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General Synod digest: Neutrality avoided in motion for peace in Ukraine

01 March 2024
Geoff Crawford/Church Times

Mark Sheard (Archbishops’ Council) introduces the debate with “a heavy heart”

Mark Sheard (Archbishops’ Council) introduces the debate with “a heavy heart”

A MOTION calling for peace in Ukraine was carried overwhelmingly by the General Synod on Tuesday morning. Before the debate began, the chair acknowledged that many others parts of the world were also engulfed in conflict, but urged members to focus their remarks on Ukraine.

Mark Sheard (Archbishops’ Council) introduced the debate with “a heavy heart”: the war was not a distant reality, but an “egregious human tragedy”. At the time of the invasion in 2022, Mr Sheard had been the chief executive of World Vision, which remained deeply engaged in humanitarian efforts in Ukraine. He could never forget the harrowing stories that he had heard from Ukrainian refugees, many of them children unsure whether their parents still lived.

Many in the chamber would have other involvement, such as hosting refugees in their homes or donating money to charities. All must consider “what it means to be salt and light in this broken and wounded world”. The Church response’s must not be fleeting, but long-term, he said, helping people to cope with post-traumatic stress, or rebuilding communities.

Mr Sheard urged Synod members to resist the temptation to become disillusioned by the slow grind of the war as it passed its second anniversary. Yes, the Church must stand on the side of Ukraine, he said, but he urged them not to dehumanise the Russians or invite “jingoistic self-righteousness”. The Church must not become a “propagandist”, but ensure that the voices of war’s innocent victims were heard.

The Archbishop of Canterbury, recently returned from Ukraine (News, 16 February), said that it was hard to overstate the significance of the war. Besides making his two trips to Ukraine, he had also spoken directly with Patriarch Kirill. “But I am not neutral on this,” he said. “Ukraine is paying for our security with blood.” They were defending the international order, with 21st-century drones and First-World War-era bayonets. “This is an immensely dangerous time, not seen since 1938, apart from Cuba,” Archbishop Welby said.

Ukraine today was very different from his first trip in 2022. Gone was the optimism, replaced with a sombre and apprehensive atmosphere. Willing the end could not replace willing the means, he warned. This meant more money and weapons until Russia could say to itself “No further.”

Archbishop Welby described war as a tragedy that he did not support, and the Synod must ask what it could do to learn from Bishop George Bell and Archbishop William Temple about how a Church could live through war. “We need a just, independently agreed peace, not another Czechoslovakia or a Munich.” The longer the war dragged on, the more savage it would become, he said.

The Church must empathise with Ukraine’s determination to remain a free democracy, including its new law that would close down the Ukrainian Orthodox Church if it remained loyal to Moscow. The Church could not be neutral in the war, Archbishop Welby said, but it could seek a dignified outcome to give the world a chance to be “safe and secure”.

An officer in the Royal Navy, Adam Kendry (Armed Forces), said that he lived out daily a paradox of serving the Prince of Peace in an organisation that existed to make war. He supported much of the motion and paper, but would not vote for it, he said. The suffering in the motion was not an impersonal force of nature, but the deliberate choice of President Putin’s brutal choices. “We must not appease such behaviour.”

About 31,000 Ukrainians had been killed and tens of thousands more had been kidnapped or disappeared, he reported. The paper wrongly suggested that the West bore some responsibility for the war by supposedly reneging on promises made to Russia at the end of the Cold War. But Eastern European nations could not be traded away in spheres of influence; nor should their democratic desire to join the EU or NATO be refused.

“Let us take no action that diminishes our total support for those we have pledged to defend,” he urged. Any vision not founded on humanitarian law and self-determination must be rejected. Mr Kendry ended his speech with “Slava Ukraini [Glory to Ukraine], and Prince of Peace, thy Kingdom come!”

The Acting Bishop of Ely (the Bishop of Huntingdon), Dr Dagmar Winter, a C of E representative on the Conference of European Churches, said that it was founded in 1959 out of the ruins of the Second World War, and had been revitalised by the war in Ukraine. It had launched a Pathways to Peace programme to develop a network of church leaders and intellectuals to prepare for a post-war Ukraine. “Our support must not end when the guns fall silent.” It also helped churches to reconstruct damaged religious infrastructure in Ukraine.

The Revd Tuomas Mäkipää (Europe) had been working closely with Ukrainian refugees in Helsinki in a centre part-funded by the diocese in Europe. His nation also bordered Russia, and knew first-hand in history the destruction now being faced by Ukraine. As a reservist, he would be called up to the army if Finland was attacked; his wife would have to flee west with their children.

He also criticised the paper for entertaining the “false Russian narrative” that it had been threatened by the West. Totalitarian regimes were dangerous, not just for their neighbours, but also their own people, Mr Mäkipää said. “Our Christian response must be that of preaching Christ crucified and resurrected. His blood was shed for our sake, so that we should not shed the blood of people who are all precious in his sight.”

Archpriest Stephen Platt (Russian Orthodox Church) said that he was a parish priest who had worked on ecumenism for more than 30 years. “I exist in the world of many overlapping cognitive dissonances,” he said. His parish was international, made up of one third each of Russians, Ukrainians, and others. His congregation prayed for those killed on both sides of the war, and “so we pray at least for the peace which passes all understanding.” But he also saw signs of hope, despite the broader fracturing of global Orthodoxy. He praised the nuanced understanding of the complexities of the war evident in the paper and debate, and thanked those who had supported and hosted Ukrainian refugees in the past two years. “We feel your prayer, and we need your prayer,” he concluded.

Andrew Gray (St Edmundsbury & Ipswich) then introduced his amendment, which would add a fourth clause calling on UK political parties to make a commitment to supporting Ukraine until a “just and lasting peace is secured”. This was the right thing to do, Mr Gray said. “Either order our world on rules, or we resort to the law of the jungle, and brute force always wins.”

The fate of the continent depended on Ukraine, which he described as “Europe’s Calvary, a moment of tortured anguish where democracy and freedom hang upon a cross”. President Putin was hoping that the re-election of Donald Trump would save him, but Europe must stay the course until victory was won. The West could not allow a repeat of the “fiasco” of the Afghanistan withdrawal, which would embolden the evil and guarantee yet more bloodshed, he said.

Mr Sheard thanked Mr Gray for his amendment and his “passion” in moving it, and he was happy to accept it.

Nicola Denyer (Newcastle) backed the amendment and the motion. She had hosted two Ukrainian refugees in her home, and more than 100 other families had also come to stay in North Tyneside thanks to her church’s enthusiasm. Her town would be for ever changed by their presence, she said, and politicians must continue to support Ukraine.

The Revd Dr Susan Lucas (Chelmsford) also supported the amendment for making the paper’s argument more explicit. She had experience with Lithuania, which felt “worryingly sandwiched” between Russia and Europe. She did not hear “premature reconciliation or neutrality” in the motion, but the amendment made explicit the need to support Ukraine on behalf of the small, weak, and the vulnerable, such as Lithuania.

Kenson Li (co-opted) cautioned the Synod over the amendment. He wholeheartedly supported Ukraine, but said that language needed to be measured. He knew many Russians living in Britain who could not go home for fear of persecution by the regime. He said that the motion as amended must acknowledge and listen to the voices of both sides. “This is not neutrality, but creative justice.”

The amendment was carried.

Fr Thomas Seville CR (Religious Communities) said that he had recently worshipped at a Ukrainian Orthodox church in London, which “felt like heaven”. But members must also bear in mind their Russian Christian brothers and sisters.

The Revd Professor Morwenna Ludlow (Exeter) would support the motion as amended, but was concerned that the paper did not pay enough heed to Ukrainian voices. She wanted a clearer emphasis on defining the war as one of Russian aggression. For many in Ukraine, it was not a territorial dispute, but an existential challenge. “Putin’s ideology is not indicative of the character of Russian Orthodox Christianity,” she insisted. Yet the war was not solely driven by politics. His ideology had co-opted the icons, buildings, and liturgy of Russian Orthodoxy, something that had caused “excruciating pain” for many believers.

Caroline Herbert (Norwich) spoke of the importance of prayer. The discussion was fairly high-level around geopolitics, but, as a rural vicar’s wife, she felt engaged in it, thanks to the Ukrainian refugees who had moved in near by. One church lit a candle at every service and would continue to do so until there was peace in Ukraine. “We pray, and we will continue to pray.”

The Bishop to the Armed Forces, the Bishop of St Germans, the Rt Revd Hugh Nelson (Forces Synodical Council), said that many in the military were deeply concerned about the risk of a wider European conflict. The C of E had an important part to play in times such as this, he argued, especially with more than 200 military chaplains. The Ukrainian people bore the brunt of Russian violence, but in the UK, it was soldiers, sailors, and aircrew who felt the anxiety of war the most, he said. “Please hold them in your prayers.”

The Archdeacon of Oxford, the Ven. Jonathan Chaffey (Oxford), a former military chaplain, said that he had to help young members of the forces to navigate a volatile and uncertain world. Today, the world was even more brittle and ambiguous, and the Church had to recommit itself to conversion of heart and mind, and deep, prayerful intercession, he said.

Responding to the debate, Mr Sheard apologised if the motion or paper had not been clear enough in reinforcing the Church’s commitment to supporting Ukraine against Russian aggression. Before moving to vote, Mr Sheard led the Synod, standing, in a moment of prayer for peace.

The motion as amended was carried by 254-3, with two recorded abstentions:

That this Synod, recognising the ongoing suffering and terror caused by the war in Ukraine and the repercussions and anxiety felt globally for our common future:

(a) affirm with gratitude the churches work with others to support conflict parties and mediators and call for continued efforts to develop pathways to peace, justice and reconciliation in Ukraine;

(b) call on all parties to the conflict to ensure that everyone in Ukraine has full freedom to manifest and practice their religion or belief, in line with international human rights law;

(c) call on all UK political parties to set out ahead of the General Election their vision for a desirable international order and their strategies for ensuring that existing international rules and principles are attractive both domestically and to a broader global constituency.

(d) Call on all UK political parties to affirm their continued support for Ukraine until such time as a just and lasting peace is secured.

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