Articles, English

Towards the Council 

A brief history

The idea of the convocation of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church dates back to the early twentieth century, the pan-Orthodox Congress of Constantinople of 1923. Seven years later, Ecumenical Patriarch Photios II convened the meeting of an inter-Orthodox preparatory committee in 1930 at the monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos, during which they established an initial list of 17 topics, which were raised to be addressed, including inter-Orthodox relations, the relations of the Orthodox Church with other Churches and Christian confessions, the question of the calendar and various questions of disciplinary order. This council was necessary following the significant changes that the Orthodox Church had witnessed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by the emergence of new autocephalous Churches, and the challenges the new century threw at the Church, already shaken by the First World War.

It was Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras that must have revived the idea of convening a council

It was Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras that must have revived the idea of convening a council after the Second World War, by two patriarchal letters addressed to the Primates of the Patriarchal and Autocephalous Orthodox Churches in 1951 and 1952. However, it was not until 1961 that the first pan-Orthodox conference was able to meet in Rhodes and officially and definitively launched the process of the preparation of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. The conference approved a long list of topics to be addressed by the council and were classified according to the following eight categories: 1) Faith and dogma; 2) Divine Worship; 3) Administration of the Church; 4) Relations between the Orthodox Churches; 5) Relations of the Orthodox Churches with the rest of the Christian world; 6) Orthodoxy and the World; 7) theological topics (including the question of the economy versus akribeia, the relationship of the Orthodox Church with other religions, euthanasia and cremation); 8) Social issues (such as the family, youth, discrimination).

This list, considered too ambitious, was restricted to ten subjects by the First pre-conciliar pan-Orthodox conference of Chambésy in 1976, which preferred to focus on three main areas: inter-Orthodox relations, the relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of Christian world and the witness of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world. Therefore, ten subjects appeared on the agenda of the Holy and Great Council: 1) The issue of the calendar; 2) The impediments to marriage; 3) The adaptation of the rules of fasting to contemporary conditions; 4) The relations of the Orthodox Church with other Churches and Christian confessions; 5) The relations of the Orthodox Church to the ecumenical movement; 6) The relations of the Orthodox Church in the world; 7) The issue of the Orthodox diaspora; 8) Autocephaly and the manner of its proclamation; 9) Autonomy and the manner of its proclamation; 10) The diptychs of the Orthodox Church.

The long and complex process of preparation

The First pan-Orthodox pre-conciliar conference of Chambésy in 1976 also established a process for the preparation of the Holy and Great Council. A secretariat for the preparation of the Holy and Great Council was established at the Orthodox Centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy. It was to receive proposals for each Patriarchal or Autocephalous Orthodox Church in relation to each of the ten established themes and to produce a report to be subsequently examined by an inter-Orthodox preparatory committee convened by the Ecumenical Patriarch who was to meet as many times as necessary until a consensus would be reached between the various Patriarchal and Autocephalous Orthodox Churches on the subject.

The First pan-Orthodox pre-conciliar conference of Chambésy in 1976 established a process for the preparation of the Holy and Great Council based on the principle of consensus

The text reflects the consensus reached and was then sent by the secretariat to the Holy Synod of each Patriarchal or Autocephalous Orthodox Church to be ratified, or to be commentated on again. The final comments of each Church were to be sent to the secretariat, which took them into account for the final text, which was to be discussed and adopted by a pan-Orthodox pre-conciliar Conference convened by the Ecumenical Patriarch. This consisted the last step for the development of texts on different topics and the Council to be discussed and adopted by the Council. We can now understand the long and complex process of the preparation of the Holy and Great Council, which was based on the principle of consensus.

In this spirit, the Second pan-Orthodox pre-conciliar conference of Chambésy in 1982 adopted the text on the issue of the impediments to marriage, of the adaptation of the rules of fasting to contemporary conditions, of the question of the calendar (mainly about the common date of Easter (Pascha), following a conference of Orthodox astronomers previously gathered at Chambésy). The Third pan-Orthodox pre-conciliar conference of Chambésy in 1986 adopted the text on “the contribution of the Orthodox Church to the realization of peace, justice, liberty, fraternity and love among peoples, and the elimination of racial discrimination and other forms of discrimination,” the relationship of the Orthodox Church to the ecumenical movement, the relationship of the Orthodox Church with the Christian world, and adopted bylaws of the preparatory pre-conciliar conferences and the inter-Orthodox preparatory committees where all the decisions should be taken by consensus, except for procedural matters to be taken by two-thirds of the heads of delegations present.

The dismantling of the Soviet Union, which led to the independence of many countries and to renewed nationalism, greatly slowed the process of the preparation of the Council in the 1990s. It was not until the early 2000s that the process of this preparation continued under the impulse of the Synaxes of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches, meeting in 1992, 1995 and 2000 through the initiative of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

The Fourth Pan-Orthodox pre-conciliar conference of Chambésy in 2009 adopted the text on the Orthodox diaspora, which established the Orthodox Episcopal Assemblies in twelve regions: 1) North and Central America, 2) South America, 3) Australia – New Zealand – Oceania, 4) Great Britain – Ireland, 5) France, 6) Belgium – Netherlands – Luxembourg, 7) Austria, 8) Italy and Malta, 9) Switzerland 10) Germany 11) Scandinavia, 12) Spain and Portugal. The region of North and Central America was later divided between Canada and the USA during the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Church in 2014, while Mexico was attached to the South American region and renamed “Latin American.” This pan-Orthodox pre-conciliar conference also adopted the resolution of these episcopal assemblies.

Final straight to the council

When the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches gathered in Constantinople at the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the Phanar in March 2014, it was decided to convene a special inter-Orthodox commission to review a number of texts that had grown older. Moreover, the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches meeting in Constantinople in March 2014 decided that all decisions in the Council’s work will be taken unanimously on the principle of consensus. It had been decided that the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church would be convened by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople in 2016, barring unforeseen events, probably just before the feast of Pentecost, and it would be held in the church of Hagia Eirene, where the Second Ecumenical Council was held. The council will be presided by the Ecumenical Patriarch and his brothers, the Primates of the other Patriarchal and Autocephalous Orthodox churches, who will be seated to his right and to his left. Each Church will send a delegation consisting of 24 bishops.

The special inter-Orthodox commission met at the Orthodox Centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy in October 2014, February 2015 and March-April 2015 and reviewed the texts on the relationship of the Orthodox Church to the ecumenical movement, on the relationship of the Orthodox Church with the Christian world and combined them together in a single document entitled “The relationship of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world.” Moreover, the text on “The contribution of the Orthodox

Church to the realization of peace, justice, liberty, fraternity and love among peoples, and the elimination of racial discrimination and any other form of discrimination” has also been revised and corrected. The text on the adaptation of the rules of fasting had a few minor editorial corrections. The text of 1982 on the common date for Easter (Pascha) could not be reviewed by the committee, as some delegations insisted that the issue be removed from the agenda of the Council, and consequently, the text would normally be referred to the Council unchanged. Similarly, no consent was reached by the Special Committee to the text of the impediments to marriage of 1982 and was also to be referred to the Council as is.

The Fifth pan-Orthodox pre-conciliar conference of Chambésy of October 2015 approved the text on “Autonomy and the manner of its proclamation,” developed in 2009 by the Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commission. It also examined the draft documents of the Pan-Orthodox Council reviewed by the Special Inter-Orthodox Commission from the meetings of October 2014, February and March-April 2015. The documents entitled “The relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world” and “The importance of fasting and its observance today” were approved. On the other hand, the document entitled “The contribution of the Orthodox Church to the realization of peace, justice, liberty, fraternity and love among peoples and to the elimination of racial discrimination and other” was renamed “The mission of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world” and could not reach consensus and as a result was not signed by the heads of delegations of the Churches of Russia and Georgia.

Six items on the agenda of the Council, approved by the 2016 Synaxis

Thus, among the ten themes on the agenda of the Holy and Great Council, two could not reach a consensus at the meetings of inter-Orthodox preparatory commissions, despite many efforts. This is the question of autocephaly and the manner of its proclamation and the question of the diptychs. The Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches met in Chambésy in January 2016 decided that these two issues will not be examined by the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, but will be during another subsequent council. This Synaxis has even decided to remove the issue of the common date for Easter (Pascha) from the agenda because some local Orthodox Churches have stated that they are not ready for a calendar reform, and to also refer it to a future council. Moreover, the Synaxis considerably reworked the text on the impediments to marriage that is now entitled “The sacrament of marriage and its impediments.” Bearing in mind that the two texts on the relationship of the Orthodox Church to the ecumenical movement and the relationship of the Orthodox Church with the Christian world had been combined into one, it resulted that the six items on the agenda of the Council, approved by the 2016 Synaxis, with the relevant texts are: 1) The Orthodox diaspora; 2) Autonomy and the manner of its proclamation; 3) The sacrament of marriage and its impediments, 4) The importance of fasting and its observance today; 5) The relationship of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world; 6) The mission of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world.

The Synaxis of the Primates decided to convoke the Holy and Great Council at the Orthodox Academy of Crete from 16 to 27 June 2016

Given the difficult political situation in the Middle East, and tense relations between Turkey and Russia in particular, the Synaxis of the Primates of January 2016 decided not to assemble the Council in Constantinople and finally decided to convoke the Holy and Great Council at the Orthodox Academy of Crete from 16 to 27 June 2016. The opening of the Council will take place after the Divine Liturgy of the feast of Pentecost, and the closure – the Sunday of All Saints, according to the Orthodox calendar. The Synaxis also adopted the text of the Regulation of the organization and operation of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. According to the latter, delegations of each local Orthodox Church each will be composed of 24 bishops of this Church, as decided at the Synaxis of the Primates of 2014, and “may be accompanied by special advisors, clergymen, monks and lay people, but the number of these cannot normally exceed the number of six members, as well as three assistants for each Church” (Article 3). The official languages of the Council will be Greek, Russian, French and English as well as Arabic as a working language (Article 9). Moreover, it is expected that a Pan-Orthodox Council Secretariat will be “composed of a hierarch of each delegation and the Secretary for the preparation of the Holy and Great Council, which supervises the work of the Secretariat” (Article 6). These fifteen bishops will be “assisted in their work by ad hoc advisors, clergymen, monks and laymen, chosen from among the counsellors of the delegations of the local Orthodox Churches. […] These counsellors may not exceed the number of two per Church” (Article 6). It is this secretariat, normally implemented by the end of February 2016, which will accredit the journalists who will be present at this council (Article 16). These journalists and invited observers from other Churches and Christian Confessions, as well as Christian organizations, will attend the opening and closing sessions of the Council, of course, without the right to speak and vote (Articles 14 and 16).

Thus ends the long drawn work of preparing the council that lasted forty years. The merit of its methodology – the consensus method (or decisions taken unanimously), which has been also the main difficulty would assure that the Holy and Great Council will be the manifestation of the unity of the Orthodox Church, not the occasion of schisms or divisions. It is hoped that the Holy Spirit is also present at the meeting in Crete in June 2016. That is why the Primates, meeting at the Synaxis in January 2016 in Chambésy “humbly invoke the grace and blessing of the Holy Trinity and ardently invite to prayer the fullness (pleroma) of the Church, clergy and laity, during the period leading to the Holy and Great Council and during it” (press release of 27 January 2016).

– Archbishop Job of Telmessos

Translated from the French by A. Krochak

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