Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Natural Environment: The Mississippi Symposium

The green patriarch. Photo credits: sacredspace102.blogs
The green patriarch. Photo credits: sacredspace102.blogs

Reverend Dr John Chryssavgis

The world is charged with the grandeur of God! Gerard Manley Hopkins

In the past two decades, the world has witnessed alarming ecological degradation, increasing failure to implement environmental policies, and an ever-widening gap between rich and poor. During the same period, perhaps no worldwide religious leader has been so recognized for his dedication in confronting the ecological crisis as Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, dubbed the Green Patriarch for persistently proclaiming the primacy of spiritual values in determining an environmental ethos and praxis.

In October 2009, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew led an ecological symposium in New Orleans on the Mississippi. Under his leadership, he opened the Eighth Religion, Science and the Environment Symposium entitled Restoring Balance: The Great Mississippi River where a large and diverse group of theologians, scientists, policymakers, environmentalists, NGO representatives and media gathered for five days.

Worldview and initiatives: A report

The environmental initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate date back to the mid-1980s with the Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy Switzerland, 1986) expressing concern for the abuse of natural resources, especially in affluent western societies, while underlining the harm of war, racism and social inequality that also denigrate communities. The emphasis, then as now, was on leaving a better world for future generations. Subsequent Inter-Orthodox meetings were followed in 1989 by the former Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios’ designating 1 September 1 as an annual day of prayer for the protection of the natural environment. All Orthodox Churches heeded his call, as did the European Conference and the World Council of Churches.

After election in 1991, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew launched a series of environmental activities:

  • A Pan-Orthodox conference in Crete
  • An unprecedented meeting of Orthodox Patriarchs, inviting them to endorse his ecological vision
  • A series of five ecological summer seminars on education, ethics, communications, justice, and poverty
  • Establishment of the Religious and Scientific Committee (a pioneering ecumenical and interdisciplinary body, which to date has organized seven international and inter-faith sea-borne symposia. Attended by leading environmentalists and politicians, religious leaders and heads of churches, theologians and the media, the Symposia convened in the Aegean and the Black Sea, along the Danube and on the Baltic, in the Adriatic and on the Amazon, and most recently in the Arctic, as well as on the Mississippi.
  • Exactly 20 years after his predecessor, Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios issued the first encyclical letter encouraging all Orthodox Christians to keep September 1st as a day of prayer for the preservation of the natural environment.
  • The ecological symposium led by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in October 2009 in New Orleans, Mississippi

Environment and spirituality: A reflection

Yet the hallmark of the Patriarch’s initiatives is not success, but in fact humility. In beholding the larger picture, the Ecumenical Patriarch recognizes that he stands before something greater than himself, indeed something greater than his (or any) Church.

For Bartholomew, healing a broken environment is a matter of truthfulness to God, humanity and the created order. He was the first to dare broaden the traditional concept of sin – beyond individual and social implications – to include environmental damage! In 1997, here in the United States, he declared:

“To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For human beings to cause species to become extinct and destroy the biological diversity of God’s creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, stripping the earth of its natural forests, or destroying its wetlands; for human beings to … contaminate the earth’s waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances – all of these are sins.”

The environment is not only a political or a technological issue; it is, as we have come to appreciate, primarily a religious and spiritual issue. Religion has a key role to play; and a spirituality that remains uninvolved with outward creation is ultimately uninvolved with the inward mystery too.

Photo credits:
Photo credit:

So the distinctive features of the Patriarch’s vision are humble simplicity (ascesis) and liturgical communion (koinonia). In all that he says or does, the Patriarch is aware that everyone without exception – irrespective of confessional or religious conviction – must be included. Every science and discipline should contribute; every culture and age should concur.

The Ecumenical Patriarch is also aware that environmental issues are intimately related to numerous social issues: war and peace, social justice and human rights, poverty and unemployment. In ecumenical circles, this is aptly called “eco-justice.” We have become increasingly aware of the effects of environmental degradation on people, especially the poor.

Still, we continue to overlook our connection to the earth, the binding unity and continuity that we share with God’s creation. We call this crisis “ecological,” which is fair in so far as its results are manifest in the ecological sphere.

Yet, the crisis is not first of all about ecology. It is a crisis about icons, on the way we imagine our world. We are treating our planet in an inhuman, god-forsaken manner because we perceive it this way, because we see ourselves this way.

Before we can effectively deal with environmental issues, we must change our self-image. Otherwise, we are only dealing with symptoms. We must recall that we are less than human without God, less than human without each other, and less than human without creation. We know we cannot treat people like things; it is time we learned not to treat also things like mere things.

Two seventh-century mystics eloquently described this relationship between nature, humanity, and God in terms of liturgy and mercy. Maximus the Confessor spoke of celebrating a “cosmic liturgy,” the world as a magnificent altar, upon which human beings worship in thanksgiving and glory. Isaac the Syrian wrote of the need to “acquire a merciful heart, burning with love for all of creation: for humans, birds, and beasts.”

If we are guilty of relentless waste in our world, it may be because we have lost this spirit of worship and this spirituality of compassion. If we had such vision and feeling, we would hear the grass grow and feel the seal’s heart beat.

An ecumenical imperative: The way forward

Finally, this sense of interconnectedness reminds us that, in a very distinctive way, the earth unites us all – before, and beyond, any doctrinal, political, racial, or other differences. We may or may not share religious convictions or ethnic cultures. But we do share an experience of the environment: we share the air that we breathe, the water that we drink, and the ground that we tread – albeit neither always equally nor always fairly.

By some mysterious connection that we do not always understand (and sometimes choose to ignore), the earth reminds us of our calling to be humble and sensitive. We will be judged, I believe, by the tenderness and delicacy with which we respond to nature – itself a reflection of the way we both pray to God and treat others.

Such is the way of humility, of treading lightly and gently. You see: humility connects us; pride divides us – from one another and from the earth. Indeed, pride is a uniquely human attribute; it belongs to Adam; whereas the earth has the humility and resilience to heal us all, if we allow it to survive.

As Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew declared jointly with the late Pope John Paul II in their Common Declaration at the Fourth Ecological Symposium on the Adriatic Sea in Venice in June 2002: “It is not too late. God’s world has incredible healing powers. Within a single generation, we could steer the earth toward our children’s future. [But l]et that generation start now.”

2014_04_15_Reflection_Photo3The Reverend Dr John Chryssavgis is the Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and has published over 20 book and numerous articles in several languages on the Church Fathers and Orthodox Spirituality. He currently serves as theological advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch on environmental issues.


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