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What is on the agenda for the Holy and Great Council?

The Holy and Great Council will address important issues of concern to Orthodox Christians and all people. This includes the mission of the Orthodox Church in the modern world, the Orthodox diaspora, autonomy, marriage, fasting and relations with other Christians. Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis tells why these are matters important not only to the Orthodox, but to the entire world.

The Holy and Great Council gathers in Crete in the latter part of June 2016. It is the first time in 1200 years that 14 autocephalous Orthodox churches are meeting. Approximately 500 individuals will be part of this historic gathering, with a common desire to reinforce their relations and address contemporary spiritual and social challenges in the world.

Council to Address Six Major Themes in Orthodoxy

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The Importance of Fasting and Its Observance Today

Logo of the Holy and Great Council


  1. Fasting is a divine commandment (Gen 2:16-17). According to Basil the Great, fasting is as old as humanity itself; it was prescribed in paradise (On Fasting, 1, 3. PG 31, 168A). It is a great spiritual endeavor and the foremost expression of the Orthodox ascetic ideal. The Orthodox Church, in strict conformity with the apostolic precepts, the synodal canons, and the patristic tradition as a whole, has always proclaimed the great significance of fasting for our spiritual life and salvation. The annual liturgical cycle reflects the entire patristic teaching on fasting, the teaching on constant and unceasing watchfulness of the human person, and our participation in spiritual struggles. Accordingly, the Triodion praises fasting as grace that is full of light, as an invincible weapon, the beginning of spiritual struggles, the perfect path of virtues, the nourishment for the soul, the source of all wisdom, life imperishable, an imitation of the angelic life, the mother of all good things and virtues.
  2. As an ancient institution, fasting was mentioned already in the Old Testament (Deut 9:18; Is 58:4-10; Joel 2:15; Jonah 3:5-7) and affirmed in the New Testament. The Lord Himself fasted for forty days before commencing His public ministry (Lk 4:1-2) and provided instructions on how to practice fasting (Mt 6:16-18). Fasting is generally prescribed in the New Testament as a means of abstinence, repentance, and spiritual edification (Mk 1:6; Acts 13:2; 14:23; Rom 14:21). Since the apostolic times, the Church has proclaimed the profound importance of fasting and established Wednesday and Friday as days of fasting (Didache 8, 1), as well as the fast before Pascha (Irenaeus of Lyons, as cited in Eusebius, Church History 5, 24. PG 20 497B-508AB). In ecclesiastical practice that has existed for centuries, there has always been diversity with regard not only to the length of the fast before Easter (Dionysius of Alexandria, Letter to Basilides, PG 10, 1277), but also the number and content of other periods of fasting which became customary under the influence of various factors, primarily, of the liturgical and monastic traditions, with a view to proper preparation for the great feasts. Thus, the indissoluble link between fasting and worship indicates the extent and purpose of fasting and reveals its spiritual nature. For this reason, all the faithful are invited to respond accordingly, each to the best of his or her strength and ability, while not allowing such liberty to diminish this holy institution: “See that no one make thee to err from this path of doctrine… If thou art able to bear the whole yoke of the Lord, thou wilt be perfect; but if thou art not able, what thou art able, that do. But concerning meat, bear that which thou art able to do” (Didache 6, 1-3).
  3. As a spiritual endeavor, the true fast is inseparable from unceasing prayer and genuine repentance. Repentance without fasting is fruitless (Basil the Great, On Fasting 1, 3. PG 31, 168A), as fasting without merciful deeds is dead, especially nowadays when the unequal and unjust distribution of goods deprives entire nations of their daily bread. “While fasting physically, brethren, let us also fast spiritually. Let us loose every knot of iniquity; let us tear up every unrighteous bond; let us distribute bread to the hungry, and welcome into our homes those who have no roof over their heads…” (Sticheron at Vespers on Wednesday of the First Week of Lent; cf. Is 58:6-7). Fasting cannot be reduced to simple and formal abstinence from certain foods. “So let us not be selfish as we begin the abstinence from foods that is the noble fast. Let us fast in an acceptable manner, one that is pleasing to God. A true fast is one that is set against evil, it is self-control of the tongue. It is the checking of anger, separation from things like lusts, evil-speaking, lies, and false oaths. Self-denial from these things is a true fast, so fasting from these negative things is good” (Basil the Great, On Fasting, 2, 7. PG 31, 196D). Abstinence from certain foods during the fast and temperance, not only with regard to what to eat but also how much to eat, constitutes a visible aspect of this spiritual endeavor. “In the literal sense, fasting is abstinence from food, but food makes us neither more nor less righteous. However, in the spiritual sense, it is clear that, as life comes from food for each of us and the lack of food is a symbol of death, so it is necessary that we fast from worldly things, in order that we might die to the world and after this, having partaken of the divine nourishment, live in God” (Clement of Alexandria, From the Prophetic Eclogae. PG 9, 704D-705A). Therefore, the true fast affects the entire life in Christ of the faithful and is crowned by their participation in divine worship, particularly in the sacrament of the Holy Eucharist.
  4. The forty-day fast of the Lord exemplifies fasting for the faithful, initiating their participation in the obedience in the Lord, that through it “we might recover by its observance that which we have lost by not observing it” (Gregory the Theologian, Homily 45, On Holy Pascha, 28. PG 36, 661C). The Christocentric understanding of the spiritual dimension of fasting – in particular the fast of Great Lent – is a general rule in the entire patristic tradition and is characteristically epitomized by St Gregory Palamas: “When you fast like this you not only suffer with Christ and are dead with Him, but you are also risen with Him and reign with Him forever and ever. If through such a fast you have been planted together in the likeness of His death, you shall also share in His resurrection and inherit life in Him” (Homily 13, On the Fifth Sunday of Lent, PG 151, 161AB).
  5. According to the Orthodox Tradition, the “measure of spiritual perfection is the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph 4:13), and all who want to attain this should strive and grow accordingly. For this very reason, ascesis and spiritual struggle, like the refinement of the perfect, are endless in this life. Everyone is called to strive, to the best of his or her abilities, to reach the lofty Orthodox standard, which is the goal of deification by grace. Indeed, while they should do all things that they were commanded, they should nonetheless never vaunt themselves, but confess that “they are unprofitable servants and have only done that which was their duty to do” (Lk 17:10). According to the Orthodox understanding of the spiritual life, all people are obligated to maintain the good struggle of the fast; however, in a spirit of self-reproach and humble recognition of their condition, they must rely upon God’s mercy for their shortcomings, inasmuch as the Orthodox spiritual life is unattainable without the spiritual struggle of the fast.
  6. Like a nurturing mother, the Orthodox Church has defined what is beneficial for people’s salvation and established the holy periods of fasting as God-given protection in the believers’ new life in Christ against every snare of the enemy. Following the example of the Holy Fathers, the Church preserves today, as she did in the past, the holy apostolic precepts, synodal canons, and sacred traditions, always advancing the holy fasts as the perfect ascetic path for the faithful leading to spiritual perfection and salvation, while proclaiming the necessity to observe all the fasts throughout the year, namely, the fasts of Great Lent, Wednesdays and Fridays, testified in the sacred canons, as well as the fasts of the Nativity, the Holy Apostles, and the Dormition of the Theotokos; there are also the single-day fasts on the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross, on the eve of the Epiphany, and on the day commemorating the Beheading of John the Baptist, in addition to the fasts established for pastoral reasons or observed at the desire of the faithful.
  7. The Church, however, has also established, with pastoral discernment, boundaries of philanthropic dispensation (oikonomia) concerning the rules of fasting. In this regard, the Church has considered physical infirmity, extreme necessity, and difficult times where she has ordained the application of the principle of ecclesiastical oikonomia, through the responsible discernment and pastoral care of the body of bishops in the local Churches.
  8. It is a fact that many faithful today do not observe all the prescriptions of fasting, whether due to faint-heartedness or their living conditions, whatever these may be. However, all these instances where the sacred prescriptions of fasting are loosened, either in general or in particular instances, should be treated by the Church with pastoral care, “for God has no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live” (Ezek 33:11), without, however, ignoring the value of the fast. Therefore, with regard to those who find it difficult to observe the prevailing guidelines for fasting, whether for personal reasons (illness, military service, conditions of work, etc.) or general reasons (particular existing conditions in certain regions with regard to climate, as well as socioeconomic circumstances, i.e., inability to find lenten foods), it is left to the discretion of the local Orthodox Churches to determine how to exercise philanthropic oikonomia and empathy, relieving in these special cases the “burden” of the holy fast. All this should take place within the aforementioned context and with the objective of not diminishing the importance of the sacred institution of fasting. The Church should extend her philanthropic dispensation with prudence, undoubtedly to a greater extent when it comes to those fasts, on which the ecclesiastical tradition and practice have not always been uniform. “It is good to fast, but may the one who fasts not blame the one who does not fast. In such matters you must neither legislate, nor use force, nor compel the flock entrusted to you; instead, you must use persuasion, gentleness and a word seasoned with salt” (John of Damascus, On the Holy Fasts, Homily 3, PG 95, 68 B).
  9. Fasting for three or more days prior to Holy Communion is left to the discretion of the piety of the faithful, according to the words of Saint Nicodemus the Hagiorite: “… fasting before partaking of Communion is not decreed by the divine Canons. Nevertheless, those who are able to fast even a whole week before it, are doing the right thing” (Commentary of the 13th canon of Sixth Ecumenical Council, Pedalion – English translation 307). However, the totality of the Church’s faithful must observe the holy fasts and the abstinence from food from midnight for frequent participation in Holy Communion, which is the most profound expression of the essence of the Church. The faithful should become accustomed to fasting as an expression of repentance, as the fulfillment of a spiritual pledge, to achieve a particular spiritual end in times of temptation, in conjunction with supplications to God, for adults approaching the sacrament of baptism, prior to ordination, in cases where penance is imposed, as well as during pilgrimages and other similar instances.

† Bartholomew of Constantinople, Chairman

† Theodoros of Alexandria

† Theophilos of Jerusalem

† Irinej of Serbia

† Daniel of Romania

† Chrysostomos of Cyprus

† Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece

† Sawa of Warsaw and All Poland

† Anastasios of Tirana, Durres and All Albania

† Rastislav of Presov, the Czech Lands and Slovakia

Delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

† Leo of Karelia and All Finland

† Stephanos of Tallinn and All Estonia

† Elder Metropolitan John of Pergamon

† Elder Archbishop Demetrios of America

† Augustinos of Germany

† Irenaios of Crete

† Isaiah of Denver

† Alexios of Atlanta

† Iakovos of the Princes’ Islands

† Joseph of Proikonnisos

† Meliton of Philadelphia

† Emmanuel of France

† Nikitas of the Dardanelles

† Nicholas of Detroit

† Gerasimos of San Francisco

† Amphilochios of Kisamos and Selinos

† Amvrosios of Korea

† Maximos of Selyvria

† Amphilochios of Adrianopolis

† Kallistos of Diokleia

† Antony of Hierapolis, Head of the Ukrainian Orthodox in the USA

† Job of Telmessos

† Jean of Charioupolis, Head of the Patriarchal Exarchate for Orthodox Parishes of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe

† Gregory of Nyssa, Head of the Carpatho-Russian Orthodox in the USA

Delegation of the Patriarchate of Alexandria

† Gabriel of Leontopolis

† Makarios of Nairobi

† Jonah of Kampala

† Seraphim of Zimbabwe and Angola

† Alexandros of Nigeria

† Theophylaktos of Tripoli

† Sergios of Good Hope

† Athanasios of Cyrene

† Alexios of Carthage

† Ieronymos of Mwanza

† George of Guinea

† Nicholas of Hermopolis

† Dimitrios of Irinopolis

† Damaskinos of Johannesburg and Pretoria

† Narkissos of Accra

† Emmanouel of Ptolemaidos

† Gregorios of Cameroon

† Nicodemos of Memphis

† Meletios of Katanga

† Panteleimon of Brazzaville and Gabon

† Innokentios of Burudi and Rwanda

† Crysostomos of Mozambique

† Neofytos of Nyeri and Mount Kenya

Delegation of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem

† Benedict of Philadelphia

† Aristarchos of Constantine

† Theophylaktos of Jordan

† Nektarios of Anthidon

† Philoumenos of Pella

Delegation of the Church of Serbia

† Jovan of Ohrid and Skopje

† Amfilohije of Montenegro and the Littoral

† Porfirije of Zagreb and Ljubljana

† Vasilije of Sirmium

† Lukijan of Budim

† Longin of Nova Gracanica

† Irinej of Backa

† Hrizostom of Zvornik and Tuzla

† Justin of Zica

† Pahomije of Vranje

† Jovan of Sumadija

† Ignatije of Branicevo

† Fotije of Dalmatia

† Athanasios of Bihac and Petrovac

† Joanikije of Niksic and Budimlje

† Grigorije of Zahumlje and Hercegovina

† Milutin of Valjevo

† Maksim in Western America

† Irinej in Australia and New Zealand

† David of Krusevac

† Jovan of Slavonija

† Andrej in Austria and Switzerland

† Sergije of Frankfurt and in Germany

† Ilarion of Timok

Delegation of the Church of Romania

† Teofan of Iasi, Moldova and Bucovina

† Laurentiu of Sibiu and Transylvania

† Andrei of Vad, Feleac, Cluj, Alba, Crisana and Maramures

† Irineu of Craiova and Oltenia

† Ioan of Timisoara and Banat

† Iosif in Western and Southern Europe

† Serafim in Germany and Central Europe

† Nifon of Targoviste

† Irineu of Alba Iulia

† Ioachim of Roman and Bacau

† Casian of Lower Danube

† Timotei of Arad

† Nicolae in America

† Sofronie of Oradea

† Nicodim of Strehaia and Severin

† Visarion of Tulcea

† Petroniu of Salaj

† Siluan in Hungary

† Siluan in Italy

† Timotei in Spain and Portugal

† Macarie in Northern Europe

† Varlaam Ploiesteanul, Assistant Bishop to the Patriarch

† Emilian Lovisteanul, Assistant Bishop to the Archdiocese of Ramnic

† Ioan Casian of Vicina, Assistant Bishop to the Romanian Orthodox Archdiocese of the Americas

Delegation of the Church of Cyprus

† Georgios of Paphos

† Chrysostomos of Kition

† Chrysostomos of Kyrenia

† Athanasios of Limassol

† Neophytos of Morphou

† Vasileios of Constantia and Ammochostos

† Nikiphoros of Kykkos and Tillyria

† Isaias of Tamassos and Oreini

† Barnabas of Tremithousa and Lefkara

† Christophoros of Karpasion

† Nektarios of Arsinoe

† Nikolaos of Amathus

† Epiphanios of Ledra

† Leontios of Chytron

† Porphyrios of Neapolis

† Gregory of Mesaoria

Delegation of the Church of Greece

† Prokopios of Philippi, Neapolis and Thassos

† Chrysostomos of Peristerion

† Germanos of Eleia

† Alexandros of Mantineia and Kynouria

† Ignatios of Arta

† Damaskinos of Didymoteixon, Orestias and Soufli

† Alexios of Nikaia

† Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Aghios Vlasios

† Eusebios of Samos and Ikaria

† Seraphim of Kastoria

† Ignatios of Demetrias and Almyros

† Nicodemos of Kassandreia

† Ephraim of Hydra, Spetses and Aegina

† Theologos of Serres and Nigrita

† Makarios of Sidirokastron

† Anthimos of Alexandroupolis

† Barnabas of Neapolis and Stavroupolis

† Chrysostomos of Messenia

† Athenagoras of Ilion, Acharnon and Petroupoli

† Ioannis of Lagkada, Litis and Rentinis

† Gabriel of New Ionia and Philadelphia

† Chrysostomos of Nikopolis and Preveza

† Theoklitos of Ierissos, Mount Athos and Ardameri

Delegation of the Church of Poland

† Simon of Lodz and Poznan

† Abel of Lublin and Chelm

† Jacob of Bialystok and Gdansk

† George of Siemiatycze

† Paisios of Gorlice

Delegation of the Church of Albania

† Joan of Koritsa

† Demetrios of Argyrokastron

† Nikolla of Apollonia and Fier

† Andon of Elbasan

† Nathaniel of Amantia

† Asti of Bylis

Delegation of the Church of the Czech lands and Slovakia

† Michal of Prague

† Isaiah of Sumperk


The Convening of the Holy and Great Council of worldwide Orthodox Christianity – the first in over one thousand years, is a sign of hope and reassurance for not only Orthodox Christians, but for all people of faith around the globe. The remarkable and relentless pursuit of this Spirit-filled event is a signature characteristic of the life, mission and leadership of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew. In convening the Great and Holy Council this June, during the holy celebrations of Pentecost, His All-Holiness is bringing to fulfillment the vision of his two predecessors, Athenagoras and Demetrios, both of blessed memory.

But more than the completion of a more than fifty-year dream, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has transformed the process beyond the mere structural process of the last fifty years, by adapting to the radically changed reality of Orthodoxy in the 21st Century.

When the road to the Holy and Great Council was embarked upon, World War II was only fifteen years in the past, the atheist Soviet Union controlled the lives of most Orthodox Christians and the church institutions that struggled to minister to them, and the world was deep into the winter of the Cold War. Orthodox Christianity in the Diaspora was profoundly segmented, if not outrightly fragmented. The Ecumenical Patriarchate had – only five years before – suffered a massive and systematic persecution in Constantinople, displacing hundreds of thousands of its communicants. Mount Athos was turning one thousand years old, and though life on the Holy Mountain had scarcely changed over the centuries, the world at-large was bracing to change at a pace unknown in history.

The need for dialogue, thinking together, interconnection, and new perspectives was everywhere. At the same time the Orthodox were commencing a process that is now taking place on the Island of Crete (a sacred topos of Apostolic visitation!), Pope John XXIII was convening the Second Vatican Council, a council that would radically push the Roman Catholic Church – in many ways quite unprepared – into the latter half of the 20th Century. Although the process has been much slower for the Orthodox Church to convene such a similar process, in retrospect we can see that the deliberate and slower pace has been more of an advantage, rather than the reverse.

Nearly half of the time that it has taken to finally arrive at the Holy and Great Council has occurred under the patriarchy of His All-Holiness Bartholomew, which coincided with the dissolution of the former Soviet Union and the resurgence of the Moscow Patriarchate under the autocracy that currently governs the Russian Federation. As the national aspirations of the Ukrainian, Estonian, Czech, and Slovak peoples have created conditions for national and autocephalous or autonomous Churches, it has been Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew who from a position of only spiritual strength, has steered the Ark of Salvation through the dangerous shoals of self-interest and power-seeking. From the Phanar, despite and perhaps because of the difficulties as a religious and ethnic minority that continue unabated, His All-Holiness seeks only the benefit of all the local (autocephalous) Churches, putting the good of all above the ephemeral desires of any one. This has manifested as the kind of leadership that leaves a legacy of unity and conciliarity in its wake, even as the naysayers and gainsayers give rise to fear and even paranoia.

The significance of this Holy and Great Council cannot be overstated. The fact that all the Autocephalous Churches have agreed to meet, to dialogue, to exchange view and position – this in itself is an accomplishment of historic proportions. There are those who would contradict the former statement, but let us remember, that this has not happened in centuries, and for Orthodoxy, there have been no serious doctrinal disputes in over six hundred years, since the Hesychast controversies of the 14th Century.

Inasmuch as Orthodoxy is based in model of conciliarity under the aegis of the Holy Spirit, Hierarchy must be as much horizontal in its orientation as it is vertical, with consensus and unanimity forming the core of the process of adaptation. This is precisely why the Holy and Great Council is so necessary and so timely. As long as the local, autocephalous Churches are only speaking among themselves, each Church’s local culture, economy, language, and local traditions will limit its scope and perspective on is own mission. The Bishops must be in dialogue with one another in order to see the world from a differing perspective and consider the needs of their flocks from the holistic sense of the whole Body of the Church, whose Head is Christ.

The six preparatory documents: Autonomy, Diaspora, Ecumenical Relations, Fasting, Marriage, and Mission, address contemporary concerns of all the faithful. In doing so, the Bishops of the Church, under the guiding hand of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, are demonstrating the living, breathing vibrancy of the Spirit of God, that infuses the Church to be the living Body of Christ.





The Council will address the institution of Autonomy, which is a canonical status of relative or partial independence of an ecclesiastical segment from the canonical jurisdiction of the Autocephalous Church to which it belongs. The initiation and completion of the process for granting Autonomy is the canonical prerogative of the Autocephalous Church, which governs the area considering autonomy that must be within the boundaries of its own canonical geographical region. Note that Autonomous Churches cannot be established in the area of the Orthodox Diaspora, except by a pan-Orthodox consensus, secured by the Ecumenical Patriarch in accordance with prevailing pan-Orthodox practice. Currently, there are six Autonomous Churches: The Church of Crete, the Church of Finland, and the Church of Estonia under the Ecumenical Patriarchate; The Church of Sinai under the Jerusalem Patriarchate; and the Church of Japan and the Church of Ukraine under Moscow Patriarchate.



All of the most holy Orthodox Churches desire to resolve the problem of overlapping jurisdictions within the Orthodox Diaspora as swiftly as possible. Furthermore, the common will is to organize the Diaspora in accordance with Orthodox ecclesiology, as well as the canonical tradition and practice of the Orthodox Church. In the present circumstances, an immediate transition to the strictly canonical order of the Church – namely, the existence of only one bishop in the same place – is unachievable for well known historical and pastoral reasons. In order to address this, the Churches decided to create a transitional situation, namely Assemblies of Bishops in various regions, that will prepare the ground for a strictly canonical resolution of the problem. Each Assembly is charged to prepare a plan to present to the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, in order that the latter might proceed to a canonical solution of the problem.


Ecumenical Relations

The Orthodox Church, as the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, firmly believes that it has a central place in the matter of promoting unity among Christians in the modern world. The Orthodox Church has always cultivated dialogue with those estranged from it, both far and near. It has even pioneered to restore unity among those who believe in Christ, and participated in the Ecumenical Movement since its inception, contributing to its formation and further development. While participating in ecumenical relations, the Church never sacrifices Her principles, and the positions She does take all have as their end the ultimate restoration of unity in true faith and love, the final goal of the process of all theological dialogues.



Like a nurturing mother, the Orthodox Church has defined what is beneficial for salvation and established the holy periods of fasting as divinely-given “protection” for believers’ new life in Christ.  In Her pastoral discernment, the Church has also established boundaries of philanthropic dispensation for the institution of fasting. This is why, in cases of physical infirmity or extreme necessity as well as of difficult circumstances, it has preordained an appropriate application of the principle of ecclesiastical dispensation, in accordance with the responsible judgment and pastoral care of the body of bishops in the local Churches. It is left to the discretion of the local Orthodox Churches to determine how to exercise philanthropic dispensation and clemency, relieving in these special cases any “burden” of the holy fasts. All this should occur within the aforementioned context and with the objective of not at all diminishing the sacred institution of fasting.



The Orthodox Church proclaims the sacredness of marriage as a fundamental and indisputable teaching of the Church. Defending the sacredness of the mystery of marriage has always been especially important for the preservation of the Family, which radiates the communion of the persons yoked together both in the Church and in Society at large. Those members of the Church who contract a civil marriage must be approached with pastoral responsibility, which is mandatory in order for them to understand the value of the sacrament of marriage and the many blessings that result. The Church does not recognize same-sex unions or any other form of cohabitation for its members other than marriage. The impediments for marriage follow the canonical norms of the Church throughout history, with some allowance made for pastoral reasons.



The Church, drawing from the foretaste of the Heavenly Kingdom and the principles embodied in the entire experience of the patristic, liturgical, and ascetical tradition shares the concern and the anxiety of contemporary humanity with regard to fundamental existential questions that affect the world today, in its desire to contribute to these issues so that the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding (Phil 4:7), reconciliation, and love may prevail in the world. As such, the Church is concerned with the dignity of the human person, the limits and implications of human freedom and responsibility, the nature of true peace, the cessation of war and violence, and social, political and economic justice. In service to the human family, the mission of the Church encompasses the full breadth of the human experience, ministering where necessary to the needs of each.