Tuesday, June 7, 2016

Chryssavgis: “If one or more churches don’t attend, all the decisions made will still hold and be binding all Orthodox churches.”

(Crux) - In a sense, the “Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church”, conceived as a gathering of all the heads of the 14 independent Orthodox churches around the world in Crete June 16-27, has been at least a millennium in the making. More proximately, planning has been underway since 1961, meaning more than a half-century.

As a result, it’s perhaps no surprise there have been a few hiccups along the way.

Recently, two of the fourteen Orthodox churches have floated boycotting - the Bulgarians, because they’re upset over some of the documents up for discussion and also the seating arrangements, and the Patriarchate of Antioch, over a jurisdictional dispute involving Qatar. The Bulgarian position seems more tenuous than the Antiochians. If the Bulgarians don't like the documents being voted on they can simply vote no and the document vanishes. If they don't come have they abandoned their right to vote? As for Antioch, choosing not to resolve the issue of Qatar before the Council was always a dangerous path.

On Monday, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, traditionally the “first among equals” in the Orthodox world, issued a call to all Orthodox leaders to show up and to uphold rules for the meeting agreed upon in January 2016.

According to the Rev. John Chryssavgis, the archdeacon and theological adviser to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, who will serve on a drafting committee for the council’s final message, the summit is going ahead no matter what.

“The council is still on,” Chryssavgis told Crux in a June 6 interview, just ahead of his departure for Crete. “If one or more churches don’t attend, all the decisions made will still hold and be binding for all Orthodox churches.” What a bold statement. Many will say, "No council is valid until it has been received and accepted by the people." I think we can read that as a given, but to say that you can choose to not come and that you would be "bound" to whatever those that show up decides... well, that's a rather aggressive (and hopeful) statement. Also, given that all the documents so far released don't actually demand anything there's not much to bind.

While conceding there are probably “more differences than similarities” between the Great Council and the Second Vatican Council, Chryssavgis said he hopes the council in Crete may have an impact on Orthodoxy similar to that of Vatican II on Catholicism - especially, he said, in the press for unity, within Orthodoxy and also with other churches and the wider world. Vatican II, I think many Catholics can agree, has been a disaster for them. Not primarily because of what was affirmed, but how it was interpreted at the parish level.

“Unity is an objective, not a given. It’s something we aspire to,” Chryssavgis said. “It may be there spiritually and liturgically and sacramentally, but to make it visible is hard, painful, and slow work, all of which takes time.”

On other fronts, Chryssavgis said:
  • Relations with the Catholic Church remain a contentious issue within some Orthodox churches, with some worrying that a leader who meets a pope is “bargaining away or betraying” the faith.
  • Orthodox observers have been as struck by the bonhomie among Bartholomew and Francis as Catholics – they too, he said, sometimes joke the two men seem like “BFF’s” – and added he doesn’t believe it’s an accident these two leaders are heading their churches at the same time.
  • Echoing Pope Francis when he recently met the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar, Chryssavgis agreed that when it comes to the pan-Orthodox council, “the meeting is the message.”
Crux spoke to Chryssavgis, a prolific theologian and essayist born in Australia and now a clergyman of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, by phone on June 6. The following are excerpts from that conversation.

Crux: Is the council still on?

Chryssavgis: The council is still on. I don’t know that there was ever a question it wouldn’t be.

In 1992, the Ecumenical Patriarch established a meeting of all the primates of the 14 Orthodox churches, the latest of which was in January 2016, where the rules and documents for the council were adopted by all. This morning, the Ecumenical Patriarchate met in an extraordinary session of the synod and decided that all the various concerns and complaints, including Bulgaria’s withdrawal, are not based on procedural errors or oversights, and therefore the decisions taken in January 2016 need to be maintained.

If one or more churches doesn’t participate, does that change the theological or ecclesiological status of the council?

The simple answer is no … If one or more churches doesn’t attend, or withdraws during the council, or is not present and doesn’t vote, all the decisions made will still hold and be binding for all Orthodox churches. A Great Council is above and beyond any individual church council or synod … and it remains such even without the participation of one or more church.

Certainly if somebody’s missing, it’s a vacuum we will feel, and we’ll be very, very sorry. I think it will have an impact not just on the council, but also on the church that chooses not to come … If a church chooses to withdraw and not attend, I think it would be a sad reflection of the self-marginalization of that church. Self-marginalization. Again, not a nuanced turn of phrase. While the Bulgarians have chosen not to come, the Antiochians have a valid reason to demur. If the EP role is the active, coordinating role it claims Antioch possibly not coming has as much to do with the silence of her sister Churches as it does about the wronged party (Antioch) herself.

What do you expect to be the big issues?

Keep in mind the purpose of a council, its goal, which is unity. Unity is an objective, not a given. It’s something we aspire to. It may be there spiritually and liturgically and sacramentally, but to make it visible is hard, painful and slow work, all of which take time. Unity comes at the end of the council, not before. It is a consequence, not a condition.

For instance, ecumenical relations with other Christians are taken for granted in the Ecumenical Patriarchate [of Constantinople], but not always in other Orthodox churches. Over the last 50 years we’ve become close with the Catholic Church, and we’ve had tremendous collegial relations with Pope Francis. Those gestures and movements are natural for us, but they’re not necessarily reflective of where the whole Orthodox Church lies.

This council can be crucial in bringing some sort of a unified response, some guidelines in this response, like the Second Vatican Council did for Catholicism. There are probably more differences than similarities between this council and Vatican II, but it could have something like the same impact.

Other issues include, what happens when an Orthodox marries a non-Orthodox Christian, such as a Catholic or Protestant partner? What does it mean for Orthodoxy to be in conversation, both culturally and in terms of the faith, with Judaism and Islam?

Also, what does it mean for the Orthodox Church to function as a united church, as one church, in the diaspora, for instance in the United States, Western Europe, and elsewhere? In the States, we have all 14 autocephalous churches represented . . . and then some. Do we minister just to our own national group, or to the Orthodox faithful altogether?

Is there a prophetic word we can offer together about our relationship with the rest of the world, including the challenges of the contemporary world, whether these are social, economic, military, or environmental?

Another question is the autonomy of Orthodox churches, and who recognizes someone’s autonomy? In general, the idea is to move towards a more transparent and less political way of putting issues on the table.
How do you do that when there are obvious internal tensions?

Unity doesn’t just mean the Orthodox churches among themselves, but also taking a step towards greater unity even within the individual Orthodox churches.

There are differences, for instance, within the Church of Greece, where some elements are more and others less ecumenical. In the Church of Russia, Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion are very open to other churches, they’re always at the Vatican or the World Council of Churches, but their own church has conservative voices very critical of Kirill’s meeting with Pope Francis. An important difference here between Constantinople and Moscow is that Moscow is seeking points of agreement on moral issues without overtures of unity.

These are issues the council can help smooth out, resolving the fears and suspicions that when the Ecumenical Patriarch, for instance, meets the pope, he’s bargaining away or betraying the Orthodox faith. These issues aren’t just inter-Orthodox, but also intra-Orthodox.

We’re meeting precisely because we have differences. If there were no differences, what would be the point?

Where do you think the last-minute jitters come from?

I think what we’re seeing is the typical response of a family that hasn’t gotten together in a long time. When family members come together after a long period of separation and isolation, people are naturally going to wonder, “What will I say to so-and-so? Where will I be sitting? Do people care about my concerns?” Some are going to be afraid their interests will be overlooked.

We have differences that have built up over 1200 years. We’ve been through hundreds of years of persecution under the Ottomans, a hundred years of Soviet oppression, we’re still experiencing persecution and oppression today, as well a refugee crisis, in regions where the Orthodox Church is at home and has been for hundreds of years living side by side with our Muslim brothers and sisters.

All that, and more, creates tensions we have to talk about.

The Orthodox Church preaches that the council is its gut, its heart, its very identity; conciliarity is in our DNA. But we need to prove it, we need to come together and sit around the same table. I hope this is the beginning of many more councils. In the end, the main achievement will be the meeting itself.

You agree then with Pope Francis, who recently had a get-together with the Grand Imam of Al-Azhar and said, “The meeting is the message?”

I undoubtedly agree with that in this case, and it’s certainly been the conviction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which has worked to realize this dream for 100 years. The idea is to move together in the church. The Greek work for a council is “synodos,” meaning being on the same journey; and the first step to be on the same journey is to take a step together.

The entire structure of the Orthodox Church is founded on the principle of conciliarity. Without it, something may look like an Orthodox church and may hold to certain Orthodox doctrines and practices, but it’s not Orthodox. It’s only in council that the Orthodox Church is true to its identity, faithful to what it’s supposed to be.

It’s also important to remember that the time after the council will be just as crucial as the event itself, because it’s the period of reception. No rule or structure in the Orthodox Church comes from the top down. It’s the conscience of the faithful, the Church itself at large, which is the ultimate protector and guarantor of Orthodox truth and doctrine.

You’re involved in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church. Does Pope Francis bring something special to it?

I think what Pope Francis brings to the table, which parallels the theological interests of our Patriarch, is a more human face. He understands our two churches can bring much more to the world together in terms of offering hope to the suffering people. By offering a joint voice to a world that’s divided and in pain, we can be much more effective and positive.

When Francis and Bartholomew recently met on [the Greek island of] Lesbos, it was hugely significant and symbolical. There are so many refugees there who literally risk their lives trying to get to civilization and freedom, and their presence there together threw a huge spotlight on the crisis, offering an ethical reminder of how we should be responding.

When they placed a wreath together in the sea, it was a very meaningful expression of unity.

Did you know that in Rome, we jokingly say that Bartholomew is Francis’s “BFF”?

Yes, that’s made the rounds in Orthodox circles as well!

Remember that Patriarch Bartholomew was present at the pope’s inaugural Mass, which was the first time that ever happened in history. There have, in fact, been times in the past when a pope was present in Constantinople for the change of a patriarch, but still never attended. When asked why he went, Patriarch Bartholomew said he felt there’s something different about this man, and he had to be there.

I don’t think it’s by chance that these two people are the leaders of their respective churches at this moment in time. I don’t believe that’s a coincidence.


  1. This interview is the confirmation.....it is a robber council.

  2. "Vatican II, I think many Catholics can agree, has been a disaster for them. Not primarily because of what was affirmed, but how it was interpreted at the parish level."

    Chryssavgis is obviously not talking about the liturgical metamorphosis of the Roman liturgy in his comment. What's more, most Roman Catholic critics of Vatican II will admit that the proverbial "spirit of Vatican II" preceded Vatican II itself, the council being a mere symptom of a deeper problem.

    1. It is, too my mind, too charged a term to use if you want to say anything positive. Feel free to mention a specific piece of it (Unitatis redintegratio or somesuch), but to invoke Vatican II anywhere near an Orthodox preceding is like cooking bacon next to a synagogue.

    2. Yes, that's a fair criticism. But any objective observer could see that this upcoming council by no means approaches the scale of Vatican II which lasted three years and was attended by thousands of bishops. It's a shame it's being portrayed that way both by Catholic media and Orthodox dissenters of the council.

    3. Peregrinus,

      Many prominent persons have associated the upcoming Synod with Vat. II. Chryssavgis did so above. Fr. Peter Heers demonstrates this quite convincingly:

      'As researcher Maria Brun, a Roman Catholic specialist on the Pan-Orthodox Council at the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Center in Chambessy, has written: “it is well known that the way in which the Second Vatican Council was carried served as the prototype for the work of the preparatory commission of the Pan-Orthodox Council” and that “the Orthodox Church ... had recourse to the Second Vatican Council for its inspiration.”

      Roman Catholic researches of the Second Vatican Council and the Pan-Orthodox Council are not alone in reaching this conclusion. The great professor of Dogmatics and saint of the Church, Justin Popovich likewise came to this conclusion... "never have there been summoned such conferences, congresses, pro-synods, and other artificial gatherings, unknown to the Orthodox conciliar tradition, and in reality borrowed from Western organizations alien to the Church of Christ."

      ...In an article dating back from when Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew was still a Metropolitan, in the journal The National Catholic Reporter, the Patriarch said the following, revealing his intentions for the Pan-Orthodox Council: “Our aims are the same an John's (Pope John XXIII): to update the Church and promote Christian unity... The Council will also signify the opening of the Orthodox Church to non-Christian religions, to humanity as a whole. This means a new attitude toward Islam, toward Buddhism, toward contemporary culture, toward aspirations for brotherhood free from racial discrimination...in other words, it will mark the end of twelve centuries of isolation of the Orthodox Church.” ' (From the Second Vatican Council (1965) to the Pan-Orthodox Council (2016): Signposts on the Way to Crete)

    4. Maximus,

      Thanks for the citations. To add to them, I suggest this article by Dr. Adam Deville (a Roman Catholic, outside looking in of course): http://www.catholicworldreport.com/Item/4823/vatican_ii_and_eastern_orthodoxys_approaching_council.aspx

      No doubt the conciliar process is complicated and controversial. But this simply will be no Vatican II redux, in spite of the varied and not unfounded criticisms to that effect.

    5. Dr. Deville is rather an Eastern Catholic: a subdeacon in the Ukrainian Greco-Catholic Church.

    6. You are correct, Dr. Butcher. Forgive me. The distinction is not always a meaningful one among Orthodox Christians, hence my carelessness in resorting to a more convenient handle.

  3. "If one or more churches don’t attend, all the decisions made will still hold and be binding all Orthodox churches"

    ...if the decisions of the Council are Orthodox!

    Forgive my statement of the obvious, but we are consistently forgetting this important qualification. The Church of Bulgaria is simply avoiding participation in a Council that - as it appears - will not produce Orthodox decisions and will therefore be invalid. Its decision not to participate seem to me to be an attempt to reduce, as far as is in its power, the chances of the Council being interpreted as authoritative.

    1. Thank you, Fr. John.

      Furthermore, there are multiple Churches with multiple issues regarding this Council. These Churches include: Bulgaria, Russia, Antioch, Greece, Georgia, and others. And yet the EP has chose to ignore the voice of his sister Churches and mandate that all decisions will be binding on all Churches whether they attend or not. This seems to be the height of arrogance. The faithful will not receive decisions that are not Orthodox and forced down their throats.

      St Mark of Ephesus pray for us!

  4. Hence, these documents are being put forward regardless of objections and questions put forth by the various Holy Synods. The EP plans to "bind all Orthodox" and that was one of the objections of Met. Hierotheos of Nafpaktos:

    "...if decrees are made by the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church, which the hierarchs, monks and theologians ignore, and which are contradictory to the Patristic vision, they will be held responsible and subject to judgment and condemnation if they refuse to implement them?"

    The Bulgarians obviously figured this out and acted accordingly.

  5. The entire EP appears to be out of touch with the concerns of conservative Orthodox. They just can't seem to fathom why people get so upset when the EP prays with the Pope and speaks ambiguously. I guess we mistakenly assume that they're betraying Orthodoxy due to our ignorance, nationalistic tendencies and contentiousness. The whole process was begun by Pat. Athenagoras, and we're supposed to trust him and his successors?

    Pat. Athenagoras: "Why do we not automatically return to Mysteriological communion? Because it is necessary for us to prepare our peoples for it, both theologically and psychologically. During the nine hundred years that have elapsed since 1054, we, the two worlds of East and West, have come to think that we belong to different Churches and different religions. And, as a result, the purpose of dialogues becomes quite evident. It is to prepare our peoples psychologically to understand that there is one Church and one religion, that we all believe in the same God—the Savior Christ. You and we respect all religions and we esteem the place and the time in which we live.” (from a homily given by the Patriarch in the chapel of Lambeth Palace, London, November 13, 1967, cited in “Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople [1886-1972]: His Statements, Messages, and Activities,” Orthodox Tradition, Vol. XVIII, No. 1 [2001], p. 10).

  6. All of this conciliar chaos is the direct result of Constantinople pretending it has authority beyond a "primacy of honor", which in the eyes of the Orthodox world, it simply doesn't have. It is increasingly trying to strong arm other Local Churches, and I have a feeling more churches will withdraw.


    "Constantinople Patriarchate trying to impose papacy on Orthodox world"

  7. Sad that an eminent theologian doesn't realize that is not how it works in orthodoxy. Even if everyone attended and voted yes the results would have to be ratified by the Holy Synod of the Local Church to take effect because only 21 bishops are allowed from any church. The bishops not in attendance have not ceded their vote to anyone else.

  8. Their attitude stems from their new emphasis on the primus. Manoussakis, one of the EPs theological advisors and an advocate of the Immaculate Conception (IC), explicitly stated that Orthodox objections to the IC based upon its unilateral promulgation by the Pope are in error. As the Primus he has the right to declare it as a dogma unilaterally; he even holds that it's binding upon the eastern churches. Now combine this thinking with what Chryssavgis said above and the statement on the GOAs Facebook declaring that only the EP can declare a church autocephalous and that any area outside an autocephalous local church belongs to them, and it's obvious: this is an attempt to establish an eastern papacy.

    For those in doubt of my claims, pick up the new book on primacy by SVS press and Fr. Manoussakis' For the Unity of All.

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  10. As a convert from Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy, I wouldn't wish the last 50 years of post-Vatican II Catholicism on my worst enemy... If having an "Orthodox Vatican II" is the EP's goal, then I shudder in horror.

  11. As a convert from Roman Catholicism to Orthodoxy, I wouldn't wish the last 50 years of post-Vatican II Catholicism on my worst enemy... If having an "Orthodox Vatican II" is the EP's goal, then I shudder in horror.