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Should the WCC expel the Russian Orthodox Church?  

by
20 May 2022

In a frank exchange of letters, Paul Oestreicher and Rowan Williams express different views

Alamy

Patriarch Kirill during the Easter Day liturgy in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow

Patriarch Kirill during the Easter Day liturgy in the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour, Moscow

MY DEAR ROWAN,

I very seldom disagree with you. When I do, I begin to wonder: which one of us comes closer to discipleship? I am not sure whether this letter will help us to find the answer. It will be an attempt.

Should the Russian Orthodox Church be expelled from the World Council of Churches (WCC)? It seems that we have come up with opposite answers. I am a child of 20th-century ecumenism. Christian unity has been one of my ideals. The WCC is an imperfect but important embodiment of that gospel imperative. For that reason, I have thought it unthinkable to expel a member Church, however wayward. All of us have sinned, individually and corporately. All of us need forgiveness.

There are precedents. The pro-apartheid Churches of South Africa were not expelled. This was not fence-sitting. The WCC’s policy was unambiguous. Eventually, these Churches repented. The WCC’s policy on the Russian invasion of Ukraine is just as clear. Patriarch Kirill and his entourage, on the other hand, give their total support to Putin’s war.

Nevertheless, I have opposed their expulsion. You have advocated it, no doubt for well-considered reasons [News, 8 April]. My motivation is not only to affirm Christian unity; expulsion will also exclude the courageous Russian Christians who, at great cost to themselves, reject Putin’s war. The hierarchy is not the Church. Expulsion will also make even more difficult the conversation to end the killing that the Pope and the Archbishop of Canterbury have tried to initiate [News, 18 March].

I had an exchange with my friend Professor Fernando Enns, a member of the WCC’s Central Committee, which will have to decide this issue before the WCC Assembly convenes in Germany later this year. He agrees with me, on the grounds that Christian solidarity precludes the expulsion of a member church. He refers to an analogy with the Nazi-supporting Deutsche Christen movement in Hitler’s Germany, which the majority of German Protestants supported. The analogy with Russia is accurate (there was then not yet a WCC).

This analogy, however, made me think. Should I, in 1939, have accepted the Deutsche Christen — Christians who favoured the expulsion of the Jews — in the ecumenical family? I am not so sure.

Patriarch Kirill blesses an unjust, illegal war, reminding me, as I say this, that my own Church of England never condemned the illegal invasion of Iraq with its catastrophic consequences, and celebrated Britain’s nuclear-armed submarines in Westminster Abbey [News, 10 May 2019]. Not to speak of the aborted British attack on Egypt, just as the Red Army was shooting the people on the streets of Budapest.

Who’s in, who’s out? What are the principles at issue? What matters more: Christian solidarity, or a righteousness that affirms our one humanity under God? Is the Church or is humanity not the actual Body of Christ?

Putting the debate in these terms has not resolved the WCC’s dilemma, if dilemma it is. The issue is profoundly theological, and certainly not simple. Or is it simpler than I can get my mind around?

Rowan, I am grateful to you for prompting these reflections. I shall share them with some of our friends. May we be led along the Emmaus road.

Blessings from the South Seas and in Te Reo, the Maori language, much love: Arohanui,

PAUL

MY DEAR PAUL,

I’m very grateful for your thoughts on this issue. Like you, I am used to convergence in our responses to many issues, and the fact that we’re not entirely at one on this matter is cause for reflection. Thanks for your thoughts on it.

But just to clarify: I have said that I think there is a strong case for the exclusion of the Moscow Patriarchate from the WCC, and that they have a case to answer; I’m not suggesting that they should have no opportunity for such an answer. I don’t feel sanguine about their willingness to defend themselves in this particular “court”, but I would not advocate any precipitate decision without notice and consultation.

Should it come to this, however, my reasons for supporting an exclusion would be that we have a situation in which the hierarchy of one particular Christian organisation is actively advocating — not merely passively acquiescing in — a war of pure aggression, in which the routine slaughter of non-combatants is evidently a matter of accepted policy, and which is being presented by this hierarchy as a defence of Christian civilisation.

One immediate consequence is that those who are technically members of the Patriarchate’s own jurisdiction are being killed — with his sanction — by other members of his own flock. This is not in itself more dreadful than the “general” pattern of civilian slaughter, but it focuses on why there is a problem about who is seen to stand alongside the Patriarch.

Ecclesial credibility must surely be deeply compromised in such a case. It’s not just a matter of the failing, or weakness, or even sinfulness of certain individuals, but of the highest authority in a Church publicly sanctioning a notorious evil.

Of course, theologically speaking, we remain in some sense members of the Body of Christ together, and, at a deep level, we are all called to solidarity with those in error and sin. This should not be an excuse for self-congratulation and the rush to parade a “pure” and uncompromised orthodoxy.

I think we share a scepticism about anything that would just be a comfortable colonising of moral high ground. But membership in the WCC is not the same as communion in the Body of Christ. It is not a question of excommunication — which the other Orthodox Churches would have to consider — but of what kind of legitimacy is given to the Muscovite leadership by its continued membership of an international body of Christian communities.

You rightly note the debates about the Deutsche Christen in the 1930s; Bonhoeffer’s argument was that a fundamentally anti-Christian agenda was being advanced by the group, and that the ecumenical movement should not be giving this any credibility.

This is not, I think, an absolution of, or collusion with, the failings and sins of other Churches; I’d be the last to whitewash the record of my own Church in the days of Suez or Iraq, but it is fair to say that even those least critical of government decisions in such contexts did not present those decisions as a matter of positive Christian obligation, or sanction the deliberate targeting of non-combatants.

Would the exclusion of the Patriarchate from the WCC actually make it harder for Christian and other dissentients in Russia? I think this is a very good question; I’m not completely sure of the answer, and I’d like to know more of how this might feel on the ground.

But I suspect (not without some evidence from Orthodox friends) that at least some dissentients would say that their situation could hardly be worse, given the legal penalties that can be inflicted on them, and the already extreme pressure from the hierarchy.

The question has to be weighed against the fact that — for example — the conversations between the Archbishop of Canterbury or Pope Francis and the Patriarch have been very efficiently spun by the Patriarchate as implying that the Churches of Western Europe are agnostic about the rights and wrongs of the invasion, and continuing membership of the WCC risks being instrumentalised in just this way.

These are some of the considerations that weigh with me. The hard question is whether the blessing of this war by the Patriarchate is so different in its level of gravity that it merits unprecedented action of the sort that we’re discussing here. I doubt whether — had the WCC existed in 1936, say — the Deutsche Christen could have long been tolerated in its membership, because of its active advocacy of something fundamentally destructive of the nature of the Body of Christ (and I’m not using that phrase in a narrowly ecclesiastical sense).

Is the present policy of the Moscow Patriarchate to be seen in this light? I’m still inclined to think that it is, and that it must therefore — with all due humility and with all due recognition of shared responsibility — be called to account. I don’t say this lightly, given my long association with, and learning from, the Russian Church; but it is partly because of my love for its tradition that I don’t want to see it become the prisoner of a deeply destructive national mythology.

Thank you again for writing; this is no easy matter, and I hope our common thoughts and prayers may continue to enable discernment for both of us, and for our friends.

With love in Christ, as always,

ROWAN

Canon Paul Oestreicher is a former director Centre for International Reconciliation. at Coventry Cathedral. The Rt Revd Lord Williams is a former Archbishop of Canterbury.

The letters are reproduced with the authors’ permission.

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