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Open Orthodoxy’s advocates secure victories at Council

01 July 2016

Sean Hawkey

Divine Liturgy: Patriarch Irinej of Serbia officiates at a liturgy in the Patriarchal and Stavropegial Monastery of Gonia, at the weekend

Divine Liturgy: Patriarch Irinej of Serbia officiates at a liturgy in the Patriarchal and Stavropegial Monastery of Gonia, at the weekend

THE Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, presided over the closing liturgy of the Pan-Orthodox Council in Charnia Cathedral on Sunday with the Primates of the autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Churches. A large number of laity also communicated, and all, including the Ecumenical Observers, received the blessed bread.

The diptychs — the solemn lists of all the Primates in canonical communion — were duly prayed, significantly including the absent Patriarchs of Russia, Georgia, Bulgaria, and Antioch. The late withdrawal of these Churches (News, 24 June) had been a shadow over the Council, but they have not been ignored. Rather than condemnations, there have been numerous explicit hopes that the absent Churches would eventually receive its work.

The Church of Romania has acted as an unofficial proxy, bringing Russian requests for amendments. At least two bishops from Georgia and Bulgaria have communicated their regret at their synod’s decision to withdraw. Unlike any previous Council, the absent and the present have been in daily communication through the use of tablet computers. While ultra-conservatives in the four Churches will no doubt claim that the Council lacks unanimous authority, other Churches such as Albania are asking for the Russian interpretation of consensus to be reviewed.

Underlying the debate lies the recent development of an ethnic ecclesiology of national Churches, which includes members of those ethnic groups in any part of the world. This is the reason for the stalled debate about overlapping jurisdictions, although the Council’s endorsement of regional bishops’ assemblies is a step forward.

The rules of the assemblies approved at the Council look very much like a synod in all but name. Behind this lies the unstated but old claim that Moscow is the Third Rome. Despite the absentees, it is significant that ten out of the 14 Churches were present, articulate, and agreed. There have been no excommunications.

The last document of the Council to be signed was the strenuously debated ecumenical text. The Orthodox Church has always understood itself to be the one, holy, Catholic, and apostolic church. Nevertheless, historically, this has not prevented its engaging ecumenically. Today, however, a minority of the Orthodox Churches are facing fundamentalism within and proselytism from without. So there are some who hesitate to use the word Church of other Christians.

On the other side, delegates from the Americas, Western Europe, and Africa protested that they were in daily contact with other Churches. After much argument, a consensus was achieved with the descriptive phrase “non-Orthodox Churches”. The retention of the word “Church” was a significant victory for an open Orthodoxy. While the final text is less than some Orthodox ecumenists wanted, it is positive and important, because it brings the ecumenical movement into the synodal DNA of Orthodoxy. The Patriarchates of Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Alexandria made it clear that they would reject a text that did not use the word “Church”.

Other documents also caused lively debate. A conservative text on fasting generated an important discussion on mission and culture. Despite the reiteration of existing tradition, the debate made it clear that local cultural adaptation would be discussed.

For Western Churches, the Orthodox emphasis on fasting can also be an important corrective to consumerism. Throughout the Council, it became clear that the conciliar discussion was as important as the text. The marriage text, for example, reiterates the ancient ban on marrying outside the faith. But the discussion made it clear that under the Orthodox doctrine of “economy”, exceptions for pastoral reasons would be widespread, not least in countries where mixed marriages were the norm.

At other points, the history of the text and the necessary compromises made in long years of preparatory discussion show up the composite origins of the documents. The text on the mission of the Orthodox Church today is uneven in its treatment of discrimination; nevertheless, the general direction of engagement to the dialogue with modernity is clear.

A long encyclical was authorised, but a more accessible shorter message was also approved. It was reportedly drafted by Archbishop Anastasios of Triana & Albania. Besides succinctly summarising the directions of the Council, the message has some important things to say on science and religion, avoiding the temptation to adopt positions on every new question. The message also speaks of the ecological crisis, of young people, and, eloquently, of “opening up Orthodox horizons”. The Orthodox understanding of reception now means discussion and debate.

In his closing homily, Patriarch Bartholomew said: “The entire life of the Church is a life ‘in synod’.” The Synod as “event” is now over. The Synod as a process in the Orthodox Church has just begun, and that will be true even for those who question its authority.

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