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WCC general secretary welcome speech

29 May 2006

29 May 2006

Your Beatitude, 

It is my great pleasure and honour to welcome you and the distinguished members of the delegation of the Church to this Ecumenical Centre, the "common house" of all member churches of the World Council - Anglican, Old Catholic, Orthodox, Protestant - that have committed themselves to join in a "fellowship of churches".

We welcome you to the "common house" of our community of churches, together on the way to the "goal of visible unity in one faith and in one eucharistic fellowship expressed in worship and in common life in Christ, [seeking] to advance towards that unity in order that the world may believe".1

We welcome you just one year after the World Conference on Mission and Evangelism that gathered in Athens, Greece, so generously hosted by Your Beatitude and the Church of Greece.

I recall with appreciation the warm reception by Your Beatitude and the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece at the occasion of the World Conference, and I am grateful that Your Beatitude has kindly accepted my invitation to visit Geneva. After the first World Conference of Mission and Evangelism ever held in a predominantly Orthodox context, for the first time a primate of the Church of Greece now officially visits the seat of the World Council of Churches in Geneva.2

On this historic occasion, we welcome with joy and gratitude the spiritual head of a founding member of the World Council of Churches, an Orthodox Church that has actively participated in the formation and development of the World Council of Churches.

Your Beatitude,

I would like to use the opportunity of our meeting to highlight three dimensions of this visit which are of particular importance to the WCC.

Firstly, let me express our deep gratitude for the invaluable contribution of an entire "cloud of witnesses" from the Church of Greece, who are no longer among us.

Affirming today that the Church of Greece has been one of the most active member churches of the World Council is certainly not a matter of mere courtesy. Throughout the years, theologians and hierarchs from the Church of Greece have responsibly represented your Church and creatively contributed to the work of the Council by bringing their theological and spiritual vision for the guidance of the ecumenical movement.

To give only a few examples from among those who are with us no more - and I freely admit that the list presented here is not exhaustive - I would mention the following Greek theologians.

In the 1940s and early 1950s the late Professors Alivizatos and Ioannidis contributed significantly to the ecclesiological and ecumenical debate that eventually led to the drafting of the "Toronto Statement", a foundational document which not only facilitated but also broadened Orthodox participation in the WCC, and constitutes to this day the "ecclesiological charter" of the WCC.

From the late 1950s, and for about twenty years, the late Professor Nikos Nissiotis, lecturer and director of the Ecumenical Institute of Bossey, contributed to the formation of a generation of younger theologians from all over the world, introducing them to the riches of Orthodox theology and spirituality, while inviting and challenging them to think and develop their theological discourse from an ecumenical perspective.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the late Professors Karmiris and Kaloghirou played a leading role in bilateral theological dialogues. They recorded, commented and evaluated their findings, and encouraged the continuation of these discussions.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s Professors Nissiotis and Konidaris were among the protagonists of the well-known document of the Commission of Faith and Order on "Baptism, Eucharist, Ministry", a document that paved the way for many churches - Anglican, Reformed, Lutheran, and others - to enter into agreements of full communion, or to express in other concrete ways their communion in faith, worship and life.

In the 1980s and 1990s the late Father Romanides developed a critical yet positive discourse about the WCC and its institutional structure, and largely inspired and informed the reflection process on "the common understanding and vision of the WCC", a debate which is still of great interest and importance for the future of the ecumenical movement.

I mention all these theologians from the Church of Greece because, together with Orthodox theologians, priests, bishops and patriarchs from other local Orthodox churches, they have articulated a powerful discourse ever reminding us - as did the Church Fathers in the past - that disunity is a scandal; that Christian division compromises the witness of the Gospel in the world; that the church of Christ proclaims God as one who reconciles, heals and restores; that the church is concerned both with teaching the faith and with reconciling those who have been alienated from each other.

This is an immense ecumenical legacy for which we are grateful. It constitutes one of the foundational elements of our common journey.

May their memory be eternal, and may the younger generations of Orthodox theologians - in Greece and elsewhere - follow their example.

Secondly, today we hail the radical contemporary developments and changes in the Church of Greece. It would certainly not be appropriate simply to recall the past in our meeting. The present state of relationships between the Church of Greece and the WCC seems to be equally rich and challenging. And, looking at the presence of Your Beatitude among us today, I am even tempted to add that the future seems to be even more promising.

My affirmations here are mainly inspired by what Your Beatitude stated during the World Conference on Mission and Evangelism. At that time, you openly declared the determination of the Church of Greece:

" (…) to join forces with other Christians, in dialogue and common witness, especially nowadays, when, from one end of the world to the other, the human person is tortured at the social and political level, because of urbanisation and globalisation which annul any difference between personalities and make invalid the unique character of each individual person".3

We welcome with great joy this unequivocal expression of commitment to inter-Christian dialogue and cooperation, which may open a new page in the history of the Church of Greece. Indeed, the changes in Greek society and the Church are quite compelling. Again, I will mention only a few examples that are indicative and definitely not meant to be exhaustive.

In the past months, Your Beatitude and distinguished hierarchs of the Church of Greece have repeatedly reaffirmed a genuine willingness and readiness to host inter-orthodox and inter-Christian encounters. They certainly reflect the renewed commitment of the Church of Greece to play an active role in encouraging and facilitating dialogue and cooperation. From what I was able to discover during my visit to Greece, the Church of Greece has a tremendous ecclesial and spiritual, human and material potential. Dioceses, parishes and monastic centres are real sources of inspiration to us all: theological faculties and seminaries, Church institutions - such as the Apostoliki Diakonia - youth and student movements, women's circles, and so on.

Until fairly recent years, Greece as a country and her Church largely depended on the generosity of their friends and allies, including the member churches of the WCC. Today, as part of an open and affluent society, they are able to contribute in their turn to the movement of dialogue and reconciliation, sharing their resources and accompanying other peoples and churches in their material and spiritual needs. The exhibition presenting the work of "Solidarity", the recently created aid and development NGO of the Church of Greece, that is on display today in the lobby of the Ecumenical Centre, witnesses to the fact that the Church of Greece is determined to play an active role in the area of humanitarian aid and global solidarity.

Until fairly recent years, the Church of Greece would criticize the World Council of Church - sometimes even severely - for dealing with matters of socio-political and secular natures rather than focusing exclusively on the goal of visible unity among Christian Churches. Today, we discover with great pleasure that the Church of Greece is becoming a precious partner - sometimes even a pioneer - in the areas of bioethics, concern for migrants and refugees, as well as reflection on the values and roots of European culture.

For many years, the WCC, on behalf of the ecumenical family, had the entire responsibility and direct supervision of the Athens Office for migrants and refugees. Today, we are in a position to observe that this office is run entirely by the Church of Greece, again on behalf of the ecumenical family. I am aware that the way this office was transferred to the Church of Greece still provokes bitter memories. However, looking at these developments from our perspective, we are proud of the leading role this office and the Church of Greece are playing today within the ecumenical movement.

Until fairly recent years, it was quite difficult to discuss with the hierarchy of the Church of Greece the active participation of women in the life of the church. Today, we follow with joy and particular interest the encounters of women officially delegated by the dioceses to discuss their place and specific contribution to the life and witness of the Church.

For a time, the Church of Greece was identified as a church that would resist the idea of any dialogue and cooperation with people of other religious faiths. Today, we are pleased to learn that the Archdiocese of Athens, as a tangible sign of her commitment to a peaceful co-existence with peoples of other faiths, offered a large piece of land to the Muslim community for the construction of a cemetery.

I mention all this, Your Beatitude, because together with my colleagues we are in the process of analysis and reflection on the policy decisions of the Ninth Assembly of the WCC, and we are preparing the programmatic priorities of the World Council of Churches for the coming years. As we open a new page in our own history after the assembly, we express our authentic desire to open a new page of collaboration with the Church of Greece as a result of your visit.

Areas on which we are likely to concentrate our attention and programmatic activities include: Theological grounding of all our work; The call to be one church; The meaning of spirituality and its importance for the ecumenical movement; The changing ecclesial landscape as a consequence of migration; Social injustice and poverty; Ecumenical formation; Christian presence and witness in the Middle East; Dialogue and cooperation with people of other faiths.

In the coming days, we will gladly discuss with you and the members of your delegation concrete possibilities of cooperation, and we will be ready to discuss concrete proposals for the ways the Church of Greece could actively participate in the programmatic activities of the Council.


Finally, today we receive your visit in the context of the broader Orthodox participation in the WCC. There is yet another reason for looking at the future with confidence. The Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the WCC, established by the Eighth Assembly, raised decisive questions and dealt with matters of capital importance such as prayer, ecclesiology, membership, ethical and moral issues, as well as new ways of decision-making.

The experience of the Ninth Assembly proved that for the first time in the history of the WCC fundamental questions raised by the Orthodox churches were largely shared by other member churches and have now led to major constitutional and institutional changes.

Reports from Orthodox delegates after the assembly are generally positive and encouraging. Orthodox member churches have welcomed the results of the Special Commission and recognize that the subsequent policy decisions of the assembly inaugurate a new stage in their participation in the WCC.

In addition, recently I had the privilege of meeting with the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem. They have all reiterated their commitment to their involvement in the WCC. I will soon visit the Patriarch of Moscow, and I have standing invitations from other heads of Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches.

I do not pretend that all problems have been solved. I do not minimize the difficulties ahead of us. The Ecumenical Patriarchate summarized the real source of our difficulties by defining the "fellowship of churches" that we strive to be as an "ecclesiological challenge".4

Therefore, I am particularly sensitive to the passionate debates on participation in the ecumenical movement and in the WCC that take place within and between the churches. The experience of the Special Commission has shown that the WCC is ready to discuss openly all the problems in the life and witness of its member churches, to become a real space for encounter and dialogue. At the same time, the Council is deeply aware of the fact that forms of fundamentalism and sterile conservatism are to be found across the confessional and denominational boundaries and that many seek refuge in doctrinal isolation, exclusivist claims and rejection of other expressions of belief and worship. These positions may be found in all church traditions, in one form or another.

While we recognize these positions, and respect that authentic differences exist, our response is a consistent one: we affirm that there is no other way forward but for the churches of Christ to continue to walk together on their common journey towards unity, without compromise, providing one another a mutual enrichment and sustenance in the face of so many common challenges facing our world. In this common task, we see a particular role and responsibility for the Church of Greece.

Your Beatitude,

In the midst of all difficulties and obstacles, we are always mindful that the vision of unity in Christ nurtures our understanding of the Council and our quest for reconciliation and visible unity.

Let me conclude my words of welcome by restating this vision, articulated nearly fifty years ago at the first assembly of the WCC in Amsterdam (1948):

"Unity arises out of the love of God in Jesus Christ, which, binding the constituent churches to him, binds them to one another. It is the earnest desire of the Council that the churches may be bound closer to Christ and therefore closer to one another. In the bond of this love, they will desire continually to pray for one another and to strengthen one another in worship and in witness, bearing one another's burdens and so fulfilling the law of Christ".

1 Constitution of the WCC.

2 Archbishop Seraphim, of blessed memory, predecessor of Archbishop Christodoulos, paid an informal visit to the WCC in the late 1980s.

3 World Conference on Mission and Evangelism, Athens 2005, Welcoming address by Archbishop Christodoulos of Athens and of All Greece.

4 Cf the Policy Statement « Towards a Common Understanding and Vision of the WCC ».

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