The Ecumenical Significance of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church

Lecture at the headquarters of the KEK in Brussels on May 30, 2016

Archbishop Job of Telmessos

The Holy and Great Council and the Question of Ecumenism

The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church to be convened on Crete on June 20-26, 2016 will be the culmination of a century of preparation. Indeed, the Patriarchal and Synodical Encyclical of Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III of June 12, 1902, through which the Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches were called to collaborate to face the problems concerning the Orthodox Church at that time was the spark which initiated the preparation of a Great Pan-Orthodox Council. That encyclical raised already at that time the question of ecumenical relations and theological dialogue with non-Orthodox Churches. There, we can read:

It is, moreover, pleasing to God, and in accordance with the Gospel, to seek the mind of the most holy autocephalous Churches on the subject of our present and future relations with the two great growths of Christianity, viz. the Western Church and the Church of the Protestants. Of course, the union of them and of all who believe in Christ with us in the Orthodox faith is the pious and heart-felt desire of our Church and of all genuine Christians who stand firm in the evangelical doctrine of unity, and it is the subject of constant prayer and supplication; but at the same time we are not unaware that this pious desire comes up against the unbroken persistence of these Churches in doctrines on which, having taken their stand as on a base hardened by the passage of time, they seem quite disinclined to join a road to union, such as is pointed out by evangelical and historical truth; nor do they evince any readiness to do so, except on terms and bases on which the desired dogmatic unity and fellowship is unacceptable to us”.[1]

The encyclical continues in addressing the other Orthodox Autocephalous Churches:

Wherefore, if it might be acceptable to the holy brethren to follow up this suggestion, we are bold to add this fraternal question: whether the present is judged to be the right time for preliminary conference on this, to prepare a level ground for a fraternal approach and to determine, by common agreement of members of the whole of the Orthodox Church, what might be considered the best bases, ways and means”.[2]

It is important to underline, that 60 years prior to the Second Vatican Council and 46 years before the creation of the World Council of Churches, the Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III called all the other Orthodox Autocephalous Churches to discuss in a synodical way, “by common agreement” the question of the relations of the Orthodox Church with other Christian Churches, besides other questions pertaining to inter-Orthodox relations, the question of the calendar and various questions of disciplinary order.

Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras revived the idea of convening a Council after the Second World War, by two patriarchal letters addressed to the Primates of the Patriarchal and Autocephalous Orthodox Churches in 1951 and 1952. In 1961, the First Pan-Orthodox Conference met in Rhodes and officially and definitively launched the process of the preparation of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church by approving a long list of topics to be addressed by the Council, classified in eight categories, among which one listed questions referring to the relations of the Orthodox Churches with the rest of the Christian world. In 1968, the Fourth Pan-Orthodox Conference held in Chambésy instituted a Secretariat for the preparation of the Holy and Great Council based in Chambésy, as well as the instances of Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commissions and Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar Conferences to elaborate the pre-conciliar texts, and selected a list of six themes to be examined by the Council.

This list was revised by the First Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar Conference of Chambésy in 1976, which restricted it to ten subjects among which two preferred the relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of Christian world: 1) The relations of the Orthodox Church with other Churches and Christian confessions and 2) The relations of the Orthodox Church to the Ecumenical Movement. Therefore, two documents on these two topics were prepared and later approved by the Third Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar Conference of Chambésy in 1986. All this preparation was based on the contributions from every Orthodox Autocephalous Church and approved unanimously on a pan-Orthodox level.

After a period of stagnation, the process of preparation of the Holy and Great Council continued under the impulse of the Synaxes of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches, meeting in 1992, 1995 and 2000 through the initiative of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. While gathered in Synaxis in Constantinople, at the see of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the Phanar in March 2014, the Primates of the Orthodox Churches decided to convene a special inter-Orthodox commission to review a few texts of the Second and Third Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conferences of 1982 and 1986, among which were listed the two texts on the relations of the Orthodox Church with other Churches and Christian confessions and on the relations of the Orthodox Church to the Ecumenical Movement. This revision was necessary, since many things had happened and involved in both the Ecumenical Movement and in the bilateral theological dialogues since 1986.

A special inter-Orthodox commission met at the Orthodox Centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy in October 2014, February 2015 and March-April 2015 and reviewed the texts on the relationship of the Orthodox Church to the Ecumenical Movement, on the relationship of the Orthodox Church with the Christian world and combined them together in a single document entitled “The relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world”. This combined revised text was finally approved by the Fifth Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar Conference of Chambésy of October 10-17, 2015. Finally, the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches met in Chambésy in January 2016 and decided to put it on the agenda of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church to be convened on Crete in June 2016.


The document on “The relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world”

The document entitled “The relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world”[3] is certainly one of the most controversial documents to be discussed at the upcoming Council, and nonetheless an extremely important one. It is essential, in order to understand the spirit of the document and to respond to the critiques that it has generated, to underline that the documents identifies “the Orthodox Church as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”:

The Orthodox Church, as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, in her profound ecclesiastical conscience, firmly believes that she maintains a central place in matters pertaining to the promotion of unity among Christians in the contemporary world” (paragraph 1).

It also reminds that “The Orthodox Church’s ecumenical mission and her responsibility to preserve unity were articulated by the Ecumenical Councils, which stressed the indissoluble link between true faith and sacramental communion” (paragraph 3) and that since it “unceasingly prays ‘for the union of all’”, she “has always cultivated dialogue with those estranged from her, both far and near” (paragraph 4). Christian unity is clearly the goal expressed by the document which concludes with the prayer “that all Christians may work together so that the day may soon come when the Lord will fulfil the hope of the Orthodox Churches for one fold and one shepherd (Jn. 10:16)” (paragraph 24).

The document reminds that the Orthodox Church “has led the way in recent efforts to restore unity between those who believe in Christ, and she has participated in the Ecumenical Movement since its commencement, contributing to its formation and further development” (paragraph 4). As a matter of fact, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s encyclical of 1920 “unto the Churches of Christ everywhere”, stating that the Orthodox Church “holds that rapprochement (προσέγγισις) between the various Christian Churches and fellowship (κοινωνία) between them is not excluded by the doctrinal differences which exist between them”,[4] and furthermore calling for the “necessity for establishing a contact and league (fellowship — κοινωνία) between the Churches”,[5] by analogy to the League of Nations created in 1919, is considered to be a pioneering step towards the creation of the World Council of Churches in 1948. On this basis, the pre-conciliar document states that the Orthodox Church “has always advocated for the restoration of Christian unity. Therefore, Orthodoxy’s participation in the movement to restore unity between Christians does not contradict the nature and history of the Orthodox Church, but rather represents a consistent expression of the apostolic faith and tradition in a new historical context” (paragraph 4). While rejecting “all forms of proselytism and every offensive act of inter-confessional competition”, the document considers that “the Orthodox Church deems it important for all Christians, inspired by common fundamental principles of our faith, to offer a generous and charitable response to the difficult challenges posed today by the world, and to base this response on the ideal of humankind renewed in Christ” (paragraph 23).

It is therefore not surprising to see that the World Council of Churches occupies a large place of the pre-conciliar document (paragraphs 16-19 and 21). It defines it “a structured inter-Christian body, despite the fact that it does not include all Christian Churches and Confessions” (paragraph 16) and mentions at the same time other inter-Christian organizations and regional bodies, such as the Conference of European Churches and the Middle East Council of Churches, stressing that all of these ecumenical institutions “fulfil an important mission by promoting the unity of the Christian world” (paragraph 16). Incidentally, the document mentions, perhaps as a regret, that the Orthodox Churches of Georgia and Bulgaria withdrew from the WCC respectively in 1997 and 1998. It also acknowledges the efforts of the WCC, following these withdraws,  “to respond to her request concerning the establishment of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches, which was mandated by the Inter-Orthodox Conference held in Thessaloniki in 1998” which finally led to adopt the principle of consensus for the decision making process of the WCC and the formation of the Permanent Committee on Consensus and Collaboration (paragraph 17).

Having in mind that the Orthodox Church is ontologically the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (paragraph 1), the pre-conciliar document clearly states that “the Orthodox Church’s participation in the WCC does not signify that she accepts the notion of the ‘equality of Confessions’, nor that she understands Church unity as an inter-confessional compromise” (paragraph 18), and that “that participation in the WCC must be grounded in the principle article of its Constitution, which affords membership only to those Churches and Confessions that recognize the Lord Jesus Christ as God and Saviour — according to the Scriptures — and confess the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — according to the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed” (paragraph 19). Furthermore, the documents underlines that “the ecclesiological presuppositions of the 1950 Toronto Statement, ‘On the Church, the Churches and the World Council of Churches’, are of paramount importance for Orthodox participation in the Council. It is therefore clear that the WCC does not by any means constitute a ‘super-Church’” (paragraph 19).

The document expresses also support to the work of the WCC Commission on Faith and Order, founded in 1927, by stating that it “follows its theological contribution with particular interest to this day”, while underlining that the Commission’s theological documents “were developed with significant participation of Orthodox theologians and represent a praiseworthy step in the Ecumenical Movement for the rapprochement of the Churches” (paragraph 21).

While confessing the Orthodox Church as the true Church, the document acknowledges the existence of other Christian Churches, not in communion with her, and stresses the necessity of engaging into a theological dialogue with them in order to restore unity: “The Orthodox Church acknowledges the historical existence of other Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her and believes that her affiliation with them should be based on a speedy and objective elucidation of all ecclesiological topics, most especially their general teachings on sacraments, grace, priesthood, and apostolic succession. Accordingly, for theological and pastoral reasons, Orthodoxy has viewed dialogue with various Christian Churches and Confessions, as well her participation, in general, in the present-day Ecumenical Movement in a favourable manner” (paragraph 6). It also stresses in these dialogues the necessity for the synergy between human efforts and the grace of God: “while the Orthodox Church dialogues with other Christians, she does not underestimate challenges present in this endeavour; however, she responds to these challenges on the journey toward a common understanding of the Tradition of the ancient Church with hope that the Holy Spirit, ‘Who holds together the whole institution of the Church’, will ‘complete that which is lacking’” (paragraph 8).

The pre-conciliar document underlines as well the necessity for all the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches to be present and participate in the Pan-Orthodox bilateral dialogues conducted under the leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarchate with all the Christian Churches and Confessions. Thus, it states: “In the event that a certain local Church does not wish to assign a representative to a particular dialogue or one of its sessions, the dialogue still continues if this decision is not pan-Orthodox. Prior to the start of a dialogue or each session, the Orthodox Committee of the dialogue ought to discuss the absence of the local Church as an expression of the harmony and unity of the Orthodox Church” (paragraph 9). At the same time, the document stresses that “the problems arising during theological discussions within Joint Theological Commissions are not always sufficient grounds for any local Orthodox Church unilaterally to recall its representatives or definitively withdraw from the dialogue”, and clearly states that the withdraw of an Orthodox Autocephalous Church should be avoided (paragraph 10).

According to the pre-conciliar document, “the end of an official theological dialogue occurs with the completion of the relevant work of the Joint Theological Commission. This then requires the Chairman of the Inter-Orthodox Commission to submit a report to the Ecumenical Patriarch, who, with the consent of the Primates of the local Orthodox Churches, declares the conclusion of the dialogue. A dialogue is not considered complete before it is proclaimed thus by pan-Orthodox decision” (paragraph 14). Therefore, it is “Upon the successful conclusion of the work of a theological dialogue” that “the restoration of ecclesiastical communion may be announced following a unanimous pan-Orthodox decision by all local Orthodox Churches” (paragraph 15).

Another very important statement in this pre-conciliar document is that “the prospects for conducting theological dialogues between the Orthodox Church and other Christian Churches and Confessions shall always be derived from the canonical criteria of established Church Tradition (Canon 7 of the Second Ecumenical Council and Canon 95 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council)” (paragraph 20). These two canons, and particularly the second one, are of extreme importance since they actually formulate criteria based on the baptismal practice with or without a Trinitarian formula in order to determine the ecclesiality of groups that have separated themselves from the ecclesial body and by determining whether they ought or not to be re-baptised when they were coming back to the communion with the Church.[6] So, according to Canon 95 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council, Arians, Macedonians, Novatians (Cathari), Aristeri, Tetradites, and Apollinarians ought to be received on their presentation of certificates of faith and on their anathematizing every heresy by the anointing of the holy chrism, as opposed to Paulianists, Eunomeans, Montanists and Sabellians who ought to be re-baptized, while Manichæans, Valentinians, Marcionites, Nestorians, Eutychians, Dioscorus, Severus and all of similar heresies ought to give certificates of faith and anathematize each his own heresy in order to participate in the Eucharist. Therefore, if the holy canons of the Orthodox Church do not prescribe to some heretics to be re-baptised, how could the Orthodox Church impose today re-baptism to Christians who wish to join her, coming from Churches that are not in communion with her, but nevertheless, that were never condemned by a Church council as heretic?

Concerning the fundamentalist and anti-ecumenical tendencies within the Orthodox Church, the pre-conciliar document reminds that “the Orthodox Church considers all efforts to break the unity of the Church, undertaken by individuals or groups under the pretext of maintaining or defending true Orthodoxy, as being worthy of condemnation”, since “only conciliarity — always the suitable and final judge in matters of faith in the Church — can preserve the authentic Orthodox faith” (paragraph 22). As a matter of fact, this conciliar principle was also reminded by the Patriarchal and Synodical Encyclical of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on the Convocation of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, issued on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, March 20, 2016: “The distinction between truth and falsehood — orthodoxy and heresy — is not always easily discernible. Even heretics believed, and continue to believe, that they possessed the truth; moreover, there will always be some who shall consider those who do not agree with their position as “heretics.” The Orthodox Church, in this case, recognizes only one authority: the Council of her canonical hierarchs. Beyond a conciliar decision, the distinction between orthodoxy and heresy is not possible. The Church’s dogmas and holy canons bear the seal of conciliarity. Orthodoxy is the conciliar Church”.[7]


Reactions to the pre-conciliar document

The document entitled “The relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world” is definitely the pre-conciliar document that has provoked the most reactions within the Orthodox Church. Some lay people, monastics, professors of theology, priests, bishops, and even local synods have made comments and severe critiques of the document.

All the reactions could be easily summarised in three points: 1) there is no need to restore the unity of the Church (as expressed in the document in articles 4, 5, 7, 12, 16, 17, 18 and 24) since the only possible way is that heretics and schismatics return to the only Church, which is the Orthodox Church through repentance and therefore, the prayer of the Orthodox for the “union of all” is interpreted as a prayer for those, that they may return to the true Church; 2) there are no Churches and no Christian Confessions (as stated in the document in articles 6, 16, 18, 19 and 20) outside the Orthodox Church, which is the only true Church; 3) therefore, there is no “Christian world” (as stated in the title of the document and articles 8, 16 and 24) outside the Orthodox Church.

Such heavy and provocative affirmations that have been made during the last few months in different parts of the Orthodox Church unfortunately show not only an ignorance of the history and the development of ecumenical relations and the bilateral dialogues in the 20th century, but also a total illiteracy in history, theology and canon law.

The argumentation of the so-called “fighters against the heresy of ecumenism” is certainly based on a literal comprehension of the famous saying of Cyprian of Carthage – “Extra Ecclesiam nulla salus”, which incidently was not accepted by Saint Augustine who recognised the existence of sacraments outside the Church. Of course, as long as we identify the charismatic limits of the Church of Christ to the canonical limits of the Orthodox Church, as the protagonists of such affirmations do, one cannot see Christians and Churches outside of the Orthodox Church.

Nevertheless, in an ecumenical context that has been just born, the great Orthodox theologian and patrologist Georges Florovsky investigated the question of the limits of the Church in a famous article written in 1933,[8] which obviously most of the critics of the pre-conciliar document have not read. Having studied the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, Florovsky noticed that there are circumstances when the Church recognises that sacraments could be celebrated outside her strict canonical limits. This is the case evoked by the canons 7 of the Second Ecumenical Council and 95 of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council, mentioned before, that introduce a clear distinction between those heretics that have to be re-baptised and those who do not have to be re-baptised. Therefore, Florovsky proposed to reverse the cyprianic saying to say: “Where the sacraments are performed, there is the Church”, understanding that the sacraments that are being considered valid among the heretics or the schismatics comes from the Church itself, which maintains them in link with the Church, especially when these wish to come back to the full communion with the Church.

Besides the theological reflection on the notion of the limits of the Church, the antagonists of the relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world seem to ignore all the discussions and decisions that have been made in the second half of the 20th century at the Pan-Orthodox Conferences of Rhodes (1961, 1963 and 1964) and Chambésy (1968). Indeed, the First Pan-Orthodox Conferences of Rhodes (1961) has underlined the proximity, which existed then between the Orthodox and the Anglican Church, and encouraged relations with the Roman Catholic Church. Two years later, the Second Pan-Orthodox Conferences of Rhodes (1963) decided to send Orthodox observers to the Second Vatican Council (1962-1965) and recommended to initiate a dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church on equal levels. The Third Pan-Orthodox Conferences of Rhodes (1964) reaffirmed the necessity to conduct a dialogue with the Roman Catholics, the Anglicans and the Old Catholics. Finally, the Fourth Pan-Orthodox Conference of Chambésy (1968) stated that it would be favourable to seek the reestablishment of relations with the Church of Rome and of a dialogue with the Lutherans, and in this perspective, established inter-Orthodox committees for a theological dialogue with these Churches and Confessions.

Another very important and significant event that is often ignored not only by the antagonists of the participation of the Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical Movement, but by many Orthodox in general, is the lifting up of the anathemas of 1054 between the Churches of Rome and Constantinople at the end of the Second Vatican Council, on December 7th, 1965. As the Church historian and canonist Vlassios Phidas writes, “it is obvious, from a canonical point of view, that this ecclesial situation of the rupture of communion (akoinonesia) is clearly distinguished from the state of an accomplished schism, since, by the lifting up of the anathemas of 1054, we are now standing in the situation we were before their imposition”.[9] Therefore, if the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople are now in a state of rupture of communion (akoinonesia), due to historical events and theological disputes, while both sides wish today to restore the full ecclesiastical communion, how can some dare, even through the voice of a local synod, not to acknowledge the Church of Rome as a Church, or to consider her members as schismatics, or even, as heretics?

The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, especially through its document entitled “The relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world” will definitely have a crucial ecumenical significance. This is why not only the Orthodox, but all Christians, are called to pray, so that the Holy Spirit inspire and direct the Fathers of the Council. And speaking of the future of ecumenism, we should recall the words of the late Metropolitan Damaskinos Papandreou, who was the first secretary for the preparation of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church: “The future of ecumenism consists in the mission of the Churches, that identify themselves to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, to search for Churches outside their own canonical boundaries”.[10] This is precisely what the pre-conciliar document we have presented does, and we hope that it shall be properly received by the Council in order to fulfil the evangelical commandment that “all may be one” (Jn. 17:21).

– Archbishop Job of Telmessos, Permanent Representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the WCC


[1] Patriarchal and Synodical Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of 1902. G. Limouris (Ed.), Orthodox Visions of Ecumenism. Geneva: WCC Publications, 1994, p. 2-3.

[2] Ibid., p. 3.

[3] Cf. :

[4] Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of 1920. G. Limouris (Ed.), Op. cit., p. 9.

[5] Ibid., p. 11.

[6] Cf. : V. Phidas, « Baptism and Ecclesiology », The Ecumenical Review 54 (2002), p. 39-47 ; Id., « Το κύρος τοῦ βαπτίσματος τῶν αἱρετικῶν και το ζήτημα τοῦ ἀναβαπτίσματος », Orthodoxia 11 (2004), p. 421-456.


[8] G. Florovsky, « The limits of the Church », Church Quarterly Review 117 (233) 1933, p. 117-131. See also : J. Famerée, « Les limites de l’Église : canoniques ou charismatiques ? », Le concile Vatican II et l’Église orthodoxe, (Analecta Chambesiana 5), Chambésy, 2015, p. 116-130.

[9] V. Phidas, « Les conséquences de la levée des anathèmes », », Le concile Vatican II et l’Église orthodoxe, (Analecta Chambesiana 5), Chambésy, 2015, p. 103-115.

[10] Métropolite Damaskinos Papandréou, « Les dialogues œcuméniques de l’Église orthodoxe hier et aujourd’hui », Les dialogues œcuméniques hier et aujourd’hui (Études théologiques 5), Chambésy, 1986, p. 50.