How should the world’s largest collection of Christian traditions respond to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine?
That’s the question being asked of the World Council of Churches, the interchurch grouping of Christian denominations from across the globe formed in the aftermath of World War II. Long seen as the pinnacle of the ecumenical movement, the nearly 75-year-old group has been roiled by debate lately over whether it should suspend the membership of the Russian Orthodox Church after the ROC’s leader, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, voiced support for the war and arguably laid the spiritual groundwork for Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion.
To better understand this global discussion, Religion News Service spoke with Bishop Mary Ann Swenson, a United Methodist in the U.S. who serves on the WCC’s executive committee and works as a vice moderator for the group’s central committee—the body that could decide whether to expel the ROC when it meets in June.
“It’s delicate with the Moscow Patriarchate. We’re going to try our best to be about reconciliation and unity, ” Swenson said. “These next few months really will be critical,” as the WCC executive committee and then the in-person Central Committee prepare to meet.
There are about 352 member churches of the World Council of Churches and 150 members within the Central Committee, which has at least 25% Orthodox members, according to Swenson.
“The Orthodox community is very, very important in the World Council of Churches,” Swenson emphasized.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
There’s been debate around expelling the Russian Orthodox Church from the World Council of Churches. The effort is primarily rooted in frustration with Patriarch Kirill over his blessing—literally or figuratively—for the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What are your feelings on those calls to expel the ROC?
Father (Ioan) Sauca, in his role as the acting general secretary (of the WCC), wrote to His Holiness Kirill, saying the whole world was looking for a sign of hope, for a peaceful solution. He encouraged His Holiness to address Putin and to end the violence. He said at that time that letters were coming to him from all different parts of the world—from church leaders and from faithful constituents—asking the World Council of Churches to approach His Holiness, to mediate, to help stop the war and all of the great suffering that was happening.
Related: U.S. Christian Leaders Ask Russian Orthodox Patriarch to Speak Out, ‘Reconsider’ Comments on Ukraine (Mar. 15, 2022)
One time (the WCC) put a church on suspension—the Dutch Reformed Church, because that was the time of apartheid. But on all other occasions—and there have been other occasions, with different wars and countries and divisions and issues of oppression, some really difficult times historically—the World Council of Churches has tried to continue dialogue. It has tried to keep from actually expelling anybody, and really staying in dialogue with people on the very different sides of each other.
But the current situation is really about the Orthodox. What’s happening right now is so painful for so many who are the Orthodox faithful. Yet we really remain committed to reconciliation and to the theme of our (upcoming) assembly: “Christ’s Love Moves the World to Reconciliation and Unity.” At present, the Russian Orthodox Church is a member church and the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (which broke away from the ROC in 2019) is asking to become a new member church—so we’re beginning to work with that membership. They’re all invited to come to the assembly.
One of our earliest general secretaries was Willem Adolph Visser ‘t Hooft—our hall is named after him. He brought, in his time, churches from the Soviet bloc to the World Council of Churches, despite their support of the communist ideology and the totalitarian regimes. Those churches learned so much and gained so much because of the international fellowship of the World Council of Churches.
So that’s a historic rationale.
Can you say more about the work of the WCC on this issue?
In March, there was a joint delegation from the World Council of Churches and from Act Alliance that visited Hungary, Ukraine, and Romania to accompany first responders that were trying to help in humanitarian efforts. Then the first lady of Ukraine, Olena Zelenska, wrote to our general secretary and asked the World Council of Churches to try to mediate different agencies helping in the humanitarian efforts. We’ve followed up by convening a roundtable, bringing leaders from the neighboring countries and trying to bring leaders from both Ukraine and Russia to try to talk about a way to go forward in peace. But as you know, it hasn’t happened yet.
I need to tell you, since I am a United Methodist bishop, about the realities for us who are United Methodist. We have a United Methodist bishop, Bishop Eduard Khegay, in Moscow. He has the supervisory responsibility, spiritual leadership, and servant leadership for all of our United Methodist churches in Russia and Ukraine. I see him on Zoom regularly, and we continue to support as a denomination our work with the United Methodist Committee on Relief—efforts for refugees and the people suffering, but also supporting him and other Christians in Ukraine and in Russia as they try to live their way through the crisis.
All that is to say, we’re leading up to an in-person Central Committee meeting, and the people will have all kinds of opinions from all kinds of countries in the world.
There has been concern from analysts that Kirill, in particular, may have used the World Council of Churches over the past 10 years to legitimize some of the soft-power efforts of the Russian Orthodox Church, particularly in Eastern Europe. Is there any concern about that dynamic?
We are committed to the peacemaking, but you and I know that peace without justice is not peace. We have to stand for justice in our efforts of peacemaking.
The World Council of Churches has a Thursdays in Black campaign, and we all wear black on Thursdays to raise awareness about ending violence and rape against women and to stand in solidarity with women who experienced violence. That spreads over to what we have to do now with the Moscow Patriarchate.
There are Russian Orthodox priests and leaders who have tried to stand up in opposition to what His Holiness has said, to stand up on behalf of peace and to speak out against what the Moscow patriarch is doing in their support of Putin and his war.
Looking ahead at 2022, what do you see as the purpose of the World Council of Churches at this point in world history?
The World Council of Churches was formed to be a fellowship of churches, to say the Christian community in the world could work to promote peace. When I came to the assembly in Korea in 2013, the theme that year was “God of life, lead us to justice and peace.” So when we formed the Central Committee at our first meeting in 2014, we formed it to continue during the years ahead, to walk together on a pilgrimage of justice and peace. That, over the last eight years, has really been a primary focus for the World Council of Churches.
One of the things that’s happened in this pilgrimage of justice and peace is that as we have gone to different places in the world, we have gone to celebrate the giftedness of wherever we were, and to visit the wounds and to listen to the woundedness. Then we work as advocates for greater Christian discipleship so we can truly grow as disciples for the transformation of the world. That’s really been the purpose of the work.
Preparing for this next assembly, we are really focusing on love—the general secretary, he gave an incredible presentation about love and the fellowship of the churches. It became clear that the theme for this next assembly is “Christ’s love moves the world to reconciliation and unity.” I believe in the world right now, as we’re dealing with what’s happening with Russia’s invasion in Ukraine, (there is a) need for us throughout the world as a Christian community to stand with people who are suffering so we can move the world to reconciliation and unity.
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