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Analysis: Talks with Patriarch Kirill

18 March 2022

How successful were Pope Francis and Justin Welby when they spoke to the Russian Patriarch this week, asks Paul Handley

THERE are a few positives to take from the conversations on Wednesday between Patriarch Kirill, the Russian Orthodox Primate, and the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Pope — not many, but a few.

The chief of these is that the conversations happened. The parallel is with the ceasefire negotiations between Russian and Ukrainian diplomats, which seem vaguely absurd in the present, while Mariupol and other Ukrainian cities are being pounded by shellfire, but hold out the hope that some form of peace agreement might be forged in the future.

The intriguing aspect is that, while Lambeth and the Vatican have been putting out feelers in recent weeks, the initiative for Wednesday’s conversations came from the Moscow Patriarchate. Patriarch Kirill gives the impression of taking no heed of Western church opinion, and has, in the past, subjected Western officials to diatribes about their having surrendered to decadent Western culture, rolling together materialism, promiscuity, feminism, LGBT rights, and the accommodation of Islam.

The latest conversations, however, suggest that, at the very least, Patriarch Kirill wishes to maintain the relationships that have been established in recent years. He has met Archbishop Welby in London in 2016 (News, 21 October 2016) — the same year as the Pope’s first meeting with Patriarch Kirill in Havana — and again in Moscow in 2018. Had not Covid intervened, the Archbishop would have travelled to Russia at the end of last year to celebrate the Patriarch’s 75th birthday, the 45th anniversary of his consecration as bishop, and 50 years since he was made archimandrite.

The Patriarch’s main purpose on Wednesday was to deliver his perspective on the war in Ukraine. As the Patriarchate’s account of the meeting stated: “His Holiness Patriarch Kirill set forth in detail the stand taken by the Russian Orthodox Church on the developments since 2014.”

This stand does not deviate from the official Russian position: that President Putin’s action was in response to pleas from oppressed minorities in Ukraine, and that civilian casualties are because the government in Ukraine has deliberately sited military installations in civilian areas.

It is clear that this view of the war is by no means universal in the Russian Orthodox Church. It is also inconceivable that Patriarch Kirill does not know the true cost of the war, given his contacts with the remnant of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church which remained Moscow-facing after the split in 2018. This branch has now united in adversity with the autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church in condemning the invasion.

The three leaders were able to agree about the need for peace — Christian leaders could hardly do otherwise — though the phrase used by each was a little stronger: a just peace (in the Patriarchate’s account, “a lasting peace based on justice”). It is clear that Patriarch Kirill’s idea of justice differs from that of the others; yet both Lambeth and Vatican will have been keen to express their respect for the Russian Church, and their regret about any hardships experienced by ordinary Russian believers.

Patriarch Kirill’s loyalty to President Putin was both pragmatic and justifiable during the years of the Orthodox Church’s restoration after the Soviet era. As with the sanctioned oligarchs, however, his continued support since the start of the war now carries with it a strong element of complicity. The three leaders were none the less keen to continue dialogue, and Archbishop Welby was explicit in hoping that the Patriarch would begin speaking publicly about the need for peace.

The grounds for hope are pretty thin, however. An insight into Patriarch Kirill’s approach to the war in Ukraine can be found in his book Freedom and Responsibility, published ten years ago today (18 March, St Cyril’s Day).

In a long attack on liberal secularism, he suggests that violence is provoked (justified?) by the imposition of liberal values: “With secular Western values today shared by the most powerful nations and forced by them on to other peoples, terrorism, to which these nations seem vulnerable, is seen by the opposing party as the only effective way to fight back. . . Terrorism in the twenty-first century is . . . a conflict between the new world order based on secular liberal values, and those who, exploiting religious and traditional values, seek to impose their own world order.”

Kirill goes on to criticise such a response — “We must strongly condemn terrorism in all its forms.” None the less, there is more than a hint here that the war in Ukraine conforms with this view of a global conflict between true religion and corrupt Western culture.

To repeat: there are positives to be drawn from Wednesday’s conversations. But any church leader who attempts to persuade Patriarch Kirill to support a just peace might well find themselves arguing with a man who sees the Ukraine invasion as a just war.

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