(Please note that this was produced by the voluntary hard work of a blog reader. We are incredibly grateful to him/her for his/her efforts since not everyone has been able to listen to the full audio the link for which was posted earlier. Readers are welcome to check it against the audio and please if you would be so kind let us know if there are any corrections–KSH).
Sharing Good News and Building the Church Today
Address of His Beatitude Anastasios, Archbishop of Tirana, DurrÃ«s and All Albania to the General Synod of the Church of England 8th June 2011
Introduction by the Archbishop of Canterbury:
The first of our guests is going to be speaking to us in fact by my invitation shortly and that is His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, DurrÃ«s and All Albania who has been head of the Orthodox Church of Albania since 1992 and is also Orthodox President of the World Council of Churches. [Applause]
As I’ve said, Archbishop Anastasios has kindly agreed to address Synod, and I will now invite him to join me on the platform. For those of you who do not know the extraordinary recent history of the Orthodox Church in Albania, I think I should say that Archbishop Anastasios has been instrumental in reviving a church which had virtually disappeared in Albania during the years of communist rule. The church had suffered acute persecution and privation. In the last decade and more it has revived to the extent of restoring many buildings, putting up impressive new buildings for worship and for service. It has extended to an extraordinary extent, its work with schools and with young people and has continued to play a crucial part in the renewal of the life of the whole country.
This great revival owes very much indeed to a leader whose spiritual qualities, intellectual qualities, force of personality, humility and sanctity have been a beacon to many across Europe over the years. Archbishop Anastasios began his career in Africa and is a missiologist of note and a theologian. Greek by origin, he has taught theology in a number of contexts and has been able to put that missiological and theological skill to the fullest possible use in the rebirth of the Orthodox Church in Albania.
It is a very great delight to be able to welcome him among us for this occasion. Your Beatitude:
Your Grace, I am thankful for your warm and kind words.
Your Grace, beloved Archbishop Rowan, dear Brother Bishops, Brothers and Sisters it is a particular joy for me to address this noble gathering. I feel first of all the need to express my cordial thanks to their Graces, the Archbishops for the honour of this kind invitation.
The topic I was asked to speak on from experience is: ”˜Sharing Good News and Building the Church Today’ offering some personal reflections. In accordance with this proposal, my remarks will be of a quite personal nature. As you are already aware I have come from Albania, a country that during the previous century experienced a most cruel and long lasting persecution. From 1944 to 1967 this autocephalous church underwent the familiar forms of oppression that all the Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe suffered. But from 1967 to 1990 for 23 long years an atheistic constitution which banned all expressions of religion brought about the complete dissolution of the church. This is the first special characteristic of our church.
The second is that the Orthodox in Albania do not constitute the majority of citizens as is the case with other Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe. Nor do they form a very small minority as in various Orthodox patriarchates. According to the last statistics in 1942, 68.9% of the population are Muslims, the Orthodox 20.7% and the Roman Catholics 10.3%. Of course today these numbers are not accurate. From this resurrected missionary Orthodox Church I would like to convey to this eminent gathering, cordial and fraternal greetings.
I had never thought about Albania, and never expected to live in it. All my interest had been focused on Africa, and that is where I was in December 1990 when I received a message from the Ecumenical Patriarchate that I had been elected Patriarchal Exarch, a type of nuncio, to Albania. My task would be to investigate the conditions which obtained after the persecution, as well as the opportunities which existed for starting a new missionary effort, and for reconstituting the Church of Albania. I was greatly surprised and harbored a good many reservations.
It was July 1991 when I arrived for the first time in Albania. Together with a small group of old and harrassed men, we made our way from the airport to the ruined Cathedral of Tirana. In order to express the most essential message of my mission, I asked each one of those present to take a candle, and inquired how to say the greeting ”˜Christ is Risen’ in Albanian? I lit the candle exclaiming ”˜Christium Gal’, that is Christ is Risen! One after the other, the candles of the few believers were lit, and they answered ”˜Vertatum Gal’, Truly He is Risen! And their eyes were full of tears and light.
From then on the exclamation ”˜Christ is Risen’ has become the watchword with which we have advanced all these years with the restoration of the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania from the ruins. This phrase gave light to the mystic Autumns and the darkness of the harsh Winters that followed and it dominates the spiritual Spring that finally God granted to us. As Patriarchal Exarch in Albania I visited as many cities and villages as possible where there had formerly been Orthodox communities. People began to become together and hear the Gospel message and liturgies most of which took place in the open air under trees or in the ruins of old churches. The liturgical life and sermons were the basic means of getting the faithful to attend. The central message of the sermons and of spiritual activities was that Christ crucified, buried and risen is the light of the world, that God does not abandon us, and there is hope, however dark everything may seem.
There followed the creation of a seminary to provide basic theological education for future Albanian clergy. This nursery had to be located in Albania in a hotel despite suggestions that we should send candidates abroad. From similar experiences in Africa, I knew that if we did so, most of them would certainly not return to the difficult conditions in Albania. The most difficult dilemma I faced was when the issue of the election of an Archbishop was raised. This was necessary so that the reconstitution of the local church could be properly effected in ecclesiastical terms. When I was sounded out by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, I replied: ”˜If the Orthodox in Albania really want it, if you endorse it, and finally if the government accepts it, then I will give it serious thought. I had already become aware of how harsh the place was and that there was no infrastructure whatsoever. The ground was stony and inhospitable. The old establishment of the atheistic state was very powerful and active. Failure seemed certain.
In the end, after much thought and prayer I decided to take the risk, in the certain knowledge that what was principally required of me at that critical and historical moment was Fidelity to the Will of God, not success in itself. In the spiritual life, freedom from fear is of particular importance. Love casts out fear, even the fear of failure.
My election as Archbishop of Albania took place on 24th June 1992. Conditions were so adverse, I did not find a room to stay or even a piece of paper from the archives of the past. At first my assistant and I stayed in a hotel, later in a sparce flat. There was no guaranteed source of funds. The steady income we had was my salary from the University of Athens where I was a professor for 20 years. In the end though, funds arrived from unexpected places, and these allowed us to meet our immediate needs. We were faced with another serious problem as regards the reconstitution of a united Orthodox autocephalous church. The individual Orthodox communities were not all of the same national background. Apart from Albanian communities there were Greek – Slavs, and so on. In the transitional period after the collapse of the atheistic regime there was lively interest on the part of certain nationalistic Serbs in the Balkans in affiliating these communities and taking them into their own national churches. This could have undermined the creation of a strong local church. Thanks to God, in the end all Orthodox irrespective of origin agreed to join the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania. I often repeated: ”˜A forest is not more beautiful if it only has one kind of tree, what is needful is that all should be free to grow as their potential permits.’
A fundamental element in Christian missionary work throughout the centuries has been the construction of places of worship so that hymns and thanksgiving can be raised to God in the ages of ages. Hundreds of churches had been destroyed or converted to other uses. We were concerned therefore to build new churches in places where old ones had been demolished. Altogether 150 new churches were built, and at the same time, 60 dilapidated cultural monuments were restored. As well as this, in many villages 160 small churches were repaired, as were about 70 buildings built to house the administration of the dioceses, schools, medical centres and various institutions. This broader construction activity contributed to the provision of work for thousands of workers with benefits for a corresponding number of families as well as for the economy of the country in general.
In the administrative sphere, apart from the establishment of the Holy Synod, and the creation of a local Albanian clergy – around 150, about 460 parishes were organised in towns and villages. As well as these, a new Consitutional Charter of the Church was drawn up which reflected the new democratic period in Albania. This included significant new elements such as the participation of the laity, women and youth in the various councils and also at the same time an accord was reached with the government, which was passed into law, which guaranteed autonomy of administration and action for the Church. You understand, that these things in a Muslim country are not so easy.
Because of the total lack of religious literature in the Albanian language, one of our first priorities was to make translations and to set up a publishing house with its own press as well as a radio station and website. The interest of our church was directed in particular to the younger generation. In this traditional transitional period, young people are faced with an enormous vacuum. From the old illusion of the communist paradise they have been led to the illusion of the capitalist paradise without moral inhibitions, and yet thousands of young people have responded to our invitation. In this way, these young people do not represent merely the future of the church, but also the present.
In order to develop a liturgical conscience and Orthodox spirituality we insisted on the need for the continuation of the experience of the Divine Liturgy in everyday life through the extension of the liturgy after Liturgy, a notion that we have first introduced in the early 70’s so that the whole of life will be transformed into a personal liturgical expression in which we will share in thanksgiving the gift we receive with those people who God brings to us.
Thus initiatives were also undertaken from the very earliest year for the involvement of the Orthodox Church in social developments. In particular in matters of social welfare: the provision of the agnostic centre for people of all religions and none, more than one million came during these years; education ”“ primary and secondary schools, technical education and also the core of a new university; agricultural development; culture; and ecology. With all these activities, the church transmits the Gospel of Love in a silent way, to various strata of the population. Besides, when in 1999 [ it is another example] thousands of refugees from Kosovo flooded into Albania, the Orthodox Church in collaboration with other European churches sustained more than 33,000 Muslim refugees. We have cultivated genuine respect for diversity among all human persons and groups of citizens; cultivating relations of peaceful coexistence with other religious communities, Muslim or Christians; but also with those who continue to be completely indifferent or even hostile towards religion. Acceptance of others in sincere love, irrespective of what or if they believe, has been a firm principle for us.
In the midst of the multi-religious situation of Albania, apart from the emphasis on the Christian Credo, we underlined our conviction that of all the religions or philosophical proposals relative to the value and future of humanity, the boldest and most magnificent remains that of Christianity. It insists on the incarnation of the supreme being of the God of love and of the progress of the people towards deification by grace.
We Christians declare that Christ is the light of the world, that the Trinity as a whole is light. Regarding the people of various faiths, in respect of the above symbolism of light, we are thinking many times, that the new wealth of scientific knowledge regarding the nature of created light has given great breadth to the symbolism of the astonishing effects of spiritual light in the world. The fundamental particle of light, the photon, occupies a special place among the particles of matter and energy that make up the world in the form of photons or electromagnetic waves. Light exists and acts in the most remote spot of the universe which we cannot imagine. Equally, the Divine Light can also be active in cases and places where the human mind does not suspect. The light of Christ, the light of the Holy Spirit is recognisable and familiar as is the natural light, but is at the same time inconceivable and inaccessible in His essence. God is called light not according to His essence but according to His energy as St Gregory Palamas explains, and while the essence of God remains inaccessible, all who so desire may participate in His energy.
From the very first years, we made it a priority not only to have cordial relations with the other Orthodox Churches, but also to become members of the Conference of European Churches, and the World Council of Churches and to have bilateral relations with the Roman Catholic Church, and I am very thankful that in these bodies I have the opportunity to have friendship with excellent members of your own Synod.
We were presenting a double message internally, that even though we are a minority, we still belong to a wider global family which monitors our struggles and supports us; and externally that the Church which had been in dissolution for decades is now participating actively in global Christian development.
As far as the future of the ecumenical movement is concerned, I believe that we must avoid both the euphoria of overoptimism and unwarranted disappointment. Our responsibility for the development of the modern world is all the clearer and rapprochement and collaboration among Christians more imperitive. God has opened new horizons for the common actions of Christians such as the issues of world peace, justice and the sustainment of the creation supported by the profound assurance of the faith in Him who is indeed the creator of the Universe, the true being, by the truth and love which he revealed to us in their plenitude. We Christians, we dare to hope, and in this new phase of global history in the midst of pressing problems, we proclaim with boldness: there is hope in our efforts for unity; there is hope in the common battle for peace and justice, when we insist together on the obligation of solidarity between people and peoples, when we intensify our common efforts for unfailing respect for the creation. In the end through the power of the crucified and risen Lord Christ, truth, justice and love will prevail.
Let us not trouble over the future, the future belongs to Christ. He is the one who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty, and he is coming again, from the future.
When we discuss the theme of sharing, my thoughts go to the two lakes of Palestine, the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea. Those two lakes have a principal feature in common and a basic difference. Both receive the water or the River Jordan. The first, the Sea of Galilee receives the water and offers it to fertilise the Southern regions. The second, the Dead Sea receives the water but keeps it for itself. In the first there is plenty of life within its waters and around them. In the second, there is no sign of life, and we know that our Lord had nothing to do with the Dead Sea. He started his public mission and performed many of his miracles in the area of the Sea of Galilee.
We Christians have the privilege of receiving continuously the living water of the spiritual Jordan. We receive a great many gifts, spiritual and material. If we keep them only for ourselves, for our communities, for our family, for our nations, we shall lose them. The Dead Sea remains the symbol of what it means merely to receive and keep for oneself. If we offer, we shall be like the Sea of Galilee, full of life. Receiving and sharing is the secret for having life, The Life. Thank you.