April 8, 2014

Concerning the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches

By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos
of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

From March 6-9, 2014 there took place in Constantinople the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches which was followed by a festive Divine Liturgy on the Sunday of Orthodoxy, during which the Message of the Synaxis was read that referred to contemporary happenings that create problems in countries and among people. At the Divine Liturgy representatives of the third according to order Patriarchate of Antioch did not attend.

I do not know exactly what happened and what was discussed at the Conferences, but I was informed just like the entire fullness of the Church from printed and electronic media. I hope at some point there will be an update for the Hierarchy of the Church of Greece, so that as responsible Hierarchs we will have a certain knowledge of such issues concerning the life of the Church.

Despite my absence, with the most up-to-date knowledge I will record my thoughts on the critical issues from the texts I read.

1. The Issues of the Holy and Great Synod

The Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches decided to set up a Special Inter-Orthodox Committee, which shall be composed of a Bishop and a counselor from each Autocephalous Church, where it will have only the responsibility to prepare issues to be discussed at the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church. Also, the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches divided in groups the issues to be discussed at the Holy and Great Synod, of which others have be prepared by the Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Conferences and others will be prepared. Specifically:

From the Special Inter-Orthodox Committee texts will be revised for the following subjects:

"The Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Movement"

"The Relation of the Orthodox Church Towards the Rest of the Christian World"

"The Contribution of the Orthodox Church in Promoting Peace, Justice, Freedom, Brotherhood and Love Between Peoples and the Elimination of Racial and Other Discrimination"

From the same Special Inter-Orthodox Committee attention will be given, as need arises, to texts that have already been adopted:

"The Issue of a Common Calendar"

"The Impediments of Marriage"

"The Importance of Fasting and its Observance Today"

The Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Conference, that will convene in 2015, will study the text adopted by the previous Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Committee, titled: "Autonomy in the Orthodox Church and the Way of its Proclamation".

There was also expressed the wish, in the preparatory stage, to discuss two issues for which until now there was no agreement, namely: "Autocephaly in the Orthodox Church and the Way of its Proclamation" and "The Diptychs". If a consensus emerges, the Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Conference of 2015 will reference this and then the Holy and Great Synod in 2016.

We observe that the number of issues are seven that were prepared or will be prepared and worked on by the Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Conferences, and two where the wish is expressed to be prepared, totalling nine issues. Because it is said the issues number to ten, supposedly the tenth issue will be the issue of the Diaspora, for which an agreement was reached with the established Episcopal Assembly.

The texts prepared decades ago, before Archbishop Ieronymos, to the Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Conferences are unknown to the majority of Hierarchs, and myself, and remain in some Committees and Offices and we do not know their contents. It is understood that these texts should in any case be put into consideration at least by the Metropolitans who are responsible for the vote. Particularly, they should be carefully considered for their theological perspective.

I hope that in the preparation of the issue of "The Relation of the Orthodox Church Towards the Rest of the Christian World" there will be a discussion about analogia entis and analogia fidei, which is a basic difference in theology between the Orthodox Church and other Christian Confessions, and that the issue of actus purus will be put forward, which is the source of all doctrinal differences between the Orthodox Church and the Papacy. This is because, if a Synod is not based on theological and doctrinal issues, then it loses its seriousness.

2. Decisions By Unanimity

The Primates of the Orthodox Churches decided that all decisions both in the preparatory stages and the work of the Holy and Great Synod "will be received in unanimity". Practically this means that if any of the fourteen Orthodox Churches do not agree on a text, then there will be no final judgement. However, so that a decision is made on such an occasion, due to unanimity, there might be retreats due to adversity. And, of course, this depends on the strong views expressed for what will be the final decision.

It should be noted that today, unfortunately, the Orthodox Church in the world is expressed in three directions, namely Greek-speaking, Slavic-speaking and Arab-speaking Orthodox Christians. Of course, language is not a problem in the Orthodox Church and in theology, but the problem is nationalism, which, although condemned by a Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1872, in practice it is a gaping wound in the body of the Church and is associated with the great problem of the Diaspora.

We observe, therefore, that even though the sacred Canons for the establishment of a Local Church set geographical limits, today they are made on nationalist authorities (tribes, nations, languages, cultures). This means that, while according to Canon Law there is a Church for each geographical location under an ecclesiastical authority, regardless of race, language, ethnicity, etc., today there may be many Bishops in a geographical location, belonging to various ecclesiastical jurisdictions and sometimes bearing the same title. This is especially manifested in America - as well as other places - which although is subject to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and all the Clergy, no matter what country of origin they are from, should commemorate the Ecumenical Patriarch, however, many other Churches have their own Bishops and established their own national Churches. This is one of the biggest problems of the contemporary Orthodox Church.

Naturally this disorder constitutes an ecclesiological problem, the problem of "common territory", that the Holy and Great Synod must occupy itself with. This problem is an obstacle in the decisions of the future Synod, both in the preparatory stage and in its work, because it creates, unfortunately, and will create informal federations of Orthodox Churches, having as a common trait language, tribes, as well as ethnophyletistic and political attitudes, things that break ecclesiastical unity.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate is striving to overcome this situation, moving in a strict canonical and ecclesiastical framework, that was established by the Fathers of the Ecumenical Synods, but, unfortunately, there are many obstacles to this work.

I wrote all these things, because unanimity may due to separation express the unity of the Church, it could steer clear of the theology of the Church, it can also, however, be an "obstacle" in the decisions. In any case, unanimity might sustain the informal cultivated formation of the federation of Orthodox Churches or it can give rights to global political competition between Member constructs, to use the ecclesiastical space for their own geopolitical designs.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate and especially Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew knows all this with his many years of experience and the gifts that distinguish him and we trust his discreet and flexible maneuvers.

I find here an opportunity to emphasize that the Ecumenical Patriarch does not merely preside over Pan-Orthodox Synods, but he is the center of them and forms their unity. Orthodox ecclesiastical polity is distinguished by its synodicity, but this does not mean it eliminates hierarchy, since the government of the Church is synodically hierarchical and hierarchically synodical. This avoids both Papal "authoritarianism" as an institution, and Protestant "anarchy" as a practical life.

Moreover it must be stressed that Autocephaly in Orthodox Canon Law does not operate nor should it operate as autonomous "autocephalism", in the sense of complete independence, but it is understood in the sense of interdependence with the Church of New Rome-Constantinople. The Lutheran model favors the Christian Community in the sense of complete independence and not as an interaction with other Churches, and this must find no basis in the Orthodox Church.

3. One Voice - a Vote for Each Church

It was agreed at the recent Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches that the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches will be represented at the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church by their Primates which will consist of one Bishop each less than twenty-four, and every Church will have one vote in the decisions.

This has to do with unanimity, because in the discussions held until now there was the following issue: If in the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church all the Hierarchs of all the Churches attend, then the decisions will be received by majority, since every Bishop will have their own vote. If the Orthodox Churches are represented by a defined number of Bishops, then each Church will have the right to only one vote, but the decisions will be received "in unanimity". In this case the second option was chosen.

This issue is associated with very sensitive discussions which must be implemented by each Local Church. In my opinion, the Hierarchy of the Church of Greece must decide to coordinate the course, namely by knowing the already existing texts, selecting suitable persons, and making specific decisions, in accordance with paragraph (a) of Article 4 of Law 590/1977 in "On the Constitution of the Church of Greece". This must necessarily happen, because the participation of Churches should be substantial and reflect as far as possible the comprehensive theological positions of each Church which will be coordinated to the doctrines, canon law, ecclesiastical traditions, as well as the real needs of contemporary people, and not just the needs of the Clergy. I write this, because there are cases that issues are discussed that concern, non-beneficially, the Clergy and not the laity.

I will refer this issue to the Synodal members of the Church, because it is not possible to remain indifferent to such serious doctrinal and ecclesiastical issues for them to be handled by only a few Hierarchs, no matter how trained they are. We all have responsibilities in ecclesiastical matters, especially when each Autocephalous Church will deposit their positions and vote uniformly by a single vote, for which we all have a place of responsibility. It is not possible to separate Hierarchs into two categories, those who participate in the process and those who remain on the sidelines and are ignorant of things. As far as I'm concerned, I do not intend to renounce my hierarchical obligations.

4. Theological Terminology

It is understood, that because we speak of a Holy and Great Synod, that the terminology of the decisions must be strictly theological and ecclesiastical. The decisions must be coordinated with the whole tradition of the Church, which is not conservative, but traditional, and does not consist in being static, but progressive, within, however, theological and ecclesiastical thought.

Thus, in the writing of the texts Hierarchs and theologians should be involved to curate the terminology that will be used so as not to express neo-scholastic, existential or post-patristic theology. It is known that the Fathers of the Church at the Ecumenical Synods fought vigorously, and by inspiration of the Holy Spirit used the appropriate terminology ("with short phrases and much prudence") that expresses the Orthodox faith securely and inspired by God. Choosing an incorrect term will create a diversion from Orthodox teaching. Special attention is needed to them and they require capable Clergy who know the history and content of the terms and phrases.

Moreover, a response to bioethical issues, if such issues are put forward on the agenda of the Preparatory Committee of the Synod, must be done with extreme caution and with wise theological diligence, so that Orthodox anthropology is not altered in the name of science, as, unfortunately, some texts have already been, according to a previous letter (5 October 2006) of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece.

Personally, I have confidence in His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece, who is distinguished for his sensitivity, his ecclesiology and his democratic culturation, and I believe he will handle and take into account all the theological and ecclesiastical aspects of these issues, so our Church at the upcoming Holy and Great Synod will participate excellently prepared, because we have a number of very capable and experienced Hierarchs and theologians with excellent theological training.

The issue is not merely to convene the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church, but to remain throughout history as Holy and Great, and be a successor to the Seventh Ecumenical Synod, the Synod of 879-880 (recognized by the Seventh Ecumenical Synod as the Eighth Ecumenical Synod), the Synod of 1351 (Ninth Ecumenical Synod) and the Pan-Orthodox Synod of 1848, which should be mentioned, as is done in such great Synods, so as not to seem cut off from previous Synods, but as a continuation to them. If reference to previous Ecumenical and Great Synods does not take place, or if only Seven Ecumenical Synods are reported and the others are omitted, then there will be serious theological and ecclesiastical problems. This is the real challenge not just of history, but of actual ecclesiastical sacred history, which is determined from a theological, ecclesiological and canonical perspective.

There must be good preparation for the future convening Synod of the year 2016, so that it actually contributes to the unity of the Church and not encourage or become conducive to creating schisms within the Church, which would break its unity.

Source: Ekklesiastiki Paremvasi, "Ἡ Σύναξη τῶν Προκαθημένων τῶν Ὀρθοδόξων Ἐκκλησιῶν", March 2014. Translated by John Sanidopoulos.