Pan-Orthodox Council, "Ukrainian question" and the papacy of Constantinople

There is no mention in the canons that Pan-Orthodox Councils can only be convened by the Patriarch of Constantinople. Photo: UOJ

Does the Phanar possess an exclusive right to convene a Pan-Orthodox Council? Should all Local Churches gather at it to determine the truth?

A few days ago, Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople said that the main event of the outgoing 2019 was the bestowal of autocephaly to Ukrainian schismatics. Undoubtedly, among all the events of the year that somehow influenced the fate of the entire Orthodoxy, this was the main thing.

But in the same way, it is clear that the legalization of self-ordained and anathematized representatives of the Ukrainian schism does not bring anything good in itself to the Church and should be viewed negatively. Moreover, granting the Tomos to the OCU has been the main negative event in Orthodoxy over the past decades, and perhaps a much longer period.

Its results are already felt now – the breakdown of Eucharistic communion between the Russian Church and those who recognized the OCU, a split within the Churches, whose representatives entered into communion with Epiphany Dumenko, and a very grave crisis of world Orthodoxy.

Not to notice all this is impossible. The latest statements by Patriarch Bartholomew clearly indicate that he will not back down even if the Church splits as it did in 1054.

The only way out is the Pan-Orthodox Council or the Council of Primates of Local Churches. And it must not only raise the “Ukrainian question” but also consider the problem of canonical violations of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, its papal claims. And such a Council or a meeting has already been announced by the Jerusalem Patriarch Theophilos.

The latest statements by Patriarch Bartholomew clearly indicate that he will not back down even if the Church splits as it did in 1054.

However, one can hear statements more and more often that the initiative of such a Council or a meeting by the Patriarch of Jerusalem cannot be canonical since only the Patriarch of Constantinople supposedly has the right to convene Councils. This prerogative, not explicitly spelled out by any canon of the Church, is based on the “church tradition” and on one’s own understanding of several rules adopted at Ecumenical Councils.

Some of the bishops who recognized the OCU have already stated that they will not participate in the Pan-Orthodox assembly. And this, in their opinion, will make the future meeting illegitimate. It is often said that sooner or later all Orthodox Churches will recognize the OCU, and the Ukrainian and Russian Churches will remain in isolation as a result.

Therefore, it is also important to consider the question of the truth of a particular conciliar decision. In other words, is it possible to judge the truth on the basis of a simple vote count or say that only the episcopate determines the general ecclesiastical truth?

Who convened the Council

All Ecumenical Councils had not only ecclesiastical but also state significance, which was due to the role of the emperor.

Having the status of the defender of the Orthodox faith, the emperor received unprecedented powers, one of which was the right to convene the Ecumenical Council. This right was recognized by everyone - the Councils themselves, the heads of the metropolitan districts, the eastern patriarchs, popes, the clergy and laity.

The Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council wrote in a letter to the Churches of God: "Since the grace of God and the most pious emperor Constantine have called us together from different provinces and cities to constitute the great and holy synod in Nicaea..."

The bishops of the Church of Christ not only did not dispute the emperor’s right to convene Ecumenical Councils but also considered themselves obliged to give an account to him and provide the prerogative to approve the council decrees to stop further disputes.

In the message of the Second Ecumenical Council to the Most Pious Emperor Theodosius the Great, we read: “After rendering due thanks unto God, as in duty bound we lay before your Piety the things which have been done in the Holy Synod. When, then, we had assembled in Constantinople, according to the letter of your Piety, we first of all renewed our unity of heart each with the other, and then we pronounced some concise definitions, ratifying the Faith of the Nicene Fathers, and anathematizing the heresies which have sprung up, contrary thereto. Besides these things, we also framed certain Canons for the better ordering of the Churches. <...> Wherefore we beseech your Piety that the decree of the Synod may be ratified, to the end that, as you have honored the Church by your letter of citation, so you should set your seal to the conclusion of what has been decreed."

The emperor himself understood his role. The head of the Byzantine Empire considered himself a co-servant of the bishops in the defense of the true faith. Emperor Constantine, in an address to the Fathers of the First Ecumenical Council regarding the heresy of Arianism, said: “Having received the news of your disagreement, I could not leave this unattended. So, wanting to heal this evil with my help, I immediately convoked all of you. <...> Do not hesitate at the very beginning to consider the reasons for your disagreement and resolve all contentious issues by peaceful resolutions. Through this, you will accomplish the work pleasing to God and bring the greatest joy to me, your concelebrant.”

The same emperor wrote to the bishops who did not take part in the Council: “I gathered in Nicaea the most benevolent bishops, as many as I could, and between them, as though I were like you (I will not hide from you that I feel great comfort to be your concelebrant) was present at the Council, where everything was subjected to proper research.”

The Council must not only raise the “Ukrainian question” but also consider the problem of canonical violations of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, its papal claims.

As the famous Russian canonist Archpriest Nikolai Afanasyev said, “the convocation by the emperor of the Council is one of the formal conditions for the Council to be recognized as Ecumenical and authoritative” (the “Put’” journal, 1930).

All seven Ecumenical Councils of the Orthodox Church were convened by emperors. The claims of Greek theologians that only the patriarch of Constantinople has the right to convene a Council are not based on historical facts. Not a single Ecumenical Council was convened by the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Of course, the emperor did not convene the Councils himself but did so under the influence of an authoritative church leader, who was closest to him at that moment. However, he often convened Councils even contrary to the opinion of influential bishops. For example, Pope Leo the Great was against the convocation of the “Robber Council” (the Second Council of Ephesus), which nevertheless took place, as well as against the Council of Chalcedon (the Fourth Ecumenical Council). Leo the Great implored Valentinian III, the emperor of the Western part of the Roman Empire, to influence Theodosius II (the emperor of the Eastern part) to convene the Council within Italy. But Theodosius, despite the requests of Pope Leo himself, the emperor Valentinian, his sister and mother, refused.

So, without the emperor, the Council simply could not take place, and in the first eight centuries, the Church did not know a single case when the patriarch or bishop decided on his own behalf to convene the Ecumenical Council. The Councils convened by the primates never claimed the status of Ecumenical Councils but were always only Local.

Who participated in the Council

The emperors not only convened Councils but could also demand the mandatory presence of certain bishops, with which again no one argued.

For example, emperors Theodosius II and Valentinian III in the highest epistle to St. Cyril of Alexandria and to bishops throughout the territory of metropolitans wrote: “We are convinced, on the one hand, that each of the godly clergy, having learned that by this definition, our Holy Council is established for ecclesiastical and universal purposes, will try to arrive and give all possible assistance to the affairs, which are so necessary and God-pleasing. On the other hand, we who care so much about this will not endure indifferently any absence. And there will be no justification either before God or before us for whoever does not rush to immediately arrive at the appointed place at the appointed time. For whoever is called to the Holy Council and is not in a hurry to come, his conscience is clearly unclean.”

The emperor not only determined the number of members of the Council but could personally invite someone or forbid anyone to participate in it. For example, Emperor Theodosius invited St. Augustine to participate in the Third Ecumenical Council and forbade Theodoret of Cyrrhus to participate in the “Robber Council”.

The claims of Greek theologians that only the patriarch of Constantinople has the right to convene a Council are not based on historical facts.

The Councils were usually attended by the heads of all Churches or metropolitan districts (either in person or through representatives). If someone was absent, this did not impede the holding of the Council.

For example, at the Second Ecumenical Council there were no representatives of the Pope. Pope Vigilius refused to participate in the V Council, and VI and VII Councils were not attended by all the eastern patriarchs. But this does not mean that the decisions of these Councils are illegitimate because the quantitative composition of the participants did not affect the degree of authority or ecumenical status of the Council.

In addition to bishops, deacons, priests, and even, in one case, readers could participate in the Council, and monks were already present at VI and VII Councils. However, they all represented not so much the Church (Local) as "the face of their bishop".

The emperors themselves participated in the I, II, IV, VI, and VII Ecumenical Councils. In all other cases, instead of emperors, its representatives, legates, took part either at the Council in general, or in its separate sessions. However, neither the emperor nor his representatives were full members of the Council. They mainly kept order and freedom of speech.

After the Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem invited primates of the Local Churches to Jordan for the Pan-Orthodox assembly, some of them (in particular, the head of the Greek Church, Archbishop Ieronymos) have already announced that they will not participate in this meeting. However, from the point of view of church history, the absence of anyone at the Council in no way affects the legitimacy of its decisions. The problem is different – will the people of the Church accept these decisions? And if so, under what conditions?

Conditions of Councils’ Decisions

The main task of the Council has always been to determine the truth. And the legitimacy of the conciliar decision does not depend on the number of bishops who signed it. The emphasis should not be on the number of votes but on the proclamation of God's truth. Because if the decision is not true, the people of the Church will not accept it.

At the same time, the Truth of faith does not imply a pluralism of opinions, which is possible only before a final decision is made. The Truth cannot be conditional or insufficient or less “true” – it excludes the existence of a different opinion and is binding for everyone.

An exchange of views was possible only on the way to determining the Truth. Moreover, one of the conditions for the adoption of conciliar decisions was a mandatory free expression of opinions, which made it possible to make decisions that did not depend on pressure or threats from someone else. When this was not respected, the decisions of the Council were questioned and disputed.

For example, at the Ecumenical Council of 449 A.D, Patriarch Dioskor resorted to threats and even direct physical violence in order to make decisions favorable to him. In the end, by a majority of votes, these decisions were made, and the Council itself went down in history as the “Robber Council”.

The Truth of faith does not imply a pluralism of opinions, which is possible only before a final decision is made. The Truth cannot be conditional or insufficient or less “true” – it excludes the existence of a different opinion and is binding for everyone.

After the Council, the process of reception of conciliar decisions began, i.e. acceptance by the Church. The main condition, in this case, was the agreement of the council decrees with the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Tradition of the Church. In other words, all members of the Church had to accept conciliar decisions as true. The emperor was again the first in this row – both by virtue of state powers with which he credited the definitions of Councils and by virtue of being the first honored layman in the Church. Under the Sixth Ecumenical Council, there is such a signature: "Constantine in Christ of God the King and Emperor of Rome, read and agreed."

History knows many examples of how Councils’ decisions, although adopted by the majority of the episcopate and clergy, signed by the emperor but rejected by the common people, did not receive general church recognition. Vivid evidence of this is the Florentine, Lyon, Brest Unions, as well as the Robber Councils of the V-VIII centuries.

Therefore, when trying to solve the Ukrainian problem that plunged the Church into a modern crisis, one must build not on someone else's interests (be it the Russian Church or the Patriarchate of Constantinople) but only on the truth. How is this truth expressed in the Tradition and the history of the Church? How much do the parties' current positions correspond to the Gospel and the teaching of Christ, and church traditions? These are the questions to ask today. And we mustn’t be afraid of the supposed isolation, because where Christ is, there is a majority, as the monk Maximus the Confessor said.

* * *

The history and the Tradition of the Church testify that not a single Ecumenical Council was convened by the Patriarch of Constantinople. All Councils, claiming an ecumenical character, were convened exclusively by the emperor. From this point of view, the Phanar’s claim to the exclusive right to convene the Ecumenical Council is absolutely groundless and has no historical basis. All attempts by the Patriarchs of Constantinople to convene the Ecumenical Council invariably ended in failure.

The legitimacy of the Council does not depend on the number of its participants but on how much the Council itself has pursued the interests of determining the truth. Therefore, even if Patriarch Bartholomew, Patriarch Theodore and Archbishop Ieronymos do not go to the planned Pan-Orthodox meeting in Jordan, it will not become less legitimate because of this, and its decisions will not become non-binding. The only condition for both is to search and uphold the truth.

All decisions, no matter how true they may seem at the time of adoption, must also go through the general church reception, i.e. accepted by the people of God. On this side, it is now safe to say that the decisions of Patriarch Bartholomew to accept into communion non-repentant Ukrainian schismatics did not pass the pan-Church reception, which the Pan-Orthodox assembly in Jordan must prove.

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