"Today the concept of truth is viewed with suspicion, because truth is identified with violence. Over history there have, unfortunately, been episodes when people sought to defend the truth with violence. But they are two contrasting realities. Truth cannot be imposed with means other than itself! Truth can only come with its own light. Yet, we need truth. ... Without truth we are blind in the world, we have no path to follow. The great gift of Christ was that He enabled us to see the face of God".Pope Benedict xvi, February 24th, 2012

The Church is ecumenical, catholic, God-human, ageless, and it is therefore a blasphemy—an unpardonable blasphemy against Christ and against the Holy Ghost—to turn the Church into a national institution, to narrow her down to petty, transient, time-bound aspirations and ways of doing things. Her purpose is beyond nationality, ecumenical, all-embracing: to unite all men in Christ, all without exception to nation or race or social strata. - St Justin Popovitch

Friday, 17 June 2016


Byzantine maneuvers: There's more to this Orthodox council story than Russia vs. Istanbul
Terry Mattingly

Anyone who has worked on the religion beat for a decade or two probably knows the answer to this "lightbulb" joke, because it has been around forever (which is kind of the point).

Question: How many Orthodox Christians does it take to change a lightbulb?

The answer is: Lightbulb? What is this "lightbulb"? (The point is that lightbulbs are modernist inventions that some heterodox folks might use in place of beeswax candles.)

However, I have heard another punchline for this joke that is highly relevant to the struggles that some journalists are having as they try to cover the long-delayed, and now stalled, Pan-Orthodox Council, which was supposed to open this week in Crete (previous post here).

So ask that lightbulb question again, but this time answer: Change? What is this "change"?

I have received emails asking me what is going on with the gathering in Crete. Most of these emails include a phrase similar to this: "What is Russia up to?" Well, there's no question that the Church of Russia – far and away the world's largest Orthodox body – is a big player. But to understand what many Orthodox people think about this gathering, you need to think about that lightbulb joke and then ponder how they would respond to this headline that ran the other day at Crux.

Leading cleric says Orthodox Church’s ‘Vatican II’ is a go
Disaster! Yes, a theological adviser to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said something like that. That headline is a perfect summation of the fears that many Orthodox people, and not just leaders in Moscow, have about this meeting. They believe it's part of a larger effort by Patriarch Bartholomew to present himself, in press coverage and in reality, as a kind of Orthodox pope who will help Orthodoxy adapt to the modern world.

Journalists do not have to agree with that fear, of course. But they need to understand it if they want to grasp what is happening in this story. There is more to this story than a showdown – expressed in political language, naturally – between Moscow and Istanbul.

So what is going on? That earlier Crux story noted:

Recently, two of the fourteen Orthodox churches have floated boycotting – the Bulgarians, because they’re upset over some of the documents up for discussion and also the seating arrangements, and the Patriarchate of Antioch, over a jurisdictional dispute involving Qatar.
That reference to Antioch is crucial, since the Qatar dispute is actually a major escalation in decades of tensions between Arab Christians and the Greek bishops that rule them, operating in a system that is ultimately propped up by the Ecumenical Patriarch. Suffice it to say that leaders of the embattled Antiochian church, under siege in Damascus, do not think highly of Istanbul's efforts to claim control of additional chunks of the Arab world.

So the boycott by the Church of Antioch is huge. Yes, I say that as someone who has spent nearly two decades as a member of Antiochian Orthodox churches.

But there is another crucial issue here. In Orthodoxy, claims of doctrinal authority are based on the worldwide church managing to find unity as a whole. Yes, that makes change hard. Change? What is this "change"? Tradition!

So how does a Pan-Orthodox Council do its work if three, four or more churches refuse to take part? That makes a unanimous voice impossible. Nevertheless, the the Ecumenical Patriarch's handlers have continued to insist that this council will have universal, global authority no matter who does or doesn't show up. Why? Because Patriarch Bartholomew says so, sort of like, well, a pope (as opposed to the first among equals)?

So how is the press handling this? Here is a crucial chunk of the current Associated Press story:

Orthodox church leaders haven’t held such a meeting since the year 787, when the last of the seven councils recognized by both Orthodox and Catholics, was held. The “great schism” then split the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox in 1054 amid disputes over the Vatican’s power.
The Moscow Patriarchate said it can’t attend the meeting because other Orthodox churches, the Bulgarian church, the Georgian church and the Syria-based Antioch Patriarchate refused to take part and the Serbian Orthodox Church also called for the council to be postponed.
The four churches pointed to disagreements over the Council’s agenda and the documents drafted for the meeting.
So what is wrong with the documents, especially the one on marriage and family? Who prepared the documents and what kind of authority do they have? If anyone sees a press report that even asks these questions, please let me know.

Meanwhile, here is the Orthodox gospel according to The New York Times:

While it did not rule out participating in a future gathering, the Moscow Patriarchate, the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church, said late Monday that it was “impossible to participate” in the council because not all Orthodox churches would be present. At least four branches of the Orthodox faith, mostly with historically close ties to Russia, like the Serbian Orthodox Church, had complained about aspects of the Crete council and indicated that they might stay away.
The Russian decision threw into doubt the opening of the gathering and highlighted longstanding doctrinal disagreements among Orthodox Christians as well as a struggle over the direction of the church between the Moscow Patriarchate and a rival leadership based in Istanbul, the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople.
A rival leadership based in Istanbul? That's one way to put it, if one wants to see these debates in terms of political structures, alone.

Check out this summary material and note the lack of attribution clauses for any of this information, including an alleged mind-meld with the Russian hierarchy:

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which has a single, undisputed leader in the pope, the Orthodox or Eastern branch of Christianity is divided into self-governing provinces, each with its own leadership. As heir to the traditions of the original Orthodox, or Byzantine, church, based in Constantinople before the 15th-century Muslim conquest of the city, the Istanbul-based patriarch has traditionally been viewed as the “first among equals” by the Orthodox faithful, a role that has long nettled Russian church leaders.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which also controls affiliated branches of Orthodoxy in much of the former Soviet Union, has many more followers than the Istanbul-based hierarchy.
Well, yes. There are an estimated 2,000 Orthodox Christians left in Istanbul and, under the thumb of the Turkish government, the Church of Constantinople is not even allowed to operate a seminary to prepare priests and monks. It's hard to have your own bishops if you don't have a seminary.

Meanwhile, the Church of Russia claims – repeat, "claims" – an estimated 150 million members. So that would be 2,000 believers as opposed to 150 million? I guess that could mildly be described as "many more" followers. You think?

Stay tuned. There is much more "political" news to come, I am sure, about Russia's attempts to derail the "Orthodox Vatican II," thus throwing a wrench into Orthodox efforts to be more open to changes in the modern world.

Here is why the Russian Church is not attending the Council in Crete”
my source: Vatican Insider
Interview with historian Andrea Riccardi on the decision of the biggest Orthodox community not to participate in the pan-Orthodox Council: “Moscow is still attached to a sense of imperialism and is not backing the universal mission advocated by Bartholomew”

“The Russian Orthodox Church is still attached to a sense of imperial grandeur and is not backing the universal mission advocated by Bartholomew.” Professor Andrea Riccardi, a Church historian and founder of the Community of Sant’Egidio, has been cultivating good relations with the Orthodox world for decades. In this interview with Vatican Insider, Riccardi comments on the decision taken by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church on the evening of 13 June, asking for a postponement of the pan-Orthodox Council which is due to open in Crete on 19 June. If it is not deferred, the Russian Church has said it will not take part in the assembly, adopting the same position as the Orthodox Churches of Antioch, Bulgaria and Georgia.

Professor, what does the decision of the Russian Orthodox Church represent? 
“Right now it represents the failure of the plan of a pan-Orthodox Council. The decision expresses and illustrates the fragmentation of the Orthodox Churches, which are confined within their national borders. On the contrary, the great dream of the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has always been to steer Orthodoxy away from traditionalism and nationalism, in order to say and announce something to the world. It would have been enough if the pan-Orthodox Council had gone ahead, regardless of the outcome, as it would have been an important sign for all Christians and the world as a whole.”

What is causing this plan to fail? 
“Personally, I do not think that this failure is entirely down to Russia’s move. Instead, I think that at the end of the day, the Russian Orthodox Church did not strive to make the pan-Orthodox Council a success. Let me explain: it is one thing to suppose that the divisions, fresh doubts and recriminations that led some Orthodox Churches to ask for the Council’s deferral, were in some way “provoked” by the Russians. I do not believe this is the case. Partly because, if they had really wanted to make the Council flop, they would have had the opportunity to do this in the preparatory phase. It is quite another thing to witness that in light of the first problems and defections, the Russian Orthodox Church did nothing to prevent or resolve them. And this is what I think happened, partly because of the existing divisions in the Russian Orthodox Church itself.”

In other words, what you are saying is: they didn’t do anything to make it fail but they also didn’t do anything to ensure its success… 
“Exactly. Moscow decided to take no notice, thus demonstrating that it has little interest in the Council. It showed that it does not feel the need for that universal dimension Bartholomew is pursuing, despite the weakness of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, a weakness which in fact shows its strength. Bartholomew wants to relaunch the Orthodox mission in the world, taking stock of the world’s problems and portraying the image of a united Church. The Russian vision, however, is restricted within the confines of imperialism, within the confines of their great country. Meanwhile, by withdrawing their participation at the last minute, the other Churches risk turning into nationalist and traditionalist minorities in countries facing a demographic crisis, where Protestant Christian groups are on the rise. Orthodoxy is currently facing a deep crisis.”

What will happen next? 

“We will have to wait and see what the next steps are and what will be said from 19 June onwards when the 10 Churches that are following the common mission will meet in Crete. There are many questions. What appeal can the Orthodox Church have in today’s world? Can the Orthodox Churches with their strong national identities go on surviving as if history did not exist?

Eastern Orthodox rivalries and the healing of memories
In watching the plight of the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox, there is no ground for Catholic smugness or triumphalism here; no room for any “apologetics” that asserts “This is what they get for not having a pope.”
June 16, 2016 10:12 EST
Dr. Adam A. J. DeVille 
my source: The Catholic World Report

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople delivers a blessing during a 2014 Divine Liturgy attended by Pope Francis in the patriarchal Church of St. George in Istanbul. (CNS photo/Paul Haring)

Never have Saint Paul’s words repeated themselves so much in my mind as during these last days watching the long-promised and much hoped-for Great and Holy Council (GHC) of the Eastern Orthodox churches start to come apart even before it began. The apostle rightly insists “that there be no discord in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. If one member suffers, all suffer together” (I Cor 12: 25-26). 

As a Catholic—perhaps especially as an Eastern Catholic—I have been greatly saddened at the suffering, rancor, and discord in the body so evident as the Bulgarians, Antiochians, Georgians, Serbians, and the Russians have said they will not take part in the gathering on Crete. Though such developments are not surprising, there is genuine grief at seeing these struggles, and not for reasons of piety or ecumenical sensitivity so much as basic fraternity: my brothers in the body are experiencing discord, and so, therefore, am I. 

In watching the plight of the GHC and in trying to figure out how things developed as they now have, there is no ground for Catholic smugness or triumphalism here; no room for any “apologetics” that asserts “This is what they get for not having a pope.” Such sentiments are not just bad manners or violations of Pauline ecclesiology: they also lack any useful explanatory power. 

How, then, might we begin to understand what is going on in contemporary Orthodoxy that has led to this present unhappy mess? Are there explanations for the refusal of several local churches to come to Crete, and for the other manifold divisions in Orthodoxy that have not emerged but simply been intensified in some cases during this ante-conciliar period? 

There are good explanations for what is going on, and none of them are new. We are seeing play out, again and again, a long history of nationalism that has been profoundly corrosive of Orthodoxy’s desire to manifest full ecclesial unity to the world. Orthodox apologists will insist, of course, that nationalism does not impair doctrinal unity nor prevent them from celebrating the one Eucharist, but it is hard to take this seriously when people refuse to get together in the same room at the same time for simple conversation about mundane problems. 

We are, moreover, seeing play out a long history of rivalry between patriarchates—not just the well-known conflict between Constantinople and Moscow, but a lesser known—and perhaps more absurd—conflict between Jerusalem and Antioch over who has jurisdiction over a tiny community in Qatar. This, too, is not new as anyone with a glancing familiarity with the first four ecumenical councils will know, when questions of patriarchal status—especially between Rome, Constantinople, and Antioch—played themselves out in a way just as unedifying as we are seeing today. 

It is possible, then, to think (to borrow a phrase from the Anglo-Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan) that Orthodoxy has more history than it can consume, more historical conflict than it is able to work through, leading to the present unhappy but by no means unexpected impasse. What is to be done? 

As it happens, I started reading a new book sent to me by the publisher just at the moment last week when it looked like at least two churches were not going to Crete, and others might follow suit, putting the gathering in crisis. The book is by a contemporary Spanish philosopher, Manuel Cruz, and was translated into English just this spring: On the Difficulty of Living Together: Memory, Politics, and History (Columbia University Press, 2016). Cruz’s book is one of several recent publications treating the topic of historical memory, especially memories of conflict (e.g., the Crusades, the Holocaust) and the increasing recognition scholars are devoting to the salutary importance of forgetting. Drawing on earlier works by such as Paul Ricoeur, Cruz’s work joins more recent publications, including Bradford Vivian’s Public Forgetting: The Rhetoric and Politics of Beginning Again (Penn State University Press, 2010), and David Rieff’s In Praise of Forgetting: Historical Memory and its Ironies (Yale University Press, 2016).

None of these recent studies treats Christianity in any real way, but I have been engaged for some time in thinking with these authors and pondering how the notion of forgetting might be useful to Christians—not just in resolving disputes between each other, but also in dealing with troubling, traumatic, and painful aspects of our own traditions and pasts. This brings me back to work I published more than a decade ago on the “healing of memories,” a concept the late Pope John Paul II so often promoted. 

This time around, I am wondering whether, in the case of some especially intractable “memories” of conflict, division, and rivalry—memories that are partly imagined, and partly bound up with present images of one’s identity—the only possible route for healing is by simply, deliberately forgetting them. This may seem too facile to some people, and it is certainly contrary to how most people view forgetting, which is most often reprobated as a moral failure: foolish husband, you forgot your wife’s birthday yesterday! Overbooked mom, you forgot Sally’s dental appointment this morning! 

Scripture, too, generally regards forgetting—especially of the relationship to God, and His commands—as unacceptable behavior. 

But Scripture also positively and forcefully enjoins forgetting upon people in cases of discord, division, or suffering. Thus Joseph’s exclamation, before the year of famine and after the birth of his son, whom he called “Manas'seh, for, he said, ‘God has made me forget all my hardship and all my father's house’.” (Gen 41:51). Later on, Job will make a similar exclamation, noting God’s power such that if you are suffering you  “will forget your misery; you will remember it as waters that have passed away” (Job 11:16). The prophets speak similarly,  Isaiah noting (54:4) that  “you will forget the shame of your youth” while Ezekiel (Ez 39:25-26) has God exclaiming that “I will restore the fortunes of Jacob, and have mercy upon the whole house of Israel; and I will be jealous for my holy name. They shall forget their shame, and all the treachery they have practiced against me.”

Mentions of salutary forgetting occur rarely in the New Testament, but St. Paul does note, in his letter to the Philippians (3:14) that he is engaged in a process of “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead” in order to “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” And Paul brings us back to Cruz who, more than the other recent authors I mentioned, similarly strains forward toward the future, calling us not to ignore the past, but to deliberately forget it insofar as it holds us back from a better future and a better world. 

Cruz would thus seem to side with Paul and against Freud and the therapeutic tradition following in his wake that advocated for remembering conflicts in order to work them through and come to some kind of resolution. The Spanish philosopher diverges from the Viennese psychoanalyst to suggest that instead of working through past conflicts or traumas, one must, undertake deliberate forgetting as “a way of draining history” and its enslaving power. Cruz is not advocating ignoring history, but a moving to the far side of knowing: “to know in order to forget, then, but to forget in order to be able to pursue. History has not ended. History has simply been blocked.” 

One could say the same thing about the great and holy council of Orthodoxy: it is not ended or even begun as envisaged, but instead its full promise has been blocked because of an inability to overcome longstanding conflicts and largely invented memories by which some Orthodox construct present identities to gain advantage over others. Is it too much to pray that instead of anamnesis God will instead grant a certain healthful and helpful degree of amnesia to Orthodox Christians, allowing them to forget past and present conflicts so that they—and we with them in due course—may all strain toward the great prize of Christ’s call to unity so that the world might believe?

Is There a Need for the Council Today?
Source: Notes on Arab Orthodoxy

We offer our readers a final chapter of George Ghandour’s book The Road to the Great Orthodox Council, published (in Arabic) by the Patriarchate of Antioch in June, 2015.

Having reached the closing chapter of this book, I am unsure how to evaluate the preparatory work of the council that has been accomplished up to now and on which I have attempted to shed some light in the book’s previous chapters. I am at even more uncertain when I try to answer this question, which I and many others have posed: will the Great Orthodox Council convene at the specified time or will “extenuating circumstances” once more cause to be delayed? I am at yet even more puzzled when I think about the need for convening the council in these circumstances and the prospects that await the Church after it meets, which is to happen soon.

As I try to respond to these questions in an analytical and scholarly manner, my memory is crowded with images of the people I have known closely, some of whom I have studied under, people who worked hard and diligently and employed their knowledge, capabilities, time, talents and money so that this council might be held, that the Orthodox Church might be able to speak her unified word about the challenges that the world is facing and that she is facing, that she might be able to rise up from the prevailing inertia and deadly petrification and speak to the hearts of her children and the world in a living language comprehensible to the people of this age who are anxiously searching for true life.

As I ponder the lives of those fathers who burned the midnight oil preparing for the Great and Holy Council, crisscrossing the Orthodox world to overcome difficulties, opening avenues that no one had previously taken, patiently working so that the Church may speak Christ in the language of the age in which they lived and not in the language of bygone eras, I realize the importance of this conciliar work and what it has realized until today for the universal Orthodox Church. I likewise feel in the lives of these people who “sowed in hope” a call to not waste what has been achieved up to today, to work to preserve the conciliarity of the Church, and to faithfully express it here and now, despite all the difficulties. The fathers who worked until the last moment to prepare for the council’s meeting and who passed before it could meet after fighting the good fight so that it might meet, teach us to not turn back and to continue to strive faithfully for the unity of the Orthodox world. As for those whose dreams were dashed against the rocks of the Orthodox world’s current petrified state, they went back to prayer and teaching and were content to work within their local churches or their narrow circles in order to work for the hoped-for renewal, so they too  teach us the necessity of serious, local work to prepare minds and hearts to bear witness to Christ who is risen and victorious over death and who gathers us into one union, that they may perhaps accept the renewal brought by the Great Council when the time for holding it has come.

I see myself concluding that holding a general council remains necessary for the Orthodox Church because the difficulties cannot affect the nature of this Church, which remains the conciliar church par excellence and because ecclesial conciliarity can only be expressed through practicing it because it is not a theoretical system, but rather life in Christ and in His Church. Perhaps the past preparatory stage, with all the reversals and difficulties that it witnessed and despite the amount of time that it took, made it unambiguously clear that the Church has been able, through the preparatory and preliminary meetings for the Great Council, to undertake joint work of a conciliar nature in matters pertaining to a great number of the questions that one wanted on the Great Council’s agenda.

So with a quick but not hasty glance, it is possible to conclude that the relationship of the Orthodox Church to the rest of the Christian world is no longer an issue of dispute, even if some voices have been raised here and there in objection to some of the practices of other communities and some local churches have from time to time refrained from participating in this or that dialogue. Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement has, despite some of the difficulties opposing it– for which work is ongoing to create joint solutions according to the logic of dialogue and acceptance of others, insofar as there is no escaping working with other Christians to ready the environment for the hoped-for unity. As for the principles related to Christian witness nowadays, such as freedom, justice, brotherhood, equality and ending racial discrimination, confirmation of their Orthodox understanding has been reiterated and the agreement has been implemented in the world without entering into direct conflicts with the regimes that violate these teachings.

In the matter of fasting, the preparatory work has explained its spiritual and ascetic importance and has stressed the necessity of keeping to its rules, lightening them when the need demands, relying on the principle of economy, in which the Orthodox Church is distinguished. The very same principle of economy was applied in the matter of impediments to marriage, especially mixed marriages.

As for the issue of the calendar, the Orthodox agreed not to argue over it and affirmed that for them, celebrating Easter together remains more important than scientific precision, without shutting the door to future efforts that would permit all Christians to celebrate Easter together.

In the matter of autonomy, the Orthodox agreed that this is an issue that remains tied to the local churches themselves and they defined the conditions and manner of announcing it. They likewise reached an agreement on the concept of autocephaly without agreeing on how to sign the tomos of autocephaly and the content of this tomos. The preparatory work was likewise unable to reach an agreement on the issue of the Holy Diptychs.

Finally, with regard to the issue of the Orthodox diaspora, an agreement was made for a provisional solution requiring the establishment of episcopal assemblies in the countries of the diaspora that come together with the goal of cooperation and coordination under the leadership of the first among the bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in anticipation of the Great Council endeavoring to find a final solution for this issue that is not contrary to Orthodox ecclesiology, which states the necessity of there being one bishop per city.

All these topics that we have reviewed above prove that the preparatory work has realized tangible results and that the universal Orthodox Church, in all the local churches that constitute her, has accepted that which has already been agreed upon at the level of the local synods and at the level of the believing people in general. This leads us to believe that there is no need to convene the Great Orthodox Council in order to adopt decisions that have been accepted in principle by all the churches, but rather, it is possible for the decisions issued by the preparatory conferences to be accepted by the local synods of the autocephalous churches only.

If we pause over the content of the final decision of the Promates of the autocephalous Orthodox churches (March 2014) to convene the council, where it was agreed that each church will be represented by its head and 24 bishops, that the council will treat issues not agreed upon during the preparatory work, and that those issues that have not been agreed upon will be left to a later stage, our conviction grows that there is no need to hold this council at the present time and that convening it will be only a formality for the sake of a commemorative photo and nothing else. This causes enormous disappointment for the generations of Orthodox who have waited for it to be held because it will be incapable of speaking to them or of addressing their concerns and pastoral needs. It will constitute a betrayal of the vision of the successive generations that have prepared so that this council might be a stop along the way to renewal and for leaping forward towards a living Orthodoxy that takes the future by storm, makes it, and renews the world.

It should be added that a lack of participation by all Orthodox bishops in the work of this meeting and reliance on the principle of one vote for each autocephalous church runs contrary to Orthodox conciliar tradition and Orthodox ecclesiology, which states that each bishop is head of the local church (diocese) to which he was consecrated and that the council is the meeting of the churches where the bishops sit in their capacity as pastors of a specific people and guardians of the upright faith of the universal Church. Perhaps this solution, which was invented to maintain the balance between Constantinople and Moscow, constitutes a grave danger for Orthodox ecclesiology, as it effectively cancels the theology of the local bishop, replacing it with a theology of the collectivity of bishops of a single autocephalous church, which is presumed to have homogenous opinions– indeed, one opinion– and this is something that Orthodoxy has absolutely never known in its history.

Perhaps the above, if it is added to the ecclesiological crisis that the Orthodox church is suffering from with regard to the issue of organizing the diaspora, will inevitably lead to postponing the Great Council to a later time and settling at the present time for holding a meeting of the heads of all the churches and their accompanying bishops to declare in celebration what has been agreed upon during the past preparatory period and to launch new mechanisms for activating joint Orthodox cooperation with regard to the issues that are still outstanding on the agenda as well as other issues that may confront the Church in the future.

As for the Great Council, let the matter of its convening be left for a stage when the Orthodox Church is prepared to witness to her faith and her ecclesiology in a manner far removed from considerations of nationalism, politics and power.

His Holiness Patriarch Kirill
my source: Pravoslavie English    
His Holiness Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All Russia has sent a message to the Primates and representative of Local Orthodox Churches who have assembled in the Island of Crete. Below is the full text of the message.

To His Holiness Bartholomew

Archbishop of Constantinople – the New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch

To their Holinesses and Beatitudes the Primates of the Holy Churches of God

To archpastors, pastors, monastics and laity who have assembled on the Island of Crete

Your Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew,

Your Holinesses and Beatitudes,

Most Reverend Fellow-Archpastors,

Honorable Representatives of Local Orthodox Churches:

I cordially greet you on behalf of the Russian Orthodox Church and on behalf of the Orthodox faithful in Russia, Ukraine, Belorussia, Moldova and other countries, who comprise the vast flock of the Moscow Patriarchate.

Brothers, we all are the one Body of Christ (cf. 1 Cor. 12:27). We have received the priceless gift of unity from the Lord and our Saviour Jesus Christ Himself. To preserve this gift is one of our principal tasks; it is a direct commandment of our Saviour (Jn. 17:21).

Let us not be confused by the fact that the opinions of Sister-Churches about the convocation of the Holy and Great Council have been divided. According to St. Paul, there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized (1 Cor. 11:19). In the days of preparations for the Council, such differences have become fully revealed, but we must not allow them to weaken the God-commanded unity, to grow into an inter-Church conflict, to bring division and trouble into our ranks. We remain one Orthodox family and together we all bear responsibility for the fate of Holy Orthodoxy.

It is my profound conviction that the Churches, both those who have decided to go to Crete and those who have refrained from it, made their decisions in good conscience, and for this reason we must respect the position of each of them.

The Russian Orthodox Church has always proceeded from the conviction that the voice of any Local Church, be it large or small, old or new, should not be neglected. The absence of the Church of Antioch’s consent to convene the Council means that we have not reached pan-Orthodox consensus. We cannot ignore the voices of the Georgian, Serbian and Bulgarian Churches either, who have spoken for a postponement of the Council to a later date.

I trust that if there is good will, the meeting in Crete can become an important step towards overcoming the present differences. It can make its own contribution to the preparation of that Holy and Great Council which will unite all the Local Autocephalous Churches without exception and become a visible reflection of the unity of the Holy Orthodox Church of Christ, for which our predecessors, who blissfully passed away, prayed and which they expected.

We assure you that our prayers will be with you in the days of the work ahead of you.

With great love in Christ,



His Holiness Patriarch Kirill

DECR Communication Service

Tamara Grdzelidze, the Georgian ambassador
Just a few hours after the patriarch arrived in Crete, Orthodox theologians – including the ambassadors of Georgia and Romania to the Holy See – held a conference in Rome to discuss the content of the six documents proposed for the council and, more broadly, to speak about the importance of the Council for demonstrating Orthodox unity.

Tamara Grdzelidze, the Georgian ambassador and former staff member of the World Council of Churches, told conference participants that the Orthodox Church describes itself as “divine and human.” The controversy surrounding the Pan-Orthodox Council, she said, demonstrates “the human part needs a lot of work.”

While the intra-Orthodox differences are garnering headlines, she said, “the Orthodox churches, when they decided to convene this Council after 1,200 years, were not concerned about any dogmatic question – they do not have a problem of dogmatic unity or spiritual unity – but how to apply this unity in today’s world. That is the problem.”

The documents that were to be considered at the Council are largely pastoral, including regulations regarding marriage and fasting and organising Church life in countries outside the traditional Orthodox territories. One document is focused on Orthodox relations with other Christians and another tries to explain the mission of Orthodoxy in modern societies.

The discussions, Grdzelidze said, “should have renewed the synodality of the church”, which is its ability to bring people with different points of view and experiences together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit to give a united response to challenges.

“It is one thing to say that we are spiritually together and we are one,” she said. “But if we don’t practise it to make decisions, then it is very difficult to prove it to the world.”

Problems, she said, can be “discussed, addressed and discerned only in a spirit of conciliarity where brotherly love and prayer prevail.”

Bogdan Tataru-Cazaban, Romanian ambassador to the Vatican and former professor on the Orthodox theological faculty at the University of Bucharest, told conference participants “it’s a miracle” that the Orthodox churches have maintained their spiritual and dogmatic unity given historical situations – from war to Communist oppression – that prevented leaders of all the autocephalous churches from meeting for centuries.

In organising the Pan-Orthodox Council, he said, the Orthodox churches clearly are still battling the “phantoms” of that troubled history.

The struggles should not surprise or scandalise people, the ambassador said. “Throughout history, unity always has been a work in progress.”


The gracious initiative of your Excellency to offer this official dinner in honor of both our Modesty and the brother Primates of the various Holy Orthodox Churches, manifests the honor, love and respect that is fostered by the Orthodox Hellenic Republic and you, personally, for our One and Unified Orthodox Church and the persons comprising Her, who gathered here on the island of Crete to convene this Holy and Great Council.

Your Excellency manifests tangibly these sentiments that are familiar to us all by the exercise of your high and responsible office and by everything you have offered to us. We recall, at this official juncture especially, Your Excellency, your initiative in the organization of the International Conference last year in Athens that dealt with the subject of religious pluralism and peaceful co-existence in the Middle East, and also your efforts towards the peaceful resolution of disputes and reconciliation through dialogue, which is a much needed approach in today’s world community.

Orthodoxy certainly embodies the great hope of the world in the midst of the current apocalyptic reality of global events, a hope that the famous Byzantinist, Sir Steven Runciman, prophetically extolled when he said that the 21st century will be the century of Orthodoxy. Your Excellency, as a University Professor and as a man of extensive education, you know very well that this prophecy, despite its seeming excessiveness, was not uttered accidentally, but constitutes a product of careful observation and personal experience of a great scholar and phil-Orthodox academic. Furthermore, the fact that holy Orthodox sites – such as Mount Athos, which you, Your Excellency, recently visited – attract universal attention, shows that the world is turning its attention to the Orthodox Church with great expectations. The Orthodox Church is the ark of the pure Christian tradition that offers support and consolation, because Orthodoxy managed to maintain even today, despite rapid technological and scientific advancements, the mystical experience and the experience of personal communion with the personal God despite the explosive technological and scientific evolution. 

Therefore, our Holy and Great Council, which is about to begin is of great importance, because it shall offer the opportunity for the unified voice of Orthodoxy to be expressed and shall deliver a single message of true faith, real hope and peaceful reconciliation to our world that is in conflict.

Your Excellency, on account of the office you hold, you are in a position to know very well the intense and intricate problems, which the brother Primates and local Orthodox Churches face on the account of intolerance and religious fanaticism, especially the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch and our beloved Primate, Patriarch John of Antioch. However, this situation, due to the violent historic changes that have taken place, is not foreign to the other sister Churches, nor to the Mother of most of them, that is, the Church of Constantinople.

However, God knows how to produce sweetness even out of bitterness. This is certainly where the responsibility of all of us Orthodox Primates lies. A responsibility that amounts to the daily struggle for the spiritual diakonia of the “family of Christians” and the unity in Christ thereof.

Thus, we fervently believe and pray that the Holy and Great Council shall contribute decisively to this unity and to the promotion of the message of Orthodoxy to the whole world, since Orthodoxy does not constitute a political structure or philosophical belief, but the revealed salvific truth of life, both worldly and eternal.   

We congratulate you, Your Excellency, for your service to the blessed people of the Hellenic Republic during this difficult period, and we thank you for this dinner you are hosting in all of our honor, mostly, however, for the hosting of this historic event of the Holy and Great Council in the Hellenic Republic and moreover on the historic, heroic and saint-bearing great island of Crete, a most precious part of the jurisdiction of the Most-Holy Apostolic Throne of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Raising this cup, filled with the sweet fragrance of the Cretan earth, we all wish upon Your Excellency, the Prime Minister of the Hellenic Republic, His Excellency Alexis Tsipras and the members of the honorable Government of this Country, health and strength and divine guidance, so that, in unity and harmony, you can contribute substantially to the resolution of this temporary – we believe – crisis, for this creative people so that they may continue their peaceful life, in mutual respect of the freedom and identity of each person and all fellow human beings that live together on earth.

by Rev. Dr John Chryssavgis &
Paul L. Gavrilyuk

The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, an event that has been in preparation for more than half a century, will take place at the Orthodox Academy of Crete on June 19-26, 2016. The dates of the Council were unanimously approved by all autocephalous Orthodox Churches in March 2014. In January of this year, all autocephalous Orthodox Churches accepted the Council’s venue and signed an agreement confirming their decision.

After the January meeting of the primates, the drafts of the Council documents were made public for purposes of criticism and amendment. The documents have generated intense discussion among church leaders, scholars, and all concerned. While some texts, such as “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” proved to be more controversial than others, the agreement to hold the Council as planned was respected by all. It was respected, that is, until two weeks ago, just before the Council is set to convene.

The decision of several churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church, to withdraw from the Council reveals a difference of opinion and intention among the churches. A majority of the local churches desire to “walk together” (the literal meaning of the word “synod” or council) towards unity, while a minority desire ethnic isolation. The Council must not and will not be postponed due to this minority. Nor will the nonparticipation of a minority invalidate the proceedings of the Council.

While the official representatives of all Orthodox Churches have supported the idea of conciliarity in principle, some have attempted to block the conciliar process in practice. Importantly, the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) have insisted on a very strict interpretation of the consensus rule by which all conciliar decisions are to be made. The Moscow Patriarchate would require the total unanimity of all church delegations—and even of every bishop within each delegation. This interpretation of consensus departs from the Church’s tradition, in which decisions are made by majority vote or public acclamation. For example, the local council and the bishops’ council of the Russian Orthodox Church require a quorum of two-thirds of members, not total unanimity.

On the basis of this strict interpretation of consensus, the Moscow Patriarchate argues that the Council cannot go forward, because the Churches of Bulgaria, Antioch, and Georgia have all withdrawn, citing disagreements over Council documents and procedures. Under these conditions, and given its definition of consensus, the Moscow Patriarchate sees no reason to hold a Council. It argues that a conference should be held instead, to settle the contested issues so that the Council can be held at a later date with all churches in attendance.

On the contrary, the Council should proceed as planned, and the absent churches should have no influence on its deliberations. Historically, conciliar decisions have required broad representation, rather than the participation of the representatives of all local churches without exception. The Moscow Patriarchate’s decision to withdraw from the Council violates the written promises given in March 2014 and affirmed in January 2016. It is a fundamental assumption of international law that any party refusing to come to the table gives up its right to vote. Even the UN Security Council, which offers to its members the “best way to protect their own sovereign rights and national interests” by exercising the veto power, counts the votes of an absent member as an abstention. By analogy, the local churches that do not come to the Council cannot dictate the outcome of the Council. That would be against all that the Orthodox Churches stand for with regard to conciliarity and unity.

On June 9, an international group of scholars produced a petition, which was subsequently translated by volunteers into twelve languages and in less than two days received the support of more than one thousand Orthodox scholars from all over the world. On June 11, the group sent an open letter to the heads of all local Churches. It includes these passages:

We believe that there are no insurmountable difficulties to beginning the Council in June, despite the significant questions that have been raised regarding the drafts of the conciliar documents and conciliar proceedings. We acknowledge the legitimacy of some questions. . . . We also concur that there are many other issues [confronting] the Church in the twenty-first century that would require future Pan-Orthodox attention. Nevertheless, we are convinced that the best venue for settling significant disputes today, as in the times of old, is the Council itself. To postpone the Council once again, is to fail to live up to the principle of conciliarity on a global level. . . . 

A small minority that wishes to jeopardize the work of the Council by further delays should not intimidate the overwhelming majority of the Orthodox leaders that wish to carry out the commitment to have the Council on this year’s Feast of Pentecost. In the last century, the Orthodox Church has witnessed to the world through a rich theological legacy and the blood of new martyrs. The Holy and Great Council occasions an opportunity to commence a new phase of Orthodox witness. As the eyes of the whole world are upon the Orthodox Church, we beseech all of our leaders to hear the Spirit’s call to conciliar unity.
Among the signatories are numerous prominent scholars and deans of Orthodox Schools of Theology, including St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York; Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston, Massachusetts; St. Andrew's College, University of Manitoba, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada; St. Sophia Seminary, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA; the Volos Theological Academy in Volos, Greece; Institut Orthodoxe Saint-Jean-le-Théologien in Brussels, Belgium; and St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College in Sydney, Australia.

While the Moscow Patriarchate has ignored the urge of the Orthodox scholars to attend the Holy and Great Council, the majority of the local Orthodox Churches will be sending their representatives. The official position of all local churches is that the Holy and Great Council is desirable. Those who sabotage the Council today are letting petty squabbles and impulses towards ethnic self-isolation prevail over walking together towards unity.

Perhaps the best analogy for the contemporary context of the Churches is the image of estranged members of a family. When family members have been isolated for a long time—in the case of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, for entire centuries—it is natural for fear and uncertainty to overshadow the possibility of conversation. It is important for the family members to gather at one table in order to overcome their isolation. The Holy and Great Council provides a unique moment and opportunity for such an encounter and conversation among the Orthodox sister churches. It is important to open the conciliar process to the voice of the Holy Spirit in our time.

Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis is an archdeacon and director of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Press Office.

Dr. Paul Gavrilyuk holds the Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy at University of St. Thomas and is external correspondent of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Press Office.

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