Behind the Faces - TsetsisBehind the Faces - Tsetsis

The great Orthodox Church, so visible in Eastern and Southern Europe remains something of a mystery to many from the Northern part of the continent. One person who has striven passionately to reveal and interpret Orthodoxy to the wider ecumenical movement is George Tsetsis.

Father George, as he is affectionately known in the Geneva based ecumenical organizations is a priest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Born in Istanbul, from an ancient Greek-Byzantine family, George studied for the priesthood at the Halki seminary in Istanbul. Before ordination however, he suffered a serious illness and was sent to Switzerland, under the auspices of the World Council of Churches (WCC), for rest and recuperation.

While in Geneva he attended one of the graduate schools at the Ecumenical Institute at Bossey, but perhaps more importantly met his future wife, Jacqueline. He returned to Istanbul to be followed closely by Jacqueline, where they were married; a marriage from which emerged his family of two children and four grand children (equally divided between the sexes, Father George points out).

On the orders of the Patriarch he began a move that would have seen him take up parish duties at a newly established church in Basel, Switzerland. A stop off to see in-laws however included a visit to the WCC where he was greeted by the comment “Oh, you’re here already!” It turned out that the Middle East Secretary of the WCC’s Commission on Inter-Church Aid, Refugee and World Service (CICARWS), Mr Christopher King was in Istanbul to request the Patriarch to release Father George to become his assistant in Geneva. And so began his 20-year long service as a staff member of the WCC.

In 1979 Father George was appointed as the Deputy Director of CICARWS and took on the additional role as the Pacific Secretary, surely one of the most engaging of appointments. For the people of the Pacific islands the sight of an Orthodox priest was unusual in the extreme but with his charismatic character and openness of approach Father George earned respect, admiration and praise.

As Deputy Director, and twice Interim Director of CICARWS, Father George’s clear and resolute mind ensured that service to both the giving and receiving churches was consistent, worthwhile and prophetic.

Through the years Father George rose in rank in his church until, as a married priest, he could go no further up the hierarchical tree. But in recognition of his commitment to the oikumene and to his years of faithful service to his church, an ancient title was reinvented by the Patriarch and the humble Father George was given the title of Grand Proto-Presbyter, a position that can be held only by one person at a time and is given for life.

In 1985 on leaving the staff of the WCC, Father George took another step in his distinguished career – although he would not call it a career but a calling – as he was appointed as the Permanent Representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to the WCC and, of course, to CEC. In the 15 years that he held this position he was elected both to the Central Committee of the WCC and also served on the WCC’s Executive Committee.

Father George has also played a significant role in the life of CEC while the Permanent representative and indeed since his retirement from that position. He was influential in all three ecumenical assemblies – Basel 1989, Graz 1997, and Sibiu 2007, as well attending all the CEC Assemblies since Prague 1992.

While there have been many highlights in his ecumenical career, for some he will best be remembered for the distinctive part that he played in the preparation and execution of the worship services at the WCC’s Vancouver Assembly in 1983. There, many elements of Orthodox worship were introduced into ecumenical worship for the first time. That worship experience remains one of the highlights of the ecumenical movement.

One of the delights of working with Father George is his openness and understanding of others’ positions. He puts this down to the fact that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is, in its home See of Istanbul, a minority faith within an ocean of Islam. Others might also say that the greater understanding of Orthodoxy today is due in no small measure to the interpretative role played by Grand Proto-Presbyter George Tsetsis.

By Robin Gurney