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Mark Stokoe: On the Great and Holy Council, the OCA, and the Future

Thirty-one years ago this summer, the World Fellowship of Orthodox Youth, SYNDESMOS, invited scores of young people from around the globe to the Orthodox Academy of Crete, located in a small village in western Crete, named Kolymbari, for the inaugural World Festival of Orthodox Youth. After five days of fellowship, prayer, and discussion on the theme of the then-forthcoming "Great and Holy Council," the young people wrote an "Open Letter" to the bishops of the Orthodox Church that did not so much offer answers, as ask questions about the mission of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world.

One Orthodox bishop actually replied. His words still resonate with all who read them: “The Church,” Metropolitan Anthony (Bloom) wrote, ”must be everywhere Christ would have been....We must go into darkness of the world, into the twilight of the world. Where there is suffering, we must be there—and be Christ’s compassion. Where there is sin, we must be there—and be the salt of the earth that saves it from corruption. Where there is evil, we must take it into ourselves, and fight it, and overcome it...You must understand that [the Church’s] place is not where it is safe. Our place is where things are evil, where things need salvation.”

Two years ago, the Ecumenical Patriarch announced that the Great and Holy Council would, at last, be held in June 2016 at the Church of Holy Peace (Hagia Irene) in Istanbul, site of the Second Ecumenical Council in 381. However, recent conflicts between Turkey and Russia have forced the Patriarchate to find an alternative site outside of Turkey, so that the Russians may participate. Call it synchronicity, call it serendipity, but the Patriarch has chosen to invite scores of Orthodox bishops to hold the Great and Holy Council of 2016 in the Orthodox Academy of Crete in Kolymbari, the very same place where SYNDESMOS so fruitfully discussed it, so many years ago.

Mutatis Mutandis

Originally envisioned in 1961 on the model of the forthcoming Second Vatican Council, that is, as a worldwide gathering of all Orthodox hierarchs, the “Great and Holy Council” has been scaled back to a smaller gathering of representative bishops from each Orthodox Church, each delegation to be led by their Primate. In 1961, Constantinople wanted to invite all Orthodox bishops to attend—seeing as how Greek titular bishops from non-existent dioceses dominated the Orthodox hierarchy. In 2016, however, as there are more actual diocesan bishops in just the Russian Church alone than the entire Greek hierarchy, titulars and all, Constantinople felt, mutatis mutandis, full conciliarity should give way to more limited synodality.

Unfortunately, it is unclear whether all invited will in fact attend. The Synaxis of Primates in Chambesy in January was held without primates of several local Churches. The Patriarch of Antioch and Archbishop of Warsaw cited ill health as their reason for not attending. The Archbishop of Athens did not attend, as he explained it, “...due to recent actions of Constantinople that undermine the authority and reputation of the Church of Greece.” All these Churches were represented by delegations of lesser bishops, and the Antioch delegation would not participate in the Liturgy because of the interruption of ecclesiastical communion with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. The two Churches are at odds over money in Qatar. Since no resolution of this conflict seems to be in sight, the Patriarch of Antioch or his delegation may not attend Kolymbari—not because of the civil war raging in Syria, but because the Patriarch of Jerusalem and his delegation will still be present.

The primates and bishops of several other Orthodox Churches were simply not invited. No hierarchs from the Church of Finland or the Orthodox Church in America—the only indigenous churches in the West—were asked to attend. The Great and Holy Council organized by Constantinople in the third millennium appears to have the same problems as those it organized in the first: money, political power, questions of prestige, and a fear of barbarians. The Ecumenical Patriarchate argues that the importance of the Great and Holy Council of 2016 lies not in the number of bishops attending, or where they may be from, mutatis mutandis, but in the fact that the Council itself is finally  being held.

Barba Crescit Caput Nescit

The original 10 agenda items for the Great and Holy Council adopted in 1976 have been reduced for the meeting which will take place in 2016. Only those topics on which a prepared statement could be agreed to in advance, and agreed to unanimously, will be allowed to be discussed. A less pentecostal or charismatic gathering of bishops can hardly be imagined. So, mutatis mutandis, several topics have been tabled sine die, since, in 40 years of discussion, no consensus could be reached on questions of autocephaly, the diptychs, the calendar, or relations with other Christians.

Consensus has been reached on the following agenda items: fasting, about which there was never any debate; the diaspora, although no non-Greek bishops from the diaspora were actually invited to join the discussions; autonomy, although no bishops from any autonomous churches were invited to participate; and marriage, although only celibate bishops were able to discuss the issue. The way forward is apparently ever so much clearer when there is no one with actual experience in the discussion.

This was never more evident that in the statement the bishops will publish regarding the only other question on the table at Kolymbari, "The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World"—the same question Orthodox young people were asking there 30 years ago. The Great and Holy Council of 2016, composed largely of bishops from authoritarian states in Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, and the Middle East, has agreed to affirm that “ carrying out her salutary mission, the Church again reminds the world that almost all challenges and problems of modern society are caused by the fact that people are forgetting God’s law, loosing moral guidelines, and have distorted views on human freedom, dignity and justice." After 1200 years, truly, the beard grows, but the head grows no wiser.  

Mirabile dictu

Does this mean that Orthodox Americans and Orthodox in the Americas should ignore the Great and Holy Council of 2016, even as it ignores all of us and the world we live in? Nothing said in Kolymbari is likely to materially affect the OCA—or the world, for that matter. Yet Kolymbari cannot be ignored. Its importance for the OCA and its future lies not in what those bishops have agreed to say in June, but in what already happened in March.  

Last February, Metropolitan Tikhon, Primate of the OCA, received an unexpected, last-minute invitation to visit Istanbul to concelebrate the Sunday of Orthodoxy. The OCA, with remarkable decorum, posted only a personal e-note from the Metropolitan, describing the liturgical celebrations but eschewing the whys, hows, and wherefores of this singular and unprecedented invitation. No previous Primate of the OCA had officially visited the Phanar, let alone publicly concelebrated the Divine Liturgy, on the Sunday of Orthodoxy itself, nonetheless. (Canonical-naysayers of the OCA take note!)

In fact, the Phanar, recognizing that its Great and Holy Council is less significant than it had hoped, has begun to realize that its plans for the “Assembly of Canonical Bishops of the United States” are also fatefully flawed. It is too late to do something about the former matter this time around, but the latter might still be able to move forward if things change. From this acknowledgement came the recognition that the OCA might be the only real ally Constantinople has in regards to Orthodox unity and progress in North America. Hence the quiet invitation to Met. Tikhon—who went to Istanbul armed with 45+ years of OCA-Phanar archival correspondence to help re-kindle the relationship.

It may have worked.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate is reported to be seriously mulling over whether to invite the OCA to Kolymbari as “Observers.” The OCA is seriously mulling over whether to accept if asked, since the handful of invited “Observers” will only be allowed to “observe” the opening and closing liturgies, not the sessions themselves. It’s a long flight just to watch a Liturgy. But even if the OCA does not “Observe” this Council, it will surely be at the next “Great and Holy” Council, planned for the next decade—and perhaps not just as “Observers”.  

Mirabile dictu, the insignificance of the Great and Holy Council of 2016 may have provided an opening for rapprochement between the OCA and the Ecumenical Patriarchate—a rapproachment which a more meaningful Great and Holy Council (one that actually discussed issues like Autocephaly) could not have accomplished.  

At the very least, the Great and Holy Council of 2016 has forced Constantinople and Syosset to come out of the trenches, if only for tea. (No, really, they all had tea.) Given the long, sad history of Orthodoxy in the 20th Century and its dolorous history already in the 21st, celebrating the Divine Liturgy together and having tea afterwards is a small step forward. That, more than anything else, is what the young people of SYNDESMOS were seeking in Kolymbari in 1985. Call that Providence.

Mark Stokoe was the Secretary General of SYNDESMOS and more recently the Editor of