By Dr Petros Vassiliadis
The Center of Ecumenical, Missiological, and Environmental Studies (CEMES) and the inter-Orthodox Master Program of the International Hellenic University (IHU) “Orthodox Ecumenical Theology” (MOET) organized a week-long Webinar Seminar on “Religious Communities and Church in a Period of Pandemic” (6-11 April, 2020).
CEMES was encouraged to undertake this scientific initiative by courageous statements of illumined Orthodox hierarchs that “we the clergy are responsible for the fact that our faithful people have no idea what the Eucharist really means. The time has come to look at our mistakes and to repent.” It also recalled what half a century ago the late Fr. Alexander Schmemann said about another crisis, when he spoke of a meaningful storm for ecclesiological renewal in the Orthodox diaspora. Therefore, it envisioned that the COVID-19 pandemic can become a meaningful and blessed storm for an overall renewal in our Orthodox Church and beyond.
The seminar brought together scholars from all over the world (15 countries from all five continents) to reflect on how the present COVID-19 pandemic has affected the Churches and how she must respond. It was attended by over 200 participants, with short statements offered by the teaching staff of MOET, 10 renowned scholars from abroad and from other scholarly disciplines, one bishop and 7 renowned academic priests.
Beyond the ways that the present pandemic crisis has endangered public health, the precautionary measures assumed worldwide have also challenged our ecclesiastical life in two distinct, albeit interrelated areas: the enforced enclosure of the faithful, with consequences not only for the constitutional right of religious freedom, but also for the identity of the Church, defined by the Eucharistic event as a community coming together “epi to auto.”
The seminar was conducted from a very optimistic perspective, and certainly hope, that the current pandemic can become a “meaningful storm” for a liturgical and overall renewal of our Orthodox Church, emphasizing:
(a) The need for translated Bible readings in the Orthodox liturgy, especially during the special period of enforced enclosure, but also after the end of it in the liturgical services;
(b) the profound theological meaning of Eucharist and the authentic understanding of the Christian sacramental theology;
(c) the Pauline insistence on the proclamation of this death of Christ that inextricably connected the Eucharist with eschatology, mission and social – not simply moral – ethics, as it is normally believed;
(d) the need for an urgent rediscovery of the priesthood of all believers, and of a Baptismal theology supplementing our Eucharistic ecclesiology;
(e) the lessons we should learn from similar events in the past;
(f) the need for expanding our ecclesiastical boundaries in a state of emergency;
(g) the necessity of reviving a wider permanent (especially female) diaconate to serve in the church in the celebration of the mysteries;
(h) the importance of activating the whole ecclesiastical body, especially women, who are tragically marginalized, to deal with needs that arise;
(i) the need in the current state of emergency to find a spiritual way that the afflictions should be endured;
(j) the need for our Church to abandon fundamentalism, more deadly than COVID, caused by the imported “culture war”;
(k) the need to review our priorities and question ourselves, especially the leaders, in all sectors of life, especially mission and the ecological crisis, and more others.
The ecumenical character of the seminar was underlined not only by providing the opportunity for humankind to appreciate human solidarity and how the World Council of Churches and other inter-faith initiatives urged people and churches to give the highest priority to doing whatever they can to protect life and promote unity, but also by inviting representatives of other Christian traditions to reflect on the issue.
The seminar humbly addressed an appeal to the Orthodox Churches for a thorough reconsideration of the ecclesiological, liturgical, and missiological expression of our Church, insisting that “the present pandemic is a period of spiritual renewal and of hope for a meaningful storm for a liturgical and overall renewal of the Church; it is a powerful experience of the authentic nature of the Church and manifests a longing for a return to the traditional status of the priesthood of all believers and to a wider permanent ministry of the Diaconate for men and women.”
It further recommended that now is the kairos to enhance our Eucharistic ecclesiology with our Baptismal theology that will revive the priesthood of all believers; that a liturgical renewal has become an urgent task so that all worshipers understand the rich tradition of our Church; that the Holy Eucharist, as the mystery par excellence of the Church, should be cleansed from all ritualistic, quasi-magical elements; that our witness to the Gospel must include care for God’s creation as an integral part of our mission, the restoration of the order of deaconesses, as well as other aspects of social teaching of our Church, as expressed in the recent document “For the Life of the World”. It finally hailed that the present pandemic crisis has brought our divided Churches into closer cooperation and rendered more urgent our Church’s quest for the visible unity of the Church of Christ.
The proceedings of the seminar were published in hard copy and e-book form, circulated by Epikentro Press. Both in English, as CEMES Publications 25, and in Greek, with the addition of some later published relevant material (by Archbishop of Telmessos Job Getcha, the Metropolitan of Nigeria Alexander, Prof. G. Larentzakis, Prof. P. Skaltis and others) as CEMES Publications 26.
Dr Petros Vassiliadis,emeritus professor of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, and director of the Inter-Orthodox Post-Graduate Program on “Orthodox Ecumenical Theology of IHU”, is the President of the Center for Ecumenical, Missiological and Environmental Studies “Metropolitan Panteleimon Papageorgiou” (CEMES), a former Orthodox commissioner of WCC’s Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (1998-2006), and the President of World Conference of Associations of Theological Institutions/Educators (WOCATI).