The Orthodox Christian world is often confusing to those on the outside. Western Christians might be drawn to its liturgy, its icons, and its spiritual traditions. But they are just as often perplexed by its web of jurisdictions and the wide variety of cultural and political contexts in which it exists. If you only know of the American expressions of Orthodox Christianity, you will be unable to comprehend the full variation of the lived experience of an Orthodox Christian who resides in Africa, or the Balkans or the Middle East, or Russia.
Because of this extraordinary diversity, there are very few events that bring a universal response from the Church’s institutional leaders. While Vladimir Putin’s monstrous invasion of Ukraine seems to be uniting the Orthodox Christian laity (including those inside Russia) in a sense of shared horror and concern, the crisis has not, as yet, led to any sort of consistent response from Orthodox bishops, apart from a general call for prayer and peace.
Since the invasion of Ukraine on February 24, leaders from at least eleven of the sixteen autocephalous (i.e., self-governing) Churches have issued formal statements regarding the war. Sifting through these statements, we find considerable variation: the ridiculous, the generic, the strident, and the surprising.
Let’s begin with the ridiculous. On the evening of February 24, Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow offered an address that simply parroted Russian state propaganda, which forbids describing the conflict as a war, an invasion, or an attack. Kyrill referred to the crisis as “current events” before beseeching both parties to avoid civilian casualties. As Sergei Chapnin, a former Russian Church insider, observed, Kyrill has effectively abandoned his pastoral responsibility by refusing to challenge Putin.
I can appreciate, of course, that it would be quite dangerous for Kyrill to cross Putin at this point. It would be far less dangerous for the leader of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (who resides in New York City) to do so. In a pastoral letter issued on February 24, Metropolitan Hilarion addressed events in “the Ukrainian land” (a deliberate slight that denies Ukraine’s sovereignty) and advised his flock to “refrain from excess watching of television, following newspapers or the internet” so to that they might “close their hearts to the passions ignited by the mass media.” To be clear, Hilarion is not the leader of an autocephalous Orthodox church; he presides over a jurisdiction subordinate to Moscow. But the utter failure of his letter to even acknowledge the war indicates the extent to which many of the leaders of the Russian Church (whether inside or outside of Russia) have been infected by Putin’s nationalist propaganda.