The Second Mega-Conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association

The Second Mega-Conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association

The Second Mega-Conference of the International Orthodox Theological Association (IOTA) was held in Volos, Greece on 11-15 January 2023, co-hosted by the Metropolis of Demetrias and the Volos Academy for Theological Studies. The overarching theme of the conference was ‘Mission and the Orthodox Church’. Once again—as at the inaugural Mega Conference in Iasi, Romania in January 2019—St Andrew’s was represented. Founded in 2017, in response to the 2016 Holy and Great Synod’s call for Orthodox unity, IOTA was established as a community of scholars dedicated to: a) promoting an international exchange of knowledge within the context of the Orthodox tradition; b) supporting pan-Orthodox unity and conciliarity; c) and contributing to the growth and renewal of the Orthodox tradition.

The 2023 Conference brought together scholars, both men and women from different teaching institutions around the world, including Europe, the United States of America, Australia, as well as Asia, South America and Africa. There were over 400 participants representing approximately 49 countries and there were over 350 papers presented. More specifically, participants included amongst others: Hierarchs (a total number of 8: 7 Eastern Orthodox and one Oriental Orthodox), heads and faculty of Orthodox seminaries and institutions, professors of non-Orthodox universities, priests and theologians serving in mission, religious education and publishing, together with scholars from other disciplines interested in the dialogue between their respective fields of expertise (including the social sciences, human rights and social justice) and theology. The gathering comprised a wonderful mix of the intellectual, liturgical and spiritual aspects of the Orthodox tradition. 

The Conference formally opened with a Vespers Service at the Church of St Constantine and Helen at the port of Volos. Indeed, over the three days, morning and evening worship was offered on a daily basis—a strong reminder that the genuine atmosphere in which genuine theology is undertaken is prayer and doxology. In his opening greeting, Metropolitan Ignatios of Demetrias noted the following: “The conference is taking place at a time identified with the war in Ukraine, the pandemic, the climate crisis, social inequalities, an outbreak of fundamentalism and a self-ruled laicism, phenomena to which Orthodoxy is called to proclaim the Gospel of Christ. Orthodoxy, deeply wounded by nationalist divisions and expansionist tendencies of some Churches, is called to find the strength to withstand and respond to these present challenges, offering a word of hope.” At another point of his greeting, His Eminence continued: “as a prophetic and critical voice of the Church, theology needs to give answers to the questions that the world is posing today, and which are very often different from those of the past.” The Metropolitan expressed his hope that all that would be said in the following days would be nurtured by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Later that evening, in his opening greeting—which took place at the Volos Academy—IOTA’s President, Prof. Paul Gavrilyuk said: “IOTA is about the worldwide exchange of knowledge within the context of the Orthodox tradition; it is about tearing down the jurisdictional walls that we erected in our collective imagination in order to encounter each other in the freedom of Christian discipleship; it is about breaking out of the silos of specific academic disciplines in order to reflect on the most difficult questions of today with a view of the transformation of culture by the power of the Gospel; finally, it is a place where all Orthodox Christians and our ecumenical friends can have a taste of ‘conciliarity from below’.”

The keynote speaker of the conference, His Eminence Metropolitan Ambrosios of Korea, spoke boldly about the heresy of ethnophylitism calling it “an unspeakable travesty” which has not only given rise to decades of bitter division within the family of autocephalous Orthodox Churches, but also and most recently instigated Russia’s baseless invasion of Ukraine. “We cannot even say” said His Eminence “that this is a war driven by politicians”; he further lamented that “so few of our Church leaders have actually taken a public anti-war stance.” Much of the Metropolitan’s paper outlined the tragic effects of division caused by the Moscow Patriarchate’s expansionist ideology which has resulted in the latter’s establishment of Churches in other ecclesiastical jurisdictions such as the Orthodox Churches belonging to the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Korea and the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Amongst others things, he noted: “let us clearly denounce ethnophylitism in Orthodoxy, let us take a stance against all those anti-canonical actions which take place today by the Patriarchate of Moscow in the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Alexandria. Let us send a message of support to each person who continues to suffer from the catastrophic war against Ukraine, not with political criteria, but with meticulously theological and spiritual criteria… let us underscore that we are neither with NATO nor with Putin, but only with Christ.” His Eminence’s address received a standing ovation by all those in attendance. Following this, there was the conference’s opening banquet and agape meal, sponsored by the Metropolis of Demetrias.

Whilst the overarching theme of the Conference was on mission in the Orthodox Church, the range of papers presented was quite broad, from theological topics surrounding a range of disciplines—including biblical studies, canon law, dogmatic theology, ecclesiology, ecumenical dialogue, Orthodox chant, the Liturgy, theological education, deification etc—and modern challenges facing the Church, such as issues surrounding the care of creation, religious nationalism, the politics of identity, biomedical issues, law and legality in Orthodox Christian ethics, foundations of Orthodox sexual ethics, women and the mission of the Orthodox Church (35 years after Rhodes). Lastly there were also sessions especially dedicated to the war in Ukraine, the Church and the pandemic, and the document, For the Life of the World: Towards a Social Ethos of the Orthodox Church. The conference was nothing short of a scholarly and spiritual feast with topics covering many facets of the Orthodox Church.

St Andrew’s Theological College was visibly present in the following sessions:

  1. Theological Education in the 21st century, chaired by Philip Kariatlis at which the following schools were represented together with St Andrew’s:
    a. V. Revd Prof. Chad Hatfield(President), St Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary;
    b. Revd A/Prof. Bassam Nassif, St John of Damascus Institute of Theology, Balamand University;
    c. Revd Dr Michael Bakker, St Irenaeus Orthodox Theological Institute (Netherlands);
    d. Prof. Aristotle Papanikolaou, Orthodox Christian Studies Centre, Fordham University;
    e. Revd Dr Dragos Herescu, (Principal), Institute for Orthodox Christian Studies, Cambridge
    f. Dr Ioannis Kaminis, Volos Academy for Theological Studies.

All panel members were given the opportunity to introduce their Schools, outlining the mission, vision, student profile etc if their institutions. Moreover, questions pertaining to the way that theological institutions understood theological education in terms of mission, the theological premises that inform the Schools’ vision of theological education prompted much discussion and dialogue amongst the presenters. In this roundtable discussion, not only were commonalities identified together with existent and impending threats in light of the contemporary context, but there was collective emphasis placed upon identifying opportunities for better co-operation amongst the Schools. At the Leaders Forum, at which St Andrew’s was also represented, a suggestion was put forward that a common portal be established where Orthodox theologians/scholars belonging to accredited tertiary institutions from all around the world could present their latest research for mutual enrichment.

2. Philip Kariatlis was chosen—one of 24 presenters selected by the Officers of the Conference to present a paper which was recorded in collaboration with the Eagle River Institute (in Alaska) and will appear on the IOTA website, in this clearly showcasing the College. The paper was titled “Theology and Life: From Hollow Information to Joy-Filled Transformation”.

3. Co-Labouers Session, chaired by Philip Kariatlis at which 12 Theological Institutions/Associations presented the work of their respective groups. The institutions and associations which presented included:

a. Prof. Dimitrios Moschos, Department of Theology, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens;
b. Dr Kristina Stoeckl, European Academy of Religion;
c. Dr Teva Regule, Orthodox Theological Society in America;
d. V.Revd. Prof. Cyril Hovorun, Huffington Ecumenical Institute;
e. Dr Ralph Lee, Lausanne Orthodox Initiative;
f. Dr Georgi Khuroshvili, New Georgian University;
g. Dr Gayle Woloschak, Orthodox Association of Medicine, Psychology and Religion;
h. Mr George Matsoukas, Orthodox Christian Laity;
i. Revd Dr Michael Bakker, St Irenaeus Theological Institute;
j. Ms Ann Marie Mecera, St Phoebe Center for the Deaconess;
k. A/Prof. Andrian Alexandrov, Faculty of Theology at the University of Sofia ‘St Kiment of Ohrid’.

4.Contemporary Challenges in Seminary Education, chaired by Philip Kariatlis who spoke on the ‘Mystagogical Nature of Theological Education’. The two speakers of this session included:

a. Revd Dr John Parker (Dean), St Tikhons Orthodox Theologiacal Seminary;
b. Revd Dr John Njoroge Ngige (Kenya), Kenya Methodist University

Beyond the papers presented, a number of excursions and pilgrimages were also organised—one at Makrinitsa, Mt Pelion, and another to the monasteries of Meteora—together with several book exhibitions. Overall, the scholars’ conference was a success: not only in that it brought together such a large number of Orthodox Church leaders, scholars, theologians and professionals—indeed, an unprecedented number in the history of modern Orthodoxy—but also in the contribution that the papers will make as they become available in different publications in the years ahead. All Chairs of the different sessions expressed their hope that future such gatherings will continue in service of the Church as the conference provided opportunity for a rich and genuine exchange of ideas within the diverse landscape of the Orthodox tradition.

Personally, the forging of new friendships for the good of the College into the future was especially valued.

It was announced that the next Mega Conference, scheduled for 2027, will take place in Georgia. Before that, in 2025, to mark the 1700 year anniversary since the convocation of what came to be known as the First Ecumenical Council in Nicaea, IOTA will organise, at the invitation of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, a conference which will explore the contemporary challenges associated with confessing Christ as the Son of God and Saviour.