General Synod lament Russia invasion ukraine bishop leeds nick baines putin zelensky
Church of England

Synod to lament Russia’s invasion of Ukraine: where’s the condemnation?

There is a motion before the General Synod of the Church of England, proposed by the Bishop of Leeds, the Rt Rev’d Nick Baines, calling on Synod to “lament Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine”:
general synod motion war in ukraine lament condemn

This isn’t quite sufficiently robust for Fr. Marcus Walker of St Bartholomew’s in the Diocese of London, so he took to Twitter to demand a bit of ‘beefing up’ of the motion: “Anyone else at Synod think this motion on Ukraine isn’t good enough?” he roused. “We should be *condemning* not lamenting; we shouldn’t be telling others what to pray, but calling our own faithful to pray – and for Ukraine’s victory at that! We should recognise the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.”

He paused, and added: “Also, what is it with the Church of England and the word “lament”? It’s gone from never used to jargon in about two years. It’s used about Ukraine; in official reports; by bishops trying to pretend like they sympathise with churches they’ve chosen to close. But what does it mean?”

Times Diary Editor Patrick Kidd explained: “We only [use] such strong language as condemn about things that happened 200 years ago. See also ‘repent’.” Which was a little caustic, but not unreasonable when the Church of England is robust and unequivocal in its condemnation of the long-deceased who are tangentially smeared with a whiff of slavery, even to the point of tearing down their ancient funeral monuments, while a manifest and present evil is being poured upon the living in Ukraine, and the best the church can do is ‘lament’.

So it’s a fair question posed by Fr. Marcus.

Lamenting is weeping and wailing; it is sackcloth and ashes, the rending of garments and the tearing out of hair kind of stuff. It is inner passion and profound regret. It may be personal or corporate, but it is passive soul-making, in this case born of empathy with those who experience great suffering. There is nothing wrong with lamentation, of course: it has been experienced and expressed by the people of God since Israel first felt the desolation of Yahweh’s seeming abandonment. But Synod is not experiencing the absence of Jesus’ Spirit; and neither is Ukraine, though their undoubted feelings and thoughts of gloom, discouragement and sorrow will be a desolation indeed.

Is the task of Synod in this context to lament in essential consolation, or to condemn in the hope of purgation?

Condemnation is active censure, and even punitive action. It tends to demand consequences. The Rev’d Andrew Malcolm suggests:

That this Synod:

a) Condemns unequivocally Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine

b) Asks all Christians to pray for an end to the war

c) Encourages HMG in its efforts to end hostilities

d) Urges Church Commissioners to take a lead in financial support of those fleeing Ukraine

But Dr Stephen Wigmore wants even more ‘beefing’:

(a) condemn Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, weeps for the suffering and terror experienced by Ukrainians, and the repercussions and anxiety felt globally for our common future

(b) urge all Christians to pray that the war in Ukraine be ended, that peace and justice follow for all those who have suffered, and that freedom come in time even to Russia itself

Fr Marcus demurred slightly: “I’m not 100% okay telling other Christians what they should be praying for. I rather think we should be calling for that over which we have jurisdiction: a day of prayer (?and fasting) for the victory of the people of Ukraine over those invading them.”

Dr Wigmore exhorted: “I’d hope we’d manage a more genuinely Christian, moral and Biblical phraseology rather than jargon like ‘the risk of strategic miscalculation between conflicting parties’.”

Fr. Jonathan Bish agreed with this, and also wants to go further: “I must be careful here, as +Nick is my bishop and I have a lot of time for him, but I’m not entirely happy with the language of ‘avoiding strategic miscalculation’ either. Too often that’s been used as a shibboleth for ‘the West should not intervene or should limit its aid’.”

He added: “One of the things I did not like about his synod briefing paper was the language about it being morally questionable for the West to fight a proxy war through Ukrainian aid. After all, where’s the line between aiding Ukraine’s defence and a ‘proxy war’? It’s not as though this is a distinction the Russian government is likely to make, and the only use of the distinction is as an argument to limit our involvement.”

And more questions arose, such as the kind of peace Synod is asking the Government to seek at this stage in the war. Bishop Nick is in favour of a negotiated peace, possibly for conceding the Donbas region. Those who think this might be a concession too far, which the West may well come to regret, are more in favour of a total strategic victory against Russian belligerence and expansionism.

Of course, some will lament this whole exercise and ask why this motion matters at all: it is simply the General Synod of the Church of England signalling a bit of foreign-policy virtue. It won’t register with anyone outside Synod, and will be totally ineffectual.

But that misses the point.

Here is an opportunity for the General Synod to express moral concern, and convey to the country some moral insight derived from an understanding of God’s moral law. There is good and evil in human acts: there is right thought and right action, as well as good final intention and good objective. By debating Bishop Nick’s motion, Synod has an opportunity to reflect upon Putin’s acts and Russia’s motives, along with Zelensky’s response and the West’s objectives. These may be, for one reason or another, ambiguous, and the motion as it is currently worded reflects this.

But this is not a time for casuistry, which Fr Marcus highlights. It is not a time for laziness or ill-definition of a profound moral principle, but a time to re-state that moral principle and trumpet a very clear note to the country and to the world.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is an unmitigated act of evil, and must be condemned.

And if there is any further amendment to be made – and one which would surely reverberate throughout Christendom – it is that Synod ought equally to condemn the acts and words of Patriarch Kirill, because he has blessed Russia’s invasion as a ‘holy war’, and proclaimed Putin to be God’s chosen vessel for meting out divine retribution. He manifests the spirit of antichrist, so much so that hundreds of his own priests have signed a petition condemning the “fratricidal” invasion, even going so far as to assert Ukraine’s sovereign right to self-determination.

Synod should send its unequivocal support to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, and copy Kirill in on the press release.

You can’t stop a war with archiepiscopal ‘wooliness‘ or lamentations of via media casuistry: Synod must unequivocally condemn Russia’s illegal invasion of Ukraine, and condemn also those demons who appear as angels of light. It must sound a clear note to the world, and call evil evil.

Or we can lament its ineffectual signalling, and its tedious addiction to vacuous diplomatic jargon.