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15 June 2016
The title of the 1970 film, “Suppose They Gave a War and Nobody Came,” has recently morphed into the question “what if they called a Great and Holy Synod and nobody came?”
Since 1961, there has been talk among the 14 autocephalous (or independent) Orthodox churches, comprising some 300 million people, about the possibility and necessity of a meeting — a Pan-Orthodox Council or, more formally, a Great and Holy Synod. The obstacles to convening a synod of the Orthodox churches have been many and sometimes great. But, finally, after decades of negotiating and tumultuous change in the lands of most of these churches, a synod was planned for June 2016. The original venue was scheduled to be in Istanbul, the seat of the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople, but that was unacceptable to the patriarch of Moscow of the Orthodox Church of Russia. Instead, the synod is to take place in Crete from 19 to 26 June.
The idea of a synod of all the Orthodox churches began in 1961 with Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. While the ecumenical patriarch is recognized as the “first among equals” in the Orthodox communion of churches, he has no authority over those churches that are fully independent. Consequently, issues of leadership surface, raised especially by those Orthodox churches backed by powerful civil governments.
While synods of bishops generally govern each of the independent Orthodox churches, meeting at least annually, the Orthodox world has little experience with general councils: Occasional synods and councils, with varying degrees of participation and canonical recognition among the churches, stretch back to Nicaea in the year 787, when the last of the universally recognized ecumenical councils was convoked by the emperor of the Romans.
The proposed Great and Holy Synod has been compared in the media — especially in the West — with the Catholic Church’s Vatican II. In actuality nothing could be further from the truth. Should the synod take place, each of the 14 churches will be a full and equal member — there is no emperor or pope to convene and preside. And no single individual will approve the decrees of the synod; they are accepted or rejected by unanimous consensus.
A gathering of Orthodox leaders — a Synaxis of Prelates — met in January 2016 and set six issues on the synodal agenda: ecumenism, marriage, fasting, autonomy of churches, the diaspora and mission. But there is little unanimity on any of the topics. Ecumenism is a major issue of contention. Some Orthodox churches do not consider any other Christian body to be a valid church. These churches do not recognize the baptism or other sacraments of other Christians. Marriage between an Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian, even if the non-Orthodox individual is a baptized Christian, is forbidden. Other Orthodox churches are more open in their acceptance. At present there is clearly no consensus.
Deep theological issues, however, are not the only obstacles to the synod. There are conflicts among several of the Orthodox churches. Almost all of the objections can and are articulated in theological terms, making dialogue and compromise more difficult.
At present, five of the 14 autocephalous churches — Antioch, Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Georgia — have indicated they will not attend. The patriarch of Antioch has broken communion with the patriarch of Jerusalem, who has appointed a bishop in Qatar, traditionally the territory of the patriarch of Antioch. Thus the Orthodox Church of Antioch, one of the first patriarchates and the third most in importance, will not participate in the synod. The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria has decided not to attend the synod because, among other things, it was not happy with the seating arrangements.
For an outsider this is a tragedy. The world has changed since Athenagoras first proposed a pan-Orthodox synod. One of the greatest strengths of Orthodoxy has been its ability to enculturate and adapt to the culture where it lives. While that is still of great value in the homelands of Orthodoxy, it proves an anomaly in the diaspora. More and more Orthodox Christians are living in the “New World,” which is culturally, linguistically and philosophically very different from the homelands of these churches. Almost every Orthodox Church is represented, for example, in North America. Very often they have little to do with other Orthodox churches in their area — despite being in full communion. As they lose contact with the ancient homeland, they run the risk of becoming ghettoized in the new world, isolated from the home church and also isolated from each other.
It is an open question whether the Great and Holy Synod will take place and, if it does, whether it will have any impact on Orthodoxy in particular and Christianity in general. It is not an open question whether the Great and Holy Synod is necessary. It is very necessary if Orthodoxy is to remain an integral part of the modern, globalized world.
Tags: Ecumenism Christian Unity Orthodox