World Council of Churches faces calls to expel Russian Orthodox Church

(RNS) – The World Council of Churches is under pressure to oust the Russian Orthodox Church from its ranks, with critics claiming that the head of the Church, Patriarch Kirill, invalidated its membership by supporting the invasion of the Ukraine by Russia and involving the Church in the global political machinations of Russian President Vladimir Putin.

The debate prompted a response on Monday (April 11) from the Rev. Ioan Sauca, acting general secretary of the WCC, which claims 352 member churches representing some 580 million Christians worldwide.

Sauca, a Romanian Orthodox priest who has visited Ukrainian refugees and publicly criticized Kirill’s response to the invasion, pushed back against the suggestion to expel the ROC, arguing it would deviate from the historic mission. of the WCC to strengthen ecumenical dialogue.

“It is easy to exclude, to excommunicate, to demonize; but we are called as COE to use a free and safe platform for meeting and dialogue, to meet and listen to each other even if and when we disagree,” Sauca said in a lengthy series. statements posted on the WCC website.

“It has always been the WCC, and I would suffer greatly if during my tenure that calling were lost and the nature of the WCC changed.”

But Sauca could face growing headwinds as the WCC, a global Christian ecumenical group founded in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II, prepares for a major meeting of its central committee in June. As war continues to rage in Ukraine, where Russian forces are accused of committing war crimes against civilians, a growing chorus of Christian voices question whether the WCC should sever its ties with what is seen as an accomplice ROC.

RELATED: How Putin’s invasion became a holy war for Russia

In late March, Czech theologian, pastor and ecumenical leader Pavel Cerný published an op-ed insisting that the ROC had long sought to use the WCC for its own purposes. Following Kirill’s support for the invasion of Ukraine, Cerný said that “the ROC should not be allowed to continue as a member of the COE until it turns away from this false path of nationalism. religious”.

Two days later, the Reverend Rob Schenck, an evangelical Christian and president of the Dietrich Bonhoeffer Institute in Washington, DC, published his own op-ed in the Religion News Service calling on the WCC to sanction Kirill and calling him “a propaganda tool for Putin.

Russian President Vladimir Putin, center, and Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill applaud during the unveiling ceremony of a monument to Vladimir the Great on National Unity Day outside the Kremlin in Moscow, Russia, on Friday November 4, 2016. (AP Photo/Alexander Zemlianichenko)

“Supporters of the effort to oust Kirill from the WCC believe he has disqualified the church entity he embodies by effectively endorsing Putin’s military campaign to annex Ukraine and failing to oppose violence consequent mass action against a peaceful nation,” Schenck wrote. “Putin’s bloody conflict, primarily between Christians and Christians, not only subverts the WCC’s mission statement, it is in stark contradiction to Jesus’ priestly prayer to his Heavenly Father, that they be one as we are one. ” (John 17:11b).”

Schenck was picked up shortly after by former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams, a former leader of the Anglican Communion, who told the BBC there were “strong arguments” for withdrawing the Russian Church from the WCC.

“Where a church actively supports aggressive warfare, failing to condemn the patently obvious failings in any type of wartime ethical conduct, then other churches have a right to raise the issue and challenge the church and to say, ‘Unless you can say … something recognizably Christian about it, we have to review your membership,’ Williams said.

The pushback is part of a wider wave of criticism directed at Kirill, who has long backed Putin’s political ambitions and laid the spiritual groundwork to justify Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. His rhetoric since the start of the invasion – such as calling Russia’s enemies in Ukraine “evil forces” and suggesting that the war is part of a larger “metaphysical” battle against the West and “gay parades ” – stoked the indignation of religious leaders around the world. , including Sauca himself.

Ioan Sauca, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, June 24, 2021. Photo Ivars Kupcis/WCC

Ioan Sauca, general secretary of the World Council of Churches, June 24, 2021. Photo Ivars Kupcis/WCC

“I am writing to Your Holiness as the acting general secretary of the WCC but also as an Orthodox priest,” Sauca wrote in an open letter to Kirill in March. “Please raise your voice and speak on behalf of the suffering brothers and sisters, most of whom are also faithful members of our Orthodox Church.”

Kirill, who has otherwise said little about the criticism leveled at him, responded to Sauca a few days later – but appeared unresponsive to his arguments. Instead, Kirill doubled down: the patriarch asserted that the responsibility for the war lies not with Russia but “with relations between the West and Russia”.

The dialogue was in line with a sometimes strained relationship between the ROC and WCC that dates back decades. In fact, the Russian Orthodox Church once threatened to withdraw from the WCC in 1997: the then representative of the ROC accused the WCC of going in an overly liberal direction, decrying “their acceptance of female priests”. and “their attitude towards homosexuals. ”

RELATED: US Christian leaders urge Kirill to speak out and ‘reconsider’ comments on Ukraine

Sarah Riccardi-Swartz, scholar of the Russian Orthodox Church and postdoctoral fellow at Arizona State University’s Recovering Truth: Religion, Journalism, and Democracy in a Post-Truth project, highlighted “ecumenical politics, The egalitarian and often progressive WCC has been at odds with the strident social policy and moral worldview of the ROC.

Even so, recent divisions within the wider Orthodox Christian community – particularly tensions between Kirill and Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople of the Eastern Orthodox Church – raise the stakes of a departure from the WCC. Many ROC churches in Ukraine declared independence from the church in 2018, and divisions have deepened since the invasion: some Russian Orthodox churches in Ukraine have stopped commemorating Kirill during their worship services or have discussed breaking up, and at least one ROC church in Amsterdam has begun the process of coming out of the tradition.

“The question of leaving or continuing with the ROC is partly linked to the larger question of intra-Orthodox communion,” Riccardi-Swartz told RNS. “Leaving the WCC could signal the tightening of the internal theological machinery of the ROC, signaling a potential schism with the wider Orthodox world.”

George E. Demacopoulos, professor of theology and director of the Center for Orthodox Christian Studies at Fordham University, agreed.

The ROC’s “desire to remain in the WCC, despite its constant rhetorical protestations that anything Western is bad, is that other Orthodox Churches are active there and it does not want to be left out,” said Demacopoulos in an email. “He doesn’t want Roman Catholics or Anglicans or anyone else… to speak for Orthodoxy, they want to be spokespersons for Orthodoxy, even though the reality is that they only speak for the institutional shell of the Russian Church.”

The WCC convened a special Ukraine-themed roundtable at the end of March. Although representatives of Ukraine and Russia were unable to attend, the assembled group issued a statement denouncing “the military aggression launched by the leadership of the Russian Federation against the people of the sovereign nation of Ukraine” and affirming the right of Ukrainians to “defend themselves against this aggression.

“We share the firm belief that there is no legitimate way to justify or tolerate this armed aggression and its terrible consequences from the point of view of our most fundamental tenets of Christian faith,” the statement said.

Meanwhile, Kirill continues to face a fierce backlash from a wide range of Christian leaders ranging from Pope Francis to some of the Patriarch’s own Russian Orthodox priests.

As for the issue of expulsion, a WCC spokesperson told RNS that only the group’s central committee, which meets in Geneva from June 15-18, can expel a member denomination. The basis for suspension is outlined in the WCC constitution: “The central committee may suspend membership of a church: (i) at the request of the church; (ii) because the theological basis or criteria for membership have not been maintained by that church or; (iii) because the church has consistently neglected its membership responsibilities.

In recent statements, Sauca noted that COE expulsions are rare. He pointed to past debates, such as when leaders discussed whether to suppress the Dutch Reformed Church because of its support for apartheid in South Africa. Ultimately, he said, the church severed its ties with the WCC on its own, only to be re-admitted later.

He noted that there had also been fierce debate over the first Gulf War when WCC leaders met in 1991, with much criticism from Church of England delegations and US-based churches. United.

“The WCC did not opt ​​for a radical solution or decide to exclude these churches,” Sauca said.

The only church to have been removed from the WCC in recent years, he noted, is the Kimbanguist Church, a tradition based in the Democratic Republic of Congo which the WCC has suspended over disagreements over its interpretation of the Trinity, a Christian concept relating to the nature of God.

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