Monday, October 10, 2016

Raymond Rizk: The Council of Crete: Great and Holy or Stoking Discord?

Arabic original here.

The Council of Crete: Great and Holy or Stoking Discord?

Although I considered it a true grace to be named as a member of the Antiochian delegation meant to participate in the Council of Crete, I must say that it was a cause for anxiety and unease. This is not only because my church did not participate, but because I sensed first of all, while I followed its final  preparatory stage, a wound starting to grow as I listened to the Antiochian representatives to the preparatory conferences and the meetings of the heads of the churches that took place over the last two years, and as I followed the talks with the Ecumenical Patriarch regarding the See of Jerusalem's aggression on the Patriarchate of Antioch's territory in Qatar. The same as I read the texts prepared for discussion at the council and, last but not least, the manner in which this council met. All these things (the preparatory conferences, the issue of Qatar, the texts prepared and the way the council was held) portend the problems that the council will cause for the Orthodox world.

The Preparatory Conferences and "First without Equals"
The Antiochian representatives all stressed the authoritarian climate-- indeed, the superciliousness-- that dominated the way in which the preparatory sessions were managed and the limitations placed on freedom of speech and discussion. This was confirmed by representatives of the other churches. Any opinion that differed from the opinion of the person presiding over these sessions-- that is, the representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate-- was rejected, as was any request for more time to discuss thorny issues. Hastiness ruled the day and it required avoiding any issue that would provoke controversy. The intent of the person presiding was to arrive at the minimal level of agreement between the churches, even if this minimal level was at the cost of ignoring fundamental issues. It seems that the important thing was that the council meet at the appointed time, no matter what the cost, as they said "to demonstrate Orthodox unity." But how can there be talk of unity when it is emptied of any real dialogue and agreement about the word of truth and life? For the representatives of the See of Constantinople, the absolutely most important thing was to display the Orthodox churches gathered around the "first without equals," according to the phrase declared by a number of them(*), in contradiction with the traditional expression "first among equals." This novel trend was exhibited in the way that, first of all, the seats of the heads of the churches were placed in the meeting hall of the council, since the Ecumenical Patriarch was singled out with the central seat and the other primates had to sit in two parallel rows to his right and his left. After this arrangement provoked a number of objections-- some in writing, like the one made by the Patriarch of Bulgaria-- it was changed to the traditional form of a semicircle, which was followed by the Apostles in the icon of Pentecost. However, the central seat in the icon remains empty so that Christ may be seated, He who alone presides in every place and time, while on Crete this seat was designated for the Ecumenical Patriarch. One feels a little stupid mentioning things like this, but they are indicative of dangerous, novel trends, especially when they are connected to the unilateral interpretation of Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, which regards the "barbarian lands" mentioned by the canon to now be nothing other than what are conventionally called today the Orthodox "diaspora." According to this interpretation, all the countries that fall outside the borders of the traditional Orthodox churches should submit to the direct authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople, making him a "global" patriarch instead of being the traditional ecumenical patriarch!

Talks with Constantinople about the Church in Qatar
The Patriarchate of Jerusalem's violation of the canonical territory of Patriarchate of Antioch in 2013 resulted in a break in communion between the two churches and he dispute was brought to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Although the Ecumenical Patriarch admitted in writing that the Antiochian position was in the right, until now he has not issued anything in this matter except polite words. The Patriarchate of Antioch, desiring to maintain Orthodox unity, made a number of irenic initiatives and wrote repeatedly to the Ecumenical Patriarch declaring that it would not be able to participate in the "great and holy" council if it was not possible to take part in the Eucharist-- that is, before the return of communion with Jerusalem, which must inevitably take place before the council would be held. On account of this, Antioch refrained from signing the decisions of the meetings of the heads of the churches in 2014 and 2016, which set the date for holding the council without tying it to a resolution to the conflict between Antioch and Jerusalem. However, out of its desire for the council to be held, and in the hope that the Ecumenical Patriarchate would find an appropriate solution, the Patriarchate of Antioch continued its participation in the preparatory meetings and even announced its list of representatives to the council's secretariat. Therefore, it was shocked by the decision issued by the Holy Synod of Constantinople a few days before the council met, postponing the resolution of the conflict over Qatar until after the council's proceedings. I do not know if it is possible to understand this decision-- for those familiar with the talks between Antioch and Constantinople regarding this matter-- as anything other than a call for Antioch to not participate in the council!

I was present at the meeting of the Holy Synod of Antioch that made the request (for the last time) to delay the meeting of the council on Crete. The decision of the Holy Synod of Constantinople constrained the Antiochian Church and gave her exactly two choices: either going to the council and not participating in the holy mysteries, which would do away with any sense to her participation; or to refrain from going. It was a critical situation in either case. So Antioch had no reason to "boycott" the council, as some voices claimed. All she asked for was to postpone the date in order to resolve conflicts and improve the prepared texts. Inasmuch as the date for holding the council was not changed in response to Antioch's refraining from signing the decision to convoke it, blatantly contrary to the principle of the "holy unanimity" of all the churches, which had been considered a necessary condition for convoking and holding the council, Antioch decided not to participate. Contrary to repeated accusations by representatives of Constantinople, the decision to convoke the council did not enjoy the consensus of all the churches. And contrary to the claims of some commenters in the media who claimed to be "knowledgeable", Antioch's non-participation had no connection to taking a stance "with the Russians against the Greeks." Likewise, it is manifestly clear from what preceded that her decision was taken for purely ecclesiastical reasons that had already been announced to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for years.

Some suppose that Antioch's absence from the council was "intentional" and "provoked" in order to facilitate extending the episcopal assemblies in the diaspora, desired by Constantinople, without any evaluation of how well they are working, as is stated in their statues, "before the date that the Great and Holy Council is held." Others suppose that Constantinople's procrastination in resolving the problem of Qatar is nothing other than a warning about its regarding the countries of the Gulf, including Qatar, to be "barbarian" lands that must belong to Constantinople! The Archbishop of Cyprus effectively paved the way for this by saying that these countries, since they have become Islamic, must be regarded as "barbarian" lands, ignoring the fact that a number of dioceses dependent on the Patriarchate of Antioch continued to exist in the region for many long years after the emergence of Islam and that Isaac the Syrian was born in Qatar.

This situation is extremely unfortunate, because it indicates authoritarian tendencies that are foreign to the brotherhood and unity by which we must live, "so that the world may believe." Of course, the history of the Church and of the councils is not without tragedies such as these. Let us recall that Saint Gregory the Theologian fled from Constantinople following the Second Ecumenical Council on account of the conflicts between bishops that took place there. But the Holy Spirit was active despite their weakness and He inspired those who were in the right to be considered fathers of the Church indeed, in order to combat the heresies and define the dogmas according to which we still live. Their unity in their common struggle and their inspired word was manifest in its fullness in the common Eucharistic service. Where was the Council of Crete in terms of this? Can it be considered a council despite all the disagreements that accompanied its convocation and its meeting and the lack of respect for its own rules? What is this council that ignores, with hurtful arrogance and haughtiness, the requests for a postponement coming from four Orthodox churches? How does this behavior demonstrate the "holy unanimity", so beloved to Patriarch Athenagoras and so valiantly defended by his representative at the preparatory conferences, Metropolitan Meliton of Chalcedon? Our hope and prayer is that the Spirit will overturn the money-changers' tables and, despite everything, turn the Crete meeting into an event for His glory that will not contribute to fragmenting the unity of the Orthodox churches.

The Texts of the Council of Crete
Fasting: This text, which repeats the strict, traditional Orthodox teaching about fasting, will not speak to its lived aspects and its practices, which differ radically between the churches, leaving each bishop to use economy to find appropriate solutions for his people's situation. The council adopted the text as it was put forward. It is strange that no mention was made of the importance of moderation and the asceticism of fasting in our consumerist societies, which requires saying new and prophetic things, as are found in the text put forward by the Antiochian Church in one of the preparatory meetings about fasting, which was not examined.

Marriage: The council discussed the text about marriage even though its rejection, for different reasons, by the Churches of Antioch and Georgia, required it to be removed from discussion out of respect for the principle of unanimity. It discusses the impediments to marriage, repeating some ecclesiastical canons, and simply mentions the pastoral problems posed to our communities by mixed marriages and forms of "marriage" that are permitted by civil law, without giving any guidance apart from saying that in any case "the sanctity of marriage must be preserved." The text was weakened during the course of it being discussed at the council with the removal of the principle of ecclesiastical economy with regard to the marriage of an Orthodox to another Christian, in accordance with the desire expressed by the Church of Georgia, ignoring that such marriages are daily bread for some churches! At a time when Pope Francis has issued his document about marriage, Amoris Laetitia, which treats Christians' real problems in the spirit of the Gospel, the "Orthodox" document is characterized by generalities, repeating theological data that our contemporaries no longer understand, especially when they are imposed upon them.

In studying these two texts, the Antiochian Church considered that they needed radical changes and undertook the preparation of two alternative texts.

Ecumenical Activity: After the discussion of the text "The Orthodox Church's Relations with the Rest of the Christian World", at the council, it acquired the fingerprints of conservative Orthodox who removed the description of other Christian communities as "churches", simply regarding them condescendingly as being called such merely because this name has been applied to them over history! In their position that insists that there only exists  "returning to the Church" (that is, the Orthodox Church) as the sole option for dialogue with Christians, some Orthodox forget the tragedies that this option has caused when it was applied to them in history and that they are seriously impeding rapprochement with other Christians, turning it into a mere "development of peaceful coexistence and cooperation around important social and political problems," as the final text puts it. Even though it was descriptive and filled with generalities, this text, in its original formulation, was the best among the texts prepared for the council, but the changes introduced into it caused it to lose some of its value.

The Church and the World: Each section of this document is prefaced with a theological study that abounds in patristic proof-texts that take the place of real study. They are steeped in a language only comprehensible to those in the know. These prefaces are generally followed by a list of the "evils" of our societies, characterized by general expressions and advice, without providing guideposts for solutions embodied in reality. As for the "evils", they are made up of a summary abstract of the problems of our societies, stressing their negative and "demonic" aspects, without presenting the necessity of facing them with loving attention and respect and of searching for the divine graces that accompany them, despite the strange and unaccustomed forms that these may take. Although the text addresses most of these problems, it remains at the level of an academic compilation. How lovely it would have been if it  had moved from "good intentions" to the level of service in lived reality. It would have been nice if it had proposed joint Orthodox organizations for assistance and thinking about the challenges of modernity. Despite some positive things, this text gives the feeling that the Church still fears the modern world and is still addressing it with a certain amount of condescension. The discussion of pastoral care for youth, for example, simply mentions the need to "teach them" without any discussion of the necessity of listening to them. The text mentions the necessity of creating an economy "that which combines efficiency with justice and social solidarity," based on "ethical principles" without indicating the necessity of freeing the Church and her members from every alliance with the authorities of the world and living a life characterized by sufficiency and simplicity, in order to remain free to criticize them and constantly remind them of the requirements of justice, human dignity and the common good. The text condemns "wars inspired by nationalism" without mentioning the increase in such tendencies in ecclesiastical circles. In any case, the conciliar message that was issued at the end of the proceedings drew on many points that were raised in this document, styling them in a language closer to the people.

The Diaspora
The Antiochian Church intended to draw attention to Latin America, where the bishops of the most widespread Orthodox groups have refrained from participating in the episcopal assemblies for a number of years, something that necessitates an examination of the nature of these assemblies and their practice in order to correct the course and not merely stating, as the council did, that they have been useful and their mission should be extended because "our groups are not yet ready to apply the Orthodox canon" which requires creating one bishop for a single territory. We have the right to wonder about the seriousness of this assumption and whether the churches are still not ready, but when will they be? Must there not be some audacity to impose a new reality in order to end this painful situation of having multiple Orthodox episcopal sees in each of the countries of the diaspora?

The Council of Crete
In its session held on June 27, 2016, the Holy Synod of Antioch decided to regard the Crete meeting as a preparatory meeting for the Great and Holy Council, which must be convoked after more preparation and the resolution of the outstanding problems between the churches that are impeding the participation of any one of them. In order for it to be truly "great and holy", it is better for it to convene the entire Orthodox episcopal body and for the participation of priests, monks and laity to be ensured in a real way, so that it may bring together the fullness of the Church.

We must work and pray that this decision may be taken seriously in order to avoid repeating the bitter experience of the start of the last century, when a council was held in 1923 in Constantinople and another in Moscow in 1948, in a climate of antagonism between the churches. It bears mentioning that the Church of Antioch was among the few Orthodox churches that participated in both councils, thus affirming her traditional conciliatory role, which we hope she will be able to play during the crisis that is coming upon us.

*Among them Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis), metropolitan of Bursa, in a lecture he gave at the University of Fribourg on December 30, 2013.

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