In memoriam: Paulos Mar Gregorios
Paul Abrecht

Metropolitan Paulos Mar Gregorios (earlier Paul Verghese) was an ecclesiastic of one of the ancient churches of Christendom who sought to relate his own oriental Orthodox theological heritage to the demands of the ecumenical movement and to the challenge of rapid political and social change. That difference helps to explain the disagreements on social ethical issues which often divided these two Indian Christians in their respective roles within the WCC and the broader ecumenical movement.

Father Paul began his international ecumenical career in 1962 when he was appointed associate general secretary of the WCC and director of the division on ecumenical action, which grouped together all ecumenical work with the laity. After training for the priesthood, he had studied theology and philosophy in North America and Europe and was a gifted linguist and biblical scholar. He was also deeply interested in the situation of the church in Eastern Europe and in Africa, where he had served for three years as a private secretary to the Ethiopian emperor Haile Selassie. As the first Orthodox theologian on the WCC staff, he was much sought after as a leader of Bible study, especially with lay persons. His biblical studies for the section on international issues of peace and war at the 1966 Geneva conference on church and society left a deep and lasting impression on the 100 or so Christian political and economic leaders in the group.

Paul Verghese left the WCC staff in 1967 to become principal of his church's theological seminary in Kottayam. In this capacity he represented the Syrian Orthodox Church of Malabar as a delegate to the WCC's fourth assembly (Uppsala 1968) and subsequent assemblies up to Canberra 1991. Named metropolitan of New Delhi in 1974, he became a member of the WCC central and executive committees from 1975 to 1983 then was elected a WCC president from 1983 to 1991.

A forceful and often acerbic speaker, he sometimes stimulated and annoyed his audiences in about equal proportions. He was not neutral between East and West -- he was anti-West: for its racism and for its conservative political-economic influence on world social and economic development. Some mistook his concern for the church in the Soviet Union and his participation in the Prague-based (and Soviet-influenced) Christian Peace Conference as a sign of a pro-communist stance. But he joined the majority of the executive committee in voting for a statement that was sharply critical of the USSR when it invaded Afghanistan in 1980.

In these ideological and political matters Metropolitan Gregorios often differed fundamentally from M.M. Thomas, who was also an Indian nationalist critical of the West and an advocate of radical social change, but was deeply committed to the essential values of Western democracy and freedom and an opponent of all forms of totalitarianism in both East and West. The differences between these two Indian ecumenists emerged publicly in 1975-76, in their opposing responses to the "amended maintenance of internal security act" which empowered Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi to detain without trial and deny other judicial remedies to people arrested on political grounds. M. M. was one of the leaders of a strong Christian protest in this period of "national emergency", while Gregorios became a leader of a group which approved the emergency measures. He took this position not only as evidence of the loyalty of the Christian minority community to the Congress Party and to Indira Gandhi, but also because of his conviction that excessive freedom had become a hindrance to economic development and social justice in India. The WCC through both general secretary Philip Potter and the Commission of the Churches on International Affairs, fully supported the position of those opposing Mrs Gandhi's action, despite the fact that Gregorios was then a member of both the central and executive committees.

Despite these differences, in 1976, by action of the central committee, Gregorios was made moderator of the working committee on Church and Society and thus leader of the preparations for the world conference on "Faith, Science and the Future", convened at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1979. With more than 400 official participants and an additional 500 press and invited guests, this was undoubtedly one of the most significant WCC-sponsored encounters of the 1970s, and the metropolitan responded to the challenge brilliantly: as chairman of the conference he captivated the assembled scientists and technologists and the MIT community by his understanding of the social ethical problems in their disciplines. Undoubtedly it was one of his greatest contributions to the life and work of the WCC and to the witness of the ecumenical movement in the contemporary world.

Paul Abrecht was director of church and society for the WCC from 1949.

(From: The Ecumenical Review, Jan 1997 V. 49, No. 1,  p. 110)