THE Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I opened formal sessions of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church with a substantial theological and historical defence of the essential “synodality” of the Church, even when for political reasons this had not been possible at the global level. He expressed his perplexity and sorrow at the withdrawal of the four absent Churches, which he said had agreed to the convocation of the Council at a meeting in January.
He reminded the delegates — 24 bishops from each Church, together with up to six consultants (including lay theologians and women) — that complete representation had never been absolutely necessary for a Council’s validity, and that the urgency of reform made delay unacceptable. The Patriarch also went on to cite St Paul’s warning to the Corinthians about the danger of saying: I have no need of you.
The main subjects of the Council were discussed in his address: the problem of the worldwide Orthodox diaspora, the need for consistency in ecumenical policy, and the need for the resolution of jurisdictional rivalries in the context of mission. The Patriarch said he was deeply aware of the problems facing humanity, namely the environment (to which he is said to have devoted huge personal energy), bio-ethical questions, mission and secularism, and war. The Orthodox were not indifferent to these profound challenges to humanity, he said, but the present Council had a limited agenda. The Orthodox house had first to be put in order, after which other councils would be needed for these urgent matters. This, he said, was an important sign that the Council was the beginning of a synodal process, rather than the end.
Finally, the Patriarch reminded delegates that the Council’s draft documents had been signed by commissions representing all the churches. This did not mean that there could be no amendments, but that the texts were to be treated with courtesy and respect. Any amendments would require consensus, he warned.
The Patriarchs and Archbishops of the other attending Churches replied with strong support for the Council, and its continuance. Notable contributions came from the Patriarch of Serbia — who said he hoped that the absent Churches would in time receive the Council — the Archbishop of Cyprus — who bewailed centuries of Orthodox inversion, naming fundamentalism and nationalism as a problem hampering reform — and the Archbishop of Albania, a confessor of the faith from communist times, who spoke powerfully about calumnies against the Council and its advocate as “little drops of poison”. He went on to say that the Council did not need to be a ‘facsimile’ of ancient councils or those of the Western Church. Qualified majorities, he said, as actually laid down by ancient councils, were the way forward.
Before the meeting, 1000 Orthodox theologians had endorsed the gathering and, despite the absence of four Churches, support for the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Council was evident.
The Council also discussed one of its draft texts, The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World, the subtitle of which is indicative of its scope: The contribution of the Orthodox Church in realizing peace, justice, freedom, fraternity and love between peoples, and in the removal of racial and other discrimination. Orthodox critics have argued that there are weaknesses and compromises in the text, but it is, nevertheless, the first time some of these issues have featured on the official agenda of the Orthodox Churches.
Following a debate and some minor amendments, a proposal to re-write the Trinitarian theology of the draft was successfully opposed by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) and Bishop Kallistos (Ware). The formal acceptance of the document is expected soon.
On Tuesday, the council debated the question of the Orthodox diaspora. The text under discussion accepted that the problem of conflicting jurisdictions — two bishops in one place representing different ethnic backgrounds — cannot be solved immediately. But an interim way forward with regional Episcopal Assemblies is likely to be approved, together with their rules of operation. Paradoxically, this may be easier because of the absence of churches such as Russia, where there is a resurgence of the idea of an international ethnic identity.
The Council continues this week with a debate on ecumenism.
The Rt Revd Christopher Hill is President of the Conference of European Churches