Posted by Andrew Estocin
Pentecost 2016 will mark the opening of the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It has been over 1,000 years since the Eastern Orthodox Church has held a Great and Holy Council. The world has certainly changed in the past millennium. Electricity, flight and the Western Hemisphere are all examples of things that were unknown to the participants in the last Council. Needless to say there is some catching up to do! Despite all of these changes, the question today is a simple one.
Is the Church truly what it says it is or is all the talk of Orthodox conciliarity for naught? One wonders how a Church that cannot agree on a date for Christmas can work together and face the future.
The first millennium always looks perfect from afar and after over 1,000 years of waiting it is easy for leaders focus on nostalgia for times gone by. The greater challenge is to turn outward and show an increasing secular world the truth and beauty of the Orthodox Christian Faith. The vocation of the Council is not to serve itself but to serve the world. This is the essence of Apostolic witness.
Here are five best practices the Great and Holy Council must embrace to meet the challenge of the future.
1) TAKE THE TIME: One of the temptations in the organization of the Council is to conduct it in haste. It would be a tragedy if the Council was held over a two or three day period and followed a tightly prepared script. Previous Councils lasted for months and there is no reason for the 2016 Council not to take its time and allow the Holy Spirit to work. Modern technology makes it easy for leaders to govern their dioceses from afar and to communicate with one another. It has never been easier than it is today to conduct a Great and Holy Council.
2) BE TRANSPARENT: Technology has been a challenge for the Orthodox Church but it also has offered many blessings. It is important to harness the blessing of technology to share the work of the Council with the world. There is no need for secrecy in the Orthodox Church. Leaders can demonstrate this by broadcasting the Council’s proceedings. In the age of the internet this is quite easy and there are many Orthodox media outlets who are capable of providing these services. Every person should have the opportunity witness the work of the Council by being able to listen as it unfolds in real time. Transparency is the foundation of authentic conciliarity and never hurts the Church. It helps strengthen the Body of Christ.
3) EMBRACE DEBATE: History shows that the Councils that have promoted healthy debate have born the most fruit. There is no reason this cannot be true today. The Church must show it welcomes robust debate in the defense of the Faith. The greatness of Orthodox Christianity has always been made manifest when it has taken the time to address the great questions posed by society. This is a Tradition that should continue in 2016.
4) EVANGELIZE FIRST: The Orthodox Church rejects clericalism at all times. Questions of power and control have no place in the Body of Christ. Instead of falling for the trap of debating the order of Churches and who is subject to whom, Council leaders should focus on first growing the Church through mission and evangelism. The Council must answer the question: How can the Orthodox Church reach those who are unchurched or fallen away? Archbishop Anastasios of Albania is correct when he writes.
“Church without mission is a contradiction in terms. If the Church is indifferent to the apostolic work with which she has been entrusted, she denies herself, contradicts herself and her essence, and is a traitor in the warfare in which she is engaged. A static Church which lacks vision and a constant endeavor to proclaim the Gospel to the oikoumene [“whole inhabited world”] could hardly be recognized as the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church to whom the Lord entrusted the continuation of His work.”
5) INVITE WOMEN: Orthodoxy has always held women in the highest regard. Church history is full of amazing women such St. Olha of Kyiv and St. Maria of Paris. One can only imagine what these women would say if they could address the Council in 2016. There is simply no sensible reason not to invite women monastics and other faithful Orthodox women to participate in this important event. Not to do so undermines the voice of the Church and its ability to witness to the world. It also denies the great role women have played in the history of the Church.
There is no question the Great and Holy Council will measure the health of the Church as it exists today and for decades to come.
Will the world see a Church that is simply a museum from a time long gone or will the world see the Apostolic Faith that turned the world upside down ultimately changing it for the better?
Only time will tell for certain.
I just hope there will be some work left for the Holy Spirit to do as the bishops seems to have made all of the decisions before the council and even decided what will and what will not be discussed. It seems to me that a full and vigorous debate needs to take place on certain issues that have been excised from the agenda. Things like the calendar, primacy, autocephaly simply will not be discussed…yet many were hoping that these issues would occupy the thoughts of the Council Fathers. Numerically this will be a far cry from what the world saw in the Roman Council of Vatican II…thousands of bishops gathering and discussing issues.
The ‘Great and Holy Council of 2016’ is being prepared. Purposely I have not looked into it and know nothing about it, only the name, which I even had to research to make sure it was correct, and that it was really happening. I am not a seminary-trained theologian or a member of the ordained clergy, and what I am about to say is therefore at best my humble opinion, at worst maybe potential heresy. Until a great council is convened, many free thoughts remain free and their thinkers within the fold of Holy Church; afterwards, maybe not. Councils are convened as much to root out the unwanted as they are to plant anew what ‘the mind of the Church’ desires. That mind is also supposed to be at one with the mind of Christ, as it was at the first, ‘for it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials’ (Acts 15:28). Unfortunately, history shows us that this is not always the case. The unity of the Church must remain either only a metaphor, or else, the church that holds itself to be ‘the only true’ must protect itself and God instead of following Christ.
Why the Council? My guess is, the Orthodox are thinking that they have been gradually growing apart from each other, as well as in relation to ‘the world,’ which cannot see us as a faith to be reckoned with, because visibly we seem fragmented and ineffectual. Myself, I feel that this apparent disunity is a symptom of our lack of heroic and decisive leadership, which produces a general confusion from the top down. In the 20th century we had such heroic, yes, even Christlike, leaders. The last of them are quickly dying off, and they seem to have few, if any, successors of like stature. Whatever they think the ‘Great and Holy Council of 2016’ will achieve, I hope (and yes, pray) that it will be commandeered not by political and religious interests, but by the Holy Spirit. How will we know the difference?
I have yet many things to tell you, but you cannot bear them now. But when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own authority. But He will speak whatever He hears, and He will tell you things that are to come. He will glorify Me, for He will receive from Me and will declare it to you. All that the Father has is Mine. Therefore I said that He will take what is Mine and will declare it to you.
To call a Council at the threshold of the third millennium has to be the work, not of men, but of the Holy Spirit. The Roman Catholic pope, John XXIII, prophetically inaugurated this work at the end of the second millennium. For those who were not yet alive, the last pope John was very much like the current pope Francis. They both have a way of living, speaking, and acting as if they were ordinary humans, not wearers of infallible authority. This behavior generates both hope and fear in members of their Church, and in the world generally. I have a hunch that, had pope John lived to see the Vatican Council to its conclusion (instead of presiding only at the first session), he would have been the last Roman pope, and the herald of the end of the Great Schism. The non-Roman observers he had invited would have been accepted for who they were—hierarchs and leaders of the universal Church—and the course of the Church, and of all of human history, would have been radically altered.
What do I hope for in a ‘Great and Holy Council’? Notice, I did not call it ‘the’ nor did I append a year. Why not? Because I do not know that this Council will be anything but a further estrangement between Christians, and the perpetuation of a ‘religious’ Christianity. I can only hope that it will be the final Council, the one that establishes for all time, not only the truth as Christ, but the way and the life as well. What I mean is, seeing as how we have verified beyond all shadow of a doubt who Jesus Christ is, we can begin to follow Him for real, not for religion. The Church must finally decide what she is, now that she knows who He is.
There is only one controversy to be decided. It is not about jurisdictions, nor about primacy. It is not about devotional practices, worship and the like, nor about morality, rules and regulations. It is about the life or death of the Church. We already have Christ’s promise that ‘the gates of Hades will not prevail against it,’ and so we know the Church will survive, and not only survive but triumph, and continue till the Day of Christ’s return. The controversy is, is the Church a religious society dedicated to its own perpetuation, or is it the transfiguration of all of humankind by the promotion of life in Christ? We’ve been doing the first—by our own efforts ‘preserving and protecting’ the Church—for two thousand years. Isn’t it about time to ‘let God be God,’ to stand on His promise to preserve the Church till the end of time, while we follow Jesus, doing what He does, learning from Him, obeying Him?
Whoever hears these sayings of Mine and does them, I will liken him to a wise man who built his house on a rock. And the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house. And it did not fall, for it was founded on rock. And everyone who hears these sayings of Mine and does not do them will be likened to a foolish man who built his house on sand. And the rain descended, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house. And it fell. And its fall was great.
Let me put it another way. The Church has spent a great deal of effort, all through history, of creating structures real and theoretical, to tabernacle God, letting ‘Lord, have mercy’ replace being merciful, building a religious edifice that Christ Himself does not want. He did not come to start another religion, but to be the end of religion. Christ is not a religious reformer. He is the re-creation of the perfect Man. We call Him the ‘new’ or the ‘second Adam.’ His resurrection from the dead is an absolute novelty in the history, not only of the earth, but possibly of the universe. He didn’t rise from the dead and then die again, like Lazarus. Religion pales into absurdity and insignificance when we consider these facts, yet we make Christ’s teachings a metaphor instead of following them. Is this the Church that the ‘Great and Holy Council’ is going to secure for us and for humanity in the third ‘Christian’ millennium?
No, the Council shall alone be ‘great and holy’ that enthrones Christ, the King of kings of kings, not as a religious idol, but as the God who lives among us, healing our infirmities, curing us of blindness, raising us from the tombs of our sinful nature, preparing us by His holy commandments, making us in spirit and in truth (that is, in reality) a holy nation of priests and kings, extending the borders of the Church to encompass all of humanity, welcoming all to the life of transformation, expecting not the end of the world, but the end of the world as we have known it, dissolving division, slaying slander, abolishing the darkness of earthly ignorance and overturning the poverty of the knowledge of God, preaching and pursuing peace, inaugurating the wedding feast of heaven and earth.
How can the Council that is being planned be that one which transforms the human race, and history, in the way I have so inadequately described? By letting go, perhaps, of all concern for self-preservation, by abandoning exclusiveness, by seeing the Church not as a subset of humanity that intellectually accepts a body of religious doctrines, but as all humankind waiting for illumination, and, most of all, by returning to the word of Jesus, for that is the house built on rock.
No one seems to understand what this “UNHOLY” council is really all about. IT’S A POWER GRAB! It’s only a matter of time when the radical Islamists hang the Pat. again. Maybe 1,000 Orthodox in Istanbul. While Orthodoxy in Russia is booming and Moscow’s influence dominates. Yet, Moscow is a political arm of Putin and the world doesn’t trust Russia. So, + Bart’s “Last Hurrah” is to have his “GREAT ADVENTURE” in Crete on Pentecost. He hoped this would be his coronation as “Orthodoxy’s Eastern Pope,” but Moscow won’t let that happen. In fact, to get Moscow to agree to this meeting, + Bart had to promise Moscow he’d stay out of the Ukraine. So, what does all of this mean for America? NOTHING. The U.S. bishops are just stupid. + Bart isn’t about to say, “OK America, I grant you autocephaly.” That’s a pipe-dream. Remember, the Kievan-Rus went over 100 years without Constantinople recognizing their own proclaimed autocephaly when Constantinople fell into heresy signing at the Council of Florence. America needs to do the same. The Ass. of Bishops needs to TAKE autocephaly. All these bishops need to sign a document divorcing themselves of foreign bishop intervention, AS ORTHODOX CANON LAW STATES. Then join in their own Synod for the American Church, electing their own leader. The Diptychs have NOTHING to do with church organization!