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Letters to the Editor

14 April 2022


Resisting ‘Christian Nationalism’

From Dr Marietta van der Tol

Sir, — The rejection of the “Russian World” (russkii mir) ideology is not an Orthodox problem for the Orthodox to solve. We need a new ecumenical moment to explore an ecumenical “Theology after Christendom”.

In 1937, the Oxford “Life and Work” conference laid one of the main foundations of the World Council of Churches. Among the chief concerns of this conference and the subsequent “Moot” (1938-44) — a discussion group of eminent Christian intellectuals led by J. H. Oldham — was the issue how Christianity could respond to the rise of fascism, Nazism, and totalitarianism.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine makes painfully clear, once again, what the consequence is of allying Christianity with political power. Not only has President Putin used the russkii mir (Russian World/Holy Rus) teaching to justify Russia’s aggression in Ukraine, but Patriarch Kirill has expressed his support for the war through an angry rejection of so-called “Western” values. The picture of “gay prides” in Ukraine is but a metaphor for the projection of a civilisational separation.

Putin and Kirill’s reliance on Orthodoxy’s principle of symphonia, of a religion that is on constructive terms with political leadership, has been challenged by prophetic voices within the international Orthodox community (Comment, 25 March). Their theological protest demonstrates that the way that Patriarch Kirill has chosen is not the inevitable direction of Orthodoxy, and that theological alternatives are, in fact, available.

The Kremlin’s claim of cultural Christianity and so-called “traditional values” resonates in Europe and North America within right-wing and far-Right movements. In fact, many such movements facilitate Russian interests in Europe: through the vessel of the World Congress of Families and through attempts further to divide and polarise European countries politically, aimed at the weakening of European cooperation.

The UK is no exception to this, and Brexit (whether one likes it or not), was one such policy that played to the advantage of the Kremlin.

The Christian duty to speak out against unholy alliances of Christianity and power is shared beyond the confines of Orthodoxy. Other Christians ought to show solidarity to the international Orthodox community: to come alongside them in rejecting every and any sacralisation of nationhood or civilisation, and to join in the intellectual effort to recover and to offer theological alternatives to (secular) Christendom.

Beyond the ambition of political and cultural relevance or the temptation to resort to a counter-cultural posture might lie a third way: a Christianity that stops thinking of “the other” as “our neighbour” and which itself becomes “the neighbour” — and a Christianity that does not compare its experience with what Christianity may have been before “secularisation” happened, but one that looks forward, confidently and constructively, into the future.

In 1937, ecumenical voices gathered in Oxford, knowing that they had a responsibility to address the enormous challenges of their time. Last week, a group of academics from and beyond Europe gathered in Oxford again, this time to discuss the ideology of the russkii mir alongside claims to Christianity in Christian Nationalist movements.

Along with the Ukrainian theologian Professor Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, who spoke at the University Church on Monday of last week, some of us have raised our voices in a Statement of Solidarity with Orthodox voices who dissent from the Kremlin and from Patriarch Kirill.

This statement, which has been translated into Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian, Serbian, and Croatian, and which has drawn support from theologians such as Miroslav Volf and Jürgen Moltmann, has three specific aims. It facilitates solidarity from among non-Orthodox Christian scholars for the rejection of the russkii mir teaching; it rejects unholy alliances between Christian identity and political power which have also emerged in the context of Christian Nationalism; and it calls for the development of an ecumenical “Theology after Christendom”.

It is not only an expression of solidarity: it also comes with a promise — a promise to invest energy and resources in an ecumenical effort to explore new directions in Christian political thought and theology. A first step will be an international and interdisciplinary conference to be planned for 2023, and which will include a range of younger voices from within and beyond Orthodox, Protestant, and Catholic traditions.

Our hope is that this might be the beginning of a renewed ecumenical effort. We call on academic colleagues across the UK to echo their solidarity in further efforts to build international and cross-denominational networks, and by allocating funding and resources for international conferencing in the years ahead.

New College
Oxford OX1 3BN

Forum for evidence-based discussion of bullying

From Anne Lee, Clive Billenness, and five others

Sir, — The signatories to this letter founded ABEL — Against Bullying, Encouraging Love — at the end of 2021. Our purpose is to create a forum in which bullying in the Church can be explored in an evidence-based way, and in which academic research and different perspectives and expertise can be shared and collated to inform central church consideration of these issues.

Bullying is experienced by laity and clergy alike. It is perpetrated and experienced by those on pedestals, in pulpits, and in pews. The 2008 document Dignity at Work produced by the then Deployment, Remuneration and Conditions of Service Committee for the Ministry Division became outdated after the implementation of the 2010 Equalities Act. While many dioceses do have their own anti-bullying policies, these vary in quality, detail, and effectiveness of implementation.

Bullying behaviour can be either extreme or a long-term toxic trickle. Examples encountered include removal of areas of responsibility without discussion or notice, withholding information, providing incorrect information, and overloading with work. Spreading of false accusations and cyberbullying are also experienced. Clergy can be targets of bullying by their congregations, peers, and supervisors. Congregations can be targets of bullying by clergy. Staff in diocesan offices can be similarly involved.

Bullying has significant effects on health, and yet when it is reported it is often trivialised or dismissed as a “personality clash” or “robust debate”. It is very rarely investigated. Instead, the object of the bullying behaviour is often sidelined and victimised. This failure to recognise the serious impact of bullying on the well-being of the targets and their families and friends is culpable, and has a detrimental effect on the mission and ministry of the Church.

Abuse of unaccountable power continues to occur in church contexts. The Revd Paul Skirrow’s article (Comment, 1 April) suggests how the culture, structures, and processes of the Church facilitate and perpetuate it. The Church is now presented with a significant opportunity: to gather evidence and perspectives and listen carefully to the voices of individuals who have been bullied, or to continue, as at present, ignoring, marginalising, victimising, and ostracising complainants. Like Esther, will we now choose to take that risk or not?

ABEL’s first public conference on this topic: “Pedestals, Pulpits and Pews: Perspectives on Bullying in the Church of England”, hosted by St Augustine’s College, West Malling, takes place online on 31 May. Attendance will be free.

c/o 64 Observatory Street
Oxford OX2 6EP

Specifications for the C of E’s next Director of Safeguarding

From Mr David Lamming

Sir, — The Church Times (25 March) included a C of E advertisement for a Director of Safeguarding, which named Green Park as “our search advisers”. A letter from the Secretary-General of the Archbishops’ Council, William Nye, addressed to “Dear Applicant”, on the Green Park webpage cited in the advertisement, states that “Safeguarding is at the heart of the life of the Church of England, reflecting the values of the Christian gospel” and refers to the part played by the National Safeguarding Team in “[promoting] good safeguarding practice as integral to the mission of the whole Church”.

That safeguarding is an integral part of the Church’s mission, not just an add-on, has been the frequent message given to the General Synod. It is surprising, therefore, that the advertisement states that, while sympathy with the work and mission of the Church is important, “there is no requirement for candidates to be practising Christians.” The absence of such a requirement is reflected in the Person Specification.

No mention was made at the Synod’s recent group of sessions (either in the update paper GS 2244, or in the oral presentation on 9 February) of the impending advertisement for a national Director of Safeguarding or of the lack of a requirement for the Director to be a practising Christian; otherwise, this might well have been the subject of comment. It is also noteworthy, too, that engagement with the Synod is not included in the Role Description as one of the “key relationships” of the Director.

Given that the effective kicking into the long grass of Gavin Drake’s following motion in response to GS 2244 (Synod, 18 February) and the seeming delay in establishing an effective Independent Safeguarding Board, these matters do not inspire confidence that the Archbishops’ Council is serious in wanting to engage with the Synod on safeguarding issues.

It is to be hoped that the welcome announcement that Bishop Julie Conalty is to be the new deputy lead bishop for safeguarding (News, 8 April) will prove this concern to be unjustified.

(General Synod member 2015-21)
20 Holbrook Barn Road
Boxford, Suffolk CO10 5HU

The medical profession and the Abortion Act

Sir, — “Tackling the anger and grief” (Feature, 1 April) alluded to the reluctance of some general practitioners to discuss abortion in depth with their clients. Does the NHS let down many women — like “Jodie” — who get slipped all too easily on to a fast-moving abortion conveyor belt?

Part of my career as a general practitioner in the NHS was spent doing holiday cover, and it was fascinating to see how a variety of practitioners approached the question. In my experience, it was clear how one thing often united the militant atheist, the Sikh, the Hindu, the Muslim, and the Christian: an aversion to abortion. I never came across any doctor who trivialised the difficult ethical choice facing women in crisis.

A commonly held line of argument in the UK medical world perhaps runs as follows: “What you are going to do, do quickly.” The modus operandi (for understandable reasons) can be to get the procedure completed as early as possible within the first trimester.

One case forcefully shook up my world-view on abortion, to the point where I ceased making any more referrals for termination of pregnancy. I have never regretted that decision, but just wish that I had followed instinct or conscience earlier.

UK law provides GPs with this escape route on grounds of conscience. With advancing genetic and obstetric knowledge, is even early first-term abortion now starting to look barbaric or inhumane?


Mary Whitehouse: right, reactionary, or both?

From Dr Christopher Shell

Sir, — I discerned a contradiction in your reviewer the Revd Gillean Craig’s account of Banned: The Mary Whitehouse story (Television, 8 April). If “at the time” Mrs Whitehouse’s stance “seemed laughable, reactionary”, then how can it be that her organisation had “huge national membership”? Readers may think that the implication is that all of this “huge” number (a million and a half signatories, when it came to the Protection of Children Act) are to be regarded, if not as non-people, at least as somewhat second-class. This amounts to no progress beyond how the BBC’s director-general is agreed to have regarded them at the time.

But the fact that the review uses words such as “reactionary” and “unfashionable”, so committing the chronological-snobbery fallacy, reminds us only just how odd it is that the relevant positions of power seem largely to be held by those for whom the penny drops (if at all) as many as 50 years later rather than by representatives of that multitude who already (on issues such as “how pornography destroys women’s lives”) saw the reality pretty clearly 50 years earlier.

7 Markway
Surrey TW16 5NS

Cartoon churchwarden was a discouragement

From Mr Derek Wellman

Sir, — You published a cartoon (Comment, 8 April) that appears to show a “fat-cat” businessman protesting about the difficulty that he is having in getting into heaven, despite having served for 30 years as a churchwarden and having made significant donations to the Church.

This is an appalling insult to the thousands of volunteers up and down the country who, quietly and without any thought of future reward, give freely of their time, talents, and money in support of the Church. Volunteers are hard enough to come by at the best of times, but cartoons such as this are hardly likely to encourage people to offer themselves.

52 Nettleham Road
Lincoln LN2 1RH

We appreciate that this depiction of a churchwarden was not representative, and apologise for any offence caused. Editor

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