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Is the UOC-MP on the verge of another schism?

The movement to convene a new Local Council and completely sever relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, which blesses and supports Russia’s war against Ukraine, is growing within the UOC-MP. At the same time, pro-Russian forces within the UOC-MP have also become more active, trying to thwart such initiatives to convene the Council at all costs. It is in the vein of these discussions that statements by both supporters and opponents of the Council and the full independence of the UOC-MP have recently appeared online. The latter are trying to preserve “everything as it was” at all costs, while the former advocate clearer responses to the challenges of Russia’s war against Ukraine and interaction with Ukrainian society and the state, rather than opposition to them.

The informal Bishops’ Meeting held on 28 July 2023 at the Kyiv Cave Monastery on the day of St Volodymyr of Kyiv and the 1035th anniversary of the Baptism of Kyivan Rus-Ukraine was indicative of this. This meeting remained invisible to the media. However, there were considerable passions at the meeting, which was not typical for this church structure, where all decisions were usually made in advance from the top without much discussion or debate. It was said to have been convened by Metropolitan Onufriy to listen to the bishops and to find out the mood among the bishops in the UOC-MP.

The meeting was attended by about 30 bishops who had come to the Lavra to celebrate the feast of St Volodymyr. Initially, it was planned to involve only the ruling bishops, but then the vicar bishops were invited. The overwhelming majority, of course, watched the meeting in silence, but a kind of “backbone” emerged – a dozen bishops who demanded the convocation of the Council. Among them were Metropolitans Filaret of Lviv, Varsonofy of Vinnytsia, Augustine of Bila Tserkva, Alexei of Voznesensk, Anatoly of Sarny, Archbishops Jonah of Obukhiv, Victor of Artsyz, Pimen of Rivne, and others.

They advocated the convening of the Council of the UOC-MP and a dialogue with Ukrainian society and the authorities, which should be discussed openly and conciliarly by the entire Church and officially approve the status of the UOC as a non-MP, i.e. officially summarise what is allegedly voiced in various statements from the UOC-MP. The bishops stated that there is a significant demand for autocephaly among the clergy in their dioceses and that this movement within the UOC is gaining strength and support. Some members of the Synod of the UOC-MP and their activities were criticised. One bishop even expressed distrust of the Synod of the UOC-MP. However, they did not actually call for autocephaly. Rather, they talked about a logical and more precise definition of the decisions of last year’s “Theophania” Council.

But even such not-quite-so-“autocephalous” sentiments were met with fierce resistance from the “synodals”. In response, they said that we should “pray more”, “be confessors” (of the “Russian world”?), that the “Theophania” Council adopted “everything that was necessary” and that there was no point in convening and changing anything else until the end of the war… And then there were emotional statements on the Internet by some bishops of the UOC-MP, who accused the supporters of the Council of “treason”, “renovationism”, “schismaticism”.

Will anything come of this? The situation is indeed boiling over, as the lack of clear decisions and adequate responses to the demands of their own society in times of war, attempts to preserve “the way things were before” and the outright collaborationism of some figures cause natural discontent within the church. One of the bishops of the UOC-MP told me that “there is no true church without conciliarity”. Some say that if the Council does not take place by the end of the year, there may well be a split in the UOC-MP… But in the same way, the pro-Russian current, in the event of clear decisions of the Council to break with the MP, may also split… This is what Metropolitan Onufriy seems to be afraid of.

As I said last year, in the heterogeneous environment of the UOC-MP, three conditional currents are maturing from within: pro-Russian, pro-autocephalous, and the current of “Onufriy’s” followers, who are ready to follow their leader on some “third way” of Ζηλωτές and self-isolation. Currently, the “pro-autocephalous” current has the support of ordinary clergy and flocks, but no support in the Synod. The question is, whose side will the conditional party of “Onufriy’s” take in this situation? So far, it is not clear that it will rely on bishops and priests who really want their church to be “Ukrainian” not only in name…

To illustrate the passions, here is one of the comments of pro-Russian figures from the UOC-MP about the Bishops’ Council of 28 July:

“As we managed to find out, on 28 July nevertheless, Vladyka Onufryi held a meeting. Earlier, priest Andriy Pinchuk, who was banned from ministry, wrote about this meeting. However, as far as we know, the reality was quite different from his speculations. From what we were able to learn, the following theses are interesting:

The bishops of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, who favoured autocephaly and a complete break with the Russian Church, demanded this from Metropolitan Onufriy extremely firmly. Among them were Vladyka Jonah (Cherepanov), Metropolitan Varsonofiy (Stolyar) and others. Also this company was hitting on Metropolitan Anthony (Pakanich). The situation was complicated by the fact that there were few vladyks with an adequate position at the meeting.

However, Metropolitan Onufry answered the “autocephalists”: you are monks, take rosary beads and Psalter and pray, that’s your business. According to him, no decisions will be taken until the end of hostilities, “everything that is necessary has already been taken” (meaning the “council” in “Theophany” in May 2022).

The appearance of Metropolitan Onufry’s appeals with anti-Russian theses is associated with his secretary – Father Paphnutiy. He is closely connected with the “autocephalists”.

Thus, the following picture emerges: Metropolitan Onufry was forced to accept the decisions of “Theophany”, but, thank God, he is not going to take any further action. Apparently, he realises that the Russian Church will not turn a blind eye to further steps, as it was with last year’s May “council”.

However, he is under intense pressure from the “autocephalists”, demanding “continuation of the banquet”. Unfortunately, in this regard, Metropolitan Onuphrius has become a hostage to the principle of consistency. People do not like to be inconsistent and many manipulations and “divorces” are based on it. This is exactly what is happening here.

The group of “autocephalists”, as the most active in the media, is trying to “impose” a new Council with a complete break with the Russian Church. However, so far Metropolitan Onuphrius has resisted this.” (Kiev batyushka).

And this is a commentary from the Jolly Pop tg-channel by Fr Andrew Pinchuk on the 28 July Archdiocesan Council:

Let everyone draw their own conclusions, whoever likes them

Dr Serhii Shumylo,
Ph.D. in History, ThDr.,

Director of the International Institute of the Athonite Legacy