Since the beginning of the war, it’s even uglier. He delivered a sermon calling on Russians to rally behind the authorities and “repel both external and internal enemies”. In another, he compared the battle to the struggle between the church and the antichrist. He said that the war for “Holy Russia” has a “metaphysical significance”, the conquest of Ukraine a matter of eternal salvation. For good measure, he also said that part of what Russian forces are battling is the horrible possibility of gay pride parades. Many oligarchs were canceled for less.
The problem with targeting religious leaders is that they don’t just have yachts the police can seize or overflight rights the government can revoke. In the United States, where the Orthodox Church in America is officially split from Moscow (and critical of the war), there aren’t even many places where activists could protest a cleric’s sermon aligned with Kiril. In Russia itself, a group of Orthodox priests signed a letter opposing the invasion. Outside of Russia, it was largely other religious leaders who took the patriarch to task.
And in the United States, an evangelical minister named Rob Schenck, who heads a small DC-based institute named after martyred anti-Nazi theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, has championed another venue to express his displeasure: He helped organize a campaign to obtain the Russian Orthodox Church. Church expelled from the World Council of Churches, the Geneva-based international organization founded after World War II to promote ecumenical understanding.
“Instead of the patriarch challenging Putin and holding him accountable, he is essentially allowing him and offering him a moral imprimatur for the invasion of Ukraine,” says Schenck, an administrative bishop of the Methodist Evangelical Church and former conservative activist who later wrote a memoir of his journey in and out of the religious right. “He called it a religious war, the danger of Western liberalism and its encroachment on Orthodox culture. He made it a cultural war as much as a religious crusade.
Working with allies overseas, Schenck circulated letters, lobbied colleagues and attempted to squabble over the range of denominations that make up the world council. Prelates, including a former Archbishop of Canterbury, have embraced the idea and last week the organisation’s general secretary predicted it would be on the agenda for the next gathering. “What Rob and so many around the world are calling for, for the first time in Christian history as far as I know, is an ecumenical response to war,” says Michael Hanegan, an Oklahoma theologian and scholar Bonhoeffer who worked with Schenck.
But if losing McDonald’s or getting kicked out of SWIFT wasn’t going to deter Russia, would anyone really care if their national church was kicked out of a Kumbaya society of international religious yakkers – even one that poses as a sort of UN of churches?
Schenck says there is precedent (the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa resigned amid threats of expulsion for advocating apartheid) but also sees it as a matter of principle: “It violates the message , the very ministry and model of Christ himself. He rebuked his disciples when they took up the sword of violence.
Either way, it would also be another small example of decoupling between Russia and the wider international world. In this case, the broken relationship actually predates the end of the Cold War, dating back to 1961. At the time, the Soviet Union was officially atheist, but authorities had discovered that the church could sometimes be useful for maintain support. High clerics tended to have the blessing, so to speak, of the Kremlin – and the security services. The relationship went both ways. But the Church was always welcome in the WCC, where it reliably articulated Soviet positions. In 1971, Archimandrite Kirill became Moscow’s representative.
Religious policy, in fact, has taken into account the situation in Ukraine in several ways, most of which have not received much attention in the United States. on the chart, was made autocephalous, or able to govern itself, much like the churches in a number of other independent countries. The move caused a major rift in relations between the Russian Church and the Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch, traditionally the figurehead of Eastern Orthodoxy. (The Orthodox Church in America has been officially autocephalous since 1970; its official statement on the invasion of Ukraine calls it a “war of aggression waged by the Russian Federation.”)
Washington has never been a huge hub of interfaith statecraft, but Schenck, 63, says it’s the natural place for an outfit dedicated to fostering “morally courageous” leaders. “Bonhoeffer’s mission was to persuade government actors as much as anyone else to do what is right, good and ethical,” he says. “I’ve been in Washington for 30 years and I know the lay of the land. I know the actors and the players. So many denominations have their government relations offices here.
Schenck’s early years in the city carried quite different titles: a former Operation Rescue adviser, he was questioned by the Secret Service after confronting former President Bill Clinton about an abortion at a service of Christmas Eve at the National Cathedral. He also wrote a treatise linking the Second Amendment to the Ten Commandments. But he then had a second evangelical conversion and now supports gun control and Roe v. Wade. (Gun violence prevention is one of the thematic areas of the Bonhoeffer Institute.)
For the record, Schenck says his real goal is to see patriarch Kirill grow and change as well. “As Christians, we believe in repentance,” he says. “We believe in redressing his wrongdoings and in redemption. It doesn’t have to be a permanent expulsion.