Ukraine Celebrates Orthodox Christmas Amid Biggest Christian Division Since 1054

Sunday’s Christmas service at Kiev’s St. Michael’s Golden-Domed Monastery, the main church of the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
Image: Brendan Hoffman / Getty Images

The Orthodox Church of Ukraine has been born again.

On January 6, it received the tomos of autocephaly—the documentation of its independence among Eastern church bodies—from one Orthodox heavyweight, the Patriarch of Constantinople, despite the vociferous opposition of another heavyweight, the Patriarch of Moscow.

To understand the significance of the biggest Christian schism since the Protestant Reformation, unfolding since last fall and formalized this weekend as Eastern churches celebrated Christmas Eve, a brief history is in order.

Founded in Kiev in 988 A.D., Vladimir the Great accepted Christianity on behalf of the Rus peoples, who would eventually constitute the nations of Russia, Belorussia, and Ukraine.

Tradition holds that the formerly pagan Vladimir wished to give a religion to his realm, and queried representatives of Judaism, Islam, and the different rites of Christianity.

Astounded by the majesty of the Byzantine mass, Vladimir chose Constantinople. In 1054, the Great Schism split Christianity—and the Rus remained in the Eastern Orthodox world.

Geopolitical winds shifted, however, and in 1686 the Patriarch of Constantinople—considered within Orthodox leadership to be the first among equals—placed the patriarchate of Kiev under the ascendant patriarchal church of Moscow.

In the modern era, geopolitical and religious winds continued to blow. In 1991, Ukraine became an independent nation. The following year, a breakaway bishop (or metropolitan, in Orthodox parlance) established an independent Ukrainian Orthodox church based again in Kiev, joining a smaller Orthodox schism from 1990 in staunch opposition to the canonical Moscow-affiliated church. Neither group was recognized by the patriarchs of Moscow or Constantinople.

In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian territory of Crimea, and pro-Russian separatists (with reported Russian backing) occupied two Ukrainian territories on the eastern border. The conflict has resulted in more than 10,000 Ukrainian deaths, with 2.5 million people displaced.

And in April 2018, the president of Ukraine flew to Constantinople (now Turkey’s Istanbul), to ask Patriarch Bartholomew for a tomos of autocephaly.

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow immediately followed, protesting the political interference in church affairs.

Tomos means document, and autocephaly is the status of an independent canonical church in the Eastern Orthodox tradition. There are currently 14, including Russia, Greece, Poland, and Jerusalem.

“Autocephaly is part of our pro-European and pro-Ukrainian state strategy,” said Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who also described it as “a matter of our independence and our national security.”

Patriarch Kirill is also closely connected to politics, calling Russian President Vladimir Putin “a miracle of God.” In 2016, Putin erected a statue of Vladimir the Great, the historic prince of Kiev, at the Kremlin, indicating Russia as his true heir.

Bartholomew ruled on the side of Ukraine. On October 11, he formally revoked the 1686 document, saying that circumstances had changed.

On October 15, Moscow cut ties with Constantinople, severing the world’s largest Orthodox church from its historic home. Russia accounts for roughly half of Orthodoxy’s 300 million believers; Constantinople, only 3,000.

Bartholomew asked the three Orthodox entities in Ukraine—the Moscow-affiliated patriarchate and the two schismatic Ukrainian bodies—to dissolve. On December 15, they would gather for a unity synod to create one new church, electing their own autocephalous patriarch.

All but 2 of the 90 Moscow bishops boycotted, and the new Ukrainian patriarch, Epiphanius, prayed to “complete the unification of Ukrainian Orthodoxy, for an end to the war, and for a just peace in Ukraine.”

Bartholomew then invited him to Constantinople to receive the tomos of autocephaly on January 6—uniting one church while dividing another.

“[Ukrainians can now enjoy] the sacred gift of emancipation, independence, and self-governance,” Bartholomew said, “becoming free from every external reliance and intervention.”

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SOURCE: Christianity Today, Jayson Casper