Why did we roll out the red carpet for the Patriarch of Moscow?

Patriarch Kirill of Moscow takes part in a reconsecration service at the Russian Orthodox Church in London, (AP Photo/Alastair Grant)

The Patriarch of Moscow has recently concluded a four day visit to this country, as this magazine reports.

The purpose of the visit was to celebrate 300 years of Russian Orthodox presence here, as well as to reconsecrate the Russian Orthodox Cathedral in Knightsbridge, a service which was attended by about 1,000 people, including the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Justin Welby.

It seems though, confusingly, that the Patriarch also visited the other Russian Orthodox Cathedral in London, which is to be found in Chiswick.

For historical reasons, there are two cathedrals, and there were for many years two rival ecclesial groupings, both of which are now reconciled. Various items about the Patriarch’s trip can be found here. Various items about the Patriarch’s trip can be found here.

There are several things to note about this recent visit.

First of all, while the Patriarch met with several very important people, such as the Queen, Dr Welby, and Dr Chartres, the Bishop of London, I can find no trace in the reports of his exchanging any greetings with representatives of the Catholic Church (or for that matter other Christians.) This seems to have been a visit, from an ecumenical perspective at least, focused on Anglicanism.

This is in itself interesting, as in the past, Metropolitan Hilarion, the handsome and youthful theologian and musician charged with the Patriarchate’s external affairs brief, has spoken frankly on numerous occasions about the future of Orthodox-Anglican dialogue, warning that developments in modern Anglicanism have all but made it pointless. So why are the Russian Orthodox paying such attention to leading Anglicans, including their Supreme Governor, now?

The answer may well be political, as John Woodcock MP seems to think. At a time when Russia is becoming an international pariah, the Patriarch can nevertheless act as a roving Russian ambassador abroad.

Mr Woodcock is right, therefore, to criticise the red carpet treatment given to the Patriarch, who comes, not just as a religious figure (as such he can only be welcome) but also as a Russian envoy, which is a different matter entirely.

The Ukrainian Ambassador has also joined in the criticism, understandably, as her country continues to be the target of Russian aggression. It is to be noted, though, that the Patriarch did not meet any members of the British government. Presumably he met the Queen in her religious capacity.

The other thing to note is that Patriarch Kirill is an indefatigable traveller. In fact it seems that there is no place too remote to escape his attentions.

Not only has he been to Antarctica of late, he has also travelled in Latin America, visiting various Russian diaspora communities. This idea of cultivating a world congregation is not new. Nicholas II (this was in the days when the Russian Church had no Patriarch but was run by a government department) spent a great deal of money building various Russian Orthodox Churches around the globe.

There is one in Nice, another in Biarritz, and even one in Bari; and there must be many more besides. The idea then as now was to emphasise the global reach of Russia and Russian Orthodoxy. Today, this task is perhaps more urgent than ever, given that Russia needs to project some good soft power in the world; and of course, by emphasising the global reach of Russian Orthodoxy, Kirill is underlining his claim to be the leader of world Orthodoxy, a role traditionally exercised by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Indeed, Kirill may well be projecting himself as a leader of global Christianity, a rival to the Pope, and in addition, projecting the claim that Russia (not the decadent West) is the true guardian of Christian values.

This last, a claim that has been made repeatedly by the Moscow Patriarchate, may be attractive to some in the West, and is certainly attractive to many in Russia. But does it have any realistic foundation?

That is a question that cannot be settled here, but let the reader judge: the Patriarch has called Russian involvement in Syria “remarkably honest and honourable”.

Update: I am informed that the Patriarch did include greetings to Catholic, Armenian and Coptic Christians in his sermon at the Cathedral. See here for the text of his sermon. It seems too that there was contact between Metropolitan Hilarion and the British governement, as this invaluable article by Mark Woods at Christian Today tells us. The article also provides a bit more clarity about the history of the Russian Orthodox Church in Britain.