26 July 2016

Pan Orthodox Council in Crete may need
some more time to access and evaluate

The Pan-Orthodox Council Holy and Great Synod opened in the Cathedral of Saint Minas in Iraklion (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

I arrived in Crete last month just days after Orthodox Church leaders had concluded an historic council in which they pledged themselves to dialogue with other churches, while also reaffirming that there could be no compromise when it comes to Orthodox teachings.

The Pan-Orthodox Council, officially styled the Holy and Great Synod, brought together Patriarchs, bishops and theologians from most of the recognised autocephalous or autonomous Orthodox Churches, and they met at the Orthodox Academy of Crete in Kolymvari, outside Chania, last month [19-26 June 2016].

The council was a talking point in Church circles in Crete throughout my time there, circular letters about the council from the Bishops of Crete were available in all parish churches, and the council is going to have considerable impact on discussions and debates in Orthodox churches and theological circles for years to come.

The Council began on the Feast of Pentecost, which fell on 19 June in the Julian Calendar, with the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presiding at the Divine Liturgy in the Cathedral of Saint Minas in Iraklion. In his sermon, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomeos I insisted the Orthodox Church is united in its faith in Christ and in Church doctrine: “The Orthodox Church is one, but reveals itself in the world through its individual local vines, which are unbreakably and indivisibly attached to one – to one church, to one body.”

The 10 Churches that sent representatives to Crete were the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Orthodox Churches of Alexandria, Jerusalem, Serbia, Romania, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, and the Czech Lands and Slovakia.

The Council concluded on 26 June 26th 2016, the Sunday of All Saints, with a Patriarchal Concelebration. Patriarch Bartholomeos presided at the Divine Liturgy in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in Chania, in concelebration with the other Orthodox Primates present.

The concluding liturgy of the Council in the Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, in Chania

“The Orthodox Church, faithful to the unanimous apostolic tradition and her sacramental experience, is the authentic continuation of the one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church as confessed in the Creed and confirmed by the teaching of the Church Fathers,” the final statement declared.

“Our Church attaches great importance to dialogue, primarily with non-Orthodox Christians. In this way the remainder of the Christian world comes to know more precisely the authenticity of the Orthodox tradition, the value of patristic teaching and the liturgical life and faith of the Orthodox. Dialogues conducted by the Orthodox Church never imply a compromise in matters of faith.”

The message was issued at the end of the Holy and Great Council, which was attended by 220 Orthodox archbishops and bishops, as well as 70 official advisers. It said the signatories were full of “thanksgiving and praise” that the gathering had taken place, despite the absence of four of the 14 Orthodox churches. It added that the Council’s key priority had been “to proclaim the unity of the Orthodox church” with “a prophetic voice that cannot be silenced.”

“The Orthodox Church expresses her unity and catholicity in council – conciliarity pervades her organisation, the way decisions are taken and determines her path,” the message continued.

“The Church does not involve herself in politics – her voice remains distinct, but also prophetic, as a beneficial intervention for the sake of man. Human rights today are at the centre of politics as a response to social and political crises and upheavals, and seek to protect the citizen from the arbitrary power of the state. Our Church adds to this the obligations and responsibilities of citizens and the need for constant self-criticism.”

The week-long Council, probably the first council on such a scale for 1,200 years, ended on 26 June with a celebration of the Divine Liturgy at the Basilica of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, presided over by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who convened the Council.

Professor Paul L. Gavrilyuk, who was part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s press office at the Council, writes that perhaps the most significant achievement of the Council was the fact the bishops managed to meet at all, despite the last-moment attempt of four Churches to stop the event. By meeting, the Orthodox Churches showed “that they were not merely a loose confederation of local churches, but that they were also a unified body, historically continuous with the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic’ Church of the Creed.”

The council adopted joint declarations on Orthodox mission, diaspora affairs, Church autonomy, fasting and ties with other Christian churches, as well as a document on marriage, which said heterosexual unions were “an indispensable condition for marriage,” and barred Church members from “same-sex unions or any other form of cohabitation.”

Two days before the Council ended, the Council spokesman, Archbishop Job Getcha of Telmessos, said the Council’s decisions would be binding for all churches, despite decisions by the absence of the Patriarchate of Antioch and the Orthodox Churches in Russia, Bulgaria and Georgia.

Antioch had warned that it would not attend if its dispute with the Church of Jerusalem over the canonical jurisdiction of Qatar had not been resolved. All four absent Churches are now arguing that a pan-Orthodox council could not be convened unless all 14 Churches did not attend, and in a statement on 27 June, the Russian Orthodox Church said it may not recognise decisions taken in Crete.

In addition, 15 observers from non-Orthodox churches attended the Council, including Cardinal Kurt Koch, who chairs the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity. However, the non-Orthodox observers, including Cardinal Koch, were only invited to attend the opening and closing sessions. For the rest of the council sessions, they were taken on cultural tours to places in Crete.

The harbour of Chania … the Council took place in nearby Kolymvari (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

In its document on dialogue with other Christian denominations, the Council said Orthodox Churches had “participated in the ecumenical movement from its outset,” seeing this as “a consistent expression of the apostolic faith and tradition in new historical circumstances.”

“The Orthodox Church accepts the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian churches and confessions that are not in communion with her, and believes her relations with them should be based on the most speedy and objective clarification possible of the whole ecclesiological question – most especially of their more general teachings on sacraments, grace, priesthood and apostolic succession,” the document added, without making a direct reference to the Roman Catholic Church.

“In the theological dialogues, the common goal of all is the ultimate restoration of unity in true faith and love. However, the existing theological and ecclesiological differences permit a certain hierarchical ordering of challenges in the way of this pan-Orthodox objective. The distinctive problems of each bilateral dialogue require a differentiation in the methodology followed in it.”

In its final message, the Council also said current “explosions of fundamentalism” in religions were “an expression of morbid religiosity.” It called on governments in the Middle East to do more to protect endangered Christian populations, and on all citizens, including Orthodox Christians, to help refugees “to the limit or even beyond the limit of their abilities.”

The message said Orthodoxy recognised the benefits brought by science and did not “adopt a position on every scientific question.” But it also recognised that science could also lead to “the manipulation of freedom, gradual loss of precious traditions, destruction of the natural environment and the questioning of moral values.”

Each Orthodox Church was invited to send up to 25 bishops and six advisers to the Council. Nine women were included among the 290 delegates for the first time at a major Orthodox meeting. The details of running the council were finalised earlier this year [January 2016] by the Orthodox Synaxis, or assembly of Orthodox primates, after a century of on-off planning and decades of preparations that began in 1961.

The Synaxis of Primates met at the Orthodox Centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chamb├ęsy, Switzerland. The Primates of the local Orthodox Churches and three official delegations from the Church of Antioch, the Church of Greece, and the Church of Poland met to finalise the texts for the Council.

Initially, it was planned to convene the council in Constantinople (Istanbul). But, because of heightened tensions between Russia and Turkey, the venue was moved to Crete, which is part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate rather than the Church of Greece. However, one notable disadvantage was that the delegations were hosted in different hotels, making it difficult for them to network or arrange meetings.

Patrick Comerford and Metropolitan Kallistos Ware at the IOCS summer school in Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, a few years ago

Metropolitan Kallistos Ware of Diokleia, who is based in Oxford and is perhaps the best known Orthodox theologian in the English-speaking world, was one of the participants in the council.

In an interview with Michael Heinlein of the news weekly Our Sunday Voice, he said the Council was a success “quite simply … because it took place.” He pointed that there had not been a council of this kind in the recent history of the Orthodox Church. “Some people would say that this is the first time since the seventh ecumenical council [Second Council of Nicaea, 787 AD] that a meeting of this calibre has taken place.”

The Rev Dr John Chryssavgis, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and Dr Brandon Gallaher, of the University of Exeter, have pointed out that in the past 1,200 years, many Orthodox teachings have remained suspended, undefined at a universal conciliar level. These include the teaching of deification (theosis). The end of Christian salvation in Christ is that all might become “partakers of the divine nature” (II Peter 1:4).

Related to this is the teaching expressed classically by Saint Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) that one can come to know God and be deified through direct participation in the divine energies that pervade creation, although the divine essence is utterly unknowable. It is the teaching of God transcendent and yet immanent, God inapproachable and incomprehensible and yet fully accessible and knowable.

However, given the absence of delegates from the Patriarchate of Antioch, the Church of Bulgaria, the Church of Georgia, and, most significant of all, the Church of Russia, Metropolitan Kallistos conceded “we cannot actually say that this meeting was pan-Orthodox.”

He hopes that this will be the first in a series of meetings, with regular meetings of the Holy and Great Council every three to seven years.

One change he highlighted involved a reference in the preliminary document dealing with marriage and the question of “mixed marriages” – a marriage between an Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian. Originally, it was said that in these marriages the children should always be brought up Orthodox. “Now that stipulation was deleted, and I think it was sensible to say that in the end we have to leave this to the conscience and decision of the parents, rather than make demands before people are married.”

Metropolitan Kallistos said the two most important documents were on the relation of the Orthodox Church to the other Churches and on the Orthodox diaspora or the position of Orthodox living outside the traditional territories of Orthodox national Churches.

The document on the other Churches begins with an uncompromising statement to the effect that the Orthodox Church is the one, true, catholic, apostolic Church. He points out that the Roman Catholic Church has made a similar claim, although this was modified at Vatican II by saying in Lumen Gentium that the one, true, catholic Church “subsists in” the Roman Catholic Church.

Professor Gavrilyuk has described how a number of delegates objected to the use of the term “Church” in reference to non-Orthodox Christians. The delegates of the Church of Greece claimed such use could be so controversial as to potentially lead to schism. But Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, who emerged as one of the most effective mission-minded voices at the council, appealed to the delegates not to give in to fear and intimidation.

Metropolitan John Zizioulas, a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, noted that the application of the term “Church” to non-Orthodox Christians was sanctioned by past use going back to the 11th century. Metropolitan John asked: “Is this assembly prepared to anathematise the Church Fathers [for using the term “church” in reference to non-Orthodox]?” The silence that followed indicated that the vast majority of delegates were ready to disown an overly narrow, fundamentalist reading of the patristic tradition.

The document on “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World” declares: “The Orthodox Church considers all efforts to break the unity of the Church, undertaken by individuals or groups under the pretext of maintaining or allegedly defending true Orthodoxy, as being worthy of condemnation. As evidenced throughout the life of the Orthodox Church, the preservation of the true Orthodox faith is ensured only through the conciliar system, which has always represented the highest authority in the Church on matters of faith and canonical decrees.”

The document agreed in Crete does not use a term equivalent to “subsists in.” But it continues in positive terms to commend the different dialogues that are in progress. The Church of Greece proposed that the Council should not call non-Orthodox bodies Churches, but instead call them communities. “Well that was rejected,” said Metropolitan Kallistos, “because we said for a very long time we have referred to the Roman Catholic Church, to the Anglican Church and to other bodies as churches ... To refuse to call them churches at all – this we rejected – ... would have been a very negative step.”

Metropolitan Kallistos also discussed the rivalry between Constantinople and Russia, and the reservations the Russians have about the claim of the Patriarch of Constantinople to the first place in the Orthodox Church.

He predicted the Church of Romania could play an important mediating role. “The Church of Romania does not take sides over any conflict between Constantinople and Moscow,” he pointed out. “And the Church of Romania, it has to be remembered, is, after Russia, the largest Orthodox Church. Indeed I think if we leave out the Ukraine, the Church of Romania is bigger than the Moscow Patriarchate in Russia itself.”

In the Orthodox tradition, no primate or patriarch can make a conciliar decision universally binding by virtue of his own authority. In Orthodox ecclesiology, this authority belongs to the bishops gathered at a Pan-Orthodox Council, as long as their decisions are properly received by the people of God. The council ended just a month ago [26 June 2016], and so the initial stages of reception have yet to begin. It may take lengthy discussions and observation before it is agreed that the Council of Crete is truly “Holy and Great,” or merely a prelude to something holier and greater that will eventually involve other Christian Churches in the years ahead.

The Greek Orthodox Cathedral in Chania (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)