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Very Brief Observation on the Great and Holy Council

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The Russian Orthodox are the last of four local churches to withdraw from participation in the Great and Holy Council, the Pan-Orthodox Synod, set to begin tomorrow – Pentecost Sunday in their calendar. Their reason given that as consensus was adopted as the model for any and all work of the Council, and that at least one local church had withdrawn, consensus was no longer possible.

The timeline of last-minute withdrawal from the Council:

  • 1 June – Bulgarian Orthodox Church
  • 6 June – (Greek) Patriarchate of Antioch
  • 10 June – Georgian Orthodox Church
  • 13 June – Russian Orthodox Church

As I see it, consensus to hold the Council now, under the presented procedures, and the promise to attend by each local church was achieved in March 2014 and affirmed just a few months ago, at the January 2016 Synaxis of Primates. The Churches themselves committed to hold the Council, to attend, and to participate.

Therefore, now is too late to back out. Common sense would dictate that after having committed to the Council, if you back out, you lose your voice and vote, but the decisions are still binding upon you and consensus depends on those who are actually present and participating. You forfeit your right to vote, you do not get a veto, by backing out. If you want to object to some document, you have to be participating to do so.

In other words, dear Bulgaria, et al., you do not have to agree, but you do have to show up.

Of course, this is a moral obligation, there is no juridical, binding power that would compel otherwise. One could argue that failure to participate in a general council to which unanimous consensus compels you to attend is tantamount to excommunication – to me, non-participation in the Council seems a far more serious breach of communion that disagreements over the calendar, over jurisdiction in Bahrain, or over who can grant the Americans autocephaly.

To be sure, some of the objections of the local churches are valid and should be considered. Some are nonsense. But I admire far more the Serbian Orthodox Church, who, while deeply concerned about several aspects of both process and content, are still committed to exercising synodality. You cannot claim to be a church who takes synodality seriously, over and against what you perceive as excessive papal primacy in the Catholic Church, and then fail utterly to even organize yourselves into a regular exercise of that synodality on a universal level.

You go to a Council to resolve issues, to raise new ones, to practice being Church together even in disagreement. Unity cannot be achieved by putting off meeting. True, we should see this as the beginning of a lengthy process, not a stand-alone event. Vatican II was eight months of meetings spread over four years allowing generous time for research and consultation. And it had only been ninety years since the last attempt at a general council, only 400 years since the last complete council. The Orthodox have three times as much time to make up for – a real council could be expected to take a full year of meeting together. One week is nowhere near enough.

But at the end of the day, it is hard to respect anyone who claims “we have not had enough time to get ready” or “let’s postpone procrastinate some more.” Seriously? 1229 years since the last general council, 115 years since the first call for this one, and 55 years since the planning commissions started meeting, even by the glacial ecclesial standards, this is absurd.

Still, we can be grateful that the leaders themselves seem to have more patience with childishly manipulative behavior than I do, as telling the Russian (or Bulgarian, Georgian, or Antiochene) Patriarch he has just been demoted to the bottom of the table for skipping a required meeting probably would not do much to actually get him to show up next time he promises to do so. But since they do seem so concerned about seating arrangements, maybe that would work better than appeals to common sense and episcopal responsibility…

Patriarchs and primates in Crete, 18 June 2016

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