KOLYMBARI, Greece — Opening the first Holy and Great Council of Eastern Orthodox Churches in more than 1,100 years, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople led a packed auditorium at the Orthodox Academy of Crete in singing an apolytikion for Pentecost:   

Blessed are you, Christ our God, who revealed the fishermen to be most wise by sending down to them the Holy Spirit, and so through them catching the whole world in a net: Lover of mankind, glory to you!

Having raised their sights to Heaven — and locating this event in the Orthodox Church’s long history of councils without full attendance — the mood in Crete is decidedly more positive than it was during the two week lead up when four of 14 self-governing (“autocephalous”) Churches dropped out.

“The absence of these four Churches is not linked with disagreements over the topics or documents prepared together, but rather with inner problems they have been experiencing recently,” explained Archbishop Job of Telmessos at a press briefing on opening day.

The bishop continued, “And the existence of inner problems within the Church makes the convocation of the Holy and Great Council even more urgent.”

Restoring Conciliarity

“The Orthodox Church holds this notion of conciliarity as something unique and precious. It claims it is a Church of the councils, a synodal Church,” explained Archdeacon John Chryssavgis, spokesman for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, to the Register in an exclusive interview.

“And the truth is, it has not met in council for hundreds of years, so just from a pragmatic point of view, we are not practicing what we are preaching.”

“The Orthodox Church claims it is a conciliar authority — like a circle, where all 14 churches have say and equal voice — but we have not practiced that,” he continued.

“So even if it is awkward as a first attempt, even if it is a little bit clumsy, or confusing or even chaotic, this Council is a first step in the right direction, restoring conciliarity as a normal function, a natural function of the Orthodox Church” on a global scale.

Although the council’s daily working sessions are closed to the media, Father Chryssavgis revealed that Patriarch Daniel of Romania suggested regular pan-Orthodox meetings every seven years while Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew said meetings could be held every 10 or maybe even five years.

Archbishop Job confirmed new interest in making the pan-Orthodox council a more regular practice: “The primates expressed their hope that the Holy and Great Council will become a new institution within the Orthodox Church that will gather on a regular basis to address the problems it faces,” he said.


Authentic and Binding Criteria

Although the last-minute cancellations by the Orthodox Churches of Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia and Russia — which by itself comprises more than half of the total global population of Orthodox believers — were highly publicized, Father Chryssavgis explained to the Register that the Holy and Great Council’s validity does not depend on full attendance.

Two fundamental criteria exist for judging whether an Orthodox council is authentic: First, if there is fair representation of all the Churches and all have been invited.

Second, if there is respect for the canonical order — for example, not avoiding one or another Church out of rivalry — than the council should be considered valid.

Unanimous participation in all the council’s high-level advance meetings — the synaxis of primates held in 2008, 2014, and 2016, at which all 14 Orthodox leaders attended — is amble proof of its fairness explained Father Chryssavgis, the spokesman for Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, who is regarded as “first among equals” with respect to the leaders of the 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches.

“What determines the binding nature of a council’s positions is not necessarily who attends, not necessarily how many people attend, it’s not the number, it is whether a particular council is considered to be in the authentic line of succession of the other councils,” Father Chryssavgis said.

“And what determines that is not whim, it’s not whether a church was there or not, it is the teachings of that particular council, whether they are authentic … and the consensus of the faithful, the conscience of the people of God” will be the ultimate test, said the spokesman.

“So the people of God, clergy and laity, have to, not just react, but study and see how these decisions correspond to the teachings of the Gospel and the Church Fathers. The people of God decide, not a primate or a number of bishops who decided not to attend. The whole Church decides,” said Father Chryssavgis.

He observed, “Adoption [of the council’s conclusions] is very important for conciliary decisions but won’t necessarily happen automatically or immediately” since it will require time for the Holy and Great Council’s work to be disseminated and absorbed, a process not unlike the Catholic Church’s experience with the Second Vatican Council.


Historic Precedent

The historic record offers several examples of important councils where major players were absent but decisions were conclusive and binding.

Ecumenical Patriarch Anthimus VI convened the Council of Constantinople in 1872, which neither the Russian Orthodox Church nor faithful from Bulgaria attended.

Eventually, all local Orthodox churches accepted the council’s decisions.

Explained Father Chryssavgis, “This is not just any council, it is actually one of the more important councils in the last 300-400 years which denounced ethnophyletism in the Church, religious nationalism,” or the belief that Orthodox Christians should base church structure on ethnicity.

Although it was a Bulgarian exarchate (a church headed by an exarch, a bishop ranking below a patriarch) that inspired the controversy, the issue was eventually settled when the Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the autocephaly of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church in 1945.

Another historic precedent is the Third Ecumenical Council, held in Ephesus in 431. Although the Church of Antioch was absent, the council adopted key positions on the nature of Christ as one person and affirmed the text of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed.


Joy ‘Overshadowed’

Nevertheless, participants in the Holy and Great Council have not concealed disappointment that some brothers are missing.

“The joy of coming together as one Church is overshadowed by the absence of four churches,” admitted Archbishop Job on Monday.

Responding to a reporter who referred to a “bleak outlook,” Father Chryssavgis touched the cross around his neck and gently mused, “As an Orthodox Christian and a theologian, the central symbol in my life is the cross … and that was a pretty bleak symbol at the time.”

Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning

international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.