WCC Assembly Condemns Ukraine War, Elects Leaders

Delegates to the World Council of Churches assembly, September 2022 | Photo: Albin Hillert/WCC

By Mark Michael

The 11th Assembly of the World Council of Churches approved a statement condemning Russia’s war against Ukraine on September 8, the final day of their 10-day gathering in Karlsruhe, Germany. However, delegates from the WCC’s 352 member churches refused to single out the Russian Orthodox Church’s patriarch, Kirill, for condemnation, and ignored calls to expel the church from membership.

The statement “denounces this illegal and unjustifiable war” and calls for an immediate ceasefire, appealing for all involved in the conflict “to respect the principles of universal humanitarian law, including especially with regard to the protection of civilians and civilian infrastructure, and for the humane treatment of prisoners of war.” It also urges both sides to withdraw and refrain from conflict around the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant.

While not singling out Patriarch Kirill, the statement does reject “any misuse of religious language and authority to justify armed aggression and hatred.” Kirill has repeatedly justified the conflict using spiritually loaded terms like “Holy Rus” or “Russian world,” which suggest an intrinsic right of the Russian government to control Ukrainian territory because it is Russia’s spiritual motherland, the place where Orthodoxy was first adopted by the Russian people.

Kirill’s teaching was denounced as a heresy by hundreds of Orthodox theologians and scholars earlier this year. He was also officially sanctioned for his rhetoric by the United Kingdom in June, and similar action has been discussed by the European Union.

“The heads of the Russian Orthodox Church are currently leading their members and their entire church down a dangerous and indeed blasphemous path that goes against all that they believe,” said German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who addressed the assembly on August 31.

Religion News Service reported that Steinmeier also urged delegates to condemn “this nationalism, which arbitrarily claims that a dictatorship’s imperial dreams of hegemony are God’s will.” Noting the presence of Russian Orthodox delegates in the chamber, he urged others “not to spare them the truth about this brutal war and the criticism of the role of their church leaders.”

Roman Sigov, an observer delegate from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, criticized the statement as a weak response to the crisis. “I cannot express how much it hurts to hear a statement which treats the victim and the aggressor in the same way,” he said on the assembly floor. Delegates from the church, which broke away from the Moscow Patriarchate in 2018, submitted numerous comments on the draft, but only two minor wording changes were made.

Archimandrite Philaret Bulekov, a delegate from the Russian Orthodox Church, said the statement was merely part of “information war.” He likened it to anti-war statements issued by McDonald’s and Starbucks, saying it would have “the same level of importance.” Bulekov also described Steinmeier’s speech as “pathetic.”

Taking as its theme “Christ’s Love Moves the World to Reconciliation and Unity,” the assembly was addressed by numerous senior church leaders, including the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. The assembly also approved major statements calling for peace and reconciliation in the Middle East and urgent action on climate change.

The gathering issued its traditional Unity Statement, which affirmed the mutual commitment of member churches to working toward the visible unity of all Christians, and building together “a world respectful of the living earth, a world in which everyone has daily bread and life in abundance, a decolonized world, a more loving, harmonious, just, and peaceful world.”

The assembly elected the Rev. Prof. Jerry Pillay, dean of the faculty of theology and religion at the University of Pretoria, as its new secretary-general. Pillay is a minister of the United Presbyterian Church in Southern Africa. He will succeed the Rev. Prof. Ioan Sauca, a Romanian Orthodox theologian, who has held the role since 2020.

“I envision a united, flourishing, sustainable and contextually relevant WCC – praying, worshipping, witnessing and working together to impact and transform the world with God’s love, justice, peace, reconciliation and unity, participating in God’s reign on Earth and the fullness of life for all creation,” Pillay said in a speech at the assembly’s final plenary.

“Visible Christian unity is absolutely necessary to witness to a broken and suffering world. A divided Church is a weak and feeble witness to an already fragmented world,” he added, also affirming his commitment to “create safe spaces for honest, truthful and courageous conversations to encompass, understand and dialogue a variety of views.”

The body also elected members to its central committee, and eight regional presidents, including the Rt. Rev. Philip Wright, Anglican Bishop of Belize, who represents the Caribbean and Latin America region.

The World Council of Churches is a fellowship of Protestant and Orthodox churches from more than 120 countries, representing over 58 million Christians worldwide. The Roman Catholic Church, while not a member, participates actively in WCC gatherings, and sent 20 “delegated observers” to the Karlsruhe assembly.

The Episcopal Church had a delegation of four members to the assembly, The Rev. Yoimel Gonzalez Hernandez, associate rector of St Alban’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C.; the Rev. Milquella Mendoza, vicar of Iglesia San Esteban in San Pedro De Macoris, Dominican Republic; the Rev. Deborah Jackson, associate dean for community life at the University of the South’s School of Theology in Sewanee, Tennessee; and Julia Ayala Harris, president of the House of Deputies.

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