After 55 years of preparations, The Holy and Great Council will convene on June 19 in Crete. Pan-Orthodox is among unity among discussion items.
The Holy and Great Council will officially open following the Divine Liturgy on the feast of Pentecost. This historic meeting, a goal for more than 100 years, will gather the 14 autocephalous (self-governing) churches or jurisdictions of the Christian Orthodox Church.
History of The Holy and Great Council
In 1902, Ecumenical Patriarch Joachim III called the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches to collaborate on addressing the challenges facing the Orthodox Church at the time. This meeting planted the seed for a great Pan-Orthodox Council.
In 1930, Ecumenical Patriarch Photios II convened a meeting of an inter-Orthodox preparatory committee and began compiling a list of topics for discussion. According to the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America website, this council “was necessary following the significant changes that the Orthodox Church had witnessed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century by the emergence of new autocephalous Churches, and the challenges the new century threw at the Church, already shaken by the First World War.”
It is said that Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras sent letters to the Primates of the Patriarchal and Autocephalous Orthodox Churches in 1951 and 1952, reviving the idea for the Council to meet.
Here’s a brief timeline of the planning of the Holy and Great Council.
1961: 1st first Pan-Orthodox conference in Rhodes, commencing preparation for The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. A long list of topics is slated.
1976: 1st Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference of Chambésy determines the list too ambitious, and reduces it to 10. Guidelines for the preparations are set, and a secretariat is established to receive proposals from each Patriarchal or Autocephalous Orthodox Church regarding the 10 topics. The reports will be examined by an inter-Orthodox preparatory committee convened by the Ecumenical Patriarch. This group would meet as often as needed to reach consensus on each topic.
1982: 2nd Pan-Orthodox Pre-conciliar Conference of Chambésy adopts the text on several of the topics.
1986: 3rd Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar Conference of Chambésy adopts texts on other topics.
2009: 4th Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar conference of Chambésy adopts the text on the remaining topics.
March 2014: Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches determines that a special inter-Orthodox commission must be convened to review a few texts of the 2nd and 3rd Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox conferences of 1982 and 1986. A rule is adopted that “all decisions in the Council’s work will be taken unanimously on the principle of consensus”. The date of the Council is set for 2016, and it is determined who attend.
October 2014, February 2015, and March-April 2015: Special inter-Orthodox commissions meet at Chambésy and further review texts, as appropriate.
October 2015: 5th Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar Conference of Chambésy approves the texts of 2009, and examines draft documents of the Pan-Orthodox Council reviewed by the Special Inter-Orthodox Commission from the meetings of October 2014, February and March-April 2015.
The Synaxis of the Primates of January 2016 set the final agenda for The Holy and Great Council, which was reduced to six topics, since consensus could not be reached on four items. These will addressed at later date.
The final agenda includes the following items:
- The mission of the Orthodox Church in the contemporary world;
- The Orthodox diaspora;
- Autonomy and the manner of its proclamation;
- The sacrament of marriage and its impediments;
- The importance of fasting and its observance today;
- The relationship of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world.
Meeting in Crete
The Holy and Great Council at the Orthodox Academy of Crete will gather on June 18, and officially open following the Divine Liturgy of the feast of Pentecost (June 19), and culminate on the Sunday of All Saints, June 26.
Who will attend?
In attendance, will be the heads of the 14 autocephalous churches. Each will bring up to 24 members in their delegation, including bishops or hierarchs, and advisors; however, only the heads of the 14 churches are considered “decision-makers”.
Pope Francis will send high-level observers from the Catholic Church, as a “sign of respect, support and encouragement of the Orthodox Church”.
What does this mean for the Faithful?
“This is not an ecumenical council because the Church is not addressing any form of division within the Church, as all the seven Ecumenical Councils did, and by design it is not a council of all bishops of the Orthodox Church.”
He explained the purpose of the Council, in simple terms.
“It will show the unity of the Orthodox Faith, first and foremost. Sometimes in local practices, local traditions differ, yet we all share the same faith. This unity will be expressed in its international diversity.”
While no one is exactly sure what will come out of the Council, His Grace said that if anything, it will promote a familiarity between sister Churches and their Hierarchs, many of whom have never met and in any event, rarely dialogue with one another.
“I don’t think that necessarily any decision or pronouncements made will be life-altering, though they will solidify things for us and make practices across jurisdictions be better understood.”
Ready to go
Amid reports of some churches pulling out, His All Holiness Patriarch Bartholomew has indicated that the meeting must go forward, since all 14 autocephalous churches voted and agreed on the date. He arrived on Crete yesterday. Published statements by Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Patriarchate explained.
“The ecumenical patriarch can’t change a unanimous decision taken by all the churches. Bartholomew is not the pope, he can’t just decide.”
In a video, His All Holiness asked for all of our prayers to “strengthen and inspire the leaders of the Church to manifest their unity in a world afflicted by conflict and division.”