Indifference to mission is a denial of Orthodoxy
Anastasios Yannoulatos: Modern-Day Apostle. An amazing person my family has been honoured to collaborate with in his missionary endeavours. An apostle of peace and reconciliation, since meeting him in 1997, he is one of my greatest role models.
For the first half of the twentieth century, the Orthodox Church was relatively inactive in missions. The great missionary efforts of the Russian church came to a close as the Communist curtain placed the church in bondage. Meanwhile, the Orthodox churches of the Balkans struggled to overcome the effects of the previous five centuries of Muslim subjugation. Although the Orthodox lands of Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia gained their independence, a strong sense of nationalism prevailed within the churches, and the idea of outreach beyond the borders of their own countries was a concept to which few gave much thought.
“Inertia in the field of mission means, in the last analysis, a negation of Orthodoxy, a backslide into the practical heresy of localism”
It was not until the late 1950s that a number of young Orthodox theologians began to raise their voices about the need for external missions. From an international Orthodox youth conference held in 1958 in Athens, a call toward missions began to develop. These young people expressed the idea that the church’s responsibility toward missions was not simply some thing of the past but a call for the contemporary church as well. Despite the struggling situation of a poor church just freed from bondage, the apostolic call of the Lord demanded a response. The leader of this fledgling group was Anastasios Yannoulatos, a young Orthodox theologian from Greece. He challenged the Church of Greece, as well as the Orthodox Church at large, to recover its long-held missionary tradition.
In 1959 Yannoulatos helped found Porefthentes (“Go ye”), a missionary movement whose goal was to rekindle the missionary conscience of the Orthodox Church, as well as to educate the non-Orthodox world about the rich missionary heritage of the Church of Greece, as well as the Orthodox Church at large, to recover its long held missionary tradition.
Yannoulatos challenged the Church of Greece, as well as the Orthodox Church at large, to recover its long-held missionary tradition.
Yannoulatos challenged the Eastern Church. This movement began to produce a journal in Greek and English called Porefthentes. In its inaugural issue, Yannoulatos wrote a provocative article entitled “The Forgotten Commandment,” which challenged the church to rediscover the missionary zeal of previous generations. In this article, Yannoulatos questioned the accepted apathy toward missions that prevailed in the contemporary Orthodox Church:
“It is not a question of ‘can we?’ but of an imperative command “we must.” “Go ye therefore and teach all nations.” “Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature.” There is no “consider if you can,” there is only a definite, clear cut command of Our Lord…. If we let ourselves rest peacefully in this habitual inertia in the matter of foreign missions, we are not simply keeping the pure light of the Faith “under the bushel,” but we are betraying one of the basic elements of our Orthodox tradition. For missionary work has always been a tradition within the Orthodox Church…. Missionary activity is not simply something “useful” or just “nice,” but something imperative, a foremost duty, if we really want to be consequent to our Orthodox Faith.”
As Christians we do believe in miracles.
Yannoulatos emerged as a leading missions advocate in the following years. He dared the Orthodox faithful to recover the authentic meaning of the “one holy catholic and apostolic Church,” in the words of the Nicene Creed. He even hoped to establish some type of external Orthodox mission center. His enthusiasm, however, was derided within most Orthodox circles as an unrealistic goal. Following an address he gave on this issue to theological students at the University of Athens in January 1959, someone in the audience remarked skeptically that “the organization of an Orthodox External Mission is tantamount to a miracle.” To this Yannoulatos responded, “We fully agree. But as Christians we do believe in miracles.”
Mission was not the duty of only the first generation of Christians. It is the duty of Christians of all ages … It is an essential expression of the Orthodox ethos.
The life and work of Anastasios Yannoulatos, probably the foremost Orthodox missiologist in the world today, exemplifies the realization of this miracle in the contemporary Orthodox Church.
His Early Life
Anastasios Yannoulatos was born on November 4, 1929, to a pious Orthodox family in Greece. Raised within the faith, he participated actively in the church during his formative years. His first great interest was in mathematics, and throughout his teenage years Yannoulatos thought of pursuing a career in this field. His views changed with the coming of World War II. During the war years, Yannoulatos began to experience his faith in a very personal way. He witnessed much suffering and disaster from the war and could make sense of the chaos only by delving deeper into his faith. For the world and for his own country to recover from the evil of both the Second World War and the ensuing Greek Civil War, Yannoulatos understood the urgent need for a message of eternal peace, the peace that comes through Jesus Christ.
This experience led Yannoulatos to abandon his interest in other disciplines and to pursue theology. So fervent was his desire that he has said, “It was not enough for me to give something to God, I had to be given totally to Him. I wanted to live with my whole being in Christ.” Thus, in 1947 he entered the Theological School of the University of Athens. He graduated with highest honors in 1952.
Following two years of service in the army, Yannoulatos joined the brotherhood of ZOE, a religious organization focused on the spiritual renewal of the church in Greece. Yannoulatos’s personal responsibilities included missions to the youth of his country. He became the leader of student movements and teen age camps and strove to make the Orthodox faith real and concrete to his young charges. Through these experiences, Yannoulatos discovered the impact such outreach programs had on the church at large. He realized that without such missionary outreach, the church loses its focus and ultimately diminishes.
During these years, Yannoulatos also participated in an international Orthodox youth movement called Syndesmos. He served as the general secretary of the Committee for Missions during 1958-61, and as vice-president of the whole movement from 1964 to 1977. Here he met other young leaders with a similar zeal for proclaiming the Gospel. Together they began to realize how Christ could never be satisfied with proclaiming the Gospel simply within the church. His original command was to go to”all nations.” Thus missions are not merely internal, but external as well. The Great Commission of the past is an imperative responsibility for the present. Yannoulatos wrote at the time:
“Church without mission is a contradiction in terms…. If the Church is indifferent to the apostolic work with which she has been entrusted, she denies herself, contradicts herself and her essence, and is a traitor in the warfare in which she is engaged.A static Church which lacks vision and a constant endeavor to proclaim the Gospel to the oikoumene could hardly be recognized as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church to whom the Lord entrusted the continuation of His Work.”
The 1960s-Following the Call of God
This understanding of the importance of external missions for the church filled the heart of Yannoulatos. Following his ordination to the diaconate in 1960, Yannoulatos proceeded to found the inter-Orthodox mission center Porefthentes. The goal of this center was to educate the church in the area of missions, as well as to motivate and send missionaries throughout the world.
Church without mission is a contradiction in terms…. If the Church is indifferent to the apostolic work with which she has been entrusted, she denies herself, contradicts herself and her essence, and is a traitor in the warfare in which she is engaged.
Yannoulatos himself planned on becoming a ‘foreign’ missionary. In fact, immediately following his ordination to the priesthood on May 24, 1964, he left for East Africa and celebrated his first liturgy in Uganda. Shortly after his arrival, however, the young priest contracted malaria and returned to Greece. Despite the doctors’ recommendation that he not return to Africa, Yannoulatos was not daunted by the setback. He realized more than ever the importance of increasing the missionary awareness in the church and sought new ways to fulfill the Great Commission of Christ. Following the advice of one of his professors, Yannoulatos decided the best way he could influence the church was by making a significant contribution in the academic world. He believed that if he could not directly work in the mission field, he could still try to pave the way for others to go. Thus, he decided to pursue further studies in missiology and the history of religions.
From 1965 to 1969, Yannoulatos studied the history of religions at the universities in Hamburg and Marburg in Germany, with an emphasis on religious plurality and the Orthodox Church. His work focused on the general history of religions, African religions, missiology, and ethnology. He traveled to Makerere University in Kampala, Uganda, to conduct field research and collect material for his doctoral thesis, entitled “The Spirit Mbandwa and the Framework of Their Cults: A Research of Aspects of African Religion.” Overall, he desired to establish a basis for the whole process of a serious study of missions in the Orthodox Church. Through this research, he sought support for his original thesis that it was impossible to truly be Orthodox without having an interest in missions.
Along with his studies, Yannoulatos actively participated in the worldwide ecumenical movement. By taking part in the Commission on World Mission and Evangelism (CWME) of the World Council of Churches (WCC), the budding missiologist felt that he could both learn from other Christian traditions as well as introduce these members to the rich missionary heritage of the Orthodox Church. In 1963, Yannoulatos became the youngest member of the CWME at a conference in Mexico City. He has continued to play a pivotal role in this ecumenical setting and ultimately served as its moderator from 1984 to 1991, the first Orthodox missiologist to hold such a place of leadership.
The 1970s-Planting Missionary Foundations Within the Church
During the following decade, the Church of Greece began to hear and respond to the voice of this bold visionary. In 1968 Yannoulatos and his Porefthentes staff established the frame work of the Bureau of External Missions within Apostoliki Diakonia (the service branch of the Church of Greece). The establishment of a permanent missionary organization within the official Orthodox Church in Greece was a milestone. The church recognized the work of Yannoulatos by elevating him on November 19, 1972, to the episcopacy with the title “Bishop of Androussa” and making him general director of the whole department of Apostoliki Diakonia. Through Bishop Anastasios’s leadership, this commission of the Church of Greece acted as the main body for all the missionary efforts of the church both within Greece and abroad.
Along with his ecclesiastical responsibilities, Bishop Anastasios continued to be active on the academic level. In 1972 the University of Athens elected him as associate professor of the history of religions. At the university, he established and directed a centre for missionary studies during 1971-76. This center paved the way for another landmark, when a chair of missiology was finally created in 1976. In this academic atmosphere Bishop Anastasios continued to proclaim his “wake-up” call to the church, challenging its complacency in missionary outreach:
It was Yannoulatos’s thesis that it was impossible to be truly Orthodox without having an interest in missions.
“Inertia in the field of mission means, in the last analysis, a negation of Orthodoxy, a backslide into the practical heresy of localism…. It is unthinkable for us to speak of “Orthodox spirituality,” of “a life in Christ,” of emulating the Apostle Paul, founder of the Greek Church, while we stay inert as to mission; it is unintelligible to write about intense liturgical and spiritual living of the Lord’s Resurrection by us, while we abide slothful and indifferent to the call of ecumenical missions, with which the message of the Resurrection is interwoven.”
Bishop Anastasios continually tried to educate the Orthodox faithful to a fuller understanding of the Nicene Creed, which proclaimed the belief in “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.” Professing such a creed while staying indifferent to missions, Yannoulatos held, was hypocrisy. As he noted,
“Only when it is realized that worldwide ecumenical mission is an initial and prime implication in a fundamental article of the “Credo,” elemental for the Orthodox comprehension of what the Church is, and that what is termed “foreign mission” is not an “external” matter but an inner need, a call to repentance and aligning ourselves with the spirit of the Gospel and the tradition of our Church, only then shall we have the proper and hope bearing theological start for what comes next.”
Foreign missions is not simply a branch of authentic Orthodox life, or even Orthodox theology, but rather is central to a proper understanding of the church. When Orthodox Christians confess, “I believe in one … apostolic Church,” “apostolic” does not refer only to apostolic succession. More important, it implies having an “apostolic fire and zeal to preach the gospel ‘to every creature’ (Mk 16:15), because it nurtures its members so that they may become ‘witnesses in Jerusalem and in Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth’ (Acts 1:8).”
Bishop Anastasios continued to challenge the apathetic attitude of the church toward missions by writing:
“The Gospel is addressed to all peoples, and therefore the work of the Church remains incomplete as long as it is restricted to certain geographical areas or social classes. Its field of action is universal and is active both in sectors that welcome the good tidings and those which at first may reject them. Mission was not the duty of only the first generation of Christians. It is the duty of Christians of all ages.... Witness is the expression of the vitality of the Church as well as a source of renewal and renewed vigor…. Everyone should contribute to and participate in it, whether it be directly or indirectly. It is an essential expression of the Orthodox ethos.”
Along with influencing the academic world in Greece and abroad, Bishop Anastasios had an impact on other areas of church life as well. In 1972 the bishop worked together with Fr. Anthony Romeos and founded a monastery of nuns whose emphasis would be on external missions. This group became the Convent of St. John the Forerunner in Kareas, Greece. Bishop Anastasios helped guide these women to become nuns who would actively participate in missionary work throughout the world. The convent also welcomed women from foreign lands to join their community and learn the monastic way of life, with the goal of carrying the monastic lifestyle back to their home countries.
The 1980s-Theory Becomes Practice
In the 1960s,when Yannoulatos first fell ill to malaria, his doctors told him that he would never be able to work overseas as a missionary. The providence of God spoke differently. In 1980 the Orthodox Church of East Africa faced great difficulties. The region had been the most active Orthodox mission field in the world over the past two decades. The church’s footing, however, was jeopardized by internal problems that ultimately led to the defrocking of a Kenyan bishop by the Patriarchate of Alexandria. The East African Orthodox Church seemed to be on the verge of collapse.
During this time Patriarch Nicholas, the head of the Orthodox Church in Africa, invited Bishop Anastasios to become acting archbishop of the Archdiocese of East Africa. The bishop consented but continued to keep his responsibilities both at the University of Athens and in Apostoliki Diakonia. During this transitional period, Yannoulatos saw his role as one of reorganizing the Church of East Africa. His main priority was to create a strong Orthodox community led by local leaders.
“By focusing on the training and establishing of indigenous leaders, Bishop Anastasios remained faithful to Orthodox missions tradition. As he noted in an earlier writing, “The incarnation of God’s Word in the language and customs of a country has been and must be the first concern of all Orthodox mission. Its intent is the planting and growth of a native Church, self powered and self-governing, able to turn to account all the genuine strands of national tradition, transforming and hallowing them in harmony with the people’s nature, to the glory of God.”
In 1972, Archbishop Makarios III of Cyprus built an Orthodox Seminary in Nairobi, Kenya, but political instability in Cyprus prevented the archbishop from completing his project. The school remained vacant for ten years. Bishop Anastasios’s first action as the new leader of the church was to finish the seminary and open it immediately. During the 1970s, many of the faithful within the African Orthodox Church became disillusioned and disheartened with the floundering church and began to leave. Yannoulatos realized that the only way to bring these people back, as well as to bring new converts into the faith, was through the training of local leaders and priests.
Hence, Bishop Anastasios officially opened the Archbishop Makarios III Orthodox Patriarchal Seminary in 1982. Over the following decade, the school averaged 45 students annually, using 12 professors from East Africa, Europe, and the United States. The acting archbishop eventually ordained 62 priests and deacons, as well as 42 readers and catechists, from the school’s graduates. These indigenous leaders came from eight different tribes in Kenya, Uganda, and Tanzania and provided the foundation for the renewal of the church in East Africa.
Along with training local leaders, the acting archbishop also supported the Orthodox missionary tradition of translation, which he believed was sanctioned by Christ during the event of Pentecost. Thus, he concentrated on publications, organizing the translation of services into seven different languages.
Bishop Anastasios also tried to establish a sense of permanency in the structures of the church by guiding the construction of 67 new church buildings, 23 of them stone, and 44 wooden and mud. He also helped renovate 25 existing church buildings. His construction accomplishments included seven mission stations, seven health-care stations, five primary schools, and twelve nursery schools.
His work in Africa drew worldwide attention. The Greek Orthodox Church in America assisted him by sending missionaries to East Africa. The impact of these missionaries was felt not only within the Church of East Africa but also throughout America. Many of the short-term missionaries, returning to their homes in the United States, helped increase a missionary awareness and consciousness within their own parishes. The Orthodox Church in Greece and Finland also responded to a series of lectures the bishop gave on the imperative of missions by send ing missionary teams of their own to Kenya.
The most important aspect of Bishop Anastasios’s work in East Africa, however, was not the ordinations, the publications, or the missionary interest created by the mission teams. It was instead his efforts to assimilate with the indigenous Christians. By identifying closely with the Orthodox Christians of this region, he encouraged and empowered them to embrace the faith as authentically their own. As a result, the Church of East Africa continued to mature even after his departure as acting archbishop in 1991.
In addition to his achievements in Africa, Bishop Anastasios has left his mark in other ways. In 1981, the bishop began editing, through the auspices of Apostoliki Diakonia, the first official missionary magazine of the Church of Greece, entitled Panta ta Ethne (All nations). This magazine continues to disseminate mission information and challenge Orthodox Christians throughout Greece to respond to the missionary mandate.
The 1980s also saw Bishop Anastasios intensify his activity in the WCC. After participating in the World Mission Conference at Melbourne in 1980, as well as the general assembly of the WCC at Vancouver in 1983, the bishop became the moderator of CWME during 1984-91 and presided at the World Mission Conference at San Antonio in 1989. His missiological impact not only influenced the Orthodox world but also touched broad ecumenical circles. As the prominent Protestant theologian and missionary David J. Bosch noted,
“Anastasios has remained the driving force behind the missionary movement in Orthodoxy. And since the Orthodox churches joined the WCC in 1948, he and others have made a major contribution to missionary thinking and practice in ecumenical circles…. The cross-fertilization in the area of Missiology between Orthodoxy and Protestantism has indeed been a major area of theological renewal in the ecumenical movement since 1961. Only three papers were read in the conference plenary during the first few days. . . . Whereas the first two papers were interesting and challenging, it was Anastasios’ presentation that provided the theological framework for the conference theme “Your Will Be Done” … its overall thrust was truly ecumenical in the best sense of the word.”
The 1990s-the Culmination of His Work
A new challenge confronted Bishop Anastasios with the coming of a new decade. In January 1991, the Patriarchate of Constantinople elected Anastasios to go to Albania as “Patriarchal Exarch” with a mandate to contact and organize Orthodox people irrespective of their ethnic origin. On June 24,1992, he was unanimously elected Archbishop of Tirana and All Albania. His task then became one of reestablishing the Orthodox Autocephalous Church of Albania. The Orthodox Church in Albania had been decimated after forty years of the most severe persecution. During the years of Communist control the number of Orthodox clergy had diminished from 450 in 1945 to 22 in 1990. All the surviving clergy were over the age of seventy. A new opportunity to revive life into a church that had been almost destroyed confronted Archbishop Anastasios.
Anastasios saw this new challenge as an opportunity to synthesize the elements of his life. Before Communism, Albania was a country with a 69 percent Muslim population. Archbishop
Anastasios had written a book and many articles on Islam. The uncertainties that the church faced with various political groups was something familiar for him from his work in East Africa. The challenge to resurrect a local church from an atheistic abyss would require a miracle, more radical than the miracle required initiatives on four different frontiers. But as his life has shown, Archbishop Anastasios believes in miracles.
Overall, Archbishop Anastasios’s priorities in Albania during his first three years of episcopacy were to train local leaders, perform responsible pastoral work to approximately one quarter of the population that claimed an Orthodox heritage, and to open dialogue and bridges to people of other faiths or no faith. In response to his leadership, the church quickly established the Resurrection of Christ Orthodox Seminary in a rented hotel building in the city of Durres. The school presently has a three-year program, with each class containing approximately thirty students. Through this seminary sixty new priests and deacons have joined the ranks of clergy within the first three years of Archbishop Anastasios’s episcopacy. The archbishop’s latest plans include moving the seminary into a new two million dollar spiritual center by the end of 1995.
Along with training local spiritual leaders, Archbishop Anastasios has mobilized the laity through various intellectual, youth, and women’s groups. These organizations have participated in the overall ministry of preaching, teaching, and sharing the good news of Jesus Christ to believers in cities and villages throughout Albania. The archbishop has also organized work in a variety of other areas. He is helping to reestablish the physical presence of Orthodoxy by building and renovating churches throughout Albania. At present, thirty-eight new churches have been built, and forty-three others have been renovated. Sixty other projects, which include church centers and a medical clinic, are in progress. A printing house produces the monthly newspaper Ngjallja (Resurrection), along with Orthodox books and various catechetical materials. Its goal is to disseminate church news and religious education throughout the country. Another office, called Service of Love, is devoted to a social outreach ministry, which helps distribute humanitarian aid and cultivate long-term developmental projects.
During this short period of reestablishment, the Orthodox Church has quickly left its former isolation and joined the world- wide Christian community. Efforts have been made for official relationships not only within pan-Orthodox circles but also within ecumenical organizations as well. In fact, the church has already become a full member in both the Conference of European Churches and the World Council of Churches.
Despite obstacles and restrictions placed upon the church from various sources within Albania, the future looks bright. The reawakening of Orthodox faithful combined with the influx of converts are a result of Archbishop Anastasios’s holistic outreach to nominal Christians, non-Christians, and atheists alike.
To resurrect the Church from its atheistic abyss would require a miracle, but Archbishop Anastasios believes in miracles.
Over the past thirty years, the impact and influence of Anastasios Yannoulatos cannot be overstated. As a young theologian in the 1950s, he had a vision to rekindle the missionary spirit of the Orthodox Church. Thirty-five years later, it is clear he has achieved his goal. Indeed, missions has truly become part of the basic life of twentieth-century Orthodoxy. As the archbishop notes himself, “Here is the first and major contribution I have made-a theological contribution to help the church rediscover who she really is. It was a contribution of LIFE. My theological position has always been to live the mystery of the one holy catholic and apostolic Church. To live the mission of the Church with its proper universal and eschatological perspective.”
A summary of the archbishop’s life can be seen in his initiatives on four different frontiers. First, out of concern for the Orthodox Church itself, he sought to revive missionary interest and consciousness that has been a part of its tradition throughout the ages.
The third frontier has been his life in East Africa and Albania. He desired to live the life and share in external missions of the church. He wished to show all people of the world, regardless of their origin, that God loves and cares for them.
Finally, the last frontier has been in ecumenical circles.Through the WCC, Archbishop Anastasios has given witness to Orthodox mission theology and spirituality to the non-Orthodox world. He has worked together with his Christian contemporaries to define missions in the twentieth century and to witness effectively to other faiths and traditions.
Archbishop Anastasios Yannoulatos’s life and work can be summarized in his own words. Throughout his sixty-five years of life, he has tried to live and proclaim the mystery of the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church,” that is, to live the mission of the church within its proper universal perspective. “Mission is an essential expression of Orthodox self-consciousness, a cry in action for the fulfillment of God’s will’on earth as it is in heaven.’ … Indifference to mission is a denial of Orthodoxy.”