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MESSAGE OF THE MONTH
On the 2016 Holy Great Orthodox Synod
Set to Take Place in Crete on Pentecost, June 19th, 2016.
By George Karras, "Orthdox Heritage" Editor.
Over the last few weeks, we have received several questions relative to the upcoming 2016 “Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church,” organized under the leadership of the Constantinople Patriarchate. In response to such inquiries (and in the unfortunate absence of any concise document which the faithful may review) we are attempting to provide our readers various views relative to the purpose, agenda and potential outcomes of this gathering.
Most of what is presented within this article has been extracted from various opinions or writings by well-known and respected, traditional Orthodox bishops and theologians.1 We especially relied on a recently broadcasted three-hour interview of Dr. Dimitrios Tselengidis (professor of Dogmatics at the School of Theology of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki) on the radio station of the Metropolis of Piraeus, Greece. This program was a most enlightening presentation of the aforementioned topics and the concerns that exist among many relative to the potential outcome for the faithful and Orthodoxy at large. (For those of our readers who are fluent in Greek, the entire three-hour interview is available at “http://www.orthodoxia-ellhnismos.gr/2016/03/blog-post_4.html?m=1.”) Professor Tselengidis and several hierarchs have also written letters of concern to several Local Orthodox Churches (including those of Greece, Russia, Serbia, Georgia, Bulgaria, Alexandria, and Antioch); some of these have been translated into English and are available within the web pages of “http://www.pravoslavie.ru/english/.”
Our presentation is made based on the various questions which have been posed to us or ones which we have seen posted within various Orthodox web logs.2
Is this Orthodoxy’s “Eighth” Ecumenical Synod?
While it does not utilize this term, the title certainly implies that its organizers, through the Pan-Orthodox participation of sorts, desire that it be recognized as ecumenical in nature. This targeted recognition among the Orthodox faithful would certainly go a long way in the flock’s acceptance of the Synod’s decisions, as such decisions “resolve” the open items which are being included by the organizers within the currently planned agenda.
There has not been an Ecumenical Council since 787, when the Second Council of Nicaea resolved the heresy of iconoclasm. The organizers have been quoted as desiring to consider the Holy and Great Council as a continuation of the early ecumenical councils of the first Christian millennium. If this is the case, as part of its agenda and presentation, any Ecumenical council must commence with the reading and acceptance of the detailed decisions of the past seven ecumenical councils. Doing this, however, leads the participants in supporting past decisions which clearly stand against current agenda items such as the one relative to the all-important de facto recognition of heterodox “churches,” which appears to be a primary agenda topic, as discussed below.
Our readers should be aware that the term “Holy and Great” was preserved for the Church’s Ecumenical Synods and that the decisions of such Synods have been deemed as absolute and of no question by any of the Orthodox faithful whatsoever. Thus, one can surmise that the Synod’s organizers have an implied need in portraying the decisions of 2016 as “binding” for the universal Orthodox world.
There is also a concern that the term Ecumenical is not utilized so as to not offend the schismatic “churches,” more specifically the Roman Catholics and Protestants. The Synod’s organizers are thus overly concerned about the term “ecumenical” being preserved only for the Synods that include representatives from all other heterodox “churches.” This is in direct contrast of past Ecumenical Synods; more specifically, every Synod after the Fourth have excluded all heretics and schismatics, and still referred to themselves as Ecumenical, both in their accepted composition as well as their decisions. Thus, by the Synod’s title, we see that a significant motive for this Pan-Orthodox gathering is the recognition of the ecumenist movement and the other heterodox. This topic is discussed in detail by His Eminence Athanasios, Metropolitan of Limassol, Cyprus, in the article that is presented on page 9 of the current issue.
The Synod’s Invitees, Composition of Attendees
While the Synod aspires to be considered as Pan-Orthodox (and Ecumenical, in its decisions) unlike other Ecumenical Synods, it has not included all Orthodox Bishops within its invitation list. The invited Orthodox Primates of the various, world-wide Orthodox churches (14 in number), are to be accompanied by 23 members. As a result of this “stipulation,” the Churches of Greece and Russia, for example, will see most of their bishops absent from this all-important gathering, and (again) in direct contract of all past Ecumenical Synods. The Orthodox Church of Russia has some 350 bishops and less than 10% of them will be in attendance. Thus, the exclusion of bishops automatically precludes it from being truly characterized as Holy and Great. It is best that we think of it as an “expanded” Orthodox Synod of the Heads of the 14 Local Orthodox Churches. Another important point is the selection of the 23 intended attendees—no information has been provided for such a selection basis. The representation of the views of the non-attending bishops becomes problematic and the selection of the 23 directly classifies the non-selected bishops into a lesser, secondary class, clearly in violation of Orthodoxy’s Canons.
In contrast, all Orthodox hierarchs, even within the limitations of transportation during the first 10 centuries of Christianity, were invited and participated (with very few, justifiable exceptions) in the first seven Ecumenical Synods. At a time that technological advances enable travel and communications in an immensely more efficient manner, the world-wide participation of Orthodox hierarchy should have been a fundamental cornerstone of this gathering. And, of course, no reason has been provided by the organizers for such limited participation.
The Proceedings of Preparatory Meetings
The records and meeting minutes of all preparatory meetings (which have been held for several decades, at least five, and ended with the one that took place in Geneva, earlier this year) are not being made available. As a matter of fact, requests made by Orthodox bishops of the Church of Greece for such documents have been declined; the proceedings are being deemed by the Synod’s organizers as confidential and not open to the faithful or the Orthodox hierarchy at large. One thus wonders the reason for such secrecy and certainly provides the impression of its organizers wishing to hide information.
The Voting Protocol
The consensus of the Great Synod will be limited to one vote for each Local Autocephalous Church; all 14 Local Churches are planning to participate. Individual disagreements—should they happen among a minority of a given Local Church—will be set aside as “their internal affair,” something which is ecclesiologically unacceptable to any Pan-Orthodox Synod, when, indeed, the disagreement is over a subject of a doctrinal nature. And, the potential for minority views on vital topics, even among the “carefully selected” attendees, is very probable. Imagine if the theological positions of great saints who were in the minority circle (such as Sts. Athanasios the Great or St. Basil the Great or St. Photios the Great) were to be set aside for their “objections” to be addressed within or by their “Local Churches” and away from the audience of the truly Pan-Orthodox Synod of their time; the Arian heresy might have prevailed or the anathematizing of St. Photios by the Roman Catholic pope in the 869 Constantinople Council could have remained with the obvious repercussions for Orthodoxy.3
Most importantly, the exclusion of the great majority of Orthodox hierarchs excludes the ability of too many hierarchs to express and vote on any item is excluded. This is contrary to the Orthodox Canons of equality of views and votes amongst all Orthodox bishops, including the heads of the Church; the votes of the absolute majority of the Orthodox hierarchy shall not be a factor for any Synodical decisions whatsoever. Thus the cornerstone of ecclesiastical and spiritual foundation of the Orthodox Synodical system is violated; in clearer terms, the spiritual foundation of Orthodox Holy Tradition and Patristic spirituality (through the presence of the Holy Spirit that governed all past truly Pan-Orthodox Ecumenical Synods) are being dissolved and invalidated.
The planned composition and voting standards of the subject Synod are commonly found amongst the Roman Catholics. Their Synods (such as the Vatican II gathering) are characterized by the presence of absolute power in the hands of a few cardinals and the pope; thus, as in the cases of Catholicism, the conduct and subsequent decisions of the planned Holy and Great Synod are being based upon Caesar-like human authority instead of the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit.
Lastly, to this date, there exists no announcement as to how voting even amongst the participants shall take place. It appears that each Church in attendance shall have but one vote. As such, the views of every attending bishop, albeit already minimized, shall never be known or expressed within any voting structure. In other words, the heads of each Orthodox Church appear to be the voting members and represent the “majority views” of the other 23 members. Utilizing this method in past Ecumenical Synods would have (for example) excluded and robbed Orthodoxy of the views of Sts. Athanasios the Great, Basil the Great, and Nicholas of Myra who clearly represented the minority position against Arianism, at least at the onset of the First Ecumenical Council. It has been often that the minority views are the ones that preserved Orthodoxy through the last 2,000 years.
“hope” in the voting on any controversial topic is the possibility that one of
the 14 Local Churches votes against any favorable decisions that stands
against past Orthodox canons or Holy Patristic views. Should one of the
represented Churches vote against a measure, that agenda’s item is set aside
and no decisions around that topic can be made. Of course, even this is not
definitive and one wonders what will truly transpire amongst the various
Orthodox Church leaders, especially behind closed doors.
In summary, our concern evolves as to how this Pan-Orthodox Holy Great Synod will confess the one faith of the Church, with one mouth and with one heart? How will the fathers of the Synod be able to say, it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us? How will they demonstrate that they have the mind of Christ, as did the God-bearing Fathers of the Seven Ecumenical Councils of our Church?
The Synod’s Agenda
The agenda has been decided exclusively by the “appointed” representatives of the 14 Local Orthodox Churches. The selected items were never presented to their respective local synods for discussion or acceptance. Thus, it was their decision on what topics the Synods shall address and their respective Church heads adopted it absent of any discussions amongst their fellow bishops. This again reminds us of the ways and practices of Roman Catholics.
The proposed agenda has seen its topics move in and out over the last several months, with very little information being issued publically. As a matter of fact, the most accurate data that we have seen in writing is the one presented within the “U. S. Conference of Catholic Bishops” website! That alone alarms us greatly—there has been immense attention by the pope and his “bishops” towards the agenda and wishes for the successful outcome of the Orthodox Synod. As St. Kosmas Aitolos taught us, any Orthodox must be alarmed upon the receipt of any wishes from the Latin pope.
Here are the current agenda items and some thoughts on them:
The Mission of the Orthodox Church in Today’s World: The contribution of the Orthodox Church to the attainment of peace, justice, freedom, brotherhood and love between peoples and the removal of racial and other discrimination. Clearly a “social” topic on its first view and one that would normally be unworthy of a Pan-Orthodox Synod, but one that could introduce ecumenist dimensions in the efforts to (supposedly) normalize current social needs and norms. For example, one cannot ignore the evil forces of homosexual agendas that have penetrated many heterodox circles to not just mere acceptance and condoning but also extending into glorifying its existence. Any effort to normalize Pan-Orthodox views on social issues in today’s world could compromise fundamental dogmatic truths such as the one that involves homosexuality. The danger is rather apparent. In our view, the gospel of His Truth and the teachings of the Church’s Holy Fathers have divinely addressed the world’s social need over the last 2,000 years; and most certainly can do so for the rest of human history.
The Orthodox Diaspora: It shall be proposed that “Episcopal Assemblies” of all canonically recognized bishops in each region should be created (or founded) in the Diaspora regions which include the Americas as well as Australia/New Zealand regions and several western European countries. The “problem” of the Orthodox Diaspora is desired to be resolved as quickly as possible, and that it be organized in accordance with Orthodox ecclesiology, and the canonical tradition and practice of the Orthodox Church. However, that shall come later. In the meantime, the “Episcopal Assemblies” shall serve the primary goal of supporting the unity of Orthodoxy within their respective, assigned geographical jurisdictions, through a series of actions.
Autonomy and the Means of Proclaiming It: The ecclesiological, canonical and pastoral aspects of the institution of autonomy shall be discussed, the method of initiation and completion of the process of proclaiming autonomy and implications arising from the proclamation of autonomy.
The Sacrament of Marriage and Its Impediments: There is no question that the institute of family is threatened today by such phenomena as extreme secularization and a complete degradation of family and society’s moral values. The sacral nature of marriage (only between a man and a woman) is a fundamental and indisputable doctrine of the Orthodox Church, as has also been the position of disallowing any mixed marriage whatsoever. Current positions, as formulated within Synodical documents relative to the “practice church oikonomía in conformance with the principles established in church canons” most certainly appears to be the start of watering down the dogmatic posture of Orthodoxy relative to the Sacrament of marriage, starting with the creation of “allowances for marriages with non-Orthodox.” It is indeed incomprehensible for anyone to attempt justifying the basis for the acceptance of any such union with a non-believer through the sacramental energy of the Holy Spirit, be it for oikonomía or any other reason. The Mysteries of His Church are exclusively for Her faithful children; they can never be held or canonically accepted with non-faithful parties of whatever other non-Orthodox religious persuasion.
Concerning the impediments to marriage due to whatever possible situation (kinship by blood, kinship by affinity and adoption, spiritual kinship, marriage of priests, etc.) these have been well defined by the Church’s Canons and any re-affirmation equally carries the suspicion that some may be “worthy of re-visiting.” More specifically, special dispensation for mixed marriages with the heterodox and permission for the second marriages for priests due to “certain circumstances” had been topics in draft form; it is believed that disagreement(s) by members of some Local Churches led to this latest proposed topic.
The Importance of Fasting and Its Observance Today: Fasting is God’s commandment; the Synod is supposed to affirm the obligatory character of Nativity, Apostles’, and Dormition fasts. Who has ever doubted the extreme value of fasting to warrant it as worthy of becoming a topic of discussion in the 21st century? Perhaps there is a movement to “lessen it,” as has been repeatedly rumored. Indeed, ecclesiastical circles have reported that the initially intended topic was for the re-consideration of our current fasting rules; and, that it was altered to its current topic title of “The Importance of Fasting and Its Observance Today,” after strong disagreement(s) by members of some Local Churches. One, though, wonders as to whether an effort of sorts may still take place during Synodical discussions to introduce a fasting morphology or tropology that differs from what has been established and passed to us by Holy Tradition and the Church’s Holy Fathers.
Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World: This is greatest area of concern by many respected theologians (refer to one such view that we presented in our article on page 9 of the current issue). Who or rather what faith(s) compose this “Rest of the Christian World?” It is apparent that the Synod agenda shall discuss relations with what we commonly term as heterodox, i.e., those who neither believe nor are conforming with accepted Orthodox standards, dogmas or beliefs. This topic’s introduction thus becomes a clear matter of accepted Orthodox ecclesiology; in other words, an eminently theological problematic issue at its onset: It is not theologically permissible for this Synod to lead or eventually adopt any decisions which will essentially recommend the Protestant “branch theory.” Their current position legitimizes the status of the heterodox “churches” which in turn leads to the acceptance of the many different and often contradicting doctrines that the west has invented over the last ten plus centuries.
This topic’s main implication, as judged from a theological perspective, yields the clear realization that there is no discussion whatsoever of the return of the heterodox to the Orthodox Church, the only Church. Rather, the baptism of the heterodox is considered an accepted fact from the outset—and this without any Pan-Orthodox decision. In other words, the pre-Synodical proceedings clearly endorse the “Baptismal Theology.” Simultaneously, released pre-Synodical texts providing the basis for this topic deliberately ignore the historic fact that the contemporary heterodox of the west (Roman Catholics and Protestant) have not one, but heaps of dogmas that differ from the Orthodox Church (besides the filioque, created grace in the sacraments, the primacy of the pope, papal infallibility, the rejection of icons, and the rejection of the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, etc.).
The introduction of this topic alone signifies the Pan-Orthodox acceptance of the long-held ecumenist dialogues and meetings with the heterodox over acceptance of the heterodox baptism and the implied equality of the various Christian faiths. The Truth of Orthodoxy is thus watered down and mixed with the lies of the various western heresies and served to the faithful in the spirit of “brotherhood and common good.” Any decision towards this agenda topic by this Synod will constitute the de facto acceptance of the ecumenist agenda towards recognition of the heterodox. As such, it is worthy of not just re-formatting its intended content but pure and unequivocal condemnation! Its continued presence in this Synod’s agenda represents an absolute dilution of the Orthodox Church’s conscience and identity as the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church of Christ.
Of note is the fact that these agenda items became known to the Orthodox hierarchy after the fact, as this Synod’s list of discussion topics progressed. And, as correctly noted by several respected Orthodox theologians, it is possible that new topics may make it within the agenda, either during last minute amendments or once the Synod’s doors close and the proceedings commence, away from any public view or observation. Other than the introductory and concluding sessions, it has been announced that all other sessions shall take place behind closed doors, a truly outrageous and unacceptable method in deciding anything that is expected to be abided by the entire Orthodox faithful and clergy, world-wide.
A question as to the Synod’s conduct is whether it shall review and accept (or at least recognize in totality) the decisions of all past Orthodox Ecumenical Councils and Synods upon whom current Orthodox Canon law is based. Such an act would of course create a potential rift with the topics formulated for discussion and the above mentioned implied ecumenist, western-influenced positions.
The aforementioned canonical irregularities, secrecy in the agenda development and preparatory discussions, reduced participation, an agenda that seems to have only one topic of primary “concern” (interestingly placed as the last agenda discussion topic), the proposed voting scheme, the closed doors sessions, and the strength of the current ecumenist movement create a sense of uncertainty, anxiety, and unnecessary stress among the members of His flock.
Best case scenario is that objections prevail which nullify anything in the participating ecumenist proponents plans and the Synod terminates with no decisions or with very few decisions along the Diaspora and Autonomy issues. Even in this case, however, it is our clear opinion and concern that this Synod will have follow-up sessions. It is very likely that other, future “Holy Great Orthodox Synods,” will further promote the various pro-western and anti-Patristic thoughts of those who wish to modernize His Church along the Latins’ ways and means. Once the “leaders” of these Synods deem it ready, they could eventually call their version of a “true Eighth Ecumenical Council” whose intended outcome shall be the full and open union with all heterodox. May we be proven wrong and may this Synod be the last that maintains the peculiarities and character that we bring to our readers’ attention.
Worst case scenario is that the ecumenists are successful in developing decisions that are accepted by the heads of the participating 14 Local Orthodox Churches and that such decisions “push” Orthodox towards the eventual recognition of the Latins and Protestants as “true churches,” much quicker than our aforementioned hypothesis. It is certain, though, that any serious deviation from the way of Truth and the Holy Fathers, whether now or later, shall concurrently create a response of wrath amongst the traditional arm of Orthodoxy. Such wrath may result in not just mere misunderstandings among the faithful but also lay the foundation for the creation and strengthening of schisms. It is for this exact reason we sincerely hope and pray that, through God’s providence, this Synod gets cancelled since it truly can serve no good purpose that would further enhance Orthodoxy along the path set by the Holy Fathers and can only create damage instead of good.
The most disconcerting aspect of the released pre-Synodical texts is their stern warning that Synodical decisions must be accepted by all and adopted in the Church’s life (and in turn Orthodoxy’s values, irrespective as to whether any impending decisions contradict pre-existing Church dogma or canons). This warning is being issued especially towards those whom the organizers and ecumenists view as “zealots.” Implications are being made of a strong response towards any voice of subsequent dissention, albeit specifics are not being provided. We view this behavior and posture as clearly authoritarian, totalitarian, papal and extremely non-Orthodox. Unlike the western heterodox, and especially the Roman Catholics, His Holy Orthodox Church is not in the hands of a few. Hierarchy, monastics, clergy, and laity, all of them comprise His Bride and all have a responsibility towards the preservation of His Truth.2
We apologize to those of our readers who find our position as absolute or consider this article as the source of any anxiety. We are believers in the steadfast nature of His Church and the Canons, writings and Holy Tradition that 2,000 years of spiritual leadership by His Bride’s Holy Fathers have set forth in eternity. We continue to believe that, no matter what transpires, His true Church, the one and only Holy Orthodox Church shall prevail whatever temptations are presented. Her Creator the Almighty commissioned and assured us: Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you. And, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world. (Mt 28:19-20).
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(1) The web site of the St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Church in Grand Junction, CO, has established an Internet locale where the various views, concerns, positions by hierarchs and theologians as well as other useful information are presented. We strongly encourage our readers to consider visiting these web pages and educate themselves beyond the weak presentation that we attempted to provide within this article. These web pages are located within the site of the St. Nichlas Greek Orthodox Church at Grand Junction, Colorado: “http://www.denver.goarch.org/saintnicholasgj/Great_and_Holy_Synod_2016/.”
(2) It is very possible that, being mere Orthodox laymen (and as we have experienced in the past), our voice of objection towards this Synod will be considered by some as criticism towards the leadership of the Orthodox Church and as such inappropriate. As Dr. Dimitrios Tselengidis points out (in his position as a world-respected professor of Orthodox Dogmatics) the various warnings that have already been issued towards the “zealot believers” of our Faith who may react to the ecumenist decisions of this Synod have no dogmatic basis whatsoever; instead, they are there reminding us of the absolute exercise of power by the Roman Catholic pope and how the ecumenist movement within our Church strives for the exact same authoritarian standards for the Orthodox. As Dr. Tselengidis states, in Orthodoxy and as in the days of St. Mark of Ephesus, the lay people have the right and obligation to defend and voice positions of dissention in matters that involve the patristically-based dogmatic Truth of our Faith: The flock at large constitutes the dogmatic conscience of the Church, and not just the clergy; in other words, it is the condensed spiritual experience of the flock that preserves the faith, which is nothing else than the energy of the Holy Spirit operating among the faithful that are Sacramentally in union with Him and with each other.
A historical reminder that demonstrates this dogmatic truth is as follows: It was the “zealot” lay people who sided with the only voice of dissention, that being of St. Mark of Ephesus, at a time when the rest of the many representatives of Orthodox Hierarchy agreed and signed for the 1439 (False) Union of Florence. Around St. Mark united all the “Orthodox zealots,” many lay people and especially the monks of the Holy Mountain and the ordinary village priests. The whole episcopate and the whole imperial court of Constantinople—all were in the hands of the Uniates, in absolute submission to the representatives of the Vatican. Together, St. Mark and the “simple” crowd of Orthodox faithful and clergy, secured the Faith which we have been blessed to now believe and defend; equitably, it is every Orthodox believer’s obligation since that time to safeguard Orthodoxy, unaltered and pure, for future generations. Lastly, let us also remind ourselves of the words of the Apostle of love: There be some that trouble you, and would pervert the gospel of Christ. But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed. (Gal 1:7-8).
(3) We encourage our readers to research and read about the life and works of St. Photios the Great and his role in preserving Orthodoxy through the serious threats posed during his time. There exists ample material available within Orthodox web sites that allow the faithful an appreciation of another struggle in the preservation of our Faith in the 10th century.