The Paradox of Unanimity: The Holy and Great Council

by Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, with Gayle Woloschak

We are on the eve of the Holy and Great Council, a topic that has weighed heavily in discussions on this blog in recent months.  One major issue that has continually come up for discussion is the fact that the decisions of the Council are to be made by unanimous consent. In effect each Primate (First Hierarch) has the opportunity to veto a decision.  The agreement (at the persistent urging and perpetual reminder of the Moscow Patriarchate, who will not be attending the Council) was that the Council should carry out its decisions by consensus, which in this case is interpreted as unanimity. This is unusual because the canons of the Church do not specify that decisions should be made by unanimity nor has this been the past practice of the Church at Councils.  In fact, most local Councils of the Orthodox Church (including councils of the Moscow Patriarchate) are ruled by a simple majority or in some cases two-thirds majority vote.

This expectation of unanimity for final decisions has been an issue of millennia.  In science and in law, it is common knowledge that one should be very suspicious when the data all look the same or when all witnesses pick out the same person in a lineup. The notion is “this is too good to be true, so cannot possibly be true.” There is a story that, in ancient Jewish law, when a group of judges gave a unanimous guilty verdict, the person was set free. While there is much speculation about why this is so, the ancient Jewish law in question appears to have been based on the idea that something other than the guilt or innocence of the accused was influencing the judges and therefore that person should not be held guilty. What all of these examples signify is that, in many situations, disagreement is to be expected; and where there is no disagreement, there may well be hidden reasons for the unanimous agreement.  This is certainly the model for today’s secular world—when an executive team wants to bounce around ideas for a new project or for a new product, active discussion and even dissent promote growth.  A group of “yes men” – and, in the case of the church, especially “yes men” – is not likely to advance a cause.

Within the context of the Church, unanimity of decision-making has rarely been the case. There is unity in diversity within the Church, with differences of perspective, culture, liturgical practice and more that are not only tolerated and integrated, but possibly essential and beneficial to the Orthodox Church. The fact that four gospels are accepted by the Church and that these gospels are not identical either in perspective or in many facts, suggests that the Church survives (and even thrives) in diversity.

Dialogue needs to be encouraged at all levels in the Church—among academic circles, in parish communities, and certainly (perhaps most of all) among the hierarchy of the Church. The expectation of unanimity, such as it is expected at the Holy and Great Council, implies that open exchange and dialogue is not to be encouraged, while hierarchs are expected to “fall into line” behind a single view, when in fact rarely would one expect fourteen people to agree on any difficult issue if they are truly honest. Despite this requirement for unanimity in final decision-making at the Council, we can hope and pray that efforts will be made to encourage and even expect open discussion and dialogue. Certainly the rules permit delegates to the Council to discuss, and even propose changes (see Article 9) any issues related to the pre-determined agenda items and the final message of the council. This dialogue is essential for the well-being or welfare of the Church, for which the deacon prays at every Divine Liturgy.

God speaks to us in dialogue.  He created the world with His Word (“…And God said”, Genesis 1); He was incarnate, dwelt among us, and spoke as a human being.  His All-Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew expressed this at the Scholar’s Conference in January:  “Indeed, God is only comprehended and apprehended in dialogue – in the interpretation of scripture as in the Church councils. In the pithy, yet profound statement of St. John: “In the beginning was the Word . . . and the Word was God.” (John 1.1)”

The conciliarity of the Church is often articulated in icons depicting Feasts that celebrate the Fathers of the First or the Seventh Ecumenical Council as the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Council. This expresses the action of the Holy Spirit in Council where diversity results in unity, where the Tower of Babel becomes Miracle of Pentecost. As the Council begins on the Feast of Pentecost, let us hope that the required unanimity of decision-making still allows for openness to dialogue inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis serves the Office of Inter-Orthodox and Ecumenical Affairs of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America.

Gayle Woloschak is Professor of Radiation Oncology at Northwestern University and Adjunct Professor of Religion and Science at Lutheran School of Theology Chicago, Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological School.