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UOC-MP asserts 'full' independence at surprise solemn Sobor

An informal listening session of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church affiliated with the Moscow Patriarchate shifted Friday into a solemn legislative session, at which bishops made a surprise assertion of the Church’s “full” independence, while insisting the move is not the same as a formal break from ecclesial communion with the Russian Orthodox Church.

It is not yet clear how that assertion will be received in Moscow, or among the Church’s parishes, some of which have defected in recent weeks to membership in the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

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Metropolitan Onufriy, head of the UOC-MP, presides at a May 27 liturgy. Credit: news.church.ua

A May 27 meeting of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church - Moscow Patriarchate began as a gathering of clergy and laity, delegates from eparchies across the country, called to St. Panteleimon Monastery in Kyiv for a listening session to focus on “problems of church life that have arisen as a result of the war and troubling us all.”

The meeting was called as several UOC-MP eparchies in Ukraine ceased liturgically commemorating Moscow Patriarch Kirill, a symbolic break of communion borne of his perceived support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and as numerous UOC-MP parishes in the country have moved to break from the Church, mostly to affiliate with the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine, which was recognized in 2019 as a legitimate independent Church by the Patriarch of Constantinople, a central unifying figure in Eastern Orthodoxy.

Ahead of the Friday meeting, clergy and laity in several dioceses had begun advocating that the UOC-MP should formally sever its ties from the Patriarch of Moscow, whom they say is a spiritual supporter of Russia’s aggressive military incursion into Ukraine.

The May 27 meeting began with a speech from Metropolitan Onufriy, head of the UOC-MP, who is also a permanent member of the Russian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod in Moscow.

In his remarks, the metropolitan noted that "For more than three months the war that the Russian Federation has started against Ukraine lasts," and stated that his appeals to end the war went unheeded. He listed the aid to the needy and the Ukrainian army provided by the UOC-MP but noted that his Church had been unfairly accused of being anti-state.

Finally, he said that “The problems of previous years and the new challenges now arising from military action in Ukraine have prompted us to gather in this holy abode to discuss them and express our attitudes and suggestions.”

After Onufriy’s speech, the meeting took an unusual turn: it became a series of short, nested meetings conducted in a particular sequence.

The bishops present at the listening session convened an extraordinary meeting of the UOC-MP’s Holy Synod, which is the Church’s governing body between official Councils of Bishops.

The Holy Synod’s meeting did not last long; it convened an official Council of Bishops, effective immediately. The Council of Bishops, according to the Church’s statutes, has full power in the Church between an even more solemn meeting, called a Sobor, or a council of the Church itself.

The Council of Bishops meeting was also quite short. It began, voted to convoke a Sobor, and then concluded.

The Sobor, the most solemn kind of governance council in the UOC-MP, is a gathering of bishops to which monks, priests, and laity are invited as consultants. The meeting is the supreme legislative, administrative, and judicial body of the UOC-MP

Within minutes, the listening session was a very official assembly, with the laity and clergy already present designated the officially invited consultors of the meeting.

An official UOC-MP report from the meeting said the Sobor repeated the Church’s condemnation of the war and urged the heads of Russia and Ukraine to continue negotiations. Participants expressed their “disagreement with the position of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia on the war in Ukraine” but refrained from formally condemning it.

But the most unexpected decision has implications that are not yet entirely clear.

The report say the council adopted “appropriate additions and changes to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church's Statutes on Governance, testifying to the full independence and autonomy of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”

While the text of revised statutes has not yet been published, the Sobor apparently did not explicitly express the notion of autocephaly, which would assert a claim to be an Orthodox Church with no hierarchical or jurisdictional relationship to Moscow. But lacking that phrase, it is not entirely clear what “full independence and autonomy” is intended to convey.

Metropolitan Kliment, a UOC-MP spokesman, said Friday night that the Church has not broken relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, but only attempted to clarify its statutes.

It seems most likely that revisions to the UOC-MP’s statutes will redact explicit references to the Russian Orthodox Church, while continuing to indicate that “the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is united with the local Orthodox Churches.”

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Friday’s move could be intended both to avoid legal problems for the UOC-MP if the Russian Orthodox Church faces legal prohibitions in Ukraine, and to assuage the Church members calling for a sterner separation from Kirill’s jurisdiction — in March, 44 priests of the UOC-MP’s Kyiv archeparchy had called for a Sobor to declare independence from Moscow.

But Orthodox clergy in Ukraine have already begun to question the meaning of the Sobor’s language, asking what it means for the UOC-MP to consider itself a part of the Moscow Patriarchate, while at the same time fully independent and autonomous. Some observers say that whatever is written, the real question will be whether the metropolitan in Kyiv regards himself as subject to the Patriarch of Moscow.

Moscow has not yet commented on the move, and a spokesman for the Russian Orthodox Church said Friday that the patriarch has not yet received any official communication from Kyiv. But the patriarchate is expected eventually to offer some response, because its own statutes require that changes to the governing documents of the UOC-MP “approved by the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia.”.

Also during Friday’s Sobor, the UOC-MP criticized  the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the autocephalous OCU, while expressing hope for dialogue between the two Ukrainian Churches.

The UOC-MP urged that OCU stop permitting the affiliation of defecting parishes, while urging Constantinople to withdraw its recognition of the OCU’s autocephaly, and to restore OCU parishes and dioceses to the jurisdiction of the OCU-MP. Those demands have been regularly expressed both in Moscow and from UOC-MP officials in Kyiv.

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