The first Council of Orthodox Churches in centuries has just concluded in Cyprus, in what has been a historic meeting hosted by the Patriarch of Constantinople, the first among equals in the Orthodox Church.
Ten of the 14 autocephalous (autonomous) Orthodox Churches from around the world attended the historic council, whose function was similar to the Second Vatican Council in the Catholic Church in the 1960s.
Apart from Constantinople, present were the churches of Alexandria, Jerusalem. Serbia, Romania, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania and the Czech Lands and Slovakia. Additionally, delegates came from countries around the world, including Australia, the United States and France.
There are around 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world, so the meeting had great significance.
Although the Orthodox Churches are united in doctrine and worship, and are in full communion with one another, they are entirely self-governing, and often are jealous of protecting their own territory.
They are also not used to speaking with one voice, and preparations for this council began over 60 years ago. The ground rules for the council require unanimity, not just a majority vote, as applies to councils, or a two-thirds vote, as specified in the rules governing the Synod of Bishops in the Catholic Church.
The Russian Orthodox Church – which comprises almost half of all Orthodox Christians – decided not to attend at the last moment, apparently because it was not hosting the event, and because it gave too much prominence to the Patriarch of Constantinople, who exercises direct jurisdiction over only a few thousand Orthodox Christians living in Turkey.
However, following the council, its decisions were welcomed by Moscow.
The absence of the Russian Church was sad, because the recovery of Orthodoxy in Russia since the collapse of communism in the Soviet Union 25 years ago has been astonishing. It was been reported that 30,000 new Orthodox churches have been built since the collapse of the officially atheist regime.
However, the council was conducted in a spirit of co-operation and reconciliation, and the Patriarchs present co-signed the official documents of the council.
At its conclusion, the council issued an encyclical letter that sets out the main challenges facing Orthodoxy today.
It says: “With a hymn of thanksgiving, we praise and worship God in Trinity, who has enabled us to gather together during the days of the feast of Pentecost here on the island of Crete … and, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, to conclude the sessions of this Holy and Great Council of our Orthodox Church – convened by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, by the common will of Their Beatitudes the Primates of the most holy Orthodox Churches – for the glory of His most holy Name and for the great blessing of His people and of the whole world.”
The encyclical summarised the main decisions of the council, in the following areas:
- The Church: Body of Christ, image of the Holy Trinity.
- The mission of the Church in the world.
- The Family: Image of Christ’s love towards the Church.
- Education in Christ.
- The Church in the face of contemporary challenges.
- The Church in the face of globalisation, the phenomenon of extreme violence and migration.
- Church: witness in dialogue.
Of particular significance was the content of the encyclical on the family. It says: “The Orthodox Church regards the indissoluble loving union of man and woman as a ‘great mystery’ … of Christ and the Church (Ephesians 5.32) and she regards the family that springs from this, which constitutes the only guarantee for the birth and upbringing of children in accord with the plan of divine economy, as a ‘little Church’ (St John Chrysostom).”
It adds: “The contemporary crisis in marriage and the family is a consequence of the crisis of freedom as responsibility, its decline into a self-centred self-realisation, its identification with individual self-gratification, self-sufficiency and autonomy, and the loss of the sacramental character of the union between man and woman, resulting from forgetfulness of the sacrificial ethos of love.
“Contemporary society approaches marriage in a secular way with purely sociological and realistic criteria, regarding it as a simple form of relationship – one among many others – all of which are entitled to equal institutional validity.”
It also makes a powerful critique of the loss of the sacred in contemporary Western culture, and its consequences.
It says: “The Church of Christ today finds herself confronted by extreme or even provocative expressions of the ideology of secularisation, inherent in political, cultural and social developments.
“A basic element of the ideology of secularisation has ever been and continues to be the full autonomy of man from Christ and from the spiritual influence of the Church, by the arbitrary identification of the Church with conservatism and by the historically unjustified characterisation of the Church as an alleged impediment to all progress and development.”
It adds: “In contemporary secularised societies, man, cut off from God, identifies his freedom and the meaning of his life with absolute autonomy and with release from his eternal destiny, resulting in a series of misunderstandings and deliberate misinterpretations of the Christian tradition.”
In discussing the humanitarian crisis in the Middle East today, the encyclical says: “The Orthodox Church follows with much pain and prayer and takes note of the great contemporary humanitarian crisis: the proliferation of violence and military conflicts; the persecution, exile and murder of members of religious minorities; the violent displacement of families from their homelands; the tragedy of human trafficking; the violation of the dignity and fundamental rights of individuals and peoples, and forced conversions.
“She condemns unconditionally the abductions, tortures, and abhorrent executions.
“She denounces the destruction of places of worship, religious symbols and cultural monuments.
“The Orthodox Church is particularly concerned about the situation facing Christians, and other persecuted ethnic and religious minorities in the Middle East.
“In particular, she addresses an appeal to governments in that region to protect the Christian populations – Orthodox, Ancient Eastern and other Christians – who have survived in the cradle of Christianity.
“The indigenous Christian and other populations enjoy the inalienable right to remain in their countries as citizens with equal rights.
“We therefore urge all parties involved, irrespective of religious convictions, to work for reconciliation and respect for human rights, first of all through the protection of the divine gift of life.
“The war and bloodshed must be brought to an end and justice must prevail so that peace can be restored and so that it becomes possible for those who have been exiled to return to their ancestral lands.
“We pray for peace and justice in the suffering countries of Africa and in the troubled country of Ukraine.
“We reiterate most emphatically in conciliar unity our appeal to those responsible to free the two bishops who have been abducted in Syria, Paul Yazigi and John Ibrahim. We pray also for the release of all our brothers and sisters being held hostage or in captivity.”