The Holy & Great Council of the Orthodox Church: result in great & lasting good?

August 24th, 2016 11:05 am

Natallia Vasilevichfrom SCM Belarus represented WSCF-E at the Holy and Great Council as a journalist. She writes her dissertation at the University of Bonn on the social doctrine of the Orthodox Church in the framework of the Holy and Great Council and pre-conciliar process.

The forefather of the World Student Christian Federation, John R. Mott, being a participant of a special American Mission to Russia appointed by US President Wilson, spoke on June 19, 1917 at the Great Sobor (Council) of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Council was a landmark in the history of orthodoxy, witnessing the theological revival and courage, which impressed the General Secretary of WSCF:

It has been most encouraging and inspiring to visit this great gathering and to see the open-minded and thorough way in which so many of your church leaders are facing their problems and seeking to adapt the church to new and modern conditions. This process is sure to result in great and lasting good. Let us have the courage to welcome and accept the truth form any quarter. In this period of change and readjustment when we are earnestly seeking to lay hold of new truth for life and work of the church, let us with like intensity and conviction hold fast to all that is true in historic Christianity, let us continue to ring true regarding the unchangeable and mighty truths of creedal Christianity; let us in a day of crass materialism and of cold intellectualism preserve the priceless possession of mystical Christianity; let us at all costs see that our Christianity is abounding in vitality; and, through the fearless and unflinching application of Christ’s principles, let us insist that it be made an adequate transforming power in social and national life and in international relationships… Above all let the Church be unfailing  in reminding the people that God only can enable us to accomplish His high and holy purpose. While everything else is changeable and changing, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, yea, and forever. 1

Mott’s words full of hope: “this process is sure to result in great and lasting good” unfortunately were not to be accomplished for the Great Sobor, as the Bolshevik revolution of 1917 and further terror against the church led to destruction of the Sobor’s best intentions and aspiration, its legacy survived only in emigration.  However, all these words could be prophetically addressed to the other Great Council, which opened its works on 19 of June, exactly 99 years after the speech of Rev. Mott in Russia.

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Photo by Nikos Kosmidis. A group of ecumenical observers

The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church took place on Crete 19-26 June 2016, and the main sessions took place in a small Cretan village of Kolymbari. This remote destination concluded century-long journey of preparations and efforts, challenges and obstacles on the way towards the Council, which became an extraordinary event, although the Councils shall constitute natural order of the church’s decision-making process and serve as an expression of its unity.

Started on the day of Pentecost to manifest its charismatic character, the Council appeared to be a very “normal” event, far from spectacular miracles of flames coming from above, and rather with miracle of humbleness, miracle of proximity, miracle of simplicity; miracle that one could twit and broadcast live videos in facebook. As my friend Ilona Sidoroff commented:

Feels kinda weird… I mean we learned the synods at schools and now three of my friends are present there and I can follow it in Facebook. I mean wow, but at the same time is this really happening?

And the main miracle was that the Council really took place, being so many times in history postponed, canceled, having process of preparation frozen due to external circumstances like wars or due to hostilities between the local churches. The Orthodox church is, confesses to be and aspires to be the one, and not “a federation of churches”. However, it is organised as a family of local churches, each one with its canonical territory and administrative structure: there are fourteen diverse autocephalous local churches sharing mutual recognition.

Contemporary Orthodoxy is a complex and even controversial phenomenon, sometimes giving the impression that the Orthodox Church is rather divided than united. However, the problem for unity is not diversity, which is legitimate and acceptable, but divisions and conflicts, which emerged when each of the local churches “promotes its own interests and ambitions”2. The differences in practices, conflicts and misunderstandings shall be dealt in sincere aspiration and trust, in a constant process of discussions by re-discovering again and again the truth of the Gospel, of the holy doctrinal and canonic Tradition, not denying the historic experience, social and scientific developments:

Divided by reasons of history and differences of language and nationality, the local holy Churches of God find their unity in mutual love and their courage in close fellowship with one another; and they derive power to make progress in faith and devotion, rejecting the crafts of hostility and proclaiming the Gospel universally.3

Definition of the Council as an “expression of unity” might sound in regard to the Holy and Great Council ironically if not sarcastically, to note that four synods of the local Orthodox churches out of fourteen in the last moment broke their commitment and refused that their delegations come to Crete, claiming to postpone the Council for a later date: Patriarchates of Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia and Moscow (alph. order). In sport they call it “forfeit”, and those not coming considered to be the losers. Just imagine that some national teams would not come to the Euro football championship, which started in France at the same dates as the Holy Council, if claiming to postpone the tournament or change its venue after the long process of being qualified.

However, even being physically absent at the Council, the four forfeited “teams” contributed significantly to the content of the Council’s documents and to the process of their reception: five of six draft documents enjoyed unanimous approval by all local churches, and all six were developed by committees formed from representatives of all the local churches. Moreover, all the final versions of the documents are open for those not present to join.

In the regard of opted churches I would like to mention courageous open letter composed by young Georgian theologians (incl. those who are affiliated with SCM Georgia) addressed to their Synod. In their lamentation, blaming on the one hand fundamentalist forces, on the other hand, political establishments, these theologians have manifested the presence of an alternative voice inside the Church of Georgia:

The aspiration of the Orthodox Church to show herself as “one, holy, catholic and apostolic church” and to give unanimous answer to modern challenges are hindered and criticized by fundamentalist and ultraconservative religious groups in our local church. These extremist groups of priests and believers disseminate false and incorrect information about the upcoming Council. The Patriarchate of Georgia does not reacting against these destructive forces in a proper way. On the contrary, it sometimes even justify their activity as a defense of Orthodoxy.

The orthodox world around us is divided mainly in two major “camps”: pro-Constantinople and pro-Moscow Orthodox churches. If the Orthodox Church of Georgia will not attend the upcoming Council in Crete, it will confirm once again that our church is ally Moscow Patriarchate which is an instrument of the Kremlin disgusting policy in post-Soviet countries.4

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Photo by Nikos Kosmidis. Ecumenical observers in the Gonias monastery during Pentecost liturgy. Sitting (left to right): (1) His Eminence Kurt Cardinal Koch, President of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Roman Catholic Church; (2) Archbishop Gomidas Ohanian, Holy See of Cilicia of Armenian Apostolic Church; (3) Mor Timotheos Moussa Al Shamani, Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Mor Matta Monastery, Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch; (4) Bishop Brian Farrell, secretary of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, Roman Catholic Church

Idea of a “national interest” or an “interest” which fits more geopolitics and Realpolitik and which overpasses the idealistic concepts of “unity” or “common good” unfortunately plays significant role in the self-identity of the local churches. Russian theologian Andrey Shishkov goes as far that in case of local churches as autocephalous, self-governed churches it’s time to restore the Schmittean concept of “sovereignty”, however insisting on necessity of the Council to become a new authority, which demands to diminish “privatised” particular authorities of the local churches and requires from the local churches to refuse from their “sovereignty” for the sake of universal church5. In the Encyclical of the Council it is stated:

The Orthodox Catholic Church comprises fourteen local Autocephalous Churches, recognized at a pan-Orthodox level. The principle of autocephaly cannot be allowed to operate at the expense of the principle of the catholicity and the unity of the Church.6

In some sense, step to come to the Holy and Great Council was for the local churches a step of courage, of trust, of self-restraint, of kenosis, but not all were unfortunately psychologically ready to give up their self-governance: like some old bachelors running away from marriage right from the altar! Continuing wedding metaphor, despite the runaway of four local churches, the marriage has happened. As it happened in the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins (Matthew 25:1-13), despite that fact that half of the young ladies were not prepared for bridegroom’s arrival.

As the result of the Holy and Great Council the following eight documents were adopted:

Visualisation of the Council’s documents looks inspiring with the keywords: God, Christ, Spirit, Church, Human, Man, World, Peace, Love, Freedom, Life, Faith, Unity.7

Church word cloud - Orthodox Council by Natallia Vasillevich

One can easily see the largest and dominating word “Church”, that signifies both that the inner church issues were the most urgent to be addressed by the Council, but also that that was the Church who dealt with those topics; it signifies, how much the Council was concerned with the self-identity of the church: who we are and what we are concerned with.

This central notion also boosted the biggest controversy of the Council in regard to what was called by the document on the ecumenical movement as “the rest of the Christian world”. Can we use the word “church” towards non-Orthodox communities, speaking about Roman Catholic Church or Protestant churches or that is the notion appropriate exclusively for our own church, the Orthodox one? Or can we erase from the document on ecumenical relations which welcomes participation in the ecumenical movement and in theological dialogues, the word “church” after centuries of using it in relation to heterodox communities, and to start to use simply, for example, notions like “Roman Catholic community” or “Protestants confessions”, denying their self-identity as churches? Despite the strong opposition, the fathers of the Council (with some individual exceptions of bishops not signing the document voted by the church delegations) unequivocally insisted, that “the Orthodox Church accepts the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her”8, and claim that “the Orthodox participation in the movement to restore unity with other Christians in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church is in no way foreign to the nature and history of the Orthodox Church, but rather represents a consistent expression of the apostolic faith and tradition in a new historical circumstances”9. In the same time, the Council condemned those individuals and groups, which “under the pretext of maintaining or allegedly defending true Orthodoxy” attempt “to break the unity of the Church”10.

Next two significant words for the documents are “man” and “human”. And anthropology, teaching on human being, also played a central role in the Council’s concerns. In the document “Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s world” a human being was in the centre, and the very notion of “human being” was not away from controversies in relation to the notion of “person”. Theological debate were initiated by Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos, who claimed the problematic character of the notion “person” and fought against personalism, which, according to him associates “the energy-will with the person”, and not with the nature, while “will and self-rule do not belong to the person, but to nature. The person is the one who desires, while desire is an appetite of nature and will is a result of the desire of the one who desires.” Could be considered just as philosophical debates, but anthropology – how we see a human being, nature and freedom, results in how we treat the human being in relation to the society and its organisation, in particular, in implications how much important is to protect freedom of person – meaning freedom of choice, freedom of will, freedom of making personal decisions on the basis of unique personhood and not on the basis of human nature. Despite criticism, the Council insisted on necessity to use of the “modern” concept of a “human person”, arguing about its value, which implicitly includes also recognition of the value of personal identity and the freedom of a choice. The Council recognises that

Human rights today are at the center of politics as a response to the social and political crises and upheavals, and seek to protect the citizen from the arbitrary power of the state. Our Church also adds to this the obligations and responsibilities of the citizens and the need for constant self-criticism on the part of both politicians and citizens for the improvement of society. And above all she emphasises that the Orthodox ideal in respect of man transcends the horizon of established human rights and that ” greatest of all is love”, as Christ revealed and as all the faithful who follow him have experienced.11

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The third notion which I would like to pick from the picture is the “world”. As His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew manifested in his opening speech at the Council:

The Church does not exist for itself, but for the entire world and its salvation, having as its head Christ ‘the firstborn of all creation’, in whom and through whom God pleased to ‘reconcile to Himself all things, making peace by the blood of His Cross, whether on earth or in heaven’ (cf. Col. 1.16, 20).

In this regard, the world is not something “outside” the Church, as the salvation is proposed to the whole creation, and all thing are to be reconciled in Him, so to say, to come “under His head”12. We see the world not as something alien and hostile for the church, but rather church is called to follow example of Christ, it

shares in our anguish and existential problems, taking upon herself … our suffering and wounds, which are caused by evil in the world and, like the Good Samaritan, pouring oil and wine upon our wound… The word addressed to the world is not primarily meant to judge and condemn the world…13

That is an important shift in the self-identity of the church: how to relate to the world which is wounded;  and touching the wounds, to be rather “oil and wine” to heal them, than “salt” which is never helpful for healing the wounds and causes more pain.

In hope to receive “oil and wine” on the wounds, calling to the safe space, with a fear to be judged by the “salty” words as an answer to a personal story of sorrow of being LGBT in the Orthodox Church, Misha Cherniak on behalf of Orthodox LGBT Christians addressed courageous open letter to the Holy Council.

….Even though LGBT people are quite often presented as being a group external to the Orthodox Church, the European Forum of LGBT Groups can testify that, in fact, the proportion of people of non-traditional sexual orientation and gender identity is the same within the Orthodox Church as it is outside. This has become clear to us through our many activities related to Eastern Europe and thanks to the presence of Orthodox Christians among our member groups….

We ask you: in your sermons and speeches, whenever you mention LGBT persons and issues, remember that we actually might be standing right before you! We are not an abstract concept, but actual human beings—your children, sisters, and brothers…

We ask you: do everything you can to stop this violence and aggression! Too often, those who shout words of hatred claim to base them in the holy Orthodox Tradition. We plead with you, beloved teachers and guardians of our Tradition: do not let it be misused to bring death and destroy human lives! Let love and care precede admonition….

We believe that Holy Scripture and the Orthodox Tradition offer many examples of consolation and blessing for the diverse reality of human sexuality, which includes LGBT persons and their relations. We are aware that our understanding of Holy Scripture and Orthodox theology as enabling the harmonious reconciliation of our sexual and religious identities may seem audacious—but we ask you to hear us out. We urge you to establish safe spaces for dialogue: situations and places where those of differing views can share not only their opinions, but also their doubts and personal stories.14

Not an abstract concept, whether it be “person”, “human being”, or “man”; but “actual human beings” – what a powerful claim! The theological discussions do not deal with an abstract concepts, they have direct implications on the life of the concrete people. Concepts might be ideal constructions, like in the Document “The Sacrament of Marriage”, which quite abstractly prescribes, that “Marriage between Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christians is forbidden according to canonical akribeia” (II.5.i). But when it comes to concrete human situation, this idealistic akribeia has to be reconciled and balanced by another principle of application of canons – oikonomia, pastoral flexibility and discernment (II.5.ii.). At the same time, even wide application of oikonomia is not the final answer to the challenges, because as a principle it proposes just exceptions from the rule, legitimate deviation from the norm. While dealing with concrete situations of the reality – with the “today’s world” which is dynamic and rapidly changing, with development of sciences, requires constant reflection, reconsidering and reconsidering of our canonical norms in new circumstances.

In conclusion, I would like to recall again word’s of John Mott – as my personal impression:

It has been most encouraging and inspiring to visit this great gathering and to see the open-minded and thorough way in which so many of your church leaders are facing their problems and seeking to adapt the church to new and modern conditions.

Sometimes, of course, watching the process of the Holy and Great Council, I was not only encouraged and inspired, but disappointed and even devastated. Sometimes I had impressions that Great Sobor of the Russian Church in 1917-1918, one century ago, was much more progressive than the actual one. But there is still hope and conviction, that the Holy and Great Council is not something what just happened once, that it will result in great and lasting good. The Council boosted the theological reflection, diagnosed many divisions, wounds and weaknesses, and it will continue to be a reference point for the Orthodox Church, its identity and its positions.

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[1] Mott, John R. “Before the Russian Orthodox Church,” in America’s Message to the Russian People; Addresses by the Members of the Special Diplomatic Mission of the United States to Russia in the Year 1917. Boston: Marshall Jones Company, 1918. Pp. 105-111

[2] From the Opening Address by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Inaugural Session of the Holy and Great Council.

[3] Answer of the Russian Orthodox Church to Patriarch Joachim III’s letter informing about his election as the Ecumenical Patriarch quoted in: Patriarchal and Synodical Letter of 1902. Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism. Statements, Messages and Reports on the Ecumenical Movement. 1902-1992. Compl. by Gennadios Limouris. WCC Publications, Geneva, 1994, 1-5

[4] Open Letter of Georgian theologians to the Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church of Georgia –

[5] Shishkov, Andrey, Церковная автокефалия через призму теории суверенитета Карла Шмитта, in: Государство, религия, церковь №3, 2014, 197-224.

[6] Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, p.5

[7] Visualisation of the Documents content (created using Voyant Tools)

[8] Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, p.6

[9] Ibid., p.4

[10] Ibid., p 22

[11] Message of the Holy and Great Council, p.10.

[12] Eph. 1:10 “To unite all things in Him, things in heaven and things on earth”, where unite in Greek is ἀνακεφαλαιὠσασθαι, so to say, to head-up. This concept of heading-up, recapitulatio was further developed by Irenaeus of Lyon in Adversus haereses: Christ embracing the entire Creation to save it.

[13] Mission of the Church in the Today’s World, Introduction.

[14] Open letter from the European Forum of LGBT Christian Groups to the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, gathered at Crete, June 2016.

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