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Online debate ignores nuances in Synod background paper on Ukraine

28 June 2022


A column of Ukrainian army tanks near Lysychansk late last week. The embattled city is under daily bombardment from Russian forces

A column of Ukrainian army tanks near Lysychansk late last week. The embattled city is under daily bombardment from Russian forces

A DISCUSSION paper written by the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Revd Nick Baines, about the conflict in Ukraine, has provoked criticism online.

Bishop Baines, who is the lead bishop on foreign affairs, prepared the wide-ranging report to inform debate at the upcoming General Synod.

Press attention and critical comment on Twitter focused on a passage of the report in which Bishop Baines wrote: “The long term goal should be that Ukraine controls all its territory, but it does not necessarily follow that military force should be used to liberate Crimea or even all of the eastern Donbas region.”

After articles about the report appeared in The Daily Telegraph on Thursday, and in both The Times and The Daily Mail on Friday, Church House issued a clarification: “A discussion paper for Synod notes a range of potential long-term scenarios highlighted in some quarters regarding Ukraine. These are not the view of the Church of England. They are not policy.

“The territorial integrity of Ukraine is without question. As the paper says clearly, the long-term goal should be that Ukraine controls all its territory.”

Some, however, interpreted the report as diverging from the UK Government’s position that Crimea and the Donbas region — which have been under de facto Russian control since 2014 — should not be ceded to Russia in exchange for peace.

The Daily Telegraph posted a link to its article on Twitter with the text: “The Church of England has defied the Prime Minister by suggesting that Russia’s annexation of the Donbas is the price for peace in Ukraine.”

On Thursday evening, Bishop Baines posted on Twitter: “Ukrainian integrity is unequivocal. Debate is not a statement of Church’s mind.”

Over the weekend, Bishop Baines asserted that “it is for Ukraine to decide, and we must support them.”

The report, which has been released as part of the General Synod papers and is available to access online, covers geopolitics, the humanitarian crisis, military objectives, and the part played by sanctions.

At the July meeting of the General Synod in York, members will debate a motion stating that they “lament Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine”, and “urging all Christians and people of faith to pray that the war in Ukraine be ended”. The motion calls on the Government to “work to secure a negotiated peace” to the conflict.

Bishop Baines’s report is not formally part of the motion but intended to provide background to the debate.

The report articulates the view that sanctions against Russia “amount to a full-scale financial and cultural warfare”, but says that “their overall objective remains unclear. “Is the aim to punish Russia or to change Russia’s behaviour or even its regime? The lack of clarity creates ambiguity, invites mission creep and risks strategic miscalculation.”

He asks whether the “indiscriminate nature of these measures, which target not just the government and senior officials but all Russians, helps Ukraine and how much it just hurts the Russian people”.

Bishop Baines also notes that “punitive measures which affect all Russians” risk “provoking resentment and fuelling nationalism”.

He notes, however, that “bishops have supported the sanctions package”, and “pressed the Government to take measures to strip illicit Russian money from the UK financial system”.

Before being ordained, Bishop Baines worked for four years as a Russian linguist at GCHQ.

On the subject of military support for Ukraine, the report identifies a distinction between Ukraine’s working with other countries, including Britain, to exercise its “legitimate right to self-defence”, and the “emphasis given in some quarters to militarily defeating Russia”.

Determination to defeat Russia should not, he writes, distract from the principal aim of peace: “It would be morally problematic to oppose a reasonable agreement to end the war and spare the people of Ukraine further terrible suffering in the hope of securing additional advantage through a protracted conflict.”

Bishop Baines points to the diocese in Europe, which has a chaplaincy in Moscow, as a reminder that “Russia is very much part of Europe”, and that “weakening Russia militarily can be no substitute for the longer term objective of negotiating with Russia a more far-reaching security treaty and framework for Europe more broadly.”

The report also covers the C of E’s response to the refugee crisis. It details a proposal made this month by the Church to support local authorities by providing “a list of approved back-up hosts for situations where the original match between sponsor and guest has broken down” without which Ukrainians in the UK would face homelessness.

An appendix to the report, written by the Anglican Communion’s director of unity, faith and order, the Revd Dr Will Adam, summarises the religious history that Ukraine and Russia share.

Dr Adam surveys the central part played by Kyiv in the genesis of Russian Orthodoxy, and recent moves towards autonomy in the Church in Ukraine, which has meant that the Orthodoxy community is split between the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, part of the Moscow patriarchate, and the independent Orthodox Church of Ukraine.

The leader of the Moscow-linked Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Onufriy, has been been critical of the war, and his Church has taken steps to assert its independence.

On the subject of ecumenical dialogue, Bishop Baines writes that the World Council of Churches (WCC) provides a “vehicle for critical dialogue and engagement”, and says that “this space will become more valuable the longer the conflict persists and the more the world divides into opposing camps.”

Some have called for the Russian Orthodox Church to be expelled from the WCC, and the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams described the case for expulsion as “strong” (News, 5 April).

Two further appendices cover the responses to the crisis from charities, including the joint appeal launched by USPG and the diocese in Europe.

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