RSS Feed

Ukraine and Russia, Church and State, and Hope, Prayer and Action

Ukraine and Russia, Church and State, and Hope, Prayer and Action

The Rt Revd Dr Dagmar Winter, Bishop of Huntingdon's Presidential Address (edited for the Diocesan website) at Ely Diocesan Synod on 5th March 2022.

The Invasion of Ukraine and the Religio-Nationalist Background[1]

The images on our screen are awful, reminding us of WWII.

There is a religious dimension to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which may in some quarters give rise to that old chestnut that religion is the cause of all wars. (John Lennon: “Imagine … and no religion, too.”) Religion is closely tied up with expressions of identity and what we hold most precious. Given human nature with its hunger for power, taking institutional religion away will not cause the end to all war.

The central question in the current war is whether the church and people of Ukraine are or are not part of the church and people of Russia. Some history will help.

The Baptism of Rus’

In the tenth century a pagan Slavic people known as the Kievan Rus’ lived in present day Russia, Belarus and Ukraine. In c 988 St Vladimir, the ruler of the Rus’, converted to Christianity, was baptised and brought the rest of the people to baptism also. This event is known as the ‘Baptism of Rus’ and occurred in or near Kyiv. This is seen to the present day as a watershed moment in Russian history and one which, in the minds of some, unites the people of Russia, Belarus and Ukraine as the successors of the Kievan Rus’ and as a single, Orthodox Christian Russian people. Such is the importance of Vladimir that he is given the epithet ‘Equal to the Apostles’. (Note Putin’s Christian name!) Also, as Kyiv was the centre of the lands of the Rus’, it has a special status in Russian self-identity.

Over the next few hundred years empires came and went, peoples moved around and borders changed. In the sixteenth century a part of the church in modern-day western Ukraine came into communion with Rome.

The Rise of Moscow and of the Ottomans

The next important date is 1686 and there are two different understandings and interpretations of what happened. (Disputes over what happened at this time formed the basis of the arguments in 2018 about the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.)

One side of the story is that, with the expansion of the Ottoman Empire the Ecumenical Patriarch was not able to get to Kyiv for the consecration of a new Metropolitan and so asked the Patriarch of Moscow (the Moscow Patriarchate had been granted autocephaly – that is self-government - in 1589) to do so, but without the assumption that the church in Ukraine would become dependent on Moscow. The other side of the story is that, for whatever reason, the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1689 transferred authority over the Ukrainian Church to Moscow. Practically speaking, Kyiv did begin to look ecclesiastically to Russia and the difficulty of communication with Constantinople in Ottoman times to some extent forced this.

Modern day Ukraine and the Decree of Autocephaly

In more recent history the territory currently covered by Ukraine has, like much of central and eastern Europe, been controlled by different powers, not least the Soviet Union under which the church was oppressed. There were moves in the early 1990s to set up an independent Orthodox Church in Ukraine (the Kyiv Patriarchate), which led to one split with Moscow.

After the annexation of Crimea in 2014 President Poroshenko of Ukraine was instrumental in pushing for a decisive break with Moscow and the establishment of a self-governing (autocephalous) Orthodox Church of Ukraine. This happened in 2018 when the Holy Synod of Constantinople decided that the Ecumenical Patriarch should grant a ‘tomos’ (decree) of autocephaly and erect the new church under the leadership of Metropolitan Epiphany of Kyiv. This move caused a new schism between Moscow and Constantinople.

Ukraine and Russia – Church and State

We see in Ukraine and Russia a clash of two world views in which statehood, nation and church are united.

In the Russian view as expressed (pretty much directly) by President Putin and Patriarch Kirill, Russia is seen [to] include Ukraine as one people in one church and, as essentially one nation, the descendants of Rus’, who naturally look to Moscow for civil and religious leadership.

Ukraine of course sees itself as a sovereign state with territory, borders and a distinct national identity and view of history. For example, Moscow was not even founded until nearly two centuries after the Baptism of Rus’. The independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine from Moscow is part of the evidence for this wider independence and natural, given that most (if not all) sovereign nations in the traditional orthodox territories have their autocephalous churches.

Meanwhile the Moscow Patriarchate is heightening further conflict with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. By ignoring the rule that you should not trespass on another’s jurisdiction, Moscow is setting up in Africa and offering material rewards to churches of the Patriarchate of Alexandria (which comes under the Constantinople Patriarchate) if they join Moscow. This is a significant flexing and expanding of Russian muscle, an ecclesiological echo of the invasion of Ukraine.

The Russian Church does not have a tradition of speaking truth to power. A particularly unpalatable aspect is the way that the Moscow Patriarch Kirill appears to be literally in Putin’s pay. He, Kirill, has been quoted urging Russian soldiers to fight, to use more high-tech equipment to protect the Fatherland while he himself has been shown to display and then attempt to hide the wearing of very high-end luxury items.

This is what happens when a church loses its critical distance from statehood and nationhood and conflates them with church and faith. There is here a literally hopeless tangle: of faith and historic ethno-nationalist identity, of theological/ecclesiological issues and acquisitive desire for influence, land, resources and people.

We should applaud those courageous Russian Orthodox priests who have voiced their protest against the war and their church’s support of it.

The Church’s Social and Political Mission – The German Christians

Historical comparisons are always problematic and bound to be wrong at some level, nonetheless, the example of German Christians springs to mind who under Hitler totally bought into the idea of a new dawn under German Christianity, a vile religious version of fascism.

Various important theological statements have been made, including the famous Barmen Declaration of 1934, but today I would like to quote from the Darmstädter Wort issued in 1947 in the post-war ruins.

Despite some of its shortcomings, I believe it still has a poignant message for us about the church’s social and political mission, not least for our day where society is plagued both by political apathy and significant polarization.

“Through Jesus Christ joyous liberation befalls us, liberation from the godless ties of this world in order to liberate us for free and grateful service to his creatures.

Do not let despair overwhelm you for Christ is Lord.

Say goodbye to all faithless indifference, do not allow yourselves to be seduced by dreams of a better past …, but in your freedom and in great sobriety be aware of your responsibility which all of us have for the building up of a better polity which serves the rule of law, welfare, peace and reconciliation of the peoples.

Seek first the Kingdom of God.”[2]

Our Anxieties and our Focus this Lent

The situation in Ukraine makes us feel so helpless. What can we do?

There is so much anxiety around: the pandemic, climate change, migration, the economy, and now the nightmare in Ukraine.

While applauding and appreciating the flow of information and the work of brave journalists who bring us the news, I don’t think it’s helpful for us or indeed for our children to expose ourselves to the endless torturous images of the wall-to-wall coverage. It will only either desensitize us or suck us into some black mental hole or both. I am concerned what this is doing to the mental health of our community, including especially children, where many have already suffered with lockdown isolation and pandemic fears.

Seek first the kingdom of God.

Following the tenets of the Christian faith, we hold to the truth of the ultimate weakness of the display of aggression.

I think it is not a distraction but essential that we should focus and refocus on the teaching of the Christian faith (Mt 28:16-20), on the values that have eternal quality: truth, freedom, justice, compassion, human dignity, respect, faith, hope and love.

This Lent, I would suggest to you, is a time in which to discover or rediscover how the church can be a school for discipleship, or a school of virtue.

And this Lent might just challenge us how serious we are about the fruits of our faith, indeed, its virtues.

Although Ukraine is a fair distance away, the conflict will undoubtedly affect us over the next few years, even if warfare is contained within the current region. We are interconnected through the international markets for goods from energy to arables, and the UNHCR estimates there could be 4 million refugees, maybe more. We cannot allow Ukraine’s neighbours to shoulder that alone.

Will we share supplies, accept restrictions and losses, offer hospitality directly or indirectly, will we encourage our politicians that we’re up for it – without the burdens only being born by those who are weakest in our midst, already battered by the current economic crisis?

Nurturing Hope

We feel powerless but powerlessness is where the Christian story begins. Remember the story of the passion, the cruel torture?

And because we have a Lord who was caught up in simmering and often violent conflict between his people and an occupying force, we know that hope is mostly not a victory march but a small, whispered Hallelujah. Sustained by the love divine we encounter in Christ, a love that does not waiver. The journey is from Lent to Easter.

Hope means believing in spite of the evidence and then waiting and working for the evidence to change.

This includes listening for the voices of hope in our midst and encouraging them, the faithful committed work of people happening in parishes and projects, networks and communities.

When we pray to be generous and visible people of Jesus Christ, can we pray this Lent to learn to be a non-anxious and hopeful presence in this troubled world, because we know that what we hold dear, truth, freedom, justice, compassion, human dignity, respect, faith, hope and love, have an eternal quality that evil acts like brutal invasions and indiscriminate bombings will never have.

Of course we must keep ourselves informed of what is happening. But our focus should be:

“Whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8)

It is our job to promote this in everything we do and say, often implicitly and sometimes explicitly.

So what can we do?

Pray – keep an eye on the website of the Diocese in Europe.

As I understand, the most effective way at the moment of supporting refugees and displaced people from Ukraine is by donating money to one of the experienced relief agencies.

Local capacity for effective logistics has well reached its limit in the difficult circumstances, and loads of generous uncoordinated trucks arriving is not as helpful as it may seem to us.

We all want to help personally and tangibly, but for the time being, the best and most effective help we can provide is by donating to the Disasters Emergency Committee (note this is how the Red Cross asks for donations), or the Joint Emergency Appeal by the Church of England Diocese in Europe and USPG.

Note that the UK Government have said they will match public donations (pound for pound up to £20 million) to the Disasters Emergency Committee.

You can also support Christ Church Kyiv here (name Christ Church Kyiv). And you can send supportive messages to them on social media.

Write to your MP about visa flexibility for refugees.

Finally, we do well to remember the unspeakable suffering of so many peoples, in Yemen or Sudan, the Uigur in China, Syrians – the list, sadly, is very long.

Let us pray for ourselves as with and for all those caught up in horrific violence and warfare around the world:

O GOD, from whom all holy desires, all good counsels, and all just works do proceed:

Give unto thy servants that peace which the world cannot give;

that both our hearts may be set to obey thy commandments, and also that by thee we being defended from the fear of our enemies may pass our time in rest and quietness;

through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour.


[1] I acknowledge and am grateful for a Briefing by the Archbishop’s Ecumenical Adviser, Will Adam, on the historical developments.

[2] Translation DW.


Page last updated: Friday 11th March 2022 9:24 AM
First published on: 10th March 2022
Powered by Church Edit