This past weekend in Kiev, two independent Orthodox bodies united to form a new communion, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and elected a 39-year old bishop as the church’s patriarch. The patriarch will travel to Istanbul next month to receive a tomos of autocephaly from the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople — a recognition that the new church is autonomous from the Moscow Patriarchate, or Russian Orthodox Church, which claims jurisdiction under a 17th-century decree from the Ecumenical Patriarch, now overruled.
All this might seem esoteric to Western Christians, but in the Eastern Christian world, it is very big news, with geopolitical implications. Indeed, at this weekend’s ceremonies, Ukraine’s President, Peter Poroshenko, lauded the creation of the new body as a national declaration of independence from Russia.
The situation of Orthodoxy in Ukraine has been deeply contentious for at least 100 years, as Valparaiso University Professor Nicholas Denysenko recently wrote over at the Public Orthodoxy blog. Last month, Denysenko published a longer history of the conflict, The Orthodox Church in Ukraine: A Century of Separation (Northern Illinois University Press), which looks to be very helpful in understanding what’s going on. The publisher’s description follows:
The bitter separation of Ukraine’s Orthodox churches is a microcosm of its societal strife. From 1917 onward, church leaders failed to agree on the church’s mission in the twentieth century. The core issues of dispute were establishing independence from the Russian church and adopting Ukrainian as the language of worship. Decades of polemical exchanges and public statements by leaders of the separated churches contributed to the formation of their distinct identities and sharpened the friction amongst their respective supporters.
In The Orthodox Church in Ukraine, Nicholas Denysenko provides a balanced and comprehensive analysis of this history from the early twentieth century to the present. Based on extensive archival research, Denysenko’s study examines the dynamics of church and state that complicate attempts to restore an authentic Ukrainian religious identity in the contemporary Orthodox churches. An enhanced understanding of these separate identities and how they were forged could prove to be an important tool for resolving contemporary religious differences and revising ecclesial policies. This important study will be of interest to historians of the church, specialists of former Soviet countries, and general readers interested in the history of the Orthodox Church.