The Great and Holy Council and the Implications of the Consensus Method

by Peter C. Bouteneff

The document on “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World” was adopted as a draft text last October by the 5th Pan-Orthodox Pre-Council Conference in Chambésy. Its status going forward is not entirely clear. Misgivings about the text have led to rumors of its outright rejection by one or another Church. The specter of a Church’s refusal to consider this or any document slated for the Council’s deliberation raises important questions about decision-making during the pre-conciliar process and at the Great and Holy Council itself.

At the urging most notably of the Moscow Patriarchate, all decisions surrounding the Great and Holy Council are to be taken “by consensus.” But what is the history of consensus in pan-Orthodox contexts, what does “consensus” actually mean, and how will it be enacted at the Council?

The focus on consensus decision-making in contemporary pan-Orthodox processes is nothing new. The Fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference, in 2009, already decided on consensus as the mode of deliberation for the worldwide Episcopal Assemblies. For several years the Moscow Patriarchate has gone further, enshrining it as the sole method of deliberation for any inter-Orthodox gathering. Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, in speeches and interviews from at least 2011, has argued that consensus is “the fundamental and only way of decision-making on inter-Orthodox level,” and that it has been the de facto practice throughout the pre-conciliar process. He expresses alarm at voices that were already then arguing for abandoning consensus, in favor of majority voting, warning that “…hardly any Church will agree to attend a Council in which her opinion may be ignored or rejected under pressure from other Churches. And even if she takes part in such a Council, she will have the right to refuse to recognize its results.”

The historical assumptions here—that (a) Orthodox have always taken decisions as church-blocks, rather than as delegates, and (b) Orthodox have throughout Church history taken decisions by absolute consensus—have been challenged by Dn. John Chryssavgis in a recent talk on the pre-conciliar process. But there is another assumption that needs to be challenged: that the absence of a full consensus would mean that minority opinions would be “ignored or rejected.”

In short, the views on consensus promulgated during the pre-conciliar process lack both a clear historical consciousness and a deep experience with how consensus decision-making actually operates in practice.

Consensus decision-making has an instructive history, as it happens, in Orthodox relations with the rest of the Christian world. At the instigation of the Special Commission on Orthodox Participation in the World Council of Churches (mentioned by the pre-conciliar document under review here), the WCC in 2005 adopted consensus as its method of decision-making at all its meetings. Fearing the prospect of the WCC voting to adopt theologically or morally unacceptable principles, the Orthodox were put at ease by the prospect of always retaining power of veto. Seeing that Orthodox representatives constitute a fixed minority at WCC plenary meetings, Orthodox delegates of the Special Commission pressed for this change.

But adopting consensus at the WCC brought two uncomfortable complications. One was that consensus doesn’t only protect the Orthodox; it protects all minorities, even those with views we may find objectionable. The other was that adopting consensus turned out to be much more than enacting “universal veto power.” Groups like Quakers, who have a history of deep engagement with consensus, helped to demonstrate that consensus is a method and an ethos. It does not pertain only to the moment of a decision on which everyone must agree; it has to do with the entire process of how matters are discussed, how resolutions are written, and how they make their way towards adoption. A moderator must frequently check “the sense of the gathering” to see where there are agreements and where there are matters that require refocusing, rewording, or redirecting. Consensus method thus places great emphasis on the skill of moderating or directing a meeting. Furthermore, consensus does not necessarily mean that only matters of 100% agreement move forward; it is not necessarily unanimity. The final report of the Special Commission  described these nuances helpfully, identifying different levels of consensus and how these would be reflected in procedures and final texts (see §49).

The point is that consensus is a deep and sometimes challenging process, where people’s reflexes towards politicking must give way towards the subtler arts of persuasion, listening, and flexibility, so that consensus can be built.

What ended up happening at the WCC was that the Orthodox, whose delegates in the Special Commission were among the main advocates of moving towards consensus decision-making, were among the most reluctant to adopt its full method and ethos once it was adopted. It proved a bigger responsibility than they were willing to bear within the ecumenical setting. The question now is, is there a readiness to adopt it in the intra-Orthodox setting? Are Orthodox churches pushing for “consensus method” purely because of the allure of universal veto power, or are they aware that it is a much subtler, arguably a more Christian instrument?

There are signs that give one hope. The Ecumenical Patriarch’s keynote address to the last pre-conciliar gathering at Chambésy featured a more detailed accounting of the meaning of consensus that distinguishes it from unanimity, identifies modes of recording dissenting views, and rules out the conception of consensus purely in terms of “the Damocleian sword” of veto threats. Some of the Council’s participants and advisors have been reflecting more deeply on the consensus method and ethos for several years now, guided both by internal work and by their experience in the inter-Christian sphere.

As people who are supporting and praying for the council’s work and its participants, we do well to be aware of these considerations. Because if the Council’s membership conceives of consensus merely as a blunt instrument, it will all but ensure that the Council will be reduced to offering safe platitudes rather than prophetic, instructive, and perhaps challenging words to the churches.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

Peter Bouteneff is Professor of Systematic Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.