Georges Lemopoulos looks back on 30 years with World Council of Churches
29 June 2016
by Kristine Greenaway
Georges “Yorgo” Lemopoulos says his discovery of global ecumenism as a theology student in Istanbul, Turkey, transformed his life.
The member of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople credits theology professors who were active in ecumenical work with awakening his interest in the global church movement.
“The professors at Chalki-Istanbul School of Theology in the mid-sixties were very active in the ecumenical movement and would integrate stories of ecumenical events into our courses,” Lemopoulos says.
Inspired by their stories, the young Greek student from Turkey embarked on the path that led to a 30-year career with the World Council of Churches.
Following studies at the Ecumenical Institute in Bossey, Switzerland, and a stint as a youth intern with WCC’s Department of Religious Education, where he focused on Christian education in the Orthodox churches, the budding ecumenist had the chance to work as a steward at the WCC Assembly held 1975 in Nairobi, Kenya.
In 1987, after twelve years at the Orthodox Centre in Chambesy, Switzerland, Lemopoulos joined the staff of the World Council of Churches’ Commission for World Mission and Evangelism as Secretary for Orthodox Studies and Relations. He was appointed WCC Deputy General Secretary in 1999.
Now the lifelong ecumenist is preparing to retire. In conversation at the conclusion of the recent meeting of the WCC Central Committee in Trondheim, Norway, Lemopoulos looked back over a career in service to the ecumenical movement.
Several initiatives stand out as highlights, he says. These include the process at the end of the 1990s that led to a renewed understanding of the role of the WCC in global ecumenism. After intense discussions and reflection, member churches agreed to a common understanding and vision. It was recognized that WCC was no longer the unique, privileged instrument of the ecumenical movement but rather was operating in the midst of a “polycentric movement.” This has opened the way to new forms of cooperation with ecumenical partners.
At the same time, the council entered into prolonged and intensive discussions between its Orthodox and non-Orthodox members in order to better understand how they could co-exist and cooperate within the same fellowship of churches. The process led to transformation within the WCC that can be seen, for example, in a mutually agreed understanding of fellowship and the adoption of the consensus model of decision-making, Lemopoulos says.
The process of developing the framework for WCC’s Decade of the Churches in Solidarity with Women and Men (1988-1998) marks another highlight.
“We mobilized all our forces to come at it from all directions and reached a meaningful process,” Lemopoulos remembers.
It is this ability to bring together a wide range of people around one table to discuss vital church issues that is the strength of WCC, Lemopoulos believes.
“We are uniquely situated to bring Orthodox, Anglican, Protestant, Pentecostal and evangelical churches together from the North, South, East and West,” he says.“No other organization has this possibility.”
The Deputy General Secretary has never forgotten his early commitment to education. The Ecumenical Institute at Bossey still has a special place in his heart.
“It was Bossey that signalled the need for bringing together young students from various ecclesial backgrounds. Today, italso brings people from various religious traditions to live and study together,” he says with pride.
Looking to the future, Lemopoulos says he is certain that the WCC has the capacity and possibilities of pointing to new areas of work, important issues and vital debates.
“This meeting of the Central Committee formally opens a new page for churches dealing more systematically with children’s rights, human dignity, and health issues in cooperation with United Nations agencies. In this work the council amplifies the voice of the churches and adds dimension and value to the debates,” Lemopoulos says. “The Pilgrimage for Justice and Peace and all these new areas of work bring WCC back to its original purpose – Christian witness to the world and ultimately, our unity.”
In a heartfelt note of thanks, Lemopoulos expressed his gratitude to Father Georges Tsetsis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Tsetsis has been Lemopoulos’ guide and advisor since they met when Lemopoulos was a child in Tsetsis’ catechism class in Turkey. Later, they worked together for years in the ecumenical movement.
“Father Tsetsis has been a precious colleague, advisor, friend and spiritual advisor,” Lemopoulos says.
This is something that many say of the Deputy General Secretary himself. Over the years colleagues and representatives of member churches have found guidance and wisdom from this man whose counsel is the fruit of listening and learning along the many paths that his venture into global ecumenism opened to him.