Autonomy Lost and Regained: The Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolia of Kyiv, 1633-2019

The 1921 Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church

The Ukrainian Orthodox Church that was formed in 1921 could be seen as a grass-roots continuation of the push towards Ukrainianization and autonomy that began with the work of Lotots'kyi and others at the very end of the Ukrainian People's Republic.

No longer willing to wait for church leadership to deliver, rank-and-file clergy and laity from cities and villages throughout the country met for a Church Council in Kyiv in October 1921, even though there were no bishops present: all of the hierarchs in Ukraine were either opposed to the goals of the Council, or were afraid of repercussions from their still overwhelmingly Russian-dominated superiors.

The Council affirmed the three fundamental principles that would guide their movement: autocephaly (the administrative independence from any non-Ukrainian Church jurisdiction), conciliar administration (the administration of the Church through councils of laity, clergy, and bishops at the parish, eparchial, and national level), and Ukrainian identity (the use of Ukrainian language, song, customs, and rituals in Church life). The supreme authority in the Church was not the Metropolitan alone or a Council of Bishops, but the All-Ukrainian Orthodox Church Council ("Sobor"), which included rank-and-file clergy as well as laity.

The fact that there were no bishops posed a major problem for the Council. In Orthodox canon law, a bishop can only be ordained by two other bishops. If the Ukrainian Church was to have bishops, it would need to find some way around this. In the end, they performed an ordination ritual of "laying on of hands" by all of the present clergy and laity to ordain Vasyl' Lypkivs'kyi and Nestor Sharaivs'kyi, who then ordained more bishops in the standard way.

As detailed by the UAOC's Bishop of Vinnytsia Ioan Teodorovych in his 1922 book "Blahodatnist' ierarchii UAPTs" ("The Grace of the UAOC Hierarchy"), the justification for this choice was that it was a practice in the early history of the Church of Alexandria. Nonetheless, the legitimacy of the bishops of the 1921 UAOC was rejected by all canonical Orthodox Churches.

The Bolsheviks at first grudgingly tolerated the UAOC. This was in part because it was consistent with the official Ukrainianization policies under Lenin, but also perhaps because they hoped that it would be a destabilizing force that might undermine organized religious activity. Any such hopes were soon dashed: the UAOC quickly became a major force in Ukrainian religious life, with over 30 bishops shepherding more than one thousand parishes.

Combining, as it did, both religion and a non-Russian national identity, the UAOC came under immediate attack from the Stalin regime. Repressions began in the mid-1920s, and attacks would become more and more brutal during the coming decade, resulting in the arrest, exile, and/or killing of nearly all of its bishops and many clergy by 1930, and culminating in the "disappearance" of Metropolitan Vasyl' himself in 1937.

One UAOC bishop, however, did survive, but only because he was no longer in the Soviet Union.

In 1924, the All-Ukrainian Orthodox Church Council had sent Archbishop Ioan (Teodorovych) to serve as the spiritual leader of the nascent Ukrainian Orthodox Churches in North America. His presence would have an immeasurable impact on the development of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in both the United States and Canada.  Although Ukrainians had already begun organizing Orthodox parishes in the late 1910s under non-Ukrainian bishops, having a leader who spoke their language and knew their culture provided a major boost to their efforts.

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