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‘Our first response must be prayer’

08 April 2022

How are UK believers reacting to the war, Francis Martin asks

Astrea Szewczuk

Richard Dale, Astrea Szewczuk, and Paul Bowes stand outside the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Chiswick, west London, on Saturday

Richard Dale, Astrea Szewczuk, and Paul Bowes stand outside the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Chiswick, west London, on Saturday

“WE’RE just country bumpkins who felt we had to do something,” Richard Dale said on Saturday.

He had brought a placard — “Plea to the Russian Orthodox Church” — showing a photograph of a pregnant woman on a stretcher in the ruins of Mariupol, and a short text calling on the Russian Orthodox Church to denounce the war in Ukraine. He had driven to Chiswick that afternoon from Owlesbury, a village outside Winchester, armed with a petition with just over 500 signatures, and accompanied by two fellow villagers: Astrea Szewzcuk and Paul Bowes.

I met them standing on a street corner near the Cathedral of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God and the Royal Martyrs. The cobalt-blue onion dome that tops the building looks incongruous in residential west London, but this is the UK home of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR): a semi-autonomous part of the Russian Church that formed in exile during the Soviet period, but which resumed relations with Moscow in 2007. It currently recognises Patriarch Kirill as its canonical head.

In all, there are three Moscow-affiliated branches of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) in the UK. The building in Chiswick is not even the only Russian cathedral in the city: there is another, belonging to the main branch of the Church, in a grander location near Hyde Park.

The Hampshire petitioners had failed to take account of the length of Orthodox services, however. When I arrived, Dr Dale, a retired academic, had just spoken to a Russian woman leaving the church. She agreed with the sentiment of the petition, but said that they would have to wait until the end of the service for a chance to approach one of the priests, and it could easily go on for two hours.

Unfortunately, the petitioners could not wait that long — it was a long drive back to Owlesbury — and so they decided to hand the petition over to someone while the service went on. They explained the plan to two Russian men standing at the gate, who waved them through, and they filed into the church a little awkwardly, covering the placard to avoid causing offence.

The service was in full flow: three priests faced the gilded iconostasis, intoning the liturgy, as the congregants, mostly women, crossed themselves and genuflected. If anyone wondered who the newcomers were, no one challenged them, and they approached a woman selling candles at the back of the church.

There was a hushed conversation. “You must understand, the church is here to pray,” the woman told them, after listening intently to their polite submissions.

When she saw the photograph of the pregnant woman on the stretcher, however, she started explaining how it had been proved to be a fake by the Russian media.

She nevertheless accepted the envelope containing the petition.

“She was so empathetic,” observed Ms Szewzcuk, whose Ukrainian grandparents sought refugee in the UK after the Second World War. There had been tears in the woman’s eyes when she spoke about the plight of refugees and the efforts that her church, which contains many Ukrainians in its congregation, was making to support them.

And yet she maintained that President Putin was “the kindest man”, and that conflict would ultimately deliver “God’s will” for the peoples of Ukraine, Russia, and Belarus.

The conversation in the church ended with an agreement, of sorts: despite the intractable differences, everyone could pray for peace.

ARCHPRIEST Stephen Platt, the Rector of a Russian Orthodox Church in Oxford, said last week: “What we have to start doing is praying. Our first response always has to be prayer. . . Across the different Orthodox jurisdictions, in the context of Ukraine, one theme that has come up consistently is prayer to Mary.”

Despite their differences, Patriarch Kirill in Moscow and Metropolitan Onufriy in Kyiv have both called specifically for prayers to the Mother of God. “Could it be that she is actually trying to tell us something?” Fr Platt asked.

“In the Orthodox tradition, Mary is called Hodegetria, which means means ‘the one who shows the way’. . . If we take a step back and see this not simply as a political issue, but something that is a spiritual issue, then we can begin to see there’s a chance of doing something. That’s really the first point of response in our church community here.”

Some Russian Orthodox parishes outside of Russia have stopped mentioning Patriarch Kirill in their services. Fr Platt said that he had continued to pray for the Patriarch: to pray was “not an expression of agreement”.

Fr Andrew Louth, Emeritus Professor of Patristic and Byzantine Studies at Durham University, and a Russian Orthodox priest, has taken the same line, to the dismay of some of his fellow clerics elsewhere in Europe. Both Fr Platt and Fr Louth were unequivocal in their criticism, but agreed that Patriarch Kirill needed prayer now more than ever.

ROCOR’s Bishop Irenei of Great Britain & Western Europe has not criticised the Patriarch explicitly, but his latest sermon described the war as “terrible”, “unwanted”, and “utterly lamentable”. A priest from the main UK branch of the Russian Orthodox Church described Bishop Irenei’s stance as “going absolutely as far as he can to condemn the war without being overtly political”.

Bishop Matthew of the diocese of Sourozh, which covers the whole of the British Isles and has an unbroken canonical relationship with Moscow, has been in Russia since late last year. Even when he returns, however, there is “no chance that he will say anything”, one of his priests says.

Most Russian Orthodox priests were inclined to keep their heads down, Fr Platt suggested, although he personally felt that clerics outside Russia had a “unique calling to speak the truth” about the conflict. “My own sermons have been quite emphatic in their position of condemnation,” he said.

Public DomainThe Cathedral of the Nativity of the Most Holy Mother of God and the Royal Martyrs, Chiswick, in west London

Another priest in the UK told me that a few people in his parish had stopped attending — some because of their dismay at the continued prayers for the Patriarch, others because the priest had described the war as evil. In general, though, his parishioners understood that “our Orthodox faith is the most important thing,” and, as a community, they were “working through” the tensions.

Fr Louth described his parish in Durham as “a place where Orthodoxy is celebrated, where we get on with praying, looking after people, and supporting people in whatever way we can. That is what is important.” He has become “drawn into what is going on in Ukraine” because, as an author and theologian, he has a public profile, and has been asked regularly to contribute to media discussions on the religious angles of the war.

One of the main subjects of debate concerns the “Russian world” or Russkii mir ideology, described as a “false teaching” in the Orthodox theologians’ recent declaration, to which Fr Louth was a signatory (News, 25 March). Fr Louth said last week that “the form Russkii mir has taken is extremely ugly and unpleasant.”

Fr Platt agreed: “The idea of equating a spiritual heritage of different peoples, who are distinct, to a political system which would seek to amalgamate them into one secular power, is mistaken.” Both, however, noted that part of the potency of Russkii mir derived from the extent to which it overlapped with something that should be celebrated: a common spiritual heritage among distinct peoples.

Another priest with whom I spoke described this heritage as being “politicised and weaponised” by Russkii mir.

“The more the whole thing is polarised, the more difficult it is to believe in a cultural standard that is distinctive but also uniting,” Fr Louth said.

He lamented the difficulty of discussing such topics with sufficient nuance in today’s political environment: “I felt a bit frustrated with some of the BBC reporters who want something in the form of a few-seconds-long statement, which is not adequate, really.”

The Russian-born Orthodox priest in the UK agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, fearing that he might no longer be able to visit his family in Russia, where dissent from the official line can lead to imprisonment. I asked him how he felt when he heard the news of the invasion: “Shock — I was completely horrified.”

In his parish, there are a few who support the invasion, but they are not necessarily Russian: some of those most closely following President Putin’s line are English or American. Key factors tend to be the news sources that they have chosen to believe, and their attitude towards Russkii mir ideology.

“I don’t believe these opposing world-views are equivalent,” the Russian-born priest told me. “But they’re still all members of the parish, and they’re still made of the same stuff as you and I.”

What could be done to help bridge this chasm in Orthodoxy? Open conversation would be a start, I was told. “We have to avoid entrenched positions where there is not possibility of dialogue,” Fr Platt said. He urged continued ecumenical efforts, however futile they might seem.

THIS was the challenge that the petitioners from Owlesbury faced in the Chiswick cathedral. The encounter left Ms Szewczuk with mixed feelings: anger at first, then doubt, and a sense of guilt, but also a determination to keep trying to engage in dialogue.

The Russian-born Orthodox priest said that, in the face of intractable division, “We are thrown back to basics: examining our human nature, walking humbly before our God, and showing mercy.” A simple recognition of human suffering could reveal common ground, he said. “Even those who drink from the Putinist well can focus on the human aspect of the refugee crisis.”

Two weeks ago, a middle-aged Ukrainian couple came to his church for the Sunday liturgy. They had fled the fighting in Irpin, entering the UK on a family visa. “They were traumatised, and trying to find their feet,” the priest said, “but they came to our church and prayed with us, and could feel at home.”

That refugees from a war blessed by the leader of a Church are able to find sanctuary in an outpost of the same Church reveals the internecine aspect of the conflict. “Orthodox are fighting Orthodox,” Fr Louth said, countering the view of the war as a struggle between two opposing sets of values.

When the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams was asked in a radio interview on Sunday what he would say to Patriarch Kirill, he replied: “Your own flock are being killed by other members of your own flock” (News, 5 April). But, in the UK at least, there are still signs that the flock, however seriously divided, can join together in prayer.

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