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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.