Orthodox Church Environmental Activities and Initiatives
Dr. Dimitri Oikonomou
The author: Dr. Dimitri Oikonomou is a professor of Byzantine studies at London University, as well as a writer and leeturer on environmental concerns.
In 1995 he was elected President of SYNDESMOS, The World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth.
When, in 1986, at the twenty-fifth Anniversary Summit of the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF), held in Assisi, Italy, His Royal Highness, Prince Philip invited the world's major religions to consider the very real and dangerous threats to the health of the natural environment, the response from the Eastern Orthodox Church was both immediate and enthusiastic. In 1988, WWF's Network on Religion and Conservation held a session in which the idea for the institution of a special Day for the Creation was put forward and in the following year the late Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios issued a message calling for thanksgiving and supplication for all creation to be offered annually on 1 September, the first day of the Church year. He called for this day to be one of earnest prayer for the salvation and protection of the earth. To this end, the renowned Orthodox hymnographer Monk Gerasimos of the Little Skete of Saint Anne on Mount Athos (d. 1991), composed an "Office of Supplication to our God and Saviour Jesus Christ Who loves Humankind for our Environment and for the Whole Creation" (cfAnnex 1), subsequently translated into other languages.
In 1990, a group of theologians and environmentalists convened at the Spiritual centre of the Convent of the Annunciation at Ormylia, Northern Greece, and drew up an important document in Greek and English entitled "Orthodoxy and the Ecological Crisis". Essentially, this is a statement that outlines clearly the Orthodox understanding of creation and the Christian responsibility towards it. It contains a message from Prince Philip, who is the International President of WWF, and is clearly one of the most important statements on the natural world produced by any faith.
Following this, and with the assistance of WWF, the Annunciation Convent at Ormylia initiated plans to introduce the principles of organic farming to the management of its agricultural properties. In this way the Convent's new farming procedures have served, and continue to serve, as a model for the agriculturalists in the immediate area. The nuns are now able to offer valuable advice and technical knowledge to farmers of the rich but inefficiently-exploited lands of northern Greece.
In November 1991, the late Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios, assisted by WWF, called a pan-Orthodox Conference on the Protection of the Natural Environment, which took place at the Orthodox Theological Academy on Crete. Prince Philip gave the opening address and spoke about the ecological crisis facing the world. The main papers and presentations of this conference were published under the title "So that God's Creation Might Live: The Orthodox Church Responds to the Ecological Crisis" in both English and Greek.
In June 1992, a Symposium on Religion and the Environment was held at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul and on the nearby island of Halki, on the initiative of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos and Prince Philip. On that occasion it was announced that the Holy Trinity Monastery on Halki would be used to continue the discussions on religion and ecology, with the intention of bringing the issues to a wider audience.
Between 1991 and 1994, a three-man team of experts visited eighteen monasteries of Mount Athos on behalf of WWF to study and discuss the ecology of the peninsula, and to identify measures for protecting its unique natural environment from the many dangers that now threaten it. Commercial forestry, the building of roads, the increase in the number of vehicles and in the number of pilgrims have taken a serious toll on the flora and fauna of the Holy Mountain. The following projects have emerged from the discussions and recommendations of the team: the ecological management of the land holdings of the Monastery of Simonopetra, especially after the catastrophic fire of August 1990; the Ormylia organic farm project (see above); the ecological management ofthe land holdings of the Monastery of the Pantokrator and of the Monastery of the Great Lavra; and the management of the Vistonis Lake in Thrace, which is an important wetland site owned by the Monastery of Vatopedi.
In his capacity as International President of the WWF and at the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Athonite Holy Community, Prince Philip made a formal visit to the Holy Mountain in October 1992, accompanied by a small group of environmentalists and specialists from different countries. He also spent one day at the Ormylia Convent to inspect its organic farm project. The visit allowed the delegation to be informed of the dangers that threaten its unique ecosystem, and ultimately to offer practical and material help in funding environmental protection programmes and actions that would ensure the long-term health and vitality of the area.
In April 1994, an international Orthodox Youth and Ecology Seminar was organized in Romania by SYNDESMOS, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, and sponsored by the WWF. Youth representatives from ten countries participated in the event, which also involved educationalists, theologians and specialists from several countries. The seminar studied ways of developing educational materials and methods, and made suggestions for the development of responsible action by local churches.
In June 1994, the first of five annual seminars on the environment took place at the Monastery of the Holy Trinity on the island of Halki in Turkey. Speakers from different Christian churches and from other faiths exposed their views on environmental awareness, education and action into the training of clergy and lay people. The seminar was co-sponsored by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and Prince Philip. The seminar focused on religious education as a means of spreading environmental sensitivity through Church schools, preaching and teaching at the parish level as well as on theological education.
In July 1994, SYNDESMOS, The World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, organized the first in a series of spiritual ecology work camps on Mount Athos. The event gathered young Orthodox from several countries in Europe for a programme of practical conservation activities, combined with a close participation in the spiritual life of the Athonite monasteries. Some of the work accomplished by the group included the restoration and clearing of traditional footpaths and wells, the restoration of sacred caves and shrines used by pilgrims, and the clearing and maintenance of other areas of land.
An important recent ecological initiative was the participation of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos in a major inter-faith summit on religion and conservation in Japan and Great Britain in early 1995.
In Romania, a project is underway to develop a botanical garden for the cultivation of medicinal herbs. This unique initiative, based in Nera Monastery in Romania, aims to combine a renewal of traditional agriculture with the provision of free medical health care for the poor. Many of the young monks and nuns in the monastery are trained doctors, phytotherapists and homeopathists, and the production of these natural remedies is expected to develop in coming years.
In the USA, a major Orthodox conference on the environment was held in Baltimore in late 1995, sponsored by the Orthodox churches in North America and by the National Council of Churches. The event was aimed at promoting a spiritual and practical commitment to God's creation, and it explored the relationship between the Orthodox theology of priesthood and stewardship, and the application of these principles in everyday life.
The many actions and initiatives undertaken by the Orthodox churches in recent years demonstrate the profound desire to restore the rich theology of creation to the centre of church life, and to find new and appropriate ways of living this faith in local communities.
"Nature is here to serve man: man must serve and care for nature in order for it to serve man. The fall of man led to the fall of nature and the renewal of man to the renewal of nature."
- Father Alexios, Abbot of Xenophontos Monastery, Mount Athos