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“Orthodox Theology and Ecumenical dialogue”


Speech in international academic symposium

It was with pleasure that I accepted the kind invitation of Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki to put under my aegis this important Symposium, with the theme “Orthodox Theology and Ecumenical Dialogue. Problems and Perspectives”. It is also a great joy to be among you in the beautiful Byzantine city of Thessaloniki. The city of Thermaikos gulf, as well as the entire Autocephalous Church of Greece, has a special connection with St. Paul, the Apostle of the Gentiles, and it has been blessed with two of his epistles. Thessaloniki has also been hallowed by the blood of the Great Martyr Dimitrios the Myrovlitis and has been honored with the life and work of Saint Cyril and Methodius, Gregory Palamas, St Nicolas Cavassilas the Chamaetos, Ss. Symeon and Efstathios, Archbishops of Thessaloniki, and many other saints, men and women.

Two are the issues that you are called to discuss in this Symposium. The first is Orthodox theology and the second Ecumenical Dialogue. You are called, therefore, based on the teaching of Orthodox theology to give an account of your experiences on the problems that have so far appeared in the ecumenical dialogue and to give your insights with regard to its perspectives.

The Orthodox Church does not deny dialogue; on the contrary, she seeks dialogue. In my enthronement speech when I was elected Archbishop of Athens and of all Greece, I mentioned the following: “The holy Fathers have never feared dialogue, even with the world the world of fallacy, sin and heresy. On the contrary, they believed, along the line of St Markos Evgenikos of Ephesus the bastion of faith, that “when two parts diverge and they do not enter into dialogue, the difference between them seems to be greater. But when they enter into dialogue and each part listens carefully to what the other is saying, their difference is found much smaller”. And it is mainly the responsibility of the Hierarchy to explore new ways of dealing with rapid changes, in order that the Church be always in the vanguard of solving the spiritual and social problems of our people, with the power of the solvent ecclesiastical word and with her decisive actions”.

Our Orthodox Church, following the decisions of the Holy Synod, agreed with pleasure to participate at International – Inter-Christian Fora and dialogues and to witness in love our faith to our Christian brothers and sisters. We have already celebrated 100 years since 1902, when the Ecumenical Patriarchate Joachim III sent the Encyclical Letter to the Primates of the sister Orthodox Churches, where he raised the issue of their relation with the Roman Catholics and the Protestants. Also another Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in 1920, set the conditions for the desirable collaboration with the non Orthodox. In our Holy Church of Greece my predecessor in the 30s Archbishop Chrysostomos Papadopoulos, professor of the University of Athens and great theologian, described that the Orthodox Churches, already at that time, “following the spiritual movements outside their canonical boundaries, sought communication with the Old Catholics by going to their conferences and having theological dialogue with them. The friendly relations advanced particularly with the Anglican Episcopalians, through dialogue and mutual communication. The Orthodox Churches following also the Christian work of major organizations, like the “Organization of International Friendship of the People through the Churches”, the world organization “Faith and Order”, the ecumenical organization “Life and Work”, they sought also common reflection on ways of revitalization of the Christian values in the lives of the people”. The Church of Greece is also a founding member of the WCC, of which it remains a full member till today.

Allow me, at this point, to mention to you the part of the Message of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches, published after their meeting in Patmos on September 26th 1995, which refers to the Dialogues: “The creative revival of the spirit of the Church Fathers not only helped today’s theological and ecclesiastical world in the renewal of the life of our local churches in general, but it also offered to the different organizations of the contemporary ecumenical movement and to bilateral and multilateral theological dialogues the witness of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church. The whole Ecumenical Movement, whose presence at the end of the last millennium was strong and revived the hopes among the divided Christians, constituted an important space for witness and contribution of the Orthodox theology. Unfortunately, the crisis within the ecumenical movement in the last decades enforces to the Orthodox Church the necessity of resistance against such deviations, and the projection of the authentic Tradition of the Church. It is our opinion that Uniatism and proselytism constitute serious obstacles for the promotion of our dialogue with the Roman Catholics and the Protestants”.


And now I come to the issue of how we, Orthodox, enter into dialogue and how we participate in the inter-Christian fora. Needless to say that Orthodox theology is not an autonomous entity; it is the theology of our Church. And all lay theologians who participate in official dialogues are delegates–advisors of local Orthodox Churches. It is therefore more appropriate to speak of theology of the Orthodox Church. It is also needless to note that the Orthodox Church constantly prays “for the union of all” and experiences the scandal of division and the sin of not following the prayer–demand of our Savior Jesus Christ, who praying to His Father and God demanded “that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be one in us” (John 17:21). We are deeply aware of our responsibility for the break of the unity in the Church and we want and work for the restoration of this unity.

This unity, however, is not a matter of compromise, nor is it a matter of fait-a- complis, or imposition of decisions through methods that are morally and ecclesiastically unacceptable. Unity is the fruit of the Holy Spirit, as St Paul described it in Galatians (Gal 5:22), and it is not a matter of numbers or of secular power. When our Lord taught the Truth, most of his audience found his word harsh. They grumbled against him. As the Gospel of John describes the incident “Because of this many of his disciples turned back and no longer went about with him”. And the Lord did not hesitate to ask also the twelve, “Do you also wish to go away?” (John 6:66-68). The Church does not bother by the “small flock”, or by the “small leaven”, but with the grace of the Holy Spirit she struggles to sustain the Truth of the Word of our Lord and Savior intact. The Church is also concerned about the great number of the lukewarm Christians, whom the Lord will expel, according to the words of Revelation (3:16).

About this Truth, as it was mentioned in the official Orthodox statement during the III General Assembly in New Delhi: “The Orthodox Church is aware and conscious of the identity, of her inner structure and of her teaching with the apostolic message (kerygma) and the tradition of the ancient undivided Church. She finds herself in an unbroken and continuous succession of sacramental ministry, sacramental life, and faith. Indeed, for the Orthodox the apostolic succession of episcopacy and sacramental priesthood is an essential and constitutive, and therefore obligatory, element of the Church’s very existence”. Apparently we accept neither the “branch theory”, nor the theory of “shared truth”.

We enter into the dialogues with love in Christ for our Christian brothers and sisters and with respect for them. But love is neither compromise, nor syncretism, but the confession in humility in our part, of the Truth in Christ. Romanos Melodos at his kontakion of Sunday of the Fathers writes with his poetic liveliness: “The Church has ensured the one faith by keeping the apostolic message and our Fathers’ dogmas”. Also the 5th century ecclesiastical writer of the West, St Vincent of Lyrine noted that: “if a theological issue is raised for which there is no synodical decision, one should go back to the Fathers, especially to those who have preserved at times and places the unity and the faith and who are considered reputable teachers. Whatever they supported in unity of thought and mind, should be considered as teaching of the Church, true and catholic without doubt”. (PL 50, 675).

For us, the basis for the dialogue is Love and Truth, as this is found in the Ecumenical Church if the first eight centuries. At the same time, based on our Creed in which “we believe in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”, we accept that there is a continuation and a collective responsibility for the preservation and the articulation of the Truth. We cannot, therefore, accept the Tradition of the Church to be ignored, especially since this tradition was united at the first centuries; nor can we accept a form of tolerance that a part of the Church can retain its own positions on essential issues of Faith and pastoral care that are alien and opposite to the positions of the seven Ecumenical Councils. We do not agree for example that “the papal infallibility could be a local tradition”, as the Russian theologian Paul Evdokimov suggested. To recall the late Professor of Orthodox theology, Gerasimos Konidaris: “we have a unified responsibility in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church for the unity in the essentials, i.e. for the truth in faith and order”.

For the ecumenical dialogue even Love and Truth are not sufficient, as the latter was articulated in the first centuries. There is also a need for solid theological knowledge from all who participate in them, lay and ordained. The way of approach is the convergence of all of us Christians to the sources, to the “living water”. And we all have a responsibility to listen to St Paul’s admonition: “Now I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you be in agreement and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same purpose” (1 Cor 1:10). And for that to happen, we have to become theologians, first by living out the Gospel’s message, and then by having deep knowledge of the teaching of the Church, as this is expressed from the time of our Lord and the Apostles till today.


On the issue of ecumenical efforts we have gained enough experience. 80 years have already passed from the foundation of movement “Faith and Order” and 55 years from the foundation of the World Council of the Churches. There are also many years that there are dialogues between Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Old Catholics, Protestants, Anglicans and Non-chalcedonian. If we lack faith and judge the progress of the dialogues soberly, we could say that they have failed. The theological dialogue with the Roman Catholics has stopped although we hope that in the future it will restart. Unfortunately, while the dialogue was in progress, the problem of the Uniatism came up, especially in the jurisdiction of the Moscow Patriarchate, and the wounds have not until now been healed. The dialogue with the Anglicans has acquired a further difficulty, because of the decision of the ordination of the women. The dialogue with the Non-chalcedonian has been accomplished in theory, but there is a long way until the union.

In the World Council of Churches, the task of which we must underline is not the theological dialogue of the Churches as such, the presence of the Orthodox Church, at least of Greece, could not be continued. The unfortunate treatment on the issue of voting, the way of accepting new members and the common prayer, were some of the issues, which needed an immediate solution. It is pleasant development that during the meeting of the Central Commission of WCC in Geneva last year, a decision was taken, that created hopes that as Orthodox we can have equal voice with the Protestants and that our opinions, based on the Holy Bible and the Holy Tradition, on ecclesiological issues will be respected. I have to mention also Dr Raiser’s visit in Athens. With him we had some very constructive discussions and I think that new bases have been created for our presence in WCC. Finally I must also say a few words for the “Carta Ecumenica”. This document, in our opinion, requires further elaboration, because we are not politicians to set up “documents of principles”.

Before coming to the last part of my speech, I would like to confess in public, expressing at the same time my regret, that we do not have difficulties only in the dialogues with our non-Orthodox brothers, but also among ourselves. We rarely meet and even more rarely discuss the serious problems of our time. We notice movements of tactics and of publics relations, we are confronted with programs of “geostrategy” and agreements of secular character with various interests, we observe collaborations with agents outside of the Church, but initiatives for the union and the missionary presence of the Orthodox Church we do not experience.


And now I come to the last part of my speech. In spite of the negative experience we have acquired all these years, we view the future of the theological dialogues, and generally our collaboration with our non Orthodox brothers and sisters, with optimism. First, the theological dialogues. There are many difficulties, but we are against the idea of abandoning them. And this, because we are people of Faith and therefore of Hope. These dialogues keep the hope of “the union of all”. Our Lord knows how and when this union will be realized, but we are not allowed to stop the dialogue and break down the bridges of communication between the Christians. Our “warm” love for Christ and for His Truth will contribute, so we believe, and allow His Holy Grace to guide us in the unity.

We also now see the possibility of our leaving the WCC fading away. We hope that more effective contribution of the Orthodox in the decisions and activities of WCC will take place in the future. And here I have to confess a truth. If we, Orthodox, are indifferent and we voluntarily stay in the margin, or if we are divided depending on the narrow interests of our local Church, we must not complain for the situation in the WCC. The wrong is not always on the others.

In the beginning of the 21st century we experience in our Old Continent developments of historical significance. The European Union today consists of 25 countries and tomorrow of 27 or even 30, whereas the total number of its citizens will be over 500 millions. In this Europe we also have abundant responsibilities. However, despite of the fact that the majority of the population of Europe confess the Christian faith and tradition, certain politicians and socials factors of Europe, who are against the Church, try to impose the official atheism in the European Family and marginalize the role of the Church. There are also some ideological, social, scientific and political trends that attempt to rationalize life, to flatten it and to transform it to a simple function of flesh and bones. Transforming the human being from a person created in the image and likeness of God into a rational being without future, without faith, without hope is a nightmare and it crashes the souls of the people. In this situation the Christians must have a voice; they must give love and hope. The collaboration, which we developed in the last years on issues of social- and bio-ethics with our non-Orthodox brothers and sisters, has brought good results and this fill us with optimism.


Your Eminencies,

Your Graces,

Distinguished scholars.

Our Lord has blessed us to be close to Him and to live in a period when Europe, Eastern et Western, for the first time in history, is united. In this period all Christians, all of us, we are called to teach with our example the love, the understanding, the tolerance, the solidarity. The Saints protectors of Europe, the Greeks from Thessaloniki, Cyril and Methodius, have taught us to respect the “uniqueness” of the other and to maintain ours. Europe is a marvelous mosaic, the raw material and the conjunctive webs of which are Christianity, the ancient Greek literature and the Byzantine-Roman Law. We have to maintain this, if we don’t wish to commit cultural suicide.

From the bottom of my heart I wish that all the difficult conditions of today for Christians in Europe, may bring us closer in understanding one the another, and may lead all of us in living the truth of our faith, as the Fathers of the Church have transmitted to us. In our world philosophy, science, information, knowledge are in abundance. What is lacking is the love for God and for neighbor, the human, sincere and warm communion among the people; and mainly “Wisdom” and “Knowledge”.

And this we first need to accept within ourselves, and then to share it with our neighbors. And with these thoughts I declare the works of this international symposium open.


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