How Putin weaponised the Russian Orthodox church

In the week before Orthodox Lent began, some 233 Russian Orthodox priests published a petition calling for peace. The signatories spoke of the ‘fratricidal war in Ukraine’, with a call for an immediate ceasefire, and deplored ‘the trial that our brothers and sisters in Ukraine were undeservedly subjected to’. Anyone who knows how authority is exercised in the Russian Orthodox church, and how closely it has allied itself with Putin’s authoritarian state, will recognise the clerics’ courage. But what effect is it likely to have on the attitude of the highest authorities in the church? To answer these questions, we need to understand not only the centuries-old link between political

Why the destruction of Ukraine’s churches matters

One small, deadly incident in the Ukrainian war proved memorable because it involved the ordinary things of life. A mother and two children trying to leave the town of Irpin on foot on 6 March died from Russian shelling. Their suitcases fell beside them and, miserably, a pet dog carrier. They lay on an ordinary road that could be in Surrey, on the steps of a memorial to Soviet dead from the second world war. That spot is opposite a little row of bells under a tiled roof in the grounds of the Ukrainian Orthodox church of St George. A neat hoarding was visible in 2015 on the building next

Is the Virgin Mary being sidelined by Rome?

The Catholic church has always venerated Mary (‘Mother of God’) above other saints. But in recent years there has been a slight (a very slight) cooling in the church with regard to the inclusion of Mary in the liturgy of the mass. It’s been an English custom since medieval times to recite a Hail Mary (a verse of the rosary – the traditional Marian prayer) at the end of the ‘Prayers of the Faithful’ – the sequence of introductory prayers in the main body of the service. But just over a decade ago Rome decided to gently discourage this practice. It still continues in many churches (old habits die hard)

Kirill, the Patriarch in league with Putin

Until very recently, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, was most famous for being the owner of a phantom wristwatch. It had the magical property of disappearing from sight, visible to onlookers only as a reflection. Don’t believe me? Google ‘Kirill’ and ‘watch’ and you’ll find a photo of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Rus’ meeting the Russian justice minister. It was taken in 2009, the year Kirill succeeded the late Patriarch Alexy II as spiritual leader of 110 million Russian Orthodox Christians. On his head Kirill is wearing a white koukoulion, the so-called ‘helmet of salvation’, with side flaps like the ears of a

Dostovesky and Putin’s useful idiots

When I was 17 I heard the name Dostovesky, and was enthralled. Just the name felt so glamorously intellectual, so deep. I began to read some of his novels, and my hunch was vindicated. A bit later I delved into his ideas, and my admiration became more nuanced. I partly admired his defiance of the rational humanist arrogance of the West, but I was also wary of his reactionary mystical nationalism, his faith in the anti-liberal Russian soul.  It seems that a lot of religiously minded intellectuals struggle to get past stage one. They are so taken with the flinty glamour of this writer that their critical faculties atrophy. They

What is it like to be worshipped as a god in one’s lifetime?

In January 1780 the news reached London that Captain Cook had been killed and eaten in Hawaii. The story of his death was met with morbid fascination by the general public, inspiring paintings, poems and even a ballet. This ballet was so violent that one of the dancers accidentally stabbed another during the scene of the attack, yet it was also a fantastic success, touring the theatres of Europe and America. Soon aristocratic women were wearing dresses modelled on the natives who killed Cook, and interest in the explorer’s death continued into the 19th century, until one wit noted that every museum in the world contained a copy of the

Theo Hobson

Divided we stand: Anglicans need to agree to disagree

Two years ago the Church of England decided to delay any public discussion of its deepest division, over homosexuality, until 2022. So this might be the year in which an already troubled institution has a dramatic public meltdown. Or it might be the year in which the Church of England sorts itself out a bit. Yes, really. Stranger miracles have happened. There are grounds for hope, and not just on the gay issue. The Church has a core strength that it could draw on, and a core identity that could stand it in good stead, though one it is weirdly shy to assert. First let’s admit that things haven’t been

The churches must stay open

Hooray for Cardinal Vincent Nichols, who used the one day of the year when his pronouncements are amplified by the season to ‘sincerely appeal that [the government] do not again consider closing churches and places of worship.’ He said in a BBC interview he believed it had been demonstrated that the airiness of churches meant they are ‘not places where we spread the virus’. Mind you, Catholic churches weren’t as bad as the Church of England This is, of course, entirely sensible. It was nuts for churches to close at the start of lockdown, at least as spaces for prayer if not for communal worship. Pretty well any church is ‘Covid-safe’, in

Our new era of Jewish-Muslim relations

Reactions to the recent passing of F.W. de Klerk transported me back to my childhood in South Africa. The horror of apartheid was a frequent topic of conversation in our family. My uncle’s law firm, Witkin, Sidelsky and Eidelman, pioneered the employment of black people and gave Nelson Mandela his first job as a clerk, in defiance of the accepted practice at the time. My mother was the principal of the only training college for black pre-school teachers and my father, a rabbi, made pastoral visits to Robben Island. We were all-too-aware of the urgent need to dismantle the structural racism that plagued the country. When de Klerk and Mandela

How to cure what ails the NHS

Wrong cure Sir: In referring to the UK as the highest-spending European nation in healthcare proportionate to GDP (‘Hospital pass’, 4 December), Kate Andrews paints an exaggerated picture which is based upon additional expenditure in the NHS during the Covid pandemic, partly accounted for by £38 billion spent on test and trace. The figures are further inflated by the UK suffering a relatively greater fall in GDP. In reality, the NHS has been woefully under-resourced compared to its European counterparts over the past decade, leaving it with approximately 50,000 fewer doctors compared to OECD averages, the second-lowest numbers of hospital beds per capita, and the lowest numbers of MRI scanners.

A brief history of the death of God

A few weeks after Friedrich Nietzsche bragged to an admirer that he had completed a ruthless attack on our Lord, he collapsed, had convulsions, shouted like a madman and never recovered his faculties again. It was early 1889. He was 44 years old, his books had just begun to be noticed, and he lived for a decade longer, empty-eyed, silent and entirely unaware of the fame that was about to engulf him. Was his tragic end divine punishment for his sacrilege? My devout Catholic wife begs to differ. Our Lord is not vengeful, she insists. That’s the only thing wrong with him, I reply. Although Darwin’s On the Origin of

Eddie Izzard is so bad I’m hoping he gets dismembered: Sky’s The Lost Symbol reviewed

If it weren’t for this job I sometimes wonder whether I’d even bother watching TV at all. This mood strikes me particularly in those weeks when I find myself casting round for anything new and vaguely interesting to watch and I end up in front of something as epically dire as Sky’s new Dan Brown adaptation The Lost Symbol. Brown’s hero Robert Langdon, whom we first met on screen in the The Da Vinci Code, is like Indiana Jones with a charisma bypass. Remember that wonderful scene in the first Indie movie where hunky Harrison Ford is giving a lecture to some besotted female archeology students, and one girl closes

Profound and original and unashamedly religious: Midnight Mass reviewed

I was turned on to Midnight Mass by Ricky Gervais who raved about it in one of his social media chats: ‘I absolutely loved it, and it got better and better. It’s like all the themes like love and death, regret, second chances, but it’s about good and evil in a biblical sense.’ Yes. Midnight Mass is very unusual in that (so far, at least; I’m only two and a bit episodes in) it seems to take Christianity at its own estimation. God is real, miracles do happen, even (or especially) the most miserable sinners can find redemption through repentance. Watching it is quite unsettling because you keep expecting the

The enduring power of Japan’s doomsday cults

 Tokyo It is now 26 years since the doomsday cult known as Aum Shinrikyu (‘supreme truth’) carried out the worst domestic terrorist attack in Japanese history. Led by their leader Shoko Asahara, Aum released sarin gas on to the Tokyo subway, killing 13 and injuring 6,000. It remains the only time a weapon of mass destruction has been deployed by a private organisation. The details were sickening: one woman had to have her eyes surgically removed because the nerve gas fused her contact lenses on to them. Despite Asahara’s execution in 2018, the death cult has (somehow) survived, changing its name to Aleph and spawning two splinter groups. Aleph is

God is everywhere, sometimes in strange guises, in Jonathan Franzen’s Crossroads

Twenty years ago The Corrections alerted a troubled world to the talents of Jonathan Franzen. Though cruel and funny and aggressively clever, the novel did more than display its author’s spiky brilliance. A stubborn moral core, in the person of the ailing patriarch of the Lambert family, and a tangled web of fierce emotion binding him and his wife and three children, gave it powerful resonance. Franzen’s new novel, Crossroads, presents us with another patriarch and another set of dysfunctional family dynamics. What has changed in the past two decades? Now less inclined to show off, Franzen is more assiduous in his excavation of character. We get less dazzle and

The faith of Tyson Fury

As soon as he had beaten Deontay Wilder last weekend, Tyson Fury gave thanks “to my Lord and savior Jesus Christ”. He said that he was going to pray for his fallen opponent. He has said that when he was recovering from depression and mental illness he “couldn’t do it on [his] own” and got down on his knees to ask God for help: I went down as a four hundred pound fat guy but when I got up off the floor after praying for like twenty minutes…I felt like the weight of the world was lifted off me shoulders. Most media reports glossed over these (admittedly eccentric) expressions of Christian

The Church Closers’ Charter must be torn up

Over the past few months, the Archbishops of York and Canterbury have repeatedly assured us that they love parishes and parish churches. ‘I am passionate that the parish is essential,’ the Archbishop of Canterbury told the Church Times recently. The Archbishop of York went so far as to describe the parish as ‘the beating heart of community life in England’. So why are they supporting a change to church law to make it easier to close parish churches? The paper which proposes the change is at stage one of a three-stage approval process. It has the unsexy name GS 2222, so I call it the ‘Church Closers’ Charter’. Its introduction

The rise of the secular godparent

I always knew that I didn’t want children, but also always knew that I wanted godchildren. Lots of them. One of the less-discussed aspects of the decline of the church in our secular age is the fact that this precious relationship, more than a millennium old, is increasingly scarce. Previously godparents were there to ensure a child’s spiritual development, as well as to have in reserve some handy grown-ups should something awful befall the parents. All this is still important, but the role has shifted. Its primary benefit now is to provide a wonderful extrafamilial link that spans the generations, creating an instant and enduring bond between a child and

Theo Hobson

The fight for the future of the Church of England

When the Church of England talks of trying new things, I prick up my ears. Back in 2004 it announced the need for ‘fresh expressions’ — new ventures alongside the normal parish system. Maybe some vibrant arty experimentation would ensue, I felt. But the main result was lots of nimble little evangelical pop-up churches, mostly lay-led. The idea of innovation seems to energise the evangelicals, although their version of innovation doesn’t always energise me. On Easter Day this year I dragged my kids to church, but there was no room at the socially distanced inn. The evangelicals round the corner let us in, so I had a glimpse of a

Mary Wakefield

What’s the harm in opening the church doors?

The end of summer 2021, the end of the great British staycation. I sat on the grass outside the post office on Holy Island, Northumberland and watched as the tourists milled about. After a visit to the Priory, and the Pilgrims Fudge Kitchen, a fair few of them would wander up to the Catholic church, St Aidan’s. Even if you’re not the sort to ever go to church, you might pop in for a quick look on Holy Island, aka Lindisfarne. This is where the gospels were translated, and where St Aidan, in 635, founded the monastery from which he converted the pagan north. Aidan came here from Iona, at