The long-awaited Great and Holy Council of Orthodoxy closed its deliberations in Crete on June 26. Given the tensions surrounding its convocation, perhaps the most significant thing about the synod is that it happened at all. Now that the finalised texts are published, what impact can we foresee on worldwide Orthodoxy and on relations with the Catholic Church?
First, the result appears as a qualified success for the embattled Patriarch of Constantinople. Bartholomew II needed to be able to show that he could gather a representative meeting of the historically factious churches. Isolated in Turkey, a country whose resurgent Muslim identity threatens his very presence, the danger for him is that his “primacy of honour” would appear as anachronistic as the name Constantinople itself.
The absence of four national churches, among them the numerically dominant Russians, has certainly taken much of the shine from Bartholomew’s success. Nevertheless, the absences did not presage a total failure of the council, as some predicted. Constantinople seems right to have pressed on despite the abstentions. The meeting has come up with a series of imposing texts accepted by the majority of the Orthodox churches which cannot simply be ignored by the absentees (though they may try).
The council’s backers are banking on the synod having initiated a process which will henceforth take on its own momentum. It has become clear that Constantinople and its allies are now aiming at creating an institution of regular intra-Orthodox summits of which the present synod is merely the start. They hope that the texts will eventually be “received” by the churches that were absent, as has happened with past councils.
The synod’s texts, notably the “Encyclical Letter” which encapsulates its message, see the future as lying in an ongoing conciliar process. This takes us out of the sphere of mere politicking between churches competing for dominance into the properly theological domain.
The identity of the Orthodox Church has in recent years been expressed with the notion of Sobornost, or “conciliarity”. The term was popularised by Russian thinkers in the 19th and 20th centuries, and has since been adopted even by theologians opposed to the nationalistic ideology from which it sprang. Basically, it means a view of the Church based on love rather than institutions, whose catholicity is guaranteed by the conciliar process. Many Catholic theologians find that this notion of conciliarity has much to offer our own thought and practice.
However, Catholics should note that the prominence of this idea represents in part a tendency, increasingly present in modern Orthodox theology, to define Orthodoxy largely in contradistinction to a Western theology, whether Catholic or Protestant, seen as uniformly alien to the authentic traditions of the “Christian East”.
While unprecedentedly representative geographically, last month’s council was not, as has been frequently asserted, the only important such gathering since 1054. The final text from Crete refers to the councils held from the 9th to the 19th centuries which condemned the Western teaching on the origin of the Holy Spirit, officialised various doctrinal developments within the post-schism Byzantine Church and rejected the union with the West attempted at Florence in 1438, as well as other Western influences.
There had been a movement to recognise these synods as ecumenical councils. This would have thrown up a new and considerable obstacle to unity, signalling that the Orthodox Church had accepted the schism as irreparable, and canonised as ecumenical decisions taken unilaterally without the West. This is something that has not yet happened.
Orthodoxy does in practice see itself as being the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church of the Creed, and the synod uses this language explicitly. But there has arguably been no definitive pronouncement to date that this holds true to the exclusion of the West.
The Encyclical Letter avoids explicitly calling the post-schism councils ecumenical, describing them ambiguously as “councils of universal authority”. Over the coming years I expect vigorous debate over the exact meaning of that phrase.
This is not the only can kicked down the road. Discussions were virulent over the ecclesial status of non-Orthodox bodies, and there were objections to using the term “church” at all for these “heterodox communities”. Once more the delegates found an ambiguous formula to paper over their differences: “the Orthodox Church accepts the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches and Confessions that are not in communion with her”.
Is the “historical name”, in fact, a misnomer? Are the sacraments of the heterodox, including Catholic baptism and Eucharist, truly sacraments at all? Once again no common position was reached.
I have warned commentators against a hasty comparison between the council and Vatican II. Last month’s events cannot be seen as comparable either in authority or immediate results to that council which revolutionised almost every aspect of Catholic life. Nevertheless, there are intriguing similarities emerging.
It is already clear that the texts from Crete, like those of Vatican II, may be much less important than the processes they have initiated. Similarly, in the years to come there will be heated discussions over the interpretation of key phrases.
Catholics can be pleased, like Pope Francis, that a process has at least begun which might eventually enable Orthodoxy to speak with one voice. We should hope and pray that, when the dust settles, the direction of movement may be towards unity and not backwards into isolation.
Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique. He is priest in charge of the parish of Hornsea in Middlesbrough diocese
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.