Opening Address by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Inaugural Session of the Holy and Great Council
(June 20, 2016)
Once, tongues were confused for daring to build a tower;
now, tongues are infused with the glory of divine knowledge.
There, God condemned the impious for their sin;
here, Christ enlightened the fishermen with the Spirit.
Then, discord was created for the sake of punishment;
​today, concord is established for the salvation of our souls.
(From the Vespers of Pentecost)
Your Beatitudes, Your Eminences and Your Graces, beloved brethren comprising the Holy and Great Council of our most holy Orthodox Church, and all those present here at this inaugural session, Your Excellency, dear Minister, and dear Observers, brothers in Christ.
We offer praise and glory to the thrice-holy God in Trinity for deeming us worthy of gathering in one place during these holy days of Pentecost in order to complete a significant and sacred task, which touches on the very nature of the Church of Christ: “For the term ‘church’ is defined as a system and synod,” according to the preacher with the golden mouth (John Chrysostom, Commentary on Psalm 149, 1).
Indeed, brethren, the synodal institution that we are today called to serve in its supreme form derives its origin from the depths of the mystery of the Church. It is not merely a matter of canonical tradition, which we have received and preserve, but of fundamental theological and doctrinal truth, without which there is no salvation. In confessing our faith in the holy Creed in the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, at the same time we proclaim her synodality which incarnates in history all those characteristics of the mystery of the Church, that is to say, her unity, holiness, universality and apostolicity. Without synodality, the unity of the Church is severed, the sanctity of its members is reduced to mere individual morality and articulation about virtue, catholicity is sacrificed in favor of particular individual, collective, national and other secular interests or intentions, and the apostolic message falls prey to various heresies and ruses of human reason.
Therefore, it is not coincidental or insignificant that synodality has always permeated all the basic dimensions of Church life, from its local to its universal expression. Already, in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 11), St. Paul identifies the Church with “gathering in one place” in order to celebrate the Divine Eucharist. As the Body of Christ, the Church is at once “the communion of the Holy Spirit” (2 Cor. 13.13) and “the fullness of him who fulfills all in all” (Eph. 1.23). No one is saved alone but only as a member of the body of the Church, in organic unity and communion with others. It is on this basis that the synodality of the Church is founded. The Church is by nature “synodal” because it is the “Body of Christ” and the “communion of the Holy Spirit,” which “constitutes the entire institution of the Church,” as we chant on the great feast of Pentecost.
Profoundly conscious of this theological truth, the Church applied the synodal institution from the outset as a means of seeking and articulating the truth whenever doubt or uncertainty emerged and threatened its unity. Already during the times of the Apostles, the conflict that seriously jeopardized the unity of the early Church – namely, with regard to the manner of receiving Christians from among the gentiles into the body of the Church – was resolved by convening the Apostolic Council, about which Luke the Evangelist informs us in the Acts of the Apostles. It is noteworthy that the decisions of this Council were from the beginning considered as being divinely inspired, bearing the seal of the Holy Spirit: “For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us” (Acts 15.28). This is why its decisions were deemed mandatory for all members of the Church, while those who refused to accept them, such as the Judaizing faction, remained outside the Church and ultimately surrendered to oblivion, evolving into various heretical groups.
Following the model of the Apostolic Council and motivated by a consciousness that it comprises the Body of Christ and communion of the Holy Spirit, the early Church exalted the synodal institution as the supreme and final arbiter of its life, not only in exceptional circumstances of dubiousness and disputation, but also as a means of administration on a permanent basis. Thus, the First Ecumenical Council instituted regular biannual councils (Canon 5) to settle differences among Church members, both bishops and other clergy. Moreover, a series of local councils determined the method of Church administration by formulating the Sacred Canons, which since that time also constitute the law of the Church. From that time, only synodal decisions – and not positions or opinions of individuals or any kind of groups – carry validity and authority for the members of the Church both on administrative as well as on doctrinal matters.
The synodal institution became not only the supreme arbiter for the life and faith of the Church’s members, but also the visible bond of communion between the local Churches on both the regional and global levels. The Metropolitan and Patriarchal system developed in the early Church was grounded on synodality, as this was defined by the 34th Apostolic Canon, according to which all bishops in every eparchy or broader geographical area must always make decisions in the presence of the “first” among them, regarding him as their “head,” while he too must always decide and act in agreement with them. This golden rule of synodality has ever since also defined the understanding of primacy in our Orthodox Church, which it promotes as a model for all Christian churches and confessions.
Even so, the unity of the Church is not exhausted on the local or regional levels. The Church constitutes a single body in the entire world, united in the same faith and the same Divine Eucharist and sacramental life, which is why it also needs synodality on the global level. This need was expressed and is fulfilled by the Ecumenical Councils, which were indeed convened whenever there was a call to secure the unity of all the local Churches on a global level, as well on matters of faith, administration and pastoral concern. These Councils represented all of the Churches in the world and were accepted by all inasmuch as they constituted and constitute the supreme authority in the Church, thereby preserving its unity.
This global unity of the Church was unfortunately disturbed by the interruption in the eleventh century of Eucharistic communion originally between the Church of Rome and the Church of Constantinople and subsequently between the Church of Rome and all the other Patriarchates of the East. Indeed, beyond the other serious wounds wrought upon the body of the Church, this interruption resulted in a unilateral and independent practice of synodality in the West and in the East. Despite difficult historical circumstances experienced throughout the entire second millennium, our most holy Orthodox Church remained faithful to the application of synodality on both the local and regional levels, as well as more widely, whenever this was required. The Councils in defense of Hesychasm and in support of the theology of St. Gregory Palamas, which were held in Constantinople during the fourteenth century; the Councils of 1638, 1672, 1691, 1727, 1838, 1872, 1895 and so on, which were held in the same City; the Council of Jassy in 1642; and the encyclicals of the Orthodox Patriarchs of the East in 1716/1725 and 1848: all these bear witness to the fact that, despite external difficulties, the Orthodox Church never suspended its synodal activity even on a Pan-Orthodox level.
It is in this spirit, and in its canonical responsibility as guarantor of unity within the Orthodox Church, that the Ecumenical Patriarchate initiated and presided over all of the abovementioned councils, even endeavoring to convene a Pan-Orthodox Council at the beginning of the twentieth century by organizing the first Pre-Conciliar Conference on Mount Athos in 1930; however, once again the well-known historical circumstances rendered this impossible. This effort was revived by our venerable predecessor Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras following the conclusion of the Second World War, when the Pan-Orthodox Conferences of 1961, 1963 and 1964 in Rhodes decided to convoke the present Holy and Great Council that we are, with God’s grace, inaugurating today. The long delay in realizing this Council, due once again, to a large extent, to historical circumstances which came to prevail in the meantime, rendered its convocation still more necessary and urgent.
For certain people, there remains a nagging question as to why the present Council is necessary and what it seeks to achieve, and at times, indeed, this question is prompted and cultivated by certain brothers of less than good will, to all of whom we reply with love:
a) As we observed earlier, synodality constitutes an expression and demonstration of the mystery of the Church itself. “Coming together in one place” comprises a characteristic of the Church’s nature. Only insurmountable historical circumstances can justify the inactivity of the synodal institution on any level, including the global level. The Orthodox Church frequently encountered such circumstances in recent years and thus delayed the convocation of a Pan-Orthodox Council for a long time; nonetheless, no external circumstances can today justify such a postponement. Indeed, we would be accountable before God and history if we had further delayed the convocation of this Council.
b) The convocation of the present Council was also mandated by reasons to settle internal matters of the Orthodox Church. These matters arose primarily as a result of the system of canonical structure within our Church, which comprises many Autocephalous Churches, each of which freely regulates its own affairs through its own decisions; this sometimes renders difficult the witness of the Church “with one mouth and one heart” to the contemporary world, creating confusion and conflict that blurs the image of its unity. The system of Autcocephaly has its roots in the early Church, in the form of the five ancient Thrones – namely, of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – known as the Pentarchy, whose harmony comprised the supreme manifestation of Church unity that was expressed in the Councils. After the rupture of communion between the Throne of Elder Rome and the Thrones of the East, further Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches came to be added in the Orthodox Church; the recognition of the status of these Churches was referred to a future Ecumenical Council until we finally reached the current canonical structure of our most holy Church.
While this structure is canonically and ecclesiologically correct, the danger of its conversion into a kind of “federation of Churches,” each of which promotes its own interests and ambitions – which themselves are not always of a strictly ecclesiastical nature – renders necessary the application of synodality. The atrophy of the synodal institution on a Pan-Orthodox level contributes to the development of a sentiment of self-sufficiency within the individual Churches and in turn leads them toward introspective and self-absorbed tendencies – namely, to a sense that “I have no need of you,” which the Apostle Paul denounces in his First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 12.21). If the synodal system is generally mandatory in the life of the Church, the system of Autocephaly renders it still more obligatory for the protection and expression of its unity.
c) The need to convene this Council was also underscored by the fact that, in more recent years, new challenges have appeared that demand the articulation of a common direction and position among the individual Orthodox Churches. The phenomenon of the Orthodox Diaspora assumed unforeseen dimensions prior to the past and present centuries through the rapid migration of peoples, from Orthodox regions to Western countries, who require pastoral care. This led to the well-known, and not strictly canonical situation whereby more than one Bishop exists in one and the same city or region, proving a scandal to many people inside and outside the Orthodox Church. This issue cannot be resolved without a Pan-Orthodox synodal decision.
d) Another matter that emerged in the last century and persists today is the expansion of efforts toward the reconciliation of unity among Christians through the so-called “Ecumenical Movement.” The Orthodox participation in this endeavor occurred on the basis of decisions reached either by individual Autocephalous Churches or else at Pan-Orthodox conferences. On account of the seriousness of this issue, it should also be examined by the Holy and Great Council in order – in an authentic manner – to formulate a uniform position of the Orthodox Church.
Yet other issues, too, which primarily emerged in recent years and require synodal decisions, mandated the convocation of this Council. These issues, on which there are disputes and disagreements among the individual Churches and which sometimes jeopardize their peace, pertain to the internal life and organization of our Church, including the manner of proclamation of autocephaly and autonomy for a particular Church. These matters, as well as some other matters of pastoral nature that require resolution in the light of contemporary challenges in the world, led those who decided to convene the Holy and Great Council to formulate its agenda, as this was transmitted to us and prepared by the appropriate Commissions and Pre-Conciliar Conferences.
Of course, we acknowledge that there are other problems that concern humanity today, related to everyday life – such as relations with other people and the natural environment, as well as with God Himself and the Church. The precipitous progress of science and technology, together with their related bioethical and spiritual challenges, the pressure of secularism and the undermining of traditional social values, military conflicts and wars as well as the atrocities that result from them for human beings everywhere. All these and other similar existential problems of contemporary humanity cannot be a matter of indifference to the Orthodox Church, which is called upon to articulate an evangelical response to these problems. The present Holy and Great Council will touch upon these issues in its Message to the world at the conclusion of its deliberations. Its principal task, however, is limited to the aforementioned agenda, which concerns the internal affairs of the Church, and this is so because, before the Church addresses her word to the world and grapples with its problems, she requires to put her house in order, so that her word may prove trustworthy and will proceed from a Church united in everything. After all, we should not forget that our intention is for this Council, with God’s grace, to be followed by other such Councils, whose purpose will be to explore the abovementioned and other crucial problems.
The significance and consequence of this Council lies primarily in the very fact of its realization, by God’s grace, after so many centuries when this proved impossible. This alone would suffice for its integration within the great events of the history of the Church.
Bearing all this in mind, the present Holy and Great Council of our most holy Orthodox Church is today called to commence its work. And our work is extremely serious and at the same time extremely strenuous. This is why it was carefully prepared over a long series of years, with great consideration and hard work, which is why we deem it our duty to express the gratitude, appreciation and recognition of the Church to all those who labored for and contributed to the successful completion of this work, both to those who have already departed in the Lord, whose memory we prayed for during the Divine Liturgy this past Saturday, the Saturday of Souls – celebrated by His Beatitude the Patriarch of Alexandria, whom we thank – and to those living, most of whom are among us at this time, each of whom we fraternally embrace with much love and esteem.
The fruit of this long and laborious preparation is found in the Documents that were formulated, endorsed and signed after extensive discussion in order to be referred to this sacred body for final approval as decisions of the Holy and Great Council. We would like to remind and underline that these Documents have already been unanimously adopted by the fully authorized representatives of all Orthodox Churches in order to avoid recriminations and abrasiveness during the deliberations of the Council as well as to facilitate its completion within the agreed time limits.
Naturally, we are aware that these Documents do not include the preferred positions and opinions of all of us, which is why it is understandable that they cannot fully satisfy everyone. Let us not forget that these Documents were composed by representatives of all fourteen Churches, each of which was required to be in complete agreement with their content. Accordingly, each one of us is once again called upon to show understanding and respect to the inability of any of the other members of the Council to accept the proposed revisions, and not to insist on their acceptance by all, thereby threatening the unity of the Church.
Let us, then, proceed with our work on the basis of Documents unanimously approved by our Churches, which each Church has already endorsed. Of course, this is in no way binding for the present Council, which may revise these Documents on the basis of justified proposals on the part of any individual Church member. Nevertheless – and we emphasize this specifically – any revision on the already unanimously approved Documents will be valid only if accepted by all of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches in attendance. This is imposed by the principle of consensus, which all of us have adopted. Should a revision proposed by one or more members of this sacred Body clash with non-acceptance by one or more Churches, then this proposal is rejected and the Document is preserved in its originally adopted formulation, as approved and signed by all members of the Body. Since we adopted the principle of consensus with regard to decisions taken by the Council, we simultaneously also adopted the approval of any proposed changes only if all the sister Churches are in agreement with these changes.
We considered it our obligation to remind you of these points, although we are certain that they are familiar to all of you, in order to avoid any misunderstanding during the deliberations of the Council. The overall procedure for the sessions of this sacred Body is determined by the Working Procedure approved by our Churches, and we entreat all of you to study it carefully in order that we may apply it faithfully during our deliberations. As Chairman, we will ensure that it is implemented faithfully by all the members of the sacred Body.* * *
And now, beloved brothers in Christ, let us be attentive to the Paraclete, so that we may listen to “what the Spirit is saying to the Churches” (Rev. 2.7) during this assembly of ours “in one place.”
The most holy Church, of whom, by the grace of God, we are members, is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church that we confess in the Symbol of faith as the only ark of salvation. This Church is the Body of Christ revealed especially “in the breaking of bread” (cf. Acts 2.42), namely in the Sacrament of Holy Eucharist, as affirmed by St. Nicholas Cabasilas, who writes so eloquently: “If one could discern the Church of Christ . . . one would see nothing other than the Lord’s body alone.” And he concludes that “the church is symbolized in the sacraments (namely, in the Eucharist; for the sacraments are the body and blood of Christ”) (On the Divine Liturgy 38, PG 150.452D). For this reason, then, above and beyond all else, the Paraclete calls us to preserve our unity in the communion of the Sacraments like the apple of our eye, avoiding everything that could create schism in the Church. For, as St. John Chrysostom writes: “Nothing so infuriates God as division in the Church . . . Not even the blood of martyrdom can erase this sin.” (Commentary on Ephesians 11, PG 62.85) By opening and closing its work with the celebration of the great Sacrament of the Eucharist, this Council declares that its foremost objective is the affirmation of our unity “in the Sacraments” as well as its preservation and protection at all cost.
Nonetheless, the unity of our Church also lies in our common faith “once and for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). It is this faith that we confess in the holy Creed – both at our Baptism and during the Holy Eucharist, as well as at the ordination of a bishop – in that we bishops constitute its guardians. For the Orthodox Church, this faith rests on Holy Scripture, as this was understood, interpreted and articulated by the god-bearing Fathers of the Church, especially when assembled in ecumenical councils, establishing it as an inviolable condition of unity in the Sacraments.
Expressed and articulated in this way, our faith is interpreted and proclaimed infallibly only in synodal manner by the Church. Unfortunately, however, there is in our time, the widespread phenomenon of certain groups or individuals who lay claim to infallibility for themselves in the interpretation of the Fathers and of the Orthodox faith and proclaim all those who disagree with them as “heretics,” arousing the faithful sometimes even against their canonical shepherds. In this context, which could prove extremely dangerous for the unity of the Church, people tend to forget that the boundaries between heresy and Orthodoxy are defined synodally, and only synodally, whether it is a matter pertaining to old or more recent teachings. No individual or institution except the sacred Councils is able to pronounce views or positions as “heretical,” thus claiming for himself infallibility. In the same way, we condemn the characterization of the present Council by some as an alleged “Robber’s Council,” even before it has gathered and taken its decisions in the Holy Spirit.
The unity of the Church in the Holy Eucharist and Orthodox faith, which this Council wishes to affirm and advance, is inseparably linked to yet another dimension: namely, the canonical dimension. No Holy Eucharist is valid and a bearer of Divine Grace and salvation unless performed in the name of the canonical bishop and by canonically ordained clergy. And no confession of faith – however orthodox it may be – is acceptable to God and has any value, if it “creates a schism” in the Church: For, according to St. John Chrysostom, “creating schism in the Church is not a lesser evil than falling into heresy” (Commentary on Ephesians 12 PG 62.87). This is why the holy Second Ecumenical Council also classifies in the same category as heretics “those who pretend to confess a sound faith, but who create schism and factions outside the canonical bishops” (Canon 6).
Thus, there is a threefold unity demanded of us by the Paraclete at this Council: unity in the Sacraments, in the faith and in the canonical structure of the Church. These three dimensions are mutually inherent in one another and none of them can exist without the others. Love, which is “the bond of perfection”, pervades all three and holds them together, along with the peace to which we have been called “in one body” (Col. 3.15). “Forbearing one another in love” (Eph. 4.2), “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4.3), we are called to preserve, edify and declare – through this Council as well – the unity in Christ which the Paraclete has granted us to the glory of God the Father.
Moreover, obliged as we are to care for the unity of our Church, it is also our duty to remember that on the holy and great day of Pentecost, when “Christ distributed the tongues of fire, He called all to unity” (Kontakion on the Feast of Pentecost). It would be a grave mistake if, in our concern for our internal unity in the Orthodox Church, we manifested indifference to the fact that many of those who confess their faith in Christ, even if not correctly and soundly, are not in full communion with us, yet seek in every way the truth and unity with us, and are ready to discuss with us with sincerity and love about the matters that divide us. The Orthodox Church has always been and continues to be prepared for every effort toward unity among those believing in Christ, without in any way adulterating the faith received from her Fathers. This is why our Council incorporated in its agenda the topic of our relations with Christians outside the Orthodox Church, and welcomes with great love and esteem their presence among us as invited observers during the official commencement of our deliberations.
The voice of the Paraclete calls all to unity and calls us to turn our attention and widen our heart toward all people, lovingly embracing the vital problems that concern them, preaching the good news of peace and love to those near and afar. The Church does not exist for itself but for the entire world and its salvation, having as its head Christ “the firstborn of all creation,” in whom and through whom God pleased to “reconcile to Himself all things, making peace by the blood of His Cross, whether on earth or in heaven” (cf. Col. 1.16, 20). By the same token, the Council is not convened for itself; “it convenes for all God’s people, for the whole world” (A. Papaderos).
Thus, the meeting of the Church in Council makes it by extension also a missionary meeting, that is, one turning outwards and going forth “unto all nations” (cf. Matt. 28.19) in order to transmit the love of Christ to every person, sharing in the vicissitudes of history, as “a sign for the nations” (Is. 11.12) of the coming Kingdom of God, not conforming to this age (cf. Rom. 12.2), but also not refusing to assume on its shoulders the various crosses born by all people, and proclaiming the Resurrection. Working in Council, “the doors being shut” (John 20.19), and awaiting the arrival of Jesus in our midst to impart to us His peace and the Holy Spirit, let us always bear in mind that the surrounding walls of this room are transparent and the world, too, expects to hear from our mouths “what the Spirit is saying to the Churches” (Rev. 2.7). Our decisions must transmit to all a loud and clear message that our Church, though scattered throughout the entire world, remains inseparably unified, calling all to unity through the Paraclete.
Eminent and beloved brothers in the Lord,
We are celebrating Pentecost, the descent of the Spirit, the moment of promise and completion of hope. What an immense mystery, both great and venerable!” (Gregory the Theologian, Homily 41 On Pentecost 5 PG 36.436B).
Indeed, the mystery of Pentecost is great and venerable for many reasons, but also for the reason that St. John Chrysostom underlines particularly:
For since the disciples had heard the voice of their Master, saying: “Go and make disciples of all nations” . . . the Holy Spirit comes in the form of tongues, distributing to each the branches of the universal teaching and through each tongue bestowed, making known to each, as if inscribing it in a book, the entrusted authority and teaching . . . for just as in the past, tongues had divided the world and raised poor understanding into division, so now, tongues united the world and gathered together what had been separated into harmony. (Commentary on Pentecost 2 PG 50.467).
Great is the mystery of Pentecost, but so too is that of the Church of Christ! Its unity does not level the diversity and particularity of cultures: each hears the word of God “in his own native language” (Acts 2.7). This is why the Church, though one throughout the world, is simultaneously comprised of many Churches, respecting the linguistic and other particularities of the local peoples and on many occasions even contributing to the cultivation and formation of those particularities.
Through the diversity of languages and local cultures, the Church throughout the world “is divided” into branches, as St. John Chrysostom writes, accurately describing the canonical structure of the Church. The term “branch” was also received and adopted by our own Church in its canonical terminology, insisting on the principle of the precise boundaries of each “branch.”
However, while the branches are many, the world is one. The diversity of tongues and cultures, which once caused division among people, continues to threaten their concord. As a model of unity, the Church must constantly be careful that “difference” does not lead to “division,” to adopt the phraseology of St. Maximus the Confessor (cf. Epistle 12 PG 91.469), while unity does not lead to the obliteration of difference.
Herein precisely lies the meaning and importance of the institution that we are today called upon to serve, as we assemble at this Council. Each Church and each of us are called to propose, but not to impose, our opinions. We are called not only to speak, but also to listen. We are called to build up the unity of the Church of Christ.
Before this task – advancing with the fear of God, with faith and with love – with an understanding of the responsibility before us and of our own human frailty, we turn, together with the Melodist, to our Lord God and beseech Him:
Come to us, come, Thou who art everywhere;
just as Thou art always with Thy Apostles,
and also with those who love Thee.
Unite Thyself, compassionate God,
that assembled as we are, we may praise
and glorify Thy all-holy Spirit. Amen!
(Romanos, Matins, Sunday of Pentecost)
We express our sorrow – and, we are certain, that this sentiment is shared by the whole of this sacred body – at the absence from among us of the sister Churches of Antioch, Russia, Bulgaria and Georgia, who informed us at the last moment, even though most of them had already communicated to us their participation and, indeed, even the list of names for their delegations. And hence, their decision at the twelfth hour not to attend truly came as an unpleasant surprise to us, all the more so since these Churches had participated in all the stages of preparation for the Holy and Great Council up until the Sacred Synaxis of the Primates last January and hence they had every opportunity to raise the issues that they are now invoking as a justification for their absence before agreeing with us and adjoining their signatures to the convocation of the Holy and Great Council. We have great difficulty in understanding this unprecedented behavior and we leave it to the judgment of the other Sister Churches and to history.
Unfortunately, dear brethren, we do not always consider the consequences of our decisions and actions for the unity of the Church and that in wounding our unity we wound ourselves. None of us and none of our Churches is able to exist in isolation from the other Sister Churches. We Orthodox Christians are not and must not behave as a confederation of Churches. We are one Church, one body and we must solve any differences between us only in Council. This we received from the sacred tradition of our Fathers and this we have an obligation to preserve. Every strike against the Council strikes at the very hypostasis of our Church and strikes even those who are striking. It is hard to “to kick against the goads” (Acts 26.14). Especially when absence from the Council occurs after its convocation has already been agreed upon and signed by all of us, then our integrity and seriousness is placed in question to the detriment of the whole image of our holy Church towards those within and those outside her.
As has often occurred during the centuries-long history of the Church, the involuntary or voluntary absence of certain Churches from the Councils that were convoked, both local and Ecumenical, in no way impeded their taking place and, hence, the present Council, having been convoked by us with the agreement of all the most Holy Orthodox Churches, must, despite the absence of certain Churches, proceed in its work just as was decided in a pan-Orthodox manner. May the All-Holy Spirit be our guide and helper.