How the War Split the Church

Sergei Chapnin, journalist, publisher, church and public figure, discusses why the merging of ecclesiastical and secular power in Putin’s Russia leads to the collapse of both of them.

The Russian Orthodox church was never a monolith, although huge efforts to support the myth of the unity of the church were undertaken. Both in the Soviet and the post-Soviet times the mystical unity of the church had to be unconditionally accompanied by ideological unity. Patriarch Kirill demanded this especially harshly. No less harsh were his attempts to preserve the geographical unity: all countries in the post-Soviet space had to remain under his administration, even though they were awarded varying degrees of decision-making freedom.

Nonetheless, until recently the church resembled a layered cake – different groups that could not stand each other and occasionally were on the opposite ends of the ideological spectrum nonetheless found their niches and managed to coexist within one church.

The situation changed abruptly after the Russian invasion into Ukraine. Today we must discuss that the Russian church experienced a schism. Three camps emerged. The church establishment together with Patriarch Kirill factually blessed the war, separate self-conscious voices opposed the war and voiced their disagreement with the Patriarch’s position. Finally, the third, and, as always, the most populous group consists of those who remain silent and do not dare to say anything. The official church in Russia, without doubt or hesitation, proclaimed its solidarity with the regime of Putin, who launched the blood-spilling war with Ukraine and urges to pray for him daily.

This manifests most brightly in the sermons of the provincial clergy.

The priest Alizbar Orlov from Rostov Oblast openly preaches that the war waged by Russia has a religious justification: “What the Russian Army is doing now is cleansing the world of satanic illness, like it did many years ago. For eight long years Russia has called for peace, sense, conscience, but it was ridiculed and slandered by madmen. And now, when our soldiers, sacrificing themselves. are humanizing our neighbor, who became brash with overindulgence, the clanless brutes residing in Russia, who for eight years did not notice the murder of innocent people in Odessa, Mariupol, Kharkiv, Donetsk, Luhansk and the entire Malorossiya, are now hypocritically protesting, demanding peace for Ukraine, and factually approving the ill deeds of the Ukrainian authorities and the genocide of their own people”. And these “patriotic” sermons are heard quite often.

The capital clergy does not lag far behind. Here is what preaches archpriest Alexandr Shargunov, one of the popular Moscow sermonists: “What is happening today in Ukraine is not just anti-Russia, the resistance of the Ukrainian people poisoned with propaganda of hatred towards Russians, not just a geopolitical and economic war of the West and America against Russians, but a spiritual war. Its meaning is to destroy man as a spiritual and moral phenomenon, to establish ubiquitous freedom from God’s commandments, and the madness of Sodom and Gomorrah as the norm, and to turn Orthodox Christianity into an exterior visual”.

Unfortunately, I cannot say that this is a selection of the most radical Orthodox preachers, who do not reflect the general attitude of the church. Patriarch Kirill is saying roughly the same.

The day before the Great Fast, when the Ukrainian cities were already under fire, and first civilian victims were reported, Patriarch Kirill delivered a sermon which has shocked many:

“In Donbass, there exists a rejection, a principal rejection of the so-called values that are today offered by those who aim for power over the world. There is a test today for the loyalty to that power, a certain ticket to that “happy” world, the world of excessive consumption, the world of surface-level “freedom”. Do you know what this test is? This test is simple and simultaneously terrible – it is a gay pride parade. The requirement that many hold gay pride parades is the loyalty test for that powerful world: and we know that if people or countries reject these requirements, they do not enter that world, they become foreign to it.”

Patriarch Kirill goes further and drags his congregation into a dangerous venture, claiming that “we have entered the fight which carries not just a physical, but a metaphysical meaning.”

In other words, the official church sermons support and fully justify the war. Such a sermon fully corresponds to the establishments of state propaganda: moreover, the sermons become yet another form of that same propaganda. Invasion in Ukraine occurs under the slogans of saving “the Russian world”, which is threatened by the forces that reject traditional values and “hold gay pride parades”.

The Russian Army is out to cleanse not just Ukraine, but the rest of the world from “satanic illness”

However, the official church goes much further. Those who preach on the war say that it carries a “metaphysical meaning”, becomes “a spiritual war”. The Russian Army is out to cleanse not just Ukraine, but the rest of the world from “satanic illness”.

The total justification of the war leads to the formation of the main argument: Russia, fulfilling its messianic task, has begun a holy war against the forces of evil, the visual representation of which became its brother country, Ukraine.

This position shocked not just the other Orthodox churches, but the entire Christian world. The address of american Archbishop Elpidophoros (Ecumenical Patriarchate), who does not define Russia as Putin’s regime but rather separates them, sounded clear and harsh: “We find ourselves in deep pain and sorrow of soul over the horror that has ensued from the invasion of Ukraine. I do not say, “Russia,” because many thousands of the Russian people are protesting this unprovoked and unreasonable attack at risk to their own lives and freedom. This attack must be squarely set upon the shoulders of Vladimir Putin, who is risking global peace for his own selfish political agenda.

In his conversation with Patriarch Kirill on March 16th, Pope Francis highlighted that “as pastors, it is our duty to be close and help all people who are suffering from the war. There was a time, even in our Churches, when people spoke of a holy war or a just war. Today we cannot speak in this manner. A Christian awareness of the importance of peace has developed. Wars are always unjust, since it is the people of God who pay. Our hearts cannot but weep before the children and women killed, along with all the victims of war. War is never the way. The Spirit that unites us asks us as shepherds to help the peoples who suffer from war..” These words sounded like a direct criticism of Patriarch Kirill, but Kirill himself ignored it and hypocritically claimed that both in his conversation with the Pope and with the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, “there emerged a significant level of agreement and understanding”.

However, while Patriarch Kirill is trying to convince everyone of his significant level of agreement with the rest of the Christian world, the understanding that the Patriarch’s position contradicts the Gospels and cannot be justified is spreading wider and wider.

17 eparchies of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church already refused to mention the name of Patriarch Kirill in their services as a sign of protest against the Patriarch’s pro-Putin position. The congregation of the Russian Orthodox Church in Amsterdam announced that it is going to distance itself “from the description of the events (war in Ukraine – “Reforum”), which was stated by Patriarch Kirill”.

The first decision was to stop mentioning the name of Patriarch Kirill during services, following “the example of the Orthodox clergy in Ukraine, which in bigger and bigger proportions stopped mentioning Patriarch Kirill in prayer”. However, in the aftermath of the threats, which were voiced towards the church’s clergy by archbishop Elisei (Ganaba), the congregation counsel made the decision to leave the Moscow Patriarchate.

The episcopate of the Russian Orthodox Church kept its silence the longest. However, on March 17th, Metropolitan Bishop of Vilnius and Lithuania Innokenti delivered a sincere and harsh statement: “The position of the Orthodox Church in Lithuania remains the same – we resolutely condemn the war waged by Russia against Ukraine and pray to God that is stops as soon as possible. As you might have already noticed, I and Patriarch Kirill have different political views and different perceptions of current events. His political statements about the war in Ukraine are a matter of his personal opinion. We in Lithuania do not agree with them.

The moral bankruptcy of Patriarch Kirill and the entire official church in Russia is an obligatory consequence of the excessively tight collaboration with the Putin regime

The majority of the Russian church remains silent; and yet the borders of the schism are already visible. On social media, one can more and more often come across the despondent commentary of worshippers that it is difficult for them to attend churches where the name of Patriarch Kirill is mentioned, and this is exactly because of his approval of the unjust war. In private correspondence, priests admit that they are thinking about not just about stopping the mentioning of the Patriarch’s name in prayer (this can be done relatively quickly after consulting with the congregation and receiving their support), but also about transferring to a different jurisdiction. Unfortunately, this is not possible in Russia yet; but now there is a demand.

The moral bankruptcy of Patriarch Kirill and the entire official church in Russia is an obligatory consequence of the excessively tight collaboration with the Putin regime. The church aimed to become a reliable ideological buttress for the Kremlin’s imperial ambitions and received generous funding in exchange for preaching on patriotism, “the Russian world”, and traditional values. For a long time, the collaboration was mutually beneficial. However, it is now clear that the money that the church received from the state was not just dirty. The price was the price of blood.

The blood of the war’s innocent victims is on the hands of Patriarch Kirill. And he will not be able to wash it off.

It is too early to discuss what will happen to the Russian Orthodox Church next, but the official Church of Patriarch Kirill will fall together with Putin’s regime.