The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, an event that has been in preparation for more than half a century, will take place at the Orthodox Academy of Crete on June 19-26, 2016. The dates of the Council were unanimously approved by all autocephalous Orthodox Churches in March 2014. In January of this year, all autocephalous Orthodox Churches accepted the Council’s venue and signed an agreement confirming their decision.
After the January meeting of the primates, the drafts of the Council documents were made public for purposes of criticism and amendment. The documents have generated intense discussion among church leaders, scholars, and all concerned. While some texts, such as “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” proved to be more controversial than others, the agreement to hold the Council as planned was respected by all. It was respected, that is, until two weeks ago, just before the Council is set to convene.
The decision of several churches, including the Russian Orthodox Church, to withdraw from the Council reveals a difference of opinion and intention among the churches. A majority of the local churches desire to “walk together” (the literal meaning of the word “synod” or council) towards unity, while a minority desire ethnic isolation. The Council must not and will not be postponed due to this minority. Nor will the nonparticipation of a minority invalidate the proceedings of the Council.
While the official representatives of all Orthodox Churches have supported the idea of conciliarity in principle, some have attempted to block the conciliar process in practice. Importantly, the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) have insisted on a very strict interpretation of the consensus rule by which all conciliar decisions are to be made. The Moscow Patriarchate would require the total unanimity of all church delegations—and even of every bishop within each delegation. This interpretation of consensus departs from the Church’s tradition, in which decisions are made by majority vote or public acclamation. For example, the local council and the bishops’ council of the Russian Orthodox Church require a quorum of two-thirds of members, not total unanimity.
On the basis of this strict interpretation of consensus, the Moscow Patriarchate argues that the Council cannot go forward, because the Churches of Bulgaria, Antioch, and Georgia have all withdrawn, citing disagreements over Council documents and procedures. Under these conditions, and given its definition of consensus, the Moscow Patriarchate sees no reason to hold a Council. It argues that a conference should be held instead, to settle the contested issues so that the Council can be held at a later date with all churches in attendance.
On the contrary, the Council should proceed as planned, and the absent churches should have no influence on its deliberations. Historically, conciliar decisions have required broad representation, rather than the participation of the representatives of all local churches without exception. The Moscow Patriarchate’s decision to withdraw from the Council violates the written promises given in March 2014 and affirmed in January 2016. It is a fundamental assumption of international law that any party refusing to come to the table gives up its right to vote. Even the UN Security Council, which offers to its members the “best way to protect their own sovereign rights and national interests” by exercising the veto power, counts the votes of an absent member as an abstention. By analogy, the local churches that do not come to the Council cannot dictate the outcome of the Council. That would be against all that the Orthodox Churches stand for with regard to conciliarity and unity.
On June 9, an international group of scholars produced a petition, which was subsequently translated by volunteers into twelve languages and in less than two days received the support of more than one thousand Orthodox scholars from all over the world. On June 11, the group sent an open letter to the heads of all local Churches. It includes these passages:
We believe that there are no insurmountable difficulties to beginning the Council in June, despite the significant questions that have been raised regarding the drafts of the conciliar documents and conciliar proceedings. We acknowledge the legitimacy of some questions. . . . We also concur that there are many other issues [confronting] the Church in the twenty-first century that would require future Pan-Orthodox attention. Nevertheless, we are convinced that the best venue for settling significant disputes today, as in the times of old, is the Council itself. To postpone the Council once again, is to fail to live up to the principle of conciliarity on a global level. . . .
A small minority that wishes to jeopardize the work of the Council by further delays should not intimidate the overwhelming majority of the Orthodox leaders that wish to carry out the commitment to have the Council on this year’s Feast of Pentecost. In the last century, the Orthodox Church has witnessed to the world through a rich theological legacy and the blood of new martyrs. The Holy and Great Council occasions an opportunity to commence a new phase of Orthodox witness. As the eyes of the whole world are upon the Orthodox Church, we beseech all of our leaders to hear the Spirit’s call to conciliar unity.
Among the signatories are numerous prominent scholars and deans of Orthodox Schools of Theology, including St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Yonkers, New York; Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Boston, Massachusetts; St. Andrew's College, University of Manitoba, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada; St. Sophia Seminary, Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA; the Volos Theological Academy in Volos, Greece; Institut Orthodoxe Saint-Jean-le-Théologien in Brussels, Belgium; and St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College in Sydney, Australia.
While the Moscow Patriarchate has ignored the urge of the Orthodox scholars to attend the Holy and Great Council, the majority of the local Orthodox Churches will be sending their representatives. The official position of all local churches is that the Holy and Great Council is desirable. Those who sabotage the Council today are letting petty squabbles and impulses towards ethnic self-isolation prevail over walking together towards unity.
Perhaps the best analogy for the contemporary context of the Churches is the image of estranged members of a family. When family members have been isolated for a long time—in the case of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, for entire centuries—it is natural for fear and uncertainty to overshadow the possibility of conversation. It is important for the family members to gather at one table in order to overcome their isolation. The Holy and Great Council provides a unique moment and opportunity for such an encounter and conversation among the Orthodox sister churches. It is important to open the conciliar process to the voice of the Holy Spirit in our time.
Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis is an archdeacon and director of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Press Office.
Dr. Paul Gavrilyuk holds the Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy at University of St. Thomas and is external correspondent of the Ecumenical Patriarchate Press Office.