The Fruit of the Holy and Great Council

by Alberto Melloni

The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church was concluded on Sunday June 26th at Kolymbari, Crete. Within eight days of work, all the typical practices in the history of Synods were experienced: doubt and fermentation, surprises and compromise, conflicts, such as the crisis and the impasse in the final days that brought the Council one step away from failure.

In reality, it wasn’t the absence or the positions of the four Churches (among them the Church of Moscow) which endangered the Council. It was the persistence of a radical faction of the Church of Greece which requested that the other churches not be called “Churches”, including the Catholic Church. At some point, it seemed that the Council was fated to either succumb to this demand or to admit the failure of the Council. In this case, the Council would have given a great gift to the Russian Church, which always recognized the ecclesiastical nature of Catholicism and would have precedence in talks with Rome.

Metropolitan John Zizioulas of Pergamon himself intervened to remind all that from the 11th to the 20th century, even in the most heated disagreements, Orthodoxy never denied Rome the title of “Church”. And on the night between Friday and Saturday came the conciliatory solution in the form of a synodal Circular, which summarizes all the documents. It recognizes the “historical name” of the “Christian Churches and Confessions” which in the official translations into English, French, and Russian are referred to as “non orthodox” and binds all of Orthodoxy to dialogue. Something which was not a given.

A brief version of the Circular was read in its abbreviated form during the closing liturgy of the Council, during which the synodal decisions were published. Furthermore, these documents will be sent to the Churches, both those present and absent, for their approval. Hence, the Council closed on a balance which is based on three foundations: the documents, the hall, and the fact that the Council itself took place.

Although the documents were accurate and the product of discussions, they remained just as they were since the closing of the Synaxis of the Primates: texts of compromise, sometimes disappointing, although they contained patristic theology. A few paragraphs – such as that in the Circular which refers to the refugees as an eschatological point, as a reminder of the final judgment of the Gospel of Matthew, or that which is relative to the conciliar nature of the Church – bear a theological mark which can speak to everyone. However, they do not contain constraints of a conservative nature, as was feared initially. And that’s something.

The experience of the Council hall may be more positively assessed. The orthodox metropolitans, just as each bishop, needed time to learn to listen to one another, to oppose, to exert irony, to understand. Eight days, which began after a two-hour liturgy, proved that the procedure of mutual understanding and true brotherhood is possible and fertile, although there isn’t much that can be done in such a short period of time. However, it was enough to unravel “clichés.” And that’s something.

Lastly, the Council was ultimately a success. A success for Metropolitan John Zizioulas, an elder theologian who began to ask for one when Cardinal Martini requested the convention of a Council for the Catholic Church. In contrast to the then Archbishop of Milan, he (Zizioulas) was heard. It was also a success for Metropolitan Emmanuel Adamakis of France, who handled the discussions for the content of the Circular.

But, above all, it was a success for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who proved that the function of the primacy of Constantinople may be exercised by giving voice to all, by the consensus of all the Christian churches – this is what the patriarch claimed persistently in his closing speech.

The Council closed with the opening up of new challenges: the first of these involves the absences. The absence of some Churches did not prevent nor did it cancel the Council: but absence should not allowed to become established. The spirituality, the theology, the prayer of the Russian Church is of vital importance for the whole of Christianity: and just as Orthodoxy can not exist without Russia, there can not exist a Russian which is foreign and indifferent to the fate of Orthodoxy. The same applies for Bulgaria, Georgia and Antioch. It has been demonstrated once again that the conciliar way is the one that can bring society where it seems impossible to achieve.

Alberto Melloni is Professor of the History of Christianity at the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia  and Director of the Fondazione per le Scienze Religiose Giovanni XXIII for Religious Studies in Bologna, Italy.