It seems that there are all sorts of people up in arms and upset about the upcoming Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, and others are very excited. In case you missed it, it’s due to start on June 19, 2016 in Crete. There’s been lots of scaremongering and protests from the Ultra-Orthodox, posturing for position from Moscow, speculation and objections, and all this before the Council has even met. There’s even been lots of hope from schismatic Christian groupings outside the Church thinking this will bring some rapprochement. In reality, it looks to be neither one or the other.
Firstly, it is NOT an Ecumenical Council. The structure it is taking, as well as the issues that it will be addressing, do not indicate this. Ecumenical Councils are usually recognized after the fact by subsequent councils. The whole Church with all its bishops are represented, not just the head bishop of each synod, and they are usually addressing a particular heresy. The meeting in Crete doesn’t really seem to be addressing any of those issues. The last pre-schism Ecumenical Council that was precognized by all the Church was held in 787 in Nicaea defending the use of icons. Since then there have been two other Councils that some Orthodox scholars consider to be Ecumenical. The rejection of the Filioque under St. Photios in 879 and the defense of Hesychasm under St. Gregory Palamas in 1341. Both held in Constantinople. Of course, the later two have not been accepted by Rome, and could rightly be considered as rejections of Roman innovation. This council was also to have been held originally in Constantinople (aka Istanbul), but contemporary world problems between Russia and Turkey have scuppered that. Nevertheless, it will be an opportunity for the Orthodox Church to do some house keeping.
Secondly, it’s much more representative of all the diversity of the Orthodox Church. The first councils only really had the ancient Patriarchates. Indeed, the Russian Orthodox Church did not even exist until several centuries after the last officially recognized Ecumenical Council. Let alone all the other councils. Their language was Greek, and mainly involved five ancient Patriarchates and anomalies like the Church of Cyprus. Father John Chyrsavgis points out “By contrast, the Great Council that will convene in Crete this June will assemble fourteen recognized (or canonical) Orthodox churches from all over the world. These include the ancient patriarchates of Constantinople (that calls, convenes and chairs the council), Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem; the modern patriarchates of Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia; as well as the archdiocesan churches of Cyprus, Greece, Albania, Poland, and the Czech Lands and Slovakia.”
Thirdly, the topics they will be discussing seem to be more about Orthodoxy having a united front in the contemporary world. This certainly is the spirit of the Encyclical issued by the Ecumenical Patriarch on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.They were decided decades ago, and some of the more contentious ones are not there (i.e. all being on the same calendar)
1. The Mission of the Orthodox Church in the Contemporary World
2. The Orthodox Diaspora.
3. Autonomy and its Manner of Proclamation .
4. The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments
5. The Significance of Fasting and its Application Today
6. Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World .
(There is no question of any union of the Orthodox Church with the non-Orthodox.)
Lastly, whatever it is, the Great Council is an opportunity for the Orthodox to show that they are the One True Church of Christ, united in doctrine and purpose, kept together in brotherly love and working for the salvation of the world. This is a Council designed to show unity amongst the Orthodox, not division. The Divider, will always try to bring discord and strife, but the True Church is found speaking with one accord and in spirit of brotherly love.
What can we ordinary lay people do? What we always do. Pray for the good of the Church and the whole world.