The Holy and Great Council: Orthodoxy's Opportunity

"But let your 'Yes' be 'Yes,' and your 'No,' 'No'" records Matthew the Apostle and Evangelist (5:37).

Five short months ago a Synaxis of Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches took place in Chambésy, Geneva. At that time, all autocephalous churches agreed to convene the Holy and Great Council.

They said 'Yes.' They said 'Yes' to unity. They said 'Yes' to conciliarity. But the 'Yes' of all has unfortunately become the 'No' of some.

Now, the Holy and Great Council - which begins this week on the island of Crete in Greece - is being held hostage by whimsical arbitrariness.

Beginning with Bulgaria earlier this month, a number of local churches began reversing course, letting their 'Yes' become 'No.'

As one church mused about not participating, another would say the same thing, creating a negative narrative about the Holy and Great Council. The timing and message alignment mimicked the exquisite choreography of a St. Petersburg ballet performance.

Under demanding circumstances - and despite continued criticism - the Ecumenical Patriarchate and His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew calibrated a careful response.

In short, Constantinople called for previous agreements and procedures - note agreement, not imposition - to be respected and followed. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which has responsibilities unlike no other local church, focused its efforts to safeguard the unity of Orthodoxy, especially with the world watching.

The Holy and Great Council will proceed as normal; whether it is actually 'Holy' and 'Great' will be determined only after the Council - not necessarily by who is present but by what is decided.

It is not enough for Councils to follow formal regularity; moreover, participation by all autocephalous churches does not make them automatically valid.

One of the shortcomings of the entire pre-conciliar process was the rigid requirement for unanimous consent from all local churches thus giving each of the fourteen Primates a veto over pan-Orthodox decisions - which is inconsistent with the tradition and spirit of Orthodoxy.

"Indeed, those Councils which were actually recognized as "Ecumenical," in the sense of their binding and infallible authority, were recognized, immediately or after a delay, not because of their formal canonical competence, but because of their charismatic character: under the guidance of the Holy Spirit they have witnessed to the Truth, in conformity with the Scripture as handed down in Apostolic Tradition." -Georges Florovsky

Orthodoxy's Opportunity: Creative Destruction

There are six agenda items to be discussed in Crete, each having its own supporting document adopted with unanimous approval (with the exception of the document dealing with marriage).

Setting aside some serious theological concerns that have arisen, the documents themselves are rather unexciting, dare I say uninspiring. This should not come as a major surprise.

Most of them have been developed over decades, by a relatively small group of church representatives, each, presumably, with their own contributions, with compromises made along the way in order to reach consensus.

In their current form, some of the documents - even those pre-approved - will not receive unanimous support. A number of local Synods have formally suggested changes even before the Council begins.

The texts, therefore, will have to be updated; and, contrary to some who suggest otherwise, the Council's Organization and Working Procedure - despite being rather rigid - do allow for "Modifications of Texts" under Article 11.

Enter "Creative Destruction," an idea popularized by Joseph Schumpeter in the mid-twentieth century. An economic theory originally developed for industry, its premise is simple: destroying an old structure to create a new one.

Applied to the Holy and Great Council, the proposal for creative destruction is to amend (read: strikethrough) the pre-conciliar documents (they can be used as reference and/or building block language, where appropriate).

The creative part will come in Crete, where the assembled bishops would discuss and draft one inspiring, authentically Orthodox, spiritually relevant document that will truly make a mark in an increasingly fragmented, distracted, and dangerous world.

A rejoinder to this proposal is how could 300 or so individuals, including about 200 bishops (depending on how many actually attend), develop such a document in one short week?

It would be a formidable task indeed, and not without its challenges; but, there are two points worth mentioning.

First, Council participants will have the world watching them and, most acutely, missing Orthodox sister churches. They will not be isolated, working with no specific deadline. Instead, bishops will have to collaborate with no time to dawdle.

Second, and most importantly, participants will be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Instead of only making minor, albeit important, changes and having the hierarchs then rubber-stamp the existing texts, let them, together with their chosen consultants, be inspired and guided by God the Holy Spirit to develop a document worthy of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church which alone possesses the fullness of truth.

Church leaders should set the prepared texts aside and use their freedom to draw attention to and stress the uniqueness of Orthodoxy, its freedom-granting ascetical and spiritual life, in addition to resolving matters of Church administration.

The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church is decades in the making, and without precedent for centuries: therefore, Church leaders should not be held captive by discord and dissension but instead put their trust in God to guide them to develop a document that seems good to the Holy Spirit (cf. Acts 15:28), is a witness to the Truth and is received by the Body of Christ, that is, the entire Church.

If this happens, history will not remember the naysayers, and the Church will, with time, receive into its conscience the decisions taken in Crete. Despite the participatory withdrawal by some, the Holy and Great Council still offers Orthodoxy with a historic opportunity.