The Great and Holy Council?

The proposed Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church is unlike any previous council of the Church. It has had a long period of preparation unlike previous councils but this is not the main issue of concern. The procedure for the Council is unlike any previous Council. The votes are only for each “autocephalous” church and not for every bishop in attendance. This then is not at Ecumenical Council but a council of “Patriarchs” and, while there have previously been non-ecumenical councils involving all the Patriarchs, this type of council has previously been unknown in the Orthodox Church. The Church has no formal institution of a council of Patriarchs and it is important that it does not have such a council. Such a council would imply a permanent head of that council and so head of the whole Church. If this head was to fall into heresy then the whole Church is in danger of going with him. Such a head also has the normal conciliar right to ordain the other members of the council. This is the papal position but unknown and moreover rejected by the bishops of the East. Nevertheless, the Ecumenical Patriarch is not, yet, claiming such a thing but the type of council being called here and its way of procedure is a step in this direction and undermines the ecclesiology of the Church. An Ecumenical Council for this reason cannot be called by a Patriarch or Pope but only by a secular ruler of the “world” who commands the bishops of the “world” to come together to proclaim the common faith of the Church. In this manner, while the bishop of precedence is the “chairman” of the Council, all the other bishops are equal without the priorities of Metropolitans and Patriarchs taking their normal place. Thus, the equality of bishops qua bishop is shown to its fore in this assembly and this allows a true unanimity of faith among  them. The command of the emperor overrides the hierarchal structure of the metropolitans and patriarchs to open the way for the equal representation of the bishops. This would not be the case if the council is called by a Patriarch or Pope who could only do so by his authority within the structure. Without even deciding anything, this council is not one within the Tradition of the Church.  This forebodes badly for the rest of the council. More troubling is that it will claim an authority over the Church in implementing its decisions that it does not have and should not have. This is a recipe for schism and division, the very thing that this “so-called” council is trying to overcome.

Turning to its proposed findings. There are 5 areas that the council wants to address: 1) how the granting of autonomy is to be managed; 2) the mission of the Church in the modern world; 3) the relations of the Church with other “Christian” groups; 4) marriage impediments; and 5) fasting rules.

The first matter does need addressing in that it is causing quite some problems with Church internal unity. However, the intention is more of a procedural matter and could have been better addressed in some form of accord. One may ask though, what is this fairly recent concept of granting autonomy? Such a thing is really not in keeping with the structure and ecclesiology of the Church depending on how this is understood. It portrays another problem within the Church in its understanding of the hierarchal relationships. Rather than returning to the Tradition, this council merely puts in a procedure that gives some form of legitimacy to the present potential deviation from Tradition and the council may rather solidify a way of thinking that is foreign to the Church.

The second matter is the so-called mission to the world. This is a completely unnecessary issue. The Church is to proclaim the Gospel to the world to bring souls into union with Christ. The Church does this through its teaching and way of life. This council is in danger of surrendering the Gospel to the ways of this world and becoming an institution of the world speaking to the world about worldly concerns. The language used is more consistent with secular human rights speak than that of the Gospel and the Fathers. This is far better left out of the council and offers nothing to the faithful that is not already known and it doesn’t even contribute to any unity of the Church.

The third matter is relations to other “Christian” groups. This seems to tie the Church into the heretically inspired WCC and into a process of ecumenism. It even condemns proselytising heretics. Surely the mission of the Church is to snatch heretics from their error and not to give them a sense of being in Christ and that their differences are only a matter of discipline rather than of faith and piety. This should most definitely not be enshrined into some form of official Church teaching. This will certainly cause a deepening rift in the Church and harden the split with the OC churches which should not be ignored in the desire for unity. It will also give grave concern to those who have remained with the Church hierarchs but are opposed to ecumenical behaviour on the grounds that it is inconsistent with the Tradition of the Church. Again, the decision that is being suggested is not helpful to the Church and best left alone if not expelled from the thoughts of those proposing it.

The fourth matter is about marriage impediments. The proposed decision enshrines a particular understanding of marriage and impedes other ways of understanding the mystery. This is again dangerous. There is only one change in the canons but it is very important. As recognised in the proposed decision, the canons strictly forbid marriage with non-Orthodox. The proposed agreement changes this strict position without citing a particular necessity for any particular case. There is only a rule that the children must be baptised in the Orthodox Church. However, marriage is a mystery of the Church and there is much more at stake in the Canons of the Fathers forbidding marriage with heretics. One understanding, which is not addressed, is that there is no marriage union outside the Church because marriage union requires both partners to be Orthodox. The only economy for necessity is in the case of one of a couple converting to Orthodoxy while the other refuses to do so and, rather than split the marriage, it is permitted to remain, especially for the children. This is an economy rather than a sense of true union of marriage, which is seen in that if the non-Orthodox partner wishes to depart then the Orthodox faithful is not bound to the marriage. The proposed decision, in this understanding, means that many faithful will end in relationships in which they do not participate in the mystery of marriage. This decision will also see a watering down of the faith among the faithful and children and increase the position of those who wish to deny that heretics are separated from the Church. The rule against non-Christians remains strict but there is nothing to determine what the boundaries are of what is a Christian. Are Mormons Christian? If not why not? Then what about “Jesus only” pentecostals? What of liberal Anglicans that may deny the virgin birth or the resurrection of Christ? The Fathers have always either spoken of all heretics as one group or, if economy is to be measured to them, mentioned each by name. Again, this is the first formal change of a canon of an Ecumenical Council, without a specific necessity being provided for a qualification to meet that need. This is contrary to the spirit of the Fathers and Tradition of the Church. Again, it adds little to present practice and undermines those wishing to remain faithful to the Tradition of the Church.

The fifth matter is on fasting. The decision maintains the fasting rules of the Church and adds nothing to what has been said before other than to apply the canons with economy, which is already been done. This is a pointless decision that does nothing to enhance unity in the Church but, at least, helps to reinforce maintaining fasting as in the past, which is its one positive.

In summary, this council fails to be a council within the Tradition of the Church even before it decides anything. Then, its decisions themselves fail to conform to the Tradition of the Church.  The decisions provide nothing of necessity to the faithful and will not improve unity but rather increase internal division.

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