Only the Next Step

Assessing the Pan-Orthodox Council

From the outside, it would seem that the “Great and Holy” Pan-Orthodox Council, which began on June 19 and ended without much fanfare on June 26, was a painful and humiliating fiasco. Four of the fourteen churches that were to participate in this historic council withdrew at the last minute, claiming, among other things, that the approved working documents required more reflection and discussion: More time was needed, they said. This excuse did not seem very convincing. After all, the council was first proposed in 1909; it was convoked by Patriarch Athenagoras fifty years ago; multiple preparatory sessions had taken place; an agenda had been approved, a date fixed. In short, there had been plenty of time. Because of the last-minute cancellations, an event intended to be—among other things—an edifying display of Orthodox unity instead provided an instructive reminder of the many tensions threatening the Orthodox communion.

These tensions are partly theological. Antoine Arjakovsky, a French Orthodox theologian-historian, distinguishes three predominant mentalities within Orthodoxy. First there are the “zealots”—traditionalists who focus on the past and the preservation of the integrity of the faith. Then there are the “proselytes,” who encourage dialogue with other Christians and nonbelievers in an effort to get them all to convert to the one true Orthodox Church. Finally, there are the “spirituals,” whose vision goes beyond confessional boundaries and emphasizes the charity that should unite us all in Christ. Ideally, these tendencies (which also exist, mutatis mutandis, within Catholicism) should complement one another. In reality, they often end up in conflict. The zealots fear that a pan-Orthodox council will only provoke more schisms and weaken the already tenuous union of Orthodoxy, while the spirituals envisage a post-confessional Christianity. Proselytes fall anywhere between these two extremes. The working documents for the pan-Orthodox council issued by the preparatory commissions reflect compromises that left the more extreme tendencies frustrated. These documents play it safe for the sake of the greatest possible inclusiveness; they are certainly not “prophetic.” The Moscow patriarchate had agreed to participate on the condition that all the council’s decisions be made by “consensus”—that is, unanimously—which meant that a single bishop could derail the whole project. This had the predictable effect of knocking anything controversial off the agenda.

Besides the theological disagreements, there is also a more worldly clash of interests, a clash that can remind one of the debate among the twelve apostles about which of them was the greatest. There is, first of all, the rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow. With the fall of the Western Roman Empire, Constantinople—“the new Rome”—became the new center of what remained of the Empire in the East; its patriarch was recognized as having special privileges and responsibilities for the unity of the church throughout Asia Minor. After the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453, it set up “millets” (or “nations”) where the different minority groups within the realm would be free to follow their own laws and traditions. The Patriarch of Constantinople, known as the Ecumenical Patriarch, was the official head of the Christian millet. All of this came to an end when the Ottoman Empire was dismantled after World War I. Suddenly the Patriarchate of Constantinople lost political support for its preeminence among the Eastern Churches. The Russian Church, the largest in the Orthodox world with its 75 million adherents, began to see itself as the “Third Rome.” Later, the collapse of the Soviet Union led to the resurgence of “Holy Russia” and the renewal of religious liberties in other countries of Eastern Europe. But with this heartening rediscovery of the ancient faith has come the reemergence of “Holy Russia’s” dark side: a narrow conservatism, national and ethnic chauvinism, an exaggerated “symphony” with the State, which offers temporal prestige and certain practical privileges but also creates dependence. The Russian Orthodox Church began to act as though it possessed prerogatives hitherto reserved to Constantinople. (For example, it unilaterally granted autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of America without consulting the other patriarchates.) Moscow originally requested that the site of the Pan-Orthodox Council be transferred from Istanbul to Crete, and so it was. Then, just a few days before the council was to begin, Moscow demanded that it be postponed in order to allow further study of the preparatory documents. Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople refused this last request. He affirmed that the council would take place as scheduled and that the decisions it made would be binding on all the Orthodox churches, whether they were present at the council or not.

As for the council’s agenda and modus operandi, the hardliners seemed to get their way in the preparatory sessions: only the bishops would participate in the working sessions of the council; theologians, lay people, and outside “observers” would be allowed to assist only at the opening and closing sessions; the Orthodox churches of the “Diaspora” would be represented only through their “mother churches,” which meant the Orthodox Church in America as well as many Orthodox Churches in Western Europe would be excluded.


ALL THIS IS A LONG WAY from the heady optimism following Vatican II, at which observers from the Russian Orthodox Church assisted in the debates and helped define positions, while Pope Paul VI and Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople exchanged the kiss of peace and lifted the reciprocal anathemas. It was even proposed that they concelebrate a liturgy, and a secret Catholic-Orthodox commission formed to study the possibility found no theological impediments. The hard part was avoiding the suggestion that one side had yielded to the other. It would be better, some thought, if Paul VI first went to Istanbul or Crete to concelebrate in the Byzantine rite. This would be followed by a concelebration in the Latin rite in Rome. Alas, when the work of this commission was leaked, it provoked violent reactions in Greece and on Mount Athos. Because neither Paul VI nor Athenagoras wanted to provoke another schism, they agreed that a consensus within Orthodoxy was necessary before they could move forward. This was part of the impetus for the Pan-Orthodox Council, which was supposed to do for Orthodoxy something like what Vatican II did for Catholicism. But this was back in the 1960s, when there seemed to be an irresistible trend toward Christian unity. That trend has been resisted all too well.

Nevertheless, there is still reason to hopeful. The various difficulties that have beset the Pan-Orthodox Council should be viewed in the light of Orthodox ecclesiology and its distinctive conception of authority and conciliarity. For Orthodoxy, all authority belongs to Jesus Christ and finds its expression in the church as a whole. It is not vested in a person or an institution. The church is essentially a mystery, reflecting the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation, with all their apparent contradiction and ultimate unity. This explains the Orthodox willingness to tolerate certain apparent contradictions within the church. Whereas in Western theology reason seeks to understand the faith, Eastern theology prefers to think of faith as illuminating reason. This distinction is subtle but far-reaching. There is also a distinction between Rome’s approach to authority and that of the Eastern Churches, which hold that all controversies should be resolved by conciliar consensus rather than the imposition of a majority over a minority. Here, too, there is a sort of blind confidence that the Holy Spirit will somehow work things out…eventually.

The Orthodox model of conciliarity also emphasizes the importance of “reception.” For the decisions of a council to be truly binding, they must be accepted by the whole church—a process that can take centuries. There is, the Orthodox believe, a certain instinct within the people of God that will recognize the truth after the faithful have explored the practical implications of conciliar decrees. A council, then, is just the beginning of a long process of clarification, rather than the end of one.

From this perspective, the Pan-Orthodox Council looks less like a failure and more like the next painful step in a very long journey. Intentionally and unintentionally, it has exposed the serious problems now facing the Orthodox Church. The solutions will require dialogue, patience, humility, time, and, above all, charity. This seems to be how Bartholomew views the council, which is perhaps why he was willing to carry through with it even after the Russian Church pulled out. It could be that he regards the council in Crete as only the first in a series of councils seeking consensus. In any case, he must have expected there to be a few unexpected problems, as there always are. If there were no problems, there would be no need for councils.

Jerry Ryan, a frequent contributor to Commonweal, died on January 23. Requiescat in pace.

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