Ukrainian Autocephaly: A Vision of the Future?

An official translation of the Tomos of Autocephaly given by the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) to the newly minted “Most Holy Church of Ukraine” (CoU) has been published. It has already been pointed out that a number of items in the Tomos are unusual in the history of such documents, which is interesting in itself. However, the real import of the document is not how it relates to the past but what it means for the future.

It is no secret that the self understanding of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in terms of its canonical and ecclesial prerogatives among the autocephalous churches, is sometimes disputed. The strength of this dispute is substantially bolstered by the fact that history, along with the status quo, does not always support the claims the EP makes for itself, at least not straightforwardly. For instance, the claim made by the EP that it alone may establish or possess parishes in territories outside the established boundaries of the other autocephalous churches is substantially weakened by the simple fact that many other churches do have parishes outside of their geographical boundaries and have had for hundreds of years. To say this another way, when fact and theory do not correspond theory will have less heft than it would otherwise.

This is where the Ukrainian tomos becomes rather important. It brings the claims of the Ecumenical Patriarchate about itself to life, aligning fact and theory, and thereby weakening the argument of dissenting voices. Further, it provides a canonical model or example which will, if the CoU survives, serve as a demonstration of the EPs self understanding and ecclesial vision. The tomos accomplishes this in at least 3 rather clear ways.

  1. The CoU is forbidden to establish parishes outside its geographic borders and any such parishes it currently has are immediately transferred to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Look for such a provision to be included in any tomos issued by the EP in the future. This will have little effect on the ecclesial landscape, at least in the near term, but the important thing is that by accepting the CoU the other autocephalous churches give tacit approval to the terms of its establishment and thereby a sort of soft embrace (or at least little objection) of the EP’s vision of the diaspora which can be appealed to later on in other situations.
  2. On matters of significant ecclesial, doctrinal, or political concern the CoU is required to seek the guidance of the EP, which is definitive.  It remains to be seen how exactly the EP will choose to interpret this stipulation but it could certainly eliminate problems for the EP as it attempts to assert itself to a greater degree in the Orthodox world, and beyond. Again, probably the most important function of this clause, as it pertains to the future, is that it allows the EP to claim, with reasonable accuracy, that he does indeed speak on behalf of many millions of Orthodox Christians throughout the world, a claim that, despite its constant repetition, has not seemed very convincing in the past. The “spiritual leadership” of the Ecumenical Patriarch is getting much more concrete.
  3. The possibility for the EP to establish stavropegia on the territory of other autocephalous churches is venerable. However, it has not been applied in any of the recent autocephalies. The reintroduction of that practice here is advantageous to the EP in several ways. First, because it is a unique privilege, canonically speaking, putting it into practice underscores the uniqueness of the EP. This is another provision one should probably expect to see again in any future tomos issued by the EP. Second, it diversifies the income of the EP, buffering its fortunes against local and regional difficulties. Third, it allows the EP to ordain more bishops, thereby increasing the size of its episcopal rank beyond what the needs of its laity would allow.

In all of the above we note not only a centralizing impulse, with the EP assuming a greater degree of control over the CoU than it has over other churches established in the modern period, but a marked attempt to instantiate the self understanding of the EP in such a way that the arguments it makes on its own behalf will, in the future, have ample demonstration in practice.

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One comment on “Ukrainian Autocephaly: A Vision of the Future?

  1. […] John Cox has just posted a series of reflections on the ramifications of the tomos given by the Ecumenical Patriarch to the newly organized church […]

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