The Holy and Great Council: Separating Fact from Fiction

by Evagelos Sotiropoulos

fact or fiction

As someone who traveled to Crete for the Holy and Great Council, who attended both Synodal Divine Liturgies (for Pentecost and the Sunday of All Saints) and who spoke with and heard from dozens of bishops, I am disturbed by the “malicious words” (cf. 3 John) that some are spewing against it. Having had the remarkable opportunity to see the deep faithfulness and reverence bishops have for holy Orthodoxy, I was motivated to write a few observations, responses, and questions, calling into serious question the credibility of the Council’s detractors.

  • Those who condemn the number of participants fail to acknowledge that aside from the First, Fourth, and Seventh Ecumenical Councils (which each had significantly more bishops), the average participation of the other four Ecumenical Councils only slightly exceeds the number of bishops at the Orthodox Academy of Crete last year. Quoting Georges Florovsky: “The sacred dignity of the Council lies not in the number of members representing their Churches.”
  • The notion that the Council was one of “primates with their entourages” as some argue is not only erroneous, it demeans all bishops. As I have written elsewhere, a key takeaway from my conversations in Crete was that all bishops reviewed and revised the texts for the advancement of Orthodoxy and edification of the faithful. The documents reflected the consensus (properly understood) of the room, similar to the practice of the Ecumenical Councils. While the primates, as head of their respective synods/ delegations enjoyed certain privileges consistent with Orthodox practice, there was equality among all bishops.
  • On the issue of voting, Florovsky writes that historically “The collegiality of the bishops was assumed…” Councils were deliberative assemblies with a final formal vote unnecessary; this tradition of the Fathers is exactly what happened in Crete. The idea that only primates voted is falsifiable – one only needs to examine the bottom of the published official documents to see the signature of bishops.
  • With regards to conciliarity and modifying the Pre-conciliar documents, it is – or should be – well known that the outcomes of a Council take precedent over the decisions of a local synod. The Church of Greece, for example, arrived in Crete with specific demands to change the documents; this positioning, especially in advance of a Council, is questionable at best. Why? Well, for one, a rigid, pre-determined approach removes the Holy Spirit from working amongst the bishops when they assemble in Council. Second, what happens if two (or more) local churches attend a Council with pre-determined unanimously supported positions which diverge from one another? Is agreement even possible?
  • Representatives from other Christian confessions did not observe the in-camera deliberations as some insinuate. Instead, they were invited into the main meeting room for the Council’s Opening and Closing Sessions, and for the induction ceremony of primates into the Orthodox Academy of Crete. More, it is not unprecedented for non-Orthodox to watch – and even speak at – pan-Orthodox gatherings. This was the case, for example, in Constantinople in 1923 when the Ecumenical Patriarch invited an Old Catholic priest and an Anglican bishop, who actually spoke during the plenary session. Moreover, at the 1961 Pan-Orthodox Conference, a number of non-Orthodox churches sent observers to Rhodes.
  • In the context of dialogue and engagement with non-Orthodox Christians, I heard the following discerning and deeply insightful observation in Crete. Someone pointed out that Christ Himself chose people who were considered “heretical” in those days – like the Samaritan Woman, Zacchaios, and the Canaanite Woman – to show His abundant mercy and limitless love. Did Christ not dine with “tax collectors and sinners” (cf. Mt 9:9-12) for which the Pharisees criticized Him? Are we not called to imitate Christ?
  • The reasons generally given regarding the non-participation of the four local churches are inadequate. First, geo-political considerations are completely ignored – pretending they do not exist is naïve. More, the heresy and disease of enthnophyletism is almost always absent from consideration.

“But let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’” records Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist (5:37). Let us not forget that all local churches took a final unanimous decision during the first week of Great Lent at the March 2014 Synaxis of Primates at the Phanar to hold the Council – and reaffirmed by all local churches January 2016. It should also be pointed out that bishops who are invited and able to attend a Council must do so:

Quoting The Rudder by St. Nicodemus, Canon XIX (Council of Chalcedon, 451) in part reads: “As for those Bishops, on the other hand, who fail to attend the meeting, but who, instead of doing so, remain at home in their respective cities, and lead their lives therein in good health and free from every indispensable and necessary occupation, they are to be reprimanded in a brotherly way.”

Finally, on this point, a simple question: why did the absent churches at least not attend the closing Synodal Divine Liturgy? They were repeatedly invited – urged, even – to concelebrate the Liturgy for the Sunday of All Saints so “that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6).

I will limit additional comments because of space considerations but wish to highlight three points.

  • The notion that the branch theory dominated the Council is false.
  • The notion that only recently has Western Christianity been characterized as a “church” is also false and falsifiable. Examples include key Orthodox statements since the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787: the Encyclical Letter of St. Mark of Ephesus (1440); the Replies of Patriarch Jeremiah II to the Lutherans (16th-century); and, the Reply of the Orthodox Patriarchs to Pope Pius IX (1848), among others.
  • It is important to point out that engagement with non-Orthodox, including theological dialogues, was an outcome of previous pan-Orthodox consensus and not introduced in Crete.

Finally, let us consider those who highlight a few hierarchs or other opponents of the Council to try to demonstrate their own self-righteousness (note: an online echo chamber does not make reality). For example, some cite monastics on Mount Athos who criticize the Council, without mentioning that individuals do not speak for the Holy Mountain – only the Holy Community does. Speaking of Mouth Athos, let us close with the sweet-scented words of St. Porphyrios Kafsokalyvitis:

Those who censure the Church for the errors of her representatives with the alleged aim of helping to correct her make a great mistake. They do not love the Church. Neither, needless to say, do they love Christ. (From Wounded By Love: The Life and the Wisdom of Elder Porphyrios)


Evagelos Sotiropoulos writes about Orthodox Christianity and is a Contributor to HuffPost Religion.

This is an abridged version of “The Church and the Holy and Great Council” originally published on Wednesday, April 5, 2017, on The Huffington Post.