The Holy and Great Council: Reflections from CEC President Rt Rev. Christopher Hill KCVO, DD

7 July, 2016

The Holy and Great Council: The Holy and Great Council: Reflections from CEC President Rt Rev. Christopher Hill KCVO, DD
7 July 2017
Photo: Natallia Vasilevich

Other Churches, not least members of CEC have been looking with profound interest and prayer at the planned Holy and Great Council of the 14 independent and autocephalous Orthodox Churches throughout the world which met in Crete from 20 -25 June.  It has been debated, argued over officially since at least 1961, but the germ of the idea goes back to the 1920s not least to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the important Pan Orthodox meeting on Mount Athos in 1933.  While it may not result in dramatic immediate developments it is the beginning of a global Orthodox synodical process which all Christians ought to be attentive to.

The last Council counted ‘Ecumenical’ by the Orthodox is that of Nicaea in 787, convened by a woman, the Empress Irene.  This council settled the controversy about the use of icons in worship by deciding that icons could be venerated with honour and respect, adoration being for God alone.  Since then Islamic rule, rupture with Western Christendom and the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe have made it impossible to convene a fully ecumenical council.  In any case the Orthodox only count a Council as ecumenical after it has been genuinely received over time and by the wider Church.  Nevertheless, there have been important local councils, for example in the 14th century and a very important council in 1872 which condemned the ‘love of ethnic identity’ above ecumenical communion among the Orthodox – the heresy of ‘ethno-phyletism’.  This is not just a historical point.  In the 20th and 21st centuries the Orthodox Churches have expanded through their diasporas throughout the world: in Western Europe, the USA, Canada and in Australia.  But there remain competing parallel jurisdictions.  This problem lies behind much of the ferment for the Council and last minute problems.  How does Orthodoxy respond to the culture(s) of the new world?  Is everything still to be determined by the past determination of theology and culture in Eastern and Southern Europe?  Sometimes in the past and even today intra-Orthodox disagreement on jurisdiction has been exacerbated by national governments.  The recent clashes between Turkey and Russia have meant that the originally planned venue of the Council in St Irene in Constantinople, the place of the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, was no longer prudent.  So the Council met at the Orthodox Academy in Crete instead.  Preparation for the Council has involved many levels of Church life but the final planning was done in 2016 by a ‘synaxis’ or assembly of the Primates of the churches (together with some other delegates) meeting at Chambesy, Geneva.

Nevertheless, inspite of the planning unexpected things can happen.  Two weeks before the Council the Bulgarian Orthodox Church announced it would not be attending after all, and then the Patriarchate of Antioch withdrew because of a dispute with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.  The Church of Georgia also declined.  On Monday (13 June) there was a special session of the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate.  It stressed that the Patriarchate had supported the proposals for a Council but it also noted the need not only for consensus but actual unanimity.  Without necessarily endorsing other problems it noted that some Churches had criticised the drafts texts on modernity and ecumenism.  But the absence of Bulgaria, Antioch and Georgia was stated to make the Council proper impossible for Russian participation and it called for a last minute postponement, further hinting that all bishops should be invited.

Meanwhile the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew had already stated (9 June) that a further pre-conciliar conference contradicted the agreement of the Assembly (Synaxis) of the Primates earlier this year authorising him to convene the Council.  Three days later (12 June) an open letter of Orthodox theologians from all the Churches including those now declining to attend was sent to Constantinople with no less than 1,000 signatures.  It stressed the urgent need for global conciliarity and argued that a Council is the best place to settle disputes.  Having already formally reiterated that the Council would go ahead the Ecumenical Patriarchate stood firm.

Not all bishops had been invited at attend the Council, each autocephalous church sent a delegation of 24 bishops, together with advisers, including a number of women theologians.  Voting was by church not individually by the delegated bishops.  Decisions required consensus, though how that was rightly discerned was debated.  As to the agenda, an early list proposed around 100 items!  Wisely, it was reduced to ten and then – after strong debate in the preparatory sessions to six.  These are: the Mission of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world; The Orthodox Diaspora; Autonomy (of the newer Orthodox Churches); Marriage Questions; Fasting Today; Ecumenical Relations.  Important questions knocked off the agenda include the question of a common Christian Easter.  Behind this and other tensions lies a debate within Orthodoxy which is familiar enough to other Christians, though in a different register: a conservative critique of modern western culture and the assertion that ‘western’ churches – and the ecumenical movement – have succumbed to the spirit of the age.  There is also, and related to this, an underlying intra-Orthodox debate between Constantinople and Moscow on jurisdictional questions in relation to the debate on the autonomy of newer churches.  The question of marriage (of course the Orthodox have always permitted canonical divorce) and fasting are also related to the impetus from the diaspora to relate in a new way to their culture, so different from the historical heartlands of Orthodoxy.  So also does the ecumenical agenda.  Six agenda items but a single underlying question: how does Orthodoxy respond to modernity?

So the Council duly began.  Its first working session started on Monday 20th June, preceded by the solemn liturgies of Orthodox Pentecost Sunday, the exact date of the beginning of the First Ecumenical Council in 325.  The Ecumenical Observers attended a liturgy at the Gonias Monastery close to the Academy presided over by Metropolitan John of Pergamon, better known to Anglicans as the theologian John Zizioulas.  It was incidentally the 30th anniversary of his episcopal ordination and he has been one of the prime theological movers supporting the initiative of a Council. The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew opened the formal sessions with a substantial theological and historical defence of the essential ‘synodality’ of the Church, even when for political reasons this had not been possible at the global level. He reported that renewed invitations had been sent to the four Orthodox Churches which had at the last minute changed their mind about attendance; Bulgaria, Georgia, Antioch and Russia. Antioch and Russia had replied that they were now bound by synodal decisions. Patriarch Bartholomew expressed perplexity  and sorrow as these churches , together with all the other autocephalous or independent churches had agreed to the convocation of the Council at a meeting of all the Primates in January. He reminded the delegates, that complete representation had never been absolutely necessary for a councils validity and that the urgency of reform made delay unacceptable.  It is clear the Council remained on course and would not be deferred by reason of last minute waverings. He cited Paul warning the Corinthians against the danger of saying: I have no need of you. The Patriarch touched briefly of the subjects of the Council: the problem of the world wide Orthodox diaspora, the need for consistency in ecumenical policy, and for the resolution of jurisdictional rivalries in the face of the need for mission. He was deeply aware the problems facing humanity; the environment (to which he has personally devoted huge energy), bio-ethical questions, mission and secularism, and war. The Orthodox were not indifferent to these profound challenges to humanity but the present council had a limited agenda, the Orthodox house had to be put in order after which there would need to be other councils for these urgent matters. This was an important sign that for him the Council is the beginning of a synodal process, rather than the end. Finally he reminded the delegates that the draft documents had been signed by commissions representing all the churches. This did not mean there could be no amendments but that the texts were to treated with courtesy and respect, warning that amendments would themselves require consensus. And with very clear sincerity he welcomed the Ecumenical Observers.

The Patriarchs and Archbishops of the autocephalous Churches (less for course the absentees) all replied with strong support for the Council and it continuance. Notable contributions came from the Patriarch of Serbia, who hoped that the absent churches would in time receive the Council; from the Archbishop of Cyprus who bewailed centuries of necessary Orthodox inversion but now faced major questions, naming fundamentalism and nationalism within Orthodoxy as a problem hampering reform and emphasising that questions of precedence did not move the laity and that Orthodoxy must be more open; the Archbishop of Albania, a confessor of the faith from communist times, spoke powerfully about calumnies against the Council and its advocate as ‘little drops of poison’ and went on to say that the Council did not need to be a ‘facsimile’ of ancient councils or those of the Western Church but went on to argue for qualified majorities as actually laid down by ancient councils.

From this powerful support for the Council and its long preparatory process it is clear that the Council was on course even if some in the absentee churches have their reservations. The solidarity for the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Council from all over Orthodoxy was very evident.

After a week of strenuous and prolonged debate and discussion, the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, presided over the closing Liturgy of the Pan-Orthodox Council in Charnia Cathedral on Sunday (26 June) with the other Primates of the autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Churches.  A large number of laity also communicated and all, including the Ecumenical Observers, received the blessed bread.  The diptychs (the solemn lists of all the Primates in canonical communion) were duly prayed, significantly including the absent Patriarchs of Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria and Antioch.  The late withdrawal of these churches had been a shadow over the Council, but they had not been ignored.  Rather than condemnations there have been numerous explicit hopes that the absent churches would eventually receive its work.  The Church of Romania had acted as an unofficial proxy bringing Russian requests for amendments.  At least two bishops from Georgia and Bulgaria had communicated their regret at their Synod’s decisions to withdraw.  Unlike any previous Council the absent and the present had been in daily communication in an iPad ecclesiastical age.  While ultra-conservatives in the four churches will no doubt claim the Council lacks unanimous authority other churches such as Albania are asking for the Russian interpretation of consensus to be reviewed.  Underlying the debate lies the recent development of an ethnic ecclesiology of national churches which includes members of those ethnic groups in any part of the world.  This is the reason for the stalled debate about overlapping jurisdictions, though the Council’s important endorsement of regional bishops’ assemblies is a step forward.  The rules of the assemblies approved at the Council look very much like a synod in all but name.  Despite the absentees it is significant that ten out of the fourteen churches were present, articulate and agreed. There have been no excommunications.

The last document of the Council to be signed was the strenuously debated ecumenical text.  The Orthodox Church has always understood itself to be the one, holy and catholic apostolic church.  Nevertheless, this has not prevented it historically from engaging ecumenically.  Today however a minority of the Orthodox Churches are facing fundamentalism within themselves and proselytism from without.  So there are some who hesitate to use the word Church of other Christians.  On the other side delegates from the Americas, Western Europe and Africa protested that they were in daily contact with other churches.  After much argument a consensus was achieved with the descriptive phrase ‘non-Orthodox Churches’.  The retention of the word Church was a significant victory for an open Orthodoxy.  While the final text is less than some Orthodox ecumenists wanted, it is positive and important because it brings the ecumenical movement into the synodal DNA of orthodoxy. The Patriarchates of Constantinople, Jerusalem and Alexandria made clear they would reject a text which did not use the word Church.

Other documents also caused lively debate.  A conservative text on fasting generated an important discussion on mission and culture.  Despite the reiteration of existing tradition the debate made clear that local cultural adaptation would be discussed.  For western churches the Orthodox stress on fasting can also be an important corrective to consumerism.  Throughout the Council it became clear that the conciliar discussion was as important as the text.  The marriage text, for example, reiterates the ancient ban on marrying outside the faith.  But the discussion made clear that under the Orthodox doctrine of ‘economy’ exceptions for pastoral reasons would be widespread, not least in countries where mixed marriages were the norm.  At other points the history of the text and the necessary compromises made in long years of preparatory discussion show up the composite origins of the documents.  The text on the mission of the Orthodox Church today is uneven in its treatment of discrimination, nevertheless the general direction of engagement to the dialogue with modernity is clear.

A long encyclical was authorised but a more accessible shorter message was also approved.  It was reportedly drafted by Archbishop Anastasios of Triana and Albania.  In addition to succinctly summarising the directions of the Council, the message has some important things to say on science and religion, avoiding the temptation to adopt positions on every new question.  The message also speaks of the ecological crisis, of young people and eloquently of ‘opening up Orthodox horizons’.  The Orthodox understanding of reception now means discussion and debate.  In his closing homily  Patriarch Bartholomew said ‘the entire life of the church is a life ‘in synod’.  The Synod as ‘event’ is now over, the synod as a process in the Orthodox Church has just begun, and that will be true even for those who question its authority.

(Bishop Christopher Hill was the CEC Observer to the Council – this is an adaptation of material also used by The Church Times.)
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