THE 2016 ORTHODOX SYNOD AT CRETE: THE COUNCIL THAT WASN'T
The June 2016 meeting of some of the world's Orthodox hierarchs - dubbed by some as a "Holy and Great Council" - ended with an affirmation of "no compromise" when it comes to Orthodox teachings.
The meeting in Crete will be remembered for its failure to secure the attendance of four of the 14 self-governing Churches, including Antioch, Georgia, Bulgaria, and Russia.
Those who were closest to the Patriarch of Constantinople who arranged the historic meeting were adamant that it retained its authority for the Orthodox world and its decisions must be followed by all the Churches, including those that were not represented. Speaking on June 24, the Council spokesman, Archbishop Job Getcha of Telmessos (a Canadian of Ukrainian background, born in Winnipeg), said the Council's decisions would be binding for all churches, despite decisions by the four patriarchates to stay away.
As proof, he added that voting procedures were "valid in democratic countries" even if some citizens chose not to participate. However, this was rejected by an official from Russia's Orthodox Church.
"Comparing a Church council to democratic procedures is hardly fitting or relevant -- there'll be great embarrassment if church rules are checked for their correspondence to democratic norms," Archpriest Nikolay Balashov, deputy head of the Russian church's external relations department, told the Interfax-Religion news agency. "There's been no democracy in the Church since the first centuries, and there won't be now, since democracy means the rule of people, and power in the Church belongs to God."
The tone of the final statements of the meeting was in many ways cautious, including:
• An assertion of the Orthodox Church as the "authentic continuation of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church";
• A call for the protection of Middle Eastern Christians;
• Affirmation of Church councils that condemned 'Protestantism and the move to unite with the Roman Catholic Church', already accepted as authoritative;
• A call for the need to re-evangelize God's people in contemporary secularized societies, as well as the evangelization of those who have not yet come to know Christ;
• The declaration that the contemporary crisis in marriage and the family is "a consequence of the crisis of freedom as responsibility, its decline into a self-centered self-realisation, its identification with individual self-gratification... and the loss of the sacramental character of the union between man and woman";
• A warning against the risks of unchecked scientific progress, particularly in the realms of biology and neuroscience.
• A statement that the protection of religious freedom is a fundamental human right, including the right to freedom of worship and practice alone and in community, in private and in public, the right to religious education and to full function and exercise of their religious duties without direct or indirect interference by the state;
• A declaration that heterosexual unions were an indispensable condition for marriage, barring church members from any participation in or celebration of same-sex unions or any other form of cohabitation.
In its document on ties with other Christian denominations, the Council said Orthodox churches had "participated in the ecumenical movement from its outset," seeing this as "a consistent expression of the apostolic faith and tradition in new historical circumstances."
Each Orthodox church was permitted to bring up to 25 bishops and six advisers to the Council, procedures for which were finalized last January by the Orthodox Synaxis, or assembly of Orthodox primates, after a century of on-and-off planning.
Yet news since the completion of the meeting has pointed to serious divisions over both the final declarations, and the format of the meeting as a whole.
Organizers repeatedly asserted that the meeting was binding on all Orthodox Christians because all autocephalous churches had signed declarations approving the planned event. However, the synod of the Church of Antioch released photos of their official documents, where representatives had not signed on, instead writing in their rejection of the format, in the space provided for their signature.
Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos of the Church of Greece released a written statement that there was strong pressure on hierarchs of his church to sign on to statements declaring heterodox communities to be viewed as equally part of the historic, Orthodox Church - something the metropolitan said would have gone against everything he had ever said or written.
The Russian Orthodox Church spokesman said it would "make an attentive study" of the final documents at a July session of its governing Holy Synod, and "decide its attitude" to them.
The synod of the Church of Antioch later formally stated that it viewed the meeting as a preparatory one, and that it was neither Great, Holy, or a Council of the Orthodox Church, since many patriarchs were absent.
Noting that the goal of this major meeting was the manifestation of the unity of the Orthodox Church, many media outlets suggested these major differences underscored sore divisions among the Orthodox. Yet it was fairly pointed out by one observer that almost all the Orthodox jurisdictions - those attending and those who were absent - were in fact in complete agreement about the issues surrounding the meeting: they were simply unified against the agenda long advocated by the organizers from Constantinople.
- With notes taken from Mark Woods, Christian Today Contributing Editor, and Jonathan Luxmoore, NCR Today.