What was originally billed as “the Great and Holy Council” threatens to leave a legacy of a great and unholy mess. The mess to which I refer is the bitter battle and division swirling around the question of whether certain documents produced by the council were genuine and unexceptionable or erroneous and heretical. The statement on ecumenism draws most of the fire, with some people saying that the use of the term “church” in the statement to describe non-Orthodox Christian groups denies our dogma that Orthodoxy alone is the one true Church, and other people denying such a conclusion. Accordingly some say that the council preaches a heretical ecumenism and should be soundly and loudly denounced, and others say that even if the council was a bit of a yawn, its conclusions were sound enough so that only a fanatic would deny them. The battle lines were drawn even before the council concluded, with many shots over the bow being fired before the attendees of the council returned home.
It cannot be said that the Ecumenical Patriarch has done much to de-escalate matters and help everyone involved to relax. Voices from the Phanar were saying that the conclusions reached by the council were binding upon everyone, including those churches like Russia who did not attend the council. Further, Patriarch Bartholomew “called on the Archbishop of Athens to prevent reconsideration of the results of the Holy and Great Council and defend the documents approved at it” and called on the Greek archbishop “‘to influence’ those bishops who disagree with the decisions made at Crete”. He also warned that the Ecumenical Patriarchate “would break off all contacts” with such individuals who disagreed.
A number of individuals did indeed disagree, among them Greek archpriest Theodore Zisi. After repeatedly asking his bishop Metropolitan Anthimos of Thessaloniki to disavow the charges of ecclesiological heresy and receiving no reply whatsoever, and after being publically rebuked by him, on the past Sunday of Orthodoxy he ceased to commemorate him. Thereupon Metropolitan Anthimos suspended him.
Things are hot in Romania as well as Greece. Those opponents of the council who persist in vocal denunciation of it will face “disciplinary, administrative and canonical sanctions”—i.e. suspension or deposition.
I am not a big fan of the council. The decision to ask only representatives of the universally-recognized autocephalous churches and not all the bishops that could attend, the decision to exclude such pressing problems from its agenda as the status of the Orthodox Church in America, and the other bishops in the so-called “diaspora”, the decision to meet for only one week—all of these give the impression of a stage-managed event, the purpose of which was to make a splash in the international press and aggrandize the Ecumenical Patriarchate, not to resolve the many pressing issues facing the Church. If one were serious about dealing with modernity as Vatican II attempted to deal with it, one wonders why the Great and Holy Council didn’t invite a similar number of bishops to attend as Vatican II did and spend a similar amount of time debating.
The real problem however is in the aftermath. One can declare the event “great and holy” all one likes, but in Orthodox theology what makes a council ecumenical or great and holy is its reception by the faithful after the attendees have returned and the rank and file start to debate its findings. Long ago we told Rome that although the Faith may be defined by bishops in council, it is recognized and preserved by the totality of the people of God throughout the world. That is how we know that the council of Nicea in 325 was a true council and the later council of Sirmium in 357 was not; how the iconodule council again held in Nicea in 787 was a true council and the iconoclast council held in Hieria in 754 was not. Doubtless the bishops meeting in Sirmium and Hieria loudly declared their gatherings were great and holy, but the verdict on their greatness, holiness, and authenticity lay with the people who considered their findings afterward, not with them.
That is why it is a mistake to shut down discussion. It is hard to listen to voices saying things one violently objects to, especially if what they object to is something you said. It is even harder to bear with discussions when one finds oneself personally the target of denunciation. It is true that not all discussions are equally polite. Some are quite impolite and the language used inflammatory and over-reaching. But shutting down the discussion is still a mistake, for the discussions are the way the Church at large has of eventually making up its mind so that the council will either be received as genuine or rejected as erroneous. Besides, the discussions will take place anyway. Sometimes one wonders if the bishops trying to silence their opposition have ever heard of the inter-net or social media. Heavy-handed attempts to pre-empt or forbid working through the topic only serve to polarize matters further and make true dialogue more difficult. It might even provoke schism. Denunciations of the council need to be answered, not silenced. If the council is truly that great and holy, the people will work things through eventually and know soon enough. Bishops need not only the boldness to speak the truth, but also the patience to wait while their faithful flocks receive what they have spoken. After all, the truth of Orthodoxy is ultimately preserved not in the Phanar, but in heaven. The one who ultimately guides the Church is not the Ecumenical Patriarch, but the Holy Spirit. It is time to relax and trust Him.