Last Monday, November 11, Washington, DC’s Saint Sophia Greek Orthodox Cathedral and the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration (OFT) hosted “On Earth As It Is In Heaven: A Pan-Orthodox Conference On Putting Orthodox Theology and Ecology into Practice”. The first-ever pan-Orthodox conference held in North America on the intersection between Christian ecology, theology, and stewardship of the natural world featured a notable gathering of well-known clergy and lay scholars. Foremost among them were His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios, the Primate of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, who delivered the opening keynote, and Dr. James Hansen, director emeritus of NASA, who offered the afternoon keynote address.
The underlying importance of the event was highlighted not only by the active role which the Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis took in its planning and publicizing, but his physical presence as a conference attendee. The Rev. Dr. Chryssavgis serves as the environmental adviser to His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. According to the OFT’s webpage advertising the conference to would-be-attendees, the foremost goal behind the symposium was to facilitate the voluntary and non-coercive greening of parishes across Orthodox jurisdictions nationwide:
“This conference will bring together distinguished Orthodox speakers and other leaders from throughout the US in a long overdue effort to inspire and initiate the greening of our parishes,” said Archdeacon Dr. John Chryssavgis, adviser to the Ecumenical Patriarchate on environmental issues. “Participate and become a part of a process to transform our churches.”
Also present was Mr. Frederick W. Krueger, the OFT’s executive director and a longtime friend of His All Holiness. His latest book, a voluminous text compiled over decades of intensive research and cross-referencing titled Greening the Orthodoox Parish: A Handbook for Christian Ecological Practice, has been positively received by prominent Orthodox hierarchs, parish priests and laity across jurisdictions. As the OFT notes on its webpage promoting the publication, His All Holiness wrote the foreword to the book, which “includes information and guidance for parishes and the faithful in America on topics such as “Foundations for Energy Conservation,” “A Green Check List for Parishes and Homes,” and “An Orthodox View of Technology.””
Commenting on the underlying theme of the conference, Mr. Krueger observed that care for the earth has always been a central theological, scriptural and Patristic tenet of the Christian faith, yet the practice of actually carrying out practical and sustainable conservation measures remained in its infancy in many Orthodox parishes:
“Orthodox theology, the Scriptures, and the saints all tell us that care for God’s earth is a responsibility for every Christian, yet practice of this aspect of theology has been elusive in many parishes,” said Fred Krueger, executive director of the Orthodox Fellowship of the Transfiguration (OFT), which is co-sponsoring the event, which is designed to help build such practice.
Around the world, Orthodox hierarchs are speaking with one voice as they call the Church to engage this issue. Together, they point us to the need for a deeper transfiguring response to the challenge of a world out of harmony with God and His creation.
OFT is an affiliate organization of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of North and Central America. Other sponsors include Holy Cross/Hellenic College, St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary, the Orthodox Peace Fellowship, and other Orthodox agencies.
I was deeply impressed by the range of Orthodox institutions and jurisdictions present at the conference. From the country’s two leading Orthodox seminaries to the chief umbrella administrative organization for all canonical Orthodox jurisdictions, all Orthodox believers in the United States were represented in the form of conference speakers, organizers or representative attendees.
Although I was well aware of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s much-lauded title of the “Green Patriarch” (earned by years of consistent activism and leadership on international environmental efforts), I did not expect the welcome attention the speakers paid to the questions of how to practically engage parishioners, local business leaders, and community representatives in grassroots and communal efforts to green parishes without making use of top-down government policies and regulations.
The second-to-last afternoon panel, titled “Putting Theology into Action in the Parish” featured OFT Steering Committee member Ms. Anne Glynn Mackoul of Princeton as the moderator. Mr. Athan Manuel used his remarks to equate the fight to preserve and renew the environment with “all other Orthodox moral imperatives”, presumably including the more controversial “social issues” like abortion and homosexuality.
Fr. Constantine Lazarakis, pastor of Southampton, NY’s Greek Orthodox Dormition of the Theotokos (Virgin Mary) parish, gave a fascinating lecture on “Designing New Parish Buildings” in which he stressed the pragmatic, cost-effective opportunities offered by construction of a deliberately green church and parish hall for those seeking to maximize the ecological efficacy of their community. Mr. Alex Couloumbis of nearby Bethesda, Maryland’s Greek Orthodox Church of St George provided a thorough overview of how his parish’s Greening Committee prepared an extensive, detailed report on pragmatic opportunities to reduce energy expenses, improve their infrastructure, and make their buildings more energy-efficient using available resources.
Following this, Steering Committee member Dr. Alfred K. Siewers, professor of English and Environmental Studies at Bucknell University, moderated a student seminar featuring paper presentations by three seminarians and myself. Ms. Danielle Xanthos, a senior seminarian at Holy Cross Seminary/Hellenic College opened with a fascinating paper on the intersection between Orthodox theology, psychology, and mankind’s relationship with God’s creation.
Following Ms. Xanthos’ remarks, St Vladimir’s Seminary seminarian Ms. Martha Carlisle offered an inspiring review of the inaugural year of the seminary’s new St. Herman’s Society for Orthodox Ecology, which she serves as founding president, while Mr. Andrew Stoiko, of St. Tikhon’s Seminary, proposed the parish and campus-level creation of the office of ecological steward. During the course of his remarks, Mr. Stoiko exhorted all present to remember that the laudable emphasis placed on environmental sustainability efforts and fostering greater stewardship of God’s creation must come alongside, and never in place of, equal emphasis on the sacredness of all human life from conception to natural death.
I attended the conference as a presenter at Dr. Siewers’ invitation, and I was the last person to address the attendees following the above presenters. I was delighted to receive much praise for my remarks, including from my fellow student presenters, Mr. Fred Krueger, Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, and Rev. Fr. Christopher Bender, the OFT’s chairman. Attached here is the unabridged text of my paper: “The God-Man, Mankind and Creation – Ryan Hunter – 11-11-13