On December 15, 2018, a church council was held in Kiev chaired by Emmanuel, the Metropolitan of France (Ecumenical Patriarchate), which brought together bishops from three church jurisdictions – the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarchate (UOC-KP), the Ukrainian Autonomous Orthodox Church (UAOC) and Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). All bishops from the first two jurisdictions (churches) joined the council, while the third one was presented only by two bishops – Vinnytsky Metropolitan Simeon and Pereyaslav-Khmelnytsky and Vishnevsky Metropolitan Alexander (Drabinko), although 11 bishops from around hundred bishops from Moscow Patriarchate declared participation. The Council elected Metropolitan Epiphanius (Domenko) as the chief of the new Orthodox Church in Ukraine and Metropolitan of Kiev, who was before the Metropolitan bishop of Pereyaslav-Khmellnutsky. He is 39 years old, born in the village of Vovkove, Odessa oblast, graduated from the Faculty of Philosophy at the Athens National University in Greece. He was ordained a bishop in 2009 and later appointed rector of a theological academy. He is well known in Ukraine for his active charity work in front areas and humanitarian aid for the army in the difficult initial moments of the conflict with Russia.
It is worth to note that no information was allowed to leak out of the council meetings. Furthermore, the election of Metropolitan Epiphanius was not predetermined. More favouritized were the well known Metropolitan Simeon of the UOC-MP and Metropolitan Michael from the UOC-KP. We could only guess why the Council of the Bishops chose Epiphanius. His young age, although being under the age of the traditionally accepted age for a chief of an Orthodox Church, is an important mark for him for staying aside from the bishops’ dependency from the former Soviet security services. Undoubtedly, his educational qualification in Greece has also have an impact, further to the good image he has gained among the local population. On the basis of the outcomes of the council and statements of Canon the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is going to hand on January 6, 2019 a tomos of autocephaly to the new chief of the local church during his peaceful visit to Constantinople. The Canon dictates that the first visit of the chief of a local Orthodox church should be to the chief of the Church of Constantinople, where he is to introduce himself and receive a document of his authorities from the hands of His all-holiness Ecumenical Patriarch. Epiphanius has already received an invitation from Patriarch Bartholomew immediately after his election.
However, the lack of presence of a large number of bishops of the UOC-MP at this unification council has undermined its authority without, at the same time, negating it. The Russian Synod has threatened its bishops in Ukraine shortly before the Council with excommunication if they plan participation in the Council. And the excommunication happened on December 17, 2018, with the two representatives attending the council. The influence of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and Russian Federation among Ukrainian bishops is indisputably still big enough to deter them from uniting with the rest bishops, despite the desire of many of the religious believers in the country. Rejecting the Council in Kiev and the decision taken by the ROC two months ago to discontinue its Eucharistic communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate has weakened the position of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC). This has deprived its clergy and laymen of the opportunity to visit and participate in church services not only in Constantinople, but also in Mount Athos. Further to that the Greek-speaking churches have declared full support to the Ecumenical Patriarchate resulting in restraint of the influence of the ROC also to the Holy Lands. A curious fact is that after the decision of the ROC its clergy turned out to be much more isolated compared to the clergy of the new Orthodox Kiev church.
As far as the title of the new head is concerned, he is titled “Metropolitan of Kiev and all Ukraine”, and the title of the local church – ” Orthodox Church in Ukraine “. Both titles are theologically correct and any nationalistic associations are avoided. However, the media in the Russian Federation, but also in Bulgaria have taken on the ridiculous attitude over the church for not being “a patriarchate”. First, it has to be clear that in the Slavic tradition, the title “Metropolitan” is a higher position than Archbishop (contrary to the Greek tradition), while the title “Bishop” stands below of Archbishop. Thus, the title “Metropolitan of Kiev and all Ukraine” is equal to “Archbishop” in the Greek tradition (which is also the titling of the BOC). Concerning Patriarch, it is a very special title and hard to obtain – it requires most active church activities, assignment and education, and, for certain, historical contributions. In addition to the ancient five patriarchies of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – another four have been proclaimed since the Middle Ages and their titles rank with these of the ancient archbishops. As for the Roman church, a new Roman catholic church was split and established in 1054.
In fact, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has restored the ancient title of the Kiev Metropolitan Church, and on January 6, 2019 the church independence is pending to be declared. Nevertheless, the issue of the ROC dioceses on the territory of Ukraine remains. According to the Orthodox canon, on this territory a church different from the local Orthodox church of Ukraine should not operate, but according to the secular legislation dictated by the Western world – in the face of the EU and the USA – a support, on which Ukraine particularly relies on for its stabilization – the government in Kiev cannot prohibit their functioning. In order to continue to operate in Ukraine, the ROC have to rely on the European Court for Human Rights, an institution otherwise constantly under attack and rejection by the Russian federation. Almost two decades ago, the great pride of the ROC – a document called the “Social Concept of the ROC” – implicitly denied the human rights and the public rhetoric of its prominent head Patriarch Cyril after his election has always explicitly denied the existence of universal human rights, while the liberal Western values have been declared “satanic”. Furthermore, the ROC has also to rely on Ukraine’s negotiations with the EU, when the rights of all minority communities, including those who insist to remain within the ROC will be, undoubtedly, put to discussion. Strange, but true, the ROC will rely on Ukraine’s accession to the EU in order to remain with its dioceses on Ukrainian territory.
Hereinafter, after receiving the tomos of autocephaly in Kiev, the question who else will recognize the new church still remains. For sure, the Greek-speaking churches and the Romanian one will immediately enter into communion with the bishop of Kiev. Churches, more dependent on ROCs will not do that so quickly. By canon, however, they are not obliged to pronounce explicitly their recognition of this church, since it has received a tomos from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and, in practice, it does not need further recognition or confirmation of its existence by other churches. Thus, the synods of churches close to the ROC will not be put in awkward position to vote decisions that would confront them with any of the other sides.
The long-lasting consequences of these events will directly affect Moscow’s claim to play the role of “the centre of Orthodoxy.” This thesis definitely is no longer relevant outside the Russian Federation, and the bishop of the Russian Orthodox Church in Ukraine will have to rely on the European Commission and the US Department of State and its Bureau for Human and Religious freedom to maintain his positions in this country.