An Extraordinary Meeting of the Preparatory Committee for the 18th Plenary Session of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Orthodox Church and the Lutheran World Federation was held via Video Call on Thursday, 11 March 2021. The Meeting was hosted by the Lutheran World Federation and Co-chaired by Bishop Dr. Johann Schneider (Evangelical Church in Central Germany/EKMD), from the Lutheran World Federation side, and by H.E. Metropolitan Prof. Dr. Gennadios of Sassima (Ecumenical Patriarchate) from the Orthodox side, under the topic “Covid-19: Blessing as work of the Holy Spirit in extraordinary times: Liturgical and non-liturgical aspects”.
Orthodox participants were: H.E. Metropolitan Prof. Dr. Gennadios of Sassima (Ecumenical Patriarchate) and V. Rev. Grand Archimandrite Dr. Agathangelos Siskos, Archivist (Co-secretary, Ecumenical Patriarchate), V. Rev. Archimandrite Philip Hall (Patriarchate of Antioch), V. Rev. Protopresbyter Prof. (Em.) Dr. George Dion Dragas (Patriarchate of Jerusalem), Ass. Prof. Dr. Rade Kisić (Patriarchate of Serbia), Rev. Presbyter Dr. Cosmin Pricop (Patriarchate of Romania), Prof. Dr. Nathan Hoppe (Church of Albania), V. Rev. Protopresbyter Stefanos Chrysanthou (Consultant, Church of Cyprus) and Prof. (Em.) Dr. Konstantinos Delikostantis (Consultant, Ecumenical Patriarchate).
Lutheran participants were representing various member churches of the Lutheran World Federation: Bishop Dr. Johann Schneider (Evangelical Church in Central Germany/EKMD), Rev. Prof. Dr. Dirk G. Lange (Co-secretary, Lutheran World Federation – Office Geneva), Bishop Ibrahim Azar (Evangelical Lutheran Church in Jordan and the Holy Land), Prof. Dr. Kenneth G. Appold (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), Rev. Mag. Theol. Dr. Anne Burghardt (Estonian Evangelical Lutheran Church), Rev. Prof. Dr. Stephanie Dietrich (Evangelical Church of Norway), Rev. Prof. Dr. Heta Hurskainen (Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland), Rev. Prof. Dr. Stefan Tobler (Evangelical Church of the Augsburg Confession in Romania), Rev. Prof. Dr. Jennifer Wasmuth (Consultant, Institute for Ecumenical Research, Strasbourg, France) and Rev. Prof. Dr. Risto Saarinen (Consultant, Helsinki University, Finland).
The Members offered a short memorial prayer service on the occasion of the fall asleep of Archimandrite Alexi Chehadeh (Patriarchate of Antioch), a victim of Covid-19.
At the beginning of the meeting, Metropolitan Gennadios referred to the impact of the pandemic: after the last Meeting of the Committee in Tirana (2019), it was unable to meet in Germany (May 2020), where it was scheduled to be hosted by the Lutheran Church in Central Germany in Neudietendorf.
The whole of humanity continues to suffer, and millions of people lost their lives struggling between life and death. The same situation happened in our churches, where we also had many victims, clergy, bishops, and even the Patriarch of Serbia, Ireneos. Meanwhile, the liturgical life of our Churches was conformed to the situation of the pandemic. Our churches remained closed for a long period of time and many time the liturgy was officiated without the presence of believers.
It was decided to meet as a Committee by a Video Call Meeting. The purpose of our meeting is to take an overview of the situation and to reflect about how our Churches felt and continue to experience the effects of the pandemic of Covid-19.
After the greetings addressed by the two co-chairs, four participants from each side shared experiences from their respect Churches regarding the worldwide pandemic crisis, Lutherans: Rev. Prof. Dr. Heta Hurskainen, Rev. Prof. Dr. Stefan Tobler, Bishop Ibrahim Azar, and Bishop Johannes Schneider, and Orthodox: V. Rev. Philip Hall, Ass. Prof. Dr. Rade Kisić, V. Rev. Stefanos Chrysanthou, and Prof. (Em.) Dr. Konstantinos Delikostantis.
The participants observed that the church suffers alongside the people and the importance of accompaniment as an expression of compassion leading to confession and hope. The idea of a direction intervention by God is rejected but we must ask about the meaning: can we learn to be humble and learn that vulnerability is an essential part of human nature. It is important to remember Noah and the flood. The rainbow remains as a sign that God does not destroy the world. The people experience a great psychological stress. There is a deep longing to come back together. The church is about human beings and the challenge is to know how best to serve them and then how can the church contribute to a post-pandemic world?
The Committee members heard four presentations from both sides on the theme from both sides on the theme “Covid-19: Blessing as work of the Holy Spirit in extraordinary times: Liturgical and non-liturgical aspects”: Prof. Dr. Nathan Hoppe, Rev. Prof. Dr. Stephanie Dietrich, V. Rev. Prof. (Em.) Dr. George Dion Dragas, and Prof. Dr. Kenneth G. Appold.
Several critical issues were raised in response. Since safety is not possible, how can believers and the church be faithful in this time of pandemic? How do Lutheran and Orthodox respond to the digital reality especially when people prefer to watch the Eucharist online rather than attend? The Dialogue Commission explored what is means to be church in the shadow of the pandemic especially when sacraments and sacramentals require embodiment. One form of prayer that was noted is lament. The church does not offer answers but a space of lament. The fact that virtual reality boxes us in was also discussed. What does it mean that Christ invites all into one body? Sacramentals continue to play an incredibly significant role, even in the tradition of the Reformation (despite opposition). The faith of the people desire blessing.
Orthodox and Lutherans experience similar situations and have the same hope. Several issues were raised for future consideration: explore the nature of prayer in relation to virtual reality; examine the work of the Holy Spirit and materiality (incarnational perspective); and work towards a definition of church as both invisible and visible.
The Committee decided that the next Extraordinary Preparatory Meeting will be held in late October and early November (days to be determined).