Σάββατο, 25 Ιουνίου 2016


The Tablet

John Chryssavgis and Brandon Gallaher

When Western people think of Eastern Orthodoxy, they often conjure up in their minds a picture of wafting incense in an ancient icon-frescoed church, populated by bearded monks in ornate vestments and grandmothers holding candles for four-hour vigils celebrated in dead languages. This picture of Orthodoxy emerges from a myth of the ‘mystical and timeless East.’ It can also accompany a polemic against the ‘medieval, petrified, barren, barbaric’ Eastern churches. Both of these Orientalist visions of Orthodoxy have come out in the Western media in and around the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church that has been taking place at the Orthodox Academy of Crete this week.
The truth is more complex. The Council is dealing with the real Orthodox Church. It does not live in a mystical or ossified East. It is partially westernized and modernized and under immense strain and continuing persecution from autocratic state powers, foreign ideologies and lingering historical wounds. But its divisions are also due precisely to the fact that for several centuries Orthodoxy has been wrestling with how to articulate its identity as a body touched intimately by the West but not Western, with a faith that is pre-modern and non-western. The Orthodox Church’s theology – expressed in its Byzantine liturgy – has been slow to recognize the goodness, and even existence, of a Western world outside the cultures shaped by the Byzantine empire. Many Orthodox have appropriated Western myths about ‘the mystical theology of the Eastern Church’ and defined themselves as the ‘East’ against a monolithic and corrupt ‘West.’
The Council’s significance cannot be overstated. It is an historically unprecedented and long-awaited moment in which Orthodoxy as a Church self-consciously grapples on a universal level with its history and contemporary identity in a world dominated by the modern West. The Council was actively planned for almost 60 years and in discussion for over a century. Although many important landmark Councils have been formative of Orthodoxy since the Seventh and last Ecumenical Council in 787, none has had such wide representation and scope as the present gathering. It can, therefore, quite justifiably be called the first ‘Holy and Great Council’ in 1200 years.
The Orthodox Church – that sees itself as the Una Sancta of the Creed – is composed of 14 universally recognized, self-governing (‘autocephalous’) Churches. These Churches are very different bodies, from often radically different regions and embracing a plethora of languages and cultures. The differences themselves are a strength. There is a real diversity of the Churches with no one culture dominating another. The differences can also be a weakness. There is factionalism in the form of nationalism and episcopal rivalry.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, based in Istanbul (old ‘Constantinople’), ‘first among equals’ among all these Churches, initiated and led the pre-conciliar process. All of the Churches had participated in the long pre-conciliar preparation and planning for the Council. This was not without difficulties because the nature of Constantinople’s universal primacy is disputed. With only few exceptions, the Orthodox Primates at a meeting in January 2016 in Chambésy, Switzerland, signed every page of the pre-conciliar rules and decisions, including the agreed documents that will be examined at the Council on the Church in Diaspora, the Church in the Modern World, the Church and other Christian Groups, Church Governance, fasting and marriage. At a meeting in March 2014 and subsequently reiterated, Moscow insisted on the addition of the key phrase in documents that the Council would take place in June 2016 ‘unless impeded by unforeseen circumstances.’ This phrase can now be seen as strategically crucial for Moscow.
In the last week and a half before the Council opened, a few churches called for its postponement and then boycotted it: Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia and Antioch. Antioch’s position was that it reserved the right to decide to not go to the Council if its dispute with Jerusalem over the canonical jurisdiction of Qatar was not resolved before the Council. The post-Soviet Churches had difficulties with the pre-conciliar documents. The documents did not handle the real dividing issues, were ill prepared and did not make a clear enough distinction between the Orthodox and heterodox. There were objections that the Ecumenical Patriarchate was acting as an ‘Eastern Pope’ and forbidding changes to the texts. These difficulties can, arguably, be traced to a) these churches’ suspicion of Constantinople’s primacy; b) a relatively new ecclesiology that speaks of a series of ethnic and linguistic nation churches each of which has complete independence (autocephaly) in its canonical territory and over their ‘peoples’ abroad; and c) a growing tendency to oppose the Orthodox Church to the ‘West.’
Moscow, ever eager to assert itself as an alternative power base to Constantinople, called for a 10 June emergency Synaxis of the Primates to especially resolve the issues concerning the texts. Division has focused on a rule of the Council that all the decisions require unanimity understood as ‘consensus.’ But there is no consensus on consensus. The four boycotting Churches have retrospectively applied this rule to the issue of the quorum for the Council. They now argue that a Pan-Orthodox Council could not even be convened unless all 14 churches were present. Thus consensus is identified with absolute unanimity and quorum with the presence of all invited Churches. Constantinople met in an extraordinary Synod and stated, following the agreed upon rules, that changes to the texts were to be dealt with at the Council and called all the Churches to rise to the occasion and attend the Council. There was no need for Moscow’s emergency Synaxis of Primates on 10 June since a Synaxis had already been scheduled in Crete for 17 June.
Following the Ecumenical Councils themselves and the practice of local Synods including Moscow, Constantinople understands ‘consensus’ as an overwhelming majority and not complete unanimity. However, it conceded for the purposes of passing documents at the Council that consensus could be unanimity. As is the case with other international bodies, Constantinople holds that a meeting is not invalidated because one body does not attend. Absence cannot be held as a veto. It is deemed an abstention. The Council, therefore, has gone forward without the presence of the four boycotting churches though the Primates have reached out to their absent brothers.
Now that the Council has begun, it has a unique opportunity. In the last 1,200 years, many Orthodox teachings have remained suspended, undefined at a universal conciliar level. These include the teaching of deification (theosis). The end of Christian salvation in Christ is that all might become ‘partakers of the divine nature’ (II Peter 1:4). Related to this is the teaching expressed classically by St Gregory Palamas (1296-1359) that one can come to know God and be deified through direct and personal participation in the divine energies which pervade creation, although the divine essence is utterly unknowable. It is the teaching of God transcendent and yet immanent, God inapproachable and incomprehensible and yet fully accessible and knowable.
Other teachings are demanded by the rise of modernity and the West. Thus, no universal Council has ever spoken on the spread of democracy, human rights, ecumenism, encounter with other religions, ethical challenges of new forms of bio-technology and genetics and the ecological crisis. All of these issues are discussed elaborated in the pre-conciliar documents that will be discussed and the message of the Council being drafted. Although the analogy is neither entirely accurate nor even appropriate, it is easy to make connections with Vatican II.
This is the Orthodox moment. It is a decision to come out of disunity and isolation to witness boldly to the world concerning the Orthodox Faith. This Orthodox Council for the 21st Century will be the first of a series of Pan-Orthodox Councils to respond from the depths of living tradition to a new world and to the long suspended issues. Such an opportunity to forge an ecumenical Orthodoxy freed from all provincialism requires risk. It requires a humility of spiritual daring. The Orthodox are called to embrace the imperfect process of conciliar dialogue with its chaotic messiness trusting that the Spirit will lead the Church, the Body of the Living Christ, through its bishops into all truth. In this spiritual task, the Orthodox need the same creativity, community and love that inspired the Seven Ecumenical Councils. To quote the poet, ‘But where danger is, grows/ The saving power also’ (Hölderlin).

Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis is Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and director of its Press Office at the Council.
Dr Brandon Gallaher is a Lecturer of Systematic and Comparative Theology at the University of Oxford Exeter and Subject Expert at the Council.
Published in a slightly different version in THE TABLET