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Orthodox Council Bridges Tensions, Moves Toward Interfaith Dialogue

12 July 2016

Paul L. Gavrilyuk

During the week of June 19 on the island of Crete, the first global Orthodox Council to meet in more than 1,000 years—known as the “Holy and Great Council”—brought together more than 290 delegates, mostly bishops, representing 10 self-governing local Orthodox churches. I was privileged to serve as an external correspondent of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Press Office, headed by Rev. John Chryssavgis. Together with other members of my team, I lived through the dramatic events leading up to the council and was present at some conciliar sessions.

In my previous article on the global Council of the Orthodox Church, I described how the four self-governing churches of Bulgaria, Antioch, Georgia and Russia attempted to subvert the event by pulling out at the last moment. In this article, I analyze the main tensions underlying conciliar debates and assess the implications of the council for Catholics and other Christians by focusing on one of its eight official documents, “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World.”

Perhaps the most significant achievement of the Holy and Great Council is that the bishops managed to meet at all, after decades of preparation and the last-moment attempt of four churches to stop the event. By meeting in a global council, the Orthodox churches proved to themselves and the rest of the world that they were not merely a loose confederation of local churches, but that they were also a unified body, historically continuous with the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” church of the creed. The Christian communion that prides itself on being “the Church of the seven Ecumenical Councils” could henceforth not only profess conciliarity as its core ecclesiological principle, but also practice global conciliarity as an important dimension of its ecclesial life.

There is no obvious analogue in the modern history of Eastern Orthodoxy for the Council of Crete, but the ecumenical councils of the first millennium provided the main framework. The official name of the council, “Holy and Great,” was probably inspired by the four canons of the Council of Nicaea (325) that use the same terms in reference to the First Ecumenical Council. Similar to the Fourth Ecumenical Council, the Council of Crete began on the Feast of Pentecost, which fell on June 19 in the Orthodox calendar. The original plan was to carry out the conciliar meetings in the Church of St. Irene in Constantinople, where the second Ecumenical Council was held in 381. But due to the security concerns expressed by the Patriarchate of Moscow, the council was transferred to the Orthodox Academy of Crete.

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