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Editor’s Note: As noted in an earlier post, the Metropolitan of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church has died. Given the current political realities, there is considerable tension over the question of his successor. However, this piece provides a valuable overview, from one writer’s perspective and with input from informed sources, of the ecclesial reality on the ground in Ukraine.
High Stakes As Ukrainian Orthodox Must Choose New Leader
Ukrainian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Volodymyr died on Saturday. The showdown between Kiev and Moscow makes picking his successor more than a religious event.
KIEV — The death of the long-time leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Volodymyr Sabodan, who had been gravely ill with cancer and heart disease, did not come as a surprise.
Still, the death Saturday of the 79-year-old religious leader comes at a particularly delicate moment as clashes with Russia continue near Ukraine’s eastern border. After Volodymyr was buried on Monday in the historic Kiev-Pechersk Lavra monastery, experts were busy weighing the meaning of his legacy and the huge political stakes in choosing his successor.
“The authority of the deceased Metropolitan was indisputable: He was able to find common ground with all of Ukraine’s presidents, even with supporters of an independent Ukrainian Church,” explained Anatolii Pchenlintsev, a professor of religious studies at the Russian Humanities Institute. “It was his authority that allowed the Ukrainian Orthodox Church to continue as part of the Moscow Patriarchate.”
Metropolitan Volodymyr was selected to lead the Ukrainian Orthodox Church in 1992, in the midst of another crisis between Russia and Ukraine. In 1991, after Ukraine declared independence from the Soviet Union, his predecessor, Metropolitan Filaret, had convened a national sobor of Ukrainian Orthodox clergy, which had unanimously voted to become an independent church, separate from the Russian Orthodox Church.
This decision was not recognized by the Russian Orthodox Church, which asked Filaret to submit his resignation, and subsequently selected Volodymyr to lead the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. Filaret founded a separate, independent Church, which he continues to lead to this day.
Both churches are called the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. The church led by Volodymyr, part of the Moscow Patriarchate, is considered to be under the umbrella of the Russian Orthodox Church. The church led by Filaret is independent, and is referred to as the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kiev Patriarch. Surveys have been inconclusive regarding the exact proportion of adherents that each branch has.
“It’s important to remember now the circumstances under which Volodymyr started his service as the Metropolitan of Kiev in 1992,” explained Igor Yakimchuk, secretary of public relations at the Moscow Patriarchate. “The church’s situation was such that there was no hope that it would withstand the pressure from nationalists.”
According to Yakimchuk, both the then-President of Ukraine Leonid Kravchuk and the former Metropolitan wanted to divide the Church. “Metropolitan Volodymyr protested with peace and love,” Yakimchuk said. “He was convinced that the only way to prevent a division was through love.”
That position, Yakimchuk thinks, was ultimately what prevented divisions in the church in Ukraine. “For more than 20 years, Father Volodymyr managed to keep the church together. Under his leadership, the church has grown to around 12,000 parishes, which represents almost half of all the parishes in the Moscow Patriarchate.”
In Kiev, preparations have already started for the meeting of bishops where a new leader of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church will be chosen. According to our sources who were close to Metropolitan Volodymyr, there are three potential successors.
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