To my surprise, the name of a Russian Orthodox archpriest was on the speakers list of an annual retreat for Dutch national church leaders this week. In these days of anti-Russian sentiment, how he would be received? What had he come to say?
Little did I expect that many participants would view the archpriest’s talk as highlight of the event. The occasion was the National Christian Forum, convening forty leaders of denominations and interconfessional organisations from Pentecostal to Orthodox, including migrant churches, for fellowship and dialogue. It began over a decade ago when a representative of the Protestant Churches of the Netherlands asked forgiveness of Dutch Pentecostal leaders for his church’s critical and negative attitudes. This provoked a reciprocal response, and led to a nation-wide manifestation in The Hague, ‘We choose for unity’, attended by thousands of Christians from various churches. Reflections from members of various church streams (Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, pentecostal and migrant, to name some) are followed at the retreat by small group interaction and one-on-one interaction. Often these discussions are the first time people have deeply conversed with others outside their own ‘bubble’, Pentecostals with Catholics or even mainstream protestants, and vice versa.
Certainly for many, engaging with a personal acquaintance of Moscow Patriarch Kirill, archpriest Theodoor van der Voort (72), with white beard, black robes and a large silver cross on a chain, would be a new experience. Reflecting on the oldest Christian confession, “Jesus Christ is Lord”, the archpriest opened by singing the Orthodox liturgical morning prayer, ‘The Lord our God is over all the peoples’. On the one hand this was an exaltation of the Lord of the Universe, he explained; at the same time, an accusation against rulers who divided and subjected peoples, while claiming God for their own purposes. It was a complaint against injustices and a prayer for God’s righteousness to break through.
With passion and conviction, he led us through Psalm 118, pausing at verse 17: I will not die but live, and will proclaim what the Lord has done.… That verse, he said, would be on his funeral card.
Answering the question in everyone’s minds, he went on to explain his views on the Russian invasion of Ukraine. A Dutchman now responsible for the Russian Orthodox Church parish in Deventer, he had studied under the current archpatriarch Kirill in Leningrad (St Petersburg) from 1974-77 in the theological academy. He had also met him personally on several later occasions, most recently just three years ago. “I knew him as someone who had a concern for people,” he explained before adding: “When I heard that he supported this war to save humanity from a so-called sinful and secular Ukraine, I just cried. Kirill so disappointed me. How can someone with his reputation, background and spiritual history lose the way? What possesses him? I can only guess.”
Expressing his confusion about what is happening in Ukraine now, he explained: “In the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow the flags of the countries belonging to the canonical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate are displayed – including the Ukrainian flag. Then, if a war breaks out in the area of the Moscow Patriarchate, you can expect an ecclesiastical dignitary to want to end that battle as soon as possible. Because it is people from your church who are fighting among themselves there. It is not a mere skirmish. You see upheaval and devastation in Ukraine. People’s lives are being disrupted and destroyed! Cities levelled! Kirill must know that. Yet on March 6, on the occasion of Forgiveness Sunday, he said: ‘You in Ukraine are now having some problems with the military operation, but on the other hand, you are now free from the gay parade.’ It is understandable that as a church you don’t want to know anything about that gay parade. But there are no deaths. And does it justify a merciless military intervention?”
Over 100 Ukrainian Orthodox Church bishops belong to the Moscow Patriarchate, many of whom were ordained by Kirill himself. “In January he was still standing at the altar with some of these bishops. Now he just drops them. The bishops see their churches are being destroyed, believers are being maimed and killed, refugees are forced to flee. It’s unbelievable that Kirill can ignore that so easily.”
An open letter signed by Russian Orthodox priests in both Russia and Ukraine had been sent early in the war to the patriarch, he explained. It referred to God’s call to Cain after killing his brother: ‘Where is your brother Abel?’ For what was happening was, of course, fratricide. The signatories were commanded to withdraw their signatures. Some did, but numbers of Russian priests fled to Western Europe.
His own church in Deventer has been collecting money and goods to send to Ukraine.
Till next week,