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Antoine Arjakovsky: Can the Pan-Orthodox Council be saved from shipwreck?

On January 27, the primates of the Orthodox Churches announced at Chambésy, Switzerland, that they will meet in a Pan-Orthodox Council at the Orthodox Academy of Crete from June 16–27, 2016. The Orthodox Churches have been preparing for this council since the 1930s, when the primary goal was to resolve a conflict around the decision by the Greek Orthodox Church to adopt a liturgical calendar that modified the Julian Calendar, which had been in use since the fourth century. But the churches of Slavic tradition did not arrive at common ground with the churches of Greek tradition before the outbreak of World War II. After 1945, the Orthodox world was summarily divided between the Slavic churches, which were part of the Communist world and the Greek and Arab churches which were part of the so-called “free world.” In 1948, the Patriarchate of Constantinople participated in the creation of the World Council of Churches, while the Patriarchate of Moscow convoked a synod to condemn the ecumenical movement.

The conciliar process was only able to be revived at Rhodes in 1961, by Patriarch Athenagoras. A fervent ecumenist, he wanted to give a positive response to the invitation to participate in the Second Vatican Council, which Pope John XXIII had extended to the Eastern Churches. However, Athenagoras was aware that he first had to resolve about thirty divisive issues which had been building up within Orthodoxy over the course of time. In 1970, the rupture between Moscow and Constantinople—following the granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America by the Russian Church—blocked the process once again.

In 1976, after the Helsinki Accords, the Orthodox Churches attempted to revive the conciliar process again by reducing the agenda to a list of ten issues. A new crisis, however, between Moscow and Constantinople emerged in the 1990s (after the implosion of the USSR) concerning the canonical status of certain churches of Slavic tradition that were historically linked to Byzantine missions (such as the Churches of Estonia, Ukraine, and the former Czechoslovakia). This again paralyzed inter-Orthodox “synodality,” i.e., the ability of 250 million Orthodox faithful to walk together in unity.

But things have changed. The election of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in 2008; the increasingly obvious weariness of Patriarch Bartholomew, who has been shouldering this weight of promoting inter-Orthodox unity for more than 25 years; the growing contrast between accelerated globalization and the pettiness of Orthodox divisions; the development of new inter-Orthodox conflicts (such as those between the Church of Antioch and the Church of Jerusalem over Qatar, and between Mount Athos and the Phanar concerning ecumenism); the international political crises which are progressively becoming intolerable for Eastern Christians (including the Russian-Ukrainian war, the rise of radical Islam in the Middle East, and the marginalization of Orthodox Christianity in the West); and finally, the amicable pressure of the Church of Rome—all these elements have finally overcome the fears which have prevented the Orthodox Churches from holding a council for seven decades. (1)


The Unfortunate Compromise of Chambésy

The compromise reached at Chambésy in January 2016, allowing the proposed council to come to pass, was to discuss only six of the ten issues which have been on the agenda since 1976. As a result, the most essential questions related to inter-Orthodox and ecumenical reconciliation have been suppressed. These issues are those concerning the date of Easter (in spite of a consensus on this point reached at Chambésy in 1977 and again at Aleppo in 1997), autocephaly, the order of the diptychs, and ecumenical dialogue.

Moreover, for the first time in the history of the Church, the bishops engaged in preparations for the Council of Crete decided that there will be no lay or clerical delegates, that bishops will not have an individual vote, and that every decision will be made by consensus. At Chambésy, a ruling was also approved that disallowed the reconsideration of pre-conciliar decisions during the Council. Finally, the bishops of the fourteen autocephalous Churches took care to exclude theologians, notably those of the West, from the pre-conciliar process. These include theologians who have proposed creative solutions to the recurrent conflicts between the Orthodox Church and the modern world. In essence, the bishops simply decided not to resolve the most painful issues that are dividing them.

Significantly, Patriarch Bartholomew agreed not to recognize the Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kievan Patriarchate prior to the Council. The Kievan Patriarchate has urgent need of placing itself under the protection of the Ecumenical Patriarch in order to avoid another conflict with Patriarch Kirill, who is actively supporting the Ukrainian Orthodox–Moscow Patriarchate. Thus, it is forbidden to speak of the most serious conflict tearing apart the Orthodox Church today, since both countries — Russia and Ukraine, each with a majority Orthodox majority population — have been at war since 2014. In reality, the majority of Orthodox Christians in Ukraine favor an independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church in order to consolidate the political independence of Ukraine, while the majority of Orthodox Christians in Russia maintain that the Ukrainian Orthodox Church depends on the Patriarchate of Moscow and, more amply, belongs to the “Russian world” (Russkiy mir).


The “Hostile Takeover” of the Texts on the Diaspora

The texts which have been approved for the six issues remaining on the agenda are also extremely disappointing. The text on the Orthodox “diaspora” goes against those approved in 1990 and 1993, which, under the influence of Paul Evdokimov and Olivier Clément, accorded the status of local Churches to the new bishops’ assemblies which were formed in the West. The new text, adopted in 2009, as well as the document concerning the regulation of Orthodox assemblies, renders the functioning of these new bishops’ conferences ineffective by refusing to obligate the Mother Churches to respect the decisions of these assemblies, which are now essentially envisioned as consultative “window displays.” On February 2, Patriarch Kirill reaffirmed that the existence of these groups “does not in any way limit the full canonical powers of the bishops of the different jurisdictions present in the diaspora nor their bonds with their local Churches of origin.” (2)

Orthodox theologians of the so-called “diaspora” reacted to this “hold up” of the Western Churches by the Mother Churches in 2009 by organizing a colloquium at the Institut de théologie orthodoxe Saint-Serge in Paris in 2012. They pointed out that the term “diaspora” is not the correct term to describe the reality of a local Orthodox Church rooted in the West for at least four generations. Moreover, these new Orthodox Churches of the West want the freedom to develop relationships with other local churches (Catholic and Protestant) while retaining links to their Churches of origin. (3) But the pre-conciliar process has paid absolutely no attention to these recommendations that were primarily made by the Orthodox Fraternity in Western Europe.


The Ambiguous Conversation Regarding Ecumenism

The document dealing with the relationship between the Orthodox Church and the rest of the Christian world is hardly more uplifting. There is no recognition in this text of the developments that have taken place through the participation of Orthodox Churches in the ecumenical movement for nearly a century, or of the agreements which have been signed among the Orthodox, Catholic, Anglican, and Protestant Churches concerning the mutual recognition of baptism and the most divisive theological questions (the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son, the filioque, the definition of the Church, and anthropology).

Moreover, the bishops continue to exploit the ambiguity between two realities that are, in fact, both united and distinct: “the historical Orthodox Church” and the “mystical Orthodox Church.” (4) It is affirmed that the Orthodox Church is really the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic” Church. But it is not specified whether this refers to the “mystical” Orthodox Church or the communion of the fourteen historical Churches as they exist in reality. This results in an absurd phraseology since, in Article 1 of the document, this mystical Orthodox Church affirms that “it plays a preponderant role in the promotion of Christian unity,” thus recognizing that a Christian reality exists outside of the Church's mystical boundaries.

The text goes so far as to grant to the bishops participating in the Council “the possibility of a re-evaluation of the process of a concrete theological dialogue” (Article 10). This means, for example, that not only is there no longer any backing for the famous theological agreement of 1990 between the Chalcedonian and non-Chalcedonian Churches (Coptic, Armenian, Syriac, etc.), but that the members of the Council are encouraged to put decades of theological dialogue into question.

Finally, the document is content with endorsing the provisory decisions of the 1950 Toronto Statement, while refusing to recognize any sort of ecclesial character of the World Council of Churches. One of the most respected bishops of the Orthodox Church, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon, has affirmed on several occasions that such an attitude cannot be maintained in the long run, for it is itself responsible for the secularization of the world. For Zizioulas, the Churches united in a single baptism and by the same faith of Nicaea-Constantinople should give a global witness to the Christian Church in today’s world, while respecting the diversity of the local Churches. (5)


The Gap Between Doxa and Praxis and its Influence on Other Texts

The consensus arrived at in respect to the other four topics (the mission of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world; the importance of fasting and its application today; autonomy and the process of its proclamation; and the sacrament of marriage and its impediments) is deceptive, insofar as the documents do not provide any solutions to the well-known discrepancy in the Orthodox world between doxa and praxis.

The first document, on Orthodoxy in the contemporary world, once again takes up a certain number of evident facts that have been repeated for decades, without shedding any new light on them and without even attempting to initiate the beginning of an analysis of the compromises by the Orthodox Church with the Communist regimes over a long period of time. There is the sense of a permanent gap between what the Orthodox Church is in its historicity and its claim to incarnate today the Orthodox Church as the House of the Father, the Body of Christ, and the Temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus, for example, the text affirms that “the Orthodox Church also condemns wars motivated by nationalism and those which provoke ethnic purges, changes of boundaries and the occupation of territories”; meanwhile, the Patriarchate of Moscow is supporting the annexation of Crimea by Russia in 2014, and has not once denounced the Kremlin's sending of Russian troops to the Donbass region.

A similar point could be made on the text concerning fasting. There are citations of wonderful expressions by Saint Basil of Caesarea on the importance of asceticism and sobriety. But the text says nothing of the exaggerated riches of Orthodox ecclesiastical authorities, which are, however, regularly identified in the secular press (private yachts, luxurious property holdings, etc.). Neither do they propose any concrete measures for the struggle against corruption.

As for the Orthodox doctrine on marriage: those who have read Paul Evdokimov’s The Sacrament of Love should be pinching themselves to verify if this is really a pre-conciliar text. The text explains that marriage “between Orthodox and non-Christians is absolutely forbidden according to the canons,” and so nothing in the text enables us to affirm the blessing of Christ’s presence at the wedding at Cana in Galilee. It is only through “indulgence” that marriages between Orthodox and non-Orthodox (i.e., Catholics and Protestants) are authorized, and still with the condition that the children of the couple be baptized in the Orthodox Church. Here too, there is a refusal to profit from the evolution of Western ecumenical practice, spearheaded by the movement of mixed families, which simply asks for a Christian baptism of the children born from mixed marriages.

Finally, as far as autonomy is concerned, the enlightening analyses of Orthodox theologians such as Fr John Erickson have been ignored completely. The document is satisfied with affirming that “the canonical competence to initiate and bring to fruition the process of granting autonomy to any entity of its canonical jurisdiction belongs to the autocephalous Church on which the Church proclaimed autonomous depends.” The problem is that the proclamation of autonomy, and later of autocephaly, has never taken place in this way over the course of history, as can be seen from the famous examples of the recognition of autocephaly for the Church of Bulgaria and the Church of Russia. Moreover, what is to be done when an autocephalous Church (for example, that of Russia today) affirms that a Church belongs to its jurisdiction (the Church of Kiev), while this Church affirms that, on the contrary, the Patriarchate of Moscow is, historically, its daughter Church? Or, relying on such biological logic, how are we to regard a local Church such as the OCA, which is recognized by only one of the two “Mother Churches” (Moscow and not Constantinople)? The text does not provide an answer. 



In conclusion, the entire series of texts creates an impression of an absolute denial of reality, and this prevents the Churches from resolving the profound differences which divide them. Confronted with the reaction of consternation on the part of most of the observers of the pre-conciliar process (who were also made uneasy by the absence of several local Orthodox Churches at Chambésy), can it be said that this is a first step toward coming together? Or is this essentially a “selfie Council” whose sole objective is to put on a mere show of Orthodox unity? The idea that this show of unity should be unilaterally approved, because it brings nothing new to the table, must be resisted, because it is a definitive step in the wrong direction.

Certainly, this Council may set a dramatically new precedent in the conciliar history of Orthodox Christianity. On the one hand, highly constrictive rules are being imposed on the exercise of synodality. On the other hand, there is the recognition that the Churches have the possibility of acting independently on issues which are quite fundamental, such as the organization of the Orthodox Church in the Western world and ecumenical relations. Interestingly, there is silence regarding the fact that, from the point of view of canon law, the Eastern Church has never separated, properly speaking, from the Western Church.

In fact, the last ecumenical council in which the Eastern Church participated—which was only designated as Orthodox four hundred years later—was not, as is so often repeated, the Second Council of Nicaea in 787. At the Council of Florence in 1439, all the bishops of the Eastern Church (with the exception of Mark of Ephesus) signed an act of union with the Church of Rome, which itself was not yet divided between Catholics and Protestants. For several decades, even for several centuries, Eastern and Western Christians were able to communicate with one another after this council. This council was re-examined by the Patriarch of Constantinople and several other bishops who came together in 1484 for a synod in Istanbul (without the presence of the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch) and in 1596 by the Church of Kiev, meeting at Brest. But these reunions of bishops, however distinguished they might have been, cannot have the same canonical importance as an ecumenical council. (6) Moreover, none of these assemblies questioned the ecclesial character of the Church of Rome. From 1969 until 1984, the Patriarchate of Moscow even authorized the practice of Eucharistic hospitality with the Catholic Church.

This is why the Pan-Orthodox Council cannot ignore the past and should courageously face up to its festering wounds. In order to do this, it will be necessary to call upon Orthodox laity, men and women, who have been working for inter-Orthodox unity and ecumenism for decades. It is very sad that great schools of Orthodox theology, such as the Saint Sergius Institute in Paris and Saint Vladimir’s Seminary in New York, spearheads of Orthodox theology for decades, and Orthodox movements as eminent as Syndesmos, the World Federation of Orthodox Youth, and ACER (Russian Students Christian Action), have not been invited to participate in either the council or the pre-conciliary process.

At the Second Vatican Council, in October 1962, some courageous bishops, sensitive to the breath of the Holy Spirit, refused to accept the ultra-conservative agenda proposed by the Roman Curia and shifted the course of the Council. We dare to hope that, among those who assemble on the island of Crete this June, there will be some spiritual figures who will know how to assume their responsibilities and avoid a shipwreck for the Orthodox Church.

(1) The acts of the Paris colloquium can be found in English in a special edition of St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, “The Forthcoming Council of the Orthodox Church: Understanding the Challenges,” SVTQ 60: 1-2 (2016).


(3) A. Arjakovsky, “ The Issue of the Diaspora at the Future Pan-Orthodox Council: Pragmatic Proposals,” SVTQ 60: 1–2 (2016), 149–170.

(4) To distinguish between the “mystical” and “historical” Orthodox Churches, I use the lowercase “o” for “orthodoxy” as an adjective, i.e., as a quality of the faith of the whole Church, and the uppercase “O” as a proper noun, designating the historical reality of the confessional Church which declares itself orthodox. At present, the Orthodox Church lacks an ecclesiology founded on a complex definition, which should be simultaneously a theological, historical, and ecumenical definition of the orthodoxy of the faith. Cf. my book Qu’est-ce que l’orthodoxie? (Paris: Gallimard, 2013), forthcoming in English translation.

(5) “Denying, therefore, a priori and without explanation, an ecclesial character to the Ecumenical Movement and the WWC would turn these into totally secular entities. The Orthodox participate in the Ecumenical Movement out of their conviction that the unity of the Church is an inescapable imperative for all Christians. This unity cannot be restored or fulfilled except through the coming together of those who share the same faith in the Triune God and are baptized in His name. The fellowship that results from this coming together on such a basis and for such a purpose cannot but bear an ecclesiological significance, the precise nature of which will have to be defined." Source here at

(6) More and more, contemporary Orthodox theologians diverge as to the obligatory (cf E. Melia) or relative (cf. I. Karmiris) character of this 1484 synod, taking into account the contrary decision of the Council of 1755 not to recognize Roman Catholic/Latin baptisms.

Antoine Arjakovsky is an Orthodox historian and the author of several books on Orthodox Christianity. In 2013, he published En attendant le Concile de l’Église orthodoxe (Paris: Cerf), which has been translated into Ukrainian and Russian, and Qu’est-ce que l’orthodoxie? (Paris: Gallimard) which is soon to be published in English). In October 2012, he organized with Peter de Mey and Michel Stavrou an international colloquium under the auspices of the St. Sergius Orthodox Theological Institute and the Centre for Ecumenical Research of the Catholic University of Leuven, in partnership with the Orthodox theological review Contacts and the Collège des Bernardins, entitled “The Forthcoming Council of the Orthodox Church: Understanding the Challenges.” The texts of the colloquium have appeared in Contacts 243 (July-September 2013) and SVTQ 60: 1-2 (2016).