Over the last two years, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has repeatedly announced that the much anticipated Great and Holy Council will take place around the Feast of Pentecost in June 2016. When it happens, this Council will be an event of considerable historical import, bringing together the leaders of all Orthodox Churches for the first time since 787. Unfortunately, not all Orthodox leaders are equally enthusiastic about the Council and some are even trying to prevent it. Why is the idea of the Council so controversial? Who are the main players in this controversy? If the Council takes place, what might it achieve?

With the exception of a few brief announcements, the preparation of the Council has been kept out of the public eye. The reasons for such secrecy are threefold. First, the leaders of the Orthodox Churches have a relatively poor record of relating to mass media. It is important not to oversensationalize the Council, which may prove to be a disappointment in the long run. Second, in the twentieth century, there have already been repeated unsuccessful attempts to gather such a Council. Given the history of these failures, it is reasonable for the Orthodox Church leaders to proceed with due caution to spare themselves yet another public embarrassment. Finally, the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who has made the Council his main preoccupation in recent years, exercises extreme caution in speaking about his own hopes for the Council. The Patriarch of Constantinople does not wish to produce the impression that the Council is primarily his initiative or to provoke the Council’s detractors in any way.

While the leaders of several local Orthodox Churches have expressed their reluctance to attend the future Council, the main resistance presently comes from the Patriarchate of Moscow. Officially, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow considers the idea of the Council plausible, but not until all matters of conciliar process have been resolved to his satisfaction. In practice, however, Moscow continues to multiply the roadblocks on the way to the Council. The Moscow Patriarchate has lobbied for a “consensus model” in all conciliar decisions. According to this model, the passing of any conciliar document or decision would require the consensus of the heads of all fourteen canonical Orthodox self-governing churches. The consensus model effectively gives any local church, Moscow Patriarchate included, a veto power. For example, should the matter of autocephaly (self-governance of the local churches) be discussed at the Council, Moscow could effectively block any decisions related to the status of the Orthodox ecclesial bodies in Ukraine, which would be contrary to Moscow’s own geopolitical interests in the region. The consensus model provides for the Patriarch of Moscow what a seat on the UN Security Council guarantees for the President of the Russian Federation: the ability to veto any decision that in any way goes against his interests. In effect, the consensus model will render any decision extremely difficult, potentially paralyzing any new work of the Council.

The original plan envisioned the gathering of the Council at the Church of Hagia Irene in Istanbul, where the Second Ecumenical Council was held in 381. After the downing of the Russian military plane in November 2015 and the deterioration of Russian-Turkish relations, the Moscow Patriarchate has expressed a concern that the original place would no longer be safe for the Russian delegation. Moscow realizes that the gathering of the Council specifically in Istanbul has an important symbolic significance for the authority of the Ecumenical Patriarch, since six out of the seven Ecumenical Councils (with the exception of the Council of Ephesus) have taken place in Constantinople or its environs (Chalcedon is presently Kadiköy, a district of Istanbul, and Nicaea, modern Iznik, is within a short ride from the capital). The historical appeal of Constantinople notwithstanding, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is prepared to accommodate Moscow’s request by moving the place of the Council to Geneva, which would provide a safe and “neutral” territory. Unfortunately, a change of place at such a short notice, when only a few months are left, may prove to be a logistical nightmare.

The personal ambitions of Bartholomew of Constantinople and Kirill of Moscow are not to be overlooked. Over their long careers, the two leaders have clashed over a variety of issues, including contested boundaries of their respective jurisdictions, especially in the Diaspora, but also in the historically Orthodox lands, including Ukraine. In addition, metropolitan John Zizioulas, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s senior spokesman in the international arena, and his Moscow counterpart, metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, have also had their measure of disagreements, not least of which is the matter of primacy. Metropolitan Alfeyev is weary of metropolitan Zizioulas’s account of primacy, which accords to the Ecumenical Patriarch an authority over the Orthodox East which approaches the authority of the pope over the Catholic West. Metropolitan Zizioulas, for his part, criticizes the Moscow Patriarchate for its close alignment with the political and military interests of the Russian state and for its stance on human rights. These are just some of the “issues behind the issues” which threaten to explode once the conciliar process begins.

With pro-Constantinople forces promoting the Council and pro-Moscow forces generally opposing the endeavor, the majority of primates remain inert with their attention being consumed by local concerns and jurisdictional disputes. For example, in April 2013, the patriarchate of Antioch broke off communion with the patriarchate of Jerusalem over the dispute about the jurisdiction over Qatar territories, to which both churches lay claim. The patriarch of Antioch has threatened to withdraw his participation in the Council if this jurisdictional dispute is not resolved in his church’s favor.

Other jurisdictional disputes may also impede the gathering of the Council. The foremost of such disputes is the fate of the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine. The largest group is the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), which is the ecclesial body that is recognized as canonical by the other Orthodox Churches. The canonical standing of the other two groups – Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church – remains an unresolved matter. In Ukraine, the popular impulse towards unity and self-governance is opposed by the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ukrainian bishops loyal to Moscow. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, in contrast, seeks a way of resolving the Ukrainian schism. Patriarch Bartholomew’s first move could be to normalize the canonical standing of the ecclesial bodies that are presently not in communion with other Orthodox Churches. The recent success of a similar effort in the Orthodox Church of Czech and Slovak lands instills some hope that it could become a reality in Ukraine. Once all Orthodox jurisdictions on the territory of Ukraine become canonical, the path to unity and autocephaly will become straight. Such a move is likely to provoke fierce resistance from Moscow, even to the point of potentially breaking communion with Constantinople. If one follows the history of the emergence of the national Orthodox Churches in the nineteenth and twentieth century, one realizes that the eventual autocephaly of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church is only a matter of time. Presently, this matter is likely to be the most significant jurisdictional “issue behind the issues” at the upcoming pan-Orthodox Council.

The fact that the Council will bring together leaders with a history of mutual confrontation should not surprise anyone. History is rarely made by people of placid character, and ecclesiastical history is no exception. For example, a dispute between Cyril of Alexandria and Nestorius of Constantinople precipitated the gathering of the Council of Ephesus in 431. With the cards stacked decidedly in Cyril’s favor, the council ended by sending Nestorius into monastic exile. However, only twenty years later, the Council of Chalcedon reversed the fortunes of the patriarchal sees by deposing Cyril’s successor, Dioscorus of Alexandria. Nothing as spectacular is expected at the future pan-Orthodox Council, although we are likely to see a fair amount of political intrigue. In late antiquity, despite all the political shenanigans and personality clashes, the church leaders succeeded in maintaining a razor-sharp focus on the central theological issues and resisted a reduction of their theological vision to politics. At the ancient councils, the Holy Spirit acted in and through the reality of human strife, alienation, and much verbal violence in order to bring about a measure of collective agreement on the central Christian doctrines, such as the trinity and incarnation. While the councils did not put an end to disagreements, they nevertheless provided authoritative points of reference and clarification. To expect the anticipated pan-Orthodox Council to be controversy-free is to demand the impossible. Should the Council prove uncontroversial, it will also remain inconsequential.

Is the “Great and Holy” Council intended to become “Ecumenical”? According to the Orthodox conciliar theory, crucial marks of a council’s ecumenicity are broad representation, theological importance of issues, and subsequent pan-Orthodox reception. Most contemporary commentators emphasize that a broad reception of the conciliar documents and decisions is indispensable. This would imply that on Orthodox conciliar theory a council could be declared ecumenical only post factum, and cannot be seen as such beforehand. In light of the historical fact that some councils proved to be ecumenical failures – the Robbers’ Council of 449 and the Iconoclastic Council of 754 are prime examples – it would be prudent to suspend judgment on the matter. The absence of papal representatives as full members of the Council would also militate against its ecumenical character.

Unfortunately, some conservative Orthodox leaders have prematurely jumped to the conclusion that the Ecumenical Patriarchate intends the “Great and Holy” Council to be ecumenical in the sense uniquely attributed to the first seven ecumenical councils. Among these leaders, perhaps the most extraordinary statement came from the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), metropolitan Onufriy Berezovsky. In his December 28, 2015 address to the Orthodox clergy, metropolitan Onufriy claimed that since the seven ecumenical councils represent the fullness of the church’s teaching, the eighth council was not only superfluous, but also quite dangerous. The hierarch warned 700 priests present on the occasion that the Council represents a temptation that could lead to further schisms. The position of metropolitan Onufriy reflects the worldview of fundamentalist monastic elites, which reject the development of doctrine, regard with suspicion the church’s engagement of contemporary world, and oppose ecumenical dialogue on the grounds that it jeopardizes the “purity of Orthodoxy.” The proponents of this fundamentalist line are generally not shy to express their opinions publicly. Unfortunately, more enlightened church leaders are often reluctant to speak against the fundamentalists. In this regard, patriarch Bartholomew and metropolitan John Zizioulas are notable exceptions, who staunchly oppose Orthodox fundamentalism and manifest a greater openness of the church leadership to the world.

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Photo: Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and his clergy with an international group of 30 Orthodox scholars. Special Meeting, Phanar, Instanbul, Turkey, 5 January 2016. Photo courtesy of Nikolaos Manginas.

As a sign of such openness, the Ecumenical Patriarchate organized a special meeting of a select group of thirty Orthodox scholars at its headquarters in Istanbul, the Phanar district on January 5, 2016. The scholarly guests hailed from different countries world-wide, including Albania, Australia, Belgium, France, Germany, Great Britain, Greece, Italy, Turkey, and the United States, and from different institutions, including universities, seminaries, and church-related organizations. After a meal, Patriarch Bartholomew briefly addressed the scholars, stating that “open and honest dialogue is the way of the Church and of theology” and envisioning the Great and Holy Council as a vehicle of such a dialogue. According to the Patriarch, the Council “will address internal issues of the unity and administration of the Church, but also matters such as relations with other churches and faiths, in order to present a unified voice and credible witness for the life of the world.” As the Patriarch sees the matter, the council’s main task is to bring conciliarity on a worldwide level back into the life of the Orthodox Church and to engage the issue of Christian unity on a variety of levels.

The Patriarch’s address was followed by the responses of several subgroups of scholars, representing the scholars teaching in Orthodox institutions, those operating in non-Orthodox settings, those leading the Orthodox seminaries, and those working in various international organizations. A broad range of issues was discussed, including lack of communication between bishops and theologians, lack of information regarding the preparation of the Council, the seemingly haphazard agenda of the Council, and the participation of lay theologians, especially women, in conciliar process and the mechanisms of such participation. As one participant put the matter: “The theologians want the Council more than most of the bishops.”

On the same day, later in the afternoon, metropolitan John Zizioulas fielded questions and comments from the scholars for about four hours. To me, the conversation revealed metropolitan John as a man of the Church, who made a sincere effort to listen and to attend to the concerns shared by theologians. This was an unprecedented effort to have a frank conversation “in the shadow of the Council.” Metropolitan John voiced his critique of Orthodox fundamentalism in no uncertain terms; he also repeatedly encouraged the scholars to publish their reflections on the subject of the upcoming pan-Orthodox Council. The theologians welcomed such a response, yet indicated their concern that it would be difficult for them to shape the conciliar decisions directly unless a workgroup of periti – theological experts similar to the ones that proved to be so influential at Vatican II – is allowed to assist the bishops in preparing the conciliar documents.

It should be mentioned that the theologians from the United States did not come unprepared to this meeting. Indeed, the inspiration to arrange this conversation came to John Chryssavgis from a meeting of the Orthodox Theological Society of America, which was held in New York in June 2015 with the support of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University. The purpose of the meeting was to discuss select items on the agenda of the pan-Orthodox Council: (1) Autocephaly and Diaspora; (2) Canonical Impediments to Marriage; (3) Ecumenical Relations and Love among Peoples; and (5) Fasting Regulations. Most comments were subsequently published on the blog “Public Orthodoxy” (http://publicorthodoxy.org), a new initiative of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center and its co-directors, George Demacopoulos and Aristotle Papanikolaou.

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Photo: Metropolitan John Zizioulas discusses the future Pan-Orthodox Council with an international group of 30 Orthodox scholars. Special Scholars Meeting at the Phanar, Istanbul, Turkey, 5 January 2016. Photo courtesy of Nikolaos Manginas.

When one reviews the agenda items for the pan-Orthodox Council, one is puzzled by its ad hoc character. Is there an overarching vision, a general framework within which all other questions are to be discussed? When asked this question, John Zizioulas and other authoritative representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate responded that the Council as a process, not as an event with an identifiable outcome, is itself the vision. In other words, the Council is meant to be a first step towards Orthodox conciliarity on a worldwide level. The celebrated Orthodox sobornost’ (variously rendered as synodality, conciliarity, catholicity) needs to find its concrete expression in the church that gathers at the council. In practice, the Catholic Church, whose history counts twenty-one general councils; the worldwide Anglican Communion, which gathers for the Lambeth Palace Conference every ten years; and the United Methodist Church, which organizes a General Conference every four years, are all examples of conciliarity in action, despite often controversial outcomes.

If the future pan-Orthodox Council is to have historical significance, its leaders will have to transcend their personal resentments, stop looking after the self-interest of their respective ecclesial fiefdoms, and go beyond the haphazard list of items drawn up decades ago. The first seven ecumenical Councils struggled with the divine revelation concerning God, the trinity, and Christ. According to metropolitan Kallistos Ware, the central question of the twentieth century was the nature of the Church, whereas the central question of the twenty-first century is likely to be the nature of the human person. It would be natural, then, to make Orthodox theological anthropology the overarching theme of the Council and to address all other questions – such as jurisdictional disputes, ecumenical dialogue, and human rights – as embraced in the common Orthodox vision for the renewal of humanity.

As the matters now stand, an important meeting of the primates to be held at Chambesy during the last week of January 2016, could determine the fate of the Council. It would be a major miracle if the Council meets this year. But even if it does not, it would be valuable for the Orthodox leaders, both bishops and theologians, to acquire a habit of thinking in a conciliar manner. It would be also good for the three sides of the ecclesial triangle – “bishops, theologians, and laypeople” – to establish more enduring connections. In this, as well as in many other matters, the Orthodox leaders should draw on the collective experience and reflection of other Christians, especially Catholics. When the Council finally meets, sobornost’ will become a word describing a concrete present reality. I hope to live to see this moment in the life of my church.