Holy and Great Council: Documents and Initial Reaction

Readers of PrayTell have probably noticed some of the media coverage of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, which just concluded in Crete this past Sunday. As with all major Church events, much drama and intrigue surrounded the council. The primates of the fourteen autocephalous churches had agreed to consensus when deliberating the agenda items, and as the council approached, four Churches opted out of participating, namely the Churches of Antioch, Georgia, Bulgaria, and Moscow. The Council proceeded as planned, with ten of the fourteen Churches participating. One of the debates occurring in Orthodox media concerns the question of the council’s authority: some claim that the absence of the four Churches diminishes its stature, whereas others claim that the Council will remain binding for all Orthodox Churches.

We all know that instant analysis of major events is a given, and I am hesitant to present any absolute conclusions about the Council and its results until I have had some time to carefully read the documents adopted by the bishops. There are two significant positive outcomes from the Council: first, it happened, despite the possibility that it would be postponed yet again. The actual occurrence of the Council permitted the bishops to debate and revise the preconciliar documents and proclaim them, along with a message and encyclical to the world. These documents are already generating heated and passionate debate, especially since the Orthodox Church has now defined itself as the one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church – the council has no clause of “subsistit in.” Orthodoxy has proclaimed herself to be “the authentic continuation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” (Encyclical, I.2).   In the document on relations of Orthodoxy with the rest of the Christian world, the Council taught that “the Orthodox Church accepts the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her.” This ambiguous statement is already generating heated debate, but the reader might note the absence of traditional polemical nouns used to depict non-Orthodox which one can find in anti-ecumenical literature, such as “heretics,” “schismatics,” and “heterodox.”

Of course, the documents cover much more material, and there are some Orthodox who would have liked to have seen a broader manifestation of aggiornamento in the Council’s work. One cannot assume that these documents will be binding: only time will tell if the Orthodox Church will receive these teachings. Certainly there will be much theological analysis and proposals for ongoing work. This effort is needed, and I hope the Orthodox bishops will partner with theologians to continue to address the most pressing issues of world and Church. I also hope that the non-Orthodox who want to dialogue with us will push us on these issues: our job in dialogue is to hear you, just as you hear us with consistent graciousness.

Finally, the conciliar documents provide a contemporary point of reference moving forward. Orthodoxy now has an updated literary corpus coalescing around particular issues. Will these documents inaugurate a new era of dialogue with the world? Will the documents prove to be binding for Orthodox, or will they be ignored as a new variant of Western captivity? I know only that the Council’s occurrence demonstrated the potential for Orthodoxy to emerge from post-Ottoman and post-Soviet inertia to engage the contemporary world. So let us hope that Council was the beginning of ongoing dialogue, and not its end.


    1. @John Kohanski:
      Only time will tell. The documents are defined as binding for the whole Orthodox Church, but we do not know the degree to which local bishops will attempt to integrate the teachings into the lives of ordinary people. Perhaps the most impactful document will be the one on marriage.

  1. Am I mistaken or was there no reference at all to the Roman Catholic Church in their decree on ecumenism? Might this be a reflection of the isolation of so many of the Orthodox Churches?

    1. @Jack Feehily:
      This is a sensitive issue because the fundamentalist cohort in Orthodoxy is publicly quite vocal. The fundamentalists protested vehemently when Patriarch Kirill of the Moscow Patriarchate met with Pope Francis in Havana and issued the joint declaration. Some bishops, clergy, and laity declared Patriarch Kirill to be a heretic, ceased commemorating him at the liturgy, and called for his repentance. The goal of the Council was to begin the process of isolating and eradicating fundamentalism from the Church. Official dialogues continue at the international and national levels, and we should look to those for the Orthodox view on the Roman Catholic Church.

      1. @Nicholas Denysenko: Hi Jack. Could you please explain to me what a commonly accepted description of a fundamental Orthodox Christian is? I am curious what a fundamental Orthodox Christian looks like. I am more familiar with what a fundamental protestant Christian looks like. Thank you. Can anyone else offer their explanation as well please?

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