For the next nine days, a Great and Holy Council of the Eastern Orthodox Church will convene, starting today with the arrival of the official delegations at the Orthodox Academy of Crete in Greece. The Council’s main accomplishment, if ongoing disagreements could have been resolved, would have been the convocation of the fourteen autocephalous (independent, nation-based) Orthodox churches. Orthodoxy claims, with respect to ecumenical relations, that one of its charisms (holy gifts) is synodality—the ecumenical participation of the autocephalous churches in the governance of the Church as a whole. The convening of the long-awaited Council and a practical demonstration of ecumenicity will increase the credibility of that claim.
The last ecumenical Council was Nicaea II in 787. The schisms that divided Christianity in the second millennium have made it impossible to arrange for another ecumenical council. As a result, the Orthodox can only convene a pan-Orthodox Council. Many factors have hampered organizing such a Council.
With the fall of the Byzantine Empire and the Ottoman occupation of the Balkans, gathering a Pan-Orthodox Council became practically impossible. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Orthodox Churches in Eastern Europe became enthralled with the nationalist ideals that accompanied the formation of independent states, so their commitments ran counter to pan-Orthodoxy.
The early twentieth century marked the beginning of Communist persecution. Militant atheistic regimes considered the churches of Constantinople and Greece as instruments of Western propaganda, forcing Orthodox churches into a divide along the Iron Curtain.
And yet, a long-standing desire for a pan-Orthodox Council gained new energy in 1961, at a time when the Catholic Church was preparing for its Second Vatican Council. The Great and Holy Council’s agenda has been set since 1976 and most of its working documents have been approved since 1986, but several procedural difficulties stood in the way of its convocation until recently. Since the preparatory process was so lengthy, an Inter-Orthodox Committee reevaluated all previous agreements. The resulting preconciliar documents, made public in January 2016, address six major topics:
- The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World;
- The Orthodox Diaspora;
- Autonomy and the Means by Which It Is Proclaimed;
- The Sacrament of Marriage and Its Impediments;
- The Importance of Fasting and Its Observance Today; and
- Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World.
Though all of the autocephalous Orthodox churches have invested decades in its planning, it remains uncertain which of the fourteen will attend the Council. A few weeks ago, the churches of Antioch and Georgia expressed reservations towards the document on Marriage; the church of Georgia has reservations about the document on Mission and has essentially rejected the document on Ecumenism; Antioch and Jerusalem do not have eucharistic communion because of territorial disputes; and the churches of Bulgaria and Serbia have threatened to withdraw from the Council unless significant procedural changes take place and the documents on Mission and Ecumenism are significantly changed.
The same documents on Mission and Ecumenism raise challenges for the church of Greece (which will attend the Council) and the monks at Mount Athos, the latter threatening schism unless these documents undergo significant changes—in particular they insist that all references to non-Orthodox Christian communities as “churches” be removed.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate has responded that the Council will take place as agreed and that all the disagreements can be addressed at the Council itself, a position echoed by the churches of Alexandria, Romania, Cyprus, and Albania. However, the churches of Russia, Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Serbia insist that if these obstacles remain, the Council should be postponed. In fact, Russia, Antioch, Bulgaria, and Georgia have, for all practical purposes, already withdrawn from the Council.
Clearly, the churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Romania, Cyprus, and Albania regard a council as a place where disagreements can be resolved; for them, the absence of some churches does not diminish the authority of the Council. In contrast, for the churches of Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia, and Russia, a council is a place reserved for ceremonial approval of previous agreements; for them, the absence of even a single church robs the council of its authority.
When the Council was announced in 2014, the Moscow Patriarchate insisted on adding the phrase, “unless something unforeseen happens.” As the Council is about to begin, this phrase is becoming more and more dreaded. Unanimous participation could have been the Council’s main accomplishment, but its convocation despite significant difficulties has become one of its principal merits.
The absence of some of the autocephalous churches should not lead to the postponement of the Council. On the contrary, forward-looking churches now have an opportunity to gather synodally and amend previous agreements in ways that move Orthodoxy forward, unhampered by compromises with the so-called “traditionalists” who have consistently undermined the conciliar process.
From an ecumenical perspective, moving forward with the Pan-Orthodox Council confirms synodality as an Orthodox ecumenical charism. On a national scale, all major decisions are taken synodally, national synods are convened regularly, synods do not impinge on the authority of the local bishops, and in most of the autocephalous churches the laity participates in decision-making. In these ways, Orthodoxy brings synodality as its gift to ecumenical dialogue. On a worldwide scale, however, Orthodoxy has been unable to express its synodal character fully for the historical reasons mentioned earlier.
In the current climate, the convocation of the Pan-Orthodox Council is ecumenically significant, especially given that non-Orthodox observers are present to witness synodality as an Orthodox ecumenical charism (for example, the Vatican has appointed two observers to the Council: Cardinal Kurt Koch and Bishop Brian Farrell— president and secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, respectively).
The Pre-Conciliar document on Ecumenism, entitled, Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, has already generated responses from leading Orthodox theologians (see “References” below). The document affirms the commitment of all local Orthodox churches to dialogue (7), recognizes the existence of a certain “hierarchy of challenges” (12), refers to non-Orthodox Christian communities as Churches (6, 16, 20), and criticizes anti-ecumenical elements within Orthodoxy (22).
Still, the document has its deficiencies. For example, it does not define clearly the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the entire Church of Christ—an issue that is now front and center in the discussion as to whether non-Orthodox are truly Churches (most scholars are appalled that so-called “traditionalists” are raising this question since there is a continuous Orthodox tradition of referring to fellow Christian communities as Churches).
The document on Ecumenism does not acknowledge the suffering that disunity causes to the Orthodox faithful and the ways in which Orthodoxy benefits from being engaged in ecumenism; rather, the document unilaterally highlights the contribution of Orthodoxy to the cause of Christian unity. It also does not address practical aspects of ecumenism such as Christians ministering together to the world or persecuted Christians transcending divisions in what has been labeled, “ecumenism behind bars.”
Ideally, in its revised version, the document on Ecumenism will include an acknowledgment of the ecumenical progress in Orthodoxy’s relations with the Catholic Church (e.g. Filioque is no longer a church-dividing issue) and with the Oriental Orthodox churches (e.g. differences are not theological, but terminological). There is already an informal, localized, inter-communion between some Eastern and Oriental Orthodox, and formalizing this agreement would be the ultimate step towards unity.
The Great and Holy Council has the potential to pave the way for further ecumenical progress. The next nine days will determine whether it rises to the challenge.
All documents pre-approved in preparatory commissions as well as other useful information about the Council: https://www.orthodoxcouncil.org/decisions.
The Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council is published online by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University at https://publicorthodoxy.org.
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Radu Bordeianu, is an associate professor at Duquesne University and an Orthodox priest. His research focuses on ecumenical ecclesiologies—especially the dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic Churches—the relationship between the Trinity and the Church, theology of creation, and environmental issues. He is the author of Dumitru Staniloae: An Ecumenical Ecclesiology (Continuum, 2011). He has served as President of the Orthodox Theological Society of America and is a co-convener of Christian-Jewish Dialogue in Pittsburgh.
(This article was published on June 16, 2016, in Sightings.