Holy and Great Council, Orthodoxy and Modernity

Some Comments on the Mission Document by Orthodox Missiologists The Center for Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou” (CEMES)

Published on: May 9, 2016
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This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

Without denying the importance of the other pre-conciliar documents, the one on mission is of extraordinary significance. Not only because the Church exists for the world, and not for herself, but also because it comes at a time that the entire world has enthusiastically received two similar mission statements: Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation “Evangelii Gaudium” (2013), and almost simultaneously the new Mission Statement: “Together towards Life: Mission and Evangelism in Changing Landscapes”.

On the initiative of the Center for Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou” (CEMES), we, the undersigned 15 Orthodox professional missiologists, were engaged in a thorough examination of this document and submitted to the Ecumenical Patriarch and all the Orthodox Primates an extended study with suggestions for certain improvements (in Greek and English).

In this study we focused on five main areas:

(a) The lack of a clear affirmation of the Church’s witnessing responsibility at the beginning of the final draft, probably due to the concrete assignment to the preparatory committee to only review the existing document of the 1986 Third Preconciliar Consultation, which covered only few areas of the Christian witness.

(b) The document seems to neglect the major achievements made in contemporary world mission by renowned Orthodox theologians. Whereas almost all missiologists nowadays speak about mission using the “martyria/witness” terminology, introduced by Orthodox (e.g. the Archbishop of Albania Anastasios, and later Ion Bria), the document’s very title completely ignores it. It will be a real contribution to world mission, if the overall title of the document is changed to: “The Witness of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World”. Also, there is no reference at all to the “liturgy after the liturgy” terminology.

Finally, whereas the main theological foundation of the inter-faith dialogue in world mission was first provided by an Orthodox, the Antiochian Metropolitan of Mount Lebanon Georges Khodr, on the basis of the “economy of the Holy Spirit” (side by side with the “economy of the Word”), no theological reason is given in the document. Note here that “religious” or “inter-religious” dialogue is a purely secular inter-disciplinary scholarly endeavor, whereas “inter-faith” dialogue is a missiological term, referring to a compassionate encounter with people of faith of other living religions, based among others on Jesus Christ’s encounter and discussion with the Samaritan woman.

(c) There are places in the document, where misunderstanding can arise. In ch. 4. (Peace and the Aversion of War) the reference to Orthodox “who take part in military maneuvers” may give the false impression of relativizing our Church’s unconditional peaceful stance. More serious, however, is the reference to the duty of scientists to stop their research when basic Christian and humane principles are violated.

In the discrimination chapter, in dealing with the new forms of “human cohabitation”, an affirmation must be added, that the Church is open to all people without discrimination and respects the human person, accepting it as it is in the first place, and calling all people to meet divine compassion (θείον έλεος), which is all transforming, all sanctifying, all liberating and releasing all from the burden of sin.

Finally, in the document there is no reference at all to women. It will be a completely ineffective contemporary declaration on mission, if it fails to reaffirm the dignity of women, given the Church’s unique tradition of allowing their access even to the sacramental diaconal ministry, in the still canonically valid institution of deaconesses. It is also recommended that in the English – and possibly other – translations of the document, everywhere the inclusive Greek original “anthropos” appears, “man and woman” should be used, or the plural instead of the masculine singular.

d) Also some suggestions were made of biblical Unlike all canonical provisions that base all their documentation on dominical (or in their absence Pauline or other biblical) sayings, the document in some places misses the proper biblical references. For the relationship between peace and justice although there are plenty of biblical sayings in patristic writings (e.g. Ps 84/85:10, Is 32:17, Is 39:8 etc.), the theological foundation in the document starts with…Clement of Alexandria. Also, chapter 2 can start with the Pauline ‘For freedom Christ has set us free’ (Gal 5:1”); and in chapter 3 the Prophets (Νa 2:1, Is 9:5. Za 9:9f) can be added.

In the document there is no reference to the important biblical institutions, like the collection project of St. Paul (2 Cor 8-9), the O.T. provisions for cancellation of debts in the Sabbatical and Jubilee years, and the example of the Early Church, where a voluntary poverty was exercised and the material goods, property, and possessions, were sold and the proceeds distributed among all (Acts 2:44ff; 5:1ff).

e) Finally, few more suggestions were made of missiological In the relationship between human rights and human responsibilities it is rightly argued that “freedom without responsibility and love leads eventually to the loss of freedom”. However, in addition to the affirmation that “the Orthodox Church believes that her values and principles form part of a common world ethic”, a clear statement must be made, that this should not only be publicly declared, but that our Church also promotes a legally established “Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities”, along with human rights.

Although the general idea of the connection between economy and ecology is alluded to in the document, no specific theological and epistemological argumentation is given. An Orthodox mission declaration cannot ignore that various aspects of the climate, ecological, financial, and debt crises are mutually dependent and reinforce each other, causing in many places of the world so much suffering of people, endangering even their survival. Far-reaching market liberalization, deregulation, and unrestrained privatization of goods and services are exploiting the whole Creation.

The document in some places (poverty, or the connection between economy and ecology) follows a kind of hermeneutic that gives the impression of an esoteric and not holistic spirituality. Finally, there is no clear condemnation of such a negative phenomenon, as religious fundamentalism.

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