between 12 and 14 June, the two sides have entered into an active dialogue aimed at unifying at least the two smaller of the three branches of Orthodoxy in the country. Representatives of both churches recognised that there is already inter-communion between priests, and a similar relationship is under discussion at an episcopal level. Although there are a number of points of disagreement, a joint commission is working to resolve them.

The agreement, which was signed at the residence of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Istanbul and has been circulated in the national media, sets out the aims of the negotiation process: `We, representatives of two Orthodox Ukrainian Churches, having met at the Ecumenical Patriarchate: Metropolitan Andrei of Lviv and Sokal and Archbishop Daniil of Rovno and Ostrozh of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate; and Metropolitan Mefodi of Ternopol and Podolsk and Bishop Makari of Lviv of the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, in the presence of Metropolitan Constantine (Buggan) of Irinupolis from America, have, following an exchange of views and opinions, and recognising the obligation and necessity of uniting with each other in order to achieve as an end result one united Ukrainian Orthodox Church, resolved the following:

1. Both sides have declared that there are no ideological differences between them as far as Orthodox theology is concerned. 2. Representatives of the two churches, the UOC KP and the UAOC, should meet in Kiev to discuss the details and prospects for full unification of our two churches, as a first step towards unification of all Orthodox believers in Ukraine. 3. To form a joint commission of the two churches, made up of: Metropolitan Andrei of Lviv, Archbishop Daniil of Rovno, Bishop Dimitri of Pereyaslav-Khmelnitsky, Metropolitan Mefodi of Ternopol, Metropolitan Andrei of Ivano-Frankivsk and Bishop Makari of Lviv, to discuss the details that may arise in the course of unification of the two churches, the UOC KP and the UAOC.'

According to the agreement `the commission will work under the aegis of Archbishop Vsevolod of Skopelos (of the Ecumenical Patriarchate), who will keep the Ecumenical Patriarchate regularly informed of the results of the commission's work. Both sides are obliged to realise the above-cited resolutions.'

Speaking from Lviv on 10 July, the same day bishops of the UAOC and UOC KP met in Kiev (see separate KNS story), Bishop Makari told Keston he regarded the key issue as `inter-communion between the bishops'. He said that Metropolitan Mefodi and Archbishop Andrei represented the UAOC at the meeting. He had not attended because, he said, `he did not agree with the ban imposed by the UOC KP on those priests who had moved over to the UAOC'. He said that if Patriarch Filaret did not lift the ban, he would withdraw his candidature for the joint commission.

On the same day, the secretary to Metropolitan Andrei (of the UOC KP), Father Vladimir Bachinsky, confirmed to Keston that a dialogue had developed between the churches and also that, on 24 June, a meeting had taken place in Ternopol as scheduled. In his opinion, there were currently no obstacles to unification of the churches.

Bishop Makari and Father Vladimir confirmed that priests of the UAOC and the UOC KP were practising inter-communion, which is also confirmed by the UAOC Patriarchate.

Bishop Makari sees an obstacle to the creation of a single church in the anathema pronounced on Patriarch Filaret. `We in the UAOC have not anathematised anyone, and if the Ecumenical Patriarch can lift the anathema, then there will be no other obstacles.'

After a period of waiting for the development of an active dialogue (see KNS 16 March 2001) there was an initial visit to Kiev between 26 and 28 May of this year of a joint delegation of the Moscow and Ecumenical Patriarchates, as well as its previous meeting in the Swiss town of Zurich, in April. The delegation from Kiev was made up of Archimandrite Athenagoras (Peckstadt), and an interpreter, hieromonk Illarion (Rudnik) from the Ecumenical Patriarchate; archpriest Nikolai Balashov, secretary for inter-Orthodox relations in the Russian Orthodox Church, and Pyotr Lagovsky of the Department of External Church Relations from the Moscow Patriarchate. Although meetings with representatives of the UAOC and the UOC KP took place in hotel rooms where members of the delegation were accommodated, Archbishop Igor Isychenko of the UAOC thought that `there had been a virtual recognition of the Ukrainian churches by participants in the talks', although, in an e-mail to Keston on 5 June, he noted that this `had not been referred to in the official press releases of the Moscow Patriarchate'.

All those interviewed by Keston, including Archbishop Igor, were united in the view that a united Ukrainian Orthodox Church should be `independent and equal with all the Orthodox Churches throughout the world'. `Although,' writes Archbishop Igor, `representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate have carefully tried to propose autonomous status for the future church, this suggestion was immediately turned down by representatives of the Ukrainian churches.' Recently, Father Vladimir and Bishop Makari confirmed that the Moscow Patriarchate was not taking any role in the unification process.

However, the Moscow Patriarchate did take part in the subsequent meeting that took place in Zurich from 12 to 14 July, being represented by Metropolitan Kirill, the head of the Department for External Church Relations, and Father Nikolai Balashov. The UAOC and UOC KP were represented by two bishops each, the UOC MP by one bishop (Metropolitan Agafangel of Odessa), with Metropolitan John of Pergamon and Metropolitan Meliton of Philadelphia representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Several sources told Keston that the presence of Viktor Bondarenko, the chairman of the Ukrainian government's State Committee for Religious Affairs, was vetoed by the Russian Orthodox Church.

One source told Keston on 20 July that as a compromise, the ROC agreed to give three regions in western Ukraine - Lviv, Ternopol and Ivano-Frankivsk - to the UOAC and grant it autocephaly, and then to discuss the issue - as it was put - of unification over the next 20-30 years. Patriarch Filaret (according to the source) is out of question for the ROC and was not defended by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The next meeting is to take place at the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Bondarenko is also reportedly trying to take part.

Archimandrite Athenagoras Peckstadt, who was part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate's delegation, told Keston from Belgium on 24 July that `no decisions had been taken at the meeting except to continue the dialogue and to take the next steps'. He declined to reveal the content of the discussions, but confirmed that the next meeting will take place `at the end of the summer'.

`The ideal solution for all the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine is the creation of a single, autocephalous Orthodox Church in Ukraine,' Archimandrite Athenagoras stressed. `This is what the Ecumenical Patriarch desires to see in the nearest future.'

Keston also sought comments from Metropolitan Meliton about the course of the unification process, but he did not respond. (END)