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Doctoral defense of Evangelos Thiani, MDiv, 18 May 2024: Diakonia is a fundamental part of traditional Orthodox theology that has been ignored – The study of Transformative Philanthropic-diakonia of the African Orthodox Church of Kenya

The doctoral dissertation in the field of Practical Theology (Orthodox Theology) will be examined at the Philosophical Faculty at Joensuu campus.

What is the topic of your doctoral research? Why is it important to study the topic?

This study is about the social transformative diakonia of the African Orthodox Church of Kenya (AOCK). Since 1929, the AOCK has been involved in considerable social transformational development in Kenya but has yet to receive the needed recognition or studies. For the first time, this study evaluates and documents the theology and practice of the philanthropic-diakonia of the AOCK from its formation to the present. The AOCK philanthropic-diakonia activities that this study involved itself with included the contribution of the AOCK to education, health, water, poverty reduction, social justice programs, feeding programs, microfinance programs, social protection projects, civil society activities like national governance, politics, social justice programs, anticorruption, and COVID-19 management in Kenya.

What are the key findings or observations of your doctoral research?

This study has proven that diakonia is not a Western Christian model borrowed into Orthodox theology but rather a fundamental part of traditional Orthodox theology and ecclesiology that needs to be addressed. Philanthropic-diakonia is, according to this study, not a matter of choice but a mandatory component of being a church and, thus, an activity that all Orthodox churches must be involved in. Further, the study has given rest to the binary terms philanthropy (used by the Orthodox) and diakonia (used ecumenically) by merging the two to form philanthropic-diakonia, a more robust and acceptable term ecumenically and in Orthodox theology. The study further broadens Orthodox theology of philanthropic-diakonia from the regularly known liturgy after the liturgy, missiological and patristic concepts, and further elucidates it from the Orthodox theology of anthropology, spirituality, salvation, and ecclesiology. In all this way, the history and theology of a young church like the AOCK have proven valuable to the Orthodox Church and its theology globally. At the same time, its contribution to social development for almost 100 years in Kenya, has been exposed.

How can the results of your doctoral research be utilized in practice?

Theological institutions and theologians involved in philanthropic-diakonia have been offered more contemporary and sound Orthodox theological materials for their studies, more so with an Orthodox and an African voice. Practical theology departments of the Orthodox Church have also been offered extra empirical and theological materials to use in their courses. The door is now widely opened for those interested in further studying the AOCK and Orthodox philanthropic-diakonia.

From this study, the Orthodox Church globally, particularly the AOCK, can also learn from the weaknesses, limitations, and tensions of how they have done philanthropic-diakonia in the past and improve on them through the given suggestions. Solutions like professionalizing philanthropic-diakonia to help align it with the mission of God and the mission of the church, eliminating all diaconal injustices, ending dependency tendencies through emphasizing contextual models and financial sustainability of church-run development activities, and managing proselytization are all aspects proposed to better the Orthodox social development globally.

What are the key research methods and materials used in your doctoral research?

This study used an interpretivist epistemology, a qualitative approach, and a practical public theology method in a descriptive single-case study design. The qualitative interviews and the literature used to collect data were analyzed using content analysis. Initially, the study was meant to be a monograph, but after my supervisors reviewed my research question, they realized several stories were to be told. Thus, the work ended up being a PhD by publications.

Is there something else about your doctoral dissertation you would like to share in the press release?

This study has made me want to study the AOCK further. During my doctoral research, I published on other aspects of the AOCK, including its history, ecumenical work, and its current predicament with the Russian Orthodox Church, which invaded the Orthodox Church of Africa in 2021. During the period of my defense, I will also give talks within the University and the church on this final aspect, seeking to unveil why the Russian Church's invasion of Africa happened and the political and ecclesial reasons behind it.

If your doctoral dissertation consists of several articles, when was the most recent article published/will be published (estimate)?

The first three articles used in this research were published between 2020 and 2021, and the final one shall be published this year. The last published was a co-authored work by Stephanie Dietrich and Evangelos Thiani in 2021 named “Diaconia and the Church: Towards a Diaconal Ecclesiology. Reflections from Orthodox and Protestant Perspectives”, 81–94 in Godwin Ampony,Martin Büscher, Beate Hofmann, Félicité Ngnintedem, Dennis Solon, & Dietrich Werner (editors). International Handbook on Ecumenical Diaconia: Contextual Theologies of Diaconia and Christian Social Services. Oxford: Regnum Books.

Doctoral defence
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