A VISIT to Britain by the Orthodox Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia has been coloured by references to the tense relations between the UK and Russia.
The Patriarch met both the Queen and the Archbishop of Canterbury during his trip, which ended on Tuesday. A press release from Lambeth Palace, after Patriarch Kirill’s visit, noted that “tensions currently exist between the governments of their two countries.”
Patriarch Kirill has been a supporter of the Putin regime in Russia: the increasingly authoritarian government was a “miracle of God”, he said in 2012.
The Lambeth Palace statement, said, however, that Archbishop Welby and Patriarch Kirill agreed that the Church’s first loyalty must be to Christ.
Their conversation also touched on their “shared compassion for Christian and other minorities in many parts of the world, especially in the Middle East, where they have been systematically targeted and persecuted and their communities decimated”.
Russian forces have played a growing part in the Syrian civil war on the side of the Assad regime, including sending war-planes to bomb civilian areas of Aleppo during the current offensive against the city. In July, Patriarch Kirill described Russia’s involvement in Syria as “noble and honest”, despite MPs’ accusing Russia of “shredding” humanitarian law and doing to Aleppo what the Nazis had done to Guernica during the Spanish Civil War (News, 14 October).
In a sermon at the Russian Orthodox Cathedral of the Dormition, in Knightsbridge, to mark the 300th anniversary of Britain’s first Orthodox church, the Patriarch hailed the rebirth of his Church since the fall of Communism. “Thanks to their prayers and thanks to their intercession before God, Orthodox Russia has risen again,” he said.
Critics of the Putin regime have accused the Orthodox Church of acting as an arm of the State, and President Putin of making a show of embracing the Church to bolster his support and cement Russia’s identity as a bulwark against Western secular liberalism.
Patriarch Kirill’s sermon acknowledged that relations between Britain and his homeland had been up and down over the years since the Orthodox Church first gained a foothold in the UK. “There were times when we together fought against a common enemy. But there were also times when our relations deteriorated significantly.
“At a spiritual and cultural level, the interaction between our countries and peoples is particularly strong. And that interaction is not subject to the short-term political interests of today.
“We, people of the faith, can see things that cannot be seen by those who doubt. We can distance ourselves from the short-term interests and problems, and offer a different perspective, including on the current state of Russian-British relations.”
Patriarch Kirill ended his sermon by emphasising how the two Churches had acted as a bridge between their respective nations. “God save the Queen! God save the United Kingdom! God save Russia!” he said.
The Lambeth Palace statement noted how the Church of England and the Orthodox Church’s relationship had endured for three centuries, through “difficult periods”, but had consistently “enriched both Churches”.
The visit was the first by a Moscow Patriarch since the head of the Russian Orthodox Church since Patriarch Alexei I met Archbishop Michael Ramsey in 1964.
Canon Michael Bourdeaux, a retired priest and an expert on the Orthodox Church, said that relations between the C of E and the Orthodox Church had significantly improved in the past year, and even more so since the last visit by a senior Russian Orthodox cleric to Lambeth Palace in 2010, when Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk criticised the C of E’s supposed liberalism during a dinner hosted by the then Archbishop, Rowan Williams (News, 15 September 2010).
Canon Bourdeaux was in no doubt, however, that Patriarch Kirill, for all his friendliness with Archbishop Welby, was a “spokesman for Putin . . . 100 per cent”.
“He comes in that capacity, even if not expressed,” he said. Canon Bourdeaux noted also that the public statements made no mention of discussion of Russia’s involvement in Syria or Ukraine. “One would hope Archbishop Welby would challenge that, maybe behind closed doors. He’s a very straight-thinking man, and certainly would not go along with Putin’s propaganda.”