Ecclesiology, Inter-Orthodox Relations, Religion and Conflict

Should Orthodox Christians Leave Patriarch Kirill to Caesar? A Response to Fr. John Chryssavgis

Published on: May 31, 2024
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Since the recent article by my deeply respected friend and teacher Fr. John Chryssavgis caused heated arguments, I, as a Ukrainian, would like to respond by clarifying certain issues, expressing my appreciation, and presenting criticism.

The most important points that Fr. John makes are the following: (1) that church and world are not two separate realities because Christians are part and parcel of the wider society; (2) that therefore, the duty of the church (and not only the “world”) is to boldly recognize Kirill as a criminal involved in the severe social injustice of war; (3) that such a recognition should bear consequences for both church and society, unlike in the case of condemning him as a “heretic,” which would remain an internal church matter with little relevance to the wider human community; (4) that the state of things in Orthodoxy is such that Kirill’s perverted ideas and attitudes can be found in other Orthodox leaders; sadly, our Orthodoxy breeds such “kirills”—and it is for this reason that other Orthodox primates, with the exception of Bartholomew, are unable to stand against the Russian criminal patriarch as he is.

The last point is what the title of Fr. John’s article implies. He is essentially saying that even if members of a synod of an Orthodox church, or a synaxis of primates of local Orthodox churches, or even a pan-Orthodox council recognize Kirill as a heretic (“throw a stone of heresy” at him) but do not recognize their own “Byzantine” imperial ambitions, Kirill would only become a scapegoat, while the problem would persist in the church. The article ends with a sad and somewhat ironic observation that this matter should be, perhaps, “left to bishops,” who can do nothing but pray for Kirill, seeing themselves in him “as if in a mirror.” But what Fr. John is actually saying is that the criminal and ungodly patriarch, who is worse than a heretic since he hardly believes in God at all, should be rather condemned by a “Caesar” because the paralyzed church of Kirill’s “minions” is totally incapable of addressing the problem. Overall, I take Fr. John’s text as an expression of his mourning over our church reality today and an attempt to bring the issue out into the open.

Sharing Fr. John’s concerns and appreciating his intentions, I must admit that his last paragraphs create ambiguities, which I cannot ignore and leave unattended. First, it sounds like because virtually everybody is like Kirill, nothing can and should be done about him by the body of the faithful, but prayer. Second, it sounds like commemorating a war criminal as patriarch during wartime paradoxically falls into the pious reconciliatory tradition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, for which Kirill should be grateful. And finally, it sounds like those theologians who seriously analyze and criticize Kirill’s theological statements as heretical fall into the same category as bishops, who should refrain from casting stones of heresy against Kirill because he is essentially one of them. I do not believe Fr. John really thinks so, but I think we cannot afford to dwell on those ambiguities during wartime.  

Recognizing the fact that Kirill is not alone in his mindset should not, under any pretext, even seemingly relativize his actual responsibility. Even though we are all sinners and often think “heretically,” there is a difference between thoughts, words, and actions. The difference between church leaders and members contemplating neo-imperialist ideas versus someone blessing real-time murder in Ukraine is hundreds of thousands of lives lost in this war. Moreover, the “difference in degree” of a crime or sin does matter in any justice system, be it secular or ecclesial, with respect to the corresponding penalty for the crime/sin. For example, even while “looking upon a woman with desire” is equated by our Lord with adultery, nobody would defrock a priest for looking upon a woman with desire, while adultery would be a different story. As for the sin of “neo-imperialism,” I disagree with Fr. John’s addition of Ukraine to the list of Orthodox nations contaminated with the “great idea,” even though I am certainly aware of many problems in Ukrainian Orthodoxy. For historic reasons and due to Ukraine’s multireligious and multiconfessional context, an idea of “great Orthodox Ukraine” stretching over other countries’ territories has hardly ever been the case and is certainly not the case now, when the nation is simply striving to survive the Russian genocide.

The reference to sinfulness of all Orthodox as a possible excuse for inaction in the church—except prayer—sounds problematic to me as well. Fr. John was the main force behind the document “For the Life of the World. Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church (FLOW),” which I had the honor of translating into Ukrainian and even Russian. Its most inspiring aspect and its difference from the Bases of the Social Concept of the Russian Orthodox Church (which denies the possibility of building the church’s social teaching around the human person due to humans’ predisposition to sin) is the fact that its authors believe that humans can positively act in the world, despite their sinfulness: “On the path to communion with God, it is humanity’s vocation not merely to accept—but rather to bless, elevate, and transfigure—this world, so that its intrinsic goodness may be revealed even amidst its fallenness.” (§ 4). The fact that we are all sinners, without exception—clergy and laity, patriarchs and monks, men and women—does not cancel the fact that it is our responsibility, as Christians, to not only pray for those who fall, but also to address individual and structural injustices in the church with our actions, from within the church itself. In the end, Christ was not silent in front of the pharisees; he did not leave their case to Caesar; before they crucified him, he was openly criticising both their ways and the wickedness of their teachings as compared to God’s law.

Commenting on how Orthodox Christians should treat perpetrators of crimes against children (and in my opinion, the victims of this war in Ukraine can be compared to such children), FLOW states: “Neither should any priest ever grant absolution to the perpetrator of such a crime [against a child] until the latter has surrendered himself or herself to criminal prosecution.” (§16). The church, in view of the document’s authors, should not grant absolution and allow communion to a sinner who has committed a crime against a child. How can we then possibly tolerate and commemorate a war criminal as a patriarch while he does not even think of repentance? It is as if Judas would not hang himself and would not repent, but returned to the Apostles—and they would make him chair of the largest Christian diocese because they all felt no one was perfect, so to speak…

When Fr. John rightly says that “as Orthodox Churches and Orthodox Christians, we are called to do more than condemn or refrain from commemorating a dishonorable leader [Kirill],” the problem is that he has not been condemned and he is still commemorated in the church. For this reason, “more” here sounds like “instead,” even if Fr. John did not mean it that way, and feels very painful and incredibly hard to accept in Ukraine.

I understand that the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its leader, Patriarch Bartholomew—who alone, out of all other Orthodox primates, continues condemning Kirill in his sermons and public speeches—probably feels helpless to do anything on a bigger scale without the participation of other Orthodox hierarchs who prefer to leave things as they are. But in my opinion, this should not lead to the conclusion that we—as Orthodox Christians—can only pray (which is, however, very important) and wait until the Caesar—and not the church—finally does something about the criminal patriarch. On the contrary, I believe that we should emphasize that Kirill’s preaching and behavior are deeply erroneous from the strictly Christian point of view– which has already been done by Sr Vassa (Larin), Dr. Serhii Shumylo, Rev. Prof. Brandon Gallaher, Rev. Dr. Cyril Hovorun and other theologians, to some of whom Fr. John refers at the beginning of his article. Unfortunately, this is far from self-evident for too many Christians worldwide, even though I strongly agree with the point that together with the secular society, the church needs to recognize him as a criminal political bully. And if other church leaders are sharing Kirill’s mindset to a certain extent, if others are indeed “small kirills” bred by global Orthodoxy, this effort could become even greater. From inside Ukraine, at least, we simply cannot be silent.

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

About author

  • Lidiya Lozova

    British Academy Fellow in the Theology and Religion Department, University of Exeter

    Lidiya Lozova defended her doctoral thesis in History and Theory of Culture/Art History at the Modern Art Research Institute of the National Academy of Art of Ukraine in 2015 in Kyiv. Her dissertation examined the theological dimension of the Leningrad School of Avantgarde Art from the 1920s-1960s. ...

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Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in the articles on this website are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

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