Can Anything Good Come out of a Pan-Orthodox Council? A Response to Detractors

by Paul L. Gavrilyuk

The Patriarchate of Constantinople has been at the forefront of planning a Great and Holy Council, which will gather together the leaders of all fourteen self-governing Orthodox Churches. While the Council has its share of supporters, there are influential groups within the Orthodox Church that oppose the Council for political and theological reasons. What are these reasons? Why is the Council perceived as a threat? Why do the Orthodox Christians need such a Council today? These questions require cool-headed consideration.

The political reasons for opposing the Council fall into three categories. First, some leaders, such as the head of the Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill, fear that the Council will have the effect of bolstering the position of the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who has been the main promoter of the Council. Moscow is concerned that the Council will lend support to the historical claim of the Constantinopolitan Patriarch to be the first among equals in the Christian East. Some Orthodox leaders discern in the recent ecumenical discussion of different levels of primacy a veiled attempt of Constantinople to acquire the status of a soft-powered Eastern papacy.

Second, some primates are reluctant to participate in a process that will grant legitimacy to a power greater than their own. The Orthodox principle of sobornost’ (which may be rendered as “synodality,” “conciliarity,” or “catholicity”) states that no bishop, whatever his seniority, is above the assembly of the bishops and the people of God. While theoretically sobornost’ is one of the marks of the Church, in practice the bishops often exercise unchallenged authority within their dioceses, an authority similar to that of a monarch bereft of the full coercive power of the state. The Council would have the impact of restricting such authority and troubling the status quo.

Third, the Council may have political implications for church-state relations. Lately, some Churches in post-communist countries have developed especially close relations with the state. For example, the Patriarchate of Moscow has very strong ties with President Putin’s government. The concept of the Russian World (Russkii mir) as a “spiritual space” uniting the faithful of Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus has provided a justification for the Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine. Since the Pan-Orthodox Council is not accountable to any particular state authority, the conciliar process is likely to trouble close church-state alliances and foster a more independent standing of the church in civil society.

The theological reasons for opposing the Council emanate from extremist groups within Orthodox circles, often associated with the monastic elites, who think and act with fundamentalist-like characteristics. At a recent gathering of the clergy in Ukraine, the head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), metropolitan Onufriy Berezovsky, opined that the Council is both unnecessary and dangerous. According to a widespread fundamentalist view, since the seven ecumenical councils express the fullness of the Orthodox faith, the eighth council is unnecessary. The eighth Council can only lead to the perversion of the true faith and as such it represents a temptation, a demonic delusion that is likely to precipitate the advent of Anti-Christ. While metropolitan Onufriy did not articulate this view in detail, he indicated that the eighth council could compromise the faith and lead to schisms. For many fundamentalists, the purity of faith is compromised by participation in the ecumenical dialogue because it is viewed as a capitulation of the faith. For the Council even to address the question of unity with non-Orthodox Christians is, ironically, to provoke a schism within Orthodoxy between those who find ecumenism acceptable and those who treat it as a dangerous heresy.

The fundamentalist position is profoundly misguided. Clearly, this position is based on a false assumption that the Great and Holy Council is intended as ecumenical. The Council cannot be ecumenical without (a) universal representation, (b) participation of papal representatives, and (c) subsequent reception by the whole Church. The Great and Holy Council could be a step towards the eventual gathering of the Council that would satisfy all three conditions. More importantly, the fundamentalist assertion that there could be no eighth ecumenical Council because all the fullness of faith is imparted in the teaching of the first seven ecumenical councils is based on an inadequate understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit in the Church. The Holy Spirit continues to guide the Church in a variety of her ministries, including her mission, teaching, preaching, social work, and administration of the sacraments. The conciliar gatherings of the local churches continue to be powerful vehicles of the Holy Spirit. To claim that the eighth council could only lead to apostasy is to mistrust and limit the work of the Holy Spirit in manifesting the unity of the local Orthodox Churches and thereby reinvigorating the unified Orthodox witness to the world. To dismiss any possibility that the Holy Spirit can work through the Church gathered for a Council is to blaspheme against the Holy Spirit.

More positively, why do we need the Council? First of all, the Council is important as a process that would begin to rebuild the ties between various local Churches in order to bring them out of their splendid isolation and transcend their national preoccupations. In other words, the Council will become the principal means for the restoration of sobornost’ or catholicity. Second, the Council could provide a vehicle for solving jurisdictional disputes. Such a vehicle will not be perfect and may initially exacerbate the existing tensions. But if the Holy Spirit is allowed to work, in the long run the Council will serve as a means of the restoration of unity, or at least of the clarification of the issues over which the ties of communion remain broken. Finally, the Council will provide a powerful means for the Church to speak with a unified voice to the world. It is a voice that the world has not heard for more than a thousand years. It is a voice with which the Spirit could speak the saving truth for our time.

Paul Gavrilyuk is Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy, Theology Department, University of St. Thomas.