The 2016 Pan-Orthodox Council and Ecumenical Relations

by Radu Bordeianu

(This essay was originally delivered as a public talk at the June 2015 Fordham/OTSA conference on the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It was part of a panel on ecumenical relations.)

Ecumenism was prominent in the early preparatory stages of the Council. How much ecumenical fervor endures today?

  1. Ecumenism on the agenda: according to the latest indications, the Council will not mention the term, “ecumenism,” to appease ultra-conservative voices within Orthodoxy. It will address relations between Orthodox and other Christians in a shorter document that will combine the main ideas of the two documents on ecumenism approved in 1986.
  2. Ecumenically open? After his positive experience as an observer at Vatican II, Nikos Nissiotis hoped the Pan-Orthodox council would include preliminary consultation with non-Orthodox, who would have voting rights and episcopal representation—especially the Oriental Orthodox.
    1. The 2016 Council did not include ecumenical consultation in the preparatory stage; it actually did not include consultation with theologians or the Orthodox faithful, either, since its preparatory documents were not open to the public.
    2. It is doubtful that non-Orthodox observers will be invited. If that were to happen, the non-Orthodox observers would be merely ceremonial spectators, since they would have no means of influencing the already-approved documents of the Council.
    3. It will tone down the earlier ecumenical achievements due to the rising anti-ecumenical climate within Orthodoxy.
    4. Topics that have ecumenical relevance but do not deal directly with ecumenism (such as the calendar, inter-faith marriages) are treated exclusively as an intra-Orthodox matter, without taking into consideration the positions and experience of other churches.
  3. Unanimity regarding ecumenical relations:
    1. Currently, international bilateral dialogues speak in the name of the entire Orthodoxy, even though commissions do not always include representatives from all Orthodox churches.
    2. Some autocephalous Orthodox churches have individually initiated bilateral ecumenical dialogues or are involved in national Councils of Churches.
    3. Participation in the World Council of Churches used to be unanimous beginning with 1961 (with the exception of the Orthodox Church in Albania that was repressed by the atheist regime) until the turn of the millennium, with the withdrawal of the churches of Georgia and Bulgaria from the WCC.
    4. Thus, a pan-Orthodox unanimous attitude towards ecumenical relations is not the case presently.
      • Previously, the 1961 first Rhodes pan-Orthodox conference decided—at the insistence of the Russian Patriarchate—that all autocephalous Orthodox Churches should have a common attitude towards other churches; their immediate concern was whether or not to send observers at Vatican II. Moscow and other churches from the Eastern Bloc opposed it, while Constantinople and Greek churches were in favor. In 1962, before the opening of the first session of Vatican II, Constantinople announced that no Orthodox observers would attend the Second Vatican Council because of lack of consensus among Orthodox churches, but in fact Moscow unilaterally sent observers. The situation would change at the second session, where André Scrima was designated as the personal representative of the Ecumenical Patriarch, but not an official observer. It was only at the  third and fourth sessions of Vatican II that Constantinople sent official observers, including (then) Archimandrite Maximos, who was serving the Greek Orthodox community in Rome and later became Metropolitan of Pittsburgh.
      • Again at the insistence of the Moscow Patriarchate, the 2016 Pan-Orthodox Council will decide unanimously, and not by majority of votes.

Since a unanimous Orthodox commitment to ecumenism is unlikely today, hopefully the Council will decide unanimously to allow each autocephalous Orthodox Church to follow their current practices regarding ecumenical relations, reflecting a lack of unanimity within Orthodoxy.

Radu Bordeianu is associate professor of theology at Duquesne University.

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