On Consensus: A Canonical Appraisal

by Very Rev. Dr. Alexander Rentel

A key component of the document “Organization and Working Procedureis the requirement for unanimity for the approval of any texts or amendments. The primates of the Churches can adopt procedures for the running of the council; nothing in the canonical tradition forbids the adoption of such rules, and consensus as a rule for decision making has a long history in the Church. While it would be anachronistic to claim that the Council of Jerusalem described in Acts was a council like subsequent councils, the description there provided a paradigm for later conciliar activity. The phrasing of the Apostolic decree, “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us (Acts 15.28),” expresses the two-fold requirement that anything the conciliar process arrives at must be consistent with the revelation, manifested in the consensus of those in the Church. These seemingly practical requirements emerge from the conviction that the Church is the body of Christ, where humans are united with Jesus Christ and each other by the grace of the Spirit.

The specter of consensus used as a veto looms large. Rumors and veiled threats have appeared that speak of forcing an adjournment if one of the delegations simply got up and left. This departure would signal the objections of that delegation, and force the council to cease operations, because no consensus of the Orthodox Churches would be possible. Such actions would be tragic given the promise of this council. Truly, the delegations have the responsibility to assure that the work of the council is consistent with the tradition of the Church, but consensus is a process by which decisions are reached, not where the will of the minority is exercised.

Ultimately, no matter what transpires, the outcome of the council has to be considered by the whole Church, and its activity in light of the entire canonical tradition, which expects consensus. The Church, however, is not only a human organization. The demand for complete consensus, the unanimity of all delegations, is not required by the canonical tradition. The consensus of those hierarchs present is a sign alone of the authenticity of its work and by no means its guarantee. The Church is a mystery, the unity of God and man in the person of Jesus Christ by the grace of the Spirit. Ultimately something is true and authentic because it seems good to the Holy Spirit. For this, one can consider history and reflect on the councils that had a consensus, but are not Orthodox.

From the canonical tradition, this point can also be made. Few canons speak directly about the internal procedures for the running of a synod of any type in the Church. The canons speak directly about the need for provincial synods to take place once in Spring and once in Fall,though the exact time is up to the metropolitan, at a place where the metropolitan bishop decides, and where he himself must preside in order for the gathering to be accounted as a full synod. These canons provide for a wide range of topics that can be discussed at these meetings and that can be summed up in the words of II Nicea 6. Synods, this canon says, meet in order to “discuss canonical and evangelical matters.” I Nicea 5 charges synods with making the necessary inquiries in matters under its consideration so that there might be “general consent” in their decisions. While the canons typically speak about the work of a provincial synod, they also refer to the possibility of greater regional synods, and a diocesan synod. It is a reasonable inference that the procedures and activities of these synods are similar to those described for the provincial. Furthermore, the content of the canons testify to the broad parameters of work that can be done by a synod at every level. These parameters do not limit the work of subsequent synods but testify to the wide expanse of work that councils of whatever type can undertake.

Canons on episcopal election likewise speak about synodal procedures and show preference for a consensus of unanimity, but allow for a “consensus of the majority.” I Nicea 6 says “if two or three by reason of personal rivalry dissent from the common vote of all, provided it is reasonable and in accordance with the church’s canon, the vote of the majority shall prevail.” Antioch 19, also regarding the election of bishops, reiterates the synodal processes and strives for unanimity, maintaining it as the rule, but acknowledges that it is possible to go forward “in the presence, or with the consent, of the majority.” While a consensus of unanimity is hoped for, under certain circumstances a decision of the majority prevails.

The rule and hope for the Church in its process of deliberation is for a consensus of unanimity. At the same time, provisions appear in the canons that allow for a consensus of the majority. Drawing upon notable examples from Church history and conciliar practice, this allowance consensus of the majority can be witnessed. Two such notable examples can be drawn from the Council of Chalcedon. After the Council’s deposition of Dioscoros, ten bishops from Egypt refused to sign the Tome of Leo or the conciliar Acta, even under great pressure from the members of the Council. At the same council, the Roman Legates demanded that their objections to the adoption of what would become Chalcedon 28 be recorded in the official minutes. Pope Leo, whose Tome was famously affirmed at the Council, continued to protest the adoption of this canon long after the Council was over. Likewise at the Penthekte, the Roman legates surely did not agree to canons that expressly condemned Roman practices: Trullo 3, 13, 36, and 55. In these examples, the lack of agreement or dissent is recorded by one Church in communion with other Churches, but still remaining in communion afterwards.

This essay was sponsored by the Orthodox Theological Society in America’s Special Project on the Holy and Great Council and published by the Orthodox Christian Studies Center of Fordham University.

Very Rev. Dr. Alexander Rentel is Assistant Professor of Canon Law and Byzantine Studies and The John and Paraskeva Skvir Lecturer in Practical Theology at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary.

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