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History of the Holy and Great Council

What is a Holy and Great Council? When was the last one? Why is it important? Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, explains the process that has brought us to this unique and important event. The Holy and Great Council is the first time in 1200 years that 14 autocephalous Orthodox churches are meeting.

The Holy and Great Council gathers in Crete in the latter part of June 2016. 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.


For a selected bibliography, click HERE.


Under the leadership of His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Orthodox Church worldwide is preparing to hold a Great and Holy Council on the Island of Crete June 16 -27, 2016. This gathering of Hierarchs from all Fourteen Autocephalous Churches is extraordinary in our day, but it is also completely consistent with the living tradition of the Church, of the Fathers, and of the great Ecumenical Councils of our one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.  

The institution of Greater Councils for the Orthodox Church, following the Great Schism in 1054, are founded on the Endemousa Synod of Constantinople, Ἐνδημοῦσα meaning the Bishops who were residing (ἐνδημοῦντες) in Constantinople at any given time. This meant that Bishops from any part of the Orthodox Church could participate. In fact, the Endemousa Synod became the fundamental nucleus of such Councils. Some of the issues the Endemousa Synod addressed various disputes of theological nature. The decisions of these Greater Councils referring to matters of faith were entered in the Synodikon of Orthodoxy, read on the Sunday of Orthodoxy.

In the post-byzantine period, the Endemousa Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate continued in the form of the Greater Councils. These issues were mostly with serious canonical/administrative matters including: The Sinai issue (1575, 1616, 1648, 1670, 1691); the granting of patriarchal honor and status to the Metropolitan of Moscow by Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II (1590, 1593); and the condemnation of extreme expressions of nationalism and ethnophyletism (1872).

The Ecumenical Patriarchate not only convened Greater Councils during the late-byzantine and post-byzantine periods, but also in the modern era. The Pan-Orthodox Conference (1923) convened in Constantinople under the presidency of Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios IV (1921-1923) discussed critical ecclesiastical issues of the time: such as the correction of the Calendar, the marriage of clergy after ordination, and the second marriage of widowed clergy. This was followed by an Inter-Orthodox Commission (1930) convened by Ecumenical Patriarch Photios II (1929-1935) at the Sacred Monastery of Vatopedi on Mount Athos. The Inter-Orthodox Commission deemed necessary the immediate commencement of preparations for a Pan-Orthodox Council and drafted a preliminary template for a list of its basic agenda items.

The cooperation of the Autocephalous Churches became more difficult after the well-known tragic consequences of World War II (1939-1945)—namely, after the subjection of almost all the autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches of Eastern Europe by the Soviet Union and its satellites.

The convocation of the First Pan-Orthodox Conference (Rhodes, 1961) by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras and the subsequent Second and Third Pan-Orthodox Conferences (Rhodes 1963, 1964) worked to promote the proposed Pan-Orthodox Council. The Fourth Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy, 1968) formed a “Secretariat for the Preparation of the Holy and Great Council” at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy-Geneva. It was also decided to create an “Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commission” to submit preparations for consensus at a regularly convened “Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference”. The First Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy, November 21-28, 1976) unanimously accepted the Recommendation of the first Special Commission concerning the reduction of the topics on the agenda of the Council to ten, namely: 1) Orthodox Diaspora; 2) Autocephaly and its manner of proclamation; 3) Autonomy and its manner of proclamation; 4) the Holy Diptychs; 5) the matter of the Calendar and the common celebration of Easter; 6) Impediments of marriage; 7) Adaptation of ecclesiastical regulations on Fasting; 8) Relations of the Orthodox Churches to the rest of the Christian world; 9) Orthodoxy and the ecumenical movement; and 10) Contribution of the local Orthodox Churches to the prevailing of the Christian ideals of peace, liberty, fraternity, and love among peoples as well as the removal of racial discrimination.

Over the next ten years, work would proceed through the Second Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy, September 3-12, 1982) and the Third Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy, October 28-November 6, 1986. Through the Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commission, the complex matter of the canonical organization of the Orthodox Diaspora was addressed, albeit slowly, as the early 1990’s witnessed the emergence of the many Autocephalous Churches from the shadow of the now collapsed ‘iron curtain.’

The preparatory process of the Holy and Great Council faltered from time to time during these years, until His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convened the fourth Sacred Synaxis of the Primates at the Phanar (October 2008) to lay the ground for the final approval of the document on the Orthodox Diaspora. The Fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy, June 6-12, 2009) then unanimously approved the documents necessary for the creation of the Assemblies of Bishops around the world which happened in 2010.

At the Sacred Synaxis of Their Beatitudes the Primates of the most holy Orthodox Churches (Phanar, March 2014) a Special Inter-Orthodox Committee was created to expedite the process for preparing the Holy and Great Council. The Special Inter-Orthodox Committee met on three occasions to finish the agenda and the accompanying documents for the Great and Holy Council. These documents were ultimately referred for final approval to the Sacred Synaxis of Primates of the Orthodox Churches. A Fifth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy, October 10-17, 2015) received the mandate from the Sacred Synaxis of Primates of the Orthodox Churches (Phanar, March 2014) to conclude the preparatory process even with only eight agreed upon topics for the agenda of the Holy and Great Council.

Finally, at the Sacred Synaxis of Primates of the Orthodox Churches (January 21-28, 2016), the agenda was fixed. The purpose of the Synaxis was to validate the achieved preparatory work and also to decide about the convocation, structure, organization, and operation of the Holy and Great Council, as well as its agenda. The Sacred Synaxis decided that the convocation of the Council should occur in Kolymbari, Kissamos, at the Orthodox Academy of Crete from June 18th to 27th, 2016. It also accepted the documents of the Fifth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy, January 10-17, 2015) with certain additions and deletions, approved the Rules of Organization and Operation for the Holy and Great Council, and determined the agenda of its deliberations. The topics came to six: 1) The Mission of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world; 2) The Orthodox Diaspora; 3) Autonomy and its manner of proclamation; 4) The sacrament of Marriage and its impediments; 5) The importance of Fasting and its application today; and 6) Relations of the Orthodox Church to the rest of the Christian world.

Over five decades (1968-2015), a truly momentous task has been achieved, not only for the appropriate preparation of the selected topics, but also for the reinforcement of the conciliar self-conscience of the Orthodox Church. The role of the Ecumenical Patriarch, as primus inter pares and the canonically senior Hierarch, will continue to manifest the ministry of the First-called Andrew, who brought his brother to Christ. So now, Saint Andrew’s successor, His All-Holiness Bartholomew, continues this ministry of love and service, and brings his brethren to Christ, in the unity of the faith and the bond of peace.