Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine has caught the attention of the public for multiple reasons. The humanitarian catastrophe, the sheer horror of ceaseless shelling, the shooting of protesters in the streets, the attacks on nuclear plants, the threats to assassinate President Zelensky and other leaders, and the war on democracy.
One of the underreported consequences of Russia’s attack is the betrayal, isolation, and devastation of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church-Moscow Patriarchate (UOC-MP). UOC-MP clergy, faithful, and property are also under attack. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine surprised many, including Metropolitan Onufry, the primate of the UOC-MP. The tone of Metropolitan Onufry’s appeals to President Putin has been urgent, and his pleas continue to go unheeded. Patriarch Kirill of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) repeated his appeal for the unity of the Russian Church, anchored in the indivisibility of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus as one people – a historical narrative he shares with Putin. In a rambling sermon on Cheesefare Sunday, Patriarch Kirill justified the invasion of Ukraine by complaining about gay parades and repeating Putin’s assertion that Ukraine has slaughtered the people of Donbas for eight years.
The ROC’s abandonment of the UOC-MP has led it to a crossroads. Bishops and clergy in Ukraine, witnessing to devastation and brutality, called for an immediate stoppage of commemorating Patriarch Kirill in the Liturgy. This act is essentially a form of protest, and not a break in communion, as long as Metropolitan Onufry continues to commemorate Kirill. The angry letter sent by Metropolitan Evlogy of Sumy did not escape the ROC’s notice, however. The ROC warned Metropolitan Evlogy that failing to commemorate the patriarch at Liturgy was a violation of the canons.
For centuries, the Orthodox Church has taken the side of its state leadership in times of war, and the further it departed from the pacifism of the first centuries of Christianity, the more militant the rhetoric of the Church became. But the tragic events of the twentieth century posed questions for the Church to answer. The first question concerned the reaction to the end of the First World War and the Bolshevik coup in Russia. It was in the 1920s that the first timid pronouncements about the unacceptability of war and the traitorous position of the Church hierarchy, priesthood, and laity who supported this massacre appeared.
A second challenge came with the church policy of Nazi Germany, which for over a decade determined the fate of German Protestantism. Of the more than 18,000 pastors, only 3,000 formed a Confessing Church, 700 of whom were arrested. Among those who did not accept the dictatorship for religious reasons was the new martyr Alexander Schmorel, canonized by ROCOR in 2007.
Since then, Europe has hardly been shaken by major military conflicts. But that all changed on 24 February 2022, when the large-scale invasion of Ukraine began. The result was an anti-war movement both inside and outside Russia. In the first few days of the conflict most of the laity and clergy expected the position of Patriarch Kirill to be critical of the invasion. Instead, he delivered a political sermon in which he spoke about the imposition of “Western values” on the inhabitants of south-eastern Ukraine and stressed that there is no forgiveness without justice: “But forgiveness without justice is surrender and weakness. Therefore, forgiveness must be accompanied by the indispensable right to stand on the side of light, on the side of God’s truth.”
In a famous scene from A Man for All Seasons, Thomas More defended his silence on the Act of Supremacy by citing a maxim of the law, “Qui tacet consentire videtur” (Silence betokens consent). His argument was that by saying nothing, the court must assume he agreed with the Act regardless of whatever his private opinions may be. Today, as the representatives of the Orthodox Church of America (OCA) stand silently by and concelebrate with Patriarch Kirill while he blesses Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the question must again be asked—Does the church’s silence betoken its consent?
There is no doubt that the OCA has been in a delicate position since the war began. The ties that bind the OCA to Moscow are strong, as it was the Moscow Patriarchate that granted the OCA its autocephality in 1970 despite the Ecumenical Patriarch’s refusal to acknowledge it. When the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (UOC) was granted autocephality by Patriarch Bartholomew in 2019, the OCA continued to recognize Metropolitan Onufriy of the Moscow Patriarchate, although (unlike Moscow) it did not cut off communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch as a result.
If you stand before the iconostasis of St. Nicholas Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Manhattan, the representation church of the Moscow Patriarchate to the Orthodox Church in America, you will see an old and ornate cross perched behind the altar table. First placed there nearly 120 years ago, it is an artifact of another moment in which the diplomatic and foreign policy goals of the Russian state were intertwined with the transnational reach of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The cross was first obtained for the chapel of the Retvizan, a Russian battleship built in a Philadelphia shipyard between 1899 and 1902. During its construction, Orthodox clergy in nearby New York came to know the ship’s personnel. When the cornerstone was blessed for the new St. Nicholas church in early 1901, the officers and sailors of the Retvizan formed a choir under the direction of the parish sacristan, Father Ilia Zotikov, and sang the liturgical responses. They also donated funds to the building project. Several months later, Bishop Tikhon (Bellavin) returned the favor, traveling to Philadelphia to consecrate the ship’s chapel. In 1904, when the Retvizan was damaged at the outset of the Russo-Japanese War, the ties that bound the ship and its crew to Orthodox leaders in North America proved as strong as ever. Responding to a telegram from Tikhon expressing concern for the ship’s crew, their commander wrote to request “the prayers of your Grace to God to grant us strength to be of comfort to our country.”