ANGLICANS are usually reserved about councils and synods; as the Thirty-Nine Articles remind us, sometimes they “have erred”. And yet we know that they are important and essential. We look with profound interest and prayer at the planned Holy and Great Council of the 14 independent and autocephalous Orthodox Churches throughout the world, which is scheduled to meet in Crete next week (20-25 June).
It has been argued over officially since at least 1961, but the germ of the idea goes back to the 1920s, not least to the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the important Pan-Orthodox meeting on Mount Athos in 1933.
While it may not result in immediate dramatic developments, it is the beginning of a global Orthodox synodical process, which all Anglicans ought to be attentive to, not least because we have our own questions about synods, Primates, consultative councils, and Lambeth Conferences.
The Orthodox tradition of autocephalous Churches is analogous to both our own history of autonomous Anglican Provinces and the status of the Ecumenical Patriarch, alongside the office of the Archbishop of Canterbury: a primus inter pares, a primacy of “convocation”: calling, inviting, and presiding, but not jurisdiction.
THE last council counted “ecumenical” by the Orthodox was that of Nicaea in 787, convened by a woman, the Empress Irene. This settled the controversy about the use of icons in worship by deciding that they could be venerated with honour and respect; adoration was for God alone.
Since then, Islamic rule, rupture with Western Christendom, and the Soviet domination of Eastern Europe have made it impossible to convene a fully ecumenical council. In any case, the Orthodox count a council as ecumenical only after it has been genuinely received over time, and by the wider Church.
Nevertheless, there have been important local councils — for example, in the 14th century, and a very important one in 1872, which condemned the “love of ethnic identity” above ecumenical communion among the Orthodox — the heresy of “ethno-phyletism”. This is not just a historical point.
In the 20th and 21st centuries, the Orthodox Churches have expanded through their diasporas throughout the world: in Western Europe, North America, and Australia. There remain competing parallel jurisdictions, however.
This problem lies behind much of the ferment for the current council, and its last-minute problems. How does Orthodoxy respond to the cultures of the new world? Is everything still to be determined by the past determination of theology and culture in Eastern and Southern Europe?
Sometimes in the past, and even today, intra-Orthodox disagreement on jurisdiction has been exacerbated by national governments. The recent clashes between Turkey and Russia have meant that the originally planned venue of St Irene in Constantinople, the place of the Second Ecumenical Council in 381, is no longer prudent. So the council is due to meet at the Orthodox Academy in Crete instead.
Preparation has involved many levels of church life, but the final planning was done in 2016 by a synaxis (assembly) of the Primates of the Churches, with some other delegates, meeting in Chambesy, Geneva.
IN SPITE of the planning, unexpected things can happen. Only last week, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church announced that it would not be attending after all, and then the Patriarchate of Antioch withdrew because of a dispute with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Church of Georgia has also now declined.
Consequently, other Churches — such as the Serbian Orthodox — are questioning whether the council should be postponed, and proposing that the gathering in Crete should be considered as pre-synodal or preparatory.
Only this week, on Monday, there was a special session of the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate. It emphasised that the Patriarchate had supported the proposals for a council, but it also noted the need for not only consensus, but actual unanimity.
Without necessarily endorsing other problems, it noted that some Churches had criticised the draft texts on modernity and ecumenism. But the absence of Bulgaria, Antioch, and Georgia was expressed in such a way as to make it seem impossible for the Russians to participate in the council itself. It called for a last-minute postponement, further hinting that all bishops should be invited.
Meanwhile, the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew, had already stated last week that a further pre-conciliar conference contradicted the agreement earlier this year of the Synaxis of the Primates, which authorised him to convene the council. Last Sunday, an open letter of Orthodox theologians from all the Churches, including those now declining to attend, was sent to Constantinople with 1000 signatures.
It emphasised the urgent need for global conciliarity, and argued that a council was the best place to settle disputes. Having already formally reiterated that the council will go ahead, it would be difficult for the Ecumenical Patriarchate now to do a complete U-turn.
WHATEVER happens in Crete, and whatever status the meeting has, the planned structures are significant. Not all bishops have been invited to attend the council, and each autocephalous Church will send a delegation of only 24 bishops, with advisers, including women theologians. Perhaps this pattern might be appropriate for a future Lambeth Conference.
Voting will be by Church, not individually by the delegated bishops. Decisions will require a consensus, although how that is rightly discerned has yet to emerge.
As for the agenda, an early list proposed about 100 items. Wisely, it was reduced to ten, and then — after strong debate in the preparatory sessions — to six. These are: the mission of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world, the Orthodox diaspora, autonomy (of the newer Orthodox Churches), marriage questions, fasting today, and ecumenical relations. Important questions that were knocked off the agenda include the question of a common Christian Easter.
Behind this and other tensions lies a debate within Orthodoxy which is familiar enough to Anglicans, although in a different register: a conservative critique of modern Western culture, and the assertion that “Western” Churches — and the ecumenical movement — have succumbed to the spirit of the age.
There is also, and related to this, an underlying intra-Orthodox debate between Constantinople and Moscow. This surfaces in jurisdictional questions, and will undoubtedly arise when the bishops debate the autonomy of newer Churches.
The question of marriage (the Orthodox have always permitted canonical divorce) and fasting are also linked to the impetus from the diaspora to relate in a new way to their cultures, which are so different from the historical heartlands of Orthodoxy. This is also true of the ecumenical agenda. There are six agenda items, but a single underlying question: how does Orthodoxy respond to modernity?
It would be facile to imagine dramatic changes in Orthodox policies. What I shall be watching for is the beginning of a renewed conciliar process.
One idea could be particularly significant: that the national and regional assemblies of bishops should be enhanced. Informal gatherings exist at present, but they have no formal authority. Developing a stronger, united conciliarity for mission and for relating to modernity, both critically and positively, would be a profoundly fecund development.
Whatever the eventual status of the council in Crete, it will be a crucial step in Orthodox history.
The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is the President of the Conference of European Churches, and will be present at the council as its observer.