Amid a great storm of words and clouds of recriminations, first His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, and then the other venerable presidents of the autocephalous Churches, landed at airports in Crete and stepped off their planes to clear and sunny days typical of this Greek island that enjoys apostolic roots. The words of His All-Holiness upon arrival, echoed by the other primates, expressed “joy of fulfillment of our historical mission.” The “our” he referenced are all the other autocephalous Orthodox Churches from around the world, both those Churches who have come, and the four who have stayed home. With this call he also urged the Churches to move from what they call their own individually, to what the whole Church can call its own collectively, from the local to the universal, to manifest not only the fourteen Churches united in mind and heart, but the one holy Orthodox Church, which is the essence of a conciliar vision.
The refusals of those local Churches who didn’t come are based on different reasons, no doubt sincerely held. But these four Churches pointed to a lack of consensus on one or another point related to the council, either substantive, that is, the six texts under consideration, or procedural, that is, not all the Churches are present. Therefore, they claim, no consensus of the Church can be had.
Nevertheless, His All-Holiness recalled for all the Churches that the decision and responsibility to convene a Holy and Great Council “lies with those same churches and their primates.” He referred here to the consensus already expressed just four months earlier, in January 2016 at the Synaxis of Primates (or First hierarchs). Representatives of the Church of Antioch did refuse to sign the agreement – though they never objected throughout the deliberations to the convocation of the council – but the other Churches all expressed their consent and signed the agreement to hold this council. Thus, in principle, all churches consented in January 2016, just as they had earlier in March 2014 to convene the Holy and Great Council. This consent fulfilled the conciliar vision of the modern Orthodox Church expressed repeatedly by all the Churches for over a hundred years in endless meetings, congresses, commissions, consultations, and Synaxes of the heads of the Churches. Consent, something that has provoked so much concern, has in fact been expressed; but it has not been accorded the respect currently in such high demand.
Even now, while the Synaxis of the Primates has completed its task and as the Holy and Great Council stands ready to begin, the primates gathered in Crete have renewed their call to those Churches not present to join them on their journey (syn-odos) toward unity in the Holy Spirit “that fills all that is lacking.” No one in Crete considers it too late for those churches to reconsider their later decisions not to attend.
Controversies and hopes for reconciliation as well as renewed commitment to conciliarity and unity, important as they might be in the life of the Church, matter little if the same conciliar vision does not cast its gaze on the larger world. Mercy, love, compassion, and reconciliation of all in Christ and with each other by the grace of the Spirit are what would truly fulfill the promise of a council and the unity of the Church.
Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis serves the Office of Inter-Orthodox and Ecumenical Affairs of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.
Fr. Alexander Rentel is Assistant Professor of Canon Law at St. Vladimir’s Seminary.