The Great and Holy Council – The Orthodox Hierarchy Wrestles with the Stewardship of the Church
By Fr. Robert Holet
The timing couldn’t be better – as the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church convened in Crete with the celebration of the Feast of Pentecost, concluding on the Sunday of All Saints. Much will be written by many with far more profound insights into the historical, spiritual and theological meaning of the Council – as well as the implications of the participation of the Churches and, more notably, the non-participation of others, for whatever reasons. From my perspective, what is so encouraging is the refreshing sight of the Fathers of the Church as they step up – prayerfully, visibly and publically – to act as the stewards of the Lord’s Church in our age. Quietly, the prayer of many Orthodox Christians was that, through the Council, the Lord would pour forth a wave of spiritual enthusiasm, renewed insight and where necessary, needed change, to the Orthodox Church’s life and witness in the world today.
Herein is set forth one of the challenges of Orthodoxy today. We know that Christ is the Head of the Church, and so the Body lives in harmony with Him (or is cut off and dies). But the Head has ascended to Heaven – leaving us, in a manner of speaking, without a visible head. The natural human inclination is to select a new visible representative – so that we have a ‘chief steward’ to preserve order. Some lament that we need a ‘visible’ Steward of the Church in our own day, as in the practice of the Roman Catholics, whose Pope has the responsibility to steward/shepherd their Church.[i] This approach would certainly be more understandable to our modern sensibilities; every organization needs its leadership head, every business its CEO. If the Orthodox Church had one, it surely wouldn’t have taken hundreds of years to convene such a Council to initiate this process! It can be argued that this leadership-stewardship role was exercised in an earlier age by the Christian Roman Emperors, beginning with Constantine – and probably out of practical as much as spiritual need. The Roman Catholics have not had a problem calling wide-ranging councils since the Great Schism in the 11th. It’s been much more difficult for the Orthodox to so gather – even though the conciliar model is at the heart of the Orthodox understanding of how the stewardship of the universal Church takes place. For Orthodoxy, Christ did not set up such a singular, ultimately empowered, overseer.
Local or Global? Broadening the Circle
A related challenge facing the Hierarchs, and highlighted by the Council, is the very tension between ‘local’ and ‘global’. In Orthodox ecclesiology, the bishop is always bishop first and foremost of a ‘local church’. But what about the Church around the world? This typifies a tension present more broadly in Christianity today. Where do our responsibilities lie? Are we to focus on ‘working out our salvation in fear and trembling’ – with a strong focus on our individual, private life? Are we to also broaden our spiritual awareness and take responsible stewardship of our family? What about our local church communities (parish)? Do we look beyond the walls of our parish to reach out with the gospel and also endeavor to express the stewardship of the Church in our locale, finding some way to ‘love our neighbor’ in the local community or region?
As a member of our Metropolitan Council, I’ve sensed the need of our national Metropolia to be supported (in ministry and love, not to mention financially) by local parishes – and when that’s absent we are like leaders without followers, and our bishops are shepherds without sheep. Are we not also called, as Orthodox in America, to see the breadth of our cross-jurisdictional Church, manifest in the work of the Assembly of Bishops, or IOCC, or OCMC, or OCF or any of a score of ministries that have a national reach that we are supposed to steward by our support, because they really are important? And let’s not forget the international concern of many of Orthodox Christians today in our parishes and our jurisdictions, that extend across the oceans to a faraway place and a faraway people who are our ‘brothers and sisters (no less)’, many of whom are deeply in need.[ii] Then too, there are inter-Church and ecumenical concerns that reach into international ecclesial activities and discussions. Just thinking about all this makes me dizzy! Is it little wonder that the oft-quoted saying of St. Seraphim about acquiring the Holy Spirit is so popular today – focusing/stewarding our thoughts and energies on what is closest, and manageable?
But for a hierarch, the global dimension of their calling cannot be ignored. It’s their responsibility to bear that broader, global concern. When Christ gathered his disciples at that Mystical Supper and entrusted to them the Mysteries, the Keys to the Kingdom, and all, He also entrusted a distinct, global expression of a united, conciliar Church and ministry to them as well. They cannot deny or ignore it – and the diptychs[iii] remind them of their global connectedness to the entirety of the Church whenever they offer the Liturgy. Further, if the hierarchs don’t faithfully serve as stewards of the global Church (oikoumene), no one will because no one else can. What we should all appreciate, regardless of any of the documents or other outcomes of this Council, is the determined effort led by the patriarchs, especially by the Ecumenical Patriarch, His All-Holiness Bartholomew, to overcome all manner of impediments so that this distinctive expression of stewardship of the worldwide Church could be exercised. It had been hundreds of years since it was so manifest – because it is, as expressed in the icon of Pentecost, a stewardship function which can only be exercised in the Spirit, in council and solidarity with others.
Stewardship of the Gift of Unity through Conciliarity
We can glory in the expression of this Pentecost-enlightened Church because it shows us the need for stewardship expressed as conciliarity. If, as the Council theme resonating the Kontakion of St. Romanos indicates, “He called all to unity,” maybe this is the very image of the Church of Christ we so desperately need; especially as communities and collaboration collapse – sometimes in violence – in an individualistic and secular age. International, national, jurisdictional, regional and local – all of the other levels of life in Christ – need the discovery of this conciliar dimension of stewardship and mission in the Church. Perhaps the stewardship of our very souls relies not just about our-selves, or what we do even in serving others in the Church, but through the very relationship and union with God the Trinity, and with others in holy communion in love.
Essential, then, to the stewardship of the Church is this search and longing for unity. This will lead each of us, especially the shepherds, to repentance – as we realize the disruption of the unity in each of our Church circles. Only repentance and truth can bring healing and restoration. Efforts to bring reconciliation, though imperfect, in the Great Council exemplify the hierarchical role of calling us to the dialogue, and if necessary, repentance that leads to unity – true among Patriarchs, within national churches, down to the family level. The world will know the love of Christ when He sees us love one another, and reconcile with one another.[iv]
As with the stewardship of any important ministry in the Church, unity cannot accomplished solely by individuals. Rather, an effort to gather the Church in the oikumene assumes a global vision and multi-national strategic planning and practical execution. As anyone hanging around the Orthodox for a short time may have observed, gathering the Orthodox for anything beyond eating a meal can be a challenge! Gathering theologians, media support, people gifted with multi-lingual skills to address staffing needs, hospitality concerns, etc. – this was a herculean task. Perhaps most daunting was the challenge to firmly and fairly address the concerns of all the Patriarchs and their delegations, not the least of which was the patience required to address (even to the final moments before convening the Council) the concerns and reluctance of those who opted not to attend. Even choosing a safe and accessible site was inspired – in light of the bombing of the Istanbul Airport on the very day that many of the Hierarchs were traveling home at the end of the Council. And I’m sure that there will be a few stories in the days to come of other near-misses and events that managed to find resolution so that these men, called by God, could actually sit down and begin to address, as faithful stewards, the global needs of the Church throughout the world.
A Moment in History?
I can recall, as a youth, hearing wisps of information about the Second Vatican Council which was taking place and how it would change forever the life of the Catholic Church. What could not have even been anticipated made history – beyond anyone’s imagination.[v] Is it possible that something of similar great importance is in store for the Orthodox Church? In the words of our Metropolitan Antony of Hieropolis,[vi] “This Council will be part of the history of the modern world.”[vii]
All I can say is it’s about time. God’s time. God takes His time – often taking millennia to act – but when He does, big things happen. This is a new beginning. As the Hierarchs of the Orthodox Church around the world get exercise their profound ministry as stewards of the whole Church in Orthodoxy, we will have a new glimpse of the icon of the Church for Pentecost. In a sense, the Apostles in the icon can now be flanked not only by the Fathers and Hierarchs of the previous ages – but now we can see, sharing in that glory as stewards of His Church, our own Hierarchs, assuring us that our Church is not only one with that Church of Pentecost, the Councils, and the Saints, but expressed in a powerful, new, visual image in our own age. Ω
[i] Of course, in the Orthodox view, the Pope is first and foremost the Bishop of Rome, and the scope of his pastorship extends to a degree as Patriarch of the West (but never replacing a local bishop). Some popes recently have eschewed the ‘Patriarch of the West’ title, notably His Holiness Pope Benedict. For one Orthodox take on this, see http://www.orthodoxytoday.org/articles6/HilarionPope.php But the papacy is globally recognized in the Roman Church as a ‘Universal Pontificate’, effectively making him the steward of the entire Church.
[ii] Among the most pressing needs are those of the Syrian and middle-Eastern Churches due to the war and persecution in their lands, as well as the suffering in Ukraine due to civil unrest and its accompanying ecclesial issues.
[iii] The diptychs record the names of rightly ordained bishops in Communion with the Church, as successors to the apostles, and for whom prayers are offered, especially in the Divine Liturgy.
[iv] Jn. 13:35
[v] Some would argue – for better, others, for worse.
[vi] Presiding Hierarch of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA and Diaspora