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In the name of Kyrill



Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow has received much justified criticism for aligning his Church alongside Vladimir Putin in the invasion of Ukraine. If we are to understand how he could think it is right to do so, however, it is helpful to know how he came to be Kyrill. Just before his ordination as a priest the Bishop named him Kyrill after St Cyril the philosopher, who was the Apostle to the Slavic peoples in the ninth century. This Cyril, too, was given his name when he became a monk. He in turn was most likely named after St Cyril of Alexandria, who with St Athanasius is seen as one of the two pillars of the Orthodox Church. His feast occurs on June 27. The story of the two earlier Cyrils illuminate the conduct of the present Patriarch of Moscow. 

The ninth century Cyril was born in Thessalonika and educated and ordained in Constantinople. His first appointment was to teach philosophy in the Seminary, where he was given missions to distant tribes. Later the Patriarch of Constantinople sent him to preach the Gospel to the Slavs. This mission was delicate because both the Western and the Eastern Churches were sending missionaries there. At issue was whether they should use the Slavonic language or Latin. The ruler of the Slav area to which Cyril, and later his brother Methodius went insisted that it should be Slavonic. Cyril learned the language and invented the Cyrillic script in which to translate the Christian books.

When criticised by missionaries from present day Germany for his use of the Slav language Cyril travelled to Rome to win the support of the Pope who had authority over the Western missionaries. The Pope gave it and continued to support his mission and the use of the Slavonic liturgy during later feuds between rulers and church leaders. As a result Cyril and Methodius are recognised by Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches as apostles to the Slavs and the founders of the Churches. Cyril’s policy was to recognise and work with secular and other church authorities in his mission. His critics often accused him of selling out.

The fifth century Cyril was Patriarch of Alexandria, a great Church as important as those of Rome and Constantinople. He had a troop of 300 bodyguards, and a reputation for autocracy. He was also a fine theologian and writer. He had to deal with the Emperor in Constantinople and other Patriarchs, some as imperious as he was, in disputes about faith. He usually finished on the winning side, but often alienated his opponents. Like the later Cyril he accepted the partnership between Church and Empire and the God-given duty of the Emperor to protect the unity of the Church and its faith.


'To encourage wars, as in the Crusades in the West, or in the making and continuance of modern war with its destructive consequences, is inconsistent with the Gospel and with any respect for human life. Patriarch Kyrill inherited the challenge of relating to rulers that faced his predecessor Cyrils but went far beyond them in identifying himself and his Church with the war making of the Russian ruler.' 


The Orthodox Churches have inherited a tradition in which the ruler and the Church work together in shaping a Christian society. Its problems arise when rulers lead the nation in ways that contradict the Christian Gospel. This problem is not confined to the Orthodox Churches. Pius XII faced it in the choice between denouncing or being relatively silent about the persecution of the Jewish people under Hitler. He has been strongly criticized for his silence. When the Dutch Bishops spoke out strongly, however, the Nazis retaliated by rounding up 40,000 Jews in Holland. When other people pay the costs for the decisions you make, you bear a heavy burden.

Patriarch Kyrill inherited the tradition of cooperating with rulers and the lessons learned under Stalin. Like Cyril the Philosopher in his relationship with the Roman Church he sought and promoted contact with Western churches when working with the World Council of Churches and its ecumenical initiatives. But he is unimpressed by the separation of Church and government in the West and what he sees as the corruption Western churches and societies. After being elected Patriarch of Moscow he has focused on the mission of the Orthodox Church to preserve the faith of the Church and the preeminence of the Moscow Patriarchate in that mission. He has followed his namesake Saints in the Orthodox Church in stressing the need of the Church to work with rulers together in strengthening the Church. In that policy he has enjoyed the support of Putin for himself and for the Church. For him that includes bringing into unity with the Russian Church the Orthodox Churches of Ukraine.

The relationship between the Churches of Ukraine and Russia has been central to Kyrill, as it has been over many centuries to both Churches, and so to the Governments of each region. Kyiv is regarded as the historical centre of Orthodoxy associated with Cyril and Methodius, and hence to the culture of both Ukraine and Russia. The Ukrainian congregations and Church members, too, are now more numerous than those in Russia. Assimilated into the Russian Church during the Soviet Union, it was later named the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate, but co-existed with independent Ukrainian churches surviving from earlier divisions and conflicts with Russia. The latter were combined in 2018 under the Patriarchate of Constantinople and given autonomy, so cancelling a decision taken in a 1686 Synod to subordinate them to the Russian Patriarch. This group has grown in strength during the tension with Russia. From Kyrill’s perspective, then, the Russian invasion came at a time when the Church in Ukraine was increasingly schismatic in its tendency, abetted by the Orthodox Church of Constantinople and vulnerable to the corruption of the West. It could be seen as a God given opportunity to unify the Churches within the Moscow Patriarchy and to strengthen the place of the faith in Russian life.

To understand is not to condone. The relations between churches and rulers have always been fraught. Church leaders need to find a way to co-exist with rulers and at the same time to proclaim and live by the Gospel. To encourage wars, as in the Crusades in the West, or in the making and continuance of modern war with its destructive consequences, is inconsistent with the Gospel and with any respect for human life. Patriarch Kyrill inherited the challenge of relating to rulers that faced his predecessor Cyrils but went far beyond them in identifying himself and his Church with the war making of the Russian ruler. 





Andrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street, and writer at Jesuit Social Services.

Main image: Patriarch Kyrill. (Photo by Dima Korotayev/Epsilon/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Kirill, Kyrill, Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch, Cyril



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Existing comments

In one of his more memorable chest-beating displays as our Prime Minister Tony Abbott spoke about shirt-fronting Vladimir Putin. A letter writer to the SMH wittily wrote about the likelihood of Putin’s “full metal jacket” response. That is the issue with iron-fisted rulers. There is great difficulty in opposing them. But religious leaders must firmly and humbly stand in opposition with only the armour of God.

Pam | 02 June 2022  

Putin and Kyrill? The blind leading the blind.
And the naïve Russian Orthodox Christians following, but not all. If any two people (in these last 10 years) have taken a stance against Jesus Christ and all He represents, here they are. Jesus came to abolish all man made ludicrous laws that desire to turn the king of death (Satan) into a superhero. The joke is on 'it' (yes, to me Satan is an 'it'), and they will soon find out, as do all seduced by 'it's' lies. Sad day when they will be made to SEE the ugliness of their dead souls.

PAX | 02 June 2022  

Interesting, just today by coincidence the EU excluded sanctioning Kyrill, after pressure from Hungarian PM Orban, in Euronews: 'Patriarch Kirill excluded from EU sanctions after Hungary’s objection' (2 June '22).

Further one would contest the idea that Abbott's public 'chest beating' displays regarding Putin were, that, serious?

As reported by Koziol in the SMH, many are attracted to such leaders in 'Why Australia's conservatives are finding friends in Hungary' (6 Oct '19).

Conservative academic journalist Anne Applebaum sent out a warning via Twitter to those visiting Hungary, and particular think tanks, to take care (3 April '22).

Andrew J. Smith | 03 June 2022  

As you point out, Andy, Patriarch Kyrill has an interesting history. Like many clerics who came up through the system in the former USSR, he may well have a KGB/FSB background. This is bizarre to us, but the norm in Russia. If so, that clarifies his close relationship to Putin. How he squares his conscience on these matters and how valid this is will be ultimately judged by the Almighty and we must leave that to Him. On the ground Kyrill supports the war in the Ukraine. That is not surprising for one of his background in his position. To speak out against this war would have serious, possibly fatal consequences. So here we have another 'kept' Patriarch morally rubber stamping the Russian President's actions. I do not think an end to the fighting will come through either Kyrill or Putin, nor do I think it will come from Zelensky and his cohort, melodramatically demanding more and more expensive modern weaponry to 'crush' Russia and more sanctions on Russian oil and gas exports. The economic consequences of this war are already colossal and long term. The worst affected are the poorest in Russia and the West. It has to stop.

Edward Fido | 03 June 2022  

Thanks for the background, Andy.

Three months after the war in Ukraine commenced the most useful and practical solution has been mooted by that old rascal, Henry Kissinger, who suggests that the two autonomous Eastern regions of Donetsk and Luhansk be ceded to Russia. This makes great practical sense as over very many years of internal migration the majority there are Russian Orthodox. I feel sure that Patriarch Kyrill is as aware of this as Urban II was in calling for the Crusades.

Its a pity that Church leaders should identify themselves so closely with the nation-state but one unfortunate consequence of forsaking the papacy is that they became Erastian churches, associated with nation-building, still in the bizarre process of unfolding in Eastern Europe and the Horn of Africa. An overlay of separate religious identity in these regions makes for a cauldron, 'innit'?

I thought it an historical contradiction, when +Rowan Williams, the former Anglican Primate, was reported recently in the Church Times as recommending that +Kyrill be expelled from the WCC. Well do I remember Anglican divines, except +Trevor Huddlestone, of an earlier era blessing the unjust wars of British imperialism as they advanced inexorably into India and Africa.

Michael Furtado | 03 June 2022  

‘But he is unimpressed by the separation of Church and government in the West and what he sees as the corruption [of?/in?] Western churches and societies.’

I suppose, like a broken clock, even a false prophet can be correct twice a day.

Like the world of which it is in but not of, Church should be in Government but not of it. Any other mode of separation is false.

roy chen yee | 03 June 2022  

There is no doubt there is collusion between Vlad the Impaler and Kyrill - with the latter endorsing his delusions of grandeur and belief that he he is a reincarnation of Tsar Nicholas, (who slaughtered his own troops when they refused to swear an oath of loyalty). As with Nicholas, Russia under Putin has become an intellectual and moral wasteland and the vast palace Putin has built in Crimea with its toilet brushes of solid gold makes Alexander Palace look like a peasant's hut.

"Every war results from the struggle for markets and spheres of influence, and every war is sold to the public by professional liars and totally sincere religious maniacs, as a Holy Crusade to save God and Goodness from Satan and Evil." Robert Anton Wilson

Francis Armstrong | 07 June 2022  

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