Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, during his opening address at the Holy and
Great Council of the Orthodox Church, quoted the
preacher with the golden mouth, St. John
Chrysostom: “For the term ‘church’ is
defined as a system and synod.”
Both the term ‘church’ and the system of synod
have generated a great deal of discussion recently and
regrettably some division as well.
Archbishop Anastasios of Albania remarked in his opening
statement that the “Heresy of our time is
egocentrism.” Following the Inaugural Session, I
spoke with a well-known delegate about the
Archbishop’s statement, and on the self-centredness
of many monomaniacal critics of the Council.
One of his comments was especially insightful.
He compared them to the pope, and argued that unlike the
Roman pontiff who is put there by others based on their
history and tradition, these critics are self-appointed
arbiters of the truth. The extreme positions and unfounded
accusations they often espouse limit freedom and stifle
Observing the Holy and Great Council at the Orthodox
Academy of Crete last month, I witnessed differences among
the delegates. Each bishop brought his own set of skills
and experiences to the deliberations. A missionary bishop
in Africa, for instance, will have a different outlook
than a bishop from an Orthodox Christian country. Does
this mean one is “more” Orthodox than the
There have been differences throughout the history of the
Church; the Book of Acts describes the earliest ones. What
it also describes, however, is how the apostles and elders
came together to resolve disputes. They came together.
They were well-intentioned and full of love. It is this
spirit of Orthodox community and collaboration which
should be nurtured in our days.
Alas, many in isolation have heaped heavy criticism (often
directed at the Ecumenical Patriarchate and His
All-Holiness Bartholomew) as a result of the text,Relations of the Orthodox Church with
the Rest of the Christian World, and the
application of the term ‘church’.
It is worth emphasizing here some pertinent points from
the Council’s deliberations on this issue.
That the Orthodox Church is the only “One, Holy,
Catholic, and Apostolic Church” there was never any
question, uncertainty or indecision. None.
What a few delegates questioned was using
‘church’ to describe non-Orthodox Christian
confessions – a mostly modern-day problem propagated
by some self-appointed arbiters of the truth.
A number of bishops catalogued instances describing both
Roman Catholic and Protestant confessions as churches.
Examples include key Orthodox statements since the Seventh
Ecumenical Council in 787: the Encyclical Letter of St.
Mark of Ephesus (1440); the Replies of Patriarch Jeremiah
II to the Lutherans (16th-century); and, the Reply of the
Orthodox Patriarchs to Pope Pius IX (1848), among others.
The 1948 Orthodox Conference in Moscow (which included
representatives from most autocephalous churches) was very
critical of the Vatican, describing the “inimical
innovations” brought by Rome and the “great
evil on the unity of the Christian Ecumenical
Church” they have caused. Despite these and other
such statements, the Conference’s “Vatican and
the Orthodox Church” resolution still used the term
“Roman Catholic Church”.
The consensus (properly understood) of the Council was
that it is neither contradictory nor hypocritical to
confess the Orthodox Church as the One, Holy, Catholic,
and Apostolic Church, while “accepting the
historical name of other non-Orthodox Christian Churches
and Confessions that are not in communion with
A leading delegate emphatically stated that using
‘church’ to describe other Christian
confessions does not mean Orthodoxy recognizes their
ecclesiology since their faith is incomplete and lacking.
It bears re-emphasizing that there was no equivocation at
the Holy and Great Council that only the Orthodox Church
possesses the fullness of the Christian faith and has
The storyline spread by many ultra-conservatives on this
issue is not rooted in reality; the assumptions and
corresponding claims made are disconnected from the
deliberations in Crete.
What is required is care and vigilance. More broadly,
resurrecting the Church’s synodal system (which
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has worked tirelessly to
do) is required to ensure that Holy Tradition is properly
preserved and protected – from ultra-conservatives
but also from ultra-liberals who wish to promote a secular
spirit foreign to Orthodoxy.
The arbiter of truth is not anyone with an Internet
connection, nor a metropolitan with a microphone.
Let us therefore escape the trap of
“egocentrism” described by Archbishop
Anastasios. Having an open mind and remaining faithful to
Orthodoxy are not mutually exclusive. Whenever the Church
faced external threats or internal upheavals, people of
goodwill came together to collaborate and safeguard the
unity of faith and Holy Orthodoxy. So it should be today.