Fate of Orthodox Christianity's Great and Holy Council Hangs in the Balance

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January 21, 2016

By Rev. Nicolas Kazarian

During the meeting of Christian Orthodox Primates (heads of local Orthodox churches), which begins today in Switzerland, the participants will show the world whether the unity of the Orthodox Church is more important than their particular agendas.
The issue facing the Primates is whether to convene, as planned, a “Holy and Great” Council of the Orthodox Church, or Pan-Orthodox Council as it is also called, around the feast of Pentecost, in June of this year.
The Holy and Great Council (if it takes place) will have historical momentum, not only for Orthodox believers, but also for the global religious landscape.
Given increasing religious pluralism on the international scene, the fall of the Soviet Union, and growing secularization in developed countries, the convocation of a Pan-Orthodox Council is, in part, intended to signal the continued unity of communion among the fourteen independent, or autocephalous, Orthodox Churches.
The idea of convening a “Holy and Great Council,” whose name ties it to the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325), has been under discussion since the early 20thcentury. The Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras (1886-1972) officially initiated the pre-conciliar process in 1961 by organizing the first Panorthodox Conference in Rhodes. Five Panorthodox Preconciliar Conferences have been held to date (1976, 1982, 1986, 2009 and 2015).
One of the role of the Preconciliar Conferences has been to prepare documents on ten topics to be studied by the Council: 

  • The Orthodox Diaspora.
  • The way in which autocephaly is granted.
  • The way in which autonomy is granted to semi-independent churches within autocephalous churches, like the orthodox church of Finland that belongs to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
  • The diptychs. They are the list of autocephalous churches according to their honor and rank. Can the order of the churches be changed?
  • The Church calendar. Some orthodox churches still use the old Julian calendar (the Russian Orthodox Church for instance), others has adopted the new Gregorian calendar (like the Church of Greece). The Council will have to promote a common practice.
  • Canonical impediments to marriage, especially in the case of inter-Christian marriages.  
  • Fasting. Should the rules of fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays be changed?
  • Relationships with the non-Orthodox denominations, such as the Roman Catholic Church, and the Anglican Communion.
  • The ecumenical movement.
  • The contribution of Orthodoxy to affirming peace, fraternity, and freedom. 

Besides studying these topics, the Great and Holy Council will be tasked with formulating responses to at least three challenges:

1.  Tackle Nationalism
The decline of the Ottoman Empire in the late 19th century led to a reassessment of religious identities in regions previously under its control. Orthodoxy, a traditional marker of ethnic identity in many Balkan countries became an integral part of these countries’ nationalist and separatist claims.
Nationalist and separatist movements alike turned to Orthodoxy and its religious symbols to generate support for their political goals. Alongside the nation-building process, a similar “separatist” phenomenon occurred in religious terms, which could be described as church-building. This “separatist” phenomenon resulted in the creation of autocephalous Orthodox Churches in Greece (1833), Serbia (1832), Exarchate of Bulgaria (1870), Romania (1885), among others.
The fusion between ethnic and religious identities created a pattern of ethnicity-basedchurches at odds with the pattern of the region-based communion of local churches.
Not content with establishing parallel parishes or even dioceses in regions administered by local Orthodox churches or in the Diaspora, these churches emphasized ethno-centric allegiances as more important than the spiritual unity of the Orthodox communion, although the pastoral care they provided to members with similar ethnic backgrounds cannot be totally set aside.
The Constantinople Synod officially condemned this tendency of racial hatred and discrimination (also called ethnophyletism) in 1872. Despite this condemnation, the establishment of Orthodoxy as an essential symbol of ethnic identity spread throughout southeastern Europe. One of the main challenges for the Holy and Great Council will be to address this phenomenon, which undermines the unity of the Orthodox Churches and contributes to its fragmentation.

2.  Address Geopolitical Tensions 
Orthodox Christianity is a geopolitical reality. Territory is an essential element of its canonical operation. The autocephalous Orthodox churches are territorial units modeled on historic administrative networks. Territory is not only canonical space; it has gradually been integrated into religious, ethnic and national identities. Orthodox churches continue to support the interests of their countries of origin, serving as relays of influence. Orthodoxy is often considered a part of a national government’s “soft power,” especially at the international level.
Many of the issues raised during the pre-conciliar process have geopolitical repercussions, which have compelled the Primates to address openly issues of territorial authority and church jurisdiction.
With respect to geopolitical tensions, the main issue remains that of diaspora Orthodoxy. Due to migratory patterns throughout the 20th century, Orthodoxy’s center of gravity shifted out of the traditionally Orthodox world and into non-Orthodox countries, especially in the West.
This reality, along with today's new geopolitical realities, weighs heavily on the pre-conciliar process. It generates tensions, or even oppositions, between the Russian Orthodox Church and the first among equals, the Primus inter Pares of the Orthodox churches — the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.

3.  Confront Fundamentalism
Orthodox fundamentalism has been another challenge of particular concern. As George Demacopoulos of Fordham University writes: “Like other fundamentalist movements, Orthodox fundamentalism reduces all theological teaching to a subset of theological axioms and then measures the worthiness of others according to them.”
The issue is this: how much influence will the most radically conservative fringe have on the Holy and Great Council's decisions on such issues as canonical impediments to marriage, relationships with heterodox churches, and the ecumenical movement? These decisions will be the result of intense negotiations. In the recent past, the most conservative voices have proven to be quite influential, especially on issues like ecumenism.
Due to the fact that all of the Council's decisions must be made unanimously, the fundamentalist minority could use its veto power to put pressure on the process and to influence the final wording. Often used as a political tool, Orthodox fundamentalism provokes the creation of new alliances, thus making the difficult goal of continued Orthodox unity more complex.
At best, fundamentalists will contribute to the Council's message of unity, while at worst they could cause the proceedings to devolve into a clash of civilizations, a schism, and open theological discord of the kind witnessed during the Second Vatican Council.
Convening the Holy and Great Council in June despite these various tensions would send a powerful message of unity. Whether it will be held or not will be decided by the Primates who meet today. Three hundred million Orthodox across the world and countless friends await their decision.