Elizabeth Prodromou, visiting associate professor of conflict resolution at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, and Nathanael Symeonides, director of the Office of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations at the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, discuss the social and political implications of the June 2016 Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, as part of CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call series.
Learn more about CFR's Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative.
Visiting Associate Professor of Conflict Resolution, Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University
Director, National Program & Outreach, Council on Foreign Relations
Director of the Office of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations, Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
CASA: Good afternoon from New York, and welcome to the Council on Foreign Relations Religion and Foreign Policy Conference Call Series. I’m Maria Casa, director of the national program and outreach here at CFR. Thank you for joining us. As a reminder, today’s call is on the record, and the audio and transcript will be available on our website www.CFR.org.
We are delighted to have Elizabeth Prodromou and Nathanael Symeonides with us today to discuss the cultural and political implications of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, convened this month in Greece. Elizabeth Prodromou is visiting associate professor of conflict resolution at Tufts University’s Fletcher’s School for Law and Diplomacy. She is also co-chair of the Eastern Mediterranean and Europe Study Group at Harvard University, Center for European Studies. Between 2004 and 2012, before coming to Fletcher, Dr. Prodromou served as vice chair and commissioner for the U.S. commission on international religious freedom. She is a member of the U.S. secretary of state’s Religion and Foreign Policy Working Group, and holds a Ph.D. and master’s degree in political science from MIT.
Nathanael Symeonides is the director of the Office of Inter-Orthodox, Ecumenical and Interfaith Relations for the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. He was ordained a deacon by His Eminence Archbishop Demetrios in 2003, and a presbyter by the archbishop in 2010, and has served as pastor of the Enunciation Greek Orthodox Church in New York City. He is a graduate of Hellenic College and the Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology, and holds a doctor of theology and bioethics from Boston University and a master of science degree from Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.
Welcome, Elizabeth and Father Nathanael. Thank you very much for being with us today.
PRODROMOU: Thank you very much. It’s great to be with you.
SYMEONIDES: Thank you.
CASA: Father Nathanael, could you start us off by providing our listeners with a historical and ecclesiastical context for the Holy and Great Council? Then maybe Elizabeth could provide some analysis of the geopolitical features of the council.
SYMEONIDES: Sure. Well, for those who have studied anything about the Orthodox Church, they’ll know that usually the Orthodox Church moves very, very slowly when it tries to organize itself to meet as one church. And it also does it in a way that often goes unnoticed. So for the majority of the world this council has gone unnoticed. And it’s taken the church quite some time to actually convene the council. Most realize that the Orthodox Church, for us, conciliarity or synodality is present at the core of the church. It’s part of who we are and how we do things. And in the first millennium, we know that there are several councils, some lesser, some greater, and some ecumenical councils. We have seven ecumenical councils.
And usually when people study the Eastern Orthodox Church or Byzantium or Orthodoxy, they kind of focus most of their attention on the first millennium, especially when they study councils of the church. After the great schism between the church in the east and the church in the west, councils still exist. They’re still important in the life of the Orthodox Church, or the four patriarchates in the east. However, it was impossible to convene a greater council or a global council in the same way as the church was able to do so in the first millennium, for obvious reasons. The church of Rome was no longer in communion with the church in the east. And so in many ways—that was one reason. However, another reason it was not able to convene that greater council was for geopolitical circumstances, especially in the last 200 years or so.
However, in the early 20th century, by 1902, we have a movement by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to try to create greater cooperation and coordination among the orthodox church in the east. Greater councils were convened by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to handle issues related to the broader life of the church in the east. And I would include representatives from various churches. However, these churches were still unable to come together as often and they would like. And so by 1902, Patriarch Ioachim III sends an encyclical to all the churches encouraging them to start thinking about ways to get together. In the 1920s—by 1923, we have the Pan-Orthodox Conference in Constantinople, convened by Patriarch Metaxakis. And Patriarch Metaxakis is considered a very progressive, forward-thinking ecumenical patriarch. And he begins to discuss with the other primates and other representatives of these churches issues, for instance, such as the calendar—a common calendar for Easter, marriage of clergy after ordination, or a second marriage for widowed clergy.
In 1930, there is another meeting convened by the Ecumenical Patriarch Photios II. And it’s at this meeting where the churches actually agree that they should move forward with the Holy and Great Council. The begin to start thinking about what could be on the agenda. Unfortunately, because of World War II and the rise of the Soviet Union, the work toward the Holy and Great Council kind of pauses until the ’60s. It is by 1961 where we finally have Pan-Orthodox conferences, start to convene the first one in ’61, the second in 1963, and the third in 1964. And by 1964, we have an agenda that includes over 100 items for the Holy and Great Council. And it is at this third meeting in 1964 where the churches agree that there needs to be a Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference, that they finally need to start the pre-conciliar meetings.
The first meeting of the Pre-Conciliar Pan Orthodox Conference takes place in 1976 in in Chambesy. It is at this point that the representatives of the churches, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, condense the agenda to 10 items. And it is—they primarily do so because they want to be able to convene the council as quickly as possible. They realize that there was too much time that had gone by from, you know, 1902, 1923. They put several of the items on hold, selected 10 of them because they felt that those were issues that could be more easily addressed at the council. The second and the third meeting of this pre-conciliar conference took place in 1982 and 1986.
After the 1986 meeting there was another pause in the pre-conciliar work. And the work toward the council starts up again in 2008. So if you can imagine, over 20 years have gone by. The agenda is still the same. We now have, unfortunately, new representatives, new primates of these churches looking at the same old agenda. So in 2008 Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew holds a Synaxis or a gathering of the primates of the churches and tries to give it a boost—give the meetings for the Holy and Great Council a boost, try to get the primates themselves to agree on some issues rather than only focused on slower, pre-conciliar conference meetings. In 2009 we have the fourth pre-conciliar conference. So then the third was 1986. By 2009 we have the fourth. And it’s at this meeting where the churches agree on the formation of episcopal assemblies in their so-called diaspora regions around the world.
In 2014, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew again convened a meeting of the primates on Constantinople. And it is at this meeting that the primates agreed that they were finally ready to convene the council in 2015 around the Feast of Pentecost. The council was to be convened in the church of—the (peace of Qadr ?) Aya Irini in Istanbul. Unfortunately, this past year the conflict of the rising tension between Turkey and Russia made it impossible for some of the churches, including the Church of Russia, to actually travel to Istanbul. And so the primates agreed that the venue would move to Crete. And this past January, 2016, the primates met for one final time. They looked at the agenda. The approved text has finally reached the point where from 10 agenda items we were down to six items that generated consensus among the primates with the Holy and Great Council.
And in terms of the internal workings of the council, how it was convened, how it operated, and so forth, in the first millennium these ecumenical councils were convened by the emperor. And so for the Orthodox Church, now without an emperor who would convene and encourage the bishops to attend the council, the primates agreed that the ecumenical patriarch is the one who convenes the council, that the other primates agreed to go to the council, and that the ecumenical patriarch also presides over the council. We have 14 local autocephalous churches in the Orthodox world, 14 recognized globally autocephalous Orthodox Churches. And they all agreed to go. And they were all part of the process leading up to the Holy and Great Council.
They also agreed that decisions would be taken by a process of consensus, which was at times interpreted as unanimity. So that was something very new for the Orthodox Church, how they actually would sit down and vote on these issues together. And also they agreed that instead of inviting all bishops from all over the world, which was impossible for practical reasons, but also pastoral reasons—they would only have 24 bishops—up to 24 bishops from each church and the primate. There were to be six consultants for each church, which could include bishops, other clergy, as well as the laity. And they also agreed to have observers from various Christian churches and ecumenical organizations.
A few weeks before the convening of the council we started to see a few churches stating that they were not able to attend, or would not attend for their own reasons. We started off with Bulgaria—the Church of Bulgaria, who said it could not come, which was followed by Antioch—Church of Antioch, then by the Church of Georgia, and finally by the Church of Russia. The council was still convened. The ecumenical patriarch and the other primates, the other nine churches felt that they could still convene the council since in theory and in essence the church—the Orthodox Church agreed to convene it. There’s nothing that these four churches—there wasn’t any issue that kept them from being able to convene the council.
And just one other thing, and I’m assuming that Elizabeth will bring this up, during the council there was dialogue not only among the hierarchs in the room, but also the council with others outside of the room. So the council communicated, for example, with Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem of the Syriac Orthodox Church after the attempt on his life. It also communicated with Patriarch Kirill after 15 kids tragically lost their lives in our summer camp. And they also—the council also sent a letter to the four churches that did not attend, asking them to reconsider, and if they could not attend the council, to least come and attend the divine liturgy.
The council lastly, and I’ll close with this, issued an encyclical, which is a 20-plus page document. It issued a message which was read during the divine liturgy, which is a five-page document summarizing the encyclical. And it—the council also edited, reviewed, and accepted all six of the agenda items and decisions taken. I will just say that this was, by and large, a very difficult exercise in conciliarity. And as some of the observers said to us when meeting with them, that this was not only difficult for the Orthodox Church, but this was also very difficult and very important for the rest of the Christian world. They were also looking to see how conciliarity can look today on the highest levels in the 21st century. And so they were very much excited and interested to see how the council would work and what it would produce.
So with that, I’ll turn it over to Elizabeth.
CASA: Thank you. That’s great context. Elizabeth, would you like to speak to some of the geopolitical aspects of the council?
PRODROMOU: Sure. I thought it might be useful to begin by giving some insight into my particular vantage point. As something that Nathanael mentioned, each delegation from each of the autocephalous churches had six official advisors that were part of the delegation. And I was one of the six on the delegation of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. So I was one of, I believe, there women who were actually in the council and part of the council for the entire proceedings. So my comments from that particular vantage point, and refracted through that lens, along with the others—you know, as a social scientist and a policy person. So I wanted to kind of give that context.
I think that, from my perspective, what’s very interesting is why people should care, because I guess one of the questions associated with the council is why should people care, or what’s interesting about the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. Two reasons: Number one, is I think that we see a story of religion as a transnational actor in the 21st century. That’s a big part of, I think, what comes out of this council. And the other reason is that we see religion as part of the broader geopolitical sort of developments in the 21st century. And I want to say a little bit about each of those very briefly, because Nathanael’s given us a pretty rich background.
I would like to make a distinction between what I think has been the narrative that’s been pretty dominant in the international media, which is that of Orthodox geopolitics on the one hand, and then what we might call Orthodoxy and geopolitics. And I think these are two distinct but related things. So in terms of the first, Orthodox geopolitics or the ecclesiastical politics amongst these 14 autocephalous churches, and then the 10 who came as opposed to the four who did not come.
The standard narrative that I think that we read, and I would say that it’s a narrative that’s been largely constructed by the Moscow Patriarchate and the government of Vladimir Putin, and that’s been given an echo chamber, unfortunately from my perspective, in the international press, went something like the following: Led by the Russian Church and the Patriarchate of Moscow, the Churches of Georgia, Bulgaria, and Antioch pulled out of the Holy and Great Council at the last minute on account of a very specific set of concerns.
Number one, the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople’s pretensions to use the council to establish his authority, modeled on a kind of papal primacy, rather than on the primacy of honor enjoyed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Number two, the ecumenical patriarch’s management of the six agenda items for the council, as well as reports on the eve of the council that consensus is the operating principal of the council in the form of unanimity as opposed to majority voting, that would be overturned. In other words, unanimity would be overturned for majority voting. And at the end of the day, this is also—the four no-shows were part of the larger story of tension in the axis between Constantinople and Moscow, for primacy in the Orthodox world.
So that’s the sort of synthesis of the quite conventional narrative that’s now out there, I think, in the media. And that’s what I would call the, you know, Orthodox geopolitics narrative. It’s all about interchurch, you know, competition at best, intrigue at worst. Oh, and a footnote to that, claims that there’s a Greek-Slav-Arab ethno-national cleavage at work in the old-world mother churches. My view is that in order to really understand and parse that narrative, one needs to look at Orthodoxy and geopolitics. But I want to say just a brief word about the Orthodox geopolitics piece. Again, Father Nathanael touched on some of these things. The first one, that the ecumenical patriarch was trying to establish a kind of papal primacy here amongst all the Orthodox churches, a primacy of power rather than honor.
Again, this council’s been over a century in the making. If we look back at the historical experience of the unified church, the pre-11th century church, as well as the way in which the Orthodox Church has operated since then, there is absolutely no question about the primacy of honor that’s enjoyed by the ecumenical patriarchate. So again, you know, this notion that this was a kind of power play on the part of Constantinople doesn’t stand up in the face of the historical and contemporary evidence and functioning of the church. The second issue, about how to define conciliarity or conciliar consensus, there was a quite robust discussion, in fact, in all of the preparatory councils about this very issue. And I think in the interests of bringing these churches today in a global council, there was not a definitive definition of consensus as either unanimity or majority vote. And that’s something that came up quite robustly in the discussions.
And then finally, in terms of this notion of a kind of, you know, ethno-national cleavage between Greek, Slav and Arab churches, without a doubt the history—the historical wellspring of these churches is Byzantine Hellenism, expanding the church from the Hellenic world into the Arab and Slavic cultural pails. We have a very complex set of relations among the three cultural spaces. But what’s also very clear is that there was a recognition—and in fact, it was given explicit voice within the council itself—about the—what were called the evils of ethno-nationalism, or ethno-phyletism, in other words a combination of nationalism and national and ethnic identities as prior to religious identities. So the council came down very hard on the side of religious identity as a unifying feature amongst these churches. So that’s the kind of Orthodox geopolitics narrative.
But Orthodoxy and geopolitics narrative is—I think is—I would say is as follows: I mean, first of all, as I said earlier, this is a narrative, I think, that’s been laid out by the Moscow Patriarchate, and more specifically by the Putin government. We tend to mistake the Moscow Church or the Russian Church as a strong church given its numbers and also its material resources. But the fact of the matter is, it’s a church living in an authoritarian, you know, polity. And so the degrees of maneuverability, I think, for this church I think we need to take, you know, with some degree of skepticism. That’s the first point.
The second point is, again, I think, understanding the way in which that church has been able to exercise leverage over the other three who didn’t come, also very much related to Russia’s geopolitical objectives in Europe and Eurasia, in particularly in what Russia considers its near-abroad, the Ukraine, and the Black Sea, and the Caucasus, and also in terms of Southeastern Europe. So I’ll be happy to drill down more deeply into those kinds of geopolitical objectives, but without a doubt the Russian state has been a critical behind-the-scenes player, you know, in terms of its geopolitical objectives in this intra-Orthodox story.
And then finally, just a quick footnote in terms of other takeaways. I think from the council what’s very clear is that this was the Orthodox Church, you know, growing and maturing into its identity as a global church, with faithful on all of the continents around the world. And also, this was a very interesting exercise in discussing the links between religion and democracy. And that gets at the question of consensus, unanimity versus majority. And there was actually a quite lively discussion about how to think about voice in the church. And in this case, as in many other cases, the churches of Cyprus and Albania really took the lead in what I would argue is a quite progressive, and open understanding of the compatibility between Orthodoxy and democracy. And ultimately, about the Orthodox Church coming to terms with pluralism within, as well as living in a religiously plural world. So I’ll leave it there.
CASA: Well, thank you both for an excellent overview. Let’s open up to the group for questions now.
OPERATOR: Thank you. At this time we will open the floor for questions.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our first question will come from Paul de Vries with New York Divinity School.
DE VRIES: Thank you. Thank you very much, Elizabeth and Nathanael. It’s very interesting to see this international fellowship and encouragement.
In the meetings and deliberations, how did, like, social gospel or social application of the gospel enter in for different countries or even international relationships? Were there core examples or principles that come to mind from the meeting?
PRODROMOU: I can begin, unless you want to start, Father?
SYMEONIDES: Go ahead.
PRODROMOU: Just two quick points. The importance of the social gospel, I think, and the social application of the gospel, or the continuous future and an active future and the conversations in the council. I mentioned earlier this Church of Albania and the Orthodox Church of Cyprus, but also the church in Nigeria, the church in Cameroon, the Patriarchate of Alexandria, and of course the ecumenical patriarch, on all of these delegations emphasized the importance, ultimately, of the church’s, you know, foundational mission in this world, which is to evangelize its social ministry. And there was a real sensibility and sensitivity to the fact that this mission takes precedence over all other considerations.
So that was a quite active piece of the conversation. And it played itself out within various agenda items. And I found that also to be quite interesting. In the discussion about fasting, in the discussion about diaspora, and then certainly in terms of the church’s role in ecumenical and interfaith work, and then finally the church and the world this was a continuous theme that linked all of the agenda items in this council.
SYMEONIDES: Yeah. I would just add to that that—I mean, it was also present even in the discussion about marriage. And also the—most of the churches—kind of the primates were all—the subject of the social gospel also came through in the discussion across the room. Even though the Church, say, in Serbia or Czech Lands or Poland may not have spoken about this through their primates. Several of their bishops in diasporas mentioned the need to be present in the world, to serve the world, to bring Christ to the world. So for sure, the—kind of the Patriarchate of Alexandria also at times paused the discussion—the theological discussion—and brought it down to the very kind of lives of people who are suffering. So.
CASA: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Tom Reese with the National Catholic Reporter.
REESE: Thank you. Actually, I think this question is more—I have a couple hats. This question more as a member of the commission—U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom.
I’m wondering what the council has to say about religious freedom. I think back to the second Vatican council, which had a whole document on religious liberty. And so I’m curious what the council may have said about religious freedom. And connected to that, what it may have said about the relationship between church and state, separation of church and state, those kinds of issues. Thank you.
SYMEONIDES: If I can just say just a few words on that, and then I’m sure you’ll add to it from your own vantage point. Religious freedom was brought up. And it’s actually in the document. It’s in the message itself. And we were quite fortunate to have a really good presence in the room to help shape some of the language. It’s also—what we consider religious freedom in church-state relations from a Western perspective, U.S. perspective, is very different from the perspective of these churches. The separation of church and state for some of these churches doesn’t make any sense. They can’t see—and many of them are struggling with it now because they don’t necessarily have the same state as they once did that was supportive of the church.
But for them to think of a separation of church and state, it doesn’t make sense and it actually is not very helpful in their minds for promoting the gospel. They’re still quite unable to think of what that looks like. It certainly doesn’t look like the U.S. model or a Western European model. And, again, Elizabeth, I’m sure you can kind of speak to this more in detail.
PRODROMOU: Sure. And by the way, congratulations, Tom. You’re the new chair, I believe, of the USCIRF. So I wish you well in your work.
In terms of the issue of religious freedom and more generally questions of the church in the world in relation to the state, I would urge you to take a look at the final message. I believe—I’m trying to discern whether it’s the message or—the encyclical or the message, but paragraph 10 in—I think it’s in the message—deals specifically with the issue of religious freedom. And the church speaks about its insistence on the fundamental human right of religious freedom and the church’s commitment to the protection of religious freedom, which, you know, they define very much—very consistently with international human rights law and freedom of conscience, belief, religion, alone and in community, et cetera. But I’d council you to take a direct look at paragraph 10 in the message.
There’s also, throughout the message as well—the concluding message as well as the encyclical, a reference to the church’s rejection of involvement in politics. And I think, although it wasn’t expressed in these terms, you know, an engagement in the public sphere—this goes back to the previous question, you know, the practicing of the social gospel—but this being distinct from involvement in politics. There is a discussion about the church’s prophetic mission, and the responsibility of the church and its obligations to protect rights of citizens, and also to—so to be a social critic, but also to engage in self-criticism.
There are also references throughout both the encyclical and the message to the combination of violence in the name of religion and violence between and amongst religions. So in terms of—I would say, in terms of compatibility or—yes, compatibility with the way in which international organizations think about freedom of religion, there was a clear statement on the part of those present that rings quite consistent with how we think about that.
In terms of a church-state issue, there wasn’t a discussion by any means, but I think Father Nathanael’s quite right that many of these churches, at least in the old world—or, in the old world, I think, you know, have lived in contexts where clearly there hasn’t been a full separation of religion and state. And I would say more specifically, where non-democratic states have tried to either, you know, penetrate or coopt or, if that wasn’t possible, crush these churches. And so there’s a real sensitivity to, you know, that history. But there’s also a real awareness. I heard that expressed in the—you know, a categorical condemnation of ethno-nationalism or, again, what they call ethno-phyletism, of the problems that come from too close a relationship with the state.
And again, now putting on my hat as a political scientist, I would say that, you know, the general kind of reduction of Orthodox Churches as looking very different from, you know, other churches—and I’ll use the term in the West, I guess I would say the rest of Europe—I think it’s as in the rest of Europe, in European countries and in other parts of the world. It’s a far more nuanced, you know, diverse story than a kind of the centralized view has long provided.
CASA: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
Our next question comes from Lauren Homer with Homer International Law.
HOMER: Hi. Thanks to both of you for that great presentation. My attention right now is on the Middle East, and particularly Syria and Iraq, where Orthodox Christians and others are suffering so much persecution from the Islamic State and other radical groups. And I’m wondering, first of all, whether the council addressed that issue. Secondly, whether they talked or thought about the relationship between separation of church and state and how that adversely affects Christians living in religious states where the only allowed—or the primary religion is Islam. And then, third, whether you think the council may have had some impact on Russian-Turkish political relationships. And I have in mind the fact that a few days ago, to my surprise, Turkey apologized to Russia for shooting down its plane and for the death of the pilot.
PRODROMOU: I guess I’ll—Father, do you want to begin?
SYMEONIDES: Yeah, I can just say, for one I would say that the situation in the Middle East, especially in Syria and Iraq, was on the minds of members of the council, I think primarily because the church that is present in those regions wasn’t there. So although the Church of Antioch was not present to specifically bring this up, to mention it by name, per se, the fact that the hierarchs consistently thought of Antioch and their absence brought those issues to the fore.
The other thing I would just say the Orthodox Church in general, and Christianity as a whole, is a persecuted church. I mean, what is going on in the Middle East is just a snapshot of what the churches in the east have endured not necessarily only at the hands of—at the hand of radical Islamic groups, but by radicals in general that have often used religion for their own purposes, and often in violent ways. There was the Church of Jerusalem that is also present in the region. It’s present in Jordan and Jerusalem. And they also brought this up. And also the attack on Patriarch Ignatius Aphrem during a memorial service also reminded the hierarchs of the situation in the Middle East, that although they were in Crete, there were other brothers and sisters just, you know, further southeast from them that were being persecuted.
PRODROMOU: Yeah, so I’ll kind of follow up to Father Nathanael’s points. In terms of Syria and Iraq, as he rightly points out, the absence of the Church of Antioch meant that that church was not represented formally, but I think there was a profound awareness expressed and directly and indirectly about the precarious position of the Orthodox Church in—of Orthodox Churches in the greater Middle East. And I would underscore the face that, notwithstanding the absence of Antioch, the fact that Constantinople and Jerusalem were there—and by the way, I use that term ecclesiastically and not any other way—the fact that Constantinople and Jerusalem and Alexandria were there really underscored, you know, the fact that these three churches themselves have experienced many of the things that the churches in Iraq and Syria are experiencing.
And I think that’s very important to kind of insert into the way we think about the history and the present and the future of the region, as hopefully a region of religious pluralism, that really recaptures and reenergizes a historical pluralism of that part of the world. The Church of Constantinople has, you know, endured 90 years in terms of the modern state of repression and, in many cases, persecution. And you know, the church in Jerusalem finds itself in a very complicated part of the world for all faith traditions. And then, as far as Alexandria goes, the same holds true there. So there was real expression—and I think this was, for me, what was most heartening and most important—in terms of what churches might contribute to stabilization on the ground.
There was a real open expression of the commitment to interfaith dialogue and cooperation. And I think that there’s a real awareness, and we heard it expressed there, of the absolute necessity for interfaith cooperation in order to bring any modicum of peace to that part of the world, and certainly in order to stave off the very real possibility of the complete erasure of, you know, the Orthodox Churches and Christianity from that part of the world. There was also a real now awareness that these churches don’t want to become museum churches, but they are committed through the practice of the social gospel to being living, active churches there. And that—you know, that underscoring of the commitment to interfaith dialogue and ecumenical cooperation as part of, you know, what’s necessary for the church itself to survive I think was a quite active piece of the conversation.
CASA: Thank you. Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question will come from Drew Christiansen with Georgetown University.
CHRISTIANSEN: Thank you. I’m wondering whether you can touch on the highlights, the message for us, to see what points the members of the synod wanted to make known to the world?
PRODROMOU: Father, do you want to begin?
SYMEONIDES: Yeah. I’m actually getting it up on my screen so I can just refresh my memory, because I have my notes, but I want to—just give me one second.
PRODROMOU: I think we’ve actually touched on a lot of those in terms of the key points. You know, the respect for international human rights, for religious freedom, the commitment to interfaith dialogue and pluralism, ultimately the key priority of proclaiming the unity of the church and the unity of the Orthodox Church as a global church that ultimately functions according to these principals conciliarity. And I think conciliarity is something that’s quite interesting in general for, you know, those interested in religion and international affairs, and for ecumenical and interfaith dialogue. Just conciliarity being quite messy. It’s more of an organizational principle. It doesn’t operate according to a strictly top-down model. But there is a kind of a hierarchical logic to it, but one that is premised on the notion of, you know, engagement, debate, discussion, and ultimately what we would call in other contexts consensus and compromise. And I think that was a message that the church also wanted to convey. And also, to convey the church’s commitment to proclaiming the social and participating in the social gospel.
SYMEONIDES: Yeah, I would also—I would just say specifically if the longer—the message—I’m sorry, the encyclical, section number one basically has to do with the nature of the church, what is church? And I think if you look at that closely, you’ll see that the Orthodox Church is trying to share with the world its own understanding of who it is, what are we. And there was a great discussion during the council for two days, I think, on what is church, what is the Orthodox Church, how does the Orthodox Church relate to other churches, other Christians? So if you look at section one, you’ll see how that comes through, and that the Orthodox Church is struggling to put into kind of the language of the day to help others understand who we are, just rather than thinking that we’re the ancient church or a church with ancient practices or, as Elizabeth said, a church that belongs in a museum. How do we express who we are today?
And then the other section that I would say is quite important is section five, which attempts to engage contemporary challenges and address those challenges. And you’ll see in there, that’s probably one of the sections that is most weak. But it is a section that shows that the Orthodox Church is eager and willing and able to try to address some of the challenges facing the rest of the world today. So I would just look at section 1 and section 5.
CHRISTIANSEN: Thank you. That’s helpful.
CASA: Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Lois Farag with Luther Seminary.
FARAG: Thank you so much for your very excellent introduction to understanding what happened in the ecumenical conference. So based on what you said, four out of 14 churches did not attend. That is almost one-third of the Orthodox Churches did not attend the council. So my question is, will these conciliar decisions be binding to the absent churches, especially that, for example, the Russian Church is the largest and most prominent of them all, and having the Antioch Church that is going through such a critical point in its history, were not present. Are they obligated to take care of the—and follow the obligations of the council? My second point is, did the council discuss the status of women in the church?
PRODROMOU: Father, do you want to start?
SYMEONIDES: Yeah. I’m sorry. Well, in terms of the binding nature or if these decisions are binding, I would just say, first, it is quite a missed opportunity for these four churches because the presence of the other 10 actually improved the decisions. So before they reached convening the council, the decisions were preliminarily approved by the primates and through the pre-conciliar process. So the decisions were not new. These churches agreed in principle to what was written. And the council provided the churches the opportunity to suggest amendments, revisions, and incorporate them to help improve these decisions.
In essence, the texts are the same in principle from start to end of the council, but there were several changes that helped improve the decisions. In most cases, it helped clarify some of the positions of the Orthodox Church. It took into consideration specific nuances in language—in different languages. And so in essence, the really isn’t any reason for these four churches who were not present to be able to accept the decisions of the council.
Having said that, the decisions are now decisions of the church. The church had a council. There were some who were not there. And it’s not the first time we have churches not present at a council. And it’s up to the rest of the church, those who were not in the room, to start to receive these decisions. Not only members of the four churches who were not present, but all the churches. All of the Orthodox Church now has to receive these decisions and start to apply these decisions in everyday parish life. So there is the long process of reception.
Whether these are binding, I don’t know if that’s the right word that we ought to be using. These are not legal documents. They are not contracts that people signed. These are expressions of the faith and decisions that help us live the faith today. So again, in essence I don’t see any reason why the four churches could not and would not adopt them, since they already approved the pre-conciliar documents prior to the revisions and amendments.
In terms of women in the church, I guess, Elizabeth, do you want to kind of—(laughs)—take that on a little bit?
PRODROMOU: Sure. So, thanks, for, you know, throwing the ping-pong ball over to me on that, Father. I just want to give one footnote on the issue of binding. One of the things that I took notice of as the council began, and also as it concluded is what was, I think, the softening tone of those who were missing, and the soft response of those who were there. Interestingly enough, the 10 who were present communicated before the actual start of the council on the morning—the liturgy at Pentecost and, you know, requested, invited, the other four who were there to please come. And there were some responses. So I guess I take that as a positive sign, glass half-full sign, that, you know, the lines of communication remained open.
Also interesting in terms of whether or not, you know, the decisions will be adopted and fully embraced, I think is the question of the way in which each of these churches—and I think this reflects the church’s global goal, has its own internal, you know, tensions, conversations, between those who would fall, I guess, on the more traditionalist side of the spectrum—and I won’t say traditional, but I’d say traditionalist, you know, in a kind of almost religious ideology sense of the word—and those who are more, I would say, open and progressive.
And so, I think at the end of the day, you know, whether or not these decisions are fully embraced will also in some ways be a function of how those kinds of, you know, conversations, struggles, competitions play themselves out. And in that, the Orthodox Church, I mean, the council shows the Orthodox Church looks pretty much like every other faith tradition around the world right now, in terms of, you know, the internal, you know, divisions and conversations about what it means to practice authentically, you know, one’s faith.
Regarding women in the church, no, there was no discussion there of women in the church. As I said, there were three women who were part of the official delegation in total. So on the one hand, it was an honor. On the other hand, it was—I felt a quite awesome responsibility to be in that—you know, the room with all the men in black. And my fervent hope is that there will be a far greater presence of women in councils moving forward, and not only in Holy and Great Councils, but also as the conciliar process is, again, reenergized at the local level of churches. And I’m hopeful about that.
The other thing that I think is very important here is that—you know, the ecumenical patriarch himself, as well as Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, you know, went out there and did appoint women. And again, I wasn’t part of the—I wasn’t in the room in the—you know, the meetings leading up to the council, but if I were a wagering person I would say that that was a pretty visionary and, for some, radical thing to do. I would also call your attention to the fact that there was a petition that’s available online that was signed by—as of yesterday, when I looked at the counts—I think 1,245 women from Orthodox Churches around the world entreating the ecumenical patriarch and the churches—the Orthodox Churches to include women more fully in the council.
And interestingly enough—and I believe it’s also online—there was a formal response from the ecumenical patriarch to the—you know, the petitions, saying that we hear you, we’re listening, and, you know, we’re moving. And so I think, again, the fact that that conversation is happening, it is indeed a conversation. And to me that is—you know, that’s very encouraging. I guess the real question of, you know, whether or not the time clock moves according to your, you know, Timex or iPhone watch piece or whether it moves according to an astrological timeline. And I’m pushing for the former rather than the latter.
CASA: Thank you. We have time for one more question.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our last question will come from John Burgess with the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
BURGESS: Hi. Thanks very much. Very interesting conversation. I just wanted to add that I think that with the Moscow Patriarchate, it’s not just the influence of Vladimir Putin, it’s also that this is a very conservative church. And there would not be a great groundswell of support from the grassroots for participation in the council. But having said that, I do wonder if anything came up at the council that would help us understand how the Orthodox Churches will adjudicate jurisdictional disputes. In fact, I understand that that was one of the factors that kept Antioch from attending, because of the situation in Qatar. And of course, Moscow’s looking at what’s going to happen in Ukraine, where nearly half of its parishes are located. And yet, the ecumenical patriarch is perceived as pushing for an autocephalous church that—in Ukraine, that would appear to undermine the interests of the Moscow Patriarchate. But more generally, was there anything to indicate how Orthodox Churches will look in the future towards resolving these jurisdictional questions?
SYMEONIDES: Yeah. I can start by saying that these jurisdictional questions are not new. Issues of jurisdiction, borders and boundaries, and violation of those ecclesiastical borders have existed early on. It’s actually one of the reasons why the Church of Cyprus was granted autocephalous status early in the history of the church, by the second ecumenical council. So it’s not something new. The Orthodox Church hopes that—and oftentimes they are—these disputes are addressed and resolved bilaterally between the two churches in question. If they cannot, then there are other means to help find a solution, including appealing to the Ecumenical Patriarchate as kind of the church that helps promote and secure Orthodox unity.
Several churches have done this in the past in the first millennium and also in the second millennium. But it’s only done when these churches have asked for assistance in trying to figure out how to resolve the problems. The issue of Qatar is quite unfortunate. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has offered to convene a committee to explore ways to resolve the problem. That would include both the Church of Antioch and the Church of Jerusalem, and overseen by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. But in essence the church has its canon, it has its history, and in many instances it’s a matter of discovering the history, the historical context, and identifying those canon that can help resolve these issues.
And I was going to say, in terms of—I would just also say, in terms of the Ukraine issue, I think you mentioned that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is seeking to establish an autocephalous church. And I would just say that that is not quite accurate. That’s all.
PRODROMOU: Well, yeah, to follow-up on that, just beginning with your first point about, you know, the Moscow Patriarchate, it’s not just a story about the Putin government, that’s certainly true. The church if labels mean anything, yes, is a quite conservative church. But I would go back to my earlier point, which is that we need to deconstruct all of these churches, as we do in other religious institutions and other faith traditions, and recognize that, you know, within the Moscow Church itself, and with the Russian Church itself, there’s a pretty rigorous, you know, competition and, you know, set of disagreements about how to be church and also about the nature of the relationship of the church to the state. So just sort of I think this council was very useful in helping to kind of de-mystify the Orthodox Church, which for many people, I think, is, you know, understood really by looking forward, rather than looking—or, looking backward, rather than looking forward. I think deconstructing the church in Russia is a useful way to go.
In terms of these jurisdictional disputes, thinking in terms of conflict resolution and negotiation, yes, the Jerusalem-Antioch disagreement over Qatar and also the question of autocephaly of Ukraine, at the end of the day one of the prerogatives of the—of ecumenicity, in fact, in the Orthodox Church, and therefore the See of Constantinople, is its prerogative of dispute resolution. And both of these questions are ones that are either actively or are being taken up by the Patriarchate in Constantinople.
On Ukraine, it is worth emphasizing, as Father Nathanael did, that the move toward or the request for autocephaly has come not from pressures from the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople but from requests from the church in Ukraine. And I think that’s a very important point to underscore, because, again, it gets to this notion of the logic of change within the Orthodox Church is one that is not, you know, imposed from or driven from the top down. And as a consequence, I think, you know, there’s a degree of messiness that we see when it comes to negotiation and dispute resolution. But nonetheless, I think, you know, it offers possibilities for lots of different formulas. So I would leave it at that.
CASA: I’m sorry that time does not allow us to get to all the questions. Elizabeth and Father Nathanael, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today from Greece.
SYMEONIDES: Well, thank you. Thank you for the opportunity to be with you.
PRODROMOU: My pleasure. And thank you, everyone on the call. I appreciated the questions and the kind of poking and prodding to think about these things from a variety of vantage points.
CASA: Yes. Thank you to all the participants for questions and comments.
We encourage you to follow CFR’s Religion and Foreign Policy Initiative on Twitter at @CFR_Religion for announcements on upcoming events and information about the latest CFR resources. We look forward to your participation in future discussion.