THE Archbishop of Canterbury and the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, signing an appeal in Moscow to world leaders, have called for effective measures to defeat terrorism and help Christians who are suffering persecution in the Middle East.
Archbishop Welby — who was making his first-ever visit to Russia — and Patriarch Kirill denounced what they called the mass killings of Christians in the Middle East and Africa, the desecration of holy sites, and the expulsion of millions of people from their homes.
“Our hearts are pained by the mass exodus of the Christian population from those places where the Good News began to be spread throughout the Christian world,” they said. The war had taken away tens of thousands of lives and left millions of people homeless. They called for “speedy help” from the international community to support Christian and other populations in the Middle East, and said that widescale humanitarian assistance was needed for the vast number of refugees, especially those in Europe and the United States.
Their statement focused only on the main area where two Churches have a strong interest in working together. But the Patriarch, who visited London last year, and was received by the Queen, beside having talks at Lambeth Palace, was also keen to deepen the working relations with the Anglican Communion over a range of issues. These included the social and educational position of Churches, relations with government, and how Christians should respond to secular and materialist pressures.
Since the fall of Communism, the Russian Orthodox Church has experienced a spectacular revival. It now enjoys the full support of the state in propounding traditional Christian values, is present at all main state occasions, and is widely regarded as the bedrock of Russian identity and national feeling.
Over the past 25 years, the Russian Church has rebuilt or opened some 30,000 churches at a rate of about three a day. It claims an active membership of more than 100 million adherents, compared with a total of about 85 million for all 39 Provinces of the Anglican Communion. It runs more than 730 monasteries, and, from 1992 to 1997, rebuilt from scratch the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, in central Moscow, which was destroyed by Stalin in 1931.
The Patriarch told the Archbishop of the persecution that the Church had suffered in Soviet times. He acknowledged that it had been unable to criticise the government then. But he also suggested that Western Churches were unable to criticise secular groups in their countries, and that they faced a challenge as dangerous for Christian belief as Communism.
In reply, Archbishop Welby acknowledged that it was hard to criticise lobby groups, and the Church of England, enjoying the conditions of democracy, found it hard to voice criticism that appeared to be contradicting democratic political decisions.
The Russian Church today is a leading champion of what it sees as traditional values of Christianity, and has alarmed some Western churches with its strident criticisms of women priests, gay rights, and what it sees as the decadent liberalism of some Western Churches.
The Archbishop acknowledged the long and painful discussions that the Anglicans had had on human sexuality. It was an issue unlikely to be resolved for some time, he said. In reply, the Patriarch insisted that the Russian Orthodox Church could never condone homosexuality, which it saw as a sin, nor allow believers to escape criticism for behaviour that was seen as wrong. Patriarch Kirill stated, however, that his Church condemned any repression or ostracism of gay people.
The meeting, which was warm, cordial, and unusually honest in acknowledging differences of tradition, led to the proposal for a rapid intensification of the working group that looks at relations between the two Churches. They would now discuss social work, family matters, best practice in pastoral care, and any developments in issues where they remain divided.
Part of the meeting was open to the press, and the Patriarch took advantage of the cameras of Russian television to issue a denunciation of the Ukrainian authorities for permitting the seizure of Orthodox churches loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, and allowing them to be transferred to nationalists supporting a breakaway Ukrainian Orthodox Church.
These seizures, he said, had no basis in law, were being supporting by draft Bills in the Ukrainian parliament, and were attempts to split Ukraine along religious boundaries. He compared these seizures to mobs in the street who took control of a bank and its money simply on the grounds that they did their banking there.
Archbishop Welby diplomatically said that he would study the report, presented unexpectedly to him by Patriarch Kirill. In contrast, he expressed warm thanks to the Patriarchate’s support for St Andrew’s Anglican Church in Moscow, which was restored to the diocese in Europe after the fall of Communism, and which now operates with widespread support from Anglicans and Protestants in Moscow.
The Patriarch promised to seek help from the Moscow authorities for the restoration of the Victorian building, which is in poor repair after it was used as a recording studio by the main Soviet music company. He also gave a warm welcome to Fr Malcolm Rogers, who took up his post in September as the chaplain of St Andrew’s, Moscow, and Archbishop’s representative, or apokrisarios, to the Patriarchate.
Archbishop Welby preached at compline in St Andrew’s when he arrived in Moscow.