The Great and Holy Council
The Orthodox Church is sometimes known as the Church of the first Seven Ecumenical Councils. These were councils from the 4th through the 8th century when the bishops of the Church gathered together to address various challenges and issues that confronted the people of God during their day. There hasn’t been an ecumenical council, however, since the 8th century. Due to a variety of historical reasons, more than 1200 years have passed since all the bishops of the Church have gathered together as the leaders of the Church under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit, to articulate, to proclaim as well as to help understand the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ to our own people, and to the world in which we live.
This does not mean that there have not been a variety of councils – gatherings of some bishops to discuss particular issues – over these centuries. There have been. And throughout the past century, there have been proposals for a gathering of many bishops from around the world for a special “holy and great council.” In fact, since the 1960s, and for the following 50 years, there have been preparatory meetings to set the way for such a “holy and great council.”
Well, in March 2014 the heads of the 14 autocephalous (independent) Orthodox Churches decided that the convocation of the Great Council would take place on Pentecost of this year, 2016 – only a few weeks away on June 19th.
The 14 autocephalous Orthodox churches are the Churches of Constantinople, Antioch (Syria), Alexandria (Africa), Jerusalem, Russia, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Cyprus, Albania, Czech and Slovakia, Poland,
It was originally scheduled to take place at the Church of Aghia Irini in Constantinople, which was the site of the second ecumenical council in 381. Due to recent political tensions between Turkey and Russia, and concerns of safety, the venue has changed to the Orthodox Academy of Crete. This gathering will be the first ever gathering of delegates from the 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches, including the ancient patriarchates, apart from Rome.
What would be the goal of this council?
The leaders of our Church want to articulate, to proclaim, as well as to help understand the teachings of our Lord Jesus Christ to our own people, and to the world in which we live.
Fr John Chryssavgis puts it this way: “The Great Council should be an instrument of God’s presence, an affirmation of God’s love in the world, the covenant and conviction that God is in all things “true, honorable, just, pure, loved, gracious and excellent and praiseworthy.” (Phil 4:8)
From the preparatory meetings for this council, there were originally agreed a number of topics ranging from
- Internal relations among the Orthodox Churches
- The Orthodox diaspora
- How churches become autonomous and autocephalous (independent)
- And the order of the ancient leadership within the churches (diptychs)
- Issues of pastoral or practical nature
- an updated and common calendar
- impediments to marriage with in the Church
- regulations of fasting
- External relations with other Christian Churches and with the World at large
- official dialogues with other churches
- Orthodoxy and the Rest of the World
- The Missions of the Orthodox Church in the Contemporary World
As the council approaches, some of these topics have been too difficult for the 14 church leaders to agree upon, and thus, they have been revised and even shortened. The vision and desire of His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is that this will be the first of a series of regular conciliar gatherings, which will better unite the voice of the Orthodox Church in the world today.
There are many challenges to coming together. There are suspicions and defensiveness among the various churches, and yet, they are trying to come together under the leadership and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. (That is why Pentecost was the date chosen for this event!)
We will see what will come of this Great and Holy Council, and how its discussions and decisions will help the Church.
Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, one of the 14 heads of the Orthodox autocephalous churches, noted, “The Great Council is not a new – or a facsimile – ecumenical council that needs to resolve every menacing problem. Our Council is something else. What we are telling people with our Council is: “In a troubled world, we do not remain silent; at a dark time, we have a word of hope and light.””
As Fr John Chryssavgis states, “The Orthodox Church can play a major role in our world; it can serve as the critical and prophetic conscience of the peoples entrusted to it. However, in order to do so, it must first disabuse itself of the idolatry of nationalism and embrace a more ecumenical Orthodoxy, where the direction of unity-in-diversity is reclaimed and enabled to thrive. It must free itself of all national and regional arrogance and adversarial temptation if it seeks to provide an unbiased witness to all humanity… What a refreshing and revolutionary example this would prove for a Church that claims to be “in the world” but not “of the world!”