Kiev (AsiaNews) – The question of the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has led to the rupture in communion between Moscow and Constantinople. What seems to many a nonsensical quarrel, hides spiritual and political problems. The autocephaly of the Ukrainian Church dates back to long before the invasion of Crimea and is desired and wanted by the Ukrainians to out an end to the political exploitation of the Russian Orthodox Church. These are main theses that the scholar Konstantin Sigov expresses in this interview. Sigov, 56, is a leading Ukrainian intellectual and an exceptional ecumenical personality. Philosopher, university professor, director of the Center for European Humanistic Research at the National University Academy of Kiev Mohyla.
“All of Ukraine was shocked when a mother asked for a funeral for her child and the priest refused because the child was baptized in the schismatic patriarchate of Kiev. Is it a political question? No, it’s a spiritual question. How can you fail to show mercy to people just because they are not “canonical”? It means that the “canon” becomes an instrument of segregation, of isolationism, used to enclose millions of people into a “ghetto” just because they do not want to submit to the Kremlin. The question is not political but spiritual and moral, it is a question for the Church after all”.
So is the autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church a real need for your country?
Autocephaly has been requested for a long time, long before Porošenko, long before the Majdan and even the 2004 Orange Revolution. It dates back to the time when Ukraine gained independence in 1991 after the collapse of the Soviet Union. Initiatives were immediately taken in the sense by the Ukrainian Church, and from one of these the Autocephalous Schismatic Church was born. If autocephaly had been given to the Ukrainian Orthodox Church at that time, there would have been no schisms.
The experience of the past 25 years has shown that Moscow does not seek opportunities for dialogue in Ukraine, it is now clear that there is no hope of achieving anything in this sense. Yet we speak of millions of people, not tens of thousands, but of millions considered schismatic, even if there are no dogmatic differences between us and them, the saints are the same … The only point on which there is no unity are relations with Moscow. In order for there to be diversity in unity and unity in diversity, a path of dialogue must be found. And if today there is the opportunity to overcome this situation – and this behooves all of us men of faith – it must be taken.
Of course, we still need to understand how. It is a difficult question that cannot be superficially resolved, simplifications are odious and potentially damaging, but nor can we cede to panic and immobilizing fear which only give rise to worse evils. This is not Christian it is fatalistic. Instead, everything depends on how the Spirit works, on our openness and on the degree to which we are capable of acting in communion, through dialogue.
So, on the one hand it is about having a willingness to dialogue to resolve the issue in a constructive manner, on the other obviously we need to see how this will be accomplished, in fact, even if the will is there, there is always the great risk of interference. The authorities of the Russian Orthodox Church are not free to present their personal point of view regarding ecclesiastical matters. It is absolutely clear that the Russian Orthodox Church suffers from the very strong influence of the Kremlin. After the latest cases in Moscow, where they assaulted the demonstrators and other people were arrested for no reason, it is very clear that there is strong pressure on the various social structures, and on the Church in particular, because it is the largest existing institution that does not belong to the state.
Would autocephaly eliminate the influence of Russian politics on the Church?
If we take into account what has happened in Russia in recent years, the increase in the use of violence against civil society; if we take into account that at currently there is no possibility of separating State and Church, spiritual power from temporal power – on the contrary, the pressure of the State on the Church is radically increasing, and thus the exploitation of the Church increases. Therefore for we Ukrainians, it is clear that the only possibility to give to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s, to escape the influence of the State is to separate ourselves from the Russian Orthodox Church.
Personally I would prefer that there was less politics in this field. I think that at the stage where we are now, after all that has been done, we should ask all the political figures of all parties to leave bishops, believers and non-believers alone and presidents to refrain from becoming involved in this business, which is not a matter for Putin, nor Erdogan, nor Porošenko.
Is there not the risk that the national question becomes more important than the spiritual one in the new Ukrainian Church, that nationalism prevails?
The risk is always there, but the contexts are very different. The situation in Ukraine, in 27 years of independence, has never been monolithic nor will it ever be. There has always been plurality in Ukraine and this plurality will always be preserved; none of the Churches can become a State Church. Ukrainian civil society is convinced that in its diversity, in its rich mosaic, is its strength, its wealth and that therefore this situation should not change. At the same time I do not want to idealize reality: we must avoid any extremism, including the ethnocentric one, taking on the same role that it has today within the Russian Orthodox Church. For this reason, the young Ukrainian Church should have at heart the fact that the other Churches, not only Constantinople, but the Church of Georgia, the Czech Republic, Romania, Greece, are in dialogue with each other, and that Ukraine finally comes out of its isolation.
Above all, we will have to avoid violence in possible future redistribution of churches among the various patriarchates. The measure, the social rationality that belonged to the first months of the Majdan must be kept to the highest degree. All the foreigners who came to Kiev in those months were astonished by the fact that they did not find even one broken window, not one overturned car, the streets were clean … This is the model we need today.
The situation is very delicate and precisely for this reason we need the solidarity of all Christians, not only of the Orthodox, but also of the Catholics. Everyone now understands that the question of dialogue between East and West depends on the situation in Kiev. So it is necessary that Kiev can carry on a direct dialogue and not be isolated.
I have been amazed to hear Moscow accuse Bartholomew of Papism. Neither Rome nor Constantinople have the same geopolitical ambitions that Moscow has today. Ambitions ranging from the annexation of territories to the idea that any European city in which there are Russian-speaking inhabitants is in fact a piece of the Russian world. It is clear that an independent Church would be a very important step towards the liberation of Ukraine from its Soviet past, and it is precisely this that today provokes Putin’s reaction. He does not want to let Ukraine go and will try to keep it by all means, including the exploitation of Church. This is why today the pressure on the Russian Orthodox Church is so strong; I am very sorry for the people who are subject to it and who bend to it.
Someone wrote that the question of Ukrainian autocephaly is a terrible anachronism in the 21st century, the attempt to live according to models of other times. History shows that patriarchy and autocephaly become important only when it comes to big politics. And when we talk about politics we forget the Church as a community of faithful.
In this regard, I would like to quote a comment by Father Zelinsky: if millions of people have been asking for it for more than 25 years, if they want their sacraments to be recognized, how can you tell them: go away? We speak of anachronism. And are not the relations between the State and the Church in Moscow such an anachronism? We must emerge from the logic of isolationism. Isolationism says that everything that is happens externally to us hurts us. If we leave behind this logic we can realize that the initiative that is being carried out can be for the good of the Russian Church itself. It is true: the Russian Orthodox Church would formally reduce the number of its faithful, but this could be for the best. In theology we speak of kenosis: the inner emptying that creates the space so that the power of the Spirit acts. This is an opportunity for the Russian Church to practice kenosis. It is not a question of quantity but of quality.
In 1996, when Estonia proclaimed its autocephaly, Eucharistic communion was interrupted for months. At that time I was in Oxford and there, in the same church, Metropolitan Kallistos, of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, and Metropolitan Vasily, of the Patriarchate of Moscow celebrated. For them the interruption of communion was a tragedy; then the metropolitan Kallistos, one of the major theologians of Constantinople, publicly said that the Eucharist cannot be abused, that the Eucharistic communion cannot be interrupted: it is not done by doctrinal differences, nor can it be done by territorial questions. Who perpetuates this rhetoric? Kiev? On the contrary, Kiev wants to overcome the absence of Eucharistic communion between Churches that live in the same street in our city, in the same family. This is our task.