The Next Holy and Great Council: Agenda-Questions

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Elpidophoros Lambriniadis Metropolitan of Bursa-Associate Professor

Presentation at the 8th International Conference of Orthodox Theology

Having already attended so many excellent presentations from hierarchs and professors, all of them prominent theologians, who accurately analyzed and presented both the work and the texts of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church that convened on the island of Crete in 2016, I dare to move on to the next day, already gazing at the next major synodal expression of our Church.

There have already been some references from other presenters who briefly analyzed the aspects of the Holy and Great Council, as well as the way the Church could deploy her significant experience from this major event in the recent history of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

It is easier now, after the Council concluded its works two years ago, for someone to interpret the events that took place before, during, and after it. Indeed, some of the behaviors, as well as choices, of given Churches are easily interpreted by anyone as they are better understood through their attitude and their way of participation or absence.

It is easier for someone now to gain a better understanding of the reasons why some objections were raised to certain issues at the last moment. Interestingly though, these issues had either been agreed upon on a pan-orthodox level decades ago within the context of preparatory processes, or had constituted common practice within the Orthodox Church.

If we take a closer look at the development of the agenda we will see that it started formulating at the beginning of the 20th century up until 2016. While in the beginning the agenda included crucial issues that preoccupied the Church and the world in general, regarding theological as well as pastoral care issues, in the process they were removed one by one until there were only six issues left, on which the texts of the Holy and Great Council were based.

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Let me just remind you some of the aforementioned removed from the agenda issues:

a) The issue of the common calendar.

b) Priests’ and deacons’ marriage after ordination.

c) The second marriage of widowed priests.

d) Bishops’ age limit.

e) Outer garments of priests.

f) The establishment of uniformity in the way heterodox converted Christians enter the Orthodox Church.

g) Composition and publication of a common Orthodox Proclamation of Faith.

h) Reallocation of the readings in the Church’s worship.

i) The adaptation of church regulations on fasting according to contemporary demands and conditions.

j) Distribution of the Holy Anointing Oil.

k) The preservation of the terms in the founding Tomoi of the local autocephalous and autonomous Churches.

l) The process of canonization in the Orthodox Church.

m) Euthanasia.

n) Cremation.

o) Fullest participation of lay people in the Church worship.

p) Autocephaly and the manner of its proclamation.

q) The Diptychs of the Orthodox Church.

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Allow me to additionally highlight a few of the concessions the Ecumenical Patriarchate had to make so as to ensure the co-operation and agreement of certain Churches in the process of preparation and assembly of the Holy and Great Council.

a) all the issues that had systematically been disputed were removed from the agenda. However, those were the most crucial and fundamental issues, as it can be seen by turning to those mentioned above.

b) other issues on the agenda, equally fundamental, had to undergo changes in both their wording and content. In essence, although they were included, in essence they were enfeebled and did not fulfill their original purpose of inclusion, for example the issue of fasting.

c) autonomous Churches were excluded from the pre-conciliar process.

d) the place of assembly had to move from Constantinople to Crete after demands coming from certain Churches that did not attend in the end!

e) the dubious in terms of canonicity commitment of decision making on the basis of unanimity.

f) after an expressed demand from a certain Church, seating in the venue had to be rearranged so that the Chairman’s seat would not be excessively visible.

g) the Ecumenical Patriarchate postponed dealing with crucial issues preoccupying the Orthodox Church for decades so that some local Churches would not be displeased.

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Nonetheless, the Council did take place. Despite all concessions, despite the frequently pressing last minute interference, despite the unexpected demands.

Some churches did not participate, withdrawing their commitments literally in the last minute, although they had participated in every aspect of the preparatory period for the few remaining texts on the agenda. It is clearly obvious that the reasons for their non participation were far from being ecclesial, theological or canonical.

It has been said that they objected to some of the texts. Objections on specific issues in the conciliar process had never been a canonically founded reason to abstain from a Synod –either Ecumenical or local- in the Eastern Orthodox Church tradition. When the Church synodally convenes, invoking the All Holy and Initiating Spirit, confers and decides either unanimously or on majority vote which is eventually accepted by the totality of the ecclesiastical body. Wasn’t this what actually happened on the island of Crete? The points of the pre-agreed texts that were changed during the in Holy Spirit assembly of the fathers of the Holy and Great Council were not few. Therefore, the objections on the preparatory texts does not constitute an ecclesial reason of not attending the Council which is called to take a stand on these texts and officially finalize them. Thus, the fact that the Churches of Bulgaria and Georgia did not attend the Council cannot be justified under a canonical perspective but rather through invocation of extrinsic and secular reasons. Although the Churches of Greece and Serbia were also reluctant regarding some of the points of the preparatory texts, they still attended the Council and according to the ecclesiastical tradition they expressed their views during there. Many of their suggestions were pan-orthodoxically accepted and constitute today testimonies to their contribution.

The Church of Antioch had long ago highlighted the fact that they considered their jurisdictional differences with the Church of Jerusalem of fundamental importance. They repeatedly asked the Ecumenical Patriarch to intervene. His All Holiness took at least two initiatives so as to resolve to issue; unfortunately, they were not successful, certainly not due to his actions, but rather due to the intractable stance of the involved parts. However, Patriarch Bartholomew, could not and was not entitled to connect the convocation and the carrying out of the Holy and Great Council –that had been under preparation for decades- with the development of a bilateral dispute for which the totality of Orthodoxy is not responsible. From this perspective, I reverently think that the persistence the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch displayed was untimely. The resolution of its dispute with the Church of Jerusalem constituted a participation requirement to a major and historical event in the life of the Church. I remember that the Ecumenical Patriarch during his last communication, prior to the Council in May 2016, with the Patriarch of Antioch highlighted the fact that there was not much time left for a propitious resolution on the issue of Qatar. He, additionally, committed to deal with the issue again right after the completion of the Council, while at the same time he urged him not to avoid participation in this major event for the Church. The Patriarch of Antioch did not even accept this commitment that was undertaken by the Ecumenical Patriarch. I am certain that now, two years after the completion of the Council, the venerable holy hierarchs of the Throne of Antioch, displaying more composure and clear way of thinking are in position to re-evaluate their then fervent decision. However, after Professor Elizabeth Prodromou’s analysis of the geostrategic balances I cannot resist the temptation of mentioning as a factor affecting the stance of the Church of Antioch the tight political, military, financial, and energy embrace between Damascus and Moscow. The case of the Patriarchate of Antioch may be the only one of the Churches that did not attend for which we can show understanding, especially taking into consideration all of the above mentioned reasons.

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The most inexplicable –especially in ecclesial and canonical terms- case is the non-participation of the Church of Moscow. It was the last announced abstention. It is all the more inexplicable –once again in ecclesial terms- since the Church’s Primate, His Beatitude Patriarch Kirill during the Primates’ Assembly in Geneva in January 2016 had stated that all the Churches’ participation is not considered as an essential requirement for the convocation and the carrying out of the Holy and Great Council. So, since there is no ecclesial and canonical explanation, it is only necessary for a researcher to resort to seeking secular and extrinsic to the holy canons reasons for this participation cancellation. These reasons may not be canonical, they are, nonetheless, expected and easily explained.

Therefore, it was obvious that the process was used by some Churches so as to:

  1. attenuate and weaken the content of the agenda,
  2. obstruct, at the last minute, the convocation of the Council, and
  3. damage the authority of the decisions.

However, the authority of a Council is assessed neither by its thematic range, nor by the number of participants and participating Churches. Rather, the assessment derives from the Holy Spirit’s presence and breath, as well as the fidelity to the fathers’ faith, to the holy canons, and to the sacred Church tradition.

All of the above were an assessment of the course towards the Holy and Great Council. They were mentioned so as to help us plan and organize the next one, aiming to avoid the mistakes that have already been made and to, possibly, improve the methods that were followed during its preparation period and its actual carrying out.

But, allow me some further clarifications that might be missing out on.

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The Council, any Council is called by the Chairman at a time, place and with an agenda that he deems as appropriate. This act, as it is well knows, dates back to the era of Saint Photios and onwards, since the Patriarch of Constantinople holding the honorary primacy was assigned the organization of this major synodal expression, without any secular help.

Nonetheless, the Ecumenical Patriarchate never acted in this manner.

Characterized by the healthy spirit of orthodox synodality, while at the same time taking into consideration the fact that for a very long time any form of synodal experience was absent on a pan-orthodox level, the Ecumenical Patriarchate inaugurated the preparatory process in close co-operation with the other sister Orthodox Churches.

While in this process it shared not only the thematic range of the Council, but also its preparation. It accepted its ages-long prerogatives, ones that were bestowed upon the Throne of Constantinople by the decisions of the Ecumenical Synods and were applied through the canonical practice and order of the Orthodox Church, as being points of discussion in the agenda.

One such example is the manner of granting Autocephaly. The same Churches that were granted Autocephaly, some of which also acquired their Patriarchal merit from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, those were the ones that misinterpreted this issue on the agenda, and considered that they had the right to question both a practice and an order to which they essentially owed their canonical status and their ecclesiastical existence. That is, they considered that discussion of certain issues was a chance to challenge, or even to relativize, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s prerogatives through claiming a role and some form of participation in these for other Primates as well. Thus, we reached a point when a Primates’ co-decision to grant Autocephaly was under discussion. As a result, the Ecumenical Patriarchate withdrew this issue from the agenda and continued following the observed holy tradition. The purpose of Ecumenical Synods is not to negotiate on the grounds of canonical order ambition, but to list, ratify and preserve the already observed and established canonical order. This is the mentality that appears in all the decisions of Ecumenical Synods. Especially when it comes to the canonical prerogatives of Constantinople, these cannot become the subject of negotiation or exchange. If they are to be discussed, this only happens according to the synodal tradition of the Church and having as a sole purpose the display of respect and an invitation to further observe ancient practice and order.

Another example is the issue of the Diptychs. During the preparatory discussions it was noticed that some Churches’ criteria were neither ecclesial nor canonical, but rather they were dictated by extrinsic to the tradition of the Church feasibilities. This was they reason why the issues was withdrawn from the agenda.

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Please allow me at this point, a logical, in my humble opinion question: Why does it take such a long and thorough preparation for the convocation of a council, even of such importance? Why should everything be pre-arranged so well in advance? Why do the texts need to be fully pre-agreed upon? Why do the issues need to be predetermined? Doesn’t the Council convene in Holy Spirit? Don’t we believe that where two or three come together in the name of the Lord, He is there with them? Have we lost the trust in the enlightenment of the Holy Spirit? The Council is where decisions are made in Holy Spirit; it is not a place for a unanimous validation of prepared texts and decisions.

These questions have no easy answer. Just allow me to express some of my thoughts, that might shed a dim light or become the reason for a constructive dialogue. The era when the systematic preparation for the Holy and Great Council began is considered as the period of the western effect in the way conferences, symposia, and international colloquia are convened. This way always includes a thorough preparation and composition of texts, encyclicals, or messages that are to be validated. All these are extrinsic features to the synodal tradition of the East, and furthermore, they are not attested in the history of the Ecumenical Synods. The culminating point of this western effect and culture –if I may use this expression- in the carrying out of various meetings is the composition of a Regulation for the assembly of Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Summits, even a regulation for the Holy and Great Council which is also completely extrinsic to our tradition. However, all these new elements can be explained within the context of our time’s mentality, the long standing absence of synodal experience on a pan-orthodox level, the absence of trust among the Churches, and can also be imputed to similar reasons.

Nonetheless, in the future we need to further highlight the character of the synodal processes and put less emphasis on the institutional and scrupulous aspect, while at the same time we give more room and putting more faith in the Holy Spirit.

Concluding at this point the analysis of the Holy and Great Council’s preparation experience, I dare to move to some suggestions for the next pan-orthodox synodal expression of the Church, based on everything that has been mentioned so far.

I would like to begin with the name. The Church did not dare to name the Council of Crete as Ecumenical. Not because it was not in essence Ecumenical, but because a) there were restrictions set on the decided terminology during the preparatory period, and b) because there had been a long time span since the last Ecumenical Synods and, therefore, some hesitation for such a bold decision was evident.

However, in the future Council we have to convene bearing in mind that we will be the Ecumenical Synod of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. And that would be the case despite the views expressed by few theologians, even prominent ones, that after the schism with the Church of Rome no Ecumenical Synod can ever exist. The Church has always had to deal with schisms, however, they never affected her ecclesiological and synodal self understanding, nor did they diminish her ecumenical character.

Similarly, though, the necessity arises for the next Ecumenical, as it will be named, Synod to recognize and list as ecumenical not only the Synod of Constantinople in the era of Photios (879/880), but also the one In Defense of the Holy Hesychasts in 1341 (in which the proceedings of the Synods in 1347 and 1351 will be annexed to those of 1341), since their decisions have ecumenically been recorded and established in Church life on a pan-orthodox level.

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The person who convenes the Synod cannot be other than the Patriarch of Constantinople, who bears the responsibility of the primate in the Church. This primate has been established not only through the decisions of Ecumenical Synods, but also through the age long tradition, practice and order of the Church, as they have been preserved unaltered and with no exceptions until today. Indeed, since it has been proven that invoking non secular reasons for convening the Synod away from the seat of the Primate does not facilitate its carrying out or the participation of God’s Holy Churches, this Synod should take place in Constantinople.

The Patriarch of Constantinople will convene the local Churches without exempting the autonomous ones, as it was deemed as feasible, therefore, he had to do in the past. During the Synod the Churches can vote, but the canonical tradition of decisions taken on majority votes should be applied, the minority votes should comply without having the right to deny to sign the decisions, let alone the right to deny to enforce them. Besides, isn’t that what happens during synods of local Churches? Not one member of the minority can question the authority of the synodally taken decision. Whoever follows such a course of action usually claim exceptional historical events and similar examples of denial. However, it is known that this denial hides other views, feasibilities, and agendas.

The pursuit of coordinating and pre-agreeing among the Orthodox Churches does not give the right to procrastinate or try to void the actualization of the Synod itself. The Chairman’s and Primate’s of Orthodoxy good will to ensure the largest possible consent with the aim of preserving unity, should not become object of exploitation with the aim of promoting extrinsic feasibilities.

And that is because we have the experience of the Holy and Great Council’s preparation and we often see that this process held hostage the whole Church so that solutions could be imposed or bilateral disputes to be resolved.

Discussing issues already resolved through decisions of Ecumenical Synods, such as order and canonical geographical boundaries of Churches, by no means could lead to their questioning or abolishment. As was the case with every Ecumenical Synod, that should also be in the future one. We have to repeat the decisions and the testimony of the Holy Fathers, so that continuity and consistency in orthodox tradition and theology will be manifested.

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Nonetheless, since we cannot overlook to the arising issues, we have to:

Regulate through pan-orthodox decisions the cases in which there are disputed territorial jurisdictions among Churches, such as the areas of Qatar and Bessarabia. This disputes have arose due to either states’ border modifications or to an alteration of the geographical areas’ names over the years.

Admit that the given temporary solution to the issue of orthodox diaspora in essence is nothing more than an admittance of a) our incapacity to accept ecclesial criteria implementation (28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council), and b) our submission to secular feasibilities.

Proceed to an assessment of the official Theological Dialogues of the Orthodox Church with other Churches up until today, so that we can give proper directives, take appropriate decisions and assume their responsibility on this synodal level.

Re-assess the use of the term “heretic” and distinguish it from that of heterodox Christian or of the same faith schismatic. That will help us gain a better understanding not only the letter but also the spirit of the holy canons and the Church’s practice.

For that, we should assume an official pan-orthodox stance for the issue of women’s ordination and clarify our views on the tradition of their ordination as deacons.

Finally, something that has been in abeyance and should be regulated through an Ecumenical Synod’s decision is the validation of the Autocephalous Churches’ Status that they were granted through canonical acts of the Principally Seated Church of Constantinople. It is known that all jurisdictional regulations of the ancient Patriarchates and the Church of Cyprus were actualized through decisions of Ecumenical Synods and they cannot be questioned or altered. These regulations are still pending for the cases of Churches such as Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Poland, Albania, Czech Lands and Slovakia.

Concluding my presentation I wish to praise the proposal of His Beatitude Patriarch of Romania Daniel for the need of frequent or regular convocation of such nature or extent Synods of the Orthodox Church. There is indeed a great need for our Church to deal with crucial issues that trouble our flock and pose great challenges to our theology, the interpretation of our faith, while at the same time we articulate ecclesial and synodal discourse on, for example, issues of bioethical dilemmas. Even though there is no testimony in the Church’s tradition of convening such regular synod, and such a practice entails the danger of turning them into some sort of routine, still, the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches –which His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew following divine inspiration successfully devised and implemented- could form a new mode of a pan-orthodox synodal expression.

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Even though political and other feasibilities, secularization, and human weaknesses caused the delay of the Holy and Great Synod for many decades, even if unorthodox planning and obstacles rendered its realization something like a Gordian Knot, the Lord showed mercy to His Church by sending the ecclesiastical Alexander the Great, who by using the spear of his spirit did not just unfasten the knot but cut off through the complications and opened the way not only for this Council but also for the future of the pan-orthodox synodal tradition.

Thank you for your patience.

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