Conference of the Oriental Orthodox Churches (COOC)
The conference of the Heads of oriental Orthodox Churches, which was held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, during January 1965, is undoubtedly an event of some importance in the history of the church in our times. For the first time in history is brought together in a formal meeting the Heads of five of the historic Churches. Accompanied by a few delegates each, they came together and thereby inaugurated a new era of cooperation and communication among their Churches. Although these five Churches have all along recognized one another officially as sister churches holding full Eucharistic fellowship with each other, they have not had a common council or synod after the fifth century. The Addis Ababa Conference has now brought to an end this practical isolation one from another of these Churches and opened up a new age in which they may be expected both to manifest concretely their unity and to play their role together in serving the Christian cause in the modern world.
The Addis Ababa conference of the Heads of Church lasted only about fifteen days. But it did pave the way for the participating churches leap over more than fifteen centuries of mutual isolation. For it was at Ephesus in 431 A.D that these Churches lasted only about fifteen days. But it did pave the way for the participating churches to leap over more than fifteen centuries of mutual isolation. For it was at Ephesus in 431 A.D that these churches had their last common council. Now after so many long centuries, this conference has offered them the beginning of a new era of cooperation. This should indeed be followed up through coordinated planning and concerted action so that the churches concerned may be enabled to manifest the unity which exists among them and can promote the cause of the church in the modern world.
It is with this goal in mind that their Holiness’s the patriarchs have, through the conference, adopted the decisions which are published in the present volume. In fact they have sanctioned the appointment of various committees, which in the light of adequate study and comprehensive vision will draw the attention of the Churches to the many tasks which they have to fulfill. Existing as it does in an age of science, the church should be able to combine with its spiritual purity the many insights which science offers. From this point of view, the plan of creating a centre for evangelistic studies and an institution for higher theological learning is to be heartily welcomed.
The conference of the Heads of churches which took only a week was preceded by another week of preparatory work by specially delegated theologians. The task of organizing them both needed several months of planning. In fact, the very idea of the conference reached its maturity after several years of contemplation. Behind all this there was his Imperial Majesty Haile Selassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, who convened the conference, there by giving it a setting similar to that of the Councils of the ancient Church. So it was quite fitting that the conference conferred on the Emperor the little, “Defender of Faith”.
This Conference is only a beginning – just a humble one at that – towards leading the Church concerned to realize and fulfill their God-given mission in the world. But we have firm hope in the power of God who will continue the work thus begun, so that it may bear fruit to his glory. We believe that our Lord Jesus Christ who sumptuously fed five thousand men with the negligible provision of five loaves and two fishes will lead the churches in this great work.
In this connection, a special word of appreciation is due to the diplomatic missions of the Government of Ethiopia for their commendable service in communicating most promptly all the necessary messages relating to the Conference to the various Churches. While extending to the members of the various committees, the interim Secretary, and his assistants, the sincere appreciation and thanks of the secretariat, of the conference, may I express my profound joy to see that this document is being published, and that its copies will be placed in the hands of all those who love the church.
A WORD ABOUT THESE CHURCHES
The five churches which took part in the Addis Ababa conference have, each of them, a long history, which in most cases can be traced back to the first century of the Christian era. At the same time, with reference to the fifth century Christological controversy they remain loyal to the Alexandrine theological tradition as it had been declared orthodox by the council of Ephesus in 431. On this ground they renounce the council of Chalcedon held in 451, which, they maintain, did practically contradict the council of 431.
In consequence of this stand as well as of various other causes these Churches have been made to face disabilities of many kinds. This, to be sure, is one of the main reasons why these Churches happened to be isolated both from the rest of Christendom and from one another. However, in spite of all such disadvantages they have continued to exist in the world holding to “the faith once delivered to the saints”, and today they include in their total membership over twenty million believers.
All this five Churches are members of the world council of churches. The wind contacts which this offered had led many in these churches to hope and pray for a common council of their own churches to be convened. The leaders of the world council of churches have also been showing much interest in such a development.
ARRANGEMENTS MADE FOR A CONFERENCE
The Lord of the church answered the prayers and put into the main of His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellassie I, Emperor of Ethiopia, the idea of convening a conference of the Heads of these Churches in his own capital city, as a first step towards bringing the churches into a state of concrete unity and mutual cooperation. A devout member and protector of the Ethiopian orthodox church which is one of the participating churches, the Emperor himself had, ever since has elevation to the imperial throne of Ethiopia, been waiting for a suitable occasion to call together a conference of these churches.
At last the time came, and on 18th May 1964 the Emperor sent out invitations to Heads of the Churches, requesting them to take part in a conference which he was planning to convene. On receiving their replies of acceptance, he entrusted the responsibility of making the necessary preparations with three local committees. These were a program committee under the chairmanship of His Beatitude Abuna Theophilos, Archbishop of Harar and Deputy Patriarch of the Ethiopia Orthodox Church; a Reception Committee led by His Excellency Balambras Mahetheme Sellassie, Minister of public Works of the Ethiopian Government; and a Secretariat with His Excellency Ato Abeba Retta, Minister of public Health of the Ethiopian Government, as Secretary General. These Committees, in cooperation with the staff of the Theological College of the Holy Trinity and persons like the Reverend Father T. Paul Verghese of the World Council of churches, did the work assigned to them during the several months preceding the conference.
In conclusion with the Heads of Churches, the program Committee prepared a tentative list of subjects to be discussed by the conference. Besides, this Committee arranged for the convening of a preparatory consolation by group of two theologians each deputed by every church to work out the “Schema” as a basis of discussion at the subsequent Conference of the Heads of Churches.
PREPARATORY CONSULTATION OF THEOLOGIANS
This was held during January 7-14, 1965 in one of the Committee Rooms of the Africa hall. With solemn prayer and an address of welcome delivered by his Grace Abuna Philipos, Archbishop of Jerusalem, representing the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, the work of the committee of theologians formally began at 11 a.m. on January 7, 1965. it was attended by delegates of all the five Churches, the Secretary General, and other officers of the Conference. The meeting elected His Grace Abuna Philipos, representing the host Church, to be its permanent chairman, and every session was presided over by a delegate of each Church who was chosen by a principle of rotation. Each of these sessions began and concluded its work with prayer led by every member of the Committee also by rotation.
Held behind closed doors, this consultation was indeed a great success and an unforgettable experience for those who took part in it. After long discussions carried on in a spirit of frankness and cordiality on the basis of the tentative list of subjects which the program Committee had prepared these theologians unanimously recommended the “Schema” for the Conference of the Heads. A summary of the discussion is preserved in the short notes taken down by two recording secretaries, whose services had been graciously lent by the World Council of churches. Besides, the Committee had its official findings drafted by a body of three persons elected from among its membership. These findings were finally approved by a committee with necessary modification in order that they may be presented to the conference. The “Schema” thus proposed by the group of theologians to be submitted for deliberation by the conference consisted of forty paragraphs dealing with the following subjects: – I. The Modern World and our churches; II. Cooperation in Theological Education; III. Cooperation in Evangelism; IV. Our Relation with other churches; V. Instituting Machinery for the Maintenance of permanent Relations: and VI. A Statement on Peace and Justice in the world.
THE CONFERENCE OF THE HEADS OF CHURCHES
The conference had its sessions from January 15-21, 1965. The Heads with delegates other than those who had taken part in the preparatory consultation had arrived by plane on January 14th. They were received at the airport by His Imperial Majesty in person and high-ranking dignitaries of both the church and the state. Besides, there was a very larger gathering of people at the airport to accord a cordial welcome to the holy Fathers on their arrival. They were also given a special reception at the cathedral of the Holy Trinity in accordance with the tradition of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. The Reception Committee had made all the necessary arrangements for the comfortable stay of these most venerable guests in Addis Ababa.
The Conference was inaugurated at 11a.m. on January 15th in the context of a short service of prayer. The rotunda of the Africa Hall had been reserved for the delegates and all the seats in the gallery were occupied by invited guests. On rostrum seats were arranged for the Heads of the Churches following the ancient tradition of precedence, and a bible placed on a beautifully decorated table remained at the center of the hall in front of these seats. At this inauguration ceremony, the place reserved for the Patriarch of Alexandria remained vacant, as His Holiness Anba Kyrillos pope of Alexandria and Patriarch of the see of St. Mark arrived only two days later. The conference was declared open by Emperor Haile Sellassie I as the host, who delivered the inaugural address, welcoming the guests and expressing his unbounded joy in the great event signified by the conference. Following him, two of the Heads, namely His Holiness Moran Mar Ignatius Yacub III, Patriarch of Antioch and all the East, and His Holiness Vasken I, Supreme Catholicos and Patriarch of the Armenian Orthodox Church, also spoke thanking the Emperor and wishing the Conference every success.
The inaugural ceremony was followed by the regular sessions of the Conference, two sittings each day, expect on 17th January which was a Sunday. Attended only by the Heads and delegates with the officers of the conference, these sessions were also held behind closed doors. Each session began and concluded its program of work with prayer led by one of the Heads, and in response to a unanimous request of the conference His Excellency Ato Abeba Retta, the Secretary General assumed the role of the Moderator, and Ato Aberra Jembere served as the General Secretary. During these sessions, the recommendations of the committee of theologians were read in the context of a very lively discussion of the issues raised in them. As at the preparatory consultation of theologians, the discussion, and a body of five persons was appointed to draft the findings. These men did the work assigned to them and the statements which necessary alterations, as its decisions.
The conference came to a close on January 21st. At 4 p.m. on that day the concluding session was held in the presence of a large gathering of people. On this occasion also the Emperor delivered an address, following by speeches by all the Heads of Churches. This closing session most solemnly conferred on His Imperial Majesty Haile Sellassie I the title of “the Defender of Faith”, and placed on record the feeling of sincere gratitude towards all those who worked for the success of the decisions approved by the Conference.
A PROBLEM IN THE ARMENIAN ORTHODOX CHURCH
Although this was a Conference of the Heads of five Churches, the Heads and delegates of the Armenian Orthodox Church expressed their inability to participate in it fully, because of certain internal difficulties of administration which they were facing between the Supreme Catholicos of Etchmidzin and the Catholicos of the Great House of Cecilia. So at the closed sessions of the Conference the Armenian Orthodox church was represented only by observers, and neither of the Catholicos of the Armenian Orthodox Church signed the decisions at the conclusion of the conference. We are happy to note, however, that His Holiness Khoren I, Catholicos of the Great House of Cecilia, has subsequently signified his willingness to be considered a full participant of the Conference. We hope and pray that the Armenian Orthodox Church will be se guided by the Holy Spirit that will join fully with its sister Churches.
A WORD IN CONCLUSION
Following its adjournment, the standing Committee appointed by the Conference had several meetings, in which a number of decisions have been made with a view to follow-up the work of the Conference. It should also be noted that in response to the request of the Conference, the Ethiopian Orthodox Church soon set up the interim Secretariat in Addis Ababa with Ato Seifu Metaferia as its Secretary General. In this way, the work which the Conference aimed to accomplish is being carried on.
We pray God to shower His unceasing blessings on these churches, and guide them by His Holy Spirit that they may become effective witnesses of the redeeming work of Jesus Christ.