Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

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Ukraine, Russia and the Orthodox Church – Part 2

In the first installment of this two-part blog series, I offered a brief overview of the Orthodox Church. In this blog, I want to examine what is happening between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and the Russian Orthodox Church in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Particularly as one of the reasons for the invasion was the tension between the two patriarchs.

In short, the Russian Church hopes to bring the Ukrainian branch under a single patriarch – the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox branch – allowing it to control the holiest sites of Orthodoxy in the Slavic world. As the New York Times has reported, the war launched by President Vladimir V. Putin to reassert Russian influence in the region “is also a contest for the future of the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches.”

Yet the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, since the independence of Ukraine in 1991, has been on course to assert itself under its own patriarch, “reviving a separate and independent branch of Eastern Orthodoxy.” If Ukraine survives Russia’s invasion, it will undoubtedly result in the ejection of the Russian Church. Conversely, if Russia succeeds, the Ukrainian Church will not survive. Parishes previously under the Moscow Church have increasingly switched to the Ukrainian Church, so angering Putin that in 2018 he warned it could lead to bloodshed.

The Ukrainian Church was granted full legitimacy in 2019 by the Patriarchate of Constantinople which is considered the senior authority in Eastern Orthodoxy. This angered Russia and led to the breaking of ties between the patriarch of Russia and his counterpart. Ihor Kozlovsky, a scholar of religion at the Institute of Philosophy at the Ukrainian Academy of Sciences, said it is one of the factors of the current Russian aggression against Ukraine. “If our church would completely unite under the Ukrainian Orthodox Church,” Kozlovsky notes, “then Moscow would lose its hegemony in the Orthodox world.”

That is one thing it does not want to do. As noted by the New York Times,

Both the Russian and Ukrainian Orthodox churches arose from the conversion of a Kyiv prince, Prince Vladimir in Russian and Volodymyr in Ukrainian, to Christianity in 988. In one indication that Mr. Putin is animated by this history, after annexing Crimea in 2014 he erected a statue to Prince Vladimir beside the Kremlin walls in Moscow.

It has been well established that the Kremlin has partnered with the Russian Church in terms of exercising its power and influence. Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, a longtime ally of Putin who once called his leadership a “miracle of God,” has publicly justified the recent invasion, “describing the conflict as part of a struggle against sin and pressure from liberal foreigners.” Cyril Hovorun, professor of ecclesiology, international relations and ecumenism at University College Stockholm, said Kirill helped “supply the ideology” that Putin has used to justify Russian hegemony across the region.

Conversely, Metropolitan Epiphanius I of Ukraine, leader of the independent Orthodox Christian Church based in Kyiv, celebrates the defense of his country and has likened Putin to the Antichrist.

Adam DeVille, a subdeacon in the Ukrainian Catholic Church and editor of “Logos: A Journal of Eastern Christian Studies,” told the Religion News Service (RNS) that “the religious dimension of this is quite central” to Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine. “The idea that the Ukrainians could have an independent church not under the jurisdiction of Moscow is just unfathomable,” he said. But as the RNS article notes, “images of Russian missiles raining down on Ukraine may have further stymied efforts by Russian leaders — religious or otherwise — to convince Ukrainians on that point.”

And it’s not just those in Ukraine. Nearly 300 Russian Orthodox priests and deacons from around the world signed an open letter opposing Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, breaking with church leadership in Moscow.

As Diana Butler Bass has noted, when it comes to Russian Orthodoxy, Kyiv is essentially Jerusalem, and this is a conflict over who will have control of Orthodoxy – Moscow or Constantinople.

James Emery White


Peter Smith, “Moscow Patriarch Stokes Orthodox Tensions with War Remarks,” Religion News Service, March 8, 2022, read online.

Jack Jenkins, “Among Russian Orthodox, Glimmers of Dissent Against the Invasion of Ukraine,” Religion News Service, March 4, 2022, read online.

Andrew E. Kramer, “Also at Stake in Ukraine: The Future of Two Orthodox Churches,” The New York Times, March 2, 2022, read online.

Jack Jenkins, “Ukraine Orthodox Leader Likens Putin to the Antichrist,” Religion News Service, February 28, 2022, read online.

Andrew Higgins, “In Expanding Russian Influence, Faith Combines with Firepower,” The New York Times, September 13, 2016, read online.

Diana Butler Bass, “Next year in Kyiv?” Religion News Service, February 24, 2022, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book After “I Believe” is now available on Amazon or your favorite bookseller. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram @JamesEmeryWhite.

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