|A “Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church” will convene on June 16, 2016 and conclude on June 27, 2016.
There are many rumors and much speculation about what this “Holy and Great Council” will mean. Some of these are true, others are totally false.
What follow are some brief clarifications on basic questions surrounding the council.
What issues are under consideration?
The following six issues, out of very many that were suggested and studied in fifty years of pre-conciliar meetings, were officially approved for referral to, and adoption by, the Holy and Great Council (click on the topics to be redirected to the approved statements that will be discussed and proposed for adoption):
- THE MISSION OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH IN TODAY’S WORLD
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow states that this is the key document on the agenda of the Pan-Orthodox Council. Read commentary from Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow
2. THE ISSUE OF ORTHODOX DIASPORA
The current practice of having regional Episcopal Assemblies is to be maintained, and the natural right of each Orthodox Church to take care of her flock in diaspora is confirmed. Read commentary from Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow
3. AUTONOMY & AUTOCEPHALY AND THE WAY OF GRANTING IT
The right of each autocephalous Church to grant a particular degree of autonomy to her particular part, except for the diocesan structures located in the Orthodox Diaspora regions, is confirmed. Read commentary from Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow
4. SACRAMENT OF MARRIAGE
This topic responds to challenges threatening the institution of the family in modern the world. Read commentary from Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow
5. THE IMPORTANCE OF FASTING AND ITS OBSERVANCE
The document on this topic affirms for the first time on a pan-Orthodox scale the obligatory character of Nativity, Apostles’, and Dormition fasts. Read commentary from Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow
6. RELATIONS OF THE ORTHODOX CHRUCH WITH THE REST OF THE CHRISTIAN WORLD
There is no question of any union of the Orthodox Church with the non-Orthodox. Read commentary from Patriarch Kyrill of Moscow
Are there any theological evaluations of these topics?
Yes. Here are several that have been made available in English:
Update: Chambésy, March 29, 2016
Patriarchal and Synodical Encyclical on the Convocation of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, March 18, 2016
Another hierarch appeals to the Holy Synod concerning the Pan-Orthodox Council, March 10, 2016
Greek priest and theologian speaks out against draft document of Pan-Orthodox Council, March 7, 2016
Third Letter to the Holy Synod of Greece Concerning the Draft Documents Prepared for the Upcoming Pan-Orthodox Council, March 5, 2016
Letter to the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece on the texts proposed for approval by the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church, February 22, 2016
Letter to the Holy Synod Of Greece Concerning Preparations for the Upcoming Great and Holy Council, February 17, 2016
A Second Intervention-Confession of Faith: On the Document “Organization and Working Procedure of the Holy and Great Council,” Thessaloniki, February 12, 2016
“What Unity are We Talking About? Those Who Departed from the Church are Heretics and Schismatics,” February 11, 2016
Observations on the text: “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World,” Thessaloniki, February 3, 2016
How were the topics selected?
These topics were unanimously selected by the Primates of the fourteen Orthodox Autocephalous Churches. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convened a Synaxis of these Primates, or their representatives, at the Orthodox Centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy, Geneva, Switzerland from January 21 to 28, 2016.
The agenda of this synaxis (gathering) was to set a June date and to approve the topics that would be referred to the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church.
All of the primates attended the synaxis in person with three exceptions. Patriarch John X of Antioch and Metropolitan Sawa of Poland were unable to attend due to health reasons, and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece was absent for personal reasons. Nonetheless, all three were represented by officially authorized delegates.
Synaxis sessions were held in the apostolic spirit of “speaking the truth in love” (Ephesians 4.15), in harmony and understanding. Moreover, on Sunday, January 24, 2016, the Ecumenical Patriarch the heads of the delegations (with the exception of the Patriarchate of Antioch) concelebrated at the Divine Liturgy held at the Church of Saint Paul in the Orthodox Centre.
The primates and representatives from the Autocephalous Churches studied the proposed topics, and unanimously approved those six cited above which will be referred to the Holy and Great Council.
Were any topics rejected?
Yes. Ten topics were discussued at the February 2016 Synaxis in Chambésy. Of these six were unanimously referred to the Holy and Great Council, and four were not. The four rejected topics were:
1. The manner in which Autocephaly is assigned. The substance of this topic is reflected in the topic, Autonomy and its Manner of Proclamation.
2. The Diptychs. This is the order of the Autocephalous Churches, according to honor and ranking, by which the Primates are commemorated. The order of the Churches may change. (For example, the Church of Cyprus, although it is one of the most ancient and was recognized by the Third Ecumenical Synod in Ephesus in AD 431, is tenth in the order, having been surpassed by Patriarchates, which have been granted Autocephaly in recent times by the Ecumenical Patriarchate and not by an Ecumenical Synod.) There was no unanimity among the primates who met in Chambésy on this issue, so the topic was deferred.3. The issue of a common Calendar. The overwhelming majority of Orthodox Christians worldwide use the traditional Julian Calendar, which has been the consistent practice of the Church since the time of Christ. These include the Orthodox Churches in the Patriarchate of Russia and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. A minority of Orthodox Christians, however, have adopted the so-called Revised Julian Calendar. These include the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, and the Churches of Cyprus, Greece, and Albania. The Synod was urged to adopt a common practice, but the Church of Russia asserted that it would remain on the historic Julian calendar regardless of what the Holy and Great Council might say, so this topic was also deferred.4. The contribution of local Orthodox Churches in the prevalence of Christian ideals of peace, freedom, brotherhood and love among people and removing racial and other discrimination. The substance of this topic was already reflected in the topic, The Mission of the Orthodox Church in the Contemporary World.
Where will the Holy and Great Council be held?
The Council will be held at the Orthodox Academy of Crete from 16 to 27 June 2016.
The decision to convene the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church in Crete, rather than at the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople as originally proposed, was dictated by “exceptional objective circumstances” (i.e. by the recent Russo-Turkish crisis) which basically prevents the Patriarch of Moscow, Kyrill, and his delegation from visiting the City of Istanbul (Constantinople).
This is also why the February 2016 Synaxis met in Geneva and not at the Phanar, as had been originally planned.
Will the Great Council unite the Orthodox Church with the Western heterodox (i.e., the Roman Catholic and Protestant) churches?
Not in the least.
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, reporting to Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate following the January Synaxis, unequivocally stated that “Certainly, no union of the Orthodox Church with the non-Orthodox is even mentioned in the (documents of the Council).” More of his comments on this topic can be read .
In addition, watch the brief (four-minute) message of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow and All-Russia which was delivered on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, March 20, 2016. On this day, in most Orthodox churches, a perfunctory sermon on the Seventh Ecumenical Council and the restoration of the icons is delivered. His Holiness however decided that a bracing speech about Saint Mark, the Bishop of Ephesus, and the eternal preservation of unchanged Orthodoxy was necessary.
Is the Great Council an Ecumenical Council?
In a single word: “No.”
The forthcoming Holy and Great Council is certainly a continuation of the early ecumenical councils of the first Christian millennium, and also of the later “great” or “greater” councils of the second millennium. Around a dozen or so of these latter councils have convened through the centuries following the “great schism” of AD 1054 to resolve issues of doctrinal, canonical or administrational character.
There is nonetheless something very unique about this council. This is the first time in the history of Christendom that a council of ancient churches claiming Apostolic succession has included so many individual and independent (autocephalous and national) Churches. The early ecumenical councils of the first millennium assembled the five Churches of the “Pentarchy” (the Patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem). The later great councils convened with fewer churches, and of course without Rome which remains in heresy and schism.
The forthcoming Great Council that will convene in Crete this June will assemble each of the fourteen canonical Orthodox churches from all over the world. These include the ancient Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem; the modern Patriarchates of Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia; as well as the Archdiocesan churches of Cyprus, Greece, Albania, Poland, and the Czech Lands and Slovakia.
Again, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, in his report to Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate following the January Synaxis, very plainly and straightforwardly declared that “We do not call the forthcoming Pan-Orthodox Council ecumenical.” His comments can be read .
What Constitutes an “Ecumenical” Council?
For Orthodox Christians, there hasn’t been an Ecumenical Council since AD 787. The Orthodox believe that it is the whole church (the Orthodox Oikoúmene) that must convene for a council to be considered ecumenical.
Tragically, the “Latin” (or “Western”) Church has remained separated since the eleventh century from the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of the First Millennium that was both Orthodox (right-believing and right-worshipping) and Catholic (universal). Sadly, this “Roman” Catholic Church subsequently splintered into tens of thousands of independent denominations since the sixteenth-century attempt at a Protestant “Reformation.”
In addition to the Seven Ecumenical Councils held between AD 325 and AD 787, the Orthodox Church considers two additional synods as truly “Ecumenical” since they included hierarchs from the universal Orthodox and Catholic Churches. These are the the Eighth Ecumenical Synod (AD 879-880), under Saint Photios the Great, and the Ninth Ecumenical Synod (AD 1341-1351), under Saint Gregory Palamas.
There was also a third synod, convened by the Roman Catholic Church, which met at Florence and Ferrara, Italy between AD 1431–1449. At this potentially “Tenth Ecumenical” Council Saint Mark of Ephesus reiterated the profound distinctions and differences between Orthodoxy Christianity and Western Christendom.
Why aren’t Roman Catholic and Protestant churches participating in the Great Council?
Any hope or expectation of an “ecumenical” gathering, comprising all Christians is, simply put, not realistically possible in any way whatsoever.
This is unfortunate, but the Latin (or “Western”) Church (which comprises the Roman Catholic Church and her Protestant denominations) remains in the clutches of three principal heresies: the Filioque, Papal Primacy, and Created Grace. An Ecumenical Council of all Christendom, would inevitably be consistent with the faith of the first millennium during which there was only one, undivided Christian Church and would perforce denounce these dogmatic heresies.
The first heresy, that of the Filioque, is a Pneumatological (dealing with the Holy Spirit) and Trinitarian heresy. It refutes the Orthodox and Catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity, inasmuch as it maintains that the Holy Spirit proceeds “also from the Son.” Thus, it destroys the monarchy within the Holy Trinity and introduces a dyarchy.
Worsening the situation is the reality that many Protestant denominations either deny the doctrine of the Trinity or have a faulty and deficient Trinitarian theology derived from the Filioque heresy.The second heresy is an ecclesiological heresy pertaining to the doctrine regarding the very nature of the Church and refutes its true, Apostolic character.In the Roman Catholic Church, the heresy declares the Bishop of Rome, the Pope, to be a sort of super-bishop, without whom the Church does not exist. Thus, it makes ecclesiastical totalitarianism into a dogma, on the basis of which the related heresy of Papal Infallibility was proclaimed as a dogma of the Roman Catholic Church in 1870.Among the Protestants this ecclesiological heresy is expressed in the doctrinal and theological autonomy of virtually ever single congregation. Indeed, the notion of personal interpretation of Scripture fundamentally makes “every man a pope.”The third heresy is soteriological, refuting the Orthodox doctrine of salvation. It asserts that the Divine Grace which illumines and sanctifes us, and leads us to salvation and deifcation, is created.Just as the heretic Arius once taught that the Only-Begotten Son and Word of God was created, so also the Roman Catholic Church now teaches that the Divine Energy is created.Orthodox theology, the doctrine of the first millennium of undivided Christianity, makes a distinction between the Essence of God, which is certainly uncreated and imparticipable, and the Energy of God, which is likewise uncreated and inseparable from the Divine Essence, but is nonetheless participable.It is this uncreated Divine Essence that sanctifes us, deifes us, and “ontologically bridges the gap between the Uncreated Triune God and created man.” Otherwise, there is no other way that we “might be made participants of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4).Believing in created grace, and therefore in the impossibility of man ever having the possibility of being truly united with God, the soteriology of the Western church devolved into “atonement theology.”Each of these three great Western heresies were rejected as inconsistent and incompatible with the Orthodox theology of the undivided Christian Church of the first millennium at the “Eighth” and “Ninth” Ecumenical Synods convened under Saint Photios the Great and Saint Gregory Palamas, respectively.
Any future “Ecumenical” Pan-Orthodox Synod, would naturally recognize and declare that the two Synods in the ninth and fourteenth centuries, are the “Eighth” and “Ninth” Ecumenical Councils and Divinely inspired.
Moreover, it would also declare that the Orthodox rejection of the Roman Catholic position in the fifteenth century at the “Tenth”Ecumenical Council of Florence-Ferrara was absolutely in conformity with the teaching of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church of the first millennium of undivided Christendom.
The unity of the teaching of the Holy Ecumenical Synods shows forth also the unity of the teaching of the Holy Prophets, the Holy Apostles, and the Holy Fathers of all the ages: the unity of the doctrine and ethos of the Holy Orthodox Church.
Some background on the forthcoming Holy and Great Council
The following YouTube videos (in Greek, but with excellent and easy-to-read English subtitles) provide an excellent critique of the ten topics initially proposed and discussed at the January 2016 final pre-conciliar meeting.
Father Theodoros Zisis, commentary on the Holy and Great Council, Part 1.
Father Theodoros Zisis, commentary on the Holy and Great Council, Part 2.
Father Theodoros Zisis, commentary on the Holy and Great Council, Part 3.