31 March 2022

A Fresh Vision for Orthodox Social Ethics:
Responses to ‘For the Life of the World’

Patrick Comerford

Studies in Christian Ethics, Vol 35, No 2, May 2022, ISBN 0953-9468

Special Issue:
A Fresh Vision for Orthodox Social Ethics: Responses to For the Life of the World (2020)

Book Review (pp 342-359)

David Bentley Hart and John Chryssavgis (eds.), For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church
(Brookline, MA: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 2020). xxi + 121 pp. US$14.95. ISBN 978-1-9353-1780-7.

Reviewed by: Patrick Comerford, Saint Mary’s Cathedral, Limerick, Ireland

The Ecumenical Patriarch or Patriarch of Constantinople, Patriarch Bartholomew I, has marked his time in office since 1991 with a commitment to ecumenical and inter-faith dialogue, to human rights, to the rights of refugees, and to protecting the environment.

I was introduced to the Patriarch briefly when he visited Thessaloniki in 1997, when the Greek city was the Cultural Capital of Europe and as part of an international symposium he had convened on ‘Religion and the Environment—the Black Sea in Danger’. [1] Journalists have since given him the moniker ‘the Green Patriarch’. But monikers fail to provide a rounded, whole picture of the individuals they are applied to, and the Patriarch’s dedication to the engagement of the Orthodox Church with the world spans a field of ethics that reaches far beyond environmental concerns.

Those universal social and ethical concerns are now reflected in the publication of For the Life of the World: Toward a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church, [2] the result of unprecedented collaboration between the official, episcopal leadership of Orthodoxy and lay Orthodox scholars and theologians. It is a powerful social document enriched by scriptural, patristic, theological and spiritual references, navigating through perplexing and difficult issues in this post-modern world.

Orthodoxy and Constantinianism

For many outsiders, the Orthodox Church seemed to have missed out on many developments in social theology that have characterised theology in the Western traditions from the early twentieth century, ranging from Reinhold Niebuhr and Dietrich Bonhoeffer to liberation theology and feminist theology, or from even earlier with the ‘slum priests’ of Anglo-Catholicism and Pope Leo XIII’s encyclical Rerum Novarum.

The word ‘Constantinian’ is pejorative in theology. It is derived from the fourth-century Roman emperor and is used to deplore any alliance between the church and the state or, more broadly, between the church and the dominant political culture. Through the influence of John Howard Yoder, Stanley Hauerwas and others, a dismissal of perceived Constantinianism provides a critique of how churches can lose their identity by aligning themselves with power and modernity.

Despite this perception, Patristic writings show that even after the death of Constantine in 337, the Eastern Church had a bold voice on social justice (FLW, p. 44, §33). Writers like Gregory of Nazianzus, who died in 390, and Saint John Chrysostom, who died in 407, emphasised the social dimension of the Gospel in their thinking and in their ministry. Saint Basil the Great, who died in 379, strenuously disapproved of any retreat from the world. Any eschatology that encouraged escapism from one’s time and place was denounced as heretical and hazardous (see FLW, pp. 44–46, §34).

However, at some stage in the Byzantine period, the Church in the East stepped back from questions about politics, social values, public justice, and war and peace. These became the realm and responsibility of the Byzantine court, while the Church pronounced on sacred and spiritual matters and their impact on personal, individual behaviour. Politics and policy, poverty and prosperity, power and corruption, the economy and science, were ignored or minimised. On the other hand, matters of personal maturity and spiritual integrity seemed to become the principal topic in ethical and pastoral theology in the East.

Over time, however, an emphasis in the Christian East on monasticism as the silent withdrawal into the heart, and on mysticism as spiritual exercise, substituted for engagement with the world. This had consequences for ecclesiology, liturgy and ethics in the Orthodox world, where the relationship between the spiritual elder (γέροντας, gerontas, in Greek or стáрец, starets, in Russian) and his disciple is often reduced to advice about an individual’s prayer life and personal ethics, avoiding questions about universal principles and public ethics, politics, economics and social justice.

In more recent centuries, Orthodoxy’s social doctrine seemed to find its most vocal expression in times of persecution and oppression, particularly under the Ottoman Empire, in an emphasis on nationalism in countries such as Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Serbia and, more recently, Cyprus. This is typified in the popular veneration of saints and martyrs such as the victims of the explosions at Arkadi Monastery in Crete in 1866, including the Abbot Gabriel. At least ten Patriarchs of Constantinople were executed in less than two centuries between 1638 and 1822 and they are revered as martyrs who paved the way towards Greek liberation.

In those struggles for national identity and liberation, the Orthodox Church turned inward, identifying with the early martyrs and focusing on the preservation of the faith at the expense of evangelisation and mission, to the point that Orthodoxy seemed to either abandon or fail to develop a clear social vision.

Modern Changes and Developments

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the Russian Orthodox Church has been seen as uncritical—if not increasingly supportive—of Putin’s Russia, with its authoritarian style of government and its imperial ambitions. Yet, in 2000, the Church of Moscow published The Basis of the Social Concept. After an extended period of state suppression, this was a rudimentary effort to outline the social principles of the Orthodox Church in Russia, and, until recently, it remained the only social doctrine officially accepted by any Orthodox Church. But this document was defensive and isolationist in its approach, and was critical of ‘the world’, depicting it as a threat to be defied and defeated.[3]

On the other hand, the encounter with other traditions and cultures, with other branches of Christianity and with other religions, inspired Patriarch Bartholomew to invite the Orthodox Churches to meet at the ‘Pan-Orthodox Council’ or Holy and Great Council in the Monastery of Kolymbari near Chania in Crete from 19 to 26 June 2016. The council was boycotted by the Russian Orthodox Church and the churches of Bulgaria and Georgia, and, in a separate dispute, the Church of Antioch stayed away. Yet, despite Russian attempts to detract from the significance of the council, this was the first such meeting of Orthodox patriarchs, bishops and theologians in almost a millennium.

The Council in Crete issued a formal decree as well as an encyclical message on ‘the role of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world’. A year later, in July 2017, Patriarch Bartholomew appointed a special commission of theologians to prepare a formal document on the social doctrine of the Orthodox Church that would ‘serve as a solid foundation for reference and conversation on vital issues and challenges facing the world today’ (FLW, p. xiii). In December 2017, the Ecumenical Patriarch issued a formal encyclical inviting submissions and reports that would inform the work of the commission. The commission made a formal submission to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in September 2019, and the report, in the form of For the Life of the World, was approved for publication in January 2020.

The hope then was that the report would provide ‘parameters and guidelines for the social responsibility of the Orthodox Church before the challenges and perspectives of today’s world’ (FLW, Preface, p. xv). It was edited by two eminent Orthodox theologians, the American philosopher and theologian Dr David Bentley Hart of Notre Dame University, and the Australian-born Very Revd John Chryssavgis, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne and theological adviser on environmental issues to the Ecumenical Patriarch.

For the Life of the World, which has been promulgated by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, has been published online and as a book by Holy Cross Orthodox Press. It crowns several decades of attempts to produce a comprehensive social doctrine of the Orthodox Church, and it is based on the international Orthodox traditions of the last century.

This new document complements the work of the Council in Crete and can be understood as part of the process of its reception. It is ‘a pastoral and ministerial ... a practical and pastoral’ response to the Council in Crete, rather than taking ‘an academic or analytical approach’ (Archbishop Elpidophoros, ‘Foreword’, FLW, p. x), yet it offers a much-needed roadmap for navigating modern-day challenges that is rooted in the wisdom of the Orthodox spiritual tradition. It explores critical issues including racism, poverty, injustice, human rights, reproductive technology, bioethics and climate change.

For the Life of the World runs to about 33,000 words and over 120 pages, and it is the collaborative work of a dozen scholars from throughout the world. It was not produced without full-bodied debates and exchanges, if I am correct in reading between the lines when the editors in their preface describe the project as ‘a complicated, not to say contentious, undertaking’ (FLW, p. xv). Yet this document is an unmistakably collaborative ‘achievement’, as the Ecumenical Patriarch describes it in his endorsement.

Apart from the editors, Dr Chryssavgis, who chaired the commission, and Dr Hart, the other commission members are: Dr George Demacopoulos, Fordham University; Dr Carrie Frederick Frost, St Sophia Ukrainian Orthodox Seminary; Dr Brandon Gallaher, University of Exeter; Dr Perry Hamalis, North Central College; Dr Nicolas Kazarian, Fordham University; Dr James Skedros, Holy Cross School of Theology; Dr Gayle Woloschak, Northwestern University; Dr Konstantinos Delikonstantinis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate; and Dr Theodoros Yiangou, University of Thessaloniki. Nicholas Anton of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America was the Commission Secretary. In addition, the commission acknowledges the ‘valuable insights’ of, among others, two eminent Orthodox theologians of an earlier generation, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon and Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware) of Diokleia.

Contents and Issues

For the Life of the World seeks to provide helpful guiding principles for the role of the Orthodox Church and the responsibility of Orthodox Christians struggling to navigate contemporary challenges in the modern world. It begins with the fundamental contours of an Orthodox Christian worldview and concludes on a prayerful note, with an expression of hope for personal and social transformation.

In their preface, the editors say their aim was to delineate an Orthodox ethos while seeking ‘to steer well clear of simplistic, pietistic, or legalistic pronouncements’ (FLW, p. xviii). As they say later, ‘Our spiritual lives ... cannot fail also to be social lives. Our piety cannot fail also to be an ethos’ (FLW, p. 3, §3). They seek to root all their arguments in ‘the biblical, patristic, dogmatic, and theological sources of the tradition as a whole’, to ‘abstain altogether from the language and intonations of judgment or condemnation’, to ‘avoid empty abstraction’ and to be ‘compassionate ... constructive’ and to work with ‘a genuine willingness to learn ... from the wisdom of earlier generations’ and ‘from the mistakes’ of the past (FLW, ‘Preface’, pp. xviii–xix).

The principal topics and discussions in the report are divided into seven chapters or headings: The Church in the Public Sphere (chapter 2), The Course of Human Life (chapter 3), Poverty, Wealth and Civil Justice (chapter 4), War, Peace and Violence (chapter 5), Ecumenical Relations and Relations with Other Faiths (chapter 6), Orthodoxy and Human Rights (chapter 7), and Science, Technology and the Natural World (chapter 8).

The theological principle underpinning all the work of the commission is the understanding in the Orthodox Church that each human person is ‘created in the image and likeness of God’ (Gen. 1:26). To be an icon or image of Christ (2 Cor. 4:4), to be made in God’s image, is to be made for free and conscious communion and union with God in Jesus Christ, inasmuch as we are formed in, through, and for him (Col. 1:16).

This undergirding understanding is repeated throughout the report—‘all human beings are living and irreplaceable icons of God, fashioned for him in their innermost nature’ (FLW, p. 14, §12; see pp. 15, 37, etc.)—and this leads to an understanding that our ‘service to God is fundamentally doxological in nature and essentially Eucharistic in character’ (FLW, pp. 1–2, §1). The report speaks constantly of being called into loving communion with our neighbours and with the whole cosmos (FLW, pp. 2–3, §2, §3), the ‘work of transfiguring creation’ and of ‘the inviolable uniqueness of every person’ (FLW, pp. 15, 19, §12, §15).

The ultimate destiny to which we are called ‘is nothing less than our theosis: our deification and transformation by the Holy Spirit into members of the body of Christ, joined in the Son to the Father, whereby we become partakers of the divine nature’ (FLW, p. 3, §3). This too connects with ‘the transfiguring of the cosmos’, of ‘suffering creation’ (FLW, p. 4, §5). No feature of the Gospel ‘is more pronounced and constant’ than Christ’s ‘absolute concern and compassion for the poor and disenfranchised, the abused and neglected, the imprisoned, the hungry, the weary and heavy-laden, the despairing. His condemnations of the luxuriance of the wealthy, of indifference to the plight of the oppressed, and of exploitation of the destitute are uncompromising and unequivocal’ (FLW, p. 5, §6).

The Church, then, is called to be ‘a prophetic presence in the world’, calling all ‘to the sanctifying labor of justice and mercy’ (FLW, p. 8, §7).

Chapter 2: The Church in the Public Sphere

The document is clear that the ‘principal home of Christians in this world is in the celebration ... of the holy Eucharist’ which ‘shines out as an icon of God’s Kingdom as it will be realized in a redeemed, transfigured, and glorified creation’ (FLW, p. 9, §8). But right at the beginning it locates that presence within the wider societal context.

All governments and political systems ‘fall far short of the Kingdom’ (FLW, p. 9, §9). While the Church should seek to live at peace with all, at times Christian participation in political life ‘may entail’ engaging, ‘not by way of perfect obedience, but by way of the higher citizenship of civil disobedience, even rebellion. The Kingdom of God alone is the Christian’s first and last loyalty, and all other allegiances are at most provisional, transient, partial, and incidental’ (FLW, p. 11, §9).

Where civil order, freedom, human rights and democracy are respected, this ‘is a very rare blessing indeed’, and such values cannot be taken for granted (FLW, pp. 11–12, §10).

Introducing a definitive note of Orthodox self-criticism, the report observes critically ‘a dangerous temptation among Orthodox Christians to surrender to a ... nostalgia for some long-vanished golden era, and to imagine that it constituted something like the sole ideal Orthodox polity. This can become an especially pernicious kind of false piety, one that mistakes the transient political forms of the Orthodox past, such as the Byzantine Empire, for the essence of the Church of the Apostles’ (FLW, p. 12, §10). It continues, ‘Far too often, the Orthodox Church has allowed for the conflation of national, ethnic, and religious identity, to the point that the external forms and language of the faith—quite evacuated of their true content—have come to be used as instruments for advancing national and cultural interests under the guise of Christian adherence. And this has often inhibited the Church in its vocation to proclaim the Gospel to all peoples’ (FLW, p. 12, §10).

The condemnation of ‘phyletism’ as a modern heresy at the Council of Constantinople in 1872 is repeated with the clear statement that

it is absolutely forbidden for Christians to make an idol of cultural, ethnic, or national identity. There can be no such thing as a ‘Christian nationalism’, or even any form of nationalism tolerable to Christian conscience. This must, unfortunately, be emphasized at the present moment, on account of the unexpected recrudescence in much of the developed world of the most insidious ideologies of identity, including belligerent forms of nationalism and blasphemous philosophies of race. (FLW, p. 13, §11)

It could not be clearer when it says that racism is ‘a vicious fantasy’ and there ‘could be no greater contradiction of the Gospel. There is only one human race, to which all persons belong, and all are called as one to become a single people in God the creator’ and ‘one universal humanity’ (FLW, p. 14, §11). It recognises that ‘the rise of new forms of political and nationalist extremism has even resulted in the infiltration of various Orthodox communities by individuals committed to race-theory’. Every Orthodox community must ‘expose, denounce, and expel them. Any ecclesial community that fails in this has betrayed Christ’ (FLW, p. 14, §11).

The ‘dissolution of the ancient compact between state and church—or throne and altar—has ... been a great blessing for Christian culture’. Nevertheless, the voice of the Church must be heard in the public sphere (FLW, pp. 16–17, §13), because it is ‘called to proclaim the Gospel to the world and to serve God in all things, uncompromised by alliance with worldly ambitions ... advancing the common good and pursuing works of charity’ (FLW, pp. 16–17, §13). Yet, here there is a need to be aware that ‘[w]ithout the language of the common good at the center of social life, democratic pluralism all too easily degenerates into pure individualism, free market absolutism, and a spiritually corrosive consumerism’ (FLW, p. 19, §14).

This chapter is a challenge to the legacy of Orthodoxy in many countries, where the Church has been seen in the past to identify with nationalist regime and in the present to be uncritical if not supportive of right-wing and far-right politics.[4] The rise of far-right nationalist politics in Greece in recent decades has often been supported by some of the most conservative elements within the Greek Orthodox Church, and has plagued the image of the Church in Greece for many decades now. The so-called ‘radical right’ in Greece, and in neighbouring Cyprus and Bulgaria, has used Orthodoxy as a form of exclusion, reinforcing the political agenda of monoculturalism and xenophobia and the exclusion of Muslims and other religious and ethnic minorities.

Golden Dawn, a far-right, neo-Nazi, anti-Semitic, anti-immigrant and Islamophobic party in Greece, had the support of a not inconsiderable number of Greek priests before it was banned in October 2020. For example, when Golden Dawn opened a new branch office in Corinth, it was blessed by priests. Bishop Seraphim of Piraeus colluded with Golden Dawn members of parliament in court actions to ban a stage play in 2012. When Bishop Andreas of Konitsa spoke at a far-right event to commemorate the civil war victims of the Communists at Grammos and Vitsi, he referred to Golden Dawn activists as the ‘lads in black shirts, the good fighting lads’, and closed his speech with the wish that they would soon replace their black shirts with blue and white ones, the colours of the Greek flag. Metropolitan Anthimos (Roussos) of Thessaloniki welcomed the leader of Golden Dawn openly at his offices in 2017, and Metropolitan Nikolaos of Fthiotida did the same in 2018, during the trial of the Golden Dawn leadership.

Metropolitan Ambrosios of Kalavryta condemned some of Golden Dawn’s violent actions, but at the same time praised the party as the protectors of Greece’s nationalist identity and called it a ‘sweet hope’ for Greece’s suffering citizens. On the other hand, Metropolitan Pavlos of Siatista, in an interview with Imerisia newspaper, described Golden Dawn as uncivilised and said the party’s actions had nothing to do with ancient Greek civilisation nor the Gospel: ‘We all have to take a clear stand on the Golden Dawn issue ... we have to preach the word of God, which has nothing to do with the acts committed by members of Golden Dawn’. In a documentary film, Golden Dawn: A Personal Affair, he said, ‘If someone comes to me with a Golden Dawn T-shirt to partake in Holy Communion, I will not give communion to him’. He said the ideology of Golden Dawn was ‘incompatible with Orthodox faith’, adding: ‘One cannot be glad for a murder of someone because he is foreign and go to Communion’.

But even before the rise of Golden Dawn, the anti-immigration LAOS party (Popular Orthodox Rally) had emerged as a splinter group of New Democracy. Since the collapse of Golden Dawn, Greek security officials have noted the emergence of at least sixteen new far-right groups, seven in northern Greece, where nationalist fervour is often fuelled by conservative clergy in the Orthodox Church.

In the past, the Greek Orthodox Church embraced the Metaxas dictatorship (1936–1939) and the Church welcomed the regime as a ‘blessing for Greece’. During the colonels’ dictatorship (1967–1974), the junta intervened twice in church affairs to appoint new archbishops of Athens. The first intervention took place within six days of the coup with the forced resignation of Archbishop Chrysostomos II and the appointment of Archbishop Ieronymos I, who was known for his staunchly conservative and anti-communist views. His collaboration with the junta compromised the whole Church of Greece and remains a controversial topic. Bishop Alexandros of Filippoi, Neapolis and Thasos in northern Greece argued in a public text that the army had liberated Greece from the miasma of atheistic and subversive Communism. A year before it fell, the regime intervened a second time in 1973, forcing the resignation of Archbishop Ieronymos I in December and manoeuvring the selection in January 1974 of Archbishop Seraphim, who remained in office after the fall of the colonels, until 1998. His successor, Archbishop Christodoulos (1998–2008), had become a bishop just a few days before the fall of the regime. Before his election as Archbishop of Athens, he wrote articles for an extreme-right newspaper, Eleftheros Kosmos, and had close relations with a pro-junta newspaper, Stochos. A year before his election, Christodoulos and forty-five other bishops took part in a conference organised by Stochos, where he concluded his speech by saying that ‘resistance to all evil, all that is not Christian, not Orthodox, not Greek, is needed’.

More recently, when international efforts to resolve the conflicts between Athens and Skopje on the use of the name of Macedonia resulted in the Prespes agreement in summer 2018, the Church showed a nationalist bias, agitating against the agreement between Greece and North Macedonia, organising large-scale rallies that involved many senior clergy and monks, with some of them even condemning the agreement as treason and a crime against the Greek people.

Chapter 3: The Course of Human Life

The report discusses making choices in life leading to ‘the possibilities of either sanctity or spiritual life’. As it turns to the rights and protection of children, the discussion is underpinned by an illustration of the ‘Orthodox Church’s reverence for God’s image, even in the smallest among us, [which] is expressed not only in the baptism of infants, but also in their immediate admission to the Eucharist’ (FLW, p. 20, §16). The ‘innocence of children’ then becomes ‘a thing of extraordinary holiness, a sign of the life of the Kingdom graciously present in our very midst’, and the ‘protection and care of children is the most basic and most essential index of any society’s dedication to the good’ (FLW, p. 20, §16).

Then follows an absolute statement:

No offense against God is worse than is the sexual abuse of children, and none more intolerable to the conscience of the Church. All members of Christ’s body are charged with the protection of the young against such violation, and there is no situation in which a member of the Church, on learning of any case of the sexual abuse of a child, may fail immediately to report it to the civil authorities and to the local bishop. (FLW, p. 21, §16)

It goes on to condemn the insufficient access of many children ‘to clean water, good medical care, vaccinations, and other basic necessities ... all children ... are known and loved by God’. The ‘exceptional charisms of childhood’ that are identified and that must be encouraged positively and developed are ‘spontaneous joy, curiosity, imagination, and trust’, with ‘deeper capacities for love, selflessness, reverence, generosity, joy in simple things, and indifference to personal possessions’ (FLW, pp. 21–22, §16).

This section is richest and, perhaps, represents the document at its most radical as it seeks to develop the Orthodox understanding of sexuality: the nature of individual sexual longing is not simply a consequence of private choice regarding such matters; many of the inclinations and longings of the flesh and the heart to a great extent come into the world with us, and are nourished or thwarted—accepted or obstructed—in us at an early age. It must be accounted, moreover, a basic right of any person—which no state or civil authority may presume to violate—to remain free from persecution or legal disadvantage as a result of his or her sexual orientation.

The document continues, however, to state:

The Church understands human identity as residing primarily not in one’s sexuality or in any other private quality, but rather in the image and likeness of God present in all of us. All Christians are called always to seek the image and likeness of God in each other, and to resist all forms of discrimination against their neighbors, regardless of sexual orientation. Christians are called to lives of sexual continence, both inside and outside of marriage, precisely on account of the sanctity of sexual life in the created order. But Christians are never called to hatred or disdain for anyone. (FLW, pp. 24–25, §19)

It is an insightful understanding that may yet become not only a challenge to many Orthodox Christians, but to members of other Churches too. I am personally shocked at the way the word ‘orthodox’ has been misappropriated within the Anglican Communion by sectors that are marked by their homophobia and use their homophobia as a yardstick to judge or dismiss the doctrinal ‘orthodoxy’ of other Anglicans.

In the past, Orthodox pastoral theology has understood that the three possible paths in adult life were married life, the monastic life, and single life, but traditionally Orthodoxy has tended to recognise only two states, the monastic and the married life. Unfortunately, ‘until fairly recently in Eastern Christian tradition, spiritual teachings on these matters have been advanced principally by celibate men with no experience of the married life’. The report says, it ‘is time to put these pernicious prejudices aside and to recognize that marriage is much more than a cultural institution or merely a means for propagating and preserving the human race’ (FLW, pp. 25–26, §20). ‘Marriage is the sacrament of love, or human love raised into the world of the sacramental’, and it ‘is a bond also that intertwines formerly separate individual spiritual efforts into a shared vocation to transfigure the fallen world, and to tread the path toward theosis in Christ’ (FLW, pp. 26–27, §20). At the same time, the Orthodox tradition has provided ‘somewhat scant ... pastoral resources’ or spiritual comfort and strength to meet the needs of people living single lives (FLW, p. 37, §28).

The report goes on to recognise the family as a place ‘where the most shattering kinds of mental, physical, sexual, and emotional abuse can occur’. The principal moral responsibility then becomes the ‘protection of the family’s most vulnerable members’ and to ‘assure the physical safety and spiritual health of everyone involved ... In a very real way, divorce is more than a consequence of our brokenness as fallen creatures; it is a markedly vivid expression of it. But divorce does not preclude the possibility of healing for the parties involved, or shut off their path of deification’ (FLW, pp. 28–29, §22).

Children in any household may be created by sexual union, ‘while others may be adopted, and still others may be fostered; but all are equally welcome within the sanctuary of the family and the body of the Church’. Indeed, ‘the Church should extend the sacramental gift of baptism to all children, irrespective of the manner in which they were conceived or adopted’ (FLW, pp. 28–31, §22).

The discussion of contraception and abortion is pastorally sensitive, stating the Orthodox Church ‘has no dogmatic objection to ... safe and non-abortifacient contraceptives within the context of married life’ and ‘no objection to the use of certain modern and still-evolving reproductive technologies’ (FLW, p. 31, §24). Abortion is condemned because ‘already in the womb each of us is a spiritual creature, a person formed in God’s image’ (FLW, p. 32, §25). However, ‘the Church must be ready at all times ... to come to the aid of women in situations of unintended pregnancy, whether as the result of rape or of consensual sexual union, and to come also to the aid of expectant mothers suffering from penury, abuse, or other adverse conditions, by providing them material and emotional support, spiritual succor, and every assurance of God’s love, both during and after pregnancy’ (FLW, p. 33, §25).

The report says the Orthodox Church has always held ‘as a matter of doctrine and theology that men and women are equals in personhood’. But it has not always proved scrupulously faithful to this ideal. As examples, it recalls how the Church for far too long has retained in its prayers and Eucharistic practices ‘ancient and essentially superstitious prejudices about purity and impurity in regard to women’s bodies, and has even allowed the idea of ritual impurity to attach itself to childbirth’. It asserts that ‘no Christian woman who has prepared herself for communion through prayer and fasting should be discouraged from approaching the chalice’ (FLW, pp. 37–38, §29).

It is a logical move to then go on to say that

the Church must also remain attentive to the promptings of the Spirit in regard to the ministry of women, especially in our time, when many of the most crucial offices of ecclesial life—theologians, seminary professors, canonists, readers, choir directors, and experts in any number of professions that benefit the community of faith—are occupied by women in increasingly great numbers; and the Church must continue to consider how women can best participate in building up the body of Christ, including a renewal of the order of the female diaconate for today. (FLW, p. 38, §29)

This leads to the inevitable question about why such a reconsideration should not also lead, eventually, to the ministry of women as priests and bishops.

This chapter concludes with a compassionate and understanding discussion of suicide, drawing on new insights into and more sensitive understandings of mental illness and emotional fragility. Ancient prejudices need to be corrected so that ‘Church burial and full services for a person who has taken his or her own life should not be presumptively refused, nor should the faithful regard the person who dies by suicide as someone who has willingly and consciously rejected God’ (FLW, p. 40, §31).

Chapter 4: Poverty, Wealth and Civil Justice

When it comes to discussing poverty, wealth and civil justice, the report begins with the assertion that the eternal and incarnate Christ identifies ‘himself with the most marginal, politically powerless, and socially disadvantaged persons of his age’. He endured ‘all the extremes of homelessness and rejection’. So, in following Christ, the Church must ‘place this absolute concern for the poor and disadvantaged at the very center of its moral, religious, and spiritual life’ (FLW, pp. 41–43, §32). This is not merely an ethos the Church recommends for the sake of a comfortable conscience; it ‘is a necessary means of salvation, the indispensable path to union with God in Christ; and to fail in these responsibilities is to invite condemnation before the judgment seat of God’ (FLW, p. 43, §33).

Gross inequalities of wealth, repressive policies of taxation and insufficient regulation of fair wages are listed among ‘the most common evils of all human societies’, and corporate entities are berated for indulging in practices ‘that create markets for cheap labor at the expense of the welfare of workers’. Against practices like these, ‘the Orthodox Church must insist upon equity and compassion as fundamental principles ... and the moral responsibility of governments to require that the wealthy do this without unfair legal protections or avenues of evasion’. Rephrasing a common theme that runs through this report, the authors insist that ‘the plenty of creation is the equal birthright to all those created in God’s image’ (FLW, pp. 46–47, §35). They decry the frequent reduction of labour to a commodity and of labourers to ‘wage slavery’ (FLW, p. 48, §36).

The report makes the important moral, or immoral, links between lower wages in the developed world and fortifying poverty in the developing world, the exploitation of undocumented workers, and sex-trafficking. ‘Moreover, despite certain “populist” claims to the contrary, these evils are often only promoted by inflexible immigration laws and impermeable borders’ (FLW, pp. 48–49, §36).

Drawing on Patristic writers such as Saint Basil and Saint Ambrose, it says ‘the Orthodox Church must insist upon the responsibility of society to provide a social safety net that genuinely protects the poor and disadvantaged from absolute penury, degradation, homelessness, misery, and despair. All are called to the banquet that God prepares, and all who would feast must “invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, and the blind” (Luke 14:13). And this is a call to be taken up as a matter not only of private charity, but of public justice as well’ (FLW, p. 51, §38).

The Church is reminded that ‘it has a special vocation to recall that, with the exception of unrelieved hunger, there is no crueler deprivation endured by the poor throughout the world than lack of access to decent medical care’ (FLW, p. 54, §40). ‘In many places, poverty is as much the result of racial or class discrimination as of mere personal misfortune’. But, although the report was published long before COP26, it makes the radical connection between the environmental crisis and poverty in many parts of the world:

The current environmental crisis ... is an incalculable catastrophe for the entire planet and for all terrestrial life. Almost invariably, however, the greatest immediate burden falls upon the less economically developed quarters of the earth, where governments can do—or elect to do—very little to protect the destitute against the consequences of industrial waste and general ecological devastation. It is the poor, moreover, who are most regularly displaced and further impoverished by the destruction of the environment around them. And, even in nations of the developed world, it tends to be the poorest citizens who are most routinely exposed to the dire results of environmental degradation and who lack the resources to remedy their situations. (FLW, pp. 55–56, §41)

Chapter 5: War, Peace and Violence

The report defines violence as ‘the intentional use of physical, psychological, fiscal, or social force against others or against oneself, causing harm, misery, or death’, and it includes ‘physical assault of every kind, sexual assault, domestic violence, abortion, hate-crimes, acts of terrorism, acts of war, and so forth’. But, in an insightful grasp of contemporary psychology, it points out that violence results in damage to all the parties concerned, causing ‘physical, mental, and spiritual damage to the victims of violence, but also to its perpetrators’ (FLW, p. 59, §43).

The ‘effect of violence almost invariably extends beyond the parties immediately involved, and works its harm—even if only subtly—on all of humanity and all of creation. Like a contagion, violence’s effects spread throughout the “total Adam” and the whole world, often rendering love difficult or even impossible by corrupting human imaginations and severing the fragile bonds of love and trust that bind persons together in community’. When violence is understood in this wider sense, then, ‘Every act of violence against another human being is, in truth, violence against a member of one’s own family, and the killing of another human being—even when and where inevitable—is the killing of one’s own brother or sister’ (FLW, p. 59, §43).

Still, the Orthodox Church is not a ‘peace church’ or a ‘pacifist church’, nor has it ever developed any kind of ‘Just War theory’. Indeed, it could never refer to war as ‘holy’ or ‘just’ (FLW, p. 62, §46). Yet it realises ‘that in a fallen and broken world there are times when there is no perfectly peaceful means of cultivating peace for everyone. While unequivocally condemning violence of any kind, it nevertheless recognizes the tragic necessity of individuals or communities or states using force to defend themselves and others from the immediate threat of violence’. Examples are explicitly offered: ‘Thus the child facing an abusive family member, the woman facing a violent husband, the law-abiding citizen facing a violent attacker, the bystander witnessing an assault, and the community or nation under attack by a cruel aggressor may decide, in a manner consistent with their faith and with love, to defend themselves and their neighbor against the perpetrators of violence’ (FLW, pp. 60–61, §45).

But there is a constant reminder to direct

our gaze first to the cross of Christ, which was a place primarily of surrender to violence and the refusal of retribution. As such, the cross is not in itself any kind of justification for the use of force in defense of oneself or others. It does, however, remind us that, when one must defend the innocent against the rapacious, the only proper Christian motivation for doing so is love. The Church rejects all violence—including defensive acts—that are prompted by hate, racism, revenge, selfishness, economic exploitation, nationalism, or personal glory. (FLW, p. 63, §47)

The report also says the Orthodox Church rejects capital punishment, upholds the laws of forgiveness and reconciliation, and favours the ‘much deeper logic of mercy’, and it reminds us of the demand that Christians ‘exercise limitless forgiveness’. The Church Fathers consistently argued against capital punishment, in part because it usurps God’s role as just judge, and in part because it obviates the criminal’s opportunity for repentance (FLW, pp. 64–67, §48).

Chapter 6: Ecumenical Relations and Relations with Other Faiths

The Orthodox Church claims formidably and unashamedly, as Georges Florovsky wrote, that ‘she is not a Church, but the Church’ (FLW, pp. 68–69, §50). Yet it

seeks sustained dialogue with Christians of other communions in order to offer them a full understanding of the beauty of Orthodoxy, not in order to convert them to some cultural ‘Byzantinism’. It does so also in order to learn from the experiences of Christian throughout the world, to understand the many cultural expressions of Christianity, and to seek unity among all who call upon the name of Jesus. Orthodoxy cannot be silent and must reach out and call all Christians to the fullness of the faith. (FLW, pp. 69–70, §51)

The report reiterates that the Orthodox Church enjoys especially close relations with communions that share similar understandings of the episcopal succession and sacramental theology, ‘particularly the ancient churches of Egypt and Ethiopia, of Armenia, of the Assyrian tradition’, and it then adds, without breaking the sentence, ‘of Canterbury, and of Rome’. Bilateral dialogues with the Roman Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion are put on a special level, with the prayer ‘that these dialogues may bear fruit in a complete unity with the Church’. Only then does it concede that ‘all Christian communions are her kin and her love for all is equally unqualified’ (FLW, p. 71, §53).

The ‘fullness of the Christian faith’ is found in the Orthodox Church, it says, and the Orthodox Church ‘exists as the concrete reality of Christ’s mystical body in time’. Other Christian groups who have a Trinitarian baptism and confess the faith of the Councils, ‘profess and share many aspects of Orthodox teaching and tradition’ (FLW, pp. 72–73, §54, §55).

When dialogue broadens out to inter-faith relations, the Orthodox Church seeks deeper bonds of amity with all faiths, but recognises unique relationships with the other two ‘Peoples of the Book’, the Abrahamic traditions of Islam and Judaism. This is not just dialogue, but the three faiths have lived alongside one another for millennia.

It speaks positively of ‘the beauty and spiritual truths of Islam in all its multiple traditions’, especially in its affirmation of the Virgin Birth, and its recognition of Jesus as the Messiah, Messenger, Word and Spirit of God. The common roots of Christianity and Islam in the Middle East is one of the many factors that invite Islam and Orthodoxy to ‘an intimate conversation for the advancement of peace and understanding among all peoples’ (FLW, pp. 74–75, §56).

The report displays one of its major strengths in its discussions of Orthodox relations and dialogue with Judaism when it condemns anti-Semitism unequivocally and unambiguously. It recalls that

when the eternal Son of God became human he became incarnate as a Jew, born within the body of Israel, an heir to God’s covenants with his chosen people. He came in fulfillment of God’s saving promises to his people, as the Messiah of Israel. The first blood he shed for the redemption of the world was exacted on the day of his circumcision; his first confession before the world concerning the justice of God was in the synagogue, as was the first declaration of his mission to the world (Luke 4:18–21).

It continues, saying Christ’s ministry

resumed the language of the great prophets of Israel; and he was executed by a pagan authority under the title ‘King of the Jews’. It was to Israel that God declared himself as The One Who Is, to Israel that God gave the Law as a language of love and communion, with Israel that God established an everlasting covenant, and to Israel that he proclaimed, ‘I will bless those who bless you and curse those who curse you, and in you shall all the families of the earth be blessed’ (Genesis 12:3) ... Orthodox Christians look to the Jewish communities throughout the world not merely as to practitioners of another creed, but as to, in some sense, their spiritual elders in the history of God’s saving revelations, and as to the guardians of that precious inheritance that is the first full manifestation of God’s saving presence in history. (FLW, pp. 75–76, §57)

But it places all these statements within the context of life today, in a way that is frank and without any self-congratulatory tone:

It is, sadly, necessary to state these things with a special emphasis at this moment. In recent years, we have witnessed a revival in many quarters of the Western world of the most insidious ideologies of national, religious, and even racial identity in general, and of anti-Semitic movements in particular. Bigotry and violence against Jews have long been a conspicuous evil of the cultures of Christendom; the greatest systematic campaign of mass murder and attempted genocide in European history was undertaken against the Jews of Europe; and—while some Orthodox clergy and laity demonstrated exceptional generosity and even sacrificial compassion to their Jewish brothers and sisters, earning from them the honorific ‘righteous among the nations’—other historically Orthodox nations have dark histories of anti-Semitic violence and oppression. For all these evils, Christians must seek God’s forgiveness. In expiation for those crimes against the Jewish people specifically committed in Orthodox lands, the Church seeks both God’s forgiveness as well as a deeper relation of love and regard with Jewish communities and the Jewish faith. (FLW, pp. 76–77, §57)

Chapter 7: Orthodoxy and Human Rights

As I was writing this review, I was conscious of the increasing focus, both positive and negative, on the plight of refugees in the English Channel, and the way this has created tensions, or the excuse for articulating the tensions between a post-Brexit United Kingdom and France and other former partners in the European Union.

This report is particularly relevant when it addresses the global refugee crisis and says: ‘The developed world everywhere knows the presence of refugees and asylum-seekers, many legally admitted but also many others without documentation. They confront the consciences of wealthier nations daily with their sheer vulnerability, indigence, and suffering. This is a global crisis, but also a personal appeal to our faith, to our deepest moral natures, to our most inabrogable responsibilities’ (FLW, pp. 88–89, §66).

Chapter 8: Science, Technology and the Natural World

The engagement with so contemporary a discourse as human rights leads naturally to the discussion of the relationship between Orthodoxy and questions of science, development and the environment. Another worrying trend in public discourse today is the way far-right political extremists seek to deny science, expressed most vocally in recent months in opposition to vaccines and even denial of the facts about the Covid-19 pandemic.

This document offers clear thinking in these circumstances, declaring: ‘the Church encourages the faithful to be grateful for—and to accept—the findings of the sciences, even those that might occasionally oblige them to revise their understandings of the history and frame of cosmic reality. The desire for scientific knowledge flows from the same wellspring as faith’s longing to enter ever more deeply into the mystery of God’ (FLW, pp. 97–98, §71).

In Greece, the leadership of the Greek Orthodox Church officially supports vaccination. Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens spent several days in intensive care with coronavirus in November 2020, and later received the vaccine on 12 May 2021.

However, several influential bishops and senior clergy repeatedly tell Greeks not to get vaccinated, and some refuse to let people into church if they are wearing a mask or have been vaccinated. [5] Metropolitan Seraphim of Kythira has repeatedly spread the conspiracy theory that vaccines are a product of abortions: ‘This product that comes from killed embryos will be injected into our bodies ... They want to create a metahuman, a mutated man, a man who will be like a robot’. He was arrested in March 2020 when he ordered the opening of churches during a lockdown and in defiance of official regulations.

In Athens, Father Vasileios Voloudakis is οne of the most prominent critics in the Greek Orthodox Church of coronavirus restrictions and vaccines and has declared those who have the vaccine ‘will bitterly regret it’. He has used sermons to criticise the government, doctors and church leadership. ‘They want to treat the churches the same way they do gyms, but we believe that in here we are in heaven’, he said in one recent sermon. ‘Scientists cannot explain some things, so they prefer to hush it up’.

Reception and Internal Orthodox Tensions

Patriarch Bartholomew welcomes For the Life of the World for providing ‘the parameters and guidelines for the social responsibility of our Church’ and for addressing ‘the complex challenges and problems of today’s world’. In approving its publication in his letter of endorsement, he praises the commission for its achievements in an extraordinary response, ‘without at the same time overlooking the favourable potential and positive perspectives of contemporary civilization’ (FLW, ‘Letter of Approval’, p. vi).

The commission clearly warns that ‘modern Christians should not allow an overly spiritualized reading of [Christ’s] language to hide the social issues he was addressing from view’ (FLW, p. 53, §39). Its approach has been both rigorous and pastoral as it addresses critical and controversial, contemporary, social and political, economic and ecumenical issues in a balanced way that is richly informed by the biblical and patristic traditions, and yet retains in its editing and in its style of writing a clear, compassionate and convincing tone.

This is, perhaps, the most comprehensive, most consistent and best outworking of social theology in the Orthodox tradition to date. This, too, is a document for all who are thinking about the future mission of the Church, ‘for the Church must always, as heir to the missions of the prophets and to the Gospel of the incarnate God, be a voice first for the poor, and a voice raised whenever necessary against the rich and powerful, and against governments that neglect or abuse the weak in order to serve the interests of the strong’ (FLW, p. 57, §41).

The commission offers this report as a preliminary step towards theological dialogue and as an aid to spiritual growth, hoping it initiates a continuing conversation and an ongoing meditation on what ‘the Spirit is saying to Churches’ (FLW, ‘Foreword’, p. x). However, that dialogue is unlikely to engage the Russian Orthodox Church. The Moscow Patriarchate broke communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 2018. The presenting excuse was the disputes over the decision to grant autocephaly or self-governing autonomy to the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, although the disagreements have been simmering for decades, and is finding new expressions monthly, such as the dispute over the appointment of a new Patriarch of Serbia in September 2021, and the Church disputes that have spilled over into politics in neighbouring Montenegro.

It is interesting that the only mention of Ukraine in this report is a reference to a tradition that ‘the saintly Kievan princes Boris and Gleb offered up both their kingdoms and their lives rather than lift their hands in violence against others to defend themselves or their possessions’ (FLW, p. 57, §44).

Three Russian Orthodox theologians are cited with authority throughout this work: Saint Seraphim of Sarov (1754–1833); Saint Maria Skobtsova (1891–1945), one of the ‘Righteous Among the Nations’, who was murdered in the Ravensbrück concentration camp; and Georges Florovsky (1893–1979), one of the most influential Orthodox theologians of the mid-twentieth century. With the continuing tensions between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, perhaps there is some irony in the fact that Georges Florovsky was born in Odessa, which is now part of Ukraine.

Two commission members, Dr Frost and Dr Woloschak, are members of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. But there are no Russian members, and no Serbian or Bulgarian members. The report’s strong condemnation of phyletism, nationalism and racism also reflects the tensions within Orthodoxy while the commission was at work.

In addition, both Dr Frost and Dr Woloschak are the only women theologians who are commission members, which means I may have to wait longer than I hope for discussions on the ministry of women to be extended not only to deacons but to priests and bishops, too.

Nor should I even begin to think that the commission has had the last word on racism and Orthodoxy. In a recent paper presented on the forum ‘Public Orthodoxy’ at the Orthodox Christian Studies Centre, Fordham University, Dr Aram G. Sarkisian of Northwestern University has written about growing links in the US between Orthodox Christianity and the American ‘alt-right’. This includes, but is not limited to, the rise of Orthodox political candidates such as Michael Sisco and Lauren Witke, the rhetoric of the white supremacist leader Matthew Heimbach, and the participation of a priest of the Orthodox Church of America, Father Mark Hodges, in the insurrection at the Capitol in Washington DC on 6 January 2021. [6]

Sarkisian finds these developments are reflected in other, more established corners of Orthodox America. In November 2021, Saint Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, where Florovsky was once dean, announced its intentions to relocate from suburban New York City after more than eight decades in the metropolitan area. This unexpected announcement has garnered calls for the seminary to re-establish itself in the South. The American Conservative and Orthodox writer Rod Dreher suggests that the only future for the seminary is in Texas, and he argues, ‘The future of American Orthodoxy lies primarily in the region of this country most open to the Gospel’. [7]

Dreher outlined some of his extreme views in January 2021 when he delivered the seminary’s annual Father Alexander Schmemann Memorial Lecture, a controversial talk that began with his defiant riposte to ‘my Orthodox Christian brothers and sisters who tried to get me deplatformed’. Many of these arguments are also deftly implied in the seminary’s press release, which notes that a primary rationale for relocation is ‘the legal and regulatory environment in the New York area’.


The Orthodox Church still has much to do to involve, inform and engage the laity on matters related to doctrine and polity, and a persistent nucleus of clericalism persists in all Orthodox Churches. But this project is a mark of important progress. The fact that Patriarch Bartholomew commissioned and endorsed such a forward-looking document demonstrates a welcome and refreshing shift in mentality for a church that has often been more comfortable keeping its attention fixed on the past. It is the work of a religious tradition that will no longer settle for mere survival.

I have no doubt that For the Life of the World is the most comprehensive and the most consistent document to date on Orthodox social doctrine and teaching. It is well balanced, deeply rooted in the reading of Scripture and Patristic tradition, and throughout it is informed by the weight of Orthodox history and tradition. It is written in a clear, compassionate and convincing tone, and presents an attractive, inviting and missional depicting of Orthodoxy today. It may yet rank with the best documents of Vatican II and among the key and insightful moral documents of the Church Universal.

1 Patrick Comerford, ‘The New Byzantium in the Balkans’, The Irish Times, 7 October 1997, https://www.patrickcomerford.com/1997/10/the-new-byzantium-in-balkans.html.

2 The full text is also available online: https://www.goarch.org/social-ethos. The document is referred to in this review as FLW, and page/paragraph numbers are given to enable readers to refer to both the print and online versions.

3 The Russian Orthodox Church Department for External Church Relations, The Basis of the Social Concept (Moscow, 2000), https://old.mospat.ru/en/documents/social-concepts/ (accessed 7 December 2021).

4 An accessible account that offers a historical perspective on these issues can be found in Alexandros Sakellariou, ‘Authoritarianism and the Greek Orthodox Church’, Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, 2 September 2019, https://www.rosalux.de/en/news/id/40997/authoritarianism-and-the-greek-orthodox-church.

5 For an introduction to this conversation, see Nektaria Stamouli, ‘Science vs. Religion as Greek Priests Lead the Anti-Vax Movement’, Politico, 20 July 2021, https://www.politico.eu/article/science-vs-religion-greece-priests-anti-vaccine-coronavirus-movement/.

6 Aram G. Sarkisian, ‘Orthodox America has a Lost Cause Problem’, 3 December 2021, https://publicorthodoxy.org/2021/12/03/orthodox-lost-cause/.

7 Rod Dreher, ‘St. Vlad’s Should Move to Texas’, The American Conservative, 30 November 2021, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/dreher/st-vladimir-orthodox-theological-seminary-should-move-to-texas/.

Declaration of Conflicting Interests

The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with respect to the research, authorship, and/or publication of this article.


The author(s) received no financial support for the research, authorship and/or publication of this article.

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