From January 4 to 6, 2016, in anticipation of the forthcoming Council of the Orthodox autocephalous Churches later this year, thirty theologians were invited by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to his headquarters at the Phanar in Istanbul. The majority of those invited were lay people teaching Orthodox theology either in seminaries or in universities, publishing journals and books, and serving the church in various capacities through ecumenical, political, or diplomatic service. The group was composed of persons from many parts of the world.
I was one of the invitees and this is my personal report on the meeting.
The main discussions took place on January 5. At the beginning of the meeting, the Patriarch addressed the theologians, then he listened to addresses from participants who had been divided into five groups, according to their present occupation, and who had collectively prepared summaries of their preliminary discussions.
The Patriarch’s address noted that ‘the profound sense of continuity’ in the Orthodox Church is inseparable from ‘speaking boldly about the critical contemporary issues,’ and he expected to hear insights on the latter from our small group of theologians ‘representing a rather large segment of the Church’. The summaries presented to His All-Holiness and Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) expressed diverse concerns and suggestions for the meeting of the primates of the local Orthodox churches later in January, as well as for the upcoming Council itself. After the session with Patriarch Bartholomew, the group continued discussions with Metropolitan John in a meeting that lasted nearly four hours. The Metropolitan gave a very interesting introduction to the necessity of the synod, answered questions, and listened to comments. He expressed the urgent need to convoke a council, in spite of existing difficulties. A great number of these difficulties are due to a lack of practical synodality among the autocephalous Churches, a concern that also resonated strongly among the participants.
The Orthodox Church has suffered from a dearth of synodality since the eighth century. Exercising synodality in its fullness results in making conciliar decisions that bear primary authority for the autocephalous Churches. In other words, the authority of the synod itself endorses the reception of those decisions. The autocephalous Orthodox Churches urgently need to agree on a number of issues in order to witness to the world with a much more coherent voice, and so it was sad to hear again that, at the preparatory meetings in 2014 and 2015, some autocephalous Churches showed their intention of using the forthcoming Council to foster their own particular interests instead of working towards the common resolution of problems.
The Orthodox autocephalous Churches are facing many questions with regard to the Church and Christian life in today’s world; it will be impossible to find solutions right away. The forthcoming Council should be the beginning of a process of heartfelt and conscious searching for authoritative decisions. All particular, nationalistic, and parochial interests must be set aside for the sake of the unity of the Orthodox.
This brings us to a point of concern shared by all the advocates and adversaries of the upcoming synod: the proposed agenda items for discussion selected by participants of the pre-Conciliar meetings. Everyone feels unsatisfied by finding on the list items such as fasting and the order of the diptychs. However, it seems that bringing to the table more profound and urgent problems, related to church and society, church and culture, or ecumenical issues, would jeopardize the authority of the synod; some local churches will not be able to receive decisions on those issues, while others will embrace them. Today the autocephalous Churches find themselves in very different cultural and geopolitical contexts; they therefore show different levels of urgency, as well as fitness, for adjustment, with some lacking a culture of reaching consensus through public discussions.
One of the ‘demands’ of Metropolitan John was to glean inspiration and wisdom from the scholarly world of Orthodox theology. This was directly connected to the desire to make the synod interesting for the whole world—yes, he said ‘interesting’! In my view, the Metropolitan’s concern for having an ‘interesting’ synod can be understood as a wish to have a council proposing authoritative decisions that will lead the Orthodox Churches towards further unity among themselves and with other Christians, as well as engaging it in a meaningful dialogue with the entire world.
Perhaps one of the most controversial claims by the Metropolitan was his point that it is necessary to convoke the synod under any circumstances. For me, his argument in favor of recreating the spirit of synodality for the sake of Orthodox unity sounded ultimately convincing. Viewing the Council as a renewed process in the life of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches seems an honorable task in itself.
Dr Tamara Grdzelidze is Ambassador to the Holy See (Vatican) for the Republic of Georgia. She is a graduate of Tbilisi University, St Vladimir's Orthodox Theological Seminary, and the University of Oxford. She has published extensively on Maximus the Confessor, scriptural hermeneutics and authority in the early church, and other topics. She previously served on the Faith & Order Commission of the World Council of Churches. Visit the website of the Embassy of Georgia to the Holy See here and Ambassador Grdzelidze's blog (in Georgian) here.