The Green Patriarch: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Protection of the Environment


by John Chryssavgis

1. Introduction

In the past two decades, the world has witnessed alarming environmental degradation – with climate change, the loss of biodiversity and the pollution of natural resources – and the widening gap between rich and poor, as well as increasing failure to implement environmental policies.[1] During the same decade, one religious leader has discerned the signs of the times and called people's attention to this ecological and social situation.

His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has persistently proclaimed the primacy of spiritual values in determining environmental ethics and action. His endeavors have earned him the title "Green Patriarch" – coined and publicized by the media in 1996, while being formalized in the White House in 1997 by Al Gore, Vice President of the United States. In 2008, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was named one of Time Magazine's 100 Most Influential People in the World for "defining environmentalism as a spiritual responsibility."


2. Initiatives and activities

The environmental initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate date back to the mid-1980s with the third session of the Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Conference held in Chambésy (1986). Representatives at this meeting expressed concern for the abuse of the natural environment, especially in affluent western societies. The emphasis was on leaving a better world for future generations. Several Inter-Orthodox meetings followed on the subject of ‘Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation' and attended by Orthodox representatives.

One such consultation was held in Patmos, Greece (1988), to mark the 900th anniversary of the historic Monastery of St John the Theologian. The then Ecumenical Patriarch Dimitrios assigned Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon as Patriarchal representative to this conference entitled ‘Revelation and the Future of Humanity' and organized jointly by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Greek Ministry of Cultural Affairs in cooperation with the local civil authorities. One of the primary recommendations of this conference was that the Ecumenical Patriarchate should designate one day each year for the protection of the natural environment.

In 1989, the same Patriarch Dimitrios published the first encyclical letter on the environment. This encyclical, proclaimed on the occasion of the first day of the new ecclesiastical calendar, formally established 1 September as a day for all Orthodox Christians within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to offer prayers for the preservation of the natural creation. A similar encyclical is published annually on the first day of September.

In 1990, the foremost hymnographer on Mount Athos, Monk Gerasimos Mikrayiannanites, was commissioned by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to compose a service of supplication for the environment. Whereas in the past Orthodox faithful prayed to be delivered from natural calamities, they were now called to pray that the planet may be delivered from the abusive and destructive acts of human beings.

A month after his election in 1991, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convened an ecological gathering in Crete entitled ‘Living in the Creation of the Lord'. That convention was opened by Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh and International Chairman of the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). In the following year, Patriarch Bartholomew called an unprecedented meeting of all Orthodox Patriarchs and Primates at the Phanar, submitting an historical expression of unity and inviting all Orthodox leaders to inform their churches about the critical significance of this issue for our times. The Primates endorsed 1 September as a day of pan-Orthodox prayer for the environment.


3. Seminars and symposia

In the summer of 1992, the Duke of Edinburgh visited the Phanar for an environmental convocation at the Theological School of Halki. In November 1993, the Ecumenical Patriarch returned the visit, meeting with the Duke at Buckingham Palace where they sealed a friendship of common purpose and active cooperation for the preservation of the environment. In June 1994, an ecological seminar was convened at the historic Theological School of Halki, the first of five successive annual summer seminars on diverse aspects of the environment: Religious Education (1994), Ethics (1995), Communications (1996), Justice (1997), and Poverty (1998). These seminars, the first held at such a level in any Orthodox Church context, were designed to promote environmental awareness and action, engaging leading theologians, environmentalists, scientists, civil servants and especially students.

In October 1994, the University of the Aegean conferred an honorary doctoral degree on Patriarch Bartholomew, the first of a series of awards and honorary degrees presented to the Patriarch in recognition of his efforts and initiatives for the environment. In November 2000, the New York-based organization Scenic Hudson presented the Ecumenical Patriarch with the first international Visionary Award for Environmental Achievement. In 2002, Patriarch Bartholomew was the recipient of the Sophie Prize in Norway and the Binding Environmental Prize in Liechtenstein, each presented to an individual or organization that has pioneered environmental awareness and action.

Convinced that any appreciation of the environmental concerns of our times must occur in dialogue with other Christian confessions, other religious faiths, as well as scientific disciplines, in 1994 Patriarch Bartholomew established the Religious and Scientific Committee. Chaired by Metropolitan John of Pergamon, its extraordinary events are coordinated by Ms. Maria Becket. To date, the Religious and Scientific Committee has hosted seven international, interdisciplinary and inter-religious symposia to reflect on the fate of the rivers and seas, and to force the pace of religious debate on the natural environment.

Symposium I: Revelation and the Environment convened in September 1995 under the joint auspices of Patriarch Bartholomew and Prince Philip on the occasion of the 1900th anniversary of St John's Book of Revelation. In his opening address, Patriarch Bartholomew noted: ‘The earth has been hurt (Rev. 7.3) Conscious of the threat of nuclear destruction and environmental pollution, we shall move toward one world or none.'

Symposium II: The Black Sea in Crisis was held in September 1997 under the joint auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarch and His Excellency Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission. This symposium undertook a concrete case study, visiting the countries that surround the Black Sea and engaging in conversation with local religious leaders and environmental activists, as well as regional scientists and politicians.

A direct result of this symposium, the Halki Ecological Institute was organized in June 1999 to promote wider regional collaboration and education among 75 clergy and theologians, educators and students, as well as scientists and journalists. This initiative marked a new direction in inter-disciplinary vision and dialogue, implementing the ecological theory of the Religious and Scientific Committee into practice.

Symposium III: River of Life – Down the Danube to the Black Sea was launched in October 1999, under the joint auspices of Patriarch Bartholomew and His Excellency Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission. Participants traveled the length of the Danube River, from Germany to the Ukraine in the aftermath of the military and ethnic conflict in the Former Yugoslavia.

Symposium IV: The Adriatic Sea – a Sea at Risk, a Unity of Purpose addressed the ethical aspects of the environmental crisis. Held in June 2002, under the joint auspices of the Ecumenical Patriarch and His Excellency Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, this symposium opened in Durres, Albania, and concluded in Venice, Italy, where Patriarch Bartholomew co-signed a document of environmental ethics with Pope John Paul II via satellite link-up. The ‘Venice Declaration' is the first joint text of the two leaders on ecological issues.

Symposium V: The Baltic Sea - A Common Heritage, A Shared Responsibility was organized in June 2003. The end of the Cold War has permitted the renewal of political, economic, social, cultural and religious ties between this region and countries comprising the European Union, and the wider world. Organized under the patronage of the Ecumenical Patriarch and His Excellency Romano Prodi, President of the European Commission, the symposium also resulted in the North Sea Conference, co-sponsored by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Church of Norway.

Symposium VI: The Amazon: Source of Life was held in July 2006 on the Amazon River under the patronage of the Ecumenical Patriarch and His Excellency Kofi Annan, Secretary-General of the United Nations. This symposium concentrated on the global dimension of problems stemming directly from the Amazon, problems which have, perhaps, dropped out of view for many decision-makers.

Symposium VII: The Arctic – Mirror of Life was held in the fall of 2007, directing its attention to the Arctic Sea. Under the joint auspices of Their Excellencies Mr. Jose Barroso (President of the European Commission) and Mr. Kofi Annan (former Secretary-General of the United Nations), the symposium considered the plight of indigenous populations, the fragility of the sea ice, and the encroachment of oil exploration in a region considered to be one of the first victims of human-induced climate change.

Symposium VIII: The Great Mississippi River: Restoring Balance will be held on October 18-25, 2009. Of the world's greatest rivers, the Mississippi is among those which has fallen most completely under human domination. With a total length of 3778 kilometers and the third largest drainage basin on earth, a chain of cities along its length has discharged domestic and industrial waste into the Mississippi for nearly two centuries. Yet the fate of the Mississippi waters is an ethical crisis. The exploitation of the great river produces catastrophic human and natural consequences, as observed in the lessons of the Katrina hurricane. The Mississippi is a challenge not only to human responsibility for the environment but, indeed, to democracy itself.


4. Environment and spirituality

With reference to the environmental initiatives and actions, what is perhaps most characteristic of the Patriarch's initiatives is the mark of humility. The Ecumenical Patriarch is able to see the larger picture. He recognizes that he is standing before something greater than himself, a world before which he must kneel, a chain that long predates and will long outlast him. Therefore, he speaks of self-emptying (kenosis) (Phil. 2.4-11), ministry (diakonia) (Luke 10.40; Acts 1.17, 25; 6.4), witness (martyria, a term which also has the sense of martyrdom and suffering) (John 1.7, 19), and thanksgiving (or eucharistia, a term which also implies liturgy) (Acts 24.3; 2 Cor. 4.15).

The emphasis is always on humble simplicity – the technical term in Orthodox spirituality is asceticism (askeo – to work up raw material with skill, to exercise by training or discipline; Acts 24.16) and on liturgy (ministration, ministry, service) as the essential source of Orthodox theology. The notion of liturgy leads us into what is perhaps the most distinctive feature of the Patriarch's vision, namely the concept of communion (koinonia – which also means communication and fellowship; 1 Cor. 10.16; Phil. 6).

Some of the central Scriptural passages or events that comprise the foundation for the Ecumenical Patriarch's conviction about the sacred commission and obligation to protect the environment include the creation of the world by the loving Creator (Genesis 1.26), Genesis 2.15 (about the need to serve and preserve creation), Genesis 9.8-17 (about the covenant between God and the world), and Ezekiel 34.18-19 (about using and not abusing creation), as well as the Lord's Beatitudes (Matthew 5.2-12) and Transfiguration on Mt. Tabor (Mark 9.2-3). 

For Patriarch Bartholomew, this is a matter of truthfulness to God, humanity and the created order. He condemns environmental abuse as nothing less than sin! At Santa Barbara in November 1997, he declared:

To commit a crime against the natural world is a sin. For human beings to cause species to become extinct and to destroy the biological diversity of God's creation; for human beings to degrade the integrity of the earth by causing changes in its climate, by stripping the earth of its natural forests, or by destroying its wetlands; for human beings to injure other human beings with disease by contaminating the earth's waters, its land, its air, and its life, with poisonous substances – all of these are sins.

The environment is not only a political or a technological issue; it is, as Patriarch Bartholomew likes to underline, primarily a religious and spiritual issue. Patriarch Bartholomew invariably relates the environment to a familiar aspect of Orthodox spirituality, namely to the icons that decorate Orthodox churches. Symbols are important in Orthodox thought, worship and life. Creation itself is likened to an icon, just as the human person is created ‘in the image and likeness of God' (Gen. 1.26 and Col. 1.15). The Patriarch invites people to contemplate the Creator God through the icon of the created world (Col. 1.16-18). In the same vein, Patriarch Bartholomew refers to the human beings as endowed by God to serve as ‘priests', underlining that personal responsibility for the physical world and the slightest action of even the feeblest among us can change the world for the better.

Finally, the Ecumenical Patriarch is aware that environmental issues are intimately connected to and dependent on numerous other social issues of our times, including war and peace, justice and human rights, poverty and unemployment. It is not by chance that the term ‘eco-justice' has been used in religious circles to describe this interconnection between creation and creatures, between the world and its inhabitants. We have, in recent years, become increasingly aware of the effects of environmental degradation on people, and especially the poor.


5. Worldview and vision

Unfortunately, we tend to forget our connection to the earth and our environment. There is a binding unity and continuity that we share with all of God's creation. In recent years, we have been reminded of this truth with flora and fauna extinction, with soil and forest clearance, and with noise, air and water pollution. Concern for the environment is not an expression of superficial or sentimental love. It is a way of honoring and dignifying our creation by the hand and word of God. It is a way of listening to ‘the groaning of creation' (Rom. 8.22).

We tend to call this crisis an ‘ecological' crisis, which is a fair description in so far as its results are manifested in the ecological sphere. Yet, the crisis is not first of all ecological. It is a crisis concerning the way we perceive reality, the way we imagine or image our world. We treat our planet in an inhuman, god-forsaken manner precisely because we see it in this way, precisely because we see ourselves in this way. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew offers a refreshing, alternative way of seeing ourselves in relation to the natural world.

As a religious leader, the Ecumenical Patriarch's initiatives to protect the environment are worthy of emulation. His worldview, derived from the ancient values of the Orthodox Church, deserves attention.

[1] Based on an article, entitled "Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew: insights into an Orthodox Christian worldview," in The International Journal of Environmental Studies 64, 1 (2007) 9-18.