Volume 13 Number 2
Preserving the Sanctity of Creation
01 April 2000

His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is the spiritual head of some 250 million Orthodox Christians the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople

The alliance between the Orthodox Church and environmental scientists may sound paradoxical, yet it is only the latest expression of the Church's ancient inheritance. The Bible and the patristic literature of the Church convey a deep understanding of the sanctity of the whole created world.

The lives of the saints and great ascetics of the Church are examples to us of a loving relationship with the whole of creation. In Orthodox tradition, being able to communicate with one's natural surroundings is considered a sign of sanctity. The patristic teachings advocating self-restraint and love of all God's creatures seek to develop a relationship between humans and the rest of the natural world which is not based on utility and self-interest.
Therefore, from our Orthodox perspective, the global environmental crisis is a matter of profound concern.

Through man's materialistic approach, nature is not seen as the creation of God, but rather as the container of resources necessary for our survival. This allows humans to treat creation as something there purely for our convenience. In the logic of convenience, the question of whether nature needs to be conserved or destroyed is only answerable in terms of human needs and desires. Destruction and conservation become two sides of the same coin.

The environmental sciences, as they are generally practised today, express humanity's exploitative approach to the natural environment. One needs only to read the language used to see this. Such terms as 'the carrying capacity of ecosystems' and 'the economic value of environmental goods' reflect humanity's treatment of nature as a commodity.

The continued destruction of the natural environment is essentially a spiritual problem, which the Church seeks to change. The Orthodox Church understands the nature of the universe in a way that is essentially eucharistic, a term which originates from the Greek word eucharistia, which means 'thanksgiving'. For the Christian East this tradition of giving thanks to the Creator is not an individualistic process. The Divine Liturgy, the supreme Christian mystery and sacrament, is a communal act. The consecration of the Eucharist is celebrated by the entire perishable creation and it is this creation that is affirmed and sanctified.

This world is, and has always been, God's world. Within it there is the inescapable reality of sin, the turning away from the love of God. The Liturgy is the 'antidote' to, and a judgement of, the temporary and sinful nature of the entire creation. The eucharistic understanding of the world as God's creation requires a loving relationship between people and nature.

According to Church tradition, creation is dependent on the will of God, and does not have the means to sustain itself. Humans are distinguished from the rest of creation because they can choose between love and hatred. The greatest challenge for a human being is to employ this freedom not destructively, but with the aim of experiencing the love of God and the bonds of co-createdness with the whole world, and thus, in a sense, to share in the divine work of creation.

It is our responsibility as the first Shepherd of the Orthodox world to sensitize the flock to the proper way of relating to the created order. It is in this spirit that the Church of Constantinople, the first throne in the Orthodox world, has undertaken momentous initiatives in an effort to find solutions to environmental problems.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate has organized several environmental seminars and more recently initiated an environmental education programme. We have been co-patron with the European Union on a series of 'floating' shipboard symposia which have fused together the wisdom of science and the power of religion and reinforced the urgency of cooperation in the protection of our natural environs.

The first symposium, in 1995, celebrating the 1900th anniversary of St John's Book of Revelation, travelled through the Aegean Sea identifying the degeneration of the world's waters as a new apocalypse confronting all mankind.

The second, in 1997, voyaged around the Black Sea, visiting all six shoreline countries. The response was overwhelming and contributed to a growing movement against the catastrophic decline of the sea's ecosystem.

The third symposium, in 1999, followed on from the Black Sea voyage by addressing one of the great rivers which drain into it. Participants journeyed down the Danube from Germany to the Delta on the Black Sea, examining the consequences of over-utilization; pollution by industry, agriculture and sewage; the problems of major dams and altering river courses; and the impact of war. The symposium created greater awareness of these problems and of the spiritual necessity and rights of future generations to clean water with rivers and seas rich in natural life.

Symposium IV, planned for 2001, will study the environmental challenges of the Baltic Sea, on whose shores some of the wealthiest nations in the world live side by side with neighbours who are struggling through a period of economic and social transition. For decades the sea formed part of the frontline of a confrontation between east and west, and the Protestant, Catholic and Orthodox traditions are all represented around it. Our voyage will aim to promote unity, shared responsibility and an understanding of the desperate need for strong community action.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate seeks to promote the meaning of true communion with the entirety of creation, and the need to relate to the world in a way that acknowledges the sanctity of creation.
The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople

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