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.