An Interview With The Greek Orthodox Environmental Chief For ‘The Green Patriarch’

By Jovan Tripkovic

August 3, 2022

Hagia Sophia
Photo Credit: Creative Commons photo.

The Greek Orthodox are known for long tradition and strict theology. Few realize they are also leaders in thinking about ecology and the environment, to the point some call their leader “the Green Patriarch.”

Why? The Greek Orthodox observe many of the following societal trends:

Earth has been facing a series of unprecedented ecological crises. New data reveals extraordinary heating in the Arctic. Climate change is pushing endangered species to the brink of extinction. Tropical deforestation has been occurring at an alarming rate for the last couple of decades. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Earth’s temperature has risen by 0.14 degrees Fahrenheit per decade since 1880, but the rate of warming since 1981 is more than twice that: 0.32 degrees Fahrenheit per decade. The ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine and growing antagonism between the East and West have increased the possibility of nuclear war, which would lead to an ecological disaster unknown to humanity. 

For the last couple of decades, nations around the globe and international organizations have been addressing the issues of climate change. Religious communities across the world have attempted to join the environmental dialogue in order to tackle climate change issues. In 2015, Pope Francis published the papal letter “Praise Be to You: On care for our common home,” which became the most prominent, contemporary religious document to address environmental concerns. However, the pioneer of contemporary ecotheology in Christianity comes from the East. 

Since the 1980s, the Church of Constantinople — also known as the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople — has been the leader among Christian churches in promoting Christian environmentalism and ecotheology. Patriarch Bartholomew’s environmental mission is the main tenant of his tenure. His tireless work addressing the climate crisis earned him the nickname “the Green Patriarch.” In 2008, the ecumenical patriarch was named one of Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in the world for defining environmentalism as a spiritual responsibility.

The Rev. John Chryssavgis is a leading Orthodox Church theologian. He studied theology at the University of Athens and completed doctoral studies at the University of Oxford. Currently, he serves as an advisor to the ecumenical patriarch on environmental issues and a senior advisor to the Department of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He authored and edited dozens of books on theology, spirituality and ecology. His expertise and research interests make him a go-to person to talk to about the Orthodox Church’s teaching on environmentalism. However, his busy schedule doesn’t leave a lot of room for media engagement. Despite that, earlier this month, Father Chryssavgis talked to contributor Jovan Tripkovic. 

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Jovan Tripkovic: Can you provide a brief description of Patriarch Bartholomew’s environmental mission? What is his vision for addressing ecological crises in the future and promoting ecojustice in the world?  

John Chryssavgis: The environmental mission of the ecumenical patriarch has inherently and coherently been associated with the broader mission of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Church of Constantinople has always been an inspirational pioneer in the foundation and development of the ecumenical movement from the early 20th century, envisioning and encouraging, advocating and advancing ecumenical relations among the Christian churches and confessions. Patriarch Bartholomew has continued and consolidated this approach in every aspect of his ministry, working closely with other church leaders and communions, but also with other faith leaders and communities, in an effort to promote peace and reconciliation in our world.

Archdeacon John Chryssavgis (CENTER) and Archbishop Job of Telemessos of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in conversation with Dr Ionut Mavrichi of the Press Office of the Patriarchate of Romania at the Press Briefing on the first day of the Holy and Great Council. PHOTO: © JOHN MINDALA.
Archdeacon John Chryssavgis (CENTER) and Archbishop Job of Telemessos of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in conversation with Dr Ionut Mavrichi of the Press Office of the Patriarchate of Romania at the Press Briefing on the first day of the Holy and Great Council. PHOTO: © JOHN MINDALA.

In this context, if ecumenical relations are about establishing relations with other churches and religions, I would summarize the patriarch’s mission and vision as a commitment to making connections between what we say and what we do, between our theory and our practice, between theology and action. It is about discerning and drawing connections between what we believe in our heart and how we live in the world, between human beings created in the divine image and all creation in which we perceive the divine imprint. In all that he pursues and promotes, this association or reflection of heaven on earth is what the ecumenical patriarch seeks to discover.

Tripkovic: Is intentional pollution of the environment considered to be a sin from an Orthodox Christian perspective?

Chryssavgis: Speaking of polluting or harming the environment as sinful was first expressed in a now-classic address by the ecumenical patriarch delivered some 25 years ago in Santa Barbara, California. It was nothing less than revolutionary at the time for a global religious leader to define sin as ecological rather than confining it to its purely spiritual or exclusively psychological aspects that have determined our understanding of it since at least the time of Augustine.

Sin has conventionally been conceived very narrowly through the centuries, especially during the Middle Ages, which introduced legalistic dimensions and moralistic baggage to the act of wrongdoing before God. The patriarch’s declaration was therefore an unprecedented theological defense of creation care inasmuch as he was highlighting sin as a breakdown of relations — or, as I mentioned in my first response, connections — between people and the planet, instead of reducing it to a list of individual misdemeanors or personal transgressions.

Tripkovic: You have written in one of your papers that “nuclear forces of nature for war is an insult to creation and Creator, as is overconsumption of any kind.” Could you elaborate on this, while taking into consideration the social teachings of the Orthodox Church?

Chryssavgis: If we adopt the notion of perceiving and establishing connections between the way we worship the creator and treat creation, then what we do during liturgy directly relates to and impacts what we do after the liturgy. Otherwise, there is a conspicuous and precarious disconnect between what we express publicly on a Sunday morning and what we experience privately during the rest of the week in our professional, social and political life. In the phrase you cite, I am of course referring to the most extreme form of abuse of nature through the aggression of war and to the most apparent form of exploitation of natural resources through the aggression of greed.

There is no doubt in my mind that there is a close link between lust for power and lust for more. However, while nuclear war may seem an unlikely possibility to many of us — though recent developments related to Russia’s unjust and unjustifiable invasion of Ukraine have rendered this option a more likely and frightening reality — overconsumption is an ever-increasing and everyday fact that we rarely question in our lives, even if we are more than previously deeply conscious and informed of its repercussions for our planet and its people, especially the poor. It is inconceivable and irrational that we continue to pump fossil fuels from the earth — and simultaneously resist any alteration or modification to our comfortable or complacent lifestyles, at least in the more affluent Western societies — without any consideration to the cost that such actions bear on the survival of the planet and its population.

Tripkovic: The Orthodox Church prays at every liturgy for the clean air. Can this practice be used as a basis for a demand for a better care of the air quality?

Chryssavgis: Yes, indeed. Liturgy is a very good starting point — certainly for Orthodox Christians — for challenging or changing our patterns of thought and behavior. And liturgy is also a perfect example of how to make connections between what we pray and what we practice. The liturgical texts contain ancient prayers and specific petitions for seasonable weather and “an abundance of the fruits of the earth,” as well as for peaceful times. However, the very process or dynamic of liturgy — as an offering of the produce made by our hands, namely bread and wine, along with the presentation of our manufactured products, such as candles, flowers and icons — is an environmental ritual that invites a transformative blessing from above. It is a humble recognition, as the Orthodox liturgy says, that “we offer to God what belongs to God on behalf of all things and for the sake of all people.” And the expectation is that God graciously and generously transforms these gifts into the body and blood of Christ — ultimately for the life of the world.

The liturgy in fact reminds us of the sacramental and sacrificial dimension of all creatures and all creation. The sacramental dimension is what allows us to see the world through different lenses and not just for our selfish interests. A sacrament enables us to perceive and treat the world around us as a tangible mystery that reflects the divine. Indeed, “mystery” is the preferred Greek term for the notion of “sacrament.” When we see the world as a mystery, then we can see God in the flowers and forests, in the rocks and mountains, in the rivers and oceans. All of these “look to God” (Psalm 145:15); all of them “groan in expectation of liberation” (Romans 8:22).

And the sacrificial dimension of the world raises another vital aspect of creation care, namely the way we relate to the world with self-discipline. Unfortunately, many people think of sacrifice as loss or surrender. But the English word “sacrifice” derives from the Latin root noun “sacer” (meaning “sacred”) and the Latin verb “facio” (which signifies “I make”). Sacrifice has less to do with going without and more to do with making sacred. Just as pollution has profound spiritual connotations related to the destruction of creation when disconnected from its creator, so too sacrifice is the necessary corrective for reducing the world to a commodity to be consumed, exploited and wasted for our self-centered appetites. Whereas when we sacrifice, we render the world sacred, recognizing it as a gift from above to be shared with all humanity. Sacrifice is ultimately an expression of gratitude for what we are called to enjoy and humility for what we are invited to share.

Tripkovic: Given that some Orthodox communities are located in oil rich/oil extracting regions — including Russia and Alaska, to give just two examples — do you see or find tension around fossil fuel industries and renewable energy pursuits in Orthodox communities? Are oil and natural gas fueling a war right now in which Orthodox are killing Orthodox? 

Chryssavgis: The discrepancy or disconnect that you describe touches the very heart of the ecological problem. Because the tragic reality is that we are unwilling — quite frankly, we violently resist any call or mandate — to adopt simpler lives or recognize when enough is enough. Every one of us is guilty of consuming far more than we should, far more than someone, for instance, in Malawi or India. We Orthodox like to preach about eucharist (liturgy) and asceticism (self-discipline), but we are yet to adopt or recover any meaningful spirituality of simplicity and frugality in order that we can live in a way that promotes harmony, not division; in order that we can acknowledge “the earth as the Lord’s” (Psalm 23:1), not ours to abuse or exploit.

The cruel and unprovoked war enacted by the Russian Federation on the sovereign territory of Ukraine is a perfect example of how Orthodox do not practice what they preach, of how far the theology of our mind is from the spirituality of our heart or the reality of our hands. Not only is a powerful tyrant annihilating human life and fertile land, but a prominent patriarch is granting benediction and endorsement of this destruction of a neighboring population that shares much of the same faith, history and culture.

Here is where I would respectfully advise that Orthodox bishops, theologians and faithful are obliged to demonstrate a spirit of humility and repentance. Instead of thoughtlessly — indeed, contemptuously — condemning Western nations, Western churches, or Western principles on the premise of the Orthodox Church somehow claiming the monopoly of truth, we should be more modest and moderate in confessing that we are in fact part of the problem rather than presuming to be heirs to the solution. If nothing else, the Russian war in Ukraine should bring us Orthodox to our knees in prayer so that we may admit our shameful collusion with sinful structures that diminish or destroy the dignity of human life and the integrity of the world.

Beyond these observations, I also believe that it will take some time before we can calculate more accurately the cost and consequence of this illegal and indefensible war by Russia on the natural environment and resources of Ukraine, especially with the scorched earth, decimated cities and obliterated infrastructure provoked by the Russian military machine.

Tripkovic: Patriarch Bartholomew committed his tenure to environmental issues and global warming. Additionally, he has addressed issues of human rights and more recently even autism. To what extent are other Orthodox churches discussing contemporary societal problems? Have the Orthodox in general ignored certain types of human rights in the past? If so, what types of rights, and where are the most glaring examples of this? 

Chryssavgis: It is true that these critical issues have been at the forefront of the ecumenical patriarch’s vision, mission and ministry; and I have outlined some of the reasons for this in responses to your earlier questions. As a rule, however, the Orthodox churches have not been overly concerned with societal issues or social justice, except to the degree that they have been involved in or impacted by them in national or historical circumstances.

There have been some rare examples in recent history, such as Mother Maria Skobtsova — a married woman and member of the French Resistance during the Second World War who was canonized a saint in the Orthodox Church for providing shelter to Jews, even sacrificing her life in place of someone committed to the gas chamber. Nevertheless, the Eastern churches have normally been allergic, even averse to any sense of social commitment — arguably the result of a painful struggle to understand their place in the world over long periods of isolation or persecution, particularly in lands behind the Iron Curtain.

A few exceptions to this normative practice in Orthodox history and tradition might include the social document produced by the Church of Moscow in 2000, which is entitled “The Basis of the Social Concept.” Ironically and regrettably, the Russian Orthodox Church today would probably not agree with or abide by many of its own guidelines established in that document only two decades ago. In my opinion, the Church of Moscow has almost irrevocably regressed in this regard.

A second exception would surely include the unprecedented and historic Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church — called and chaired by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew in Crete in 2016 — which was the first ever panorthodox or universal assembly of churches and bishops to address contemporary problems, such as climate change and immigration, as well as science and technology.

And a third exception — another initiative of the ecumenical patriarch and consequences of the Great Council — is the social statement entitled “For the Life of the World,” which was officially approved by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2020. That our spiritual lives cannot be separated from our social lives is the foundational thinking of this document, which also does not hesitate in crisp, frank language to condemn social ills, such as totalitarianism and corruption, racism and antisemitism, as well as war and violence.

Tripkovic: The environmental initiatives of the Orthodox Church started in the mid-1980s. In 2015, Pope Francis published the “Laudato Si’” (“Praise Be to You”) encyclical that addressed environmental concerns and expressed the care for our common home. Do you think that the issues of the environment have a significant place in the ecumenical dialogue between Catholic and Orthodox churches? And what is the likelihood of Orthodox environmental theology preserving some form of Orthodox unity?

Chryssavgis: It is true that the environmental initiatives of the Orthodox Church begin in the mid-1980s, and this is certainly reflected in the more recent encyclical of Pope Francis, who prominently highlights the work of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. Until recently, however, the weight of such environmental conversation has been limited to ecumenical circles, especially the World Council of Churches, which early on accepted the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s dedication of Sept. 1 as the World Day of Prayer for Creation. Today the Vatican and the Anglican Communion have also set aside this day for special prayers, policies and practices for creation care.

However, as a subject of discussion and deliberation in bilateral dialogues of the Orthodox Church, creation care and climate change are only more recently assuming greater attention. Thus, for example, the official dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Anglican Communion has produced the results of its focused conversations on the subject between 2016 and 2019. The publication by the Anglican Consultative Council is entitled “Stewards of Creation: A Hope-Filled Ecology” and appeared in 2020.

But your question raises a more significant and substantial matter. I have been increasingly convinced that the higher theological and administrative echelons of worldwide churches, both Orthodox and ecumenical, might be doing greater service and justice to the objective of bilateral dialogue and reconciliation if — above and beyond or even through and within specific topics of debate — they centered not merely on either eccentric or theoretical theological interests and ecclesiastical minutia but instead addressed challenges that confront all of their constituent congregations. I wonder, for instance, whether it would be more useful for us to discuss the implications of the ecological crisis — or, as we were forced to admit during the COVID-19 pandemic, the relationship between faith and science — within inter-Orthodox or pan-Orthodox assemblies as well as in bilateral dialogues with other churches, instead of battling age-old disputes about papacy or primacy!

What I would dearly love to see is leaders and thinkers at the highest levels of our churches addressing such questions as climate change or war — not as a way of avoiding doctrinal, canonical or administrative issues but rather as a way of more clearly articulating what the latter mean in the first place — while at the same time reflecting the unity that they claim to share by exploring matters that directly affect the lives of their faithful. Is it not a tragedy that two neighboring, sister Orthodox churches — among the largest Orthodox churches in the world — are engaging in military conflict, while the rest of the Orthodox churches are preoccupied with matters related to jurisdiction and autocephaly, or ordination and authority?

Tripkovic: The environmental mission of Patriarch Bartholomew earned him the title the Green Patriarch, under which he is recognized around the world. What is the greatest global impact of Patriarch Bartholomew’s green agenda?

Chryssavgis: I recall the first time when I heard that, in 1989, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had dedicated Sept. 1 as a day of prayer for the protection of the natural environment. I was a young clergyman and theologian, serving the Orthodox Church in Australia and teaching at a divinity school. Two years later, I was privileged to sit beside then Senior Metropolitan Bartholomew of Chalcedon — now the ecumenical patriarch — at a general assembly of the World Council of Churches. It was there that I witnessed his sincere conviction and commitment to both ecumenical conversation and to ecological consciousness.

And I recall feeling very gratified, albeit at the same time very responsible, that a church of which most people were either unaware or else dismissed as isolated in the past — and which many people identified as irreversibly enslaved to nationalism — actually had a unique and relevant contribution to make in the modern world. For me, this awareness provided a dual corollary: Not only was Orthodox Christianity able to be relevant to our time and place, but the predicaments and problems of the world also now mattered to Orthodoxy.

For me, then, this meant that the Earth was intimately and inseparably related to the heaven that we were called to expect. The teachings and traditions of our faith were somehow profoundly and intricately connected to the world we inhabit and the environment that sustains us. It made sense of the mystery of the cross as the intersection of all things vertical and all things horizontal.

This was a gospel that inspired and motivated me; it was a sermon I was ready to preach to all nations.

Tripkovic: Patriarch Bartholomew often speaks about the harm of war, racism and inequality in addition to expressing environmental concerns. Do you think that by embracing this approach, Patriarch Bartholomew is giving the Orthodox Church a global perspective, while making it more appealing to non-Orthodox and future converts from Western countries?

Chryssavgis: The answer to your question is both yes and no. Following my previous response, I would agree that the patriarch’s approach offers a global perspective and platform to our church’s theology and spirituality, which renders it more appealing to many non-Orthodox — whether these are our partners in dialogue or else all people of good will — who deep down understand that protecting and preserving creation comprises part and parcel of what it means to be decent human beings and caring stewards of the planet’s resources.

However, from another perspective, I would say that it has sometimes proved more difficult to convince Orthodox Christians — rather than non-Orthodox Christians — of their vocation to transform the world by addressing the spiritual roots of climate change and pollution. The reason for this lies partly in the discomfort that Orthodox Christians traditionally feel in engaging with social or political issues — although this lack of engagement equally often implies a problematic relationship with society and the world. The other part of the problem lies in the fact that many Orthodox converts arrive from conservative evangelical circles, which have their own set of internal conflicts and historical baggage with regard to the role of the material world — including matter and the flesh, and especially environment and gender — in the process of transfiguration and salvation.