The First Test for Orthodox Unity after the Holy and Great Council: The Chieti Document

by Rev. Dr. Nicolas Kazarian

September 2016, Chieti, Italy. The Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, established in 1979, gathered once again. But this meeting was crucial in many ways, and not only for Orthodox-Catholic relations. It was also the first test at a global level for inter-Orthodox unity on a topic that is far from consensual among the Orthodox Churches, namely ecumenism.

Post-Conciliar Challenge

The Orthodox Churches that canceled their participation in the Holy and Great Council (HGC), in June of this year, in Crete, expressed their deep concerns about the document entitled “The relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian World”, but they were also, generally speaking, very worried about the Orthodox Church’s involvement in inter-Christian fora at the expense of Orthodox faithfulness to truth and salvation. In the words of Fr. John Chryssavgis, in an insightful interview which is available in English on the Huffington Post website: “I feel that there is an unhealthy form of competition for ‘genuine’ orthodoxy within some circles and even among some churches. Why do we presume that someone who condemns other Christians is a ‘champion of Orthodoxy’, while someone who works for dialogue is a ‘traitor of Orthodoxy’?”

Three of the four Churches that were missing in Crete -Antioch, Georgia and Russia – were present in Italy. Only the Church of Bulgaria persists in its ecumenical isolation, which is becoming deeply problematic for the unity of the Orthodox Church itself. However, the presence of these three Churches in Chieti diminishes the argument that ecumenical dialogue is “the” central reason for not participating in the HGC. These reasons, which appear to be of a different nature – geopolitical tensions, fundamentalism, isolation, etc. – did jeopardize the bond of communion within the Orthodox Church.

Moreover, the Orthodox delegation in Italy showed an image of unity, creating the first stage of the reception of the conciliar document on ecumenical relation. Whether we like it or not, the Orthodox commitment to inter-Christian initiatives, and more specifically in official theological dialogues with non-Orthodox Churches, exists under the reality – not to say the authority – of the Orthodox conciliar document. For example, the conciliar document declares: “The contemporary bilateral theological dialogues of the Orthodox Church and her participation in the Ecumenical Movement rest on this self-consciousness of Orthodoxy and her ecumenical spirit, with the aim of seeking the unity of all Christians on the basis of the truth of the faith and tradition of the ancient Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils.” (The relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian World, par.5) This is exactly what happened in Italy, confirming and accepting the Orthodox commitment to pursue the bilateral dialogue with the Catholic Church not only as part of the history of a rapprochement between these two Churches, but also as based on a conciliar decision, an expression of the life and conscience of the one Orthodox Church.

Not only were the Orthodox Churches present in Chieti, they also signed a joint document, meaning that they agreed among themselves, although the Communiqué issued by the Ecumenical Patriarchate Permanent Delegation to the World Council of Churches does state that, “Disagreement with some paragraphs of the document was expressed by the delegation of the Georgian Patriarchate.” They agreed on the document despite the clearly expressed reservations of one Church: this is exactly what the HGC tried to implement in Crete through a conciliar decision-making process which was also based on consensus – very different from unanimity.

The Chieti Document, Nine Years After the Ravenna Document (2007)

The Chieti Document, entitled “Synodality and Primacy during the first millennium: towards a Common Understanding in Service to the Unity of the Church,” was, of course, issued and agreed on by the Catholic-Orthodox Commission, nine years after the Ravenna Document, entitled “Ecclesiological and Canonical Consequences of the Sacramental Nature of the Church Ecclesial Communion, Conciliarity and Authority”. By way of comparison, the Ravenna Document was almost 5,600 words long, while the Chieti Document is roughly half its length.

The difference in the length of the document shows, in my opinion, that the goal was not only to find common ground on primacy and synodality during the first millennium, but also, and I would say above all, to restore or reinitialize the dialogue process between the two Churches, based on the new composition of the Orthodox delegation – Metropolitan John of Pergamon has left his seat to the forty-year-old Archbishop Job of Telmessos as head of the Orthodox delegation and co-chair of the Commission.

It should be borne in mind that the impasse reached after the Ravenna Document was issued primarily due to an internal power play, not only between the Orthodox Churches in favor of or opposed to ecumenical dialogue, but also between two understandings of the articulation of primacy and conciliarity, opposing the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Moscow. The debate resumed in winter 2013 after the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia issued a document on “Primacy in the Universal Church”, followed a few weeks later by an answer of Metropolitan Elpidophoros of Bursa entitled “First without equal.”

Hopefully the Chieti document will create new common theological ground shared by all the Orthodox Churches. The document closes with the words, “Throughout the first millennium, the Church in the East and the West was united in preserving the apostolic faith, maintaining the apostolic succession of bishops, developing structures of synodality inseparably linked with primacy, and in an understanding of authority as a service (diakonia) of love. Though the unity of East and West was troubled at times, the bishops of East and West were conscious of belonging to the one Church.” (par.20)

To be conscious of belonging to the one Church was, indeed, the mission of the HGC, as it remains today the mission of the Catholic-Orthodox Commission.

Rev. Dr. Nicolas Kazarian is a research associate at The French Institute for International and Strategic Affairs (Paris, France), where he heads up the Observatory on Geopolitics and Religions. He is a lecturer at the Saint-Serge Institute (Paris) and also teaches at the Catholic University in Paris.