Churchmen in Moscow and London are negotiating far more effectively than their governments. But are they doing God's work, or Putin's?by Michael Binyon / January 24, 2018 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2018 issue of Prospect Magazine
Shrewd politicians “don’t do God,” but perhaps wise diplomats should. Certainly, that is what the state of Anglo-Russian relations suggests. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson’s chaotic visit to his Russian counterpart in December could hardly be counted a resounding success. Official state-to-state connections between London and Moscow are in tatters, as icy as during parts of the Cold War. But when it comes to communication between the countries’ religious leaders, a definite rapprochement is underway.
Patriarch Kirill made his first visit to Britain as head of the Russian Orthodox Church in 2016, when he came to celebrate the 300th anniversary of a Russian church in London. Things went well. Kirill was granted an audience with the Queen. Skilfully, he asked to see her as the head of one church visiting the head of another: the monarch is technically at the helm of the Church of England. She was, apparently, also eager to see him and they had a half-hour meeting at Buckingham Palace. Moscow must have been delighted.
Then, in late 2017, came the return visit. Justin Welby, the Archbishop of Canterbury, made a ground-breaking journey to Moscow for talks with Kirill, a trip I made with him. Its ostensible rationale was to underline the anguish of both churches concerning Christians in the Middle East, where hundreds of thousands have fled attacks and killings by Islamist extremists. It duly produced a call for world leaders to end the “mass killings, the barbaric destruction of churches, the desecration of holy sites and the mass expulsion of millions of people from their homes.” But it also did diplomatic work—acknowledging, indirectly, that Russia now plays a serious political and military role in the region, and that Russian Orthodoxy is the faith to which many Middle Eastern Christians are most closely aligned.
When Welby visited Russia, there was even the thought that he might call on Vladimir Putin. But the Russian president was not available: at the time he was meeting Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, whom he has propped up with devastating effect since 2015, and then holding a summit with the presidents of Turkey and Iran to discuss Syria’s future.