The Great and Holy Council: Who, When, Why?

Your newsfeed may be telling you about a meeting in Geneva of most of the Eastern Orthodox primates in the world, a “synaxis of primates,” chaired by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. This meeting is an important penultimate step for the long-awaited “Great and Holy Council,” a meeting of the Orthodox primates to deliberate on pressing issues within Orthodoxy. As of this writing, this council is scheduled for June 16-27, 2016, in Crete. The original plan was to hold the council in Istanbul, but tensions between Turkey and Russia resulted in a change of venue. On Sunday, June 19, the bishops will celebrate the Feast of Pentecost together, with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presiding.

Let us establish a few facts about this gathering before a brief editorial remark. First, the Orthodox world views the council as significant, but not ecumenical on account of schisms in the Church, most notably the absence of Eucharistic communion between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches. The vast majority of Orthodox theologians concur that the seventh ecumenical council in Nicaea held in 787 was the final one. Orthodoxy holds that the seven ecumenical councils resolved the Christological and Trinitarian controversies and that there is no need to return to these issues, as the Holy Spirit has already spoken through the fathers. A demonstration of Orthodox fidelity to the ecumenical councils is its insistence that the filioque is a non-negotiable issue in ecumenical dialogue, since the version of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed without the filioque carries conciliar authority.

As we all know, perhaps too well, councils also address matters of discipline, custom, rite, and order. The Orthodox council originally planned to address issues such as autocephaly, especially the question of authority in granting autocephaly, the calendar of the Church year, fasting, marriage, human rights, and the order of the diptychs. The most recent reports indicate that the council will discuss autonomy and its declaration, the relationship of the Orthodox Church to the rest of the world, fasting and its observance today, the Orthodox diaspora, and the mission of Orthodoxy to the contemporary world. Autocephaly, marriage, and the calendar are issues that will not be taken up at this council. We should note that it is conceivable that the council’s agenda could change in the period before its convocation.

Many prominent Orthodox theologians have been following and contributing to the preparation of the council. Readers should note that this council has been planned since the early twentieth century, but has been delayed on account of geopolitical shifts impacting the internal life of the Orthodox Church, especially Soviet persecution of the Church and the precarious position of minority Orthodox Churches in predominantly Islamic regions. The dispersion of Orthodox people into the West and the emergence of independent groups within Orthodoxy has complicated intra-Orthodox relations, especially between the Ecumenical and Moscow Patriarchates. Historically, the Ecumenical Patriarchate enjoys an honorific primacy within Orthodoxy, but today, the Moscow Patriarchate encompasses the largest Orthodox population of the world, by far. The two patriarchates have come into conflict on issues of primacy and ecumenical dialogue in particular. Tensions increased when the two patriarchates disagreed on jurisdiction over Orthodox people in Western Europe, Estonia, and North America. The most explosive dividing issue is the current division among Orthodox in Ukraine, which has witnessed to a movement for absolute ecclesial independence since 1917. Currently, the Kyivan Patriarchate of Ukraine claims to have the majority of Orthodox believers, but is considered to be a schismatic group within global Orthodoxy, whereas the Church under Moscow has limited autonomy and is considered to be the only legitimate Orthodox group. The conflict between Russia and Ukraine has increased tensions among these groups, and the Moscow Patriarchate has sought the support of world Orthodoxy in sustaining the status quo, whereas numerous Orthodox sympathetic with the independence movement have asked for the intervention of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Somehow, the Orthodox primates were able to agree to hold the council in Crete in the midst of divisive politics.

In the Orthodox orbit, there are two prevailing perspectives on the council. The first perspective rejoices that the long-awaited council is finally imminent. The primates have established sufficient consensus to meet and address pressing issues, and most importantly, in so doing, they’re demonstrating the power of synodality. So the more positive outlook views the council as an occurrence and event for which one should be thankful.

The second perspective views the council as dubious. The disagreements among the bishops and the ongoing problems in Orthodoxy demand a more comprehensive agenda and larger conciliar representation. Some Orthodox are worried that the limited agenda will be an embarrassment to Orthodoxy, because Orthodox people live in the world and are confronted with the contemporary juxtapositions between traditional faith and questions about gender identity, same-sex marriage, women’s rights, and human rights, just to name a few. Both the optimists and the pessimists are concerned about the reception of the council within Orthodoxy: will rank and file clergy and faithful hear the bishops? Will the council ignite an awakening within Orthodoxy and reconcile people to the Church? Both the optimists and the pessimists pray for the descent of the Holy Spirit on the council, that the bishops could exemplify the episcopal ministry of “rightly dividing the word of God’s truth” as a global synod.

I find myself vacillating between optimism and pessimism as the anticipation of the council intensifies. I would ask readers of Pray, Tell to do what non-Orthodox seem to admire the most in Orthodoxy: pray for the council. Pray for the Orthodox Church. Orthodoxy needs prayers these days. The West tends to see Orthodoxy through her liturgy, which engages the senses and praises God through rituals shaped by the classical Christological and Trinitarian traditions. Orthodoxy has another story, though, the story of Churches who are trying to find their footing on new soil. For the “mother” Churches abroad, Orthodoxy is still learning how to adjust to its life in the post-Soviet, post-Ottoman era. Orthodoxy still does not quite know how to work with the state. In all likelihood, the footing will remain slippery until a generation of faithful enjoys some measure of political stability. However, Orthodoxy in the West is also on uncertain footing, with its Eastern Orthodox DNA in a pluralistic, Western world. Will this council help to establish more sure footing for the Orthodox Church? Only time will tell.

So, in summary: the great and holy Orthodox council is not an ecumenical council. The council’s agenda is selective and does not cover every issue. The apparent imminence of the council is the realization of a long-anticipated dream. We will not know the council’s impact and reception within the Church for decades. Please pray for the council.

For further reading:

Paul Gavrilyuk, The Future Pan-Orthodox Council: To Be or Not to Be?

Adam DeVille, If I Were Running the Eastern Orthodox Council

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