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Archbishop Job of Telmessos: Church unity is still our dream

Archbishop Job of Telmessos: Church unity is still our dream

Archbishop Job of Telmessos. © Ivars Kupcis/WCC

31 October 2016

By Ivars Kupcis*

Almost since the founding of the World Council of Churches (WCC), there has been a permanent delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the WCC offices in Geneva. Since November 2015 the task of representing the highest authority within the Eastern Orthodox Church in Geneva is in the hands of Archbishop Job of Telmessos, who is convinced: churches need not only to speak, but also to listen to each other.

Archbishop Job answered questions about the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, church unity, and the ecumenical movement.


It has been almost a year since you were appointed as a permanent representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the WCC. Please describe your path to this quite responsible task in Geneva!

Archbishop Job: I was born in Canada and did my undergraduate degree there, then I came to Paris for my graduate studies in St Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute and the Catholic University of Paris, where I graduated with my doctorate degree in 2003. Since that time I have taught at St Serge and also the Catholic University of Paris, where I am still teaching. In 2010, I was appointed as a professor at the Institute of Postgraduate Studies of Orthodox Theology in Chambesy, where I still teach liturgical and dogmatic theology.

Between the WCC assemblies in Porto Alegre and Busan, I was a member of the WCC Central Committee. In 2013, I was elected as an archbishop of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, responsible for Russian parishes in western Europe for two years. Since last November, I have been a permanent representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the WCC. Besides that more recently I became a co-president of the International Commission of Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches, and I am also co-president of the St Irenaeus group of Orthodox and Roman Catholic theologians who meet every year in order to help the dialogue between the two churches.

Could you tell more about the Ecumenical Patriarchate, its history and current role in Eastern Orthodoxy?

Archbishop Job: The Ecumenical Patriarchate is very ancient - it exists as such since the 4th century, since the foundation of Constantinople, which became the new capital of the Roman empire, in place of Byzantium, which existed from apostolic times. This is why we consider the Church of Constantinople as the see of Saint Andrew. It became one of five ancient patriarchates of Christianity, historically second after Rome. Since the rupture of communion between the Church of Rome and the Eastern Churches, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has the role of the first see within the Orthodox church, which implies a role of maintaining unity among all Orthodox churches, and also coordinating inter-Orthodox events.

More recently, since the beginning of 20th century, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has shown leadership for engagement of Orthodox church in the ecumenical movement - the first encyclicals on this regard were issued in 1902, 1904 and 1920. The Ecumenical Patriarchate since then has been a leader in organizing the famous pan-Orthodox conferences, which took place on the island of Rhodes in 1961, 1963, 1964, and in Geneva, in Chambesy, in 1968, which prepared the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox church that finally took place in June this year. The ministry of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the ministry of communion, working for the unity between the local autocephalous orthodox churches, and also trying to lead the Orthodox church in the ecumenical movement toward Christian unity.

This is why ecumenical movement is not optional for the Ecumenical Patriarchate - it always has been the essential part of our mission, and this is why the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been part of the WCC fellowship and has established the permanent office here almost from the foundation of the WCC. Interesting that, in the encyclical of 1920 I mentioned, the church called for establishment of some kind of league of churches after the model of the League of Nations that had been just created. We can regard this as a prophetic voice from 1920 for the establishment of the World Council of Churches.

Is there a particular geographical region where dioceses of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are located?

Archbishop Job: Historically the Ecumenical Patriarchate was in all Eastern Europe. Over time, the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly to the Russian Orthodox church, as well as Serbian, Bulgarian, and Romanian Orthodox churches. These churches ceased to be a part of Ecumenical Patriarchate. Today, if we look on the map, it is basically historical territory of today's Turkey, the dioceses in Greece - northern Greece, the islands of Dodecanese in the North Aegean Sea and Crete, Mount Athos, as well as dioceses in the diaspora - in Western Europe, Australia, North America and South America. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has a few dioceses in Asia as well - in Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong. Altogether there are 90 dioceses in the Ecumenical Patriarchate today across the world.

Regarding the role of Ecumenical Patriarchate - how would you describe the term primus inter pares, or “first among equals" to the wider Christian community?

Archbishop Job: It means that primacy of the see of Constantinople in the Orthodox church is understood differently than, for example, in the Roman Catholic church, which is very centralized with the Pope or primate of Rome having direct jurisdiction on every local level - he appoints the bishops, receives their resignations, etc. The administration of the Orthodox church is not centralized - each region has its own administrative independence with local autocephalous churches or patriarchates. The Ecumenical Patriarchate does not have a right to intervene in the matters of the regional autocephalous churches - because our patriarch is "among the others". But at the same time he is the “first among the others”. Being the first among the equals means that he is the one who takes the leadership to organize pan-Orthodox conferences, to call meetings of primates of autocephalous churches, to organize the Holy and Great Council. He also takes the leadership in organizing all bilateral dialogues we have between the Orthodox church and other Christian churches, as well as initiatives for inter-religious dialogue. This is what we mean by the first among equals - he is the first, as the first he has a leadership, but this leadership cannot interfere within the inner life of regional autocephalous churches, respecting others.

Do you agree that regarding the other churches and Christian communities as equal could be very helpful in ecumenical movement as well?

Archbishop Job: This model, of course, is not new - it is the same as it was practiced in the first millennium, when the Church of Rome was still in full communion. This is actually why the last document issued by the International Commission of Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox church, or document of Chieti, studies practice of primacy within synodality in the first millennium, considering that the practice of the church was common between East and West, and it could be a good example how church unity can be achieved and realized today.

Of course, when we speak about being first among equals within the Orthodox church, we ought not to forget that each local Orthodox church confesses the same faith, the same liturgical practice, as well as the same canon law - there is a full agreement on them. When it comes to the relations with the rest of the Christian world, we sometimes have different practices. Sometimes we even have disagreements on ethical issues. That is why bilateral theological dialogues are so important to discuss these divergencies. But nevertheless we agree that this model can be model for the unity of the church in the future.

What is your particular task representing the Ecumenical Patriarchate at WCC?

Archbishop Job: I can compare my task to the task of an ambassador, which is to represent his country in the place where he is appointed, and at the same time to inform his country what is going on where he is appointed. My task is to be such a link or bridge between Ecumenical Patriarchate and the WCC. I represent the Patriarchate and try to inform our ecumenical partners - the member churches of the WCC - about what is happening in the Ecumenical Patriarchate in particular and in the Orthodox church globally. At the same time, being present here and involved in different ecumenical dialogues, my task is also to inform Ecumenical Patriarchate about what is happening in the WCC in particular and in the ecumenical movement in general. With this perspective we recently have created a website for our permanent delegation at the WCC, informing the Christian churches about major events within the Orthodox church linked with ecumenical relations and ecumenical bilateral dialogues. And we also provide knowledge to the Orthodox public about what is going on in the ecumenical movement.

Besides this, what is your action plan for church unity, and what is the role of communication in it?

Archbishop Job: One of my professors once said, speaking about ecumenism, “We have to start by doing our homework.” There is a lack of information about ecumenical movement, and unfortunately, ecumenism is very often seen as a world for specialists or for those who have been specially initiated - at least I can say that about the Orthodox church, but probably that is the case in other denominations as well. For this reason many people look at the ecumenical movement with suspicion, as they have not enough information about what is happening and what our task is in it. This is also one of the reasons why some fundamentalist or zealot approaches are circulating within the Orthodox church, looking toward ecumenism with great suspicion.

Our task is to inform the faithful - with that perspective we have renewed our website, providing news about ecumenical relations and also providing related documents that have not been accessible before. All the major documents related to different ecumenical agreements are becoming available online now.

As an addition to the website, we have also created an electronic newsletter. In the past, we had it on paper and it was published in Greek. Now we have chosen an electronic format, which enables people to follow our news regularly, and English as its language in order to reach a larger public. English has become not only the most commonly used international language - it is also becoming a main language in ecumenical relations.

In the future we are also planning to organize seminars, conferences, book presentations and other cultural events here at the Ecumenical Centre, to make the Orthodox church and its tradition better known.

From your perspective, what is the goal of the ecumenical movement?

Archbishop Job: The ecumenical movement has a very long pre-history - but as we know it in the 20th century, the goal of the ecumenical movement is church unity. Speaking to several theologians of the 20th century, they always stress that they all believe in church unity. This is the goal of the ecumenical movement and our dream - because we believe in one church, we have received the commandment from our Lord to be one, and therefore we have to have this goal and dream in our minds. "That all may be one", as we see it on the big tapestry in the Visser't Hooft Hall here at WCC.

Church unity is still our hope and a dream. Although church unity may seem less possible today than it was in the 20th century, nevertheless ecumenical dialogue is very important to understand each other better and to work together in a society that is more and more secularized.

Goethe has said - to speak is a need, to listen is an art. Our churches need to speak with each other - it is a need we have always had and have now, particularly in a world with all the crises we know today. We need to speak to each other, but we also need to cultivate the art of listening to the other in our respective churches, in order to understand each other. This art should be supported by the ecumenical movement.

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*Ivars Kupcis works as a communication officer at the World Council of Churches.