Church Fiction

The library of Communicantes contains a nice collection of books, many of which date back to the Cold War era. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, they became obsolete and started a new life as historical source. Recently, however, I came across an interesting 1983 publication by the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate: The Lvov Church Council. Although it deals with a church council in 1946, the book hadn’t lost much of its relevance. Back then, seventy-odd years ago, it was decided to unite the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, which was loyal to the Pope of Rome since 1596, with the Russian Orthodox Church. In Greek Catholic circles this church meeting was dubbed ‘pseudo-council’, because it was not a spontaneous popular initiative at all, but a well-orchestrated KGB-secret service operation, instigated by the communist leadership in Moscow.
In retrospective and if we look at the present day attitude of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC), it becomes clear that the presentation of facts by the ROC was made on a double assumption and still is. Put differently, it is founded on Church fiction. (For sake of the argument, I won’t bother you with too many theological and historical details.)
First, author of The Lvov Church Council (p. 34-35) put the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church (UGCC) into the frame of an ongoing attempt of Western European powers to take control of the East, one of the tools being religion. When in 1596 Orthodox bishops decided to submit themselves to the Pope of Rome, so the argument runs, their intention was also to become closer to civilised Europe, but World War II finally showed the true face of civilised Europe. It equalled a bloody war of annihilation waged by Nazi-Germany. Inevitably, The Lvov Church Council appeared in print in 1983, the author puts the atheist Soviet Union in a pleasant light. For example, when the Germans attacked Poland on 1 September 1939 the Soviets had no choice but to come to the rescue. ‘Under the circumstances the Soviet government was unable to remain a passive onlooker’, it says on p. 34. In reality, Hitler and Stalin had divided Poland among themselves just weeks before the start of WW II.
Second, the 1946 synod was being presented by the author of The Lvov Church Council as a grass root, free initiative of the faithful to return to the Russian Orthodox Church. However, if we are to believe an article by the Ukrainian scholar Natalia Shlikhta (‘Church within the Church’, p. 2, 3), The Lvov Church Council ignored that the main supporters of the union of 1946 were merely acting out of ‘political necessity’; it was a ‘tactical move’. Even the driving force behind the Lvov Church Council, the Greek Catholic priest Dr Havryil Kostelnyk (1886-1948) had been very much in favour of a Ukrainian Orthodoxy in the past, but without making eyes at Moscow. Kostelnyk had been propagating a ‘break with Rome’ ever since the 1920s and was quite close to Metropolitan Andrey Sheptytsky (1865-1944), who opted for a revitalisation of the Orthodox heritage within the framework of a union with Rome.
What came about following the Lvov Church Council was a kind of matryoshka Church: outwardly loyal to Moscow, its leaders were ‘the chief defenders of its interests from Moscow’s encroachments’, Shlikhta argues (p. 3). Russification was opposed, but often this opposition had to limit itself to symbolic actions, e.g. Ukrainian language sermons and the Ukrainian pronunciation of the liturgical language (Church Slavonic). Nevertheless, these small gestures explain why the revival of the UGCC in the beginning of the 1990s was such a widespread phenomenon, thus Shlikhta. It clearly goes against the claim of The Lvov Church Council (p. 185) that the 1946 union was widely accepted – quite the contrary is true.
The ROC is still using the expansionist’s frame to do away with the UGCC. In a 2010 interview the head of the Foreign Relations Department of the Russian Orthodox Church Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk commented on recent developments within the UGCC: ‘The transfer of the center of the Greek-Catholic Archdiocese from Lvov to Kiev and insistent attempts to obtain the never-existent status of patriarchate for it are eloquent evidence of their desire to replenish their ranks at the expense of Orthodox believers.’ (‘Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk: “It is impossible to speak of ‘the recognition of the sacraments’ administered by schismatics”’) Similarly, the beatification of Father Havryil Kostelnyk that was discussed by the Moscow Patriarchate’s Archbishop Augustine of Lviv and Halych in 2008, seems to be a guise to redirect the path of history. (See ‘The initiator of elimination of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church could be canonized’) After all, Kostelnyk’s death is still disputed. The Lvov Church Council (p. 189) speaks of ‘martyrdom’, because, according to the ROC, Kostelnyk died under the hands of a Ukrainian nationalist. Others, however, claim that the Greek Catholic priest was murdered by the KGB. (FH)

P.S.: On the shelf, almost next to The Lvov Church Council stood Kurt Lewin’s very interesting autobiography A Journey Through Illusions. Lewin, a Jewish immigrant from Lviv, describes on p. 25-26 how in 1945 a council of parents convened at his secondary school to chose the official school language. First, the all too naive attendants chose Polish, but this, so they were told, ‘indicated the presence of suspicious political sympathies’. Their second choice, Yiddish, would mean resettling of the parents and their children in the Jewish homeland ‘Birobidjan, on the border with China’. Finally, ‘a resolution was introduced that Ukrainian probably was best suited’. It was ‘unanimously accepted’. The anecdote clearly illustrates how grass root democracy functioned under Soviet rule.

Illustration: ‘May 17, 1981, Lvov, Lychakovskoe Cemetery. Laying a wreath at the grave of protopresbyter Gavriil Kostelnik’. (The Lvov Church Council, p. 224)


  • Bohdan R. Bociurkiw, ‘Kostelnyk, Havryil’, Encyclopedia of Ukraine (online)
  • ‘The initiator of elimination of the Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church could be canonized’, Interfax Religion 23-9-2008
  • Kurt Lewin, A Journey Through Illusions, Santa Barbara 1993
  • The Lvov Church Council. Documents and Materials. 1946-1981, Moscow 1983
  • ‘Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk: “It is impossible to speak of ‘the recognition of the sacraments’ administered by schismatics”’, (6-10-2010)
  • Natalia Shlikhta, ‘“Church within the Church” as a mode of the survival of West Ukrainian religious community under Soviet rule’, University of Sussex Journal of Contemporary History 7 (2004) (online review)