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After 1700 years, let’s talk again, says Ecumenical Patriarch

19 February 2021

Bartholomew I urges a more determined ecumenical course


The First Council of Nicaea and Emperor Constantine I in 325, depicted in a Byzantine fresco in the Basilica of St Nicholas of Myra, Demre, in Turkey. Bartholomew I called that meeting “a turning point in Christianity’s history”

The First Council of Nicaea and Emperor Constantine I in 325, depicted in a Byzantine fresco in the Basilica of St Nicholas of Myra, Demre, in Turkey....

THE Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, has asked church leaders to meet in 2025 to mark the 17th centenary of the First Council of Nicaea, to “reflect on mistakes past and present” and steer a “more determined ecumenical course”.

“This 1700th anniversary can serve as an occasion for Christian Churches to reflect on their journey,” he said.

“That first ecumenical council at Nicaea stands as a symbol, a turning point in Christianity’s history, not just because it formulated the creed but also because it issued 20 canons. It thus offers a unique opportunity to re-source our common canonical heritage from the first millennium.”

The 80-year-old church leader tabled his proposal as Russian Orthodox and Roman Catholic representatives marked the fifth anniversary of the February 2016 meeting in Havana between Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and Pope Francis (News, 20 February 2016), amid continued Orthodox feuding over canonical and jurisdictional issues.

In an interview with the Italian daily Avvenire, and Christian newspapers in the Netherlands and Denmark, Bartholomew said that nationalist influences had risked inflicting a “reversal of values” in some Orthodox Churches, as groups emerged showing an “extreme anti-ecumenical spirit”.

“The true Orthodox faith cannot possibly be a source of nationalism. Wherever nationalism appears in an Orthodox context, it has other roots and motives,” the Patriarch said.

“There is, in reality, no way to move towards unity other than through honest dialogue; what threatens the Church’s witness isn’t openness and dialogue, but closedness and introversion.”

Traditionally recognised as “first among equals” by leaders of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians, Bartholomew I has 11 autocephalous Churches, exarchates, and archbishoprics under his primacy around the world, and wields direct authority over 3.5 million Orthodox Christians in Turkey, Crete, the Aegean Islands, and Mount Athos.

The Russian Orthodox Church, which is far larger, severed spiritual ties after his recognition of an autocephalous Church in Ukraine in January 2019. Moscow has since cut links with Churches in Alexandria, Greece, and Cyprus, for recognising the new Church, warning of a significant Orthodox schism (News, 29 January).

In his interview, however, Patriarch Bartholomew rejected the “theory of a schism” as Russian “scaremongering”, and said that Orthodoxy remained “united with no dogmatic differences”. The Moscow Patriarchate had, he said, been “ostentatiously blind” to the “tragic ecclesiastical situation” in Ukraine. The creation of the new Church outside its control had been “ecclesiologically and canonically correct”.

The Patriarch said that he had met Pope Francis on ten occasions, and spoken about “common interests and sensitivities” with him, including the need to “deal with religious fundamentalism”.

He said that the World Council of Churches, founded in 1948, had brought Christians closer in joint acts of charity and solidarity, as well as theological understanding; but a “hypertrophic perception of individual rights” was now dividing Anglicans, Lutherans, and other denominations, and creating difficulties in inter-Church ties.

“Ecumenical dialogue must take place at a level of personal fraternal contacts, joint initiatives, and co-operation. It must also happen in the demanding context of theological dialogues, to which great importance is attached in our time.”

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