The Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church

In June 2016 the Great and Holy Council of  the Orthodox Church met in Crete. It was the first such meeting for over a thousand years.  First mooted in 1902, its serious planning  began in 1961. The Reverend Canon Hugh Wybrew, a former Dean of St George’s Cathedral in Jerusalem and a Director of  JMECA, summarises the Council’s meeting:  

As with the Anglican Communion, the Orthodox Church is made up of independent (‘autocephalous’) churches. Most of them are national: the Patriarchates of Russia, Georgia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria, and the Churches of Cyprus, Greece, Poland,  Albania and of the Czech lands and Slovakia. The ancient patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem are minority churches in predominantly Muslim countries. The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul, also under Muslim rule since 1453, has only a few thousand members in Turkey itself, but includes several million Orthodox mainly of Greek and Cypriot origin in North America,  Europe, and Australia. But the Ecumenical Patriarch has retained the role of ‘primus inter pares’ which he held in earlier times as Patriarch of the capital of the East Roman Empire. Like the Archbishop of Canterbury, he has no jurisdiction over other churches but is responsible for calling and chairing inter-Orthodox meetings.  

Since 1961 a series of inter-Orthodox meetings had  gradually prepared the Council’s agenda, consisting of issues affecting the whole of Orthodoxy. Before the  meeting topics which had proved contentious were  dropped. Six remained: the mission of the Orthodox  Church in the modern world; the Orthodox diaspora;  autonomy and how it might be declared; the sacrament  of marriage; fasting; and the relation of the Orthodox  Church with the rest of the Christian world. This last  was also contentious. The traditional Orthodox belief  is that the Orthodox Church is the one, holy, catholic  and apostolic church of the creed. The status of Christian communities outside Orthodoxy is at best  unclear. However, a preliminary document spoke of  other Christian Churches. That was one reason why  the Georgian and Bulgarian Patriarchates decided  not to participate in the Council. The Patriarchate of  Antioch also declined to participate: it is in dispute with  the Patriarchate of Jerusalem over jurisdiction in Qatar.  

At the last minute the Moscow Patriarchate also withdrew, alleging that since three churches would  not be represented, the Council could not be said to  be pan-Orthodox. There was perhaps an unspoken  reason: the Patriarch of Moscow’s reluctance to  take part in meetings chaired by his brother of  Constantinople. In the early C16th century a Russian  monk declared that Russia had replaced the East  Roman Empire as the leading Orthodox country. Since  the fall of the Soviet Union, the Moscow Patriarchate  has revived the ideology of ‘Moscow the Third  Rome’. As the largest of the Orthodox Churches, it  claims that the Patriarchate of Moscow rather than  that of Constantinople should enjoy primacy within Orthodoxy.  The Council was nevertheless held, though in Crete rather than Istanbul. The Moscow Patriarchate had declared Istanbul unacceptable after Turkey shot down a Russian plane. Contentious items having been  removed from the agenda, discussions were free of serious disagreements. Existing Orthodox relations with other churches were endorsed, the traditional discipline of fasting and the traditional understanding of marriage were both commended, and regular meetings of bishops of the various Orthodox jurisdictions in the diaspora were encouraged. The existence of more than one Orthodox bishop in the same place, contradicting the Orthodox doctrine of the church, was not directly addressed.  

The documents approved by the Council have still to be accepted by the four churches not represented at it. It seems however to be generally agreed that the Council was a positive first step. One participant later remarked that the Second Vatican Council of the Roman Catholic Church had lasted for four years and met in sessions lasting several months. The Council in Crete, the first pan-Orthodox Council since the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787, lasted for ten days. He was disappointed that the Council had done no more than endorse current practice, when in his view the present situation of Orthodoxy required a new approach in several significant areas. But the very fact that the Council met was itself an important achievement. There is wide agreement that similar councils need to meet regularly in the future.  

Hugh Wybrew  

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