By What Authority? Conciliar Authority in the Church

by Gregory Tucker

The long-awaited pan-Orthodox council will be upon us in a few short months. If all goes ahead as announced, representatives of each of the fourteen universally-recognized autocephalous Orthodox Churches will meet on the island of Crete for two weeks at the feast of Pentecost to discuss and either agree or refuse several carefully prepared documents. These documents cover six of the ten topics that have been debated during the very long pre-conciliar process.

The Orthodox Church has, for some time now, referred to the anticipated meeting as “the Great and Holy Council.” Some commentators external to the official pre-conciliar processes have speculated whether it will become the eighth ecumenical council of the Orthodox Church, ending a hiatus of more than 1,200 years. Others have begun to compare it to the Second Vatican Council, which so dramatically altered the trajectory of the Roman Catholic Church in the second-half of the twentieth century. Such language and analogies convey the convictions of both those responsible for planning the council and those who have watched the lengthy process from the sidelines that this extraordinary synod is expected to be momentous, definitive, and universally authoritative for Orthodox Christianity.

With this in mind, it is not surprising that the reaction to the recently released official documents has been characterized by disappointment. Given that these texts are the result of many decades of work by esteemed clergy and scholars, they lack both courage and insight. Several of the more controversial (but pastorally relevant) topics have been removed from the agenda entirely, and those that remain have been treated blandly. There is little to no evidence that the texts have been imagined as powerful proclamations of grace for a new age. They rely on the repetition of catechetical tropes and bear the marks of theology by committee. The conciliar documents are, in a word, dull.

Where will this leave the Church, if these texts are approved? Many ordinary members of the Church are presently and will remain largely uninformed of the work of the council and unaffected by its pronouncements, except perhaps in the area of matrimonial discipline. Some will be relieved that the Church is using the language of continuity and tradition, maintaining the status quo of the Orthodoxy to which they subscribe. Others will be frustrated or even angry at a missed opportunity. But what authority will these texts have, if they are promulgated? Will they not receive automatic “pan-Orthodox authority” as the council intends (Council Rules & Procedures §13)?

Respect for the authority of councils in the life of the Church is a fundamental characteristic of Orthodoxy. This means that the teachings of ecclesiastical assemblies, legitimately gathered in the Spirit and received as such by the Church, have normative status. But the case for conciliar authority is frequently overstated. Too often Orthodox thinkers promote conciliarist teachings which imply that Orthodoxy is somehow guaranteed to all Church councils, from the meetings of local episcopal synods to ecumenical councils, qua Church councils.

The historical precedent for such teachings is far from clear when one surveys the tradition as a whole. Furthermore, conciliarist ecclesiology is frequently driven by polemics: Orthodox thinkers in the twentieth century (and before) were keen to stress the Church’s reliance on councils over and against the Roman Catholic Church’s exaltation of the papacy and magisterium. In the end, the desire to identify an infallible worldly authority on matters of faith has often resulted only in the substitution of one idol for another.

As we consider the forthcoming council, we will do well to remember that conciliarity is not a dogmatically defined “mark” of the Church, which is rather characterized by the Creed as “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” Councils have been and will again be powerful expressions of the Church’s unity, sanctity, universality, and fidelity to the faith of the apostles, but conciliar teachings can only be received as authoritative when they are confirmed as in harmony with the Gospel, which is truly proclaimed in the Church. We must resist the temptation to idolize conciliar ecclesiology over Gospel truth.

The authority of the Church and her ability to speak the truth is grounded in the authentic vision of Christ, which she unfalteringly maintains. It is this vision—sometimes apparently radiant, sometimes dim—against which the words of those who speak for her must be tested. The apostolic faith is guaranteed neither to councils in general nor bishops in council nor bishops alone. Rather, it is the Church against whom the gates of hell shall not prevail, as the Lord has promised (Matt. 16.18), and the Church cannot be identified only with its institutional structures. When we consider the history of the Church, as she lives in temporal beings, it is undeniable that the precious jewel of Orthodoxy has frequently passed from the hands of councils and bishops to those prepared by the Spirit to handle it with humility and care. Perfectly canonical councils have gathered, deliberated, and decreed contrary to the faith. Successions of patriarchs have waged theological wars against lonely voices speaking truth. Orthodoxy is never absent in the Church, but where it is to be found at any given moment may not conform to our expectations.

Gregory Tucker is a PhD student in historical theology at Fordham University.