Welcoming Address To His All Holiness Athenagoras I, Ecumenical Patriarch Of Constantinople

This address was given by Dr Eugene Carson Blake, then General Secretary of the WCC, to Athenagoras I (1886–1972), Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, on the occasion of his visit to the headquarters of the World Council of Churches, 6 November, 1967. The speech was published in The Ecumenical Review, Vol. XX, January 1968, No. I, pp. 84–86.

Your All Holiness, it is my high privilege to bid you welcome to this house on behalf of all of us who work here for the Ecumenical Movement, so evidently dear to your heart. We have gathered here this morning together: with many dignitaries of Church and States, not only to make you welcome but also to pay you honour as the first among all the Patri­archs of the Orthodox Church.

Let me hasten to say, however, that neither I nor my colleagues are in a position to make you welcome in this house as if you were a stranger or a guest. Rather as a staff of servants employed by you and other members of the Christian family, we have opened the doors of a new house and home, constructed for you, for your pleasure, and .for your use. It is to your own home here that we welcome you.

For it was in 1920 that your distinguished predecessor issued an Encyclical calling upon all the churches “To meet together, regardless of their confessional differences, in one Koinonia of churches, in order that they might, through this Koinonia, face the prob­lems with which the modem world confronts them”. Out of that initiative, together with other movements finding their inspiration from other Christian voices, was the World Council constructed. We regard this visit of yours today not as the visit of a stranger but rather as the inspection of a householder, his first personal inspection, although for many years you have from a distance approved the plans and supervised the construction. I speak, of course, not literally of the head­quarters building, though we are happy to have it. I speak rather of the World Council of Churches itself of which your predecessor and your great Church were among the original founders.

The World Council of Churches is not fin­ished yet. The family is growing, we need more rooms. The plans must be modified both for comfort and usefulness. I speak as your present superintendent of construction and I wish to report to you on our progress. When, a year ago, I was preparing to take up this new task, I was asked by reporters to tell them what were, in my judgment, the most important tasks confronting the World Council of Churches during the next few years. In each reply without exception, I indicated the necessity of finding the way to make the World Council of Churches itself more ecumenical. Under this heading I made two points. One was to find the way to include more fully in our life and decision-­making the new young churches of Africa and Asia. We have made a good beginning, but only a beginning, to make the Council more ecumenical in this geographical sense. The Church and Society Conference of 1966, held in this room, was perhaps a cardinal turning­ point in this great task.

The second point that I always stressed in my answer was that we had an equally great task, or greater, to make the World Council more ecumenical in the confessional sense, specific­ally that the Orthodox and the Ancient Oriental Churches should come to feel more at home in this, their house, even though until now too many of the architects had ‘been Western and Protestant in their tradition. Let me now try to explain more fully what I mean and to report to you on our progress and our hopes.

My distinguished friend and colleague, Dr. Nikos Nissiotis, recently elected Associate General Secretary (the first Chalcedonian Orthodox to hold this high position) has recently written these words, with regard to the “specific contribution” of the Orthodox to the Ecumenical Movement as it is reflected in the life of the World Council of Churches: “The ‘specific contribution’ of the Orthodox would then mean an active sharing in the life of the fellowship on equal terms not only in theory but also in practice. By this I mean a contribution made from inside this fellow­ship of churches through a real involvement in the work of the World Council of Churches and not as an additional element of an ancient tradition which tries to find its place in this fellowship.” I fully agree with my Orthodox colleague who holds the key posi­tion on the staff of the Council to help see that this happens.

At the New Delhi Assembly there were received into World Council membership the last of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, so that now since 1961 all fourteen of them have approved the direction that Your All Holiness and your Church had earlier taken Let me quickly admit that due to constitu­tional hindrances it was not possible to reflect immediately in the membership of the Central and other key Committees of the Council the full and proper representation of these new member churches. There are proposals which will go before the Uppsala Assembly designed specifically to correct the present imbalance. I should sound a warning, however, that to change the Constitution and the Rules will not accomplish the full purpose unless the Orthodox Churches fill the places with able representatives and find the means (with us) to assure their regular presence at all the important decision and policy-making meet­ings. Committees that are properly balanced on paper very easily become unbalanced in actual attendance.

Lest I seem to be implying too much in cri­ticism of the past, let me make a personal testimony as to what a profound influence the Orthodox membership on Committees of the World Council has already had since our founding in 1948 – a great deal of it due directly to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. I became a member of the Central and Execut­ive Committees after the Evanston Assembly in 1954 and served on those committees (and other committees of the World Council) until 1966 when I was elected to my present position. As Your All Holiness knows, I come from a church of the Reformation. I shall not embarrass myself by telling you the extent of my ignorance and prejudice with regard to Orthodox and Catholic Christianity when I began to come to World Council meetings in 1954. I hope most of my pre­judice is now gone and even though much ignorance remains, I wish to testify here to Your All Holiness, that it was the loving and patient witness of the Orthodox representa­tives, many of them under your direct jurisdiction, which opened my mind and heart to the treasures of Orthodox and Catholic Christianity, which I had not been taught in my own confession. For this enrichment of my faith and its contribution to my preparation for my present responsi­bilities not only in relation to the Orthodox Churches but also to the Roman Catholic Church I shall always be grateful. Your representatives have already made the World Council as ecumenical as it is, but we must go forward in the years that lie before us.

Let me say in addition that the World Council of Churches will not become fully ecumenical unless and until we find the ways and means greatly to enlarge the number and responsi­bility of staff members, here in Geneva, from the Orthodox Churches. We have in one year made some progress. Financial pressures on the General Budget are the main obstacle. I wish to assure Your All Holiness that we are pressing forward to the end that our staff here shall truly reflect both, Eastern and Western traditions.

But let me, in the presence of Your All Holiness in which we all rejoice, say a word to all those of Reformation tradition and confession who are here this morning. That word is this: the World Council can become fully and truly ecumenical only in so far as we Protestants are eager and ready to see the Council transformed and enriched by in­creased Orthodox participation in ways strange, unfamiliar, and truly difficult for us. Let us all pray that the Holy Spirit will increase in us all understanding and love so that the Council will become a building, a house, a home where our fellowship is inspired by the love of Christ and all our work and witness is directed by Him.

Your All Holiness, I have used so far in this address the metaphor of a house or a build­ing. This is a dangerous picture to use. We all remember Peter’s suggestion on the Mount of Transfiguration that the Apostles should build three tabernacles that they might dwell there in the white and shining light of their transfigured Lord.

But it was not our Lord’s wish that they dwell anywhere in peaceful isolation. They were to become His Apostles. He sent them forth on the highways of the world to preach and to baptize and to serve.

So let me change my picture from that of a house to that of a road, a pilgrimage, and a march of the Church militant. Let your journey here and to other Church Centres in both East and West be symbolic of the Church’s decision to throw off all the encum­brances from the past that weigh us down or keep us static in a mobile changing world and to become a marching church, travelling light, and moving fast to position ourselves strategically to fight the non-violent battles of love that are before us.

Your All Holiness, I believe I can surely promise that we will follow you where you lead us as you follow Jesus Christ. We thank you for stopping here upon your way.