Introduction: The Church Under Attack
‘The One, Holy, Catholic, Apostolic Church’. Unity, Holiness, Catholicity and Apostolicity are the four characteristics of the Church and at various times in history one or another of them has been overlooked. As a result, the integrity of Church life has suffered – until the restitution of that particular characteristic. That the Faith of the Church is One, that the Church creates Saints, that the Church goes back to Apostolic times is in no doubt now.
However, at the present time, with the Church in crisis, in a state of worldwide administrative and jurisdictional schism, there is no doubt that it is rather the Catholicity of the Church that is being overlooked. This is the Universality of the Church, at all times and in all places. Catholicity is its Unity in Diversity, as at the first Pentecost and Coming of the Holy Spirit, as related in the Acts of the Apostles
The word Catholicity cannot be confused with Catholicism, which refers to Roman Catholicism, for the two words are different, However, there is a problem with the adjective ‘Catholic’. In English, as in all Western languages, this word is often confused with ‘Roman Catholic’, which is a contradiction in terms, as you cannot be universal at all times and in all places and yet attached to only one place, for example, Rome. This is very apparent when the Creed is sung or read in English or in other Western languages in our churches – ‘and in One. Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church’. Here the word ‘Catholic’ can sound strange.
This is not the case in Greek, from which comes the original word ‘katholiki’. Here instead of using ‘Roman Catholic’, they prefer to say ‘Latin’ or ‘Papal’, so that ambiguities are avoided. And Slavonic and Romanian have completely different words for ‘Roman Catholic’ and ‘Catholic’. Perhaps in English we need to translate ‘katholiki’ by ‘Orthodox Catholic’ or perhaps ‘Conciliar’, in order to avoid this ambiguity? For we are Orthodox Catholics, not Roman Catholics, as we confess that the Orthodox Church is ‘Conciliar’, based on Councils. Their decisions come from the Eternal Spirit of God and so are for all time, and not based on some passing administrative figure like a Pope or Patriarch, who is here today and gone tomorrow.
Here we should be particularly careful. For the Papal temptation of Rome, that of an individually or collectively-imposed imperialist superiority, racial, linguistic, cultural or otherwise, of one Local Church over all the others, can be a temptation for any Local Church. Here we do not speak of Roman Catholicism, which by definition long ago succumbed to this, thus losing its Unity with the Church, its Holiness and its Apostolicity. Here we speak of the Orthodox Church, which has not succumbed to imperialism, though certain ‘Orthodox’ personalities are and have been tempted.
In history, and especially at the present time, we have seen this temptation inside the Orthodox Church in both individual personalities and collective groups, notably in the Patriarchate of Constantinople and in the Patriarchate of Moscow. The term for the temptation of ‘Eastern Papism’ is, after all, well-known among Orthodox. There is only one solution to this problem of the ambition, personal or collective, to dominate others and lord it over them, it is the Catholicity of the Church. Indeed, as we have said, a possible translation of the Greek original for Catholicity is ‘Conciliarity’ and for ‘Catholic’ ‘Conciliar’.
For Catholicity is always revealed at Councils, which are a primary source of the revelations of the Holy Spirit in our post-Scriptural Age. It is precisely this that is lacking in Roman Catholicism, whose head is the Pope of Rome. Now, some will say that Roman Catholicism does have Councils. The problem here is that those Councils are not Orthodox, not free, indeed its First Vatican Council (1869-1870) proclaimed the dogma of Papal Infallibility. In Roman Catholicism the task of Councils is only to rubber-stamp decisions of Popes, for, according to their theology, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Popes, the Vicars of Christ. Councils do not have the same function there as in the Church, but take place only to confirm Papal decisions, being subservient to Popes.
This is not the case in the Church, although it is true that the Church in its bimillennial history has seen plenty of example of ‘Robber Councils’, or false Councils, the best known example of which was at Ephesus in 449, but the latest example of which was the 2016 pseudo-Council in Crete. How can such Robber Councils be avoided? Here we underline that in the Church no conference of bishops can be called a Council until after it has taken place, when its fruits, if there are any, can be seen and received or rejected by the people of God. A conference of bishops is merely a conference of bishops, but a Council of bishops is where the Holy Spirit is present. A conference of bishops is not a ‘Council’ because they forgot to invite the Holy Spirit to it and so can become a ‘Robber Council’. A Council implies the presence of the Holy Spirit, Who binds us together in Catholicity. For the Church is One at all times and in all places, only when She confesses the Holy Spirit.
Below are some suggestions of one who is not a bishop, not even a monk, merely a parish rector, though with nearly forty years of parish experience and having been a speaker at a Local Council (San Francisco, 2006) of the Russian Diaspora Church. There we defeated the spirit of pharisaic pride, made stubborn by psychological insecurity and political rancour. That spirit was rejecting both the repentance of others and Divine Providence, which was offering the long-awaited opportunity to restore canonical unity within the Russian Church.
Perhaps someone with influence may find the suggestions below, together with the many others, of interest.
Towards an Authentic Council
a. Unlike Crete, all Local Churches must be represented at a potential Universal Council.
b. Unlike Crete, no politically-imposed agenda should be presented at a potential future Council, that is, an agenda in the style of a secular meeting, programmed for one week in June 2016.
c. Unlike Crete, there should be no timetable to pressure delegates to make decisions within a very short period or to falsify the decisions reached with false signatures. The Seven Universal Councils were free to make decisions, often over many sessions and even months. The Holy Spirit is not limited by human timetables and pieces of paper.
Like Crete, this Council should be held in a country where a majority of the people are at least nominally Orthodox, that is, there is locally some sense of the Tradition.
Traditionally, meetings which became Councils were convened by the Emperor of the time. In the absence of an Emperor, they are called by the Patriarch of Constantinople in concert with the leaders of all the other Local Churches. If the Patriarch of Constantinople refuses for political reasons to convene a conference of bishops and many Local Churches still believe that such a conference (and potential Council) is necessary, then let them together call such a conference without the Patriarch of Constantinople. Then there can be a conference of bishops which may at least turn into a Local Council. Let us recall that apart from the Seven Universal Councils, there have in history been many Local Councils, which have reached important decisions, which have then had universal reception and application.
At present only 14 Local Churches are universally recognised. The OCA is disputed by some because it exists in North America, a territory shared by other Orthodox. And the Macedonian Church is disputed by some because of arcane arguments about its name. Perhaps these two Churches could at least be invited to send non-voting delegates to a conference of bishops, that could possibly become a Local or Universal Council, as any decisions reached could concern them very deeply.
As at Crete, we suggest that not all the world’s 1,000 Orthodox bishops be invited. This was never the case at the Universal Councils. Though attended by hundreds of bishops, they were never attended by all of them and some Local Churches such as the Roman Church, were represented by as few as two delegates. Conciliarity was and is expressed not by the presence of numbers of bishops, but by the presence of the Holy Spirit. Instead, let each Local Church be invited to send, say, a maximum of ten episcopal representatives, if they have that many bishops (a few smaller Local Churches do not). These representatives would have to be chosen beforehand by a Council of all Bishops (not just a Synod, let alone a mini-Synod) of their Local Church.
Here there is a problem, the elephant in the room, of which few speak. We know about this problem from the lives of St Photios (+ 893) and St Gregory Palamas (+ 1357), who were persecuted and whose teachings were opposed by Robber Councils before they were vindicated. We know about this also from the life of St Nectarios of Egina (+ 1920), who, instead of becoming a great missionary Patriarch of Alexandria, was slandered and cast out by jealous fellow-bishops, and from the life of the missionary bishop St John of Shanghai (+ 1966), who was slandered and suspended by his fellow-bishops, so did not become the Metropolitan of the Russian Church in the Diaspora and instead was hounded to an early death. The result was that that part of the Russian Church set out on a path of sectarianism, from which it has not yet been saved.
The world was unworthy of St John. His suspension in 1964 was related to me with great satisfaction 26 years later by one of his continuing slanderers, an extreme right-wing Russian racist from Los Angeles, to whom I had to listen in silence for two hours in a Paris traffic jam. He reminded me of the wise and prophetic words to me of St Sophrony the Athonite seven years before, forty years ago now, in 1983. In Essex Fr Sophrony warned me then of the cross I would have to bear, as he blessed me for my mission in the Russian Church, which he himself had had to abandon on account of persecution, to help work for unity with truth: ‘There are those in that group who lack love’, he said, indicating that we too would suffer like St John.
There is then the problem of the corruption of a significant minority of bishops. Why they are allowed to become and continue to be bishops and are not suspended or defrocked is not a question for us here, though it is a question of vital interest and concern to all responsible Orthodox and whose solution is long overdue. We suggest that delegates or bishop-representatives be chosen according to strict criteria in order to ensure that they are bishops who lead canonical lives.
Criteria for Presence
i. All representatives chosen by a Local Church must at the very least be in communion with all the bishops of their Local Church. Otherwise, they are uncanonical, de facto schismatics and should be suspended and sent to a monastery until they have repented or else defrocked.
ii. All representatives must take a solemn oath that they are bishops by free choice and not political appointees, like Patriarch Sergius of Moscow (+ 1944) (appointed by the Kremlin) or a generation later Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople (+ 1972) (appointed by the White House), as per the Canons of the Holy Apostles. This is to prove their canonicity.
iii. All representatives must take a solemn oath that they respect the three monastic vows of non-acquisition/poverty, chastity and obedience. The first vow means that they cannot be holders of, acquirers of or users of luxurious properties, objects and money, even if on paper, by subterfuge, the property, objects and money ‘belong to’ their diocese or are rented. The second vow means that they cannot be married or homosexual. The third vow means that they cannot be disobedient to the Church by being members of State secret services, masonic lodges or organisations that promote syncretism. This is to prove their canonicity.
iv. All representatives must be free of ongoing court cases for scandalous conduct involving, for instance, financial allegations; sexual allegations; allegations of slander of honest clergy; allegations of outbursts of rage and spectacular rudeness; allegations concerning persecution with threatening demands for more money, intimidation, bullying and even ‘defrocking’ for political reasons or reasons of personal hatred and jealousy of clergy, who have already been publicly accepted by other Patriarchates as legitimate, canonical and unjustly persecuted clergy, as they are faithful to Orthodoxy, but not to schismatic and uncanonical bishops. In other words, there must be no doubt as to the canonical life of the bishop in question (See Canon XV of the First and Second Council).
v. All representatives must be diocesan bishops, not ‘vicar-bishops’, whose status is not strictly canonical, as a bishop is married to his diocese.
vi. All representatives must have been diocesan bishops for at least ten years. Otherwise, they will lack experience.
vii. All representatives must be diocesan bishops of dioceses of at least 25 parishes (a parish being defined as a church where the Divine Liturgy is held at least every Sunday and is attended by at least 40 adult Orthodox each time. In other words, their diocese (whatever may be their pompous titles, ‘of All America’, ‘of Western Europe’ etc) actually has at least 1,000 practising adult Orthodox. (The average Orthodox bishop has a diocese of 200,000 nominal Orthodox). Otherwise, they will lack experience.
The selected representatives of each Local Church should attend the conference with any issues which their Local Church considers need resolving, following discussions and conferring with the other bishops, monks, priests and faithful in their Local Churches. Clearly, these issues would include the refusal at the present time of Russians and Greeks to concelebrate, who has the right to grant autocephaly and autonomy, and the universal recognition of uncanonically ‘defrocked’ clergy. However, other issues could easily arise.
After discussions and conferring with the other bishops, monks, priests and faithful in their Local Churches, bishops could reconvene for another session at a maximum interval of three months. This process could be repeated for as often as is necessary for decisions to be reached and be approved by all bishops of the Local Churches. There should be no pressure of time, just as there was not in the Councils of Church history.
Conclusion: Towards the Holy Spirit
In the light of the above, it would seem that the Crete Conference was in fact a warning, with Providential rewards, which always come to those who have suffered sacrificially from the treachery of those who behaved uncanonically. As with the case of the Tower of Siloam, the meaning was: ‘If you do not repent, you will all finish like this’. For the upshot of the Crete Conference of 2016 was the present schism between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow.
This resulted from the former’s uncanonical actions in the Ukraine, apparently in revenge for Moscow’s non-attendance of the Crete Conference. This in turn led to Moscow’s uncanonical actions in Africa, technically the territory of the Patriarchate of Alexandria. It is clear to all that only a Council can break this spiral of uncanonical actions and schisms, with their purely political and uncanonical ‘defrockings’, which everyone ignores. Here the Churches of Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Georgia, Antioch, Poland, Albania, Czechoslovakia and Jerusalem can play an important role as mediators between the racial clash of Greeks (Greece, Constantinople, Cyprus, Alexandria) and Russians.