About three miles northeast of the Hagia Sophia on the Golden Horn one will find the Phanar, home to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and site of the recent pan-Orthodox assembly, or “Synaxis” of the primates of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches (not including the Oriental Orthodox). Called by His All Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the importance of the assembly extends beyond Orthodoxy, giving hope for all Protestants and Catholics who pray for the unity of the church.

At the conclusion of the Synaxis the patriarchs issued a joint statement stating their desire “to reinforce our unity through communion and cooperation.” In Orthodox terms, the global witness of the church occurs in and through its synodality, the convening of church councils. As the Ecumenical Patriarch pointed out in his opening address, to deal with the problems of secularity “there is one necessary condition, namely the unity of our Church and the prospect of addressing the contemporary world with a unified voice.”

Both the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Synaxis have put the challenge of balancing the autocephaly of the Orthodox churches—the fact that they are in communion while maintaining hierarchical independence—with their unity front and center. Although no easy task, this is a welcome development. The seriousness of their intention is underscored by a further commitment to work toward a Holy Synod in 2016. If the Orthodox churches can speak with a united voice through the work of a Holy Synod, it can have a powerful effect for all Christians.

This push toward synodality is not a recent development, but the signs of its success are encouraging. The Ecumenical Patriarch underscored the fact that the Holy Synod is the means of expressing the fundamental unity of the Orthodox churches. Ideally, a synod holds together the global and local nature of the church because the patriarchs represent their own churches while forging a consensus that applies to all. Such a move toward synodality harmonizes with Pope Francis’ desire to shift the focus away from Rome and toward the local by utilizing the same means. All Protestants should rejoice at these moves to emphasize the local because they represent a democratization that can give expression to the people of God. As Nicholas Afanasiev has noted, the bishops should lead the flock without domination through the gifts of the Spirit that remain within the church.  This can happen when they acknowledge that “within the people of God, who constitute the Church, each one of the faithful, and not just the pastors, is established priest and king by his God.” What results is a communion of mutual love and submission concretely expressed in and through the synod.

The concern for unity identifies the second issue of Orthodox mission in the world. Such a mission begins with a recognition of the plurality of the modern world, which extends to a plurality among Christians. It is heartening to see the primates “reaffirm our obligation at all times to be open in our contact with ‘the other’: with other people and other cultures, as well as with other Christians and people of other faiths.” I say this as one of those “other Christians.” A posture of openness to the other in recognition of the plurality of the modern world suggests the possibility of the Orthodox deepening their commitment to ecumenical conversations with the many diverse forms of Protestantism. At least, I hope that this is the signal being sent by the Synaxis.

Currently, any bilateral ecumenical dialogue with the Orthodox churches remains difficult precisely because of the need to have all the patriarchs endorse such a dialogue for it to be a genuinely pan-Orthodox affair. A pan-Orthodox synod is the natural place for such an endorsement to occur. Without this endorsement other Christian communions must remain content to dialogue with this or that Orthodox church rather than the entire Orthodox communion. The implication is that any statement issued by such a dialogue would only apply to one autocephalous church. For example, the Finnish Lutheran Church has had an ongoing dialogue with the Moscow Patriarchate for quite some time, but this dialogue does not carry any jurisdictional weight with other Orthodox churches.

Protestants and Catholics should welcome a united Orthodox witness in mission because it can open to the door to a common Christian witness. Of course, the road to a Holy Synod will not be easy for the primates even with a consultative group. The withdrawal of the Antiochian delegation from the Synaxis over the conflict with the Jerusalem Patriarchate reveals the ongoing challenge. The issue is the creation of an archdiocese by the Patriarch of Jerusalem within the jurisdiction of the Antiochian Orthodox Church. Thus far efforts to resolve the dispute have been unsuccessful. One can only hope that efforts to maintain communion between these two Orthodox churches will succeed.

I do not know what the future holds for a common witness to the Christian faith. The current fracturing of Protestantism suggests that we may be in for an ecumenical winter. At the same time, the movement toward a Holy Synod, like the recent extension of friendship by Pope Francis to Pentecostals, may be signs of spring. Common witness must begin at the local level before it can move to the global, which is why I pray for a strong, united Orthodox presence in the world in the same way that I pray for the many tongues of Pentecost to return to the one Spirit and one baptism from which they spring. In the words of the late Avery Dulles, ecumenical theology must be “biblically rooted, ecclesially responsible, open to criticism, and sensitive to the present leading of the Spirit.” Ecclesial responsibility requires adherence to one’s local expression while biblical rootedness and openness to criticism acknowledge the global; and yet, enveloping them all is the leading of the Spirit who inspires the Scriptures, illuminates the mind, and transforms the heart. This is why we all participate in the Benedictine call of ora et labora at the local level in the service of a global witness.

Articles by Dale M. Coulter

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