Prof .Petros Vassiliadis (President – CEMES)- OCP News Service – 17/3/18

The World Council of Churches Conference on Mission and Evangelism in Arusha, Tanzania (8-13 of March, 2018) was the first Global Christian event after the Holy and Great Council of the (Eastern) Orthodox Church in Crete, Greece (19-26 of June, 2016). And it is a significant event that has not only fostered Christian relations, since it gathered in the Holy Spirit all Christian families (Orthodox, Catholic, Mainstream Protestant, Evangelical and Pentecostal, and their respective Mission agencies and African Churches), but also Inter-Orthodox, Eastern and Oriental ones. In what follows I will attempt to provide my personal assessment for both these relations, being aware that God’s providence sometimes works in unexpected and unimaginable ways. This is after all what our Bible tells us: “The Spirit blows wherever s/he wills” (Jn 3:8).

This famous saying is reported in the Gospel of John in the context of Jesus’ discussion with Nicodemus and his discourse on the need of a spiritual birth of us all. This birth by the Spirit, unlike natural birth, is the work of God that no one can control, just as so happens to the wind. “The Spirit blows wherever s/he wills (and here the evangelist moves from the meaning of the Holy Spirit to that of the wind, since the Greek pneuma can have both meanings). We hear its sound but we do not know from where it comes or where it goes. “Thus it is, the saying continues, with everyone who is born of the Spirit” (3:8). And it is for this reason that the proper worship of the community, as the Gospel of John underlines in Jesus’ discussion with the Samaritan woman, has to be “in spirit and in truth” (4:24).

The Gospel of John presupposes the synoptic tradition, but moves beyond its logic, as well as beyond some of the earlier (Pauline) theological views. Theologically it approaches the enduring problems of history, of human destiny, and consequently of our responsibility for the world, in other words our mission, starting not from anthropology, but rather from Christology. Christology, however, cannot to be understood in John, except through Pneumatology; since “the Paraclete” (14:26), the Holy Spirit according to John’s terminology, is characterized as the “alter ego” of Christ (“and I will ask my father and he will give you another Paraclete, so that he might remain with you always” 14:16). This other Paraclete, who “will teach us all things” (14:26) is “the Spirit of truth” (Jn 14:17; 15:26; 16:13). And in the final analysis the Paraclete is one that will “guide us into all the truth” (Jn 16:12). Consequently human beings are in communion with “the way, the truth and the life,” (Jn 14:6) who is Christ, only through the Holy Spirit, whom he bestows upon the world as a gift of God the Father.

These views have tremendous consequences for missiology. In John, as in the early Christian tradition, the Christian community is not perceived as a mere institution, as an organization with a logically defined set of doctrines, and/or a specific order, or even simply by going forth just verbally proclaiming the good news, but rather in terms of communion with Christ, when we keep his word and believe in him who had sent him, just as Christ is in communion with the Father (10:30; 17:21f). We are “of the truth,” when we hear his voice, just as the sheep hear the voice of the good shepherd (10:1ff), and follow his radical commands. All these happen, when we change our lives, i.e. when we are born from above (3:3), by the Spirit (3:5f).

This Pneumatological, and consequently Trinitarian, and therefore relational dimension of Christian mission, which was originally articulated some decades ago by Christian missiologists in the ecumenical movement, and described as a missio dei, took its final form in the World Council of Churches’ World Mission Conference of Arusha, on the theme: “Moving in the Spirit: called to Transforming Discipleship.” In Arusha more than one thousand participants were gathered, who are engaged in mission and evangelism, missiologists and missionaries, from different Christian traditions and from every part of the world. They joyfully celebrated the life-giving movement of the Holy Spirit in our time, drawing particular inspiration from the African context.

One of the main issues discussed in Arusha, as in almost all previous (13 or 14 – depending on whether one counts the previous centenary celebration in Edinburgh 2010, which marked the 100 hundred years of common Christian witness, if not actual at least attempted to be such), was how Christian mission and evangelism must be authentically and “in Christ’s way” conducted.
In this respect as an Orthodox I was satisfied to hear about the relational and holistic dimension of God’s mission: spiritual and material, in other words a definition of discipleship that is exercised inwards, to our inner self, upwards to our God, and only then outwards, to the human society and its needs, globally and locally, as wells as to the whole of God’s creation, the natural environment. That is why in its final message, issued at the final day and adopted by consensus, it is stated: “Despite some glimmers of hope, we had to reckon with death-dealing forces that are shaking the world order and inflicting suffering on many. We observed the shocking accumulation of wealth due to one global financial system, which enriches few and impoverishes many. This is at the root of many of today’s wars, conflicts, ecological devastation, and suffering. We are mindful that people on the margins bear the heaviest burden. This global imperial system has made the financial market one of the idols of our time and it has strengthened cultures of domination and discrimination that continue to marginalize and exclude millions, keeping them in conditions of vulnerability and exploitation.”

Some conference participants, not only Orthodox, did not feel comfortable with such a strongly political rhetoric, and preferred a rather neutral stance on social issues, a less material and more spiritual direction in the next decades’ mission. But such concerns were not possible to be satisfied, especially after the Papal encyclical Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel), the New Mission Statement of the WCC, Together Towards Life, the (Eastern) Orthodox conciliar document adopted by the long awaited Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, even The 2010 Cape Town Commitment of the Lausanne Evangelical Movement.

Gleaning only from the Orthodox declarations, and especially only from the Orthodox Mission statement, entitled “The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World,” we are reminded in Ch.6 par. 4-5: “The gap between rich and poor is dramatically exacerbated due to the financial crisis, which normally results from the unbridled profiteering by some representatives of financial circles, the concentration of wealth in the hands of the few, and perverted business practices devoid of justice and humanitarian sensitivity, which ultimately do not serve humanity’s true needs. A sustainable economy is that which combines efficiency with justice and social solidarity (par. 4). In light of such tragic circumstances, the Church’s great responsibility is perceived in terms of overcoming hunger and all other forms of deprivation in the world. One such phenomenon in our time – whereby nations operate within a globalized economic system – points to the world’s serious identity crisis, for hunger not only threatens the divine gift of life of whole peoples, but also offends the lofty dignity and sacredness of the human person, while simultaneously offending God. Therefore, if concern over our own sustenance is a material issue, then concern over feeding our neighbor is a spiritual issue (Jm 2:14-18). Consequently, it is the mission of all Orthodox Churches to exhibit solidarity and administer assistance effectively to those in need” (par. 5).

The Arousha Message, following the second part of the general theme: “Called to a transforming discipleship,” includes a number of callings, in the sense of tasks all committed Christians must accomplish, and ends with the following prayer:
“Loving God, we thank you for the gift of life in all its diversity and beauty. Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, we praise you that you came to find the lost, to free the oppressed, to heal the sick and to convert the self-centred. Holy Spirit, we rejoice that you breathe in the life of the world and are poured out into our hearts. As we live in the Spirit, may we also walk in the Spirit. Grant us faith and courage to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Jesus – becoming pilgrims of justice and peace in our time. For the blessing of your people, the sustaining of the earth and the glory of your name. Through Christ our Lord, Amen.”

Obviously the main focus of the Arusha Mission Conference was transformation, both for ourselves, most evident in the prayer, but also in the preamble: “The Holy Spirit continues to move in our time, and urgently calls us as Christian communities to respond with personal and communal conversion”, and mainly of the world, most evident in the final Message’s callings, which analytically underlined and explained what a “transforming discipleship” is all about. In other words the Message underlines both the personal conversion and a transformative character of the authentic Christian discipleship.

What will definitely please all the Orthodox is a reference to the Eastern Christian theology of Theosis: “Discipleship is both a gift and a calling, to be active collaborators with God for the transforming of the world. In what the church’s early theologians called ‘theosis’ or deification, we share God’s grace by sharing God’s mission. This journey of discipleship leads us to share and live out God’s love in Jesus Christ by seeking justice and peace in ways that are different from the world (John 14:27). Thus, we are responding to Jesus’ call to follow him from the margins of our world.”

As disciples of Jesus Christ, both individually and collectively: “We are called by our baptism to transforming discipleship: a Christ-connected way of life in a world where many face despair, rejection, and worthlessness. We are called to worship the one Triune God, the God of justice, love, and grace at a time where many worship the false god of the market system. We are called to proclaim the good news of Jesus Christ – the fullness of life, the repentance and forgiveness of sin, and the promise of eternal life – in word and deed, in a violent world in which many are sacrificed to the idols of death and many have not yet heard the gospel. We are called to joyfully engage in the ways of the Holy Spirit, who empowers people from the margins with agency in their search for dignity, justice, and fullness of life. We are called to discern the word of God in a world that communicates many contradictory, false, and confusing messages. We are called to care for God’s creation and be in solidarity with nations severely affected by climate change in the face of ruthless human-centered exploitation of the environment for greed and consumerism. We are called as disciples to belong together in a just and inclusive community, in our quest for unity and on our ecumenical journey, in a world that is based upon marginalization and exclusion. We are called to be faithful witnesses of God’s transforming love in dialogue with people of other faiths in a world where politicization of religious identities often cause conflict. We are called to be formed as servant leaders who demonstrate the way of Christ in a world that privileges power, wealth, and the culture of money. We are called to break down walls and seek justice with people who are dispossessed and displaced from their lands, including migrants, refugees and asylum seekers, and to resist new frontiers and borders that separate and kill. We are called to follow the way of the cross, which challenges elitism, privilege, personal and structural power. We are called to live in the light of the resurrection, which offers hope-filled possibilities for transformation.”


But what happened and God’s providence worked “in unexpected and unimaginable ways,” as I said above (synergeia tou Agiou Pneumatos), to our “Orthodox” family (Eastern and Oriental), as it is traditionally viewed in ecumenical circles, especially within the World Council of Churches?

As in all previous Mission conferences, in the Arusha World Mission Conference in addition to theological reflection, and the informative and learning process, a constitutive and important element was its spiritual and celebratory character. And first and foremost the expression of unity that was experienced in the Pan-Orthodox Eucharistic liturgy celebrated on the “Sunday of the Veneration of the Holy Cross,” as it is called, according to the Eastern tradition, the 3rd Sunday of the Great Lent. (Photo 5) This Eucharistic Liturgy, an important event of Christian spirituality, marking the given unity of the Church of Christ and the precondition of the great journey toward any visible union, but mainly being the springboard for mission, which is nowadays also called a “Liturgy after the liturgy,” was presided by the Metropolitan Elpidophoros of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with bishops, priests and lay delegates of the conference from all Orthodox jurisdiction co-celebrating, and the native African choir from young students of the Makarios III Theological Seminary of the Patriarchate of Alexandria doing beautifully the ecclesiastical singing.


However, the most significant and symbolic gesture was the invitation by the presiding Metropolitan to the Armenian Metropolitan Vicente of the (Oriental) Etchmiadzin Armenian Apostolic Church to come up in the synthronon, next to him.


The presence, in addition, of another high ranking Oriental Orthodox Hierarch, His Holiness Moran Mor Ignatius Aphrem II, the Patriarch of Antioch and all the East and the supreme head of the Universal Syriac Orthodox Church, gave a further opportunity to strengthen inter-Orthodox relations. Arriving on Sunday afternoon, after the Orthodox liturgy, Ignatius Aphrem II became the first Orthodox Patriarch to be physically present at a World Mission Conference, at least in my memory, and speak on the last plenary (March 13, 2018). Of course, His All-Holiness, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was the first ecclesiastical dignitary to address the Arusha conference in a recorded video at the opening plenary, before His Holiness Pope Francis’ Message to the Mission Conference participants was read by Bishop Brian Farrell, Secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity.
According to a long tradition of the WCC all the Orthodox attending major Ecumenical events have an inter-orthodox meeting, usually before the final plenary. The head of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate traditionally moderates these meetings. And again, Metropolitan Elpidophoros invited His Holiness, the Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem II to preside.

It was that gesture, which gave me the opportunity to remind the gathering of the importance of pressing the ecclesiastical leadership, as well as the scientific theological resources of both our families, to bring to an end the prayerful and God-pleasing official theological dialogue between the Easter and Oriental Orthodox Churches, which has long ago been successfully completed its mandated issuing few minor commonly agreed final recommendations to both families. Regretfully, fundamentalist reactions on both sides have prevented so far our Churches to come to a final official agreement, which will eventually pave the way to a sacramental union. And we are talking about two Christian traditions that despite 15 centuries of complete isolation have amazingly retained so similar spirituality.

Both for myself and for His Holiness Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem the first ecumenical experience was at another World Mission Conference of WCC, three decades ago (1989) at San Antonio, USA. The world Christianity was reflecting at that conference on “Mission in Christ’s Way,” and the event is still remembered for the bold initiative of a young Serbian Orthodox priest leading a normal procession of the conference holding the Bible, in the way the Holy Gospel is carried during the Little Entrance in the Eastern (and Oriental) Orthodox Eucharistic Liturgy, and the influential contribution of a great Orthodox theologian, ecumenist and missiologist, His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Albania.

Will the Holy Spirit blow in an unexpected and unimaginable way to our Churches now? Are we ready to be “Moving in the Spirit”? Can we become “Transforming disciples” and bear martyria/witness, or do “Mission in Christ’s Way”? We pray. And we pray, as in the previous World Mission Conference in Athens – the first in a predominantly Orthodox country – “Come Holy Spirit, heal and reconcile”.


OCP News Service