A Church at the Crossroads

I returned some weeks ago from the quinquennial convention, called a Sobor, of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada (UOCC). It was my first such Sobor and I went to it with some trepidation, as I had received much critical feedback from people that had attended the previous several Sobors, which apparently had been marked with no small measure of dissent and divisiveness. In the event, I found the Sobor to be a fairly positive experience overall, though it did fall well short of addressing many of the critical existential issues that are putting the future of the UOCC in some serious doubt.

The five day convention has provided me with much grist to fuel my writing mill, and I will be writing a series of articles on various aspects of the convention and the issues, discussions and ideas it generated. For today, however, I will restrict myself to providing a general overview that focuses on the positives and negatives that characterized the convention for me personally.

On the positive side, it would seem that much of the controversy that marked the past two Sobors, particularly that surrounding the issue of the UOCC becoming part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, has abated and this no longer appears to be an issue. Ever since the Church agreed to come under the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1990, there has been a vociferous group of oppositionists that have decried the UOCC’s decision to give up their autonomy and join the “canonical” global Orthodox union. The issue was beginning to die down, when fuel was added to the fire in 2012 by the shameless cold shoulder treatment that the hierarchy of the UOCC gave to Patriarch Filaret, the head of Ukraine’s non-canonical Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Kyiv Patriarchate, during his visit to Canada.

Thankfully, there has been a rapprochement made between the Ecumenical Patriarchate, including the UOCC, and the Kyiv Patriarchate in recent years, and there appears to be grounds for optimism that the Kyivan church’s canonical status may be resolved positively in the near future. Apparently the UOCC’s hierarchy has played a significant role in facilitating the discussions between all parties towards this end, and for that it is to be commended.

The other outstanding contentious issue, namely the reluctance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to confirm the status and title of UOCC’s Bishop Andriy as the Bishop of Toronto also appears to be winding its way to resolution, with Metropilatn Yurij assuring the Sobor that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is close to rendering a favourable decision.

From a governance point of view, the results of the elections held during the Sobor should provide a boost to the majority of the delegates that were looking for change. There were many grumblings in recent years that the operations of the Church’s head office in Winnipeg, known as the Consistory, under Chancellor Viktor Lakusta, left a lot to be desired in terms of responsiveness, transparency and effectiveness. The Sobor elected a new Chancellor, Rev. Taras Udod from Saskatchewan, who in various addresses to the convention committed to addressing the various shortfalls of the previous administration. Also providing cause for optimism is the fact that, as a result of term limitations for many incumbents, a significant number of new members were elected to the Consistory Board. The average age of the Consistory Board has dropped notably, and it is hoped that the new blood and fresh ideas will accelerate the consideration of much needed changes.

From a procedural point of view, I have been told that there were two welcome changes at this Sobor that contributed greatly towards making it run smoother and more effectively. The whole process of dealing with the large number of resolutions presented to the Sobor was made much smoother and easier by breaking up the convention delegates into four working groups to vet the resolutions and cull them to a manageable number before they were brought to a vote at the main plenary session. Also, for the first time, the Sobor used an automated, computerized voting system that enabled the elections to take place very efficiently and with minimal time required to determine results. These two procedural innovations greatly reduced the delays and frustrations that have plagued previous Sobors.

Contributing greatly to the positive vibe with which delegates left the Sobor, were some excellent speeches by the various Bishops attending the Sobor, both from Canada and the US. In particular, Bishop Daniel from the US made a highly inspirational keynote speech at the concluding banquet that prompted a well-deserved standing ovation. Overall, I found that the Metropolitan and the Bishops took great pains to be open, honest and conciliatory towards the delegates, something, that I have been told by others, was not always present in the past.

With all that said, there were a number of aspects to the proceedings that were not quite so positive. As was noted many times during the discussions, the UOCC is facing a severe and rapid membership decline that threatens its very existence. Over the last thirty years, registered membership in the church has fallen from some one hundred twenty thousand to just under eight thousand parishioners. What is obvious is that the younger generations of Ukrainian Canadians have turned their backs on the Orthodox Church.
Regrettably, aside from continuous pious urgings to parents to bring their kids to church, the church hierarchy has done little to determine why young people are no longer interested in coming to church, and even less in considering changes to the church’s liturgy, language, ceremonies, rites, practices and teachings that might make them more relevant to today’s young people. There is a deeply entrenched resistance to change. Key issues such as the role of women in the church, outdated dogma and canons that are at significant odds with today’s contemporary ethos and values, the role of the laity in church affairs, and others, are simply not discussed. A large gap has developed between the spiritual needs of our young people and the way the church is dealing (or not) with them. To date, the position of the church seems to be that it is up to the young people to accept and adapt to the ways of the church and not the other way around. Needless to say, this is not a winning strategy.

The drop in membership has had a corollary damaging effect on the church’s finances. With diminishing membership revenues, the church has been running deficits for quite some time now, resulting in a steady erosion of its reserves and endowments, to the point where further deficits will shortly not be sustainable. It is obvious that the church needs to develop an alternative financial model to remain financially viable. Other churches have done so, typically moving to various forms of stewardship and tithing approaches. While some parishes have made progress on this front, the UOCC as a whole is still stuck with the archaic “pass the collection plate” model. The Sobor, regrettably, spent very little time dealing with this issue.

And so, I came out of this Sobor with mixed feelings. On the one hand, I was encouraged by the fact that there are good people committed to making the Church successful, and that the governance of the church is not as dysfunctional as I thought. On the other hand, I see very little interest in the Church hierarchy to seriously address what I believe to be the existential issues facing the church today. It is time the church leadership asked the Holy Spirit to light some new fires in their hearts and minds.