Could Orthodoxy Be Having its Vatican II Moment?

Photo taken from the Holy and Great Council website

For the next week, hierarchs from most of the world’s individual Orthodox Christian Churches will convene for a Holy and Great Pan-Orthodox Council on the island of Crete, an event that many have been calling Orthodoxy’s Vatican II. This council has been making headlines in the Western press and has been covered by First Things and the Catholic press. Nevertheless, many American readers—due to a lack of familiarity with Orthodox Christianity—may not grasp the full significance of the event, which has implications for both geopolitics and Christian ecumenism.

For that reason, I reached out to Fr. John Chryssavgis, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and theological advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch, and asked him to shed some light on the issues surrounding the council.

The council’s prospects have been beset by strife among particular Orthodox churches, with a total of four—prominently including the Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate—pulling out of participation at the last minute. This strife itself speaks to a need for greater understanding of Orthodoxy in the West. However, since Russia’s return to the world stage and its emergence during Putin’s third presidential term as the global standard bearer for “traditional values” and social conservatism, the Russian Orthodox Church—headed by Patriarch Kirill I—has played a prominent political role.

In this stance, Moscow sometimes finds itself at odds with the Ecumenical Patriarchate at Constantinople, the see whose head—currently Patriarch Bartholomew I—is recognized as the first among equals—although it is important to note that he is not the equivalent of a pope. Orthodox Christians cherish the concept of conciliarity, however difficult it is to achieve in practice. Their split with Rome in 1054 was precipitated at least as much by the issue of papal authority as by other theological concerns..

Some see Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill’s recent meeting with Pope Francis in Cuba as a power grab within the Orthodox world. Certainly it was an attempt to shore up Russia’s assumed geopolitical role as the standard bearer for global social conservatism, which has attracted fellow travelers from the United States such as President and CEO of the Billy Graham Foundation, Franklin Graham, whom Patriarch Kirill recently declared a “confessor of the faith.

The sending of Catholic observers to the Pan-Orthodox Council by Pope Francis, however, represents a more authentic attempt at ecumenism that does not depend on hardline culture wars in the public sphere. In recent years, the destruction of ancient Christian communities in the Middle East has also been a pressing issue. It is also of note that at the height of the 20th-century ecumenical movement, Orthodox theologians played a prominent role. For all these reasons and more, American readers interested in religion and politics should familiarize themselves with Orthodox Christianity.

This interview with Fr. John, in which he relates some of the history behind this event and explains its singular significance for the Orthodox world, for Christian ecumenism, and for contemporary geopolitics, is a good place to start.

While the Holy and Great Pan-Orthodox Council has been in its planning stages for almost 60 years, many readers may not immediately grasp the full meaning of the event for Orthodox Christianity. How would you summarize the significance and purpose of the Council? What were its original goals and how have they shifted over time? Finally, after so many decades of preparation, what came together to allow for this summer’s convening?

The Orthodox Church is and claims to be the church of the councils, tracing the authenticity of its faith and the authority of its doctrines to the early church councils of the first millennium and even to the first apostolic council in Jerusalem, as described in the Book of Acts. However, a series of historical events and circumstances during the second millennium of the Christian era (including the great schism between the Eastern and Western church, the tragic campaigns of the crusades, the Ottoman subjugation of much of the Eastern region, the oppressive Soviet regime of the 20th century, and so on) led to the gradual disappearance of the pan-Orthodox conciliar structure in exchange for a more defensive, even ethnic element in order to survive. Pan-Orthodox Councils were largely maintained through councils convened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which included primates and other hierarchs from local churches, whenever they could attend.

In the early 20th century, the Ecumenical Patriarchate initiated a movement among the Orthodox Churches to work toward a Pan-Orthodox council. In the 1960s, Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras revived the dream and organized several Pre-Conciliar conferences, which discussed a potential agenda and laid the foundation for a forthcoming Holy and Great Council. But even after almost 60 years, the council was still forthcoming. It was the current Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew that encouraged his brother Primates of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches—14 of them in all—to work toward finally realizing this dream from 1992 through 2016. In 2014, all of the Orthodox Primates signed their commitment to convene the council on the feast of Pentecost 2016. In January, 2016, the same Primates affirmed and signed that the venue for this council would be Crete.

The original goals were entirely pastoral and centered on the encounter of the Orthodox Church with the changing modern world, topics that required Pan-Orthodox action. Here the goals had a two-fold focus: first, the situation of Orthodox Christians in the traditional Orthodox countries and the changing situation in the advent of the modern world, and second, the condition of Orthodox Christians who had emigrated and immigrated to the New World and who found themselves in pluralistic societies. For example, the early meetings considered ways to reconcile the calendar of the Church with the newly adopted secular calendar. Likewise, they considered ways to adapt fasting regulations, originally developed in a Mediterranean context, to the new locales in which Orthodox Christians found themselves. Also, the early activity attempted to come to a common position on relations with other Christian groups, such as the Anglicans, Old Catholics, and the ancient Oriental Orthodox Churches. In the 1960s, the different meetings also sought a common approach on relations with Roman Catholics especially in light of Vatican II. During all this time, these topics continued to develop and change in light of changing circumstances and demands faced by the Churches.

Such a council, then, would be the first Pan-Orthodox gathering since the first millennium. Councils to be sure have met in the intervening centuries, but not with this scope of representation and not in the modern era. Additionally, it has been over a thousand years since the Orthodox Church met in council that would most closely approximate this one in terms of size and representative-ness.

Could you tell us a little about your own role, and that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in the organizing of the Pan-Orthodox Council?

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, responding to its role and responsibility to coordinate Orthodox unity, has worked tirelessly toward planning for, preparing, organizing and convening the Holy and Great Council with the consensus and collaboration of all of the 14 Orthodox Churches. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is, therefore, hosting (because the island of Crete is under the immediate jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate) and presiding over this unique and unprecedented council. My specific role in this event is to serve as the director of the press office for the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

After Bulgaria requested the postponement of the Council on June 1, the Moscow Patriarchate called for a pre-conciliar meeting to take place no later than June 10. What are the primary concerns of the churches that have refused to participate, and what is the position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on their concerns? Why did the Ecumenical Patriarchate refuse Moscow’s request? With Antioch refusing to participate at this time as well, and Moscow likely to join Bulgaria and Antioch, what is the current mood on Crete and in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and what might the Council still accomplish despite these complications?

The question is wrongly posed. I’ll explain why. It isn’t appropriate or even accurate to speak of Churches refusing to attend or of Constantinople’s refusal to respond. In fact, only months ago, in January 2016, every single one of the Orthodox Primates and representatives from all of the 14 Orthodox Churches signed that they would convene and attend the Holy and Great Council in June. Indeed, they signed several documents, every single page of those documents and even every single page of the translations of those documents—literally hundreds of signatures of commitment. At the same time, the January meeting was an affirmation and ratification of a similar meeting of all Orthodox Primates and all Orthodox Churches in March 2014, where they first approved and signed that they would meet for the Holy and Great Council in June 2016.

So the majority of the Orthodox Churches were surprised, perplexed and even shocked that the Churches of Bulgaria, Georgia, Antioch and Russia changed their minds about attending at the very last minute (less than two weeks before the opening of the council), especially when absolutely nothing had transpired in the meanwhile!

The current mood in Crete is peaceful and determined. The Churches that have arrived for the official opening are already working on the draft message to be published at the end of the council. They are, of course, also saddened that some Churches have created this turmoil by changing their minds for no apparent (or at least no justifiable) reason.

So the council will proceed and convene, while its decisions will be authoritative and binding, just as with the decisions of any council in the line of authentic councils through history, although it will also undergo the traditional process of reception by the people of God, the faithful believers of the Orthodox Church.

Regarding Moscow’s request for the Ecumenical Patriarch to convene a special Synaxis of the Primates, His All-Holiness did not respond affirmatively to this request because there was a Synaxis of the Primates already scheduled prior to the Council. This was and still is the appropriate moment for the Primates to voice their concerns.

Could you expound a little on the geopolitical and interconfessional significance of the Holy and Great Pan-Orthodox Council? How important is it that Pope Francis is sending Catholic observers to the Council? Will observers of other confessions be present? How will the Council address or not address problems with geopolitical implications that go beyond Orthodox Christians, such as the persecution of Christians in the Middle East and the Ukraine crisis?

The Holy and Great Council will gather together Orthodox hierarchs from all over the world, from the venerable sees of ancient Orthodox Christianity, Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, and Cyprus, and from traditional Orthodox countries, Serbia, Romania, Greece, Albania, Poland, and the Czech Lands and Slovakia, but also hierarchs who serve in parts of the globe not usually associated with Orthodox Christianity, from Asia, Africa, Western Europe, and from North America.

In and of itself, such a universal gathering represents a singular and significant event in the life of the Church demonstrating the new global reach of Orthodox Christianity. The council should focus the attention of the Churches away from solely parochial and local concerns to a broader perspective on Church life.

Nonetheless, there is no doubt that the global issues affecting the world will also be a central and critical part of discussions at the Holy and Great Council. All of the ancient Patriarchates (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem) and the ancient Church of Cyprus are facing the tragedy of persecution and martyrdom among their faithful. At the same time, they are the Churches right in the middle of the refugee crisis as well as the Churches that have the most experience, and also the most to contribute from coexisting alongside their Muslim brothers and sisters—especially in Palestine, the Middle East and Northern Africa.

The situation in Ukraine is more painful inasmuch as the struggle has deteriorated to a civil war between Orthodox Christians—often behind the face of Orthodoxy. We would like to see more pastoral compassion and less political posturing on the part of the Churches.

Clearly, the presence of observers from other Christian Churches is not only an important reminder of the open relations and dialogue that many of the Orthodox Churches have with other Christian communions but also a powerful symbol of our aspiration toward reconciliation and unity among all of Christ’s disciples.

What do you consider to be the most serious problems facing Orthodox Christians in the modern world, and how might the Council work toward their resolution?

The purpose of the Holy and Great Council is to bring the Orthodox Churches together—for the first time in history on such a comprehensive and representative level—in order to present a more unified profile and provide a more credible witness in the world.

The problem is that the 14 Orthodox Churches have developed at a different pace from one another. For example, the Ecumenical Patriarch had created positive and constructive relations with other Christian Churches and ecumenical organizations for many decades, while other Churches (such as the Church of Bulgaria and the Church of Georgia) have hesitated and steered away from such relationships and have therefore become a more isolated community in the Christian world—feeling uncomfortable about opening up to dialogue with other churches or religions.

Therefore, the Holy and Great Council is an opportunity for these diverse Orthodox Churches—united sacramentally and doctrinally, but fragmented in so many other ways—to establish some helpful guidelines about the importance of embracing the world instead of retreating into a ghetto.

Will the Council address the role of women in the church and consider the legitimacy of deaconesses? Will female observers be present?

The role of women and the order of deaconesses are not on the agenda of this council. There was, in fact, some discussion over both issues over the years and more recently. But in order to settle on a number of topics that would bring the churches together rather than seem to provoke some of the more conservative ones, the list was reduced to just six topics: more internal ones (like marriage, fasting and autonomy), more administrative questions (like the diaspora, the organization and greater unity of Orthodox Churches in countries outside their “native” homelands), and more external matters (the mission of the Orthodox Church in the world as well as relationship of the Orthodox Church with other Christian churches and other religions).

I am not privy to whether women observers will attend; but I do know that official women advisors will be present at the council. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew set the standard (not always met by other churches, but still providing a model for imitation) by including two women among his delegation’s formal advisors. These are the Rev. Mother Theoxenia, Abbess of the Monastery of the Life-giving Spring, and Dr. Elizabeth Prodromou, Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution at The Fletcher School for Law & Diplomacy (Tufts University).

Is there anything else you would like our readers to know or any thoughts you would like to leave them with?

I would like to underline that—while it may appear strange to many Western believers or others—the messy situation that is sometimes reflected in the events leading up to the convocation of this council is not without its meaning and merit. Unity is a messy reality. There is no top-down imposition of authority in the Orthodox Church. We are a conciliar church. And since we have not met in council for so many hundreds of years, it is difficult, awkward and even frightening to take the first step toward meeting in council.

But meeting in council is precisely what Orthodox bishops should be doing. Bringing their divisions to council is precisely the method to resolve them. And the existence of division is not a reason to refuse participation in council. It is the very reason why churches and their bishops are obliged to meet in council.