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.
SUMMARY OF INDIVIDUAL DECISIONS
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.
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.