Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: Our faith should not be regarded as stagnant or even obsolete

Address by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew To the Scholars’ Meeting at the Phanar (January 5, 2016)
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: Our faith should not be regarded as stagnant or even obsolete
AP Photo/Shakh Aivazov

Beloved and distinguished scholars,

We warmly welcome you all to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, to the Church of Constantinople, the Church of St. Andrew “the first-called of the Apostles” and his disciple, St. Stachys of “the Seventy Apostles,” an institution with a history spanning seventeen centuries, during which it has retained its administrative offices in this very city through times of majesty and times of martyrdom.

As you all know very well and appreciate through your studies, this extraordinary region is filled with significance for our Church. It is here that St. John (the Apostle of love) wrote his Gospel; it is here that St. Paul (the Apostle to the nations) addressed the earliest Apostolic communities; it is here – in Asia Minor, not in Greece or Italy – that all of the earliest councils of the Church that defined and shaped the Christian doctrine were convened; and it is here that the spiritual treasures of Byzantium – its profound theological, spiritual and cultural legacy – have been faithfully maintained to this day.

Nevertheless, as you are also aware and as you surely understand, Orthodoxy is a faith at once rooted in the past, yet at the same time a Church looking toward the future. It is characterized by a profound sense of continuity with the times and teachings of the Apostolic Church and the Church of the Fathers; but it is also a Church that draws from its rich heritage in order to respond to modern challenges and dilemmas. It is precisely this dual nature that permits Orthodoxy to speak boldly about critical contemporary issues – precisely because it is a “living tradition.”

Dear friends, you are here at a critical time, a complex time, a challenging time – both for our Orthodox Church but also for the entire world. We have invited you for this personal encounter and exchange at the Phanar because we consider you as a small representative group of a much larger segment of our Church, a symbol of our loving concern for all those ministering to the Word of God in manifold ways throughout the world. You comprise theologians and historians, scholars and teachers, women and men from the United States and Europe, as well as from Asia and Australia. You educate and work with a wide range of people – Orthodox and non-Orthodox, Christian and non-Christian, academic and ecumenical – translating the fundamental principles of our faith in response to the vital challenges of our time.

Permit us, therefore, to suggest to you that open and honest dialogue is the way of the Church and of theology. God spoke in dialogue when the world was created, when Adam and Eve were fashioned. God spoke in dialogue through the law and the prophets. God spoke in dialogue when the divine Word assumed flesh and dwelt among us. God always spoke in dialogue through the martyrs and saints through the centuries and in our own day. Indeed, God is only comprehended and apprehended in dialogue – in the interpretation of scripture as in the Church councils. In the pithy, yet profound statement of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God.” (John 1.1)

This is why we invited you here: so that we may talk and listen to one another – “look at each other in the eyes,” as the late Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras liked to say. You are undoubtedly informed about the dialogues with which our Ecumenical Patriarchate is engaged:

  • with our sister Orthodox Churches, in an effort to coordinate greater unity and cooperation;
  • with other Christian confessions and other faith communities, in our desire to promote reconciliation and understanding;
  • and with the scientific community, for an informed response to environmental degradation and bioethical questions

However, there is another dialogue that is of paramount importance in the life and ministry of the Church, namely our dialogue with the world. We are called to hear and discern God’s voice – sometimes “like the rush of a mighty wind” (Acts 2.2), at other times “like a gentle breeze” (Isaiah 55.12) – in every circumstance and in every corner of our planet. We are to hear and speak God’s voice:

  • in the persecution of Christian minorities all over the world, particularly in the Middle East, where Christianity emerged;
  • in the humanitarian crisis of our brothers and sisters forced to leave their homes and seek refuge throughout the world;
  • in the injustices inflicted on the vulnerable and marginalized members of contemporary societies;
  • but also in the use and abuse of religion for political interests and other secular purposes.

This is precisely why – with the grace of God, the prayers of our faithful, and the support of theologians and scholars such as you – we will convene the Holy and Great Council this year on the Feast of Pentecost, bringing together all of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches in order to meet in the same place (in the Church of Haghia Irene, where the Second Ecumenical Council was held in 381) and to deliberate with one mind on issues that the Church has confronted in more recent times. We will address internal issues on the unity and administration of the Church, but also matters such as relations with other churches and faiths, in order to present a unified voice and credible witness for the life of the world.

In this regard, we invite the support of pious Orthodox scholars, who are concerned about the unity of our Church and its role in the public square, where there are so many competing opinions and where the word of Orthodoxy can contribute positively and constructively through dialogue. Our faith should not be regarded as stagnant or even obsolete. It must not be conveyed as verbose or perhaps artificial. And it cannot be dismissed as merely cerebral or uninspired. Our word must express the hope and joy, the light and life of the risen Lord. It must be renewed and renewing, reviving and refreshing.

That is how the Holy and Great Council must speak to the whole world. That is how we are all called to minister, each of us from his or her own position in the Church and in society, even after the Great Council takes place. And this is how the Church would like to support and advance your own work in seminaries, universities, as well as in ecumenical and other circles. In this way, we can strengthen the bonds between hierarchal ministry and lay diakonia for the benefit of the Body of Christ and the glory of our living God.

With these few paternal reflections, we welcome you once again and look forward to hearing your response and reaction. We hope that your brief stay in this remarkable city is enjoyable and rewarding.

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