Wednesday, May 2, 2018

Autocephaly is Neither the Simple nor One-Time Act Many Russians and Ukrainians Believe

Paul Goble

            Staunton, May 2 – The achievement of autocephaly for a national church within Orthodoxy is not the clear-cut and one-time action many Russians who oppose granting autocephaly to a Ukrainian Orthodox Church and many Ukrainians who very much want to have a national church that controls its own affairs.

            Instead, in modern times, national churches have achieved this status in much the same way their nations have by a political struggle against their opponents that for a significant period has left them recognized by some as an independent church but has kept them from having their autocephaly acknowledged by all.

            And while the Universal Patriarchate has claimed the right to grant autocephaly, something which Russians are counting on it to deny in the Ukrainian case and Ukrainians are counting on to recognize it, the Constantinople church is at best primus inter pares with the other ancient Orthodox autocephalous churches without the power to impose its will.

            A new study shows that those Orthodox churches which have achieved autocephaly, that is the right to appoint their own leadership, have done so through a combination of appeals to Constantinople and independent action that ultimately has presented both that church and other Orthodox churches with a fait accompli.

            M. Koprofaganofonov, who blogs regularly about religion, has surveyed the way in which the following Orthodox churches achieved autocephaly – Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Albania, Poland, Georgia, Czechia, and America (, reposted at

            Despite all the differences in these cases, he says, in almost all of them, “the adoption of the decision about autocephaly has been a governmental one,” with “autocephaly being advanced not by the churches but by politicians” and “almost all” of them proclaimed that status before it was recognized by or even in the face of opposition from Constantinople or Moscow.

            And those two church centers have often disagreed, with Constantinople recognizing as autocephalous churches Moscow didn’t want to see acquiring that status and conversely Moscow doing so against Constantinople’s wishes.  Consequently, expecting a final decision by one or the other to determine what happens is at a minimum ahistorical.

            This does not mean that Ukrainian Orthodoxy will achieve the autocephaly it and its national leaders now seek anytime soon; but it does mean that they will not have that goal closed off once and for all by some decision elsewhere.  The history of Orthodoxy is too complex and diverse for that, something both Russians and Ukrainians should remember.

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