On the Pan-Orthodox Council

For those interested, my new piece on the forthcoming “Great and Holy Council” in Crete can be read over at First Things. Here’s an excerpt.

The Eastern Orthodox Church’s “Great and Holy Council,” which is set to begin in Crete on Sunday, June 19 (Eastern Pentecost), has been touted as Orthodoxy’s first “ecumenical council” in over a millennium. The facts on the ground are less grand. Despite nearly a century of on-and-off preparation, the Council has been at risk of derailment this month, as several members of Orthodoxy’s worldwide ecclesiastical confederacy have, for varying reasons, pulled out. The most striking defector is the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), the largest Orthodox jurisdiction in the world. But the absence of other historic churches, such as those of Antioch and Bulgaria, has left many asking whether the Council should proceed.

What is all the fuss about? There are several agenda items covering intra-Orthodox ecclesiastical governance that in theory should not be terribly concerning, but that nevertheless reveal deep divisions within Orthodoxy along ethnic and national lines.




  1. 123
    June 17, 2016

    I have also not seen anyone address the assertion that “”Orthodox church leaders haven’t held such a meeting since the year 787”. The news coverage of and PR around this Council is premised on that very claims, but is this true? I seem to remember a number of “the last… seven councils recognized by both Orthodox and Catholics” were not as broadly attended as the Council in Crete was envisioned to be. That is, are journalists using consistent measuring sticks in determining the importance of this and previous Councils, or are they accepting a PR line put forward by those with an agenda? Are large numbers of representatives from all Orthodox churches ‘necessary’ for this Council to be important? Do all Orthodox churches need to be present? Is a ‘broadly’ representative Council more authoritative than a more ‘narrowly’ representative Council, or is that a modern Western bias for democracy that may not find exact parallels in the ancient Orthodox Church? For that matter, has Orthodoxy always been structured as autocephalous (self-ruling) national churches where they would each have expected to have representation, or were historic Councils’ authority and ‘ecumenicity’ measured differently?

    A few examples of Councils that could claim broad representation among the Orthodox could include: the Synod of Jerusalem (1672) under Dositheos had 68 Eastern Orthodox bishops and ecclesiastics including some from Russia; a 1590 Council in Constantinople (which described itself in its deed as ‘Ecumenical’) issued a Conciliar Charter on Russian autocephaly signed by the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, and Jerusalem – the see of Alexandria was vacant during the Council) – and some of their subject bishops; and the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch attended the 1666-1667 Council of Moscow. None of these were as truly representative of the entirety of world Orthodoxy as Crete was envisioned to be, but by that measure neither were most of the “Ecumenical Councils” of the first millennium.

    And, to acknowledge the messiness of this process and its definitions, it should also be noted that in Orthodoxy theology Councils need to be “accepted” by the Church as a whole, so the true status of such meetings is only clear ex post facto, cf. Robber Council of Ephesus (449), Council of Basel-Ferrara-Florence (1438–45). And, merely local councils can take on something more like “Ecumenical” status in Orthodoxy, e.g., the what are sometimes referred to as Orthodoxy’s Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Councils (Constantinople 879-880 and Constantinople 1341/1347/1351), not to mention the Quinisext Council “in Trullo” of 692 that saw itself as “completing” the two Ecumenical Councils that had preceded it, as the name implies, as well as the 1590 Council mentioned above.

    1. Gabriel Sanchez
      June 17, 2016

      Right, hence why I stuck “touted” in there. I only had 800 words to work with, so getting into all of the media hype and such surrounding this was a bit off mission for me. However, with many of those councils you mentioned, I never had the sense they were thought of as “universally binding” in the way this one is presented as being. However, as you well know, the Orthodox are largely virulent on the idea that there are only seven “true” ecumenical councils, perhaps because no one has agreed fully on what status the others hold doctrinally in the Eastern Church.

      1. 123
        June 17, 2016

        I think it’s pretty clear Constantinople 879-880 and Constantinople 1341/1347/1351 are all authoritative in Orthodoxy, whether they are called Ecumenical or not. Given the Orthodox view whereby Tradition is the full repository of faith whereas definitions of dogma/doctrine are put forward narrowly in response to specific controversies, it is no woner

        I tend to view the Orthodox reticence at naming additional, new ECs after Nicea II to be a simply acknowledgement that the Christian world was in some sense different after the Great Schism – even if Orthodoxy (and Rome, separately) viewed herself as being still fully and solely The Church, strictly speaking. Thus, a truly “ecumenical” council of all Christians (minus the earlier minorities of heretics) became impossible with so many Christians separated (if not in schism or heresy). It’s similar to the way in which we distinguish between the Roman Empire and the Byzantine Empire after the loss of the West to the Franks and the loss of most of the East to Islam as compared to the heights of even a heavily eastern-oriented Roman Empire earlier in its Christian history. Yes, there were continuities of various kinds (with pagan Rome, too!), but something changed along the way between the fall of Old Rome, the reconquest under Justinian, the Second Crusade, and New Rome’s fall to the Turks, depending on where one wants to draw the line. That is, “Ecumenical” became something more like a term of art regarding unique touchstones of orthodox, catholic Christianity as opposed to a simple adjective meaning “universal” – which is the same reason why Rome would want to use the word for its subsequent Councils and why many traditionalist Orthodox insist they had their own “Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Councils”, both over and against the other. Another, slightly more recent example is the way in which English-speaking Christians have transformed the initial meaning of Thee/Thou into unique terms used of God alone, regardless of what would have been historically accurate in Old, Middle, and Early Modern English. A very modern analogy for the complexity of language is the term La Raza, and whether the ‘real’ meaning is the literal definition (“race”) and all that can imply in the U.S. and the Americas, that of José Vasconcelos (who coined the phrase “La Raza Cósmica” concerning a “fifth race” and had controversial, positive things to say about Hitler), or the definition it is understood to have by most Spanish speakers today, i.e., “the people”, “the community” (pace Trump supporters).

        I wonder too if the issues addressed in Orthodoxy’s “Eighth and Ninth Ecumenical Councils” rise to the dogmatic levels addressed by the first seven. I’d have to look more closely at the issues they each addressed, though I could see a case being made that “Palamism” is really just an extension of the teachings of the first seven.

        1. 123
          June 17, 2016

          in response to specific controversies, it is no woner

          …it is no wonder Orthodox haven’t set down a definitive definition. (Besides, strict definitions on levels of authority meant to clarify the various pronouncements of the Pope of Rome don’t always clarify things for all the parties involved. People will always find ways to disagree on anything, religious or not, if they want to – and not just “those people’.)

  2. aka
    June 17, 2016

    Correction on the Moscow Council mentioned above. In addition to the Patriarchs of Alexandria, and Antioch, as well as Patriarch Nikon of Moscow (deposed at the end of the Council), there were also representatives in attendance of the Patriarchs of Constantinople (Metropolitans Athanasius of Iconium) and Jerusalem (Metropolitan Ananias of Sinai). COnsidering the fact that the Balkan churches would have been under the Ottoman Empire and the EP at that time and were thus also “represented”, that was a pretty representative Council.

  3. […] Sanchez, well known to readers of Semiduplex for his excellent blog, Opus Publicum, has a must-read piece at First Things about the status of the Pan-Orthodox Council. He provides a […]

  4. William Tighe
    June 18, 2016

    Perhaps of interest on this subject:


    and worth discussing?

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