14 June 2014

A day in Cambridge celebrating
the life and work of John Zizioulas

Westcott House, Jesus Lane, Cambridge ... the venue for today’s one-day conference (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I am in Cambridge today [14 June 2014] for a one-day conference at Westcott House on Jesus Lane, organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

Today’s conference is “On Eschatology Today: A celebration of the life and work of John Zizioulas.”

Metropolitan John Zizioulas (Ιωάννης Ζηζιούλας) is the Metropolitan of Pergamon, chair of the Academy of Athens and one of the most distinguished living Orthodox theologians.

Born in Greece in 1931, he studied in Athens and Harvard, and has worked at the World Council of Churches in Geneva. In 1964, he became Assistant Professor of Church History at the University of Athens. Later, he was Professor of Patristics at the University of Edinburgh (1970-1973), before moving to the University of Glasgow, where he was Professor of Systematic Theology for 14 years. He has also been a Visiting Professor at the Research Institute in Systematic Theology in King’s College, London. In 1986, he became Metropolitan of Pergamon in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and Professor of Dogmatics at the Thessaloniki School of Theology.

In his theological work, Metropolitan John has focused on the twin themes of ecclesiology and theological ontology. His theology reflects the influence of Russian émigré theologians such as Nikolai Afanassieff, Vladimir Lossky and Georges Florovsky.

He has also been significantly influenced by the ascetical theology of Archimandrite Sophrony (Sakharov), founder of the Stavropegic Monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Tolleshunt Knights, Essex, which I have visited each year as part of the Cambridge summer school programme organised by the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies.

Metropolitan John’s ecclesiology was first developed in his doctoral dissertation, The Unity of the Church in the Eucharist and the Bishop in during the First Three Centuries, which was published in English as Eucharist, Bishop, Church: The Unity .

However, his best-known book is probably Being as Communion: Studies in Personhood and the Church, a collection of essays first published in English in 1985 by Darton, Longman and Todd in London and by Saint Vladimir’s Seminary Press in Crestwood, New York.

In the context of a complete theology that includes extended consideration of the main theological topics, including the Trinity, Christology, eschatology, ministry and sacrament, and the Eucharist, Metropolitan John has put forward a fresh understanding of the person and so of the Church itself, rooted in the writings of the Early Fathers and the Orthodox tradition.

He argues for an ecclesiology that sees the Church not simply as an institution but as a form of existence and a way of being, and he links questions of ecclesiology to existential questions: “The mystery of the Church, even in its institutional dimension, is deeply bound to the being of this world and to the very being of God.”

In his work, he develops critically the Eucharistic ecclesiology of Father Nikolai Afanasiev. He accepts Afanasiefv’s principal contention that the Church is to be understood in terms of the Eucharist. However, he criticises Afanasiev’s understanding as overly congregational and insufficiently episcopal in its emphasis. He advocates an episcopo-centric understanding of the Church, in which the bishop is primarily the president of the Divine Liturgy and the Eucharistic community.

Metropolitan John has also worked on the theology of the person, appealing to the work of Saint Irenaeus and Saint Maximus the Confessor. The primary focus of his work was to develop his own ontology of personhood derived from an extensive investigation of Greek philosophy, patristic writings and rationalist philosophy.

He argues that full humanity is achieved only as person so that we may take part in the Trinitarian life of God. However, an essential component of the ontology of personhood is the freedom to self-affirm the participation in relationship. He continues that humanity initially exists as a biological hypostasis, constrained as to the types of relationships one can have (biological) and to the eventual end of this type of being – death.

He makes use of existentialist philosophers and novelists to show that the only type of ontological freedom in the biological hypostasis is the choice to commit suicide.

He argues that Baptism constitutes an ontological change in the human being, making one an ecclesial hypostasis or person. This rebirth from above gives new ontological freedom as it is not constrained by the limits of biological existence. Such an ecclesial being is eschatological – a paradoxical “now” but “not yet.” The completion of this rebirth from above is the day of resurrection when the body will no longer be subject to death.

The interior of the chapel in Westcott House is marked by its uncluttered simplicity (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Metropolitan John presided at the Divine Liturgy in the college chapel in Westcott House this morning, and is speaking later today on “Eschatology: A Challenge to Orthodox Theology.”

The former Archbishop of Canterbury, Lord Rowan Williams, now Master of Magdalene College, Cambridge, is speaking this morning on: “The Eucharist and the End of All Things.”

The Revd Dr Bogdan Bucur, of Duquesne University, is speaking on: “Eschatology Now: Observations on the Emmaus Story in Luke and Mark’s Longer Ending.”

Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia, who is a speaker at IOCS summer school in Cambridge each year, is speaking on: “Eschatology and Eucharist: Time and Eternity in the Divine Liturgy.”

The altar in Westcott Chapel, with the icon written by Marianna Fortounatto in 1981 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Westcott House in Jesus Lane is around the corner from Sidney Sussex College, where I have stayed each year for the last six or seven years. It is close to Wesley House and Jesus College. Like the Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Westcott is also a member of the Cambridge Theological Federation.

Westcott began as the Cambridge Clergy Training School in 1881, founded by Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott (1925-1901) while he was the Regius Professor of Divinity at the University of Cambridge, and it was renamed Westcott House in his honour in 1901.

Westcott House prepares men and women for ordination in the Church of England, provides pathways for theological educators and pioneer ministers, and offers continuing education resources and sabbatical opportunities for clergy and laity.

The chapel at Westcott is at the heart of the community life. Its uncluttered simplicity provides ideal sacred space for a range of services from sung high mass to said Morning Prayer, from adoration of the Blessed Sacrament to “prayer and praise” services.

As a worshipping community, Westcott House places the Church of England’s Common Worship at the heart of its life, and the diversity it expresses is reflected among the ordinands. But the Book of Common Prayer has a place there too so that students are immersed in its rhythms and at home with its language.

The Eucharist and the Daily Offices of Morning Prayer and Evening Prayer are at the centre of worship in Westcott House. The Community Eucharist on Thursday evenings is the focus of the worshipping week, and on Sundays, students are sent out in a diaconal spirit to local parish churches and college chapels.

The stark austerity of the chapel at Westcott is dominated by the icon of Christ, commissioned by the Common Room and written by Marianna Fortounatto in 1981. The icon bears his words: “You did not choose me but I chose you” (John 15: 16).

Archbishop Williams, in his book The Dwelling of Light: Praying with Icons of Christ (Canterbury Press, 2003) bases his chapter on the Pantocrator on this icon, writing: “The icon of the Pantocrator in the chapel of Westcott House … was and is for me and many others a profoundly significant image.”

Of its meaning he writes: “The point is simple: face to face with Jesus, there and only there, do we find who we are. We have been created to mirror his life, the eternal life of the one turned always toward the overflowing love of the Father; but our human existence constantly turns away. When we look at Jesus, we see in some measure what he sees, and are drawn to where his eyes lead us ... we look at him looking at us, and try to understand that as he looks at us he looks at the Father.

“In other words, when he looks at us, he sees the love that is his own source and life, despite all we have done to obscure it in ourselves. When we look at him looking at us, we see both what we were made to be, bearers of the divine image and likeness, and what we have made of ourselves.”

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