Reflecting on the Message of the Holy and Great Council

Holy Great CouncilThe Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church came to an end causing little notice in the world at large.  The Council’s goal seemed to be to have an assembly of bishops which changed nothing, and any event that changes nothing is not very news worthy. Since everything in Orthodoxy seems to be the same as before the Council, I guess it was a success.  Of course if the butterfly effect is true, even the smallest of causes can have effects on major events.  So perhaps in time to come we will feel the effect of the Council – just as one butterfly flapping its wings can have an effect on a hurricane.

We Orthodox are known for having an unchanging attitude – not only toward things in the Church, but even in the world at large.  One of the issues the Council mentioned – the so-called diaspora – is created by Orthodoxy’s stalwart inability to come to grips with the passing of the Byzantine world.  Orthodox Church worldwide structures are based on the existence of Byzantium which long ago passed away but the Orthodox continue to cling to territorial claims for that non-existent world.  The existence of the Americas remains unexpected by Orthodox canonical structures.  The Church which doesn’t change struggles with being in the world which does.

One thoughtful non-Orthodox evaluation of the Council can be read at Only the Next Step: Assessing the Pan-Orthodox Council.    I’ve not read much commentary on the Council from an Orthodox point of view – perhaps because the Council accomplished what it set out to do – not to change anything.  Spin doctors are needed for organizations and individuals who constantly change positions.  Nothing is changing in Orthodoxy, so the Church can take time before making comments about the Council.  At the conclusion of the Council they did adopt an official MESSAGE OF THE HOLY AND GREAT COUNCIL, which you can read by clicking on that link.

Holy Great Council Photo

Below are parts of that official message and a few of my own thoughts, as one who has spent most of my 62 years being in the Orthodox Church, and having served as a priest for over 35 years in the New World which Orthodoxy so struggles to deal with.  I’m not connected to Old World Orthodoxy, and so don’t know much about how they perceived the results of the Council.  Some parts of the Message seemed to me to be so standard to Orthodoxy that I won’t comment on them, even if they have pressing, contemporary importance.  The Council Message says:

The foundation of our theological discussions was the certainty that the Church does not live for herself. She transmits the witness of the Gospel of grace and truth and offers to the whole world the gifts of God: love, peace, justice, reconciliation, the power of the Cross and of the Resurrection and the expectation of eternal life.

The Church does not live for herself, but exists for the world.  Our current world however, and certainly the media, was not much taken by the Council.  The world was not waiting with bated breath for what the Council might say.  But then, frankly, neither was much of the Orthodox world.  The Council really was an internal Orthodox event as revealed in the very first point of the Message:

1) The key priority of the Council was to proclaim the unity of the Orthodox Church.  Founded on the Eucharist and the Apostolic Succession of her Bishops, the existing unity needs to be strengthened and to bear new fruits.

Who were we proclaiming “the unity” to?  Not the world, which has no vested interest in a united Orthodox Church.  The Council was hoping to show our hierarchs that they are united.  Since unity is treated as a prerogative of episcopacy, they needed to witness the unity and strengthen it.  That is purely an internal Orthodox issue.  The world may have been mildly impressed if that unity was publicly obvious, but the Orthodox bishops were hoping to show themselves the unity existed.  The Council really was more for the Orthodox Church than for the world.

The Orthodox Church expresses her unity and catholicity “in Council”. Conciliarity pervades her organization, the way decisions are taken and determines her path. 

Conciliarity does not mean democracy – not every Orthodox can assemble, not everyone gets a vote.  Those who assemble in Council – for the Orthodox, the hierarchs – aren’t necessarily representative of the people.  However, in the modern world, Orthodoxy really does need to consider whether conciliarity applies in any way to the entire membership of the Church.  Today, conciliarity seems mostly to be used about the hierarchs.  If “council” really pervades the all levels of the Church, that should be made obvious even at the level of Holy and Great Councils.   The bishops have responsibility for governance, but they certainly could meet with more of membership present, and even allow other members of the Church to be the voice and face of the Church in council.   Some might say such conciliarity never existed in Orthodoxy since the time of Constantine.  It is a conciliarity and unity which might better reflect the oneness of the Church.

The Orthodox Autocephalous Churches do not constitute a federation of Churches, but the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church. Each local Church as she offers the holy Eucharist is the local presence and manifestation of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.

I thought this image of unity – that the Church is not a “federation” of autocephalous churches, but has an ontological unity is really important.  Every local Eucharistic community is the “local presence and manifestation” of the One Church.   I think this is an idea that needs to be fleshed out much more in Orthodoxy today so that conciliarity can attain the fullness of its meaning.

Met Tikhon AAC

During the deliberations of the Holy and Great Council the importance of the Synaxes of the Primates which had taken place was emphasized and the proposal was made for the Holy and Great Council to become a regular Institution to be convened every seven or ten years.

This statement may be one of the few practical outcomes of the Council – they hope to now meet regularly every 7-10 years.   That may also give us some sense of how long they thought it would take to work out the implication of this Council!

3) In response to her obligation to witness to the truth and her apostolic faith, our Church attaches great importance to dialogue, primarily with non Orthodox Christians. In this way the remainder of the Christian world comes to know more precisely the authenticity of the Orthodox Tradition, the value of patristic teaching and the liturgical life and faith of the Orthodox. The dialogues conducted by the Orthodox Church never imply a compromise in matters of faith.

For those who have even a faint hope of the unity of all Christians, the above statement is so important.  Those hierarchs assembled committed themselves to continuing dialogue with the non-Orthodox.

4) The explosions of fundamentalism observed within various religions represent an expression of morbid religiosity. Sober inter-religious dialogue helps significantly to promote mutual trust, peace and reconciliation. The oil of religious experience must be used to heal wounds and not to rekindle the fire of military conflicts.

I remember our dogmatics professor at seminary, Serge Verhovskoy, saying that rigidity in thinking and liturgical practice always appears when the Church is in a period of decline.  He claimed in periods when the Orthodox Church was vibrant, it was also creative, and freely changed its liturgical practices to meet the changing needs of the time.  When the Church drifted into periods of decay, on the other hand, it became petrified and ossified.  Fundamentalism occurs in Orthodoxy too.  It is just as morbid and moribund in us as it is in other religions.

The Church has always emphasized the value of self-restraint. Christian asceticism, however, differs radically from every dualistic asceticism which severs man from life and from his fellow man. 

What is tricky in Orthodoxy is that a neo-Platonic dualism is sometimes intertwined in some Orthodox spiritual writings.  The Church at times has tried correctives against this tendency, but one sees evidence of it in the writings of Church fathers and monastics.  Christian asceticism is not based in dualism, but as Yannaras points out the dualism is at times obvious in church monastic writings which downplay the sacraments and focus almost exclusively on asceticism.   Where asceticism has a practical and contemporary application is certainly in offering a spiritual approach to ecology, as noted in 8) below.

7) In regard to the matter of the relations between Christian faith and the natural sciences, the Orthodox Church avoids placing scientific investigation under tutelage and does not adopt a position on every scientific question. She thanks God who gives to scientists the gift of uncovering unknown dimensions of divine creation. . . .  Along with her respect for the freedom of scientific investigation, the Orthodox Church at the same time points out the dangers concealed in certain scientific achievements and emphasises man’s dignity and his divine destiny.

The Council in taking the above position does not think religion and science must of necessity be in opposition to each other.   Science cannot determine morality.  They can tell us what things are possible for us to do, but not whether or not we should do them (for example: nuclear weapons or genetic engineering).  In this the Council seems to embrace that there really are realms of thinking which the Church does not directly enter.  The Church does not have to have a position on every scientific theory or investigation, but it can speak in the realm of ethics about the real dangers that certain science might represent for humanity.  The Church can also weigh in favor of the morality of some science (immunization for example, or other efforts to eliminate disease or improve efforts to feed the world).

8) It is clear that the present-day ecological crisis is due to spiritual and moral causes. Its roots are connected with greed, avarice and egoism, which lead to the thoughtless use of natural resources, the filling of the atmosphere with damaging pollutants, and to climate change. The Christian response to the problem demands repentance for the abuses, an ascetic frame of mind as an antidote to overconsumption, and at the same time a cultivation of the consciousness that man is a “steward ” and not a possessor of creation. The Church never ceases to emphasise that future generations also have a right to the the natural resources that the Creator has given us. For this reason, the Orthodox Church takes an active part in the various international ecological initiatives and has ordained the 1st September as a day of prayer for the protection of the natural environment.

As mentioned above, the Orthodox Church’s emphasis on asceticism can play a role here.  Ecology does not have to be viewed only as politically conservative or liberal, or whether it helps or hurts economics.   There is a spiritual dimension which is both personal and affects us all.

10) The Orthodox Church does not involve herself in politics. Her voice remains distinct, but also prophetic, as a beneficial intervention for the sake of man. Human rights today are at the center of politics as a response to the social and political crises and upheavals, and seek to protect the citizen from the arbitrary power of the state. Our Church also adds to this the obligations and responsibilities of the citizens and the need for constant self-criticism on the part of both politicians and citizens for the improvement of society. And above all she emphasises that the Orthodox ideal in respect of man transcends the horizon of established human rights and that ” greatest of all is love”, as Christ revealed and as all the faithful who follow him have experienced.

It is the case that our Lord Jesus did not Himself speak much about politics or government in general.  Christians have wrestled with the relationship between themselves and the state through the centuries.  Christians have lived in places where they are a minority and where they are persecuted as well as in places where they held imperial power.  The ultimate power of Christianity is God’s love for us, for His world.  We are to love others as Christ loves us.  This is a power far different from what any political system or party has to offer.  And we Christians have realized how hard it is  to live by that power.