THE Church in Wales has called on the World Council of Churches (WCC) to distance itself from the Russian Orthodox Church and any other member Churches who have supported the “unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation”.
The move came in a unanimous vote after an emergency debate on Thursday at its Governing Body meeting in Newport. The motion stopped short of calling for the Russian Orthodox Church to be excluded altogether from the WCC, something advocated earlier this month by the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams.
He had told the Radio 4 Sunday programme: “The riot act has to be read. Where the Church is actively supporting a war of aggression, failing to condemn nakedly obvious breaches in any kind of ethical conduct in wartime, then other Churches have the right to raise the question and challenge it, to say: ‘Unless you can say something effective about this, something recognisably Christian, we have to look again at your membership’” (News, 8 April).
The debate was initiated by the Bishop of St Asaph, the Rt Revd Gregory Cameron, following a question on Wednesday from Sir Paul Silk, a co-opted member. Sir Paul had asked how the Church in Wales intended to respond to the call issued on 16 March by the Ukrainian Institute for Religious Freedom, and other Ukrainian civil society organisations, for the WCC to exclude the Russian Orthodox Church from membership.
Bishop Cameron said that the WCC had itself been clear in its condemnation of the war, but there had been a different response from Patriarch Kirill, who had become “increasingly vociferous in toeing the party line” and promoting a worldview that presented Russia as the bearer of true Christianity.
“The question before us is how best to influence the Russian Orthodox Church and win in them an ally in the search for peace and restoration of justice,” the Bishop said. “Isolating them by supporting the expulsion from the WCC might play into the narrative of expulsion.” The Moscow patriarchate certainly deserved such action, he acknowledged, “headed as it is by a former KGB agent unequivocal in his support for Putin and for the war in Ukraine”.
Statements from the Patriarch had gradually become more extreme, Bishop Cameron said. One had praised Russian troops for their defence of the fatherland, and invoked God’s blessing on them; the next had spoken of “the glorious work of defending religion. . .
“Support for this act of aggression certainly deserves censure,” he said. “It gives us a good feeling if we expel. . . But this is not about our good feeling. What we really need are wiser strategic measures to be taken on this issue.”
The religious situation of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine was very complicated: only one was bound to the Moscow patriarchate. “Even inside Russia, there’s been a petition from 300 clergy asking Patriarch Kirill to revise his view. Each of the 300 will be facing likely imprisonment and loss of livelihood for taking such a stance.”
The motion for debate was: “That The Governing Body of the Church in Wales do call upon the World Council of Churches to take clear and appropriate action to distance the council from the actions of those member churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church, who have given support to the unprovoked war of aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation, and call upon all Christians to stand with the oppressed and to do all in their power to work for peace.”
The motion did not directly articulate the response of the Church in Wales to the war, he said — Archbishop John had already done that in his president’s address — but it gave the WCC “the widest berth for what their action should be”.
In his presidential address on Wednesday, Archbishop John described “the unprovoked attack on the sovereignty of another country” as utterly deplorable, and the cost and misery it was bringing to millions as “without excuse”. He echoed Lord Williams in calling on the Russian Orthodox Church to condemn the killing of civilians, and to press for an immediate ceasefire and an end to the war.
“When the Church does not practise peace-making, when it does not defend the poor, when it fails to speak out against injustice, it has no right to say anything about the gospel,” he said. “We need to hear this message ourselves as well as to say it to sisters and brothers elsewhere in the world.”
In the debate on Thursday, Sir Paul Silk, seconding the motion, said that the Russian Orthodox Church had always been very close to the state. “Patriarch Kirilli’s relationship with the state is all too notorious,” he said. “It is no surprise it has supported the war.” Sir Paul acknowledged the “compelling case” for expulsion put by Lord Williams, “and there are few who understand the Russian Orthodox Church better than Archbishop Williams”.
The Very Revd Sarah Jones (Elected Dean) drew parallels with the aftermath of apartheid in South Africa. She noted that the WCC was a body which did expel, although it was the World Alliance of Reformed Churches that had expelled the Dutch Reformed Church for its support of apartheid.
She suggested that “what we are facing from the Metropolitan is part of a longer tension about what it means to be Orthodox in the 21st-century world.” The motion avoided fuelling those who could present themselves as victims of compromised Western Christianity: “It best supports those in need and gives long-term help.”
Nick Griffiths (St Davids) said that many members would have attended community events to support Ukraine, and asked if there was more that could be done. He suggested diocesan links with Ukraine so that, when the war was over, and a vast rebuilding process needed to take place, money might be raised to rebuild Christian infrastructure.
The Revd Richard Wood (Bangor) spoke about repentance. “The motion gives us the opportunity to echo the commandment to continue to love those who hate and persecute us.”
In conclusion, Bishop Cameron said that the short but extremely valuable debate had shown “the complexity of the situation and the depth of our concern for good relations with the Russian Orthodox Church”. The motion was carried unanimously.