Does the Council matter to my mother?” This question was posed at the Orthodox Theological Society of America’s (OTSA) conference held last month. It was asked in reference to the anticipated Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church planned for Pentecost 2016. It was offered tongue-in-cheek and was directed at the speculation about whether anything of substance will come out of the Council, but it expressed well the hopes and concerns held by the scholars of the Orthodox Church.

The ninety or so scholars, including myself, attending the OTSA conference represented many Orthodox jurisdictions in America as well as abroad, were comprised mostly of laity—but included several priests and two hierarchs—were made up of a mix of cradle and convert Orthodox and other Christians, and included an impressive number of female scholars. We met in New York City in conjunction with Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

OTSA convened to discuss the planned Council of 2016, visiting many of its proposed agenda items in papers and open discussions. (The sum total agenda is, roughly: fasting, canonical impediments to marriage, calendar issues, diaspora, relationship of the Orthodox Church to other Christian Churches, ranking of the autocephalous churches, autonomy and autocephaly, manner of granting autocephaly, presence of the Orthodox Church in the World Council of Churches, and the contribution of the Orthodox Church to the realization of justice, freedom, brotherhood, and love among peoples.)

Many scholarly conferences are organized around a topical theme; for example, last year’s OTSA conference held forth on “The Orthodox Church in America in a Post-Modern World.” While this year’s meeting was thematically focused on the Council of 2016, the tone and tenor of the conference was markedly different that a purely thematic conference because OTSA anticipated what might be a monumental event in Orthodox Christian history: the first recognized Council of the Orthodox Church in over twelve hundred years. The papers, the questions posed to the presenters, and the open discussions were duly weighted with hopes and fears about the Council of 2016.

Though there were different voices in the room and dissenting opinions (one of the things I find so refreshing about OTSA is that it is a place where disagreement is quite comfortable, and handled in a collegial manner), there seemed to me to be a few areas of majority accord.

One of those areas was concern around the degree to which allegiance to nation-states, or ethno-nationalist tendencies might dominate or limit the Council. It was noted that the Orthodox Church’s organization into autocephalous churches (with a total of fourteen recognized autocephalous churches around the world today) initially happened along the political boundaries of the Empire for practical, organizational reasons. In more recent history, however, the political boundaries aligned with some autocephalous churches have been closely identified with ethnicity and nationalism, and often coupled with a fundamentalist and insular ethos.

Connected with this concern was the understanding that the Council will be conducted by consensus rule. This was assumed to mean that all bishops present (each autocephalous church can bring up to twenty-four bishops) must unanimously agree on an item in order for it to stand. The OTSA attendees were concerned that a consequence of consensus rule might be that one group, or even one bishop, could control the outcomes of the Council. This concern was underscored by the awareness of the historical anomaly of a consensus Council—no previous council has operated under unanimous rule—and by the realization that a Council so structured will inevitably be a conservative council, in terms of both the quality and quantity of what is accomplished. Some scholars expressed the hope that consensus rule might be interpreted in a Quaker fashion; that as accord grows on a given item, those in disagreement would respectfully step back and support the decisions made by the body of the Council.

An additional concern held at OTSA was the question: Who else might be present at the Council, in addition to each church’s allotment of bishops? Will there be any lay theologians? Any non-Orthodox? Any women of any kind? The idea of a Council composed strictly of bishops did not sit well with the members of OTSA, and not just because of twenty-first century notions of representation, but because of the real awareness that Ecumenical Councils past always included members of the greater royal priesthood of believers beyond the hierarchs. Just as St. Ignatius of Antioch championed the role of the bishop in the Church, he also insisted, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be.”

There were three hopes for the Council that seemed to be universally held by OTSA members, and that I perceive to be held by most American Orthodox faithful. The first is the reorganization of the Orthodox world in western countries—in the so-called diaspora—to the theologically and canonically sound position of one bishop per city. The process for this would be arduous, but possible, but the likelihood of it being endorsed by this Council was questioned. The other two broadly held hopes for the Council are the hope of restored communion with the Oriental Churches, and the hope of the restoration of the female diaconate. “Restored” is the critical word in both cases: while both issues contain not inconsiderable theological and pragmatic concerns, these concerns can be addressed, these restorations are attainable, and they would benefit Orthodox faithful the world over.

Although much of the OTSA discussion was centered around what will happen at the Council, what will happen after the Council was acknowledged as greatly important. Councils of the Orthodox Church must be received by the Church; they must be accepted by the baptized faithful. There is no formal process for the reception of a council, no canon or doctrine dictates its acclamation, and nothing that precedes a council recognizes its truth in advance. The reception of a council happens on the schedule of the Holy Spirit, and this nebulous, unfettered, and spirited process encapsulates for me all that is good and true about the Orthodox Church as a body.

One of the strongest hopes of those at OTSA was that the Council simply come to pass, and that all the autocephalous churches attend. While this may seem like a meager hope indeed, the Orthodox Church, as noted, has not met in council in over a millennium; it has no method or manner of worldwide conciliarism, and this Council of 2016 may be a necessary pilgrim’s rest on the path to the autocephalous churches being able to function in a symbiotic manner. Were a harmonious state of collaboration among the Orthodox achieved, the Council of 2016 would strengthen and illumine the Orthodox Church into its third millennium, and it might well matter to our mothers. 

Carrie Frederick Frost is a scholar of Orthodox theology and mother of five living in Washington state.

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