Orthodox Conciliarity: Commitment to the Past or Present Reality?

Holy Great Council“The Orthodox Church, in her unity and catholicity, is the Church of Councils, from the Apostolic Council in Jerusalem (Acts 15.5-29) to the present day. The Church in herself is a Council, established by Christ and guided by the Holy Spirit, in accord with the apostolic words: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15.28). Through the Ecumenical and Local councils, the Church has proclaimed and continues to proclaim the mystery of the Holy Trinity, revealed through the incarnation of the Son and Word of God.” (ENCYCLICAL OF THE HOLY AND GREAT COUNCIL OF THE ORTHODOX CHURCH, Crete, 2016)

This past June, a Holy and Great Council of Orthodox bishops was held in Crete.  The pre- and post- Council documents emphasized the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church. This emphasis on the importance of council to the governance of the Church seems to be a way of contrasting Orthodoxy with Roman Catholicism’s pyramidal papacy.

The concept of “conciliar” can be interpreted in different ways.  In the United States, influenced as we are by egalitarian ideals, some tend to hope conciliar implies the interaction and input of every member of the Body of Christ, the Church, whether they be lay (female and male), clergy or episcopal.  In other parts of the Orthodox world, “conciliar” is heard more as “synodal”, meaning the bishops assemble to discuss Church issues and to issue decrees for the rest of the church members to follow.  In this thinking, conciliar is more about the hierarchical nature of the Church and is mostly about bishops assembling together.  Bishops then may meet in some fashion, like at diocesan assemblies, with their constituents, keeping a more “top down” nature to the Church.  In the different Orthodox self-governing churches, the notion of “assembly” connotes different things with assemblies having different amounts of “power” or input into the rest of the Church life.  The degree to which the synods of the various self-governing churches influence or have power over the primates of the churches and over the episcopal members of the synod varies from local church to local church.  Though they can do co-exist, there is a tension between hierarchial and conciliar/synodal in church governance.

What is true about Orthodoxy today, or so it seems to me, especially about the existing self-governing churches, is not so much that Orthodoxy is committed to a conciliar form of church governance and life, but rather Orthodoxy is committed to the memory of past great Councils.  Past councils, ancient ones significantly, are treated as the gold standard for Orthodoxy, even if the self governing churches are not relying on conciliar governance today.   A “conciliar attitutude” is more today a commitment to an ideal about past councils, but not necessarily entrusting the Church today to conciliar governance.  The hierarchs see themselves as the defenders and protectors of the Faith, but not necessarily councils/synods as having that task or being “over” themselves as hierarchs.

The fact that great councils are few and far between even in the “local” self-governing churches is one indication that Orthodox values past councils more than it values conciliarity in current governance.   The Russian Church for example has not done much with the decisions and thinking of its own great council of 1917.  That council’s conciliar attitude and commitment have not been revived in the Russian Orthodox Church today.  Nor does its memory seem to be very influential in the Russian Church.  Yet that 1917 Council was very committed to a conciliar mode of governance.  The current Russian Church is not motivated to revive that.

Some of the most famous ancient councils were rife with conflict and debate, and the church did not shy away from these issues or try to put on a face that everyone was in agreement.  These councils may have hoped for unity of mind but they openly acknowledged there was disagreement.   They did not try to show unity by avoiding the debates going on in the church.  If the past councils are going to be immortalized, we today are going to have to recognize they were held because there was real disagreement in the Church.  The Councils were not always able to bring an end to those disagreements or to bring a unity to all Christians.

The willingness of some Orthodox churches to abstain from this year’s Holy and Great Council shows conciliarity is not completely part of the current view of governance in the Church, especially as a worldwide, i.e. Catholic, community.  The system of autocephalous churches may allow some unity within each “local” church, but it fails to bind all these self-governing churches together.  The notion of council at this greater level becomes threatening as the “local” churches fear losing their independence.  They want to believe all Orthodox agree on all issues, but can maintain that position only by disallowing any real, open discussion.  If they don’t meet, they can pretend there is unity because they avoid discussing the troubling issues which divide them.  But then, maybe avoiding discussing divisive issues, is a strategy for maintaining a desired yet absent real unity.  If they don’t discover there is real disagreement, they avoid dividing the Church.  Yet, if one looks at history, the Ecumenical Councils did not prevent or end divisions in Christianity but resulted in them – note the monophysites and Nestorians.

In terms of governance, the Church today seems more committed to and defensive of its hierarchical nature than its conciliar nature.  Each of the autocephalous churches have hierarchs/ primates who are interested in maintaining their unique power and privileges within their “local” church.  The willingness of the primates to submit their authority to a council’s oversight is not there [Thus some abstained from attending the Holy and Great Council]. The desire to protect “local” episcopal authority seems especially true for the “nationalistic” tendencies in Orthodox self-governing churches today.   These “local” churches fear an “international” Orthodox council/ synod will interfere with their local governance and they don’t want to allow their decisions to then be judged by a higher synodal authority.  They don’t want some “pope” to be over them, but neither do they want to have to answer to a council of international bishops, even if they themselves are part of that council.  The Orthodox see their local autocephalous jurisdictions as the legitimate center for power in the Church and do not want to have to acknowledge a church structure/ power greater than their self-governing (= “local”) church.

In this instance, we can see, perhaps, why it was that Emperors convened the Seven Ecumenical Councils.  The authority of each bishop within their dioceses was left undisputed.  The Emperor however could demand that all the bishops must accept the decisions of the Council.  The Emperor didn’t interfere in each diocese, but all bishops were under his authority.   This helped maintain conformity and unity in the Church without the need for a pope – a super-bishop above all other bishops whose role was to maintain unity.  In the Christian West, the withdrawal of the Roman government to Constantinople, meant the Emperor’s influence was also lessened, and it fell on the bishop of Rome to insist on unity among the bishops.  The papacy developed where the emperor was no longer influential enough to insist on unity among the bishops.  The decline of the Roman Empire led to the disappearance of ecumenical councils.  In Russia after the time of Peter the Great, the Tsar/ government completely dominated the church, enforcing conformity through government power.  Only in 1917 did the Russian Church endeavor to throw off this secular system and try to re-establish the conciliar nature of the Church.

Without an emperor as a independent power over the bishops,  the power of Orthodox hierarchs grew within their dioceses.  And, the power of the primate of the autocephalous churches increased as well, making their office and jurisdictions more independent of the influence of other self-governing churches.  Conciliarity, if it existed at all occurred within the autocephalous church, or within dioceses, but there was no longer a structure to bind all the primates together.  They had a vague sense of sharing an Orthodoxy of faith, but the primates/ autocephalous jurisdictions become increasing alienated from one another.

That Orthodoxy is a hierarchical church is demonstrated constantly in church governance today throughout the world.  Bishops make sure everyone knows the church is hierarchical.  The vestments of the bishops have all of the trappings of the Byzantine emperor and display power and authority over all others.  The role of synods and councils in church governance is not always as obvious, though in some places in Orthodoxy episcopal synods do wield some obvious power over individual hierarchs.

Still, the conciliar nature of the church manifests itself at times in the different Orthodox self-governing churches.  In America, the conciliar nature of the Church is present in most jurisdictions in one form or another and to one degree or another.  It seems to me that all Orthodox jurisdictions in America are more influenced by conciliarity than are the “mother” churches.    The Orthodox Church in America has a strong commitment to the conciliar nature of the Church.  This is shown in its active synod of bishops, the role of diocesan assemblies, the All American Council, the various diocesan and bishop councils, and in parish councils and meetings.  Men and women participate in one form or another at all levels of church councils in the OCA.

It is interesting to note that in the Nicene Creed adopted by the 1st two Ecumenical Councils, hierarchical is not in the description of the true Church; the Church is said to be one, holy, Catholic and apostolic.  In the 4th Century they didn’t include “hierarchical” as a sure description of the Church.  “Catholic” which is clearly in the Creed, is the word that also can imply a conciliar nature to the Church.  The Slavonic version of the creed has that idea in relating “catholic” to sobornost.  It implies conciliarity.  The fullness of the faith exists in every Eucharistic community, and locally the Church does live as the Body of Christ, alive not just in the hierarchy but in every member of the Church.