Friday, July 10, 2015

First Things: Does the Council matter to my mother?

I wrote on this conference held at Fordham earlier (see here). As I've mentioned earlier in First Things repostings, I don't do so in their entirety unless I'm commenting on the complete article.

(First Things) - Does the Council matter to my mother?” This question was posed at the Orthodox Theological Society of America’s (OTSA) conference held last month. It was asked in reference to the anticipated Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church planned for Pentecost 2016. It was offered tongue-in-cheek and was directed at the speculation about whether anything of substance will come out of the Council, but it expressed well the hopes and concerns held by the scholars of the Orthodox Church. As you might expect, the title received scholarly guffaws all around.

The ninety or so scholars, including myself, attending the OTSA conference represented many Orthodox jurisdictions in America as well as abroad, were comprised mostly of laity—but included several priests and two hierarchs—were made up of a mix of cradle and convert Orthodox and other Christians, and included an impressive number of female scholars. We met in New York City in conjunction with Fordham’s Orthodox Christian Studies Center.

OTSA convened to discuss the planned Council of 2016, visiting many of its proposed agenda items in papers and open discussions. (The sum total agenda is, roughly: fasting, canonical impediments to marriage, calendar issues, diaspora, relationship of the Orthodox Church to other Christian Churches, ranking of the autocephalous churches, autonomy and autocephaly, manner of granting autocephaly, presence of the Orthodox Church in the World Council of Churches, and the contribution of the Orthodox Church to the realization of justice, freedom, brotherhood, and love among peoples.) Some of these have been removed from the last copy of the agenda I read (e.g. autocephaly, as it was considered an area where consensus could not be found).

Many scholarly conferences are organized around a topical theme; for example, last year’s OTSA conference held forth on “The Orthodox Church in America in a Post-Modern World.” While this year’s meeting was thematically focused on the Council of 2016, the tone and tenor of the conference was markedly different that a purely thematic conference because OTSA anticipated what might be a monumental event in Orthodox Christian history: the first recognized Council of the Orthodox Church in over twelve hundred years. The papers, the questions posed to the presenters, and the open discussions were duly weighted with hopes and fears about the Council of 2016.

Though there were different voices in the room and dissenting opinions (one of the things I find so refreshing about OTSA is that it is a place where disagreement is quite comfortable, and handled in a collegial manner), there seemed to me to be a few areas of majority accord.
One of those areas was concern around the degree to which allegiance to nation-states, or ethno-nationalist tendencies might dominate or limit the Council. It was noted that the Orthodox Church’s organization into autocephalous churches (with a total of fourteen recognized autocephalous churches around the world today) initially happened along the political boundaries of the Empire for practical, organizational reasons. In more recent history, however, the political boundaries aligned with some autocephalous churches have been closely identified with ethnicity and nationalism, and often coupled with a fundamentalist and insular ethos. Be careful when you read fundamentalism in American Orthodox circles. To some fundamentalism is Orthodoxy and to some it's Orthodox legalism. Much of what I hear called "fundamentalist" is what a faithful person (clergy or lay) would call orthopraxis.

Connected with this concern was the understanding that the Council will be conducted by consensus rule. This was assumed to mean that all bishops present (each autocephalous church can bring up to twenty-four bishops) must unanimously agree on an item in order for it to stand. The OTSA attendees were concerned that a consequence of consensus rule might be that one group, or even one bishop, could control the outcomes of the Council. This concern was underscored by the awareness of the historical anomaly of a consensus Council—no previous council has operated under unanimous rule—and by the realization that a Council so structured will inevitably be a conservative council, in terms of both the quality and quantity of what is accomplished. Some scholars expressed the hope that consensus rule might be interpreted in a Quaker fashion; that as accord grows on a given item, those in disagreement would respectfully step back and support the decisions made by the body of the Council. I contend that, having not met in many years, the council should be conservative. Some discussion was had on injecting "creative" solutions to Orthodox problems and "learning" from the Anglican Communion's methods. To my was of thinking one of the main problems with the Protestant method is that the bar is set so low for discussion that one group can simply keep voting on the same issue until they get the desired result. So if the Council were to find points of broad consensus and move forward on those then meet later on to handle contentious issues, things could find resolution without interminable delays.

An additional concern held at OTSA was the question: Who else might be present at the Council, in addition to each church’s allotment of bishops? Will there be any lay theologians? Any non-Orthodox? Any women of any kind? The idea of a Council composed strictly of bishops did not sit well with the members of OTSA, and not just because of twenty-first century notions of representation, but because of the real awareness that Ecumenical Councils past always included members of the greater royal priesthood of believers beyond the hierarchs. Just as St. Ignatius of Antioch championed the role of the bishop in the Church, he also insisted, “Wherever the bishop shall appear, there let the multitude [of the people] also be.”

There were three hopes for the Council that seemed to be universally held by OTSA members, and that I perceive to be held by most American Orthodox faithful. The first is the reorganization of the Orthodox world in western countries—in the so-called diaspora—to the theologically and canonically sound position of one bishop per city. Confounded somewhat by the ROCOR assertion that pastoral care for her faithful is of utmost importance and the current configuration does not need immediate amending. The process for this would be arduous, but possible, but the likelihood of it being endorsed by this Council was questioned. The other two broadly held hopes for the Council are the hope of restored communion with the Oriental Churches, and the hope of the restoration of the female diaconate. “Restored” is the critical word in both cases: while both issues contain not inconsiderable theological and pragmatic concerns, these concerns can be addressed, these restorations are attainable, and they would benefit Orthodox faithful the world over. All sides on the Oriental-Eastern Orthodox dialogue agree that the talks are now at a standstill. Much has been agreed upon, but the "next steps" needed for reunion are not being taken; it's as if someone hit the pause button. I'd also mention that a female diaconate was not as comprehensively hoped for as the above might indicate. The talk was largely met with silence save for those wholeheartedly in support of it. I hope it gets posted one day as I think many people would have much to say on the presenter's reasons for the reintroduction of the female diaconate (priests are busy, sometimes a maternal hand is helpful, etc.).

Although much of the OTSA discussion was centered around what will happen at the Council, what will happen after the Council was acknowledged as greatly important. Councils of the Orthodox Church must be received by the Church; they must be accepted by the baptized faithful. There is no formal process for the reception of a council, no canon or doctrine dictates its acclamation, and nothing that precedes a council recognizes its truth in advance. The reception of a council happens on the schedule of the Holy Spirit, and this nebulous, unfettered, and spirited process encapsulates for me all that is good and true about the Orthodox Church as a body.

One of the strongest hopes of those at OTSA was that the Council simply come to pass, and that all the autocephalous churches attend. While this may seem like a meager hope indeed, the Orthodox Church, as noted, has not met in council in over a millennium; it has no method or manner of worldwide conciliarism, and this Council of 2016 may be a necessary pilgrim’s rest on the path to the autocephalous churches being able to function in a symbiotic manner. Were a harmonious state of collaboration among the Orthodox achieved, the Council of 2016 would strengthen and illumine the Orthodox Church into its third millennium, and it might well matter to our mothers.

Carrie Frederick Frost is a scholar of Orthodox theology and mother of five living in Washington state.


  1. Much of what I hear called "fundamentalist" is what a faithful person (clergy or lay) would call orthopraxis.

    I'm reminded of the article Professor George E. Demacopoulos wrote for my beloved Greek Orthodox Archdiocese's Web site entitled Orthodox Fundamentalism, wherein he averred with only one vague example in support that "fundamentalism" was a problem in the Church. When he was challenged on it and asked for examples with detail, he remained silent to his critics. Over on the Twitter someone who seemed to be a friend of his made a remark, and Dr. Demacopoulos replied that his critics had missed the point that the purpose of an op-ed is to get a conversation started. A conversation, apparently, he didn't want to take part in other than to make a mildly facetious remark about those who found his remarks vacuous.

    Carrie Frederick Frost's use of terms like nation-state and nationalism are odd. These aren't the days leading up to World War I. I think she means country and patriotism. As one who grew up in the Greek Orthodox Church, I'm sad to see the Greek language so radically diminished here in America as it has become. I take some comfort in what is left of my mother's immigrant generation and their language. They're all going to be gone soon. It's no "nationalism" with them or with me. We just try to remember where we're from (a memory more vivid and connection greater with them than with me, as I was born in America). A vague assertion that "ethnicity" and "nationalism" (or patriotism) are bound up with some pernicious form of "fundamentalism" is a bizarre and unhelpful view of things. Not a good way to be getting ready for this thing, whatever it is going to turn out to be.

    1. Based on her positions on the "restoration" of the female diaconate and her use of the term "fundamentalism" (something she does not really understand), Mrs. Frost is most likely your typical "modernist" in the Church. Fordham is the stronghold of such folks (Demacopolulos is there), and the good news is their influence is limited.

      It's just too bad First Things decided to publish her, but they know how to work certain sympathies within RC and thus too often get to "speak" for the Orthodox...

  2. The chairman of the theology dept at Fordham was just "married" to another man:

    Yes yes, let's let such places define what it means to be ordained and what and who is a "fundamentalist"...

  3. In a rather well-timed remark with respect to my comment above that Dr. Demacopoulos did not answer his critics, he and Fr. John Whiteford have been interviewed on the topic of "Orthodox Fundamentalism" on Ancient Faith Radio: I only listened to about the first ten minutes (it is lengthy, and I have never gotten into podcasts), but, since the topic came up here, there is the link for you.