It came as a surprise when the heads of Orthodox churches, at their March 2014 gathering, announced that the long awaited “Holy and Great Council” would finally convene in 2016 in Istanbul.
Early initiatives toward the convocation of such a Council go back to the early 20th century, but turmoil affecting Orthodox countries throughout the century had made it impossible. More recently, divergences among Orthodox had led many to believe that the Council would indefinitely be postponed. Little is known at this stage about practical and other issues pertaining to the planned Council, but a number of analyses have now been published following the announcement.
Decisions at the Council should be reached unanimously—something that may impede some decisions, but is meant to avoid further divisions. Differences of views between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and of Moscow continue, writes Fr. Christophe D’Aloisio (rector of an Orthodox parish in Brussels) in the Messager Orthodoxe (issue 157); they do not completely agree on the list of autocephalous and autonomous Churches (the autocephaly granted by Moscow to the Orthodox Church of America is not recognized by Constantinople, while the autonomy granted by Constantinople to the Orthodox Church of Estonia is not recognized by Moscow.).
Due to those differences, autonomous Churches were not invited to preconciliar meetings. It won’t be easy for the Council to reach an agreement regarding the competencies recognized to the Patriarch of Constantinople in relation to his primacy of honor. Intra-Orthodox issues and inter-Orthodox relations dominate indeed the agenda, writes Catholic theologian Barbara Hallensleben (University of Fribourg, Switzerland) in Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West (November-December).
The Council can be expected to help Orthodox Churches define their views in matters of ecumenism and regarding the ecclesial status of non-Orthodox Churches, adds Georgios Vlantis (Ludwig-Maximilans University Munich and Volos Academy) in the same issue. Moreover, the Council is supposed to help reinforce pan-Orthodox unity as well as to clarify issues of parallel Orthodox jurisdictions in the “diaspora.” It should also allow Orthodox Churches to refine their understanding of Tradition: what is normative, and what is rather more of an absolutization of the past?
Due to the strength of conservative currents within Orthodox Churches (including some loud anti-Western and anti-ecumenical voices), it would be unrealistic to expect that the Council will lead to a change of theological paradigm in Orthodoxy, writes Vlantis—anyway, it is not supposed to decide doctrinal questions. D’Aloisio remarks that not all diocesan bishops will be invited to the Council (although feasible number-wise), with each autocephalous church represented by its primate along with a maximal number of 24 bishops. D’Aloisio notes that this marks a break with the traditional way of representing local Churches at a Council.
(Messager Orthodoxe, ACER, 91 rue Olivier de Serres, 75015 Paris, France – Religion & Gesellschaft in Ost und West, Birmensdorferstr. 52, P.O. Box 9329,8036 Zürich, Switzerland, http://www.g2w.eu)