The not-so ‘Great Council of the Orthodox Church’, why we were not there

Since at least the early 1960’s Orthodox leaders have been discussing plans to convene a global council of the Church.  Today, the Orthodox Church is made up of fourteen autocephalous or independent, self-governing local churches each with exclusive jurisdiction within a specific geographic territory and with a corresponding ethnic identity.   Nine of these churches are headed by Patriarchs.  These autonomous Churches all profess the same Orthodox Christian Faith.  They all share the same theology. With slight variations, they hold in common the same Liturgical practices and discipline. Collectively, the fourteen churches form a confraternity known as The Orthodox Church. 

            The original idea was for representatives of each local church to gather at the same time in one place to discuss concerns affecting the lives of Orthodox Christians in the modern era.  Over the years, representatives proposed and revised numerous agendas.  Last year, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople [Istanbul, Turkey] in his capacity as the Ecumenical Patriarch of the Orthodox Church issued an agenda and called for a council to be convened in Istanbul beginning on Pentecost, 19 June 2016.  The venue was later changed to the island of Crete due to the Patriarchate of Moscow’s unwillingness to go to Istanbul while a state of hostility exists between Russia and Turkey.

            After consultation among the churches, five items were scheduled for discussion; the state of Orthodox Churches outside of their traditional homelands [i.e. Europe and America], the granting of independence to local churches, fasting customs, the nature of marriage and impediments and relations with other Christian churches.  It was hoped that consensus around these topics could be reached and that the council would present a document expressing the contemporary teaching of the Orthodox Church on these issues.  This was to be the first gathering of bishops from the entire Orthodox Church at council since the year 787.

            Councils of the Church have existed from the time of the Apostles and they have contributed greatly to her theology, teaching and discipline.  All in all, there have been dozens and dozens of councils.  Historically, the most common type of council is a local one convened to address concerns or resolve issues affecting the immediate community.  The earliest example of such a council is the Council of Jerusalem.

            The Council of Jerusalem was held around 50 AD.  The purpose of the meeting between some of the Apostles and their followers was to resolve a disagreement in Antioch over whether or not Christian converts needed to follow the Mosaic Law of the Jews.  St. Paul believed there was no such need and his view won out.  Accounts of the council are found in Acts of the Apostles; chapter 15 and in Galatians; chapter 2.  The Orthodox Church considers this council to be a prototype and forerunner of the later ecumenical councils.

            An ecumenical council is a conference of bishops assembled to discuss and settle matters of Church doctrine and practice in which those attending and voting represent the whole world (Gr. oikoumene) and which is later received and accepted by the whole Church as authentic teaching.  The Orthodox Church recognizes seven councils as ecumenical and their decisions and teachings are normative for all Orthodox Christians today.  The Creed, the Doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the repudiation of heresies, the formula for the date of Pascha, the use of Icons and the establishment of the traditional five Patriarchates [Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople and Jerusalem] are some of the decisions that came from these seven ecumenical councils. 

            All of the ecumenical councils were called by the Emperor of Rome [later Byzantium] in order to promote unity of faith among Christians in the Roman Empire.  The Emperor or his appointed representatives presided over all of these councils.  Council presidents have including Bishops from Western Europe, the Patriarchs of Antioch, Alexandria and Constantinople, an army general, and representatives of the Pope.  The council in Crete is being called by and presided over by Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople who sees himself as the ‘first among equals’ for all the bishops of the world. 

            The last ecumenical council, known as the Second Council of Nicaea, was convened at Nicaea (near modern-day Istanbul, Turkey) from 24 September to 23 October in the year 787 AD.  The council was called by Emperor Constantine VI and the Empress Irene.  It was presided over jointly by the Patriarch of Constantinople and representatives of the Pope of Rome.  The council defined the use of and proper veneration of Icons.  Three hundred and fifty bishops from throughout the Roman Empire participated.  Its decision is commemorated each year on the first Sunday of Lent, known as the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

            Since 787 there have been numerous regional councils called to address local concerns but there has never been another ecumenical council that is binding on all of the Orthodox Churches.  It is worth noting that since 787 neither the Emperor nor Church leaders called for a council to address such deleterious events as the rise of Islam, the Great Schism, the Crusades, the fall of the Byzantine Empire, the Protestant Reformation, the rise of Communism, global warfare and a whole host of other historic social upheavals that adversely affected the Church and society. 

            The global council convened at Crete from 16 to 27 June, 2016 was officially titled the “Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church”. It was intended to demonstrate the unity that exists among the fourteen independent churches who proclaim themselves to be the “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church”.  The expectation was that these churches who represent approximately 300 million believers world-wide could speak with one voice as the Church to the world on matters of relevance and concern. Sadly, the intended outcome of the gathering proved to be quite elusive even before the council opened. 

            In the days preceding the opening of the meeting, word came that the Patriarchate of Bulgaria and his delegation would not attend.  This church of 8.5 million believers objected to the way some pre-conciliar documents were presented and voted on, the seating arrangements, they wanted a round table with no one at the head, and the lack of timely and important topics on the agenda. The Patriarchate of Georgia, representing 3.6 million believers, objected to the document on ecumenical dialogue and relations with non-Orthodox churches which they consider to be too progressive.  They proposed an alternative document which was rejected, they decided not to attend. 

            The Patriarchate of Antioch, representing 1.5 million believers, did not sign the pre-conciliar document on marriage and objected to some preliminary procedures.  She did not attend the last pre-council preparatory meeting earlier this year in protest.  Most seriously, Antioch has broken communion with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem over the latter’s usurping of the parish in Qatar which is part of the historic territory of the Patriarchate of Antioch. The Patriarch of Jerusalem now claims his jurisdiction includes ‘all Arabia and Syria”. Appeals to the Ecumenical Patriarch to act in his capacity as ‘first among equals’ and adjudicate a viable solution to this issue have all failed.  Not being able to witness to the oneness of the Orthodox Church by celebrating the Divine Liturgy and sharing the Eucharist, the most visible sign of unity, at a council whose declared central theme is unity, with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem and his representatives, the Patriarch and the Holy Synod of the Church of Antioch regrettably decided not to attend.

            Finally, in the hours preceding the opening of the council, the Patriarchate of Moscow, representing 150 million believers opted not to participate.  Noting the absence of three of the nine Patriarchal Churches, Russia expressed her view that this council was just another preparatory session for a general synod of bishops of global Orthodoxy to be held in the future which will truly unite all the local churches.  During the pre-council preparations tension and rivalry became visible between Moscow, who sees herself as the ‘third Rome’ and the rightful heir to the historic leadership role in the Church, and Constantinople whose Patriarch personally spearheaded the drive for a council.

            After seventy devastating years of persecution under atheistic communism, the Patriarchate of Moscow has emerged as a strong and pivotal force in contemporary Russia.  Her close relationship with the Russian president and political elites has given her a geopolitical and religious gravitas unequaled in world Orthodoxy.  With her sheer numbers and with the power of the state behind her she appears vying to be ‘the’ voice of global Orthodoxy at the present time.  What she has to say and how her message might be received and by whom remains to be seen. 

            The ten churches left participating in the council will review and amend the pre-conciliar documents before presenting a final draft statement to be communicated to the entire church.  How it will be received is anyone’s guess.   The importance and weight of the council’s final decisions will be discussed and debated for a long time to come. 

            With the representatives of over half the Orthodox world boycotting the ‘Holy and Great Council’, chances of the council’s deliberations being universally received seems rather slim.  Unfortunately, the process towards the ‘council’ has revealed serious fragmentation and even deep seated division within the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’.  It seems a shame that after twelve hundred years plus, the Church was not able to meet as ‘one’ and dialogue frankly around the issues that divide her members. 

            In times past, councils were called to resolve differences that threatened the unity and mission of the Church.  Ironically, the call for and preparation process of this council in Crete has exposed serious breaches of unity within world Orthodoxy that grievously undermine her mission and effectively mute her voice.  Hopefully, there is a lesson to be learned in all this and at some point in the near future we may yet see a gathering of world Orthodoxy that truly brings together the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’.

Blessings, Fr. Timothy




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