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The truly Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church

Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and St. Vlassios Hierotheos

Translated into English, original text (in Greek):

Κύριο ἄρθρο: Ἡ ὄντως Ἁγία καί Μεγάλη Σύνοδος τῆς Ὀρθοδόξου Ἐκκλησίας

The closer we move towards the convocation of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, the more texts of various kinds are being written, and the more interest is being shown by Christians  in what will take place there and , above all, in what will be decided.

I try to see these issues calmly, soberly and above all through the universal experience of the Orthodox Church. I have already written and published various texts and I am going to express my views orally and in writing at the meeting of the Hierarchy of the Church of Greece, which is to convene in May in order to take clear decisions as to the appropriate stance of our Church in the Holy and Great Council, to be held in Crete in June.

We bishops, like all the clergy, monks, theologians and Christians in general, can and should submit our thoughts to the Conciliar [synodical?] organs of the Church and inform Christians.
Unfortunately this whole debate is taking place belatedly; it should have been undertaken before these documents were signed at the Summit of the Primates in Chambesy, Geneva last January. Responsibility lies with those who kept these texts “under a bushel" and did not publicise them for wider discussion, or even give them to the Bishops of the Hierarchy of our Church for their information.

This is a sad story that does no credit to those who planned it or implemented it.
Reserving the right to express my views at the Synod of the Hierarchy of the Church of Greece, I will record here some points that may benefit those who are well-disposed.

1. The basis of the Orthodox ecclesiastical constitution is synodical, which means there is a debate, an exchange of views, and conclusions are drawn. "It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us," as the Apostolic Synod in Jerusalem declared, according to the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 15:28).

The synodical system, though, neither works nor is expressed only in the College of Bishops, but also at all other levels of church life, and generally in the discussions between clergy, monks and laymen, all those, in fact, who wish to take part. This avoids  domination by either the clergy or the laity. The ecclesiastical polity at all levels of operation is synodically hierarchical and hierarchically synodical.

Therefore, there is no need to be disturbed by views or statements expressed by  the clergy, monks, theologians or laity, as if these opinions undermined the Synodical institution. Such a view is a deviation from the ecclesiastical spirit and expresses a papal  attitude.

At this point I will quote a characteristic passage by Fr. George Florovsky:
“Church is ecclesia, an assembly, which is never adjourned. In other words, the ultimate authority — and the ability to discern the truth in faith — is vested in the Church which is indeed a ‘Divine institution,’ in the proper and strict sense of the word, whereas no Council, and no ‘Conciliar institution,’ is de jure Divino, except in so far as it happens to be a true image or manifestation of the Church herself. We may seem to be involved here in a vicious circle. We may be actually involved in it, if we insist on formal guarantees in doctrinal matters. But, obviously, such ‘guarantees’ do not exist and cannot be produced, especially in advance. Certain ‘Councils’ were actually failures, no more than conciliabula, and did err. And for that reason they were subsequently disavowed. The story of the Councils in the fourth century is, in this respect, very instructive. The claims of the Councils were accepted or rejected in the Church not on formal or ‘canonical’ ground. And the verdict of the Church has been highly selective. The Council is not above the Church, this was the attitude of the Ancient Church.

2. Pentecost is the centre of church life and this is not a feast celebrated externally, but participation in deification (theosis), to varying degrees. That Pentecost was chosen for the convocation of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church is important, because it shows that the Primates believe that this Council should express the life of Pentecost.

This means that those who will participate in the meetings of the Holy and Great Council should have an Apostolic and patristic spirit and life, they should partake, to varying degrees, in God’s cleansing and illuminating energy and in the energy that enables us to see Him. They should pray -- no matter how strange this sounds -- to be possessed by the awareness that pervaded the Holy Fathers in the Ecumenical and Great Councils of the Church.

The texts that will be voted on must be texts arising from prayer and not texts full of worldly compromises and expediencies. They must be texts which will be in accordance with the whole tradition of the Holy Fathers, which have an organic relationship with the decisions of the Ecumenical and Local Councils and the Church in general. For, if there is no personal spiritual experience, at least there ought to be a clear awareness, of "following the Holy Fathers", according to the phrase used in the Acts of the Ecumenical Councils.

After all, the Councils are based on the great Fathers who attended them, and it is the holy Fathers who made up the Ecumenical Councils who are celebrated. A cursory reading of the Acts of the Ecumenical Councils will prove that the basis and the foundation of their decisions is the teaching of experienced Fathers, in the Orthodox meaning of the word. For example, in the "definition of faith" of the 4th Ecumenical Council it is written: "... the unerring faith of the fathers we have renewed ..." Also, in the Acts of that Council we encounter the phrase: "Everywhere we follow the decisions of the holy Fathers ". And in the "definition of faith" of the 6th Ecumenical Council it is written that the Council is following “unerringly the straight way of the holy and eminent Fathers ...”

There are many other examples from the Acts of the Ecumenical Councils from which it can be concluded that the teaching of the God-bearing Fathers precedes, and the decisions of the Councils follow. Those who take the view that the Council resembles a learned conference of academic theologians are wrong. In any case, the Church Fathers have demonstrated that Orthodox theology is empirical, as shown in the 14th century Councils, in which St Gregory Palamas played a leading role.

I hope that even at the last moment it will be expressed in writing in the texts to be issued that the Holy and Great Council follows on from the great hesychastic Councils of the 14th century, especially the one in 1351. These Councils showed that the actual methodology of doctrine in the Ecumenical and Local Councils is the neptic tradition and life. Failing that, it will be proved beyond any doubt that the "ideologisation" which some wish to avoid has been decided upon.

3. Observing the contemporary ecclesiastical situation, we find that it exists within the framework of "geopolitical strategies", nationalistic considerations, the "cold war" between East and West. This is certainly a reality, since, unfortunately, theology gets involved with politics and diplomacy, on account of undiscerning and untheological members of the Clergy. I pointed this out in another text of mine, using a characteristic example.

To avoid this secularised practice, those who will participate in the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church should rely on the theology of the Church, and have a purely ecclesiastical spirit. Only with Orthodox theology can we move away from such worldly attitudes. Hard words and aggressive comments are not enough to avoid this real danger.

Ultimately, the responsibility lies with those who, with their secular mentality, import, or allow to be imported, into the Church "geopolitical strategy", that is, they allow the Church's theology to be connected with political and nationalistic considerations. This constitutes a fall.

4. Truth prevails through participating in and testifying to the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ, with inspired words and godlike love, with sobriety and composure, in a peaceful way pleasing to God. By contrast, offensive slogans, well-aimed "labels", " theological platitudes", poisonous innuendoes, the stigmatisation of selfish states with a "papal" mentality, the underestimation of other brothers, fighting against conservatism using another type of conservatism and liberalism and many other things do not constitute an expression and an awareness of truth, but rather a manifestation of panic!

Generally, for the truth to prevail what is needed is the breath of the Paraclete, the atmosphere of Pentecost, a peaceable spirit, the removal of the infected wound of the passions. Upholding the truth with passions, with pride and aggression, with fanaticism and intolerance weakens it completely. Clergy in the grip of passions, who do not respond to theological challenges with theological arguments but with aggressive "ideological schemes" offer absolutely nothing to the theological and ecclesiastical dialogue, which they ostensibly seek and support. In a well-known phrase of St Maximus the Confessor, "Knowledge without praxis, as possessed by those who boast of it conceitedly, is obviously the theology of demons ." Another phrase of St Gregory the Theologian about "the present wordiness and the instant sages and the self-taught, self-ordained, theologians" is also well-known.

5. Those of us who love the Church truly wish that the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, to be held in the days of the Pentecost, will rise to the occasion. The texts which will be issued at the end, and above all the message that will be transmitted, must be clear, without innuendoes and footnotes, authentic, true, as the Holy Spirit is the "Spirit of truth". That means that these texts must emit the fragrance of Orthodox theology, the awareness of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, the prayer of the Bishops, but also of the hermits and the pious laity, in other words they must be texts full of prayer and Orthodox theology.

Of course, in our everyday speech we all commit theological mistakes or oversights, or even unintentionally receive alien influences, but the Conciliar texts must be clear. When deciding synodically, the Church does not philosophise, does not talk nonsense, does not attack, is not verbose, but rather expresses the truth in clear terms, without concealing ambiguous concepts.

With this in mind I wrote about the replacement of the term "human person" by the term "man" or “human”. I have no problem with the term “person”, as used by Elder Sophrony, but I do have a problem with the misconceptions of various modern theologians, expressing anti-Orthodox views.

After many years of study, I have realised that in our days the term “person” is mostly understood in a scholastic and existential sense, according to the views of German Idealism, of humanist voluntarism, and generally of Western personalism, which undermines the whole Church tradition about the person in God, in Christ and in humans, because it connects nature with need, and volition with the person, as all ancient heretics did.

That is why I asked for these replacements to be made and no other interpretations should be given, which do an injustice to the logical integrity of those who express them.

In general, I have no problem with the word “person”, but with the modern philosophical and sociological analyses of the person, as indicated by the phrases "ontology of person", "dignity of the human person", etc., which distort the whole ecclesiastical tradition.

In order to close these brief comments, I stress that I want the coming Holy and Great Council, which, "barring the unexpected," I will attend, to be inspired by the Doxastikon hymn of the Feast of the Holy Fathers, as quoted below, which we chant magnificently in our churches, especially during this time of Pentecost, on the Sunday before Pentecost, when  the Council will convene. Everything that is said on the Service of the Sunday of the Holy Fathers must be borne out by the participants of this Council. We chant:

"The choir of Holy Fathers,
hurrying together from the ends of the inhabited world,
taught the one essence and nature of
the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,
and clearly handed down to the Church the mystery of theology.
As we praise them with faith, let us call them blessed as we say:
O godly camp, inspired soldiers of the Lord’s array;
stars full of light of the spiritual firmament;
the indestructible towers of the mystical Sion;
the sweet-scented flowers of Paradise;
the all-golden mouths of the Word;
Nicaea’s boast; adornment of the inhabited world,
intercede unceasingly for our souls.

This is how we desire the members, or at least the majority of the members, of this Council to be.

Whoever defends the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church should reflect the spirit of this hymn, in order to participate in the glory of the Fathers and the Orthodox Church.

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