Historic, long-awaited Orthodox council set for June

A formal gathering, or synaxis, of Eastern Orthodox patriarchs and primates in late January brought their Eastern Christian churches one step closer to a long-awaited gathering. The “Holy and Great Council” or more simply the Pan-Orthodox Council, scheduled for this June, is expected to be one of the most important councils in the Orthodox Church since the Second Council of Nicea in the year 787, the last of the seven councils regarded as “ecumenical” by both Catholics and Orthodox.

“We hope that the council in June will underscore the unity of the Orthodox churches as an essential characteristic for the life the Church and for her witness to the contemporary world, helping us to learn again how to think and act in the spirit of synodality,” Archimandrite John Panteleimon Manoussakis, associate professor of philosophy at the College of the Holy Cross in Boston, told Our Sunday Visitor. “The fact that the preparatory stage of the council has been, at long last, successfully completed, and that it will take place this June is, by itself, a momentous event that marks a new beginning in the life of the Orthodox Church today.”

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, viewed among Orthodox primates as the “first among equals” — not a universal primate in a papal sense — officially convoked the Pan-Orthodox Council at the 2014 synaxis. Although not an ecumenical council — a worldwide gathering of bishops that discusses doctrine and settles disputes and needs the participation of the bishop of Rome — the event significantly will bring together the patriarchs and primates from each of Eastern Orthodoxy’s 14 autocephalous, or self-governing, churches.

A Council for the ages

According to Msgr. Paul McPartlan, the Carl J. Peter Professor of Systematic Theology and Ecumenism at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., the Pan-Orthodox Council will “deal with various issues which have been problematic in Orthodoxy for some time, and enable the Orthodox Church to have more cohesion in its ecumenical activity and in preaching the Gospel in the modern world.”

Archdeacon John Chryssavgis, one of Bartholomew’s theological advisers, agreed, telling OSV that the council’s primary purpose “is that the Orthodox churches — many of which have only in recent decades shed their oppression behind the Iron Curtain — might become accustomed to meeting together on a regular basis to reflect on common issues, respond to common challenges and resolve common problems.

“Beyond this sense of conciliarity as communion, the council will provide a platform for the Orthodox Church to speak a voice of hope, light and life in a world where there is so much despair, darkness and suffering — much of it in regions where Orthodox Christians live, such as in the Middle East and Northern Africa,” Archdeacon Chryssavgis added.

The council marks “the renewal of a pan-Orthodox synodal tradition that has been interrupted since 787, with the last ecumenical council,” said Father Radu Bordeianu, associate theology professor at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh and a past president of the Orthodox Theological Society of America. “Even if no important decisions will be made, the fact that these representative bishops are meeting is significant in itself.”

At January’s meeting in Chambesy, Switzerland, Bartholomew again stressed the urgency of the council, noting that years of “deferment and postponement have seriously exposed our Church in the eyes of adversaries and friends, not to speak also of God and history.”

While discussions for the Pan-Orthodox Council began nearly a century ago, more definitive steps were taken in the early 1960s and ’70s. Internal divisions and sociopolitical constraints have contributed to the delay.

The 2016 council’s agenda of six topics — a refashioned and scaled-down version of the 10 laid out in 1976 — includes the following: the Orthodox diaspora, or how to deal with the global spread of members of individual Orthodox churches; the manner of proclaiming churches to be autonomous (the rank below autocephalous); Orthodoxy and ecumenism; fasting regulations; marriage regulations; and Orthodoxy’s relationship with the modern world, or, as the agenda states, the “contribution of the local Orthodox churches to the prevalence of the Christian ideals of peace, liberty, brotherhood and love among peoples, and the lifting of racial and other discrimination.”

Despite the desire and planning, though, concerns and doubts still swirl around whether or not the council will actually happen.

Overcoming obstacles

Although the council has been set for June, many within and outside Orthodoxy have been wondering if the 2016 council would be further delayed. Archimandrite Manoussakis said many of the “issues that threatened to derail” its planning have been avoided, “mostly thanks to the efforts of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”

Concessions have been made over time to overcome difficulties, Manoussakis said, noting one continuing dispute relating to the territory of Qatar. But he added that there are “realistic hopes that even this difficulty will be resolved prior to the convocation of the council in June.”

Other areas of concern include what is meant by “consensus” when it comes to approving documents. “The decisions of the council are supposed to be by consensus, but some see that as absolute unanimity, while others look at it as the overwhelming majority with a note about the disagreements,” Father Bordeianu said. “What would happen if one autocephalous church decided not to attend the council or leave during its works? Some would want the council to continue, others would want it to stop.”

Adding another layer of complexity to the fragility of the 2016 council, the patriarchate of Georgia announced Feb. 24 that it now rejects the document on Orthodoxy and ecumenism approved by the synaxis in January.

Such disagreements, should they not be resolved, could result in a fruitless, dissolved council. Addressing this possibility in his opening address at the synaxis in January, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said it “would be preferable for such a council, operating under the threat of dissolution, not to be held at all.”

Universal primacy

Something emerging in the process of this council is a revival among the Orthodox of the experience of universal synodality.

“Our hope is that the convocation of the council will retrieve, recover and revitalize the conciliar ethos of the Church which, although always alive within the various local churches, was somehow lost on the universal level,” Manoussakis said.

And what about primacy in relation to that synodality? As it stands, many, like Father Bordeianu, believe “that the preparation process for this council has shown quite clearly the need for a pan-Orthodox primacy that would go beyond the mere ‘primacy of honor’ of the Ecumenical Patriarch.”

Manoussakis agreed, saying “the preparation of the council made clear the need and necessity of a primus in the universal level.”

The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church has made progress in this regard in recent years. At Ravenna in 2007, the international commission agreed that the Church needs both primacy and synodality (or conciliarity) at three key levels — local, regional and universal — and that primacy and conciliarity are “mutually interdependent” (Ravenna Document, No. 43). It also agreed that universal primacy historically belongs to the bishop of Rome.

Having experienced the many fruits of the Second Vatican Council so recently in their own history, Catholics should be positive and hopeful about the Pan-Orthodox Council, said Msgr. McPartlan, who also is a member of the international Catholic-Orthodox dialogue.

“As Catholics, we can rejoice that the Orthodox are having this gathering and pray that it will be a time of grace and blessing for our brothers and sisters in the Orthodox Church.”

Michael R. Heinlein writes from Indiana.