Saturday, June 11, 2016

George Ghandour: The Great Orthodox Council between Rhodes and Crete

Arabic original in an-Nahar here. George Ghandour is the author of The Road to the Great Orthodox Council (in Arabic), published by the Patriarchate of Antioch and is the foremost expert on modern Antiochian canon law.

The Great Orthodox Council between Rhodes and Crete

After the eyes of the world have been directed toward Crete for the period from June 19-26, 2016, where it was decided that the Great Orthodox Council will be held after sixty years of preparatory work, inaugurated by Patriarch Athenagoras I in 1961 on the island of Rhodes, developments have occurred that presage either postponing the council, cancelling it, or holding it with whoever attends. The Church of Bulgaria has asked the Ecumenical Patriarch to postpone holding the Great Council until a later date or it will not participate in its work on the set date. The Patriarchate of Antioch has decided not to participate until "peaceful relations between the autocephalous churches prevail, and Orthodox unanimity about the Council’s agenda, regulations and executive and practical procedures are guaranteed" and "until the reasons, which prevent participating in the Holy Eucharist during the Council, disappear." That is, until a solution is found for the Patriarchate of Jerusalem's violation of its territory. Likewise, the Church of Serbia has stated that it will not participate in the work of the council on the set date in light of the differences over the topics on the agenda and the absence of a number of autocephalous churches. As for the Church of Russia, it has not yet specified its final position with regard to participating in the council, but it has stressed "the necessity of respecting the principle of unanimous consensus through the participation of all the autocephalous churches in this council" in order for it to be present on Crete.

It is noteworthy that none of the churches mentioned above requested the council's cancellation, but all of them proposed postponing  it until a later date, pending work to remove the obstacles related to its organization, working mechanisms and agenda. Each of them made proposals in this regard to His Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch in order to avoid cancelling the long-awaited council. The Church of Bulgaria proposed continuing the preparatory work for the council without proposing any mechanism in this regard. The Patriarchate of Antioch did likewise, proposing that work be done in the period left before the council is held to build agreement and ensure unanimous consensus about the topics without specifying any detailed mechanism for this. As for the Moscow Patriarchate, it has proposed that there be an invitation for holding "a preparatory conference ahead of the date for holding the council," while the Church of Serbia has proposed converting the upcoming meeting on Crete into "a consultative rather than conciliar gathering" or into "a preliminary session for the conciliar process."

In response, however, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has stressed that the Great Council will be held on the date set and has asked the autocephalous churches to come to Crete according to the agreed-upon program with a view to examining all the issues at the council. The Church of Romania has stated that it will participate in the council, while the Church of Albania regards it as unacceptable for the call to postpone the council to be made by any church on its own and that the decision to delay or cancel cannot be taken except by a summit of the heads of the Orthodox Churches, which made the decision to call for it by a majority of its members, with one member (that is, the Church of Antioch) not agreeing. The Archbishop of Cyprus has issued a communiqué in which he called upon all the churches to participate and to leave secondary disagreements between themselves aside, because the decision to hold the council was made by the unanimous consensus of the heads of the Orthodox churches and the council can directly address the controversial issues. The Church of Greece has not officially expressed its position, but the bishop assigned with following up on the dossier of  the Great Council has stated that everything that is happening was planned ahead of time and is intended to weaken the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch in order to give the Russian Church the role of arbiter of decisions made in the Orthodox world.

There is no doubt that all the above proves that even before it is held, the Great Orthodox Council may become a factor for disagreement and fragmentation among the Orthodox. In the case that it is held by those churches that show up, this will lead to the splintering of the Orthodox world and its decisions will not be accepted by those churches that are not participating. It will provide an opportunity to the opposition movement within the churches that do participate to also reject these decisions and will inevitably lead to weakening the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch, who for a long time in the future will no longer be able to head gatherings of the leaders of the Orthodox churches. All of this will open a new stage in the history of the Orthodox Church that will not be without difficulties, disputes and divisions.

The most dangerous thing, however, is that holding this council without the participation of all the autocephalous Orthodox churches in its activities will be a sad and disappointing conclusion to the promises initiated by Patriarch Athenagoras I in 1961, when he was able to unify the Orthodox world at the First Rhodes Conference, which launched the preparatory work for the Great Council on the basis of a golden rule that he and his collaborators called "holy unanimity." Though this unanimity, he intended allow the Orthodox Church to avoid divisions like those that the Orthodox world knew after the pan-Orthodox summit that was held in 1923 in the absence of certain churches. Throughout his time of leadership, Patriarch Athenagoras followed this golden rule and worked intently to preserve Orthodox unanimous consensus as the guarantor of the unity of the Orthodox world under difficult and complicated historical circumstances. This rule was subsequently consecrated in the internal statute of the Orthodox preparatory conferences that was unanimously agreed upon by the  autocephalous Orthodox churches in 1986 and which expressed "traditional Orthodox practice and canonized it in writing" when Section 2 of it stipulated that the Ecumenical Patriarch calls for the preparatory conference after "the consent of the heads of the local Orthodox churches through patriarchal letters addressed to all the heads of the autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox churches." Section 15 stipulated that "the Orthodox preparatory committee will undertake the work to ensure Orthodox consensus on each topic placed on the agenda for the following Orthodox conference and for preparing a joint text on each topic." Section 16 of this statute stated that "all texts regarding the topics placed on the agenda of the Orthodox preparatory meetings will be adopted by unanimity."

However, with the renewal of preparatory work for the Great Council in 2014, certain facts emerged indicating that His Holiness the current Ecumenical Patriarch would not apply this "traditional Orthodox practice" mentioned above and that he is inclined to hold the Great Council with whoever attends and relying on the principle of "agreement" of those churches participating in it and not the principle of "the unanimous consensus of all the autocephalous churches." The Church of Antioch has rejected this proposal, stating that the Great Council cannot be held unless all the autocephalous Orthodox churches participate in its activities. This is in accordance with the clear and precise internal statute of the council that was agreed upon by all the autocephalous churches before the call to hold the council. During the work of the committee in charge of establishing an internal statute for the Great Council, it proposed adding a section stipulating that "announcing the inauguration of the sessions of the Great Orthodox Council will take place in the presence of all the heads of the autocephalous Orthodox churches. The attendance of the heads of the churches or those designated by them must be secured throughout the work of the council. Otherwise, the work of the council will be suspended until the presence of all the heads of the autocephalous churches is again possible." However, this Antiochian proposal was met with fierce opposition from the head of the session, the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch, who came back and rejected the formula stating that "the Ecumenical Patriarch must ensure (safeguard) the participation of all the heads of the universally-recognized autocephalous Orthodox churches or their representatives in all conciliar procedures and deliberations." This is despite the presence of a representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the commission that formulated it, which also included representatives of the Patriarchates of Antioch, Jerusalem and Moscow. This led to suspending the meeting designated with setting the internal statute and referring the issue to the summit of the heads of the Orthodox churches that met at Chambésy in 2016 and formed a committee to set the internal statute, where again the Ecumenical Patriarchate refused to include the rule of unanimity in the text of the statute. The Ecumenical Patriarchate's abandoning the golden rule upon which all the preparatory work for the Great Council forced the Patriarchate of Antioch to refrain from signing the internal statute and the decisions of the aforementioned summit, which lost the unanimity of the Orthodox Churches. In another sense, the Church of Antioch has never agreed to hold the Great Council on the aforementioned date, so long as there is no unanimous consensus on its topics and peaceful relations are not guaranteed between all the autocephalous churches. This is in order to safeguard the unity of the Orthodox world and preserve the inheritance left for the Orthodox world by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras.

However, contrary to all the norms governing joint Orthodox work, His Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew undertook to call for holding the Great Council. This led the Church of Antioch to take the unanimous synodal decision to affirm its previous position of not participating in the Great Council "so long as there is no agreement" about all its mechanisms and topics, so that the council will not be a cause for fragmentation and for wasting what has been built by joint work over the past sixty years, especially given that the council would be held in the shadow of disagreements over the documents being referred to it and the breaking of communion between two apostolic churches (that is, Antioch and Jerusalem).

Historical experience over the past century has proven that the Istanbul summit that was called by Patriarch Meletios (Metaxakis) in 1923 led to the splintering of the Orthodox because it made important conciliar decisions in the absence of apostolic churches. The Orthodox world suffered from the results of this summit until God sent Athenagoras, who worked to build unity calmly and without haste or hurry, respecting the specificities and situations of all the autocephalous churches. He patiently worked to build up Orthodox agreement about the topics of the great council. The path that was begun in 1961 has realized palpable results, whether on the level of the unity of the Orthodox world or on the level of dialogue with the rest of the Christian world.

But today, so that the Orthodox Church may preserve its unity, it is needed of the Ecumenical Patriarch that he read the signs of the time clearly, especially the restlessness resulting from the Ecumenical Patriarchate's management of the latest preparatory stage, which was not without heavy-handedness and ignoring the positions of the other churches which, whenever they raised a voice in objection to the direction taken by the preparatory work for the Great Council, their concerns fell on deaf ears.

Perhaps what is also needed, so that the Great Orthodox Council on Crete will not turn into another Istanbul summit, destroying what the Rhodes Conference built and wasting all the joint work among the Orthodox churches that followed it, is for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to recover the experience of Patriarch Athenagoras. That is, to not understand its primacy as rigid leadership and to regard its patriarch as the first among equals, not primus sine paribus!

Perhaps the opportunity has not yet passed for Patriarch Bartholomew himself to be this savior. Is anyone listening?!


Father Gregory said...

Evidently not.

Katerina said...

Lord have mercy

Katerina said...

Lord have mercy

Anonymous said...

As for me I fully appreciate what Patriarch Bartholomew does. He acts perfectly within his authority. He doesn't have to follow Moscow. Moscow plays political games claiming more authority and control in Church. Such a shame. Agreement is impossible before Council and impossible to have for all one opinion, Moscow's opinion.