Oriental Orthodox Church News
Pan-Orthodox Conference: 25-27 July, 2014
In the tranquil surrounds of ‘The Hayes’ Conference Centre at Swanwick in Derbyshire eighty two delegates assembled for a Pan-Orthodox Conference organized by Orthodox Christianity UK. Deacon Christopher Barnes and I arrived in the early afternoon to be greeted by Mourad Habid, his wife, and Reader Keith Bailey (another member of the British Orthodox Church, but worshipping with the Copts in Birmingham), organizers of the event. We were given a folio of facts sheets and shown to our rooms. After we were settled into our comfortable accommodation we met the rest of the delegates over a cup of tea. We then made our way to the conference hall for the introduction by Mourad Habid who told the story of how a meeting at St.Bega in Cumbria the previous year discussed how the full communion of all the Orthodox families within one Church could be brought about. To be an Icon of the Holy Trinity and the true Body of Christ was reflected in the video sermon on ‘The Church’ given by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware), who was unable to attend himself.
Following an enjoyable dinner, Father Mark Aziz, Hegumenos of St.Mark’s Church, Kirkcaldy in Scotland, spoke about ‘The Grace of the Only Begotten Son’. His theme was that being drawn by Christ, we set out on an inward journey, Who draws all things to Himself at the appointed time. Our lives are transformed into a new life with Him and all humanity is reconnected with the Holy Trinity in the Eucharist through His Grace. The power of salvation grants co-operation of God’s power and our acceptance, especially at every liturgy. The evening finished with hymns followed by a workshop consisting of five groups of delegates discussing Father Mark’s talk.
After breakfast the following morning, an hour was spent in the chapel reciting the ‘Jesus Prayer’. In the Conference Room, after the coffee break, Professor Dr.Joseph Fallas’ (University of Athens) talk was entitled ‘Love of God the Father’ He reminded us that God is our true father for those who accept Jesus Christ as His son and we can pray to Him as His child. One of God’s names in Greek means’ stick’ – as in straight the way of Orthodoxy, the essence of God is leading us to the Trinity by Grace. The soul is created in the image of God which is in the bosom of the Father through His Son. Following this talk a presentation was made by the charity ‘Coptic Orphans’ and then we the broke for lunch. In the afternoon everybody divided into their group for a workshop on Dr.Fallas’s talk followed by the tea break. Our next speaker was Father Maximus who after studying in Athens, Cambridge and London, spent fourteen years as a monk on Mount Athos and finally became an Orthodox chaplain in Cambridge for seven years before retiring. His theme ‘The Revelation of God’ was an in-depth theological explanation of how every human being is good, even someone who has committed the most heinous of crimes. He went to on to talk about ‘Raptures or Visions’ such as are received by the Saints. which are out of time and space, passing through three stages. The final stage being the union with God, which St.John of the Cross tells us is ‘nothing, nothing, nothing’, when the light of God so blinds us that there is utter darkness.
After the usual break for tea the workshop for this talk was enjoyed outside in the pleasant surroundings of ‘The Hayes’. Later in the chapel, before the hour of the ‘Jesus Prayer’, Julia Pasco, a ‘Jews for Jesus’ supporter, gave a fascinating presentation on the ‘Passover Meal’ and the significance of the various rituals that are enacted and their meaning. There is more to the meal than bread and wine, many of these signs and symbols are understood by Christians, but hidden from the Jews. Following dinner, we returned to the Conference Hall for Father Stephen Freeman, M.A of Duke University, a priest of St Ann’s church at Oak Ridge, Tennessee, U.S.A., who gave the evening talk on ‘The Communion of the Holy Spirit’. The Spirit changes us inside and enables us to understand the hidden meanings in the Gospels and the Old Testament, as happened to the disciples who had not fully understood the sayings of Jesus Christ until the Spirit came at Pentecost. He calls us into a timeless remembrance of the encountering of Christ, His self sacrifice and self-emptying, Who being made sin, takes evil upon Himself. The crucifixion is a single event before the creation, it reveals who He is and always has been. This God means us no harm and true life is found in giving-up of self. Dying for a cause is not martyrdom, only dying for love. The Spirit is not of this world and not of this time, Who reveals who was, Who is and is to come. Reality transcends, time the outcome of history has already come. The work of God is to redeem us with the love of the crucified Christ. After hymns, the question and answer session went on late into the night.
On the final morning, breakfast and checking-out, the ‘Jesus Prayer’ was said for an hour for the last time in the chapel. We returned to the Conference Hall being refreshed with coffee to hear Father John Musther of St.Bega church in Keswick, Cumbria, talk on the theme ‘Love of God in the Fathers’ Tradition’. The mystery of God is the gift of Christ to God of the life of the Church, Scripture, Church Fathers and the Saints. The Saints are our living friends and fathers who help us in our journey. We should ask our Lord Jesus Christ to cleanse us and make us like Him. The ‘Jesus Prayer’ has the capacity to change our lives and become ‘the undistorted image’. The living tradition of the Saints is continuous and the Desert Fathers the lynch-pin of a holy life. God’s work is that we all are one-in-Christ and the world is scandalized by our disunity and the two traditions of Byzantine and Coptic who are the earliest of the living traditions. Pope Shenouda III in 1989 at St Bishoy’s monastery during a meeting of the World Council of Church, signed a document which started the process of unity. His successor, Pope Tawadros II, is continuing this work by sending a deputation of Coptic monks to visit their brothers in Christ at the Greek monastery on Mount Athos. After a presentation by ‘Coptic in Need’ a charity helping the poorest of the poor, lunch was served and final ‘Goodbyes’ said. All delegates were filled with joy seeing God working for the unity of the Church and the fervent prayer of all attending this conference is that we may soon be one as God and His Son are one.
St Felix & St. Mary’s British Orthodox Church Babingley, Nr. King’s Lynn.
Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission
The Anglican-Oriental Orthodox International Commission has held its third meeting, from 13–17 October 2014, at St Mark’s Centre, Cairo, Egypt.
The Commission completed its work revising the text of the 2002 Holy Etchmiadzin Agreed Statement on Christology in the light of comments received from member Churches. The revised text was signed at the Cairo meeting by His Eminence Metropolitan Bishoy of Damietta on behalf of the Oriental Orthodox Churches, and by The Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell on behalf of the Anglican Communion. This significant, revised statement will be sent to the responsible authorities of the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion for their consideration and action.
During the course of its meeting the Commission shared in daily prayer from the various traditions represented, and considered and discussed the themes of authority and primacy in the two families of Churches.
The Commission shared the urgent concerns of members from the Middle East, especially in the critical situations in Syria, Iraq, Lebanon and other regions, and heard of the experience of the Church in Egypt from Pope Tawadros and Bishop Mouneer. Messages of solidarity were also sent to the Christians of those regions through the delegates present. Church leaders and members of the Commission reiterated their ongoing prayers and concern for the two kidnapped bishops of Aleppo, Metropolitan Mor Gregorios Youhanna Ibrahim of the Syrian Orthodox Church, and Metropolitan Boulos Yazigi of the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch.
At the conclusion of the dialogue the Commission thanked God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, for the unity that they experienced and shared, and look forward to continuing its work.
This was the last of its meetings to be co-chaired by Bishop Geoffrey, who was thanked for his faithful service to its work since its inception. It was also the last meeting as Co-Secretary for Archbishop Nareg Alemezian (who is succeeded in the role by Fr Housig Mardirossian),.
The fourth meeting of the Commission will take place in Wales from 5–10 October 2015, hosted by the Anglican Communion, addressing among other issues the theme of the Holy Spirit, on which important preliminary work was done.The new Anglican Co-Chair will be Bishop Gregory Cameron, Bishop of St Asaph in the Church in Wales.
Joint Declaration by Armenian & Syriac Church Primates
On October 13, in the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin, His Holiness Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, and His Holiness Mor Ignatius Ephrem II, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East, signed this Text in the presence of the delegations of the two Churches:
We, Karekin II, Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, and Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, Patriarch of Antioch and All the East and Supreme Head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church, offer thanksgiving to the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for providing us the opportunity to meet in the spiritual center of all Armenians, the Mother See of Holy Etchmiadzin by the fraternal invitation of the Catholicos of All Armenians, to affirm the unity of faith, and the willful desire to continue cooperation between the two sister Churches.
The Armenian and Syriac Orthodox sister Churches, founded by the Apostles, share the same Christology and Apostolic Tradition, patristic heritage and common saints, confessors and witnesses. We are happy to acknowledge that today as well the historical relations between our two churches are developing closer.
In this fast changing world our Churches are facing new challenges in their pastoral life. We place great importance upon the development of our bilateral relations in the areas of spiritual and theological education, pastoral life and promotion of monasticism. We encourage the representatives of our Churches to continue their cooperative efforts on the diocesan levels.
We are greatly concerned with the situation in the Middle East. Today the countries of the Middle East, which are the birthplace of the monotheist religions and where representatives of different religions have lived and worked side by side for centuries, are going through major crisis. We strongly condemn the activities of all terrorist groups and religious extremists, and all violence committed against Christians, Muslims, Yazidi people and other minorities. We are hopeful that the war on terror in Iraq and Syria will succeed in establishing peace in the region, so that those who were forced into exile may return to their homes.
We also express our concern for the continuing war in Syria. Once again we call upon the international community to respect the will of the Syrian people to solve their own political problems and dissensions strictly by peaceful means. We urge and pray for the immediate release of two kidnapped archbishops Mor Gregorios Youhanna Ibrahim and Boulos Yazigi. We are hopeful that the international community will continue to provide humanitarian aid to the region, whether it be of a financial, medical or other nature helpful to human life, and remove all obstacles in the way of humanitarian assistance.
One hundred years have passed since the beginning of the First World War which caused so much destruction and human misfortune. Different nations and governments of the world remember the evils of mankind and recall the events which brought about irreversible losses. The war brought about painful consequences for the Armenians, who lost one and half million of their people and a great part of their land and Syriacs who, have lost more than five hundred thousand of their population. We offer prayers for Armenian and Syriac martyrs as well as other victims of the World War I. We invite the entire Christian world to unite in prayer at the Armenian Genocide and the Syriac Sayfo centennial commemorative events in 2015. We call upon the civilized world to recognize and condemn the crimes committed against the Armenian and Syriac peoples as well as other Christian communities.
We give thanks to God Almighty for the existing cooperation between the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which share the same faith. We happily acknowledge that our Church family engages in the ecumenical movement and in dialogues with the other churches and Christian communities. In these new historical realities the theological dialogues must contribute to the common witness of the Church of Christ in the changing world. We are pleased that the bilateral and multilateral relations are progressing with representatives of other religions and inter-religious organizations, for the peace in the world as well as for the wellbeing and prosperity of humankind.
We pray to God for the splendour of the Churches, and for peace on earth and especially in the Middle East, asking that the Lord will soon grant peace and a undisturbed life to the people of Syria. – Press Release, Holy Etchmiadzin, Oct. 13.
Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Churches
The Working Group of the Joint Commission for the Dialogue between the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Athens, 24-25 November 20214.
The working group reviewed the achievements of the Joint Commission so far, in bringing together the two families of the Orthodox Churches on the basis of our common understanding of the Apostolic faith. Co-Chairman, Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, pointed out the very high priority accorded by the Orthodox Church to the official Theological Dialogue with the Oriental Orthodox Churches. He underlined the common acceptance of the Christological teaching of our common Father St. Cyril of Alexandria and of our common patristic and ecclesiological tradition of the first five centuries as the decisive criterion.
He called for a systematic evaluation of all the theological critiques on the proposals of the Joint Commission and for a theological defence against all prejudices and polemical arguments. He emphasized that unity of the Church is an important dogma of faith and therefore the work of the Commission towards unity is of fundamental doctrinal significance. In order to communicate to the clergy and the people of our Churches the work of the Joint Commission, he suggested regular meetings of the primates of our Churches, exchange of professors, well-prepared meetings of monks from both families and all possible cooperation of Churches at regional level and the Diaspora. The use of print and electronic media to disseminate the efforts for unity was also strongly advocated by Metropolitan Emmanuel.
Co-Chairman, Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette, gave an interpretation of the First Agreed Statement on Christology of the historic official dialogue between the two families held at St. Bishoy Monastery, Egypt, in 1989. Highlighting the Christological position of our common Father St. Cyril of Alexandria he pointed out the fact that the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Orthodox Church are expressing the same reality when they speak about one composite hypostasis of the incarnate Logos. He cited from the Chambesy Statement of the Joint Commission in 1990 saying ‘”that both families have always loyally maintained the same authentic Orthodox Christological faith, and the unbroken continuity of the Apostolic Tradition.’” Metropolitan Bishoy also narrated the great efforts he made jointly with the former Co-Chairman, Damaskinos of blessed memory, to visit various local Orthodox Churches on both sides, in order to communicate personally to the local Churches’ leadership the good results of the Joint Commission’s work.
In the light of the presentations of the two Co-Chairmen, an intense and fruitful discussion followed. There were also separate meetings of the families to discuss the remaining issues from the perspective of each family as well as to find the common way forward.
Following are some of the proposals, recommendations and concerns expressed by the working group.
- Gratefully acknowledging the guidance of the Holy Spirit so far in the work of the Joint Commission, the working group called for the continuation of the dialogue in all earnestness and for a formal meeting of the full Commission at the earliest appropriate time.
- While acknowledging the good work of the Sub-Committees on theological, canonical, liturgical and pastoral issues, the working group recognized that some Churches raised some serious issues that require further clarification such as lifting of anathemas, common enumeration of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, mutual recognition of Saints and some questions on Christology. Some solutions to these issues have also been proposed in the Sub-Committees, but they need to be communicated effectively to the clergy, monks, schools of theology and people on both sides to arrive at a consensus.
The working group expressed deep concern over the situation of our Churches especially in the Middle East. It appealed to the international community and to all concerned for the release of the two abducted Bishops, Metropolitan Mor Gregorios Youhanna Ibrahim and Metropolitan Boulos Yasigi. The group felt that the situation of Christianity today urgently necessitates Orthodox unity and the promoting of a healthy interfaith dialogue.
It was noted that three local Churches from the Orthodox family (Alexandria, Antioch and Romania) and three Churches from the Oriental Orthodox family (Alexandria, Antioch and Malankara-India), had already declared their acceptance of the agreed statements and proposals from the Joint Commission. The working group that met in the 50th year of the first unofficial dialogue meeting between the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox took place in Aarhus, Denmark, 1964. Hence, in the spirit of jubilee the group called for liberation from the misapprehensions and separations of the past, while praying for the joyful common celebration of our life together in Jesus Christ our Saviour in mutual forgiveness, reconciliation and communion in love and truth for the glory of the Triune God, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
The Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches
The twelfth meeting of the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches took place in Rome, 24-31 January 2015 hosted by the Pontifical Council; for Promoting Christian Unity. It was chaired jointly by Cardinal Kurt Koch and Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette.
Joining delegates from the Catholic Church were representatives of the following Oriental Orthodox Churches: the Antiochian Syrian Orthodox Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church (Catholicosate of All Armenians), the Armenian Apostolic Church (Holy See of Cilicia), the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church, and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church. No representative of the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church was able to attend.
At the beginning of the opening session, Cardinal Koch noted first of all that since the last meeting Pope Francis had appointed a member of the dialogue, Archpriest Levon Boghos Zekiyan, as Apostolic Administrator sede plena of the Archeparchy of Istanbul of the Armenians, elevating him to the dignity of Archbishop. He also congratulated Archbishop Nareg Alemezian on his appointment as Archbishop of the Armenians in Cyprus (Holy See of Cilicia). During the past year His Holiness Karekin II, the Supreme Patriarch and Catholicos of All Armenians, visited Pope Francis in Rome on May 8 and His Holiness Aram I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cilicia, visited him on June 5. The Cardinal also noted with sadness the passing away of His Holiness Ignatius Zakka I Iwas, Syrian Orthodox Patriarch of the Antioch and All the East, on March 21. The Cardinal represented Pope Francis at the enthronization of the new patriarch, His Holiness Ignatius Aphrem II, in Syria on May 29, and extended to him warm congratulations. Metropolitan Bishoy thanked Cardinal Koch for hosting the meeting and spoke briefly about the centenary of the Armenian and Syrian Genocide which is commemorated this year.
The major achievement of this meeting was the final approval given to the second common document produced by the dialogue. It will now be submitted to the concerned authorities of the churches for their consideration and action. It is entitled, “The Exercise of Communion in the Life of the Early Church and its Implications for our Search for Communion Today.” In 74 paragraphs, the document examines in detail the nature of the relationships that existed among the member churches in the period leading up to the divisions of the 5th century. It shows that the full communion that existed among the churches was expressed in many different ways in a vast web of relationships founded on the common conviction that all of the churches shared the same faith. These expressions of communion were manifested in at least six areas: 1) through the exchange of letters and visits (both formal and informal) extending even beyond the borders of the Roman Empire; 2) through synods and councils held to resolve problems of doctrine and discipline; 3) through prayer and similar liturgical practices; 4) through sharing in the veneration of common martyrs and saints; 5) in the development and spread of monasticism to all the churches; 6) through pilgrimages to the shrines of the various churches.
In the conclusion of the document, the dialogue members note that many of the relationships that existed among the churches in the early centuries have continued to the present day in spite of the divisions, or have been recently revived. In view of these developments, they will examine in a positive way remaining divergences in doctrine and practice, and determine to what extent those divergences can be accepted as legitimate and not compromising the essence of the faith. This question will continue to be addressed as they take up the Sacraments of Initiation and other sacraments in the next phase of the dialogue. They will be asking themselves to what extent a restoration of the relationships that existed in the early centuries would be sufficient to restore full sacramental communion today. In time, this will include, among other important issues, a consideration of the place of the Bishop of Rome in that communion, a question that is being broadly re-examined in all the churches.
In keeping with the theme of the next phase of the dialogue, several papers were presented on the Sacraments of Initiation. These included: “The Historical Development of the Sacraments” by Rev. Father Mark Sheridan, OSB; “The Seven Sacraments of the Church According to the Tradition of the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch” by Archbishop Theophilus George Saliba; “Baptism and Chrismation: The Historical Development and Actual Practice in the Malankara (Indian) Orthodox Church” by Metropolitan Gabriel Mar Gregorios; “Sacraments of Initiation in the Armenian Church Tradition: An Overview of Historical and Theological Development” by Rev. Father Shahe Ananyan; “The Bari Document: ‘Faith, Sacraments and the Unity of the Church’” by Rev. Father Ronald G. Roberson, CSP; “Actual Liturgical Practice of the Sacraments of Initiation: Coptic Orthodox Perspective” by Metropolitan Bishoy of Damiette; “Actual Liturgical Practices of the Sacrament of Initiation in the Ethiopian Tewahedo Church” by Archbishop Gabriel and Rev. Father Daniel Seifemichael Feleke; and “Theology of the Sacraments of Initiation” by Bishop Paul Rouhana, OLM.
On the evening of Sunday January 25, the members attended the Vespers Service at the Basilica of Saint Paul Outside the Walls on the Feast of the Conversion of Saint Paul the Apostle which was presided over by Pope Francis to conclude the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. In his homily, in which he extended his best wishes to the dialogue members, Pope Francis observed that “So many past controversies between Christians can be overcome when we put aside all polemical or apologetic approaches, and seek instead to grasp more fully what unites us, namely, our call to share in the mystery of the Father’s love revealed to us by the Son through the Holy Spirit.” He also reflected on the witness of the many martyrs who have given their lives for Christ in recent times, many of them members of the churches that participate in this dialogue: “In this moment of prayer for unity, I would also like to remember our martyrs, the martyrs of today. They are witnesses to Jesus Christ, and they are persecuted and killed because they are Christians. Those who persecute them make no distinction between the religious communities to which they belong. They are Christians and for that they are persecuted. This, brothers and sisters, is the ecumenism of blood.” At the end of the service the Holy Father paused to greet personally many of the commission members.
On the evening of Thursday January 29, Cardinal Koch kindly hosted a dinner for the members of the Commission at the Casina Pio IV in the Vatican gardens. They were joined by Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the Holy See’s Secretary of State, and by His Eminence Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, Prefect of the Congregation for the Oriental Churches.
At noon on Friday January 30, Pope Francis received the dialogue members in private audience. In his greetings to the Pope, Metropolitan Bishoy reviewed the progress of the dialogue over the past 12 years, and formally presented him with an icon and a copy of the new common document. He also assured Pope Francis of the prayers of the heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches for the success of the dialogue, and asked him for his prayers and support, especially for Christians in the Middle East. This was a major concern of the members that was discussed during the dialogue.
In response, the Pope said, “With great joy I welcome you, the members of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Catholic Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. Through you, I offer fraternal greetings to my venerable brothers, the heads of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. I thank His Eminence Anba Bishoy, Co-President of the Commission, for his kind words. It is gratifying to reflect on the work of your Commission, which began in January 2003 as a joint initiative of the ecclesiastical authorities of the family of the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. In the last ten years the Commission has examined from an historical perspective the ways in which the Churches expressed their communion in the early centuries, and what this can mean for our pursuit of communion today. In the course of this week’s meeting you have also embarked upon a deeper examination of your work on the nature of the sacraments, and of baptism in particular. I express my hope that this work will bear rich fruit for our common theological research and help us to experience ever more fully our fraternal friendship. With deep appreciation I recall the inspiring commitment to dialogue shown by His Holiness Ignatius Zakka Iwas, Patriarch of the Syrian Orthodox Church of Antioch and All the East, who died this past year. Together with you and his own clergy and faithful, I pray for the eternal rest of this dedicated servant of God. At this time we especially feel dismay and deep sadness at what is happening in the Middle East, especially in Iraq and Syria. I think of all those living in the region, including our Christian brothers and sisters, and many minorities, who are experiencing the effects of a prolonged and painful conflict. I join you in praying for a negotiated solution and in imploring God’s goodness and mercy upon all those affected by this immense tragedy. All Christians are called to work together, in mutual acceptance and trust, in order to serve the cause of peace and justice. May the intercession and example of the many martyrs and saints who have borne courageous witness to Christ in all our Churches sustain and strengthen you and your Christian communities. Dear brothers, I thank you for your visit. Upon you and your ministry I invoke the Lord’s blessing and the maternal protection of Mary Most Holy. Please pray for me.”
The next meeting will take place in Cairo, Egypt, hosted by the Coptic Orthodox Church.