How I See Things After the Orthodox Council in Crete


Please note: The following represents my personal opinions and is not in the name of anyone but myself.

The big Crete Meet of 2016 has come and gone, and (despite what some seemed to be suggesting) the world has in fact not ended, the Orthodox have in fact not been sold out to union with a non-Orthodox body, and it all really had nothing to do with the “Brexit” going on over in the British Isles (yes, I read multiple pieces that suggested a thematic link; here’s one).

As is well known to anyone who’s followed these events closely, four of the fourteen universally recognized Orthodox churches did not participate in the Crete Meet—Bulgaria, Georgia, Antioch and Russia (Serbia was out and then went back in)—while one church (the OCA) wasn’t invited, since its autocephaly (but not Orthodoxy) isn’t universally recognized.

Bulgaria and Georgia pulled out because they wanted more time to work on the documents before the council—they had specific objections. Antioch pulled out mainly because after three years of pleas for help its suffering at the hands of the Jerusalem Patriarchate wasn’t going to be addressed. (We have schedules to keep, I gather.) And Russia pulled out because the unanimity with which the council was supposed to be conducted was clearly not in place (a unanimity that goes back to the genesis of the council).

It’s been written (see that “Brexit” article linked above) that the objections to the Crete Meet (I think we should get that going as a meme) were based in nationalism or ethnophyletism, i.e., the desire to keep to one’s own and not connect with the diversity of the Orthodox world. Of course, some also seem to use ethnophyletism to mean anything that isn’t submission to a single, supposedly universal culture, i.e., anti-colonialism. But in these broad condemnations of ethnophyletism (which largely don’t make it into English but are part of the subtext of intra-Orthodox relations) it’s rarely explained how ethnicity or nationalism has anything to do with the objections of those being subjected to the accusation.

And without getting too deep into the Brexit stuff, I think some analogy can be made here, though not in the direction of nationalism but rather self-governance. It isn’t nationalism for a local people to want to govern themselves locally, nor is it ethnophyletism to expect that local culture be respected and taken into pastoral account. True ethnophyletism is using culture or ethnicity as a way to circumvent the universal spirit and canonical order of the Church (e.g., churches for only one ethnic group or bishops that must be of that ethnicity), which is a sin against catholicity. But it is likewise a sin against catholicity to use the claim of catholicity to impose a foreign culture on people who simply want to be themselves. No single culture within Orthodoxy has a monopoly on catholicity. This question was settled by the Apostles in Acts 15.

I have little doubt that the fear of “the other” may well have played some part in the difficulty of getting this gathering together. But to chalk up objections solely to a kind of racist sectarianism is dismissive and, frankly, insulting to the very real objections that were raised by the churches who were engaged throughout the decades-long preparation process but did not participate in the meeting in Crete. Yes, it is a fearful thing to come together after a long time apart, but after literally decades of work together, it seems like a cheap accusation to call objectors racists (or, one may imagine, barbarians) when they voice concerns that have nothing to do with race or culture.

In any event, I wanted to give some assessment of how I understand the events leading up to Crete and what may come next, not in terms of the minutiae of the church politics nor even in terms of the specifics of the documents but rather as to where all this puts us as a Church trying to live with one another and become holy as one Body of Christ.

He Called All to Unity

First and certainly most importantly, it was stated again and again that the goal of the gathering was unity. “He called all to unity,” the phrase from the Pentecostal kontakion, was used as a tagline for the council.

Yet my heart was sorrowful that the unity which was spoken so much about seemed largely to be in terms of organization and schedule, designed to create the right “optics” of a church coming together. That so much was about the wheels of administration turning was amplified for me when, in one exchange I was part of, I was told that Antioch’s three years of trying to restore communion with Jerusalem was too last-minute of an issue that shouldn’t get in the way of the set dates for the council. This was just one layman speaking, of course, but that was exemplified in more official channels, as well. Antioch’s problems could wait until after the council. It was expected that they come to Crete even though they were out of communion with Jerusalem.

This wasn’t just about Antioch, though. The other three churches who did not attend also asked for a delay so that unanimity could be achieved. Moscow even asked for emergency meetings before the gathering so that things could be worked out first. But the answer was no, again and again.

So real unity actually took a back seat in the run-up to Crete. Getting all the brothers at the table was not as important as getting most of them there at the assigned times and dates.

At the same time, however, steps to unity were indeed taken, but they were taken more by the fact of moving toward the council than by its actual execution. What do I mean? For more than fifty years now, the various Orthodox churches have been working on getting a council together. That’s an enormously important fact all on its own, and it should not be overlooked. For a very long time, some of the Orthodox churches would not speak with each other, and in some cases, were prevented from meeting together by the great powers of the world, most especially the Soviet Union. It is therefore understandable that such isolation is not easily overcome. A huge step has been taken in that they were even trying and that public statements were being made by many of the churches all on the same topic.

It is this development in all its difficulty that makes unanimity so critical at this stage, something that Antioch stressed. If in the great councils of ages past there was not always literal unanimity, it was at least within the context of all those gathered feeling as though they were truly part of one body, so that disagreements would be worked out together as a family. But in our day, it is not clear that all the Orthodox churches really feel that they are part of the same family. Some even seem to act as though they would be better off if schism with certain parties were to occur. May God forbid it!

This is what I mean by unanimity, not that councils are not actually the place for substantive discussion and decision making but rather that they are a place where all are at peace with each other, a peace that flows from the common Eucharistic table. This was not achieved, but it still could be.

Despite all this and despite the clear setbacks, that we are even talking about trying to get on the same page is a big, big deal. Now if we can only get everyone in the same room together often enough that we get to know each other, then something really beautiful would happen. We would learn that when one part of the body is hurting, we are all hurting. We cannot go on with an “agenda” so long as there is a wound in the body.

What Was Missing from the Agenda

Yes, “He called all to unity,” or in the Antiochian translation, “to one unity”:

When the High One descended, confusing tongues, He divided the nations. And when He distributed the fiery tongues He called all to one unity. Wherefore, in unison we glorify the most Holy Spirit. (Kontakion of Pentecost)

But that call to unity was not merely a call. It was also a giving of the Holy Spirit, in which the fire of the Spirit kindled in the hearts of the disciples of Jesus and sent them into all the world to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ. This, I believe, was missing from the agenda in Crete. Mention is made in the documents of evangelism, but there was no plan put together to evangelize the world or even to evangelize the traditional lands of Orthodoxy which are in serious need of it (have a look at the church attendance rates in Orthodox countries sometime to see what I mean).

The biggest gap in what came from the gathering was in terms of the so-called “diaspora” which I have argued (as have others) is key to the potential for the Church to come alive in a new way in our time, a Pentecostal renewal that helps us to realize where we are in history.

And where are we? We are not in the era of Christendom (which is where our ecclesiastical communications tend to speak as though we are), nor are we in the era of the battle of the Church against the secular world (which is where many of our ministries tend to speak as though we are). Rather, we are in a new apostolic era, an era in which the Gospel of Jesus Christ has basically become unknown and even unbelievable for most people (even professed Christians)—it is an apostolic era, in which communicating the core of the Gospel is required and (for some) martyrdom is required.

So why is the diaspora a key component in this apostolic era? It is because we are scattered throughout the earth and have the opportunity to bring this faith to the nations. The diaspora is the greatest opportunity given to the Church in our time. We have a missionary force spread throughout all the world. Will we use it?

We are not a true “diaspora” in the sense of waiting to go back “home.” This whole earth is not our home, anyway. Rather, we should be a diaspora in the sense of that first Christian diaspora, which scattered at the stoning of Stephen but took the opportunity to preach the word everywhere. And they preached it in language that made sense in that time and place.

At Crete, there was also no plan put forward for addressing the pastoral needs of the people of God, which have changed over the centuries and are still largely met without coming to terms of with modernity—a process that does not require changing the substance of the Orthodox faith but rather how it is pastorally applied and especially communicated. This is all bound up in our historical problem of not really realizing when we are.

This is not limited to the Orthodox, by the way. Almost all Christians have this problem. It is not a problem of modernizing in content (some have tried this) or form (some have tried this, too), but in mentality. We don’t have to become “moderns” in the sense of thinking in a secular way (we already are, actually), but we do have to understand how to speak the language of Jesus Christ in this time and place. This is indeed a Pentecostal undertaking, when all are being called into one unity. Our tongues are confused and divided, like the nations, but if we will renew the Holy Spirit in ourselves, then we can speak again the language of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

It’s this emphasis which I feel was almost entirely absent from what happened in Crete, and that pains me. But even though that was not on display to the world in Crete (though I am sure it might have been present among some of the bishops), it is certainly at work in other parts of the Church’s activity. There are indeed bishops, clergy and laymen speaking and acting as though the Holy Spirit is still inspiring us to speak to the crises of our own time and most especially to continue the mission to gather all human persons into the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

So What Now?

Certainly, the Cretan documents will be mulled over by the churches and interpreted. I have already read criticisms about the documents that they are open to interpretation, that a truly Orthodox text would always be plain and not open to various interpretations. Anything truly worthy of the tradition of Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils would surely have but one obvious interpretation.

But I cannot think of a single text that has ever been written which does not—by the fact of being language—leave room for a variety of interpretations. Language has to be interpreted, and of course interpretive language itself also has to be interpreted (which is why hermeneutics is one of the great philosophical preoccupations of our age).

Scripture—which is surely worthy of the tradition of the Fathers and the Ecumenical Councils—is notoriously interpreted in a variety of ways.

But this is true even for texts which are intended to be purely technical (I had to re-read a manual for programming a thermostat this week, since it could be interpreted variously). This is why we have an authoritative episcopacy and not an angelically dictated Qur’an (which is ironically also subject to a variety of interpretation, especially as jurisprudence).

That said, I cannot predict what will be the reception of what happened in Crete. I’m pretty sure that a lot of criticisms will be leveled at the documents and how they are already being interpreted. (I have some criticisms myself, mainly of their blandness and lack of clarity.) But what is more important to me is how all this affects us in a truly pastoral sense. And of course in Orthodoxy all theology must ultimately be pastoral theology, a theology that is applied to the life of the Church as a whole and also to the life of the individual Christian.

My sense is that the process we’ve been working on together and which revealed itself plainly to be broken and in a state of crisis is nevertheless being revealed as part of the agenda of the Holy Spirit, an agenda which is above anything devised by man. Perhaps we will need to have this crisis and its accompanying crises continue to develop so that there will be some kind of big explosion or conflagration (or pick your own metaphor) in which the old ways of doing ecclesial relationships are broken apart so that a renewal can come.

Perhaps part of enabling that renewal might look like this: Let’s have permanent representation from all the Orthodox churches at the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s facility in Chambesy, Switzerland, so that an ongoing discussion occurs between the churches. And let’s have great councils every few years so that the plenitude of the Church gets used to meeting together in its episcopacy. Both of these suggestions are already out there, and both seem to me to embody the kind of unanimity that is needed for us truly to be alive with and in one another.

We do not need a revision of dogma or liturgy or a reform in the sense undertaken by the non-Orthodox confessions. But we do need a reform in that our ability is impaired for Christians of diverse tongues and languages to come together and see each other not as competing factions to be defeated but as brothers and sisters who share this house together under the one God and Father of all.

Will we see this encounter take place soon? I very much pray that we will. Is it possible? Of course it is possible, for with God all things are possible. (Without God, there really is no point to any of this.)

The hope we share is a Pentecostal hope in the sense that we have been given the Holy Spirit to bring all into one unity through the fire of the Gospel that we preach throughout all the world, baptizing and discipling as we go. And it is also an eschatological hope in that we look to that great Day when all will finally be revealed and we will understand everything that the Holy Spirit was sent to accomplish. And in both senses, we bring that hope into this very moment.

So I will continue to hope, and I will continue to pray. And if I can contribute in some way to this encounter of brothers and sisters, then I will.

Even so, come, Lord Jesus.


  1. Thanks Fr Andrew for your excellent article. I’ve tried a few times to put words to those in my church regarding the council and somehow just felt like I was muddling things up. While your article is your opinion, there is a ring of truth and that is helpful. Cheers from the backwash of Northern California.

  2. I know some have voiced a concern over the idea of “great councils every few years”, thinking that it would push the Church to rely more on administration than Spirit and true unity in its endeavors. It would be a step away from conciliar action towards administrative action, which is the wrong way to go. What are your thoughts on this, Father?

  3. Excellent article Fr. Andrew. I am sorry the Bulgarians did not participate. I might not truly grasp the hindrances to their attendance but your descriptions give a different picture of the reason for the Council than what I heard in my little church. As a therapist I know that just being present in a group can bring healing.

  4. You calling it an “apostolic age” reminded me of Vladyka Dmitri, of blessed memory. Well said, Father!

  5. I think there were some dogmatic issues on the table at Crete, not so much for reform as for further clarification. Especially, I think most of what was discussed at Crete is in one way or another about ecclesiology. The questions Crete asked–“How ought we to decide when a Church can rule itself and how do we grant that? How do we normalize canonical situations in the ‘diaspora’? Can Orthodox Christians marry non-Orthodox Christians, and if so, how ought their marriage to function? What is the theological relationship between the Orthodox Church and the other Christian Churches, and what does this mean for our ecumenical dialogues and their purposes?”–all have to do with defining some practical corollaries of the dogmatic confession of “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church.” And it was on this subject, especially that last question, that the Council experienced its deepest divisions. Met. Kallistos Ware has rightly said that future Councils need to explore this question in its entirety, with deep historical honesty and theological openness. Met. John Zizioulas stood firm at the Council in asserting that the title “Church” was never denied to Roman Catholicism in official Orthodox contexts for nearly 1,000 years. There was talk (whether by anyone actually present at the Council I cannot say) in the lead up to the Council of possible adoption of Fr. Georges Florovsky’s distinction between the mystical and canonical boundaries of the Church, or, perhaps more ancient, St. Basil the Great’s distinction between heresies, schisms, and parasynagogues.

    So Orthodoxy does not perhaps need reform in dogma, but certainly further work in the theological task of defining further and applying the dogmata that have already been promulgated, and perhaps in the process defining new dogmata. The faith in its essence does not change, but our understanding of it certainly does. I believe Met. Kallistos is correct in his suspicion that the relationship between Orthodoxy and the non-Orthodox world, the present divisions in global Christianity, are indicative of a deeper mystery than we have hitherto plumbed, a mystery which itself is integrally tied to the mystery of the Church. We have to wrestle seriously with the question of whether or not spiritual grace and ecclesial reality exist elsewhere in the Christian world: the time when we could throw our hands up in a shrug, because those people were far away and we didn’t talk to them, or else simply spit at the mention of their name, has passed.

    On the issue of Liturgy, however, reform is far more appropriate: individual Churches have been reforming the Liturgy for the duration of their histories. As you well know and have written on before, Father, the very fact that we all celebrate a singular Liturgy (that of St. John Chrysostom) is itself a reform in the life of the Church away from the liturgical diversity that existed in the early centuries. There were other reforms as well: e.g., the choice to begin the Liturgy from within the altar rather than to process into the Church, the removal of the OT reading in the first millennium, the introduction of the Trisagion, the proliferation and solidification of iconostases, etc. Liturgical development and reform have always been going on in the Church’s life. There are certainly areas in our modern liturgical praxis in need of reform: there are both excesses and impoverishments that are harmful to our communal life as a Church.

    But what I would much rather see, instead of liturgical reform, is a liturgical renaissance, not just of the golden age of Byzantine or Russian liturgical life (beautiful though they are), but of the Church’s primitive diversity and freedom in liturgical celebration. Bishops used to improvise the anaphora; the Liturgy was originally celebrated vesperally as the central piece of an evening meal at the end of the Sabbath (and hence, right as Sunday technically begins); the older liturgical formulae, as preserved in the Didache and St. Justin Martyr, show us a far more apocalyptic and eschatolically oriented Liturgy, with clear associations between the Eucharist and the coming Messianic banquet, the coming Davidic kingdom which Jesus will rule, and the end of the age.

    In none of this am I disparaging the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, for all of its beauty and wonder. But we must come to recognize in our self-examination that this was not our first Liturgy or our only one (the common rite of Constantinople used to be St. Basil’s; the imposition of Constantinopolitan praxis on the rest of the Orthodox world did not occur until after the initial schism with Rome). Moreover, we do not even celebrate it in all of the pomp and splendor that its original celebrants did (we generally do not process into Church; we generally do not have an OT reading in the Liturgy; many of our modern liturgical practices are severely abbreviated forms of what were originally much longer things, like the prokeimenon which was originally a whole Psalm; etc.).

    Those are my thoughts. But what do I know?

    Warm regards,

    1. A minor quibble with an otherwise interesting and useful summary of liturgical history: David wrote, “the Liturgy was originally celebrated vesperally as the central piece of an evening meal at the end of the Sabbath (and hence, right as Sunday technically begins).” This is not quite correct. The early pattern was that Christians would gather twice on Sunday. Early in the morning, they would gather to read Scripture, preach, pray, and sing hymns. Then, after the work day ended, they would gather again for the Agape Feast, which included the celebration of the Eucharist. These two gatherings correspond to the two parts of the Divine Liturgy – the Liturgy of the Word and the Holy Communion. Eventually – perhaps in response to Roman suspicion regarding the evening gathering – the two gatherings were combined into a single morning synaxis, which has persisted ever since.

  6. I’m with you in that we must all [all Christians] be on the Discipleship Boat. The message of Jesus has to be the most important, or we are still being Pharisees… And still, Jesus sighs.

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