In 1095, Pope Urban II told a large gathering of knights in Southern France that it was their responsibility to avenge the Islamic conquest of the Holy Land (he did not mention that the conquest had occurred nearly 500 years earlier). Urban’s sermon led to the First Crusade, and it forever changed the dynamics between Western Europe, Eastern Christianity, and the Islamic world.
From a Christian theological perspective, Urban introduced an entirely novel—some might say heretical—way of thinking about the relationship between Christian piety and violence. Near the end of his sermon, Urban declared, “Set out on this journey and you will obtain the remission of your sins and be sure of the incorruptible glory of the kingdom of heaven.”
For nearly a millennium, Orthodox Christians have condemned Urban’s perversion of Christian teaching, just as they have condemned the historical events that flowed from it (especially the Fourth Crusade, which destroyed Christian Byzantium). Given this backdrop, Patriarch Kirill’s most-recent effort to curry relevance in Putin’s Russia is nothing short of remarkable: Kirill declared in a recent sermon that Russian soldiers who die in Ukraine will have their sins forgiven.
War changes many things, primarily people’s minds, but also the usual flow of time. What takes years or even decades in peacetime takes a few months, or sometimes even days, during war.
On May 27, the Council of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC), the highest governing body of the church, after much debate, expressed its disagreement with Patriarch Kirill’s support for the war in Ukraine and adopted amendments to the Statute of the UOC, “Testifying to the full self-sufficiency and independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.”
It is beyond the scope of this report to analyze in detail the decisions of the UOC Council—not all of the documents have been published, nor have there been official statements from the hierarchy. My aim is to explain the logic of Metropolitan Onufry’s actions, because I hope that this will allow me to put the decisions of the Council of the UOC into the appropriate context.
After the communications breakdown between the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) over the status of the Orthodox Church in Ukraine, the issue of consensus in the Orthodox Church was of utmost importance. Moscow and Constantinople were questioned on whether they share the same ecclesiology, but the issue of resolving the schism of the Orthodox Church of North Macedonia (Macedonian church) has just arisen, giving new hope for the future.
Orthodox dioceses in North Macedonia were part of the Serbian Orthodox Church (SOC) until 1967. After the Second World War, the SOC was under the communist regime in Yugoslavia, and it could not act freely due to tremendous repression. During that period, the Orthodox dioceses in the territory of today’s North Macedonia unilaterally declared autocephaly from the SOC and started a schism. Because of that schism, the Macedonian church was for decades isolated and outside unity with all Orthodox churches.
There are very few occasions in our lives—critical, pivotal events—that are truly life-shattering. We Orthodox describe them as kairos moments. World War II was one of these. In my lifetime, there was 9/11. Institutions and individuals are defined by such moments. We might recall how the Roman Catholic Church failed to stand up to Mussolini and Hitler; thankfully there was the selflessness of Dietrich Bonhoeffer and his staunch resistance to Nazi dictatorship. Or we might remember the hostility and conspiracy spawned by the attack on the Twin Towers; thankfully there was the selflessness of first responders and sacrifice of those whose lives are memorialized at Ground Zero.
Among these moments, I would include the invasion of Russia in Ukraine—arguably a life-changing moment for the autocephalous churches that comprise global Orthodox Christianity. The recent meeting between Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church and Patriarch Porfirije of the Serbian Orthodox Church—where the latter was thanked for supporting victims of a war blessed by the former—was exasperatingly hypocritical and shameful. More than anything else, the episode is representative of the present decline of the Orthodox Church as an institution.