At present there is once more – it appears to be seasonal – considerable discussion about a possible future ‘Pan-Orthodox’ ‘Council’. Some even suggest 2012 or 2013 as possible dates for it to take place. We have been here before, not least in the 1970s. In fact, some sort of Inter-Orthodox Conference of some sort has been mooted for some one hundred years, first being put forward at that time by Patriarch Joachim of Constantinople. Moreover, preparations for a ‘Council’ itself have been under way for fifty years, since 1961.
A certain amount of internet rumour has appeared on the subject. There is even hysteria among those of the old calendarist delusion, with the usual self-justification and hatred for the real Church and the masses. Before some dismiss this, they should ask themselves why such feelings have been aroused, especially among those zealous for the Faith. The reason can only be because of the lack of consultation with Church people, with clergy in the parishes and the monasteries about any future ‘Council’. And it is billed as a ‘Council’, not merely a high-level administrative meeting (which might itself be desirable). Let us look at some of the common myths surrounding this ‘Council’.
‘Pan-Orthodox’ in Turkey?’
The term ‘Pan-Orthodox’ is commonly used for the novel, political concept known as ‘Eastern Papism’. This means that the Patriarch of Constantinople is to be put in charge of all the Orthodox Churches. In reality, the Orthodox Church is not the Vatican or the European Union – we do not have a pope or president. The Holy Spirit is in charge of the Church, the Body of Christ, and no mere man. Without the participation of the people and the clergy, bishops can do nothing. There is a feeling that a small elite, already denounced by Archbishop Athenagoras of Thyateira in the late 1970s, is drawing up agreements on a ‘Council’ behind closed doors for political reasons. Let us remember: Without the faithful, there is no Church.
Secondly, there is the question of how many Local Churches would be represented at any such possible ‘Council’. With the recent tendency within the Russian Orthodox Church to admit that the autocephaly it granted in 1970, during the Soviet period, to a small North American immigrant group of Slav origin is not canonical, it would seem that there is now an agreement that there are 14 and not 15 Local Orthodox Churches. For any inter-Orthodox meeting to have any authority, all 14 of them would have to be represented. But by whom? By all their bishops together, including ‘vicar-bishops’ (a thoroughly Non-Orthodox concept, but nevertheless a reality), or just by diocesan bishops? And by all diocesan bishops, or just some of them? These are questions which have not been resolved, as also the question as to where such a ‘Council’ could take place. To hold it in Turkey or Switzerland, both overwhelmingly Non-Orthodox countries, as has been suggested, would seem particularly strange.
A ‘Council’ for ‘Unity?’
No meeting of representatives of the Local Churches can be called a Council before it has taken place. To call it so is pure politics. What is important is if any such meeting is inspired by the Holy Spirit. If it is, there it will be received by the people. Only on reception by the faithful, can we then give that meeting the title of a ‘Council’.
Roman Catholic sources, with little understanding of the theology and freedom of the Orthodox Church, have portrayed a ‘Council’ as a move towards unity within the Orthodox Church. This too is nonsense. Roman Catholics should know that each one of their Councils has caused schism, not unity, among themselves, for example the First and Second Vatican Councils. The Orthodox Church has always had unity, which is why we confess our Orthodox Faith in the ‘One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’. To suggest that the Church is not already One suggests that Christ is not One. The fact that there is an outward, administrative diversity within the Orthodox Church or that there are extremist individuals on the left or right fringes of the Church, but who are still in communion with Her, does not mean disunity, only variety. Once more a misunderstanding arises because Roman Catholics cannot help looking at the Orthodox Church through monolithic Roman Catholic spectacles and so miss the essential. The Orthodox Church is unity within diversity, a reflection of our Orthodox Faith in the Holy Trinity, the Christian Faith without the deforming and centralising filioque.
‘Greek’ and ‘Slav’
Enemies of the Orthodox Church love to speak of Her as either Greek or Slav and suggest that there is an irreconcilable opposition between these two groups. This is based on sheer ignorance of and so great injustice towards the Romanian (the second largest) and Georgian Orthodox Churches, as well as many other nationalities, like the Syrians, on whose territory the Arab Patriarchate of Antioch is situated.
Such a false view also encourages secular nationalism. Historically, this has existed among Orthodox nationalities. Since the 1920s it has been cultivated by secularists among some Greeks, who, haunted by the Greek Second Rome concept of the distant past, fear the Russian Third Rome concept of the present. This fear fails to take into account the New Jerusalem balance, added by the Russians, to the Third Rome concept. In any case since the Russian Orthodox Church is 75% of the whole Orthodox Church, it cannot be ignored. Surely the recently-invented ‘Neo-Pentarchy’ political concept of Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Cyprus, does not mean that those concerned, some 2% of the whole Church, want to cut themselves off from 98% of the Church, so creating their own schism?
Is a Major Inter-Orthodox Meeting Desirable?
In 1977 the Neo-Patristic figure of Fr (now St) Justin of Chelije famously wrote against a ‘Pan-Orthodox Council’. This was partly on the grounds that most Local Orthodox Churches were not free, given the atheist Communist regimes then ruling in Eastern Europe. Today, given the fall of atheist Communism in those countries, especially the disappearance of the Soviet Union, this argument has fallen away.
However, today there is a new, but similar, reason against any possible such meeting. This is the enslavement of several countries concerned to the atheist European Union. Notably, there is the fact that the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Jerusalem are basically appointees of the Greek Foreign Ministry and Greece, as also Cyprus, Bulgaria and Romania, where the EU is pouring money into building ‘ecumenical centres’, are indebted, feudal fiefs of the EU. Moreover, given the ambitions of Turkey to join the EU, the Turkish-based Patriarchate of Constantinople, with its own imperialistic ambitions in the Ukraine, Estonia and throughout the Diaspora, is also subject to the EU, itself a creation of US foreign policy. How, in such circumstances, can there be any free inter-Orthodox meeting?
Is the Agenda Worth Meeting for?
The agenda of this future inter-Orthodox meeting consist of ten topics. Although these topics are barely known to ordinary Orthodox clergy and people and it is difficult to find a l.ist of them, here they are, exposed at last:
1. The Orthodox Diaspora.
2. The way in which autocephaly is granted.
3. The way in which autonomy is granted.
4. The diptychs (the order of honour of the Local Churches).
5. The Church calendar.
6. Canonical impediments to marriage.
8. Relationships with the heterodox denominations.
9. The ecumenical movement.
10. The contribution of Orthodox to affirming peace, brotherhood and freedom.
Of course, the first suspicious thing about the agenda is the number ten – a purely secular figure. Indeed, Topic 10, like some of the other topics, sounds as though it had been taken from a 1960s secular source, perhaps the agenda of a masonic lodge, still dreaming of the French Revolution which it organised?
Topics 9 and 8 were long ago answered by various Orthodox saints, such as the 20th century St Hilarion (Troitsky), St Nectarios of Pentapolis (who would have become Patriarch of Alexandria, if he had not been slandered by careerist bishops), St John of Shanghai and St Justin of Chelije. There is nothing more to discuss here.
Topics 7 and 6 are non-topics, since the Orthodox Tradition was established by the Universal Councils, which defined all the dogmas in the first centuries. No Orthodox would challenge the Tradition, with its canons of fasting and marriage, and so putting himself outside the Church.
Topic 5 is also a non-topic, since 85% of Orthodox agree on the Church calendar. They are patiently waiting for the minority to return to the full Orthodox calendar, so ardently wished for by the devout in the countries concerned. In this way those Local Churches will overcome their politically-imposed divisions, including the ensuing tragic old calendarist schisms in Greece, Cyprus, Romania and Bulgaria.
Topic 4 is shameful. Has he who compiled this agenda never heard the Gospel? ‘But it shall not be so among you: but whoever will be great among you, let him be your servant’ (Matt. 20, 26).
Topics 3 and 2, which did need discussing, seem already to have been answered at recent inter-Orthodox meetings, where agreements have largely been reached.
Finally, Topic 1, which did need discussing, has also been dealt with by the establishment of regular meetings of local bishops in all regions of the Diaspora and their decision to take decisions only on the basis of unanimous agreement.
Although real Orthodox are quite prepared to die to defend Orthodoxy, when we look at this agenda of some future inter-Orthodox meeting, there is actually hardly anything to discuss or die for. Is the whole concept of a ‘Pan-Orthodox Council’ not now becoming a mere photo-opportunity?
The mere concept of a ‘Pan-Orthodox Council’ seems in many ways to be either arrogant or else irrelevant. Why should such a meeting be necessary? 35 years ago, I met an arch-modernist priest who told me that a ‘Pan-Orthodox Council’ was ‘inevitable’, because ‘the Roman Catholics and Anglicans had already made reforms in the 1960s’. Therefore, he asserted, Orthodox would do the same and make similar modernist reforms, reducing the Church to little more than a secular, charitable organisation, degutted of all spiritual content and with nothing to say about eternal salvation. That was the secularist, totalitarian view which he wanted to impose on us then. Fifty years after the modernist secularism of the Second Vatican Council and the wholesale secularisation adopted by Anglicanism and other Protestant denominations, was he right?
In reality, his view simply reflected the quaint secularist myth, which can still be heard, that the Church is just a backward and exotic version of Roman Catholicism, itself just a backward and exotic version of Protestantism, itself in turn just a backward and exotic version of inevitably triumphant Western liberal secularism. What arrogance! In reality, he was wrong, not only because liberal secularism has utterly failed, but also because although the Church is in the world, She is not of the world, because the Church does not become like the world, but the world becomes like the Church, because the Church is not ours, but God’s. This is why St Justin of Chelije opposed any ‘Pan-Orthodox Council’ in the 1970s. Surely, we should listen to the voice of one who is a saint. As for the priest whom I met 35 years ago, tragically he later abandoned his family, the priesthood and committed suicide….