Monday, July 18, 2016

Carol Saba: Deciphering Orthodoxy's Current Conciliar Crisis

This is a slightly expanded version (provided by the author) of an article that will appear in this Thursday's issue in the leading French Protestant magazine, Réforme.

Crete 2016: 
Deciphering Orthodoxy's Current Conciliar Crisis 
And How to Overcome It

All Orthodox had been waiting for the the pan-Orthodox council since the 1960s. Visiting all the Orthodox sees in 1959, Patriarch Athenagoras I of Constantinople explained that the council was not an end in itself, but rather a "common path" so that "the Orthodox may learn to work together." He insisted on the necessity of "having everybody on board." Thus the council should have brought together all 14 autocephalous Orthodox churches who, acting together, constitute and engage the pleroma of Orthodoxy. This long-awaited meeting took place from June 16 to 27, 2016, but what should have been the "gathering of Orthodoxy" was, in the end, merely the representation of an incomplete unity. Certain churches took part. Others abstained for reasons they deem well-founded. The council was not to decide any doctrinal issue, but to affirm Orthodox unity on common issues. In accordance with the established rules, the council could only be held and engage the fullness of the Chruch with the assent and unanimous participation of the 14 Orthodox churches.

Would it be anachronistic here to evoke [French Protestant politician] Michel Rocard, the man of the New Left, who just passed away? Not at all. His requiring truth in action, connecting truth in word to truth in deed, is a spiritual requirement that challenges Orthodox ambivalences and an interpretive framework for understanding the conciliar crisis. "What gives meaning to my life?" the illustrious believing-agnostic constantly asked himself. My friend Laurent Schlumberger recalled this question in his sermon at the Temple, before the national tribute at the Invalides, where those who had buried Rocard politically while he was alive were present. Those representatives of the institutional establishment were completely wrong. The author of Suicide of the West, Suicide of Humanity was completely right. The structural depression in politics attests to this.

As in politics, Crete 2016 reveals worrying gaps within the Church between an institutional "establishment" that is traditional in its approach and disconnected from the real issues, centered on itself an unable to see crises as they are coming, and those "whistleblowers," both clergy and laity, who in truth decipher "the signs of the times" (Matthew 16) and propose significant correctives to the Church's problems. Thus the establishment did not see the conciliar crisis coming, nor did it know how to determine its magnitude or manage its implications. Its official communications trivialized the complaints of the absent churches and constantly repeated untruths. In place of ecclesiastical discernment, an autistic triumphalism took over, as if the slogan were to be "move along, there is nothing to see and nothing to find fault with here." The concern for coming together disappeared, but not the allegations at the meeting against the absent churches, accusing them of every evil and conspiracy!

Several indications already foreshadowed the conciliar crisis. Several warnings had been given very early. The Church of Antioch did so at the synaxis of March 2014, with regard to the conflict with Jerusalem, the progress of the preparatory work, and the Council's conception, organization and manner of making decisions in terms of Orthodox ecclesiology. She noted that relations between the Orthodox churches are relations of communion requiring the accession of each and that unanimity must preside over the convocation of the council, the quorum of holding it, the undertaking of its activities, and the taking of its decisions. "Consensus" (understood by some as a rule of vote by majority) should have been clarified as signifying unanimity, a weapon to be wielded not abusively but responsibly. Mere arithmetic is incompatible with the life of the Church. With the numbers game, everyone loses, since if ten of the fourteen Orthodox churches constituted a relative majority, this was not the case for the churches absent from Crete, which alone accounted for more than half of the world's Orthodox! So it was false what they kept insisting on Crete, that the convocation for the council was valid since the rules for the council required the agreement of all the autocephalous churches but Antioch had not signed the resolutions of the Synaxes of 2014 (Istanbul) and 2016 (Chambésy). Clearly, it would have been wiser to take a couple steps back in order to move forward all together rather than making a misstep forward that will mark the Orthodox world with new fronts/borders and new fractures. The rift is there between those churches that recognize the validity of Crete 2016 and those that reject it.

The historic march towards the council was not a systematic, uninterrupted effort over fifty years. The established preconciliar rule was unanimity, as the communiqué of the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Antioch of June 27, 2016 recalls. The preconciliar preparation, which was not always consequential, remained in the hands of insiders, greased for the preconciliar work. Texts redacted in the style of the 1970s were fixed too early, excluding any possibility of change apart from a superficial "refreshing". The old textual ambiguities, particularly in the text "Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World," which was the object of lively debates, blew up in mid-air before and during the debates of Crete 2016. All these texts require a critical re-reading in light of the minutes of Crete 2016, if they are to be published. They are already the object of a systematic critique from the part of several bishops who took part in Crete 2016, who explain why they did not sign certain documents, pointing to their theological and ecclesiological risks. Such is the case with Amfilohije of Montenegro and Irenej of Bachka (Church of Serbia), Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Jeremiah of Gortys and Megalopolis (Church of Greece), Athanasius of Limassol (Church of Cyprus), etc. Another interesting and critical testimony about the conciliar process and its documents is that of Metropolitan Kallistos Ware (Ecumenical Patriarchate).

The issue was raised on Crete of systematizing the council, which would meet every five or seven years. This is an innovation with respect to the tradition of the Orthodox Church, something that is not without significant ecclesiological implications. This is not only burdensome and costly; it could also jeopardize the historical rules of autocephaly since no authority, conciliar or otherwise, had jurisdictional primacy in Orthodoxy over the holy synods of the autocephalous churches, which remain sovereign unless there is voluntary adherence to a decision. On the other hand, systematizing the work of the synaxis of primates is not without interest. The Orthodox conciliar crisis has revealed the inability of the fourteen Orthodox churches to resolve their differences together on time, to face the hard questions, and to manage crises. What they are missing is an ordinary, regular structure for internal dialogue, a sort of round table or G8 that would allow for regular exchanges without waiting for super-councils that never manage to meet.

In conclusion, the two parties-- for and against Crete-- are at an impasse. My roadmap for getting out of the crisis? The emergency convocation of an exceptional synaxis of primates around the following agenda:

  1. Enact the principle of shared responsibility for causing the current conciliar crisis and the necessity of a review of the processes that led to this result.
  2. Enact the principle of a coordinated exit from the crisis by way of (a) immediately resolving the disagreement over Qatar in order to reestablish communion between Antioch and Jerusalem, (b) the recognition of a certain legitimacy for Crete and its documents by the churches that were absent, (c) in exchange, the churches that were present on Crete renounce qualifying Crete 2016 as a council, with all its implications in terms of the process of reception.
  3. Review the politics of competition over the past twenty years between the main poles of Orthodoxy in order to replace it with a politics of complimentary, requiring the unanimous cooperation of all autocephalous Orthodox churches.
  4. Reflect on renewing the governance of the Orthodox Church by systematizing the work of the synaxis without transforming it into a super-synod.
I have often mentioned to the press the existence of an "official agenda of the council," but also an agenda of the Holy Spirit. Will the churches know how to join the Holy Spirit's agenda and rise to the level of Christ's seamless garment? Kyrie eleison!

Carol Saba
Paris, July 12, 2016
The Feast of Saint Paisios the Athonite (1924-1994)

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