The Holy and Great Council: The Common Witness of the Orthodox Church

Photo: Albin Hillert/CEC

By Natallia Vasilevich

The Orthodox participants at the General Assembly of the Conference of European Churches (CEC) in Novi Sad, Serbia, have a common point of reference: the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. A number of Assembly participants were involved in the preparatory process of this Council and were in Crete two years ago to witness this important and long awaited conciliar event.

Metropolitan Stephanos of Tallinn and all Estonia was among the 161 Orthodox bishops who participated in the Council in June 2016. As a Primate of the Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church he was a member of the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Speaking at the Orthodox confessional meeting at the Assembly he referred to the documents of the Holy and Great Council as being the crux for Orthodox witness in the world.

According to Metropolitan Stephanos the relevance of the Council documents is not something that is simply automatic. It is not just enough for the documents to exist – they must be practically implemented. “I think it’s an imperative for us, whenever we have opportunity, like here, to witness that we as Orthodox are living in the 21st century and those are our common positions. We have to be consistent in what we say and in what we do”, he concluded.

Later he admitted that one of the most delicate issues during discussions was around the document Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World, and the formulation found which helped reconcile the different positions of the Council participants “to accept the historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches”.

“In the 21st century we cannot anymore ignre the reality of the ecumenical character of the Orthodox church both in the sense of being worldwide – not just Eastern – and also in the sense of inter-Christian dialogue”, said Archpriest Constantin Miron, who was at Crete as an advisor of the Ecumenical Patriarchate delegation and is serving on the Assembly Worship Committee.

Fr. Miron, the rector of the Dormition Orthodox parish in Cologne, which directly faces thebusiest railway bridge of Germany over the Rhine, uses the metaphor of a train to describe the Council’s role on a historical timeline: “When you are traveling by train from time to time you have to look outside of the window and to your watch in order to see where you are – do we reach already the next station or maybe are we late?  Both are needed to understand where we are and where we are going. That is what the Holy and Great Council has done for the travel of our Holy Orthodox Church and in a certain way for all Christianity.

He summarised the content of the Council’s documents as “our witness – and it includes witness on justice, peace, hospitality – based on total respect for the human being and the dignity of our fellow human being, and that’s the key to overcome conflicts of any kind. This is the living practising of the commandment to love your neighbour”.

Since 2009 his colleague from Poland, Fr. Andrzej Kuźma, together with representatives of all the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, was involved in the pre-conciliar process  preparing and discussing the documents of the Council,.

“The very event of the Council was of extraordinary importance”, insisted Fr. Kuźma, who since 2009 has been the lecturer of the Chair of Patrology of the Orthodox Faculty of the Christian Theological Academy in Warsaw. “According to the number of bishops who took part in the Council, it was the most important event of the Orthodox church since the 8th century”.

He believes that the Council succeeded in responding to today’s burning issues for the Orthodox Church. Fr. Kuźma appreciates the documents approved by the Council and sees them as a reference point for a common Orthodox witness. “Two documents of the Council, namely the Message of the Council and the Encyclical of the Council express what we were working on for the long time. They include reflections on many modern issues, including the issues of the life in Europe today and issues of the ecumenical agenda, and we already refer to those documents when presenting our position”, he said.

The number of women participating in the Council could be counted on the fingers of one hand. Among them was Sonila Rembeci, who is now representing the Orthodox Church of Albania at the Assembly, as part of a delegation that was made as deliberately diverse as was possible. According to her this was done to show that the Council is not only a concern of the church hierarchies but of the plemora of the church and is a witness to its full, conciliar character. This conciliar character also continues in the process of reception of the Council’s work. “The documents of the Holy and Great Council are relevant. We constantly discuss them again and again and try to understand their content better and more clearly”, said Rembeci, who appreciates that they have been translated into Albanian.

Nikos Kosmidis, speaking in relation to Greece, does not share the same enthusiasm. Nikos, who is now on the Assembly Worship Committee, was a member of the local hosting team at the Orthodox Academy, where the Council took place. He feels that the Council’s decisions have not had the same impact in Greece, although he admits that on the international level and in the ecumenical movement they play an important role. “However, I don’t care about all references to the Holy and Great Council made here, because I lack this reference back home, in our dioceses, and I don’t know what the point is to speak about the Holy and Great Council to non-Orthodox, while we don’t speak about it to the Orthodox. The Council was first of all to be addressed to Orthodox believers,” says an obviously concerned and disappointed Nikos.

At the same time however, this young Greek ecumenical leader was very inspired by the Council and the opportunity to speak with prominent members of the Orthodox hierarchy and theologians. He was especially pleased to talk to Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon. “He was kind of the soul of the Council and of many decades of its preparations, and I was happy for an opportunity to speak with this very wise man and brilliant theologian”, said Nikos. “I even strongly challenged him directly, asking if he thinks it might be possible that his theology is heretical! And he was really polite with me and ready to discuss it!”

Archbishop Joris Vercammen of the Old Catholic Church was at the Council as an ecumenical observer. He admits that relating to one another on such a scale is “a kind of exercise”. The Orthodox theology and the Orthodox spirituality have a lot to offer to the other churches and to the world.

“What was happening at the Council also relates to the theological discussions in the ecumenical movement and in the universal church. That’s very urgent and that’s very important, and we need the Orthodox,” he said.

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