Nationalised churches can be worse than no churches at all

Patriarch Kirill of the effectively nationalised Russian Orthodox Church, not only refuses to condemn the crimes against humanity perpetrated in Ukraine by his long-standing friend Vladimir Putin: he has described the war (without even using the word “war”) as part of an imagined and imaginary struggle against sin and pressure from liberal foreigners to hold “gay parades” as the price of admission to their ranks.

Kirill, in a ridiculous sermon delivered before the start of the Orthodox Lent, repeated Mr Putin’s false allegation that Ukraine had been “exterminating” Russian loyalists in Donbas, the breakaway eastern region held since 2014 by two Russian-backed separatist groups. 

The Patriarch somehow failed to mention that it is not only the largely Russophone eastern regions of Ukraine – Donetsk and Lugansk – that the Russian army has invaded, but the whole of Ukraine. He also somehow neglected to make any reference to the relentless and indiscriminate bombardment of civilian targets, including homes and maternity hospitals.

Kirill paints the war in spiritual terms. Like other leaders of nationalised churches from King Henry VIII in Tudor Britain to Xi Jin-Ping, to whom the Holy See under its current management has culpably ceded the right to appoint Catholic bishops, he dresses up his totalitarian tendencies in mystical gobbledegook, saying: “We have entered into a struggle that has not a physical, but a metaphysical significance.”

His pretext for the war – er, sorry, make that “military rescue mission” – Is that some of the Communist separatists in Donbas are suffering for their “fundamental rejection of the so-called values that are offered today by those who claim world power.”

He says that this “world power” – implicitly the hated West – is setting a test for the loyalty of aspiring nations by demanding they hold “gay pride parades” as part of the price for membership of the free world, with its “excess consumption”.

In return, many bishops in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church have authorised their priests not to commemorate Patriarch Kirill in their prayers during church services. This is a striking and welcome departure from Orthodox tradition, which expects the faithful not to express public dissent from their divinely ordained hierarchy.

Since the war began, some 15 dioceses of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine had authorised the omission of the patriarch’s name from the bidding prayers.

The Rev. Mykola Danilevich, a spokesman for the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, has confirmed that “many of our priests have stopped commemorating the Moscow Patriarch for worship services. And the reason is obvious. The treacherous open invasion of Ukraine is a great mistake on Russia’s part … One has not heard from the patriarch an authoritative moral assessment of this war, nor any appeal from him to stop this madness.”

Clergy in at least two dioceses — Lviv and Volodymyr-Volynskaare — are calling for independence from Muscovocentric Russian Orthodoxy.

Archbishop Daniel of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA rightly characterised Patriarch Kirill’s latest remarks as “incomprehensible.” He says: “Regardless of our beliefs, and regardless of our stance on social and moral issues, you cannot use that as a propaganda tool to justify the Russian invasion and the slaughter of innocent people.”

Professor The Rev. John Burgess of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary the author of Holy Rus: The Rebirth of Orthodoxy in the New Russia, says many Orthodox and other religious conservatives, including those in Ukraine, share Patriarch Kirill’s stance on sexual ethics.

Of course we do. As this column has argued before, the Biblical proscription of homosexuality on grounds of the medical and psychiatric harm that it causes is no more susceptible of repeal than any other truth of the faith. 

Where we disagree with the Patriarch is that we do not contrive bogus moral equivalences. Homosexuality is indeed intrinsice inhonestum. Like any other intrinsic wrong, it is wrong because it causes harm, and the measure of its wrong is the measure of the harm it causes, a harm that is clearer and better-understood than ever thanks to modern statistical and epidemiological analysis. And we are not created to harm or be harmed, but to love and be loved – and, for that matter, to love homosexuals just as we love everyone else.

But the fact that in the West leftist illiberalism tends not merely to permit but even to promote homosexuality cannot by any stretch of even the most febrile patriarchal imagination be regarded or presented as a legitimate pretext for invading a country whose people have freely chosen their own government, and who would prefer to be closer to the West, leftist illiberalism, gay shame marches and all, than to the grim, custard-faced totalitarians who recaptured the Kremlin for Communism in 2000 following Mr Putin’s silent coup against Boris Yeltsin.

As it stands, Patriarch Kirill’s remarks lay him open to charges of having acted and spoken as an accessory during and after the fact of genocide. He may yet find himself alongside Mr Putin in the dock at the Hague, being shown videos of refugees fleeing by the millions, women and children in maternity hospitals being blown to smithereens, an ancient civilisation stamped out by bombs, missiles and chemical weapons, just as the equally hideous masters of the Tausendjahriges Reich were made to watch films of the corpses of women and children piled high in the abattoirs delicately described as “concentration camps”.

The penalty for the crime of genocide should be today as it was after the Nuremberg trials. That penalty is death. Patriarch Kirill’s beard and cassock are no defence. If Quislings such as he, in positions of lay as well as ecclesiastical authority, had not cringed and connived and capitulated and collaborated with the Putin regime, the Kremlin might well have thought better of its decision to invade someone else’s country on the flimsy pretext that once it was part of Russia. 

However, one outstanding and unqualified good has emerged from the slaughter in Ukraine: the courage of its President and people. It will be long remembered, it will resound down the centuries, it will be admired when we are all long gone, and it will not prove to have been in vain.