AT LAST, A COUNCIL FOR THE AGES?
THE GREAT COUNCIL OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IN 2016
by John Chryssavgis
|the Church of Hagia Irene|
A Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church has been scheduled for 2016. In March of 2014, the leaders of all the autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Churches met in Istanbul, the sacred see of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which historically (since at least the fifth century) coordinates such assemblies, facilitating unity while serving as a center of appeal among these churches. Arguably the foremost decision unanimously agreed upon at that assembly of church heads was the convocation of a Great Council in 2016, tentatively planned to be held in the Church of Haghia Irene—the site of the second ecumenical council of 381, which completed the “creed” recited by most Christians today. Haghia Irene is now a museum in Istanbul, never having been converted into a mosque since the fall of Constantinople in 1453.
The council of 2016, which has been on the table for discussion and preparation since at least 1961 (although there were earlier proposals for such a council in the 1920s and 1930s), will for the first time ever gather representatives from all fourteen independent Orthodox Churches. The very conception, let alone the convocation of such a great or general council, is entirely unprecedented. It will be attended by patriarchs, archbishops, and bishops from the fourteen autocephalous Orthodox Churches, including those from all of the ancient patriarchates, with the exception of Rome.
Theological commentators and historical analysts should bear in mind that the process in the Orthodox Church may undoubtedly not appear as orderly or organized as that in some Western churches precisely because it involves a consensus among all churches, rather than the imposition of one church or leader. However, it is naïve to dismiss disagreements among various churches sweepingly, implying that these merely result from rivalries of power. While such a perception may not be entirely erroneous, and while such a process may be frustrating to those inside as to those outside the Orthodox Church, it is in some ways a profoundly—even if often painful—democratic method than frequently perceived.
The issues for discussion and decision at the Great Council have been painstakingly determined since the early 1970s, with some of them going back to the early 1960s. The topics and texts include some esoteric items, such as the ranking of churches and discussion about a common calendar; but they also include problems that emerge from adapting an ancient faith to a modern reality—like precepts of fasting and, in particular, regulations of marriage in a multicultural and interreligious world.
Most importantly, the documents tackle sensitive matters, such as relations of the Orthodox Church with the other Christian confessions, the role and response of the Orthodox Church to the contemporary challenges of our age, as well as “unorthodox” (or uncanonical) governance issues facing the Orthodox Church in the Western world.
While the last three issues may seem uncomplicated or unsophisticated to the outsider, they are vital to the growth of the Orthodox Church. For instance, the ecumenical openness of an otherwise profoundly traditional church is of crucial importance, especially in light of conservative and traditionalist circles in the Greek and Slavic worlds. The way that the Orthodox Church handles modernity is of profound relevance for the resonance of its teaching in the public sphere.
The third item concerns the role of the Orthodox Church in non-Orthodox countries (often referred to as Orthodoxy in the “diaspora”). This relates to the manner of achieving the proper canonical status of one bishop per diocese (or city) when an existing diocese currently has a number of ethnic Orthodox Churches and, therefore, more than one bishop. Will church leaders grant some standing of autonomy? More importantly, will leaders in countries such as the United States of America be interested in a unified, collaborative organization? Or will they remain obsessed with narrowly nationalistic interests?
Certain commentators are quick to criticize the forthcoming council as being of little significance or consequence. Detractors are fond of claiming that no doctrinal issue will be discussed or defined. I’m not quite sure that bishops attending earlier councils were themselves aware that they were about to settle theological disputes and ecclesiastical controversies in an inspired way; they simply dealt with the issues at hand.
However, there are at least two issues up for discussion at the Great Council that encompass universal and unparalleled authority. The first is the way in which the Orthodox Churches will respond to religious fundamentalism and fanaticism. A united and unequivocal response to extremist and subversive elements and factions—sometimes within circles influenced by rigid or reactionary monastics—would be a compelling and committed emphasis on the “royal way” of discernment and moderation adopted by the classic teachers of the early church. Will we see a condemnation of separatist groups and a new commitment to ecumenical openness?
Perhaps the most consequential and enduring pronouncement of the great council will be its deliberation and determination regarding the organization and administration of the Orthodox Church throughout the world. The question is whether churches abroad, such as in the United States, Western Europe, and Australasia—comprised of Orthodox immigrants and converts long established in their new homelands, miles away and cultures apart from the “mother Churches, where they originated—have reached the maturity or acquired the single-mindedness and commitment to minister to their people and manage their affairs in unity. Regrettably, however, most Orthodox Churches seem to be retreating into a stifling, sheltered and safe provincialism, which they explain—or excuse—as attending to internal affairs, which in turn are reckoned as more important pastorally than concerns for collaboration or collegiality. What is more unfortunate is that contemporary bishops, who have been exposed to and educated in the modern world and its global challenges—at least by comparison with their predecessors, who were restricted by the “iron curtain” or oppressive xenophobia—appear less interested in transcending any prejudice and parochialism.
Time will show just how much the Orthodox want to realize the Great Council of 2016 and how the status of this council will be received by the Orthodox Churches themselves. It will be telling indeed to observe just how much each independent church is willing to lay aside trends of supremacist nationalism and the temptations of secular power.
John Chryssavgis is Archdeacon and theological advisor to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.
The Fragile Promise of the Pan-Orthodox Council
by Father Cyril Hovorun (Orth.)
|Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople celebrates an Orthodox liturgy for the feast of the Dormition of Mary at the Panagia Soumela Monastery near Trabzon, Turkey in August 2010. The Patriarch will preside over the Orthodox council to be held in Constantinople in 2016. (CNS photo/Umit Bektas, Reuters)|
An Assembly (Synaxis) of the Primates of the local Orthodox Churches, meeting March 6-9, 2014 in Istanbul, has agreed to convene a Pan-Orthodox council. A “Communiqué of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches” released on March 9th stated that “the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church … will be convened and presided by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople in 2016.” This decision brings to the homestretch a long process of preparation that goes back as far as the 1920s, had an active phase in 1960s and 1970s, and then was rather quiet until very recently.
The last Pan-Orthodox council of this scale was convened in Constantinople well over a thousand years ago, in 879-880, when Photius was reinstalled to the Patriarchal throne. That council dealt mostly with the issues of inter-Church relations and had wide representation of the Eastern Christian Churches, with over 380 bishops in attendance. Some Orthodox believe that the IV Council of Constantinople (its other name) was the eighth and last ecumenical council.
After Byzantium lost most of its territories, the councils of the same scale became impossible. Nevertheless, the Eastern Church continued exercising its synodality. Many Eastern bishops and even Patriarchs were unable or did not want to stay with their flocks on the occupied territories. They either preferred,or had no choice but to spend most of their time in safe Constantinople. The old institution of endemousa synod—that is, a gathering of all bishops who, by chance, found themselves in the capital—became a major instrument of the Church’s synodality. Not only the hierarchs under the jurisdiction of Constantinople, but also bishops and even Primates of other Patriarchates, participated in such councils, which managed ecclesial matters related not only to the Church of Constantinople but to the entire Eastern Church.
After the collapse of the Ottoman empire, the Orthodox Churches began discussing the possibility of convening a Pan-Orthodox council. In 1923, the Patriarchate of Constantinople called an inter-Orthodox assembly, which nevertheless did not consider itself a Pan-Orthodox council. There were several attempts to convene such a council in the interwar period, but they were also unsuccessful, mostly because the Russian Church was isolated and suffered from severe persecutions. The Orthodox Churches returned to this idea after World War II, and Vatican II especially inspired the Orthodox to accelerate the process of preparation for the Pan-Orthodox council. Pan-Orthodox consultations were instrumental in the preparation process, taking place at Rhodes in 1961, 1963, 1964, and in Geneva in 1968. These consultations were succeeded by the Pan-Orthodox commission and the Preconciliar consultations, which took place from the 1970s until the new millennium. Finally, the institution of the Synaxis (gathering) of the Primates of the Orthodox Church took the process of preparation for the Pan-Orthodox council to its final stage. The last Synaxis took place in Constantinople in 2008.
Many Primates who participated in the Synaxis were also active participants in the previous preparatory meetings. They clearly want to accomplish this important work, which has been a major focus of their lives, as well as the lives of their teachers and predecessors. If the council does take place, it will summarize the history of the Orthodox Church of the last century and will be the most important event in modern Orthodox history.
Risks, compromises, weaknesses
That the Pan-Orthodox council has been scheduled for 2016 is of great significance. The question remains, however, as to how effective it will be in addressing the issues that really matter for the Orthodox Church. There also remains also a real possibility that the council can and will be postponed. A postponement would take place if the tensions between local Orthodox churches become more intense, or something transpires within inter-Orthodox relations making council impossible. Simply put, the inter-Orthodox peace is still very fragile.
The participants in the Synaxis were obviously aware of these risks. In order to minimise them, they adopted a roadmap towards the council. An inter-Orthodox preparatory committee will be set up, which will work from September of this year to Easter Sunday of 2015 (April 12th). This committee will work on the documents that will be considered at the council, and on the details of its procedures. It will also quickly intervene if difficult issues arise in inter-Orthodox relations during the period before the council.
The Synaxis in Istanbul much time discussing the format of participation of the local Churches in the council. The agreement is that each Church will send 24 bishops plus the Primate of the Church, a number doubled from 12 bishops, plus the Primate, which was agreed in the midway. Because some Orthodox Churches (for instance, Cyprus, Poland, Czech Lands and Slovakia) do not have so many bishops, those Churches can send as many bishops as they have. The initial idea to allow these Churches to “borrow” bishops from other Churches was abandoned. The number of the participating bishops does not necessarily matter, because each Church will have only one vote. Only the autocephalous Churches (whose head bishop does not report to any higher-ranking bishop) will have right to vote. The autonomous churches (whose highest-ranking bishops are approved by the patriarch of an autocephalous Church) will be able to participate in the council only through their “mother” Churches. Decisions will be taken only if there is a consensus among the voting Churches. Finally, all the sessions will be presided over by the Patriarch of Constantinople—a point listed first among the decisions of the Synaxis regarding the procedures of the council.
These decisions of the Synaxis are the result of compromises achieved through very tense negotiations. The main protagonists of the negotiations were the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow. Other Primates contributed mostly by suggesting solutions that would satisfy the two sides.
The Patriarch of Moscow initially suggested that all Orthodox bishops should take part in the council. Other Churches did not accept this proposal since it gave the Russian Orthodox Church, with its over 320 bishops, a distinct advantage. Instead, a limited number of bishops from each Church was accepted, which gave the Church of Constantinople with its allies an advantage over the Russian Church. To balance this decision, the Russian Church insisted on the procedure of consensus in taking decisions by the council. (Consensus means a right to veto for each Church and effectively neutralises the numerical majority of the Churches.)
This means that the compromise about the procedures significantly reduces the possibility of the council accepting any decision regarding burning issues. Only the council could have an authority to take such a decision, and yet it has been a priori paralysed in addressing the issues that divide the Orthodox Churches in our days. This is one of the weakest points of the upcoming council.
Pressing, divisive issues
The most divisive issues on the Orthodox agenda relate to the relations between the local Churches. The models of these relations are constantly evolving, reflecting global political frameworks. Understandings of the fellowship of the Orthodox Churches changes constantly, and there is no agreement on it. Some Churches consider this fellowship in terms of an utilitarian cooperation of sovereign entities, which safeguard their territorial integrity and punish any intruder, including another local Church. This philosophy reflects the logic of international law and, particularly, the idea of sovereignty of the national states. Other Churches believe the pan-Orthodox fellowship should be regarded as a confederation (or even a federation) of local Churches, with an effective and not just ritual Primus. The upcoming council could help in moving to an acceptance of a single philosophy of the Orthodox fellowship, although that is unlikely.
Two particular points of this philosophy were chosen decades ago for the agenda of the Pan-Orthodox council: the diptychs (the order) of the Churches, and the procedure of granting autocephaly (which means, literally, “self-headed”). Since it very unlikely the Churches could reach an agreement on both issues they were excluded from the agenda of the council. The issue of granting autocephaly has an immediate implication in Ukraine. The Synaxis dedicated a disappointingly laconic text to the situation in Ukraine:
We fervently pray for peaceful negotiation and prayerful reconciliation in the on-going crisis in Ukraine. We denounce the threats of violent occupation of sacred monasteries and churches, and pray for the return of our brothers presently outside of ecclesiastical communion into the Holy Church.
There is no mention of the bloodshed during the recent protests in Kiev and of the military aggression against Ukraine, where the majority of population is Orthodox. The laconism of the statement apparently reflects the deep tensions over Ukraine; the Primates of the Churches did not want to really touch on the Ukrainian issue, in order to save the council. Any meaningful discussion and message regarding the crisis in Ukraine would have probably destroyed the process of council's preparation.
However, the Synaxis did not completely avoid conflict. The Church of Antioch refused to sign the documents of the Synaxis because of its dispute with the Church of Jerusalem over a community in Qatar. The Patriarch of Antioch, John X, was not present at the Synaxis because of illness. However, he ordered his representatives to avoid signing the decisions of the Synaxis unless the problem of the parish in Qatar was solved. His ultimatum did not work, however, and so the signature of the Church of Antioch is absent.
There is no also a signature of the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. The Russian Church facilitated the recent election of Archbishop Rastislav, the new Primate of that Church. This election is not, however, recognised by the Church of Constantinople and the majority of other Orthodox Churches. Finally, the signature of the Orthodox Church in America is also absent. This Church was granted autocephaly by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1970, but that autocephaly is not recognised by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the majority of other Orthodox Churches.
Implications for Catholic-Orthodox relations
The ecumenical relations of the Orthodox Church are among the most important articles on the agenda of the council. It will probably encourage the Orthodox Churches regarding engagements with other Churches, including the Catholic Church. However, it is unlikely that the council will touch on the issues at the core of the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, especially the issue of primacy.
The position of the Orthodox Churches on the issue of primacy of the Bishop of Rome depends entirely on the consensus on primacy within the Orthodox Church. Yet there is no such a consensus on this issue; instead, there are two dominating interpretations. According to one of them, primus inter pares (“the first among equals”) is just an honorary title, a rudiment of the past, which does not imply any real authority of the first Church. Inter pares is accentuated in this interpretation, which was recently expressed in the document adopted by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, Position of the Moscow Patriarchate on the problem of primacy in the Universal Church.
According to the other perspective, primacy is something real within the Orthodox Church, and it implies real authority and responsibility of the first Church. According to Metropolitan Elpidophoros of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, who responded to the document of the Russian Orthodox Church, the first Church, in its primacy, has no equals among the other Churches.
The two interpretations of primacy seem to be irreconcilable. And it is very unlikely that the Pan-Orthodox council can accept a single Orthodox interpretation of Primacy. Without this, however, it will be difficult to proceed in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue.
In conclusion, it seems that the current leaders of the Orthodox Churches are resolved to be etched in history as the fathers of a council, which in the Orthodox world will be regarded on the same scale with the ecumenical councils of the first millennium, (although, in the Orthodox tradition, only the following council can accept such a council as ecumenical). In contrast to the first ecumenical councils, however, this one will not touch on many of the dividing issues, which have been excluded from its agenda. This fact demonstrates the fragility of inter-Orthodox unity and cooperation. God performs miracles, however, and there is always a chance that the council will exceed its tentative agenda, and thus provide a more firm and viable framework of cooperation between the Churches.
Fr. Cyril Hovorun is a priest of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), and currently a researcher at Yale University. From 2007 to 2009 he was Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church and initiated the first attempts at dialogue with the non-recognized Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. He has participated in official Catholic-Orthodox dialogue, and is also a member of the St Irenaeus group, which constitutes an unofficial dialogue between the Orthodox and Catholic theologians. From 2009 to 2012, he was the first deputy chairman of the Educational Committee of the Russian Orthodox Church. He is the author of Will, Action, and Freedom: Christological Controversies in the Seventh Century (Brill, 2008).
Why the Great Synod of Orthodoxy is necessary today – 1
9 December 2015
by Professor Emeritos Georgius Martzellos
my source: http://pemptousia.com/
The address of the professor emeritus of the Theology Faculty, which was given at the conference organized by the Monastery of Vatopaidi, in collaboration with the Patriarchal Institute of Patristic Studies and the Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, (3-5 December, 2015) on the subject ‘Towards the Holy and Great Synod’.
As is well known, at the fifth Meeting of the Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches to be held since 1992, this one under the chairmanship of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, from 6 to 9 March, 2014, in the church of Saint George in Fanari, Constantinople, a decision was taken that is of momentous importance for the whole of Orthodoxy. It was decided to put flesh and bones onto the vision, which had been gestating for many years, of the convocation of the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church, at Pentecost 2016, unless unforeseen circumstances prevent this. The suggestion was made that, provided permission is granted by the Turkish Ministry of Culture, this should take place in the old Cathedral Church of Saint Irene, where the 2nd Ecumenical Synod took place in 381.
The momentous significance of this Synod for the whole of Orthodoxy is obvious. For the first time in more than a thousand years, representatives of all local Orthodox Churches would gather to discuss and take common decisions on the most important issues which have been facing the Orthodox flock, and, indeed, the whole of humankind, for decades now, because of the unprecedented and pressing challenges we are confronted by in the rapidly changing modern world. From this point of view, the convocation of the Holy and Great Synod is vital, if Orthodoxy is to respond to the challenges of the times, by providing a powerful testimony to its theanthropic presence a modern world which is floundering spiritually, morally and socially.
The Holy and Great Synod facing the challenges and problems of the modern world
The challenges and problems which the Orthodox Church is being called upon urgently to face through the Holy and Great Synod by providing a dynamic testimony to its presence in the modern world were described very clearly and eloquently by the Ecumenical Patriarch, His All-Holiness Bartholomew, in his opening address at the Meeting of Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches. In the first place, as the Ecumenical Patriarch noted, the violence which is often perpetrated in the name of religion is a threat to all Christians, without exception, but for the Orthodox in particular, since they are experiencing personal persecution, destruction and desecration of their holy churches, as well as kidnappings and murders of clergy and monastics, even hierarchs of the Church. In the face of this threat to the Orthodox Churches as we know them, we are called, he noted, ‘to raise our voices in protest, not as individual persons or Churches, but as the single Orthodox Church, united throughout the world’[i].
Apart from this, there is also the enormous danger to the Orthodox Church, and other Churches, too, of course, posed by the rapid secularization of Christian societies. As we all know, the Church in secularized Christian societies has increasingly been forced into the margins of public life, unfortunately, and the fundamental spiritual and moral principles of the Gospel are gradually being sidelined from people’s lives. The Orthodox Church, therefore has a duty, responding in accordance with its own nature and mission, to promote these Gospel values to the modern world with a single voice, irrespective of whether they conflict with important interests or prevailing notions.
Although, as the Ecumenical Patriarch has stressed, the Orthodox Church is characterized also by its attachment to the tradition of the past, this does not mean that it is fossilized and indifferent to the various challenges of history which are particularly acute in our own day. One such challenge arises from the rapid development of technology and the globalization based on this. Despite the beneficial effects as regards the dissemination of knowledge and information, technology constitutes a serious danger because it is a channel for the transfer and imposition of foreign cultural models which threaten to alter the cultural identity of individual peoples. This is another challenge which the Church has to meet. Beyond this threat from technology and linked to it, is the rapid evolution of biotechnology, which involves the emergence of serious bioethical problems related to the technologies of assisted reproduction, transplants of tissues and organs, euthanasia, genetically modified foods and so on, towards which the Church is duty bound to take a responsible stance. Moreover, if we add to all this the daily destruction of our natural environment through our greed and high-maintenance lifestyle (despite warnings from the ‘great and the good’ of this earth), then the conservation and protection of God’s ‘very good’ creation is a prime duty of the Church. In fact, given its rich liturgical and ascetic tradition, Orthodoxy is the sole responsible agent, which can contribute to the combatting of this crucial problem in ways not available to other Churches and Confessions[ii]. In any case, this is why the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as we all know, was, in 1989, the first in the whole of Christendom to promote and highlight the importance of this crucial issue, through a series of significant initiatives, such as the establishment of the beginning of the Indiction (1 September) as the day for the protection of the natural environment, with the late hymnographer Yerasimos from the Small Skete of Saint Ann, being commissioned to produce a service which is sung on that day. Besides this, a whole host of international ecological conferences have been organized, with speakers of world-wide repute. This means that Orthodoxy can and should play a leading role in the conservation of the natural environment.
But apart from the problems outlined above, the Orthodox Church also has a duty to deal sympathetically with the problems arising from the economic crisis and social injustice which, in our own times appear to be a scourge even in the most highly-developed economies. Alas, these problems are not merely economic and social; they are psychological and profoundly existential, because they touch upon the dignity and self-respect of people who have become victims of the global economic establishment. As the Ecumenical Patriarch again notes: ‘Our Most Holy Church must listen with attention and sympathy to the problems inflicted on people by the economic structure of the modern world. We are all witnesses of the negative effects on the dignity and survival of the human person from the economic crises which are crushing people in many regions of the world, even in countries supposedly economically ‘developed’. Youth unemployment, an increase in the number of the impoverished, uncertainty about tomorrow- all of these demonstrate that humanity today is a long way from implementing the principles of the Gospel. And we ourselves are not without responsibility since our pastoral care has often been exhausted by concentration on the ‘spiritual’ and we have forgotten that people also need nourishment and the barest material means in order to live decently, as persons who are images of God’[iii]. For these reasons, the Orthodox Church, faithful to the principles of the Gospels and without giving the impression that it is indifferent to spiritual matters, has a duty to proclaim its interest in the eradication of social injustice and the ascendancy of social justice throughout the world. Moreover, this interest on its part is not foreign to its nature and its spiritual mission in the world, because, in essence, it is a spiritual matter. As Berdyaev so aptly pointed out, giving the Orthodox dimension to the interest in finding solutions to economic and social problems: ‘Concern over the life of one’s neighbor, even in material and bodily terms, has something spiritual about it Worry about how to guarantee my bread is a material problem. But worry about other people’s bread is a spiritual problem’[iv]. Indeed, it is worth pointing out that this position is stressed almost word for word in the Resolution of the Fifth Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Meeting (Chambésy-Geneva, 10-17 October, 2015), which refers to the mission of the Orthodox Church in the modern world[v].
[i] See www.amen.gr/article17136#sthash.Rmz056Eq.dpuf.
[iv] See Το πεπρωμένο του ανθρώπου στο σύγχρονο κόσμο, transl. Eft. Yioultsi, pubd. by P. Pournaras, Thessaloniki, 1980, p. 13. See also St. Ch. Tsombanidis, Εκκλησιολογία και Παγκοσμιοποίηση. Οι Εκκλησίες στην οικουμενική πορεία για μια εναλλακτική παγκοσμιοποίηση στην υπηρεσία των ανθρώπων και της γης, pubd. by P. Pournaras, Thessaloniki 2008, p. 96. Θεσσαλονίκη 2008, σ. 96.
[v] See chap. ‘Mission of the Orthodox Church in the Modern World. Contribution of the Orthodox Church to the Establishment of Peace, Justice, Freedom, Brotherhood and Love among Nations and Elimination of Racial and Other Forms of Discrimination 6, § 5: ‘if concern over our nourishment is a material issue, concern for the nourishment of others is spiritual. (Jas.2, 14-18).
SAINT MATTHEW'S PASSION by METROPOLITAN HILARION ALFEYEV
OPENING OF THE HOLY DOOR AT BELMONT ABBEY, HEREFORD.