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Strength out of weakness

25 April 2014

Geoffrey Rowell on the patriarch who is primus inter pares

"Green Patriarch": Bartholomew I in Thessaloniki, Greece, last October

"Green Patriarch": Bartholomew I in Thessaloniki, Greece, last October

The Witness of Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch
William G. Rusch, Editor
Eerdmans £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50 (Use code CT366 )

FIVE years ago, William Rusch, a Lutheran and Professor of Lutheran Studies at Yale Divinity School, edited a symposium, The Pontificate of Benedict XVI: Its premises and promises. In this new book, the subject is the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, who, while working from the most fragile of contexts in Istanbul (where the Orthodox population comprises a very small minority indeed compared with earlier generations), has, none the less, provided extraordinary spiritual leadership to the Orthodox world and ecumenically.

The seven essays that make up this collection consider various aspects of Patriarch Bartholomew's ministry. Anna Marie Aagaard's opening chapter looks at the Ecumenical Patriarch in a European context, particularly with regard to the challenges in Turkey, where the Patriarch is treated as a local bishop without any recognition of the part that he plays as head of a world-wide communion of Orthodox Churches. As Bartholomew himself has put it, "the secular attitudes of Turkey are our main problem. . . we have fewer problems with most of the religious Muslims we meet in the corridors of the state than with the strong secularists and the right-wing nationalists who do not want to have any Christian minorities in the country."

Peter Bouteneff, from St Vladimir's Theological Seminary, New York, writes perceptively about Bartholomew's ministry as primus inter pares of the Orthodox Church. Bouteneff notes that his "witness to the outside world" has been "of monumental importance for the Orthodox", as has been his commitment to inter-Christian relations, which has not been without its problems because of the sometimes vociferous stance of some Orthodox who viewed any ecumenical engagement as a betrayal of Orthodoxy to Papists and Protestants. As Patriarch Bartholomew trenchantly put it: "Orthodoxy has no need of either fascism or bigotry to protect itself. Whoever believes that Orthodoxy has the truth does not fear dialogue, because truthhas never been endangered by dialogue."

The essays by Gunter Gassman and Mary Tanner show how Patriarch Bartholomew's engagement with the World Council of Churches (WCC) and the Faith and Order Commission (of which he was, before his election as Patriarch, a significant member) honed his ecumenical understanding. When the WCC was causing anxiety in the Orthodox world by what seemed to be a political, social, and activist agenda, little attention being given to the concerns of Faith and Order and to deep concern for the visible unity of the Church as inseparable from the calling to mission, Patriarch Bartholomew played a significant part in both articulating Orthodox concerns and reminding the WCC of the ecumenical vision.

Within Orthodoxy, the "Diaspora" poses a sharp ecclesiological question, in which different cultural expressions of Orthodoxy - Russian, Serbian, Greek, Romanian, and many others - create different identities and hierarchical structures outside their historic lands of origin. Behind this is often the fusion of Orthodox religious identity with nationalism, condemned from a wider perspective as "phyletism", but something that played an important part in the creation of new states (and national Churches) from the hegemony of the Ottoman Empire.

The Ecumenical Patriarch, as Bouteneff notes, has to adjudicate on the questions how new local Churches form, and how autocephaly is granted. Patriarch Bartholomew, exercising a Primatial ministry, has sought through the mechanism of Episcopal Assemblies to co-ordinate the theological and pastoral activity of the churches and aid in the articulation of a common witness to Church and society. In discussing the environmental concerns that have earned Patriarch Bartholomew the title of "the Green Patriarch", Bouteneff emphasises the theological grounding of his concern in a sacramental theology that echoes that of Alexander Schmemann in The World as Sacrament, and in the rediscovery of the anthropology of Maximus the Confessor.

Two contributions - by Fr Ronald Roberson and Joseph Small - look respectively at Orthodox-Catholic and Orthodox-Reformed dialogue, and provide some useful perspectives of these encounters.

Dale Irvin's essay on Patriarch Bartholomew as bridge-builder provides not only a concise history of the Patriarchate in its Turkish context, but reminds us how Bartholomew himself was a native of Imbros, one of two ethnically Greek islands at the entrance to the Dardanelles (but now with only a tiny remaining minority of the Orthodox population). From his own life-history, Bartholomew is aware of the reality of powerlessness, which can, none the less, enable a Christian leadership rootedin humility. As Olivier Clémentputs it: "The ecumenical patriarch has no pretension to be a 'universal bishop'. He claims no dogmatic infallibility, no direct jurisdiction over all the faithful. He has no temporal powers. As a centre of appeal whose aim is to preserve the faith and unity of all, his primacy consists not in power, but in sacrificial offering of service, in imitation of the One who came not to be served but to serve."

Not only the Orthodox but the whole Christian world has occasion to give thanks to God for calling Bartholomew to this remarkable ministry.

The Rt Revd Dr Geoffrey Rowell is a former Bishop of Gibraltar in Europe.

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