On May 11th, 2023, Moscow priest John Koval was defrocked by the ecclesiastical court after being suspended by Patriarch Kirill in February of the same year. His offense was replacing the word “victory” with “peace” in the “Prayer for Holy Rus'” mandated by the Patriarchate of Moscow to be included in all litanies. The “offensive” line read, “O Lord, help your people and grant us peace by your might.” The priest was reported to church authorities by a patriotic altar server, leading to his suspension and eventual defrocking. The official reason given was the violation of his priestly vows.
As of February 2023, the Russian war against Ukraine had been ongoing for nine years, having started with the annexation of Crimea in February of 2014 and the “hybrid war” in the east of Ukraine in April of the same year. During this time, the Russian government and Russian Church worked in concert to tighten their hold on opposition to Russian aggression. The Moscow Patriarchate (MP) unequivocally supported the “reunification with Crimea” and “aid to the Russian people in Donbass” and used various disciplinary measures against clergy members who did not conform to this official line. However, until February 2023, these measures remained relatively mild, stopping short of suspensions and defrockings.
For the majority of these nine years, the American churches remained silent on the events, with the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) officially supporting the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the omophorion of Metropolitan Onufriy, maintaining friendly relations with the Moscow Patriarchate, and refusing to comment publicly on Russian actions in and against Ukraine. It is worth noting that calls for intercession on behalf of Ukrainian war prisoners such as Nadiezhda Savchenko or Oleg Sentsov, who endured imprisonment and great suffering in Russia, went unheeded.
After the beginning of the full-scale invasion, the OCA was finally forced to make anti-war statements. The first one, issued by Metropolitan Tikhon on February 24th, was so anodyne as to say practically nothing: “In light of the distressing developments in Ukraine affecting millions of innocent people in the region, I wholeheartedly urge you to pray for peace and the well-being of our brothers and sisters who are enduring this tragic moment.” “Distressing developments” referred to the full-scale military invasion and shelling of residential areas in Ukrainian cities, including Kyiv. Following the public outcry of dismay, the OCA Synod released a stronger statement a few days later, identifying the war as “the war of aggression waged by the Russian Federation against Ukraine.” It is worth noting that both statements expressed solidarity with Metropolitan Onufriy of Kyiv and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, pointedly refraining from mentioning the rest of the Ukrainian faithful, especially the autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine and its primate, Metropolitan Epiphanius. Even in the face of the genocidal war and the scandalous support that the Moscow Patriarchate and Patriarch Kirill personally offer to President Putin, the OCA continues to toe the Moscow political line, never mentioning any of the other Ukrainian religious communities and not commemorating Metropolitan Epiphanius in the diptychs.
In June 2022, Archpriest Denis Bradley published an open letter to the OCA Synod, decrying its cowardly and morally ambiguous stance. The letter had significant public resonance, but, again, there was no official reaction from the Synod. None of the talks or statements of the American bishops mention Patriarch Kirill by name, despite the growing corpus of his statements directly blessing the war and encouraging the Russian military.
In November 2022, the author of this text, together with Archpriest Andrei Tregubov, proposed a resolution at the annual meeting of the Diocese of New England unreservedly condemning Russia’s war against Ukraine and the ideological support by the hierarchs and clergy of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) for this war. However, the resolution was not brought to the floor. Metropolitan Tikhon, who is acting as Locum Tenens of New England, responded to the proposed resolution, stating that it was not within the purview of the diocese to make such statements and that the Holy Synod was working on a stronger statement addressing the Russian Church. As of the writing of this article, we are still waiting.
In the meantime, as the full-scale invasion begins, persecutions against those who protest the war in Russia have started in earnest. Along with the violent suppression of any public protests, new court cases and enormous prison sentences for anyone daring to express anti-war sentiments on social media or in private conversations have become almost daily occurrences. The scale of these repressions, designed to instill widespread terror in Russian society, is beginning to resemble the Stalin-era purges. The Russian Church is consistently aiding the regime by waging its own persecution of clergy who do not toe the aggressive pro-war line of the Patriarchate. At times, the Church even denounces its own clergy to the state so that judicial action can be taken. The website “Christians Against the War” links to a list prepared by the Belarusian Christian Ecumenical Group “Christian Vision” called “Persecution of Christians by Religious and State Authorities for Anti-War Stance or Support of Ukraine.” This list is growing every day. Among the more notorious cases are the suspension of Archpriest Andrey Kordochkin, rector of a parish in Madrid, Spain, and a known anti-war writer, and the recent defrocking of Protodeacon Andrey Kuraev, a onetime supporter of Patriarch Kirill who turned outspoken critic of the policies of the Moscow Patriarchate. As of the writing of this letter, the list contains 61 names, with the largest segment represented by clergy of the ROC.
Despite these ongoing and widespread persecutions, the Holy Synod of the OCA continues to maintain silence. Worse, it has adopted the policy of accepting petitions from Russian clergy seeking reception into the OCA only with canonical release from the MP. This absurd stance toward political refugees implicitly demonstrates an alliance with the Russian Church.
Moreover, there has not been a single synodal statement from any jurisdiction addressing any of the scandalous and ultimately heretical pronouncements from the primate of the Russian Church and its hierarchs. Beginning with the infamous sermon on Forgiveness Sunday on March 6, 2022, in which Patriarch Kirill stated that the war against Ukraine was a struggle of “metaphysical significance” against gay parades (sic), and including the recent openly heretical pronouncement that the sins of Russian soldiers killed in battle will be forgiven, every subsequent pro-war public statement by the ROC hierarchy becomes increasingly absurd and scandalous. One would expect other Orthodox synods, at least those that are not dependent on the Moscow Patriarchate or the Russian state, to raise their voices in protest. After all, it is the job of the bishops to “rightly divide the word of God’s truth,” as we pray at every Divine Liturgy. However, it appears that considerations of realpolitik and the inability to address any real challenge outside the safe confines of customary “social ills” render the institutional Church completely numb.
In a recent essay on Public Orthodoxy, Father Robert Arida raised the question of the post-war future for the Orthodox Church. With every passing day of inaction, with every subsequent martyr like Father John Koval, the institutional Orthodox Church shows the world it is meant to serve that it has utterly lost its salt. The question before us now is whether any of this salt can be recovered or whether we will become nothing more than a vestige of historical pageants in ostentatious costumes, while the Spirit dwells elsewhere.
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