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Rowan Williams adds his voice to calls for the WCC to eject Russian Orthodox Church

05 April 2022


Lord Williams

Lord Williams

THE former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams has backed calls for the Russian Orthodox Church to be excluded from the World Council of Churches (WCC), as Patriarch Kirill of Moscow praised his country’s armed forces for acting in line with the gospel and Christian teaching.

“The case for expelling is a strong one, and I have a suspicion that some other Orthodox Churches would take the same view. Many in the Orthodox world feel that Orthodoxy itself is compromised,” Lord Williams told BBC Radio 4’s Sunday programme.

“The riot act has to be read. When a 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.”

The Archbishop, a Russian speaker and an expert on Orthodoxy, spoke as Ukraine’s Prosecutor-General, Irina Venediktov, confirmed that the remains of more than 400 civilians, some bearing signs of rape and torture, had been recovered from Bucha, Irpin, and other towns recently abandoned by Russian forces north of Kyiv.

Lord Williams said the idea that Ukraine was becoming “more like Western societies” had been “particularly offensive to people like Patriarch Kirill”, adding that he could not accept the use of Christian terminology to justify “a nakedly aggressive, unprincipled act of violence against a neighbouring Christian nation”.

“I’m still waiting for any senior voices in the Russian Orthodox hierarchy to say the slaughter of the innocent in war is condemned unequivocally by all forms of Christianity,” he said.

“I feel rather devastated that the current leadership of the Church is in danger of betraying everything most precious in what Russian Christianity has given to the wider world: the saints, the witnesses, the hugely complex and enriching history in spirituality, art, and literature. . . All of that is being Tarmacked over by this extraordinary and almost obsessive nationalist fervour.”

During the six-week war, calls have mounted for the Russian Church to be expelled or suspended from the Geneva-based WCC, whose 352 member-denominations will hold their eleventh plenary at Karlsruhe Palace in Germany from 31 August to 8 September (News, 1 April).

In the latest appeal, the US-based Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute accused Patriarch Kirill of turning President Putin’s “military campaign into a religious war”, and urged the WCC at the weekend to prevent Russian Orthodox leaders from “using Christianity as a cover for mass murder”.

In his Sunday programme interview, Lord Williams said that the “minimum” to be expected was for Patriarch Kirill and others to “press for an effective and credible ceasefire”. He warned the Patriarch that he was “answerable to Jesus Christ” for the fact that Orthodox Ukrainians were being “killed by other members of his own flock”.

Patriarch Kirill, however, preaching on Sunday in the new military cathedral in Moscow, urged Russians to pray for “multiplying the power of our armed forces”, and said that he wished to remind all soldiers of “the historical importance of the present moment”.

He said that those caught up in the Ukraine war were “peoples of Holy Russia”, pushed into “internecine strife” by outside forces, making it essential for military personnel to stand ready to lay down their lives “as the word of God testifies”.

“We are a peace-loving country and long-suffering people, who suffered from wars like few other European nations,” the Patriarch said.

“Service in the armed forces is a real feat in wartime, and this is the time we are experiencing now. It requires readiness from everyone who took the oath to defend the homeland without sparing his life. . . All our people must wake up today and understand that a special time has come, on which their historical fate may depend.”

Reacting to the sermon, Ukraine’s Religious Information Service said that the Patriarch had said nothing about Russian war crimes against civilians, and appeared to be “praising young Russians who join the army and go to kill Ukrainians”.

The leader of the independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Epiphany Dumenko, said on Monday that Patriarch Kirill had “made his choice in favour of the Antichrist. . .

“I urge those who still have him as their shepherd: open your eyes, look at the poisonous fruits of his teaching, turn away from the lawlessness, and do not be his accomplices.

“The ideology of the ‘Russian world’ [Comment, 25 March] is the same as the ideology of Nazism, because it justifies violence, murder, war, and genocide. It must therefore be rejected and condemned in the same way as Nazism.”

In a late March communiqué, the Russian Church’s governing Holy Synod named a 23-member delegation for the WCC assembly. Headed by Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, the Church’s foreign-relations director, the delegation will include Metropolitan Leonid Gorbachov, the Patriarchal Exarch of the Russian Church’s two new African dioceses, who described Ukrainians in a recent social-media post as “brown scum”.

In a message last week, the WCC called for a ceasefire and sustained negotiations for peace, adding that the war could not be justified or tolerated from the perspective of fundamental Christian principles.

“We denounce the military aggression launched by the leadership of the Russian Federation against the people of the sovereign nation of Ukraine — we affirm the right of the people of Ukraine to defend themselves”, the message said.

“Aware that sister-churches hold different perspectives on the conflict’s root causes, we stress the importance of the WCC as the ecumenical movement’s leading instrument for sharing divergent perspectives, struggling with differences, and seeking reconciliation and unity in word and deed.”

On Thursday of last week, the Levada Center in Moscow published the results of a survey of 1632 Russian adults, which was carried out between 24 and 30 March. A total of 81 per cent of respondents said that they “definitely” or “largely” supported the actions of Russia’s armed forces in Ukraine; 14 per cent did not support them; and six per cent offered no firm opinion. 

In a birthday message on Saturday, published on the Moscow Patriarchate’s website, Patriarch Kirill praised the “courageous, selfless and responsible” work of the Russian navy’s commander-in-chief, Admiral Nikolai Yevmenov, adding that his forces, currently blockading Ukraine’s Black Sea ports, were “invariably showing valour and courage in defending the interests of the Fatherland”.

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