Bartholomew: The Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Early Twenty-First Century – A Personal Perspective

By William G. Rusch

Rev. Dr. William G. Rusch is a Lutheran pastor who has served as Executive Director of the Foundation for a Conference on Faith and Order in North America and as the Director of the Department of Ecumenical Affairs of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. He was a member of several dialogues, the Central Committee of the World Council of Churches, and the Committee on Ecumenical Relations of the Lutheran World Federation. He has written over 110 articles on ecumenical and patristic themes and edited or authored 21 books, most recently Toward a Common Future: Ecumenical Reception and a New Consensus (Cascade, 2019). He earned his doctorate from the University of Oxford (UK) and he serves on the faculty of Yale Divinity School.

To reflect about the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul (Constantinople or New Rome, the setting of so much of church history) in the early twenty-first century, it is essential to consider Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch. For almost twenty-eight years now the Patriarchate has experienced the leadership of this humble person of deep faith and great ability – Bartholomew I.

I first became acquainted with Bartholomew when he was Metropolitan of Philadelphia (in Asia Minor) more than four decades ago. Over the years our friendship grew as we met in official visits between our churches and at meetings of the World Council of Churches, especially gatherings of the Faith and Order Commission of the Council. I was privileged to be present at his enthronement on November 2nd in 1991. While the friendship continued over the years, contacts have not always been easy. Thus I was delighted recently to be able to visit His All Holiness (Bartholomew’s official title) at the Patriarchate.

Our conversation picked up as if there had never been a break. We spoke of many things. At the end of our time together, I indicated my thoughts to the Patriarch that it might be useful to share some of our conversation with a larger audience, so that a greater understanding of the Patriarchate and its present situation might be available.

We agreed that some portions of our discussion were private between friends; all of it was unofficial in the sense that we spoke to each other as individuals and not as representatives of anyone or anything, and the Patriarch would have the opportunity to review and comment on anything that I wrote. All of these conditions have been met in terms of what follows.

My first impressions of the Patriarchate on this visit were how much security had been increased since my earlier visits. No longer does one simply walk into the Patriarchal Church of Saint George or the Patriarchal compound of offices and residences. The security process is much like that of airport security around the world. Uniformed personnel will take (and return) your cell-phone, keys and wallet, and examine all briefcases. All of this is perhaps a general sign of the times, but I felt also that it was an expression of the particular state of the Patriarchate in contemporary Turkey.

After my admission to the buildings, a short wait, and conversation with one of the deacons, who was politely curious about me, I was escorted into Bartholomew’s office, a room where we had met many times in the past. The Patriarch’s desk was cluttered and overwhelmed with books and documents – as always. He is a busy person. He daily functions on the world scene “as the first among equals” for some 300 million members of Orthodox churches across the world from his seat in the ancient city of Constantinople, a city that has been the focus of so much history of the Church.

I did not take notes during our conversation. This would have been highly inappropriate and foreign to the relationship we enjoy. Subsequently and soon after my visit and before leaving Turkey, I did jot down some impressions of the conversation. My account of our time together is not a verbatim description of our exchange. Rather I have structured my description around one theme that reoccurred in the discussion and served as a center of attention.

The choice is not surprising in view of the interests of both participants in the discussion. Our conversation was not structured, flowed freely, and was not comprehensive. Many aspects of the Patriarch’s ministry simply did not come up. A notable example would be his commitment and tireless efforts on behalf of the environment. Although Bartholomew is generous with his time with his friends, it was apparent to me that his schedule on the day I was with him was extremely full.

Our attention turned almost immediately to the Holy and Great Council which took place on the island of Crete in June of 2016. This topic was not surprising, for the Council had occurred since my last visit to the Patriarchate (in the Phanar, a historic section of the city of Istanbul) and has been a major commitment both of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and of Bartholomew personally for many decades.

The Council, which many believed would never take place, brought together ten autocephalous Orthodox churches. It was an unprecedented event, a goal and commitment of Bartholomew even prior to his election as Patriarch. The years of preparation were not without their struggles and difficulties. Yet the Council happened and in no small measure because of the role of Bartholomew himself.

How does the Patriarch assess the Council exactly three years after the event? He is clear. For him there is no ambiguity. The Council was a success. He notes that unfortunately some churches were absent, and now they regret their lack of participation. In many ways, the gathering was a pastoral council. Bartholomew sees the Council and the documents it adopted as a resource for Orthodox believers to live their faith in the modern world. He considers the preparatory phase and the texts that it produced as valuable as the work done in Crete, where he reminded me the time was short and the pressure great.

The final agenda of the Council was composed of six items: the diaspora, autonomy, the sacrament of marriage and its impediments, the importance of fasting and its observance today, ecumenical relations, and the contemporary mission of the Orthodox Church. The Council also launched a remarkable Encyclical and a Message “to the Orthodox people and to all people of good will.” Bartholomew views all of these as critical to Orthodox life in the twenty-first century, but understandably our comments quickly moved to ecumenical relations. Both the preparatory work for the Council and the Council itself addressed this topic. One of the documents that the Council adopted, entitled “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” took up directly the relationship and commitment of the Orthodox Church to the modern ecumenical movement. This text affirmed the role of the Orthodox Church in this movement and spoke positively of the importance both of the World Council of Churches and of the bilateral dialogues. The Encyclical of the Council itself contains a section with the title, “The Church: Witness in Dialogue.” Here in this shorter document, the same commitments with the above-mentioned document are repeated, sometimes in slightly different language.

For Bartholomew the message of these documents and the Council is transparent: there is a clear affirmation of Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement. He observed, and reminded me, that there are those in Orthodox Church who do not favor such participation. The inter-Orthodox discussion of such concerns must continue, but the commitment of the Orthodox Church to the movement for the visible unity of Christ’s Church, which dates more than one hundred years now, remains in place and now again is affirmed.

The above-mentioned references to the ecumenical movement are brief. As a non-Orthodox person, I could wish for more, including some expression of what the Orthodox Church can learn from other churches and traditions in the ecumenical movement. Yet this comment of mine, which I did not fully articulate in our conversation, should not detract from the commitment expressed by the Orthodox Church at its highest level of authority. Such dedication and devotion to the cause of Christian unity should be an example to other churches in the ecumenical movement.

The views in those two texts have had a long history in the life of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, from its Encyclical on Unity from 1920 to its role as a founding member of the World Council of Churches and as an advocate for theological dialogues with a variety of churches. Thus our conversation turned to the question of how today does the Ecumenical Patriarchate function as a member of the ecumenical movement? Obvious ways include the bilateral dialogues and membership in inter-Christian ecclesiastical organizations. The Patriarch expressed his view that for a church to function in this manner there is the requirement that its clergy are educated not only in their own tradition but with ecumenical insights and sensitivities. Thus the Ecumenical Patriarchate has sent students to the World Council of Churches’ Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, Switzerland, where at one time the prominent Greek Orthodox theologian, N.A. Nissiotis, was the director, and to renowned universities abroad. Bartholomew himself as a young clergyman studied in Rome, Bossey, and Munich.

Yet the Patriarch was direct that world Orthodoxy needs an educational institution for Pan-Orthodox outreach to provide for its leadership in the twenty-first century world. For years the Patriarchate had such an institution, the Theological School of Halki on one of the Princes’ Islands in the Sea of Marmara. Numerous leaders of global Orthodoxy, including Bartholomew, are alumni of Halki. Between its opening in 1844 and its closing in 1971, about one thousand students graduated from Halki. I reminded the Patriarch that because of his kindness I have been to that beautiful island and used the library there more than once. We both observed the regrettable present situation of the school at Halki. The Patriarchate maintains the physical plant and the impressive library. In 1971 the Turkish government illegally and by force closed the operation of the school. Since that date it has not been possible for any students to attend or graduate from Halki. A major element in the life of the Greek Orthodox Church and a significant dimension in the life of other Orthodox churches have been rendered dysfunctional. Bartholomew has constantly drawn attention to this lamentable situation as he noted in our conversation. He has pressed for the reopening of the school. The Turkish government has made promises. Yet in 2020, some forty-nine years after its illegal closing, the classrooms and hallways of the School of Halki are empty and silent. In my opinion, not only persons of the Orthodox faith but all Christians, and indeed all committed to the rule of law, should speak out against this deplorable situation. It can be corrected easily if those with the authority and power wish to remedy this injustice. I mentioned to the Patriarch, I hope not immodestly, that when that happy day of reopening occurs, I hope that I might be invited to teach a course at Halki. His comment was, “you will.” We both obviously live in hope.

The challenge embodied in the School at Halki is part of the larger problem that has burdened the Patriarchate for centuries. That problem was in many ways the assumed and often unspoken issue of virtually every conversation I have had with this Patriarch and his predecessor. I firmly believe that it is a dilemma involving the security, continuing existence, and functioning of the Mother Church of Constantinople in a context that with few exceptions has been challenging to it since the fifteenth century. We did not touch on this history in our discussion, and this is not the place to describe it again. It has been shared in many places.

From my perspective as a visitor looking in, Bartholomew and his community are loyal Turkish citizens, who nevertheless, do not fully enjoy their rights under the law. This situation has resulted throughout the centuries in this community being the object of discrimination in varying degrees. In spite of this history and present situation, and perhaps because of it, the witness of this Patriarch and his Church has an authenticity in the contemporary world. However, this positive aspect should not overshadow the unnecessary injustice and pain of many years.

It was a privilege once again to renew, in an all too brief time, a friendship of great meaning. My hope is that in conveying something of that relationship to a larger audience, something that I have not done in the past, I have been able to move it beyond the limits of a personal bond and to remind others of the continuing witness of Bartholomew I.1


*Blog photo by AFP / Ozan Kose
1. If that concluding phrase sounds similar, it picks up the title of a book which several of us published in 2013: The Witness of Bartholomew I, Ecumenical Patriarch.

This interview originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Ecumenical Trends, a publication of the Graymoor Ecumenical & Interreligious Institute. The journal offers distinctive perspectives where the church, the academy, and the interfaith field coincide, and combines reporting on current developments in ecumenical/interreligious affairs with accessible scholarship, interviews, and pastoral reflection on the dynamics of religious difference on common ground. Find out more, and subscribe to Ecumenical Trends (print and/or online), by clicking here.