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Message of the Holy & Great Council of the Orthodox Church

To God, "the Father of mercies and all comfort," we address a hymn of thanksgiving and praise for having enabled us to gather during the week of Pentecost (18–26 June 2016) on Crete, where the Apostle Paul and his disciple Titus preached the Gospel in the early years of the life of the Church. We give thanks to the Triune God who was well pleased that in one accord we should bring to a conclusion the work of the Holy and Great Council that was convoked by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew by the common will of their Beatitudes the Primates of the local Orthodox Autocephalous Churches.

Encyclical of the Holy & Great Council of the Orthodox Church

With a hymn of thanksgiving, we praise and worship God in Trinity, who has enabled us to gather together during the days of the feast of Pentecost here on the island of Crete, which has been sanctified by St. Paul, the Apostle to the Gentiles, and his disciple Titus, his “true son in the common faith” (Tit 1.4), and, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to conclude the sessions of this Holy and Great Council of our Orthodox Church—convened by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, by the common will of Their Beatitudes the Primates of the most holy Orthodox Churches—for the glory of His most holy Name and for the great blessing of His people and of the whole world, confessing with the divine Paul: “Let people then regard us thus: as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God” (1 Cor 4.1).

Address of His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus to the Holy and Great Council

The fulfillment of the dream, in which the Orthodox people of God have cradled and nourished their hope, causes every Orthodox person, and especially us pastors, to rejoice: because it not only stimulates inter-Orthodox relations, but also puts forward the credible witness of the Orthodox Church to the modern-day pressing problems of the human being and the world.

THE WHEEL EXCLUSIVE: Gayle Woloschak interviews Archdeacon John Chryssavgis at the Holy Council

THE WHEEL EXCLUSIVE: Gayle Woloschak interviews Archdeacon John Chryssavgis at the Holy Council

During the Holy & Great Council, The Wheel secured an exclusive interview with the Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne, theological advisor to the Ecumenical Patriarch, and Director of the Press Office of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the Council. Fr. John was interviewed on the island of Crete by Dr. Gayle E. Woloschak, who has written for The Wheel and sits on the journal’s Advisory Board. She participated in the work of the Press Office at the Council.

Press Briefing: Day Two

No official Summary of today's business at the Holy & Great Council has yet been released, and it now seems unlikely that one will be, since it is nearly midnight in Crete.

Archived vides of live broadcasts from the Council (including the concelebrated Primatial Divine Liturgy for Pentecost, full coverage of the open first session of the Council, and the daily Press Briefings) are now being posted on the Holy Council YouTube channel. In lieu of a printed Summary, here is the video of the Press Briefing for Day Two, which began today at 3.30pm GMT+3 (8.30am EDT):

Vasily Chernov: In Absentia

One has to accept that, while the councils remain a crucial element of the Orthodox tradition, within that tradition there is a plethora of incompatible ideas of what a council is and how it works. Recently there has been much scandal around the Pan-Orthodox Council, arising from a desire for it to work as a picture-perfect church event. That may well also be a factor in the ROC’s decision, because, for Moscow, it is the glorious appearance that matters—and now this will not appear! According to Protodeacon Andrei Kuraev, a well-known Russian religious blogger, “the council, which had been intended as a PR-project ‘triumph of Orthodoxy,’ in fact reveals our shame. We lack unity. We lack theology. We lack courage to face our problems, to name them, and to seek to solve them. It is no longer a matter of diplomacy or mass media. The Council crisis is a theological issue. Who are we?” Indeed, if understandings of conciliarity turn out to be so different between churches, can we any longer view the Orthodox Church as a single entity?

Summary of Press Briefing: Day One


Q: You mentioned inner problems of the respective churches that caused them to stay at home. What kind of inner problems did you have in mind?

A: This is a good question because here we do not understand their absence. Their absence is not linked with the documents we will be addressing at the council. This question has to be addressed to them. But definitely we are sad that they are not here to discuss with us the documents that they have signed.

Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania.   PHOTO: © JOHN MINDALA.

Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Durrës and All Albania. 


Q: In his introductory speech, his Archbishop of Albania made the statement that consensus —about which we are talking a lot recently — is a new way of addressing the questions and the resolutions.

A: This is an issue on which I cannot give you a clear answer.

Q: On Friday, the Russian patriarch described the synaxis as a meeting, not a council. What does this mean for the reception of the council?

A: I am not a spokesperson of the Russian Orthodox Church, so I cannot explain their position. What I can say is that the primates this morning expressed their joy that this event is what we have been waiting for, and we finally we got it in order to discuss the issues that we are concerned with. We are here to discuss among ourselves the problems we have to address. Many of them expressed their hope that this council will be followed not only by the process of its reception by the whole orthodox world but also will become a new institution that will gather on a regular basis. We have had councils that were not attended by all the churches. An Ecumenical Council gathered without the presence of the Church of Antioch. Nevertheless, the council was later received as the Third Ecumenical Council. In 1872, a pan-orthodox council gathered in Constantinople with the absence of the churches of Russia and Bulgaria at this council. We hope that this Holy and Great Council will initiate a new process of the Orthodox Church. We need it on an internal level and on a worldwide level.

Q: Has there been communication with the churches over the last few days, if not written communication, communication by telephone?

A: As the Ecumenical Patriarch reminded us this morning, all have been participating in the preparation of the Holy and Great Council until the very last moment. And all have sent delegations and booked hotels in Crete. Their decision to be absent was made at the very last moment. After the last Synaxis of the Primates, invitations were sent to the four churches that have been saying they will not participate. Two of them have answered and those answers were read this morning at the opening session. Two of them have not answered.

The Primates of the Local Orthodox Churches and their delegations participate in the opening session of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church at the Orthodox Academy of Crete. PHOTO: © POLISH ORTHODOX CHURCH/JAROSLAW CHARKIEWICZ.

The Primates of the Local Orthodox Churches and their delegations participate in the opening session of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church at the Orthodox Academy of Crete. PHOTO: © POLISH ORTHODOX CHURCH/JAROSLAW CHARKIEWICZ.

Q: Do you have information if the council is going to discuss the Ukraine issue?

A: The Synaxis of Primates which took place in Geneva has appointed the agenda of the council. This is the agenda the council is following. The Ukrainian issue is not on the agenda.

Q: You mentioned four churches are absent and they represent 170 million followers. Should we continue calling this a pan-orthodox council or not?

A: No other institution has the right to change a pan-orthodox decision. In order to change a pan-orthodox decision, you have to have consent. This is the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. This is the official name of this gathering.

Q: Will the right to speak be simply confined to the primates? Or will the bishops have the possibility of speaking?

A: The regulations of the Holy and Great Council are very clear on that. You can read the regulations 11 and 12 on that issue. All the bishops present as delegates have the right to speak at the council. Since the 14 churches have to find consensus between them, each church should express their own consensus and therefore the votes will be made by consensus.

Q: Is it possible to call this a pan-orthodox synod because it’s giving a message of hope and humanity to the whole world?

A: The aim of this Holy and Great Council is to address the issues that are relevant to the Orthodox Church today. This is why the churches are gathered

Homily by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Concelebration of the Divine Liturgy of Pentecost

Homily by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, Chairman of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, at the Concelebration of the Divine Liturgy in the Metropolitan Church of St. Minas in Heraklion, Crete, with their Beatitudes, the Primates of the Holy Orthodox Churches

Sunday of Pentecost, June 19, 2016

Your Beatitudes, Holy Brother Primates of the local Orthodox Churches, Theodoros of Alexandria, John of Antioch, Theophilos of Jerusalem, Kirill of Moscow, Irinej of Belgrade, Daniel of Bucharest, Neophyte of Bulgaria, Ilia of Georgia, Chrysostomos of Cyprus, Ieronymos of Athens, Sawa of Warsaw, Anastasios of Tirana, and Rastislav of Prešov, together with Your honorable delegations,

Your Excellency Mr. President of the Hellenic Republic,

Your Eminence Archbishop Irenaios of Crete, together with the Most Reverend and beloved brothers who, together with you, comprise the Holy Eparchial Synod of the Church of Crete,

Most Reverend and Right Reverend holy brothers,

Blessed Orthodox Clergy and Laity from all across the world,

A joyful day has now dawned, in which we celebrate the historic manifestation of the institution of the Church, which is constituted by the Holy Spirit, and we Orthodox brothers, who represent all the local Orthodox Autocephalous Churches, have gathered together in a liturgical assembly, so that we may carry out the duty and responsibility of the one Orthodox Church to the people and to the world today, by convening our Holy and Great Council.

Today is a day of unity, as we are all united in the faith and the sacraments through our liturgical gathering in one place and have come together “in the breaking of the Bread.” The Holy Eucharist truly reaffirms the unity and catholicity of our Orthodox Church.

His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew concelebrates the Divine Liturgy of Pentecost with the Primates of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches at St. Menas Cathedral in Heraklion, Crete. © 2016 JAROSLAW CHARKIEWICZ.

His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew concelebrates the Divine Liturgy of Pentecost with the Primates of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches at St. Menas Cathedral in Heraklion, Crete. © 2016 JAROSLAW CHARKIEWICZ.

The event of Pentecost, which took place in Jerusalem, marked the Church’s starting point in its historical journey and laid the foundations for the sanctification of human history in its entirety. The Apostles and the three thousands Christians who were baptized by them at that time comprised the first Church, which is a theanthropic reality of Christ, present in all of its members. Today, we, too, are filled with the same inspiration from the tongues of fire – from the Holy Spirit – and we are one Church, one body, even though we come from different ethnic, linguistic, and cultural traditions. Christ the God-man, the “firstborn among many brethren” (cf. Rom. 8:29), is present in each of our members.

Today, the fulfillment of the purpose of Divine Economy in its totality is taking place. Because, at Pentecost and after Pentecost, “God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 5:5). There is one Christ and we are all His joints and members: “All these are inspired by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills” (1 Cor. 12:11).

Through our distinctness, each Orthodox Church, as well as every faithful Orthodox Christian, are joined to one body, each with his own gifts, over which we should not look to others with suspicion or anger, but rejoice as if they were our own: “The treasure that my brother acquires … I possess also,” proclaims Macarius of Egypt (Spiritual Homilies 3, 2, ΒΕΠΕΣ [Library of Greek Fathers and Ecclesiastical Authors], 41, p. 156).

Every local Orthodox Church has its own treasure and offers it to Christ. The eye cannot say to the hand “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet. Within the Church, there is no individual local Church that does not hold significance in its own right, so as to enable the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church not to be in need of each and every one of its members, nor can one member exist independently and absolutely sovereign, as is being attempted by those outside of the Church; especially during these last days. The Orthodox Church Militant, most honorable brothers, which is present on earth, perpetually continues the “upper room” of Pentecost, our local Churches, which are represented by all of us here today. We represent the mystical body of Christ, which extends unto the ages and delivers the human race from manifold suffering and impasses, and we are united with the Church Triumphant, fulfilling God’s dispensation and unifying the earthly with the heavenly (see the Kontakion of the feast of the Ascension). This is precisely the mission of our Orthodox Church.

At the same time, today is a day of crying out to the gracious Paraclete to come and abide in us and keep us in Its Truth and Its sanctification, as stated by our Lord during his agonizing prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane. This entreaty of our Lord, which is fulfilled here on this great day of Pentecost, is and remains the primary request of all humanity in a divided world that is full of strife, and which thirsts for unity, on behalf of which the Son of God gave up Himself so that all of us may have life, and that we may have it more abundantly.

Our Orthodox Church has the supreme gift and blessing of possessing the treasure of truth and preserving intact the gift of the All-Holy Spirit, which “has filled the whole world” (Wis. 1:7), and it is obliged to give the contemporary world a testimony of love and unity, and to reveal the hidden hope that lies within it. Of course, we do not boast over the truth of our Church. We sense its singular splendor, but also our own personal weakness and unworthiness. However, this is not enough when it remains on a theoretical level. It behooves a response on the practical level, where, unfortunately, we are greatly lacking.

The Lord began His preaching to the world by calling on the people to repent. The work of a Christian throughout the duration of his life is repentance. We, the leaders of the Church, especially, are obliged to provide a good example and embrace the entirety of the truth which we have received; because our opponent tries to scatter misguided ideas in our hearts which negate the truth of our faith. Those fellow men and women of ours who are misled about the truth spread these misguided ideas, which appear novel and worthy of attention, and often manage to lure away a good amount of faithful through the repeated skillful presentation of these ideas. For this reason, we Bishops ought to gather together to discuss the matters that are confronting the Orthodox Church at different times and throughout the world, so as to adopt the appropriate measures to protect the faithful from the prevailing errors. Especially in our time, there is a very large number of errors that are circulating, and the arguments used by the deceivers are particularly sophisticated, which means that a coordinated effort on the part of the shepherds of the Orthodox Church is required in order to inform the faithful. The number of religious factions that are attempting to lead the Orthodox faithful astray are in the hundreds. The discussions and exchange of related experiences on the manner in which to counter the methods of the aforementioned organizations during the Council will have much to offer to the Orthodox Church.

The Lord of the Orthodox Church, Who is “the same yesterday, today and forever,” worked with us so that we could reach today’s historic moment of the Holy and Great Council, this liturgical Gathering, and communion from one Common Cup. Regardless of our different opinions, we Orthodox Christians ought to point out that the only road on our course in this world is unity. Of course, this road demands a living sacrifice, much work, and is achieved after great struggle. It is certain that this Council of ours will contribute towards this direction by creating a climate of mutual trust and understanding through our meeting in the Holy Spirit and through an edifying and sincere dialogue.

The unity of the Orthodox Church and its faithful represents our mission. It is followed by the testimony of our Church, so that the world may see “its good works” – our good works – shining brightly, be refreshed, and glorify “our Father who is in heaven.” Our ecclesial unity does not take on the form of a federation, nor does it stem from the congregating around some mortal figure. It proceeds from and is made complete by our common faith, which is synonymous with salvation, with eternal life. “And this is eternal life,” to know the Father and Him whom He sent, Jesus Christ, the King of kings and Lord of lords, as he is depicted in our Orthodox Iconography as well.

His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew concelebrates the Divine Liturgy of Pentecost with the Primates of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches at St. Menas Cathedral in Heraklion, Crete. © 2016 JOHN MINDALA.

His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew concelebrates the Divine Liturgy of Pentecost with the Primates of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches at St. Menas Cathedral in Heraklion, Crete. © 2016 JOHN MINDALA.

Your Beatitudes, Holy brethren,

Your Excellency Mr. President of the Hellenic Republic,

Blessed Orthodox Christians, clergy, monastics, and people everywhere under the heavens,

We are convinced – and we proclaim at this historic moment from the altar of the Metropolitan Cathedral of the Island of Crete, which is an extension of the one belonging to the Holy and Great Church of Christ, the church of the Haghia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), Haghia Irene (Holy Peace), and Haghia Dynamis (Holy Might); that is, the Holy Synthrone of John Chrysostom, Gregory the Theologian, and Photios the Great – that only in unity and by living out our Orthodoxy as an experience of faith and life is it possible to navigate through the modern world’s dramatic history and give a testimony of salvation to those both near and far.

Setting aside the problems that arise from our different ethnic backgrounds, we beseech the descent of the Paraclete upon all of us as well, so that illuminated by Him – by the “Light and Life, and living fountain of reason; by the Spirit of wisdom, the Spirit of understanding … the Spirit of sovereignty and the Spirit that expiates sins; the God Who deifies” (cf. sticheron for the vespers of Pentecost) – we may issue a message of truth, genuineness, and hope all across today’s world, which thirsts, and our Churches as an institution and we as persons may reaffirm that we are precious vessels.

The Holy Spirit unites us in the Church through the “bond of perfection and love, and is expressed and borne witness to by the persons of the Holy Trinity, which is of one nature, but reveals itself in three persons. Similarly, the Orthodox Church is One, but reveals itself in the world through its individual local vines, which are unbreakably and indivisibly attached to one – to one Church, to one body.

Brothers, fathers and children, today the totality of our Holy Orthodox Church is represented here in Crete: “we have seen the true light; we have received the heavenly Spirit; we have found the true faith, worshipping the undivided Trinity, for the Trinity has saved us.” Therefore, we bless the Lord of Mercy and Compassions, and every supplication with one voice and one heart, for He is “the source of our existence, our breath, our understanding, our knowledge of God, the Holy Spirit and the Father Who is without beginning, and His only begotten Son … the One Who gave us to comprehend the beauty of heaven, the sun in its course, the orb of the moon, the order of the stars and the harmony and different movements that prevail among them … the turning hours, the changing seasons, the flowing air, the cycle of years … our hope of gaining the heavenly kingdom, equality of honor with the angels, the contemplation of glory.”

To this All-Holy Spirit, which brings to perfection all good things, and today’s concelebration, and the testimony of our Orthodox Church to the entire world in and through this Holy and Great Council of ours, to It, together with the Father and the Son, do we dutifully offer praise, now and forever, and unto the ages of ages. Amen.

Reception of His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch and of the Primates of the Holy Orthodox Churches, at the square of the Saint Titus Cathedral

His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Primates of the Holy Orthodox Churches were warmly welcomed, this afternoon, by a large crowd of faithful, the representatives of the Greek government and the local authorities, as they arrived at the square of Saint Titus Cathedral in Heraklion.  His All-Holiness, expressed joy on behalf of himself and of the Primates of the Holy Orthodox Churches, for the enthusiastic reception by the people of the glorious island of Crete.  He also added that “the Holy and Great Council that is about to begin is called upon to give solutions to internal problems of Orthodoxy and convey the message of its truth to the modern world that is in conflict. All of us church leaders fervently pray that the voice of the Council shall be the voice of the invisible God. Only then will the Council provide support to the people.”

His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presides over the Doxology and Vespers of Pentecost at the Church of St. Titus in Heraklion, Crete. PHOTOS: Copyright: John Mindala.

His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew presides over the Doxology and Vespers of Pentecost at the Church of St. Titus in Heraklion, Crete. PHOTOS: Copyright: John Mindala.

In his greeting to His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the Primates of the Holy Orthodox Churches, the Mayor of Heraklion, Mr. Vassilios Lambrinos, said that the Holy and Great Council, which is being held in Crete, represents the culmination of decades of preparation and is expected to “present the opportunity for the perpetual values of the faith to be manifested, meeting our obligation to expand the mission of Orthodoxy in the contemporary world.”

His Beatitude Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa, Theodoros, upon his arrival at the Cathedral Church of Saint Titus, stated: "My children, I am one your own, I am a part of you, and I am again in the beloved Crete.  I come from Africa and I bring a message of unity and love, and I am traverse around the world to preach justice and peace.  I am happy that I am in my native place, and from Monday on when the Holy and Great Council commences, my voice will be a voice of love and unity for all churches, for the people of the world to find courage in their difficulties."

Pneumatophobia: The Orthodox Church in the Wake of the Great and Holy Council

Fire Extinguishers in the Cenacle

On June 13th 2016, it became clear that the celebration of Pentecost will be smeared with the unconcealed manifestation of disunity and rupture in the Orthodox Church, which is evidently unable to come together for the long-expected Holy and Great Council. Four local churches—first the Bulgarians, then the Antiochians, the Georgians, and finally the Russians—have decided not to take part in the Council which is due to open on the day of Pentecost on the island of Crete. Of course, it was expected and long-predicted that one or two local churches (namely the Georgians and Bulgarians) would not want to participate in the Council or at least refuse to ratify its decisions. The reality turned out to be far more devastating. Four Patriarchates, which encompass the numerical majority of the Orthodox population worldwide, have refused to attend and acknowledge their previous agreement on the date and place of the Council. The grand, beautiful vision of fourteen autocephalous churches coming together, concelebrating the Divine Liturgy, and hosting the Great and Holy Council on the Day of Pentecost, is mercilessly shattered. Now the Orthodox are left to deal with the scandal of division, disappointment, political speculation, and utmost disgrace. Now the world sees that the ecclesial body which claims to be “the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” cannot properly manifest its unity; that the “Church of the Councils” has neither the courage nor the ability to properly come together for a Council, which it spent more than half a century preparing. It is as if on the first day of Pentecost, a number of the apostles grabbed fire extinguishers and put out the descending fiery tongues of the Holy Spirit…either for safety reasons, or from the desire to ask the Lord for more time, so that all eleven disciples might come to a consensus regarding this mystical act of God.

If the Russian, Georgian, and Bulgarian Synods had made their decisions regarding the Council earlier (for example in January or February of 2016, after the last Pre-Conciliar Meeting in Chambesy), the argument that Constantinople is not listening to the protests of its sister churches would have made sense. But that did not happen. The decisions to abstain from the Council were made less than a few weeks before the agreed start date: a decision that can be seen as direct, intentional sabotage. This, of course, does not apply to the Church of Antioch, which has been openly protesting the situation in Qatar for more than two years, and directly warning the other sister churches that, if the crisis and schism with Jerusalem is not healed, it would not participate in the Council. Then again, the Antioch-Jerusalem schism brings to mind a simple question: is a jurisdictional feud over a tiny group of parishioners in Qatar really a proper cause for one of the greatest local churches, with its ancient monasteries and communities, its present-day martyrdom, its missionary efforts, its huge diaspora, not to participate in the Holy and Great Council?

    One can be appalled by the way the Russian media has concentrated exclusively on the position of the Council’s opponents: the Bulgarian and Georgian Synods, hierarchs of the Moscow Patriarchate and the Church of Greece, the Antiochians, and the Serbs. Meanwhile, the addresses of two outstanding missionaries and hierarchs, Pope Theodore II of Alexandria and Archbishop Anastasius of Albania, who called their fellow primates and bishops to take part in the Council, have been utterly ignored. As far as I know, they have not even been translated into Russian and did not receive any attention in Russian-language media and websites. The same can be said of a similar address made by Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus, who is also one of the Council’s proponents.

The Reality of Division: Greek Papism and Slavonic Sobornost’

It is becoming clear that the Ecumenical Patriarch will now become the main target of criticism, lies, slander, and accusations of “Eastern papism.” Of course, it is not the first time this has happened. And it is well known how popular such attitudes are in Russia, and how much support they receive from the church and state. Yet, before condemning His All-Holiness Bartholomew for “papal” ambitions, one would recommend the critics at least to look through the vast corpus of administrative documents and statutes of various diocese, parishes, and monasteries of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It will be quickly evident that neither the Patriarch, nor other hierarchs of the Ecumenical Throne, have the right to transfer bishops, abbots, and priests from place to place (without the approval of the synod, the clergy, and the laity), or to retain complete, dictatorial freedom from all forms of financial and administrative accountability. Meanwhile, the latter is perfectly applicable to the modern condition of the Russian Church, where the Patriarch can freely and unilaterally transfer a bishop from diocese to diocese, and the bishop can likewise transfer a priest from parish to parish, and be absolutely free from any obligation of accountability before the clergy and laity. Such local, administrative “papism” currently seen in the Moscow Patriarchate has no rival or analogy in the Greek Orthodox world. That is why Russian ecclesiastical criticism of the Phanar’s alleged “papism” is questionable, to say the least.

One also hears a recurring statement that, with the withdrawal of the Russian, Bulgarian, Antiochian, and Georgian hierarchs, the Council will be left exclusively to the “Greeks.” But can we actually speak of “the Greeks” as some monolithic power or group within the Orthodox Church? Among the Greek-speaking clergy and laity, there is an incredible diversity of movements, groups, and opinions, ranging from the ultra-conservative to the ultra-ecumenical. And this diversity is evident in the arguments and theological debates at all levels—hierarchic, clerical, and lay. Had it not been for the Russian, Bulgarian, and Serbian Churches, who pushed for decision by consensus, the diversity of opinions could have found proper expression at the Council, in its debates and voting. Binding the Council with the consensus principle, then not showing up at all and blaming the Ecumenical Patriarch for not allowing the free expression of opinions and debates is a maneuver of which military and political leaders from all around the world could only dream. So when it comes to the criticism of the voting procedure and bylaws of the Council, the Russian and other Slavic churches are to blame as much as anyone: they were the ones who opted for consensus. Moreover, they have signed all of the Pre-Conciliar documents. But, from the Russian and Bulgarian point of view, it is the sly Greeks who are to blame…as always.

So, who will we see at the Council? Indeed, six of the ten expected Primates are Greek, by language and nationality. But again, one should take a look at how diverse these Greeks really are. Mount Athos and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem can rightly be seen as the centers of traditionalist (one might be tempted to say “canonical Old Calendarist”) Greek bishops, clerics, and monastics. The rather conservative Archbishop of Athens, Hieronymus II, is, on the other hand, forced to occupy the center and balance between the hierarchs loyal to the Ecumenical Throne and the numerous traditionalists and anti-ecumenists of the Church of Greece. Another “Greek” is Anastasius Yannoulatos, the Archbishop of Tirana, a legendary figure under whose pastoral guidance we saw the rebirth of the Orthodox mission in Kenya and the genuine resurrection of the Orthodox Church in Albania, which previously had literally been annihilated by the Communists. When referring to the presumed “Greek lobby” at the Council, it should be stated that Archbishop Anastasius is the only Greek in his synod: all other bishops of his local church and delegation are Albanian. Pope Theodore II and the bishops of the Patriarchate of Alexandria represent another group of “Greeks”—the ones that lead the unique missionary and humanitarian effort in Africa, the ones that are well known for their openness and preparation for genuine Christian dialogue with the world. The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria is the only local Church that can bring native African bishops to the Council. This racial issue is of primary importance, since it is a very important testimony to the fact that the Orthodox Church is in practice a Church that “makes disciples of all nations” and unites the episcopate, clergy, and parishioners of all backgrounds, nationalities, and races. It is hard to imagine a church claiming to be “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic,” with a universal ministry, when it is represented exclusively by a group of Eastern European men. As a side note, as far as we know, only two delegations have women among the consultants: the Churches of Constantinople and Albania. And it is also noteworthy that the decision, taken by a few bishops in the Russian Synod, blocked the Autonomous Orthodox Church of Japan (and the Japanese hierarchs) from attending the Council.

The “Greek” delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate includes several bishops from America, the great English theologian Metropolitan Kallistos Ware, and hierarchs who oversee numerous Finnish, Estonian, Russian, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian, and Korean dioceses and parishes. The inclusion of Metropolitan Stephanos (head of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church) and Metropolitan Antony (head of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA) most definitely served as another annoyance to the Russian Orthodox leaders. In light of the prevailing “Russian world” (Russkiy mir) ideology, the secular and ecclesiastical authorities are not at all happy with the idea that there could be (and are) canonical Russian, Estonian, and Ukrainian communities outside the Moscow Patriarchate’s jurisdiction. The presence of bishops of Russian, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian, Polish, Czech, and Slovakian dioceses do not allow us to say that the Council will be held only by the Greeks, or by Greeks and Romanians, without Slavs—especially now, in the light of the Serbian Church’s decision to participate in the Council on Crete. And of course, one should never underestimate the presence and participation of the Romanian Orthodox Church, which does not fit into the Greek vs. Slav polarity. Numerically the second largest local church, it has been one of the strongest supporters of the Great and Holy Council.

Objections from Moscow

But what arguments against the Council do we here from its opponents—namely, from the Russian Orthodox Church? First, all Orthodox churches must participate, otherwise it is not a Pan-Orthodox Council

One of the main hindrances to the participation in and acknowledgement of the Cretan Council of 2016, in the opinion of Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev (Chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Moscow Patriarchate) is that it requires the participation of all local churches. At first glance, this seems fair, but let’s us look into this argument. Are all local Churches bound to participate in the Holy and Great Council, or should they be invited to participate? All autocephalous churches (with the sad exception of the OCA) were invited to take an active part in both the Council and in all preparatory work, which lasted for half a century. Four local churches have refused to attend (three of which were the initiators of the consensus decision-making process to which the Council is now bound). So, can the Orthodox Church and its unity become hostage to those hierarchs that do not want to take part in the Council, who do not want to meet their brother-bishops face to face, and are reluctant to at least start an open, honest discussion of the numerous existing problems we face? In light of the Georgian and Bulgarian statements, that they stand on guard of the canons (a justification for their absence from the Council on Crete), one is tempted to remind the Georgian Synod of Canon 40 of the Council of Laodicea, which is quite strict towards those bishops that do not attend a council, when called to do so by their brother hierarchs. But then again, traditionalists are quite selective when it comes to their zealous keeping of the canons. Fervent in cases pertaining to interactions with non-Orthodox Christians, yet highly lenient and irenic towards themselves when it comes to questions of administrative unity, council attendance, discipline, and phyletism.   

Historically, the Church never stated that in order for the Council to take place, it requires the full attendance of all bishops or the representation of all Patriarchates and regions of the Christian world. The Fathers of the Church yearned to meet with their brothers and opponents, and for the guidance of the Holy Spirit, not for the arrival of those that were invited but were reluctant or unwilling to come. The majority of the councils, both ecumenical and local, included bishops primarily from the Balkan Peninsula and Asia Minor, that is from the dioceses and regions which were part of the Church of Constantinople. The Eastern Patriarchates (Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) and the Church of Rome were represented by much smaller delegations, sometimes exclusively by the apocrisiaries of their Primates. The Church of Georgia practically never had a proper delegation at the Byzantine-era Councils (with the exception of the infamous Council of Ferrara-Florence in 1439). And despite the fact that the decisions were made by voting on the principal of “one bishop, one vote,” and not by geopolitical blocks (each local Church has one vote), no one ever protested or wrote about the “hidden agenda” and “papal ambitions” of Constantinople, even though its representatives vastly outnumbered all others. The absence of numerous bishops, and even the delegations of entire local Churches, were not seen as a hindrance to a council being considered valid and even acknowledged as ecumenical. Thus, the Orthodox Church acknowledges the Council of Chalcedon (451) as the Fourth Ecumenical Council, despite the fact that the three churches of the Caucasus region (Armenia, Georgia, and Caucasian Albania) were not present, neither was the great Church of Alexandria, which refused to acknowledge its decrees. Moreover, Pope Dioscorus I of Alexandria was dethroned by the Fathers of the Council for not attending the sessions after being called three times, in accordance with the canons of the Council of Laodicea). This was exclusively a disciplinary decision, not a condemnation for some sort of heresy (the latter accusation was added to Dioscorus’s case much later, by Byzantine polemicists).

The story of Pope Dioscorus and the modern-day refusal of some of the hierarchs and synods to attend the Council on Pentecost raises another question: do three, or five, or seven, or ten primates and local churches have the right to consider another primate (or another synod) schismatic and out of communion for not attending a council to which all are gathering? Is there any form of disciplinary action that can be enforced, or some form of actual intervention that can be taken by the universal Church against one local patriarchate? Evidently, not. This is, unfortunately, quite a powerful testimony to the fact that today the Orthodox Church is indeed a confederation of many local (and sometimes national) churches, completely independent of one another, which retain the same essential faith and similar (but not identical) teachings and practices pertaining to the sacraments, canons, and holy Tradition.

From the Red Sea to the Baltic: Jurisdictional Conflicts

During the press conference following the Russian Synod’s decision to abstain from participation in the Council (June 13th 2016), Metropolitan Hilarion thought in necessary to remind the public that “several local churches have problems in their relations with other churches.” Following that statement, the Metropolitan named several such problems, all of jurisdictional nature. After several years of silence, we again hear of the good old battlegrounds on which the Russian Department of External Church Relations fought bravely, if not always effectively (usually losing members and communities), ceaselessly defending its “canonical territory” from the intervention of presumed the enemy. So, within a few days before the start of the Holy and Great Council, we not only hear about the Antioch-Jerusalem schism over the small community in Qatar, or about the conflict between the Romanian and Serbian Churches. Metropolitan Hilarion also reminded everyone that there are serious and unresolved conflicts between Moscow and Constantinople over Estonia, a similar Russian territorial dispute with the Romanian Church over Moldova, and the question of the OCA’s autocephaly not being universally recognized. As a side note, the Orthodox Church of America recently made a statement supporting the Ecumenical Patriarch’s vision and the idea of the Great and Holy Council (to which it is still not invited and is not expected to be—sadly and unfortunately). So the renewed Russian support for the OCA probably does not reflect the actual state of the latter’s relations with Moscow and the Phanar: the Orthodox Church in America retains an independent position, freely communicating with both the Ecumenical Throne and Moscow, and evidently not being dependent on Russian support.

Metropolitan Hilarion’s words on the jurisdictional conflicts and OCA remain underestimated and overlooked. Yet they may form the most potent hindrance to a Pan-Orthodox Council. Instead of gathering together and drafting the necessary documents on autocephaly, autonomy, marriage, mission, and relation of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world, various local churches must spend years on diplomatic meetings, trying to settle territorial disputes in Moldova, Estonia, and Qatar. It should also be stated that the Russian Orthodox Church —unhappy with interventions on its canonical territory in Estonia and Moldova—is not at all willing to even discuss the presence of Russian Patriarchal parishes in America and Finland, or the question of ROCOR and Georgian dioceses in the US, in light of Russian and Georgian recognition of OCA’s autocephaly and its canonical territory, or of parallel Russian and Greek jurisdictions now appearing in Cuba, due to Moscow’s intervention. The list can go on. If Estonia and Moldova are a problem (which they, indeed, are), then should not a Council also properly address the historic Russian Orthodox tendency to establish its jurisdiction on all territories under the sway of the Russian Empire, the U.S.S.R., and the Russian Federation? For the past four hundred years, this policy of the Russian Church and State led to drastic interference with the canons and jurisdictional takeovers in Georgia, Moldova, the Ukraine, Estonia, and even in present day France). So, is the Church really supposed to dedicate itself to the serious and objective settlement of these conflicts, in which neither jurisdiction will be willing to freely give over a patch of land, a single parish, and even less a historic shrine, to another patriarchate?

Pentecost of 2016: What’s Next?

The question, “Can the other ten Orthodox Churches still gather together for the Holy and Great Council?” finds only one answer: they can and they should. And, as we see, they will. The refusal of four patriarchates to accept the summons cannot be seen as a binding hindrance for those primates and bishops that want to meet, that want to manifest the unity of the Orthodox Church, and to at least initiate the long-expected conciliar process, seeking open deliberation with their brethren and invoking the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Some say this council will now not be truly “Pan-Orthodox.” Fine. Let it be known as the Council of Crete, but that does not mean that in a few decades it cannot actually be known and received by the faithful as the Great and Holy Council. It is still pan-Orthodox, not because all Orthodox took part, but because all were invited. And all that wanted to come and initiate the conciliar movement (rather than sit for more decades in preparatory commissions) had the chance to do so. It would be wise for the assembled primates to extend an invitation to the OCA, in place of those churches that did not show up, and to any Russian, Georgian, or Bulgarian bishop that will be willing to come. And even more so, to the Patriarch and the Church of Antioch. The schism between Antioch and Jerusalem can be settled in the Council, not necessarily before or after. Yes, the latter statements can be seen as utopia.

Even if we do not see all come together, we will at least see the documents drafted and authoritative comments on marriage, fasting, inter-Christian dialogue, and the “diaspora,” given by a Council of over 250 bishops and their advisors. We will hear the voice of ten local churches—that is, more than we have ever seen. One of the main issues that the Cretan Council might resolve is the question of the “diaspora”: the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Council can retain the Episcopal Assemblies in the Americas, Australia, and Western Europe, and reinforce their work. They can oblige the bishops of those regions to meet twice a year or more, and lead unified efforts in the missionary, charitable, and educational work of the Orthodox Church in the New World and outside the traditional canonical territories. Moreover, the Cretan Council can be seen as the first session in a number of councils, or in a single council that will span several months or years (like Trullo or Vatican II). Crete might be the first session, with the next one established in another place within several years or months. And the invitation to these Councils or sessions, and to the participation in their preparatory commissions, must be extended to all churches. Every time. Only such a conciliar movement, only a series of councils, might adequately manifest and enforce Orthodox unity, and re-establish the Orthodox Church as the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” in practice—the Church of the Councils. As the last decades have shown, there is no more time for delay. Not a year longer. The August 2008 war between Russia and Georgia, the war in the Ukraine, the recent schisms between Antioch and Jerusalem, Jerusalem and Romania, Romania and Serbia, have shown that Orthodox division and strife is a reality, a reality for which the Communist regime, the Ottomans, the Iron Curtain, and the Cold War cannot be blamed anymore. Division is in the Church itself. That is reason enough to support and pray for those, who have gathered together to manifest the unity and conciliarity of the Orthodox Church on the Feast of Pentecost, on the island of Crete in 2016.


Thus, on the eve of Pentecost of 2016, the Orthodox Church manifested its scandalous division and genuine fear of the conciliar process. This is, in fact, the third collapse of Orthodox unity and conciliarity in the past quarter of a century. First, in 1990, we saw a rupture during the Eastern Orthodox dialogue with the Oriental (non-Chalcedonian) Churches: when brilliant theological documents were drafted and were ready to be signed, the protest of several local churches (in both families) led to the disintegration of the entire dialogue. For the past 26 years, we have seen countless and quite inadequate two-party consultations between various local jurisdictions (Eastern and Oriental), with no proper conciliar dialogue between the two families, and with no progress being made. The second fallout came in 1994, when the only serious attempt at creating a local pan-Orthodox synod of bishops in North America (the famous Legionier Meeting) was crushed by the Mother Churches. Now, at Pentecost 2016, we see a strange, yet zealous desire of four local churches to not manifest our unity, and to do whatever it takes not to start the conciliar process. The yearning for ecclesial unity and conciliarity is superceded by the ideas of “consensus” and “the absence of all conflicts and contradictions.” The invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarch to join him at the Liturgy of Pentecost is met with either polite or impolite decline and accusations of “papism.”

The position of the local churches that will not take part in the Council of Crete can simply be called “synodophobia.” Or rather, “pneumatophobia”—fear of the Holy Spirit. It is a strange malady, a desire to continue living in their accustomed regional and geopolitical blocks and rivalries, to conduct innumerable consultations and pre-conciliar meetings, which resemble UN or G8 negotiations, rather than the meetings of bishops hailing from one Church and believing in the one Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. It is a desire to do whatever it takes to abstain from gathering together on Pentecost, and from calling their gathering a council. For, if we do manifest that we are bishops of one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church, gathered together for a council, we might extend our invitation to another delegate—the Holy Spirit—who, amidst the arguments and rivalries, will still guide the Council, as was done in the centuries past. The invocation of the Holy Spirit is a risk, for it may guide the Church through schism and division, through arguments and change, far beyond its comfort zone. Following the Spirit, losing adherents, meeting challenges from the “Left” and from the “Right,” giving up egos and one’s “position” (in jurisdiction, diptych, rank, politics, liturgical practice, treatment of the canons), is in fact more than many of the modern hierarchs can bare. Such perspectives cause nothing but fear and denial from many of the faithful. It is a genuine phobia of conciliarity and thus of the Holy Spirit. That is why this year the Cenacle is partially empty and the gathering of the Apostles’ successors on Pentecost is lacking many members. But let us retain our faith in the Holy Spirit, ask for its guidance, pray for those that come and those that will not come. And pray for the Holy and Great Council of Crete to start a new chapter, and mark a new beginning in the history of the Orthodox Church.

Sergei P. Brun is a Russian historian specializing in the history of the Latin East and the author of several articles, papers, and translations, as well as the two-volume monograph The Byzantines and the Franks in Antioch, Syria, and Cilicia (Moscow, 2015). Currently he is a research fellow and lecturer at the Museum of the Russian Icon in Moscow.