The Holy See and the Ecumenical Patriarchate: Ecumenical Perspectives in Eco-Theology

By: Archbishop Prof. Dr. Job (Getcha) of Telmessos

Halki Summit V

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The Orthodox Church was a pioneer in addressing the environmental crisis since 1986. This led the Ecumenical Patriarchate to take an active part in various international ecological initiatives and to the establishment of 1st September as a day of prayer for the protection of the natural environment in 1989. In the very first Patriarchal Encyclical issued in 1989, the late Ecumenical Patriarch Demetrios of blessed memory asserted that the Church could not remain indifferent before the ecological crisis and called “all those entrusted with the responsibility of governing the nations to act without delay taking all necessary measures for the protection and preservation of the natural creation.”

The Ecumenical Patriarchate has chosen the beginning of the new liturgical year (1st September) as the “Day of Protection for the Environment,” when prayers of thanksgiving are offered to the Creator for “the great gift of Creation” as well as supplications for its preservation. Its coincidence with the time of harvest, it is also appropriate to realize how much we owe to our Creator, in the same spirit as the feast of thanksgiving observed in North America during the fall.

This initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate was very well received in the Ecumenical Movement, by the WCC and the CEC, as well as by different Christian Churches such as the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Lutheran World Federation and the World Communion of Reformed Churches.

No other worldwide religious leader has placed the ecological crisis at the forefront of his service and sermons as our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. We are glad that his clear message was heard and taken over by other religious leaders, including Pope Francis. The Papal encyclical Laudato si’, the second encyclical of Pope Francis, which was officially published in June 2015, has led to many Roman Catholic initiatives for lifestyle changes that reflect respect for creation, “our common home”. In three paragraphs of his encyclical (7-9), Pope Francis gives credits to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew for his contribution on this crucial matter. “Patriarch Bartholomew has spoken in particular of the need for each of us to repent of the ways we have harmed the planet”, writes the Pope. “He has repeatedly stated this firmly and persuasively, challenging us to acknowledge our sins against creation”. He further adds:

At the same time, Bartholomew has drawn attention to the ethical and spiritual roots of environmental problems, which require that we look for solutions not only in technology but in a change of humanity; otherwise we would be dealing merely with symptoms. He asks us to replace consumption with sacrifice, greed with generosity, wastefulness with a spirit of sharing, an asceticism which ‘entails learning to give, and not simply to give up’”.[1]

In the same spirit, the environmental crisis was also discussed by the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church gathered on Crete in 2016. Its message emphasized the spiritual and moral causes of the ecological crisis connected with greed, avarice and egoism, which lead to over-exploitation of natural resources, pollution and to climate change. For this reason, it stated that “the Christian response to the problem demands repentance for the abuses, an ascetic frame of mind as an antidote to overconsumption, and at the same time a cultivation of the consciousness that man is a steward and not a possessor of creation.”[2]

The council saw the origin of the problem in a secular approach to the environment which introduces a rupture the creation and the Creator. For this reason, as the encyclical of the Council reminds us,

The approach to the ecological problem on the basis of the principles of the Christian tradition demands not only repentance for the sin of the exploitation of the natural resources of the planet, namely, a radical change in mentality and behavior, but also asceticism as an antidote to consumerism, the deification of needs and the acquisitive attitude. It also presupposes our greatest responsibility to hand down a viable natural environment to future generations and to use it according to divine will and blessing.”[3]

Following the papal encyclical Laudato si, which was the first papal encyclical to address the theme of the protection of the creation, and following the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, Pope Francis and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew issued a joint message for the World Day of Prayer for Creation on 1 September 2017. This message invited all people of goodwill to dedicate a time of prayer for the environment on 1st September, stressed that “the human environment and the natural environment are deteriorating together, and this deterioration of the planet weighs upon the most vulnerable of its people” and called humanity “to care for creation are an invitation for all of humanity to work towards sustainable and integral development.”[4]

In the same spirit, the Lutheran World Federation, at its 12th Assembly in Windhoek in 2017, clearly pointed out that salvation, humans, and creation are not for sale and urged the development of alternative economic models that could be practiced on large and small scales. The 26th General Council of the World Communion of Reformed Churches in Leipzig in 2017 called for Churches to present themselves as beacons of change and alternative communities amidst growing socio-economic and ecological challenges.

Since its 10th Assembly in Busan in 2013, the World Council of Churches called for a pilgrimage towards an Economy of Life and climate justice. The ecological crisis, seen through the glace of the protection of God’s creation, is since then at the center of attention in the different programs of the WCC.

Having undertaken measures to improve children’s well-being at a request received at yje 10th Assembly in Busan (Korea) in 2013, the WCC developed a special program called “Churches’ Commitments to Children” which is an open invitation and living resource for the ecumenical commitment to child wellbeing, uniting the Churches for children in their pilgrimage of justice and peace. This program supports engagement of Churches in three specific areas: Child Protection, Child Participation and Climate Justice initiatives with Children. Concerning the last area, it supports initiatives to educate and to involve children and adolescents to the environmental issues and particularly the question of climate change. The development and implementation of this program is supported by the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) through a global WCC-UNICEF partnership, with a focus on ending violence against children and climate justice.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate replied positively to this program and Patriarch Bartholomew personally addressed the World Children’s Day Celebratory Event in Geneva in November 2018 where he stated the following:

Children are especially vulnerable to climate change and environmental degradation. When water becomes scarce because of drought, the poorest children and families are most likely to resort to unsafe water sources.  […] Any abuse of our earth’s resources—and, above all, of water as the source and symbol of life and renewal—contradicts our sacred and social obligation to other people, and especially to those who live in poverty and in the margins of society. Water is a fundamental good, which must be accessible for all people regardless of race, gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic status or any other aspect of discrimination.”[5]

On that occasion, the Ecumenical Patriarch stressed that the issues of immigration, refugees and climate change are closely linked and will remain the biggest global challenges that our world will have to face in the coming years. He mentioned climate change as a primary cause of child immigration and considered that it represents a serious threat to their lives. Therefore, according to him, the protection of children is closely linked with the protection of the environment to which our Churches must undertake appropriate initiatives.

The most recent World Council of Churches resource rooted to the congregational level of churches’ engagement in ecological and economic justice is a document entitled “Roadmap for Congregations, Communities and Churches for an Economy of Life and Ecological Justice”[6]. It is a very practical invitation to our parishes to join a pilgrimage for an Economy of Life and climate justice, to commit to make changes in the way people live, to share successful ideas and to encourage one another. It offers a 5-step program to change the way we deal with the economy and our ecological surroundings in the following areas: Living in accordance with the covenant with God and creation, Renewable Energy & Climate Protection, Just and Sustainable Consumption, Economies of Life and Networking.

By living in accordance with the Covenant with God and Creation, the document calls the Christian communities to support and practice small-scale, life-giving agriculture, create community gardens and provide access to clean water. As we all believe, food and water is a gift from God and therefore is a human right. Unfortunately, the conventional industrial agriculture is leading to a critical loss of biodiversity, disastrous effects of climate change, degradation of the soil that nourishes us, and sometimes to land grabs and displacement of people by greedy multinational companies. The document invites our parishes to contribute to resolve this problem by organizing community gardens that yield vegetables, medicinal herbs, fruits, or rare species which can rescue biodiversity. Gardening could be a fun activity for our Sunday schools as well as for our older parishioners. Such gardens can be wonderful meeting points and help to deepen relationships within the community. They are also visible examples of practicing life-giving agriculture and rediscovering all resources for food sovereignty in accordance with God’s creation. Parishes should also respect the human right to water, promote water as a public good, and say no to bottled water where tap water is safe or look for alternatives, where it is not.

By promoting renewable energy and climate protection, the document calls to monitor energy consumption and move towards renewable energies, promote climate-friendly mobility and deal with energy and materials consciously. It invites our parishes based in privileged countries to control the use of energy and to improve the energy efficiency of buildings and establishments. Where possible, changing from conventional to eco-electricity is the first and easiest step, by installing, for instance, solar panels, building a community-run, small-scale hydroelectric dam, etc. Also, posting timetables for public transport, bicycle parking and sharing, setting up one of the many carpooling or car-sharing systems, installing charging points for electric cars, or, above all, reducing the need for mobility by re-regionalizing the daily life economy are practical projects which are suggested to be undertaken by parishes. The faithful of our Churches have to be remined that the production of an item requires energy and that every waste of energy harms the environment and costs money that could be used for beneficial projects.

As our Ecumenical Patriarch pointed out during his memorable visit to the WCC headquarters on 24 April 2017, “Ecologists today are giving us a wake-up call, saying that by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight. Plastic pollution is an environmental and social justice issue. This is why we should be avoiding plastic by using alternatives in our everyday life.”[7] This alarming call should not remain only pious words but should be taken into concrete action by our parishioners. Parishes can implement small changes like duplex printing on recycled paper, avoiding plastic and styrofoam cups, or installing switchable electrical outlets can have a remarkable effect.

The document calls for a just and sustainable consumption by buying ecological, fair, and regional, reduce waste and by recycling. Supporting local establishments promotes economic wellbeing and coherence in our regions and has a positive impact on the environment.  For this reason, it invites our parishes to introduce officially the ‘best offer’ instead of ‘cheapest offer’ principle. For instance, the meals in our parishes can provide fairly traded coffee, tea, juice, and chocolate, and vegetarian food. Promoting vegetarian food is something the Orthodox, who have such a strong tradition of fasting, could easily do in periods of fasting, during which the environmental dimension should be underlined, taking into consideration experiences such as “fasting for climate justice” that was taken over by the World Lutheran Federation[8]. They should purchase products that adhere to social and ecological standards, and long-lasting products. The huge and still growing plastic island in the ocean is showing how we drown in our own rubbish. Plastic is even becoming a part of our food chain. The document reminds us that there is no need to use beverages in plastic bottles and calls us to reduce waste and encourage recycling.

The document speaks also of economies of life, inviting communities to create places for moneyless interaction, practice alternative economic models and just finance. It suggests that in a world where daily life is more and more dominated by consumerism, and achievements are increasingly measured in terms of money, our parishes can become a meeting point without the necessity of buying or paying for something, without judgment of ability to pay, without exclusion. The document suggests a very simple beginning: a shelf where people can deposit things they don’t need anymore and others can take items for free, organizing free shop, second-hand shops, food-sharing-points, repair café, skills-exchange network, producer-consumer network, and much more. It points out that Churches often critique the destructive economy and at the same time empower it by thoughtless investment. It underlined that there are many good methods we can use in favor of our communities and the world.

Finally, the document emphases networking. It suggests to name contact persons for economic and ecological justice, to raise our voice on economic and ecological issues in our communities and beyond and to network with other communities and initiatives. It suggests that when a parish names contact persons, they feel encouraged in what they do. The exchange with others brings new ideas and higher motivation. Such a project should have an ecumenical dimension. Our parishes should be networking with other neighboring Christian communities. Regional projects can more easily be realized if local promoters are clearly identified. It is encouraging and joyful to be part of a movement, to build alliances with other congregations, communities, and initiatives in our own countries and worldwide. We need to look for good initiatives in our surroundings, and to learn from, accompany, and share them.

With such practical ideas, one can see how Orthodox “eco-theology” has impacted the Ecumenical circles! As 30 years have passed since the Ecumenical Patriarchate declared in a prophetic way the feast of 1st September as the day of prayer for the protection of creation, inviting people of good will around the world to pray and to undertake proper and responsible actions to preserve it, many things have been said, very little has been done. This critique ought to be addressed to every one of us, including us the Orthodox.

While swimming in the seas during our holidays, one can see how much dirt, especially plastic, can be found in them. For a long time, scientists have called our attention to the fact that, by 2050, the oceans will contain more plastic than fish by weight. Have we ever thought of participating in cleaning the oceans, or at least, not throwing any garbage into the waters of our planet?

Time has come for us to implement their ortho-doxy by an ecological ortho-praxis, or in other words to incarnate their eco-theology by an eco-justice in each one of their parishes.

Discontinuing the use of plastic bottles and utensils, reducing waste, encouraging recycling, planting trees, organizing community gardens, promoting vegetarian food, promoting climate-friendly mobility, installing solar panels are very simple things that we can do at the level of our parishes, thus witnessing and teaching people what they ought to do in their homes. I remember visiting in Italy the beautiful sanctuary of Saint Mary of Canneto. Could you imagine that the solar panels recovering the roof of the site for outdoor worship produces enough energy for the whole sanctuary? That’s a practical example to follow. During the last century, the Elder Amphilochios Makris of Patmos (1889-1970), recently canonized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, was often giving as a penance to the people coming to confess to him to plant a tree. Over the years, the arid island of St John the Evangelist became a green island. The Elder used to say: “Who plants a tree plants hope, plants peace, plants love, and receives the blessings of God”. He considered that there was another commandment of God, not written in the Scriptures: “Love the trees”. May the Holy Elder Amphilochios encourage us to move from eco-theology towards eco-justice, and to implement orthodoxy by orthopraxis, by planting trees as a sign of our conversion.

[1] Laudato si, 8-9.

[2] Message, 8. Cf. also Mission, F10.

[3] Encyclical, V, 14.