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Reaction to the Agenda of the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church

 

Introduction

The agenda for the forthcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church was formulated by the Pre-Synodal Pan-Orthodox Conference, in Chambesy, Geneva, November 21-28, 1976. At the recommendation of His Eminence Metropolitan Meliton, chairman of the Conference, and at the invitation of His Eminence Archbishop Iakovos, co-chairman of our Consultation, the Orthodox-Roman Catholic Consultation in the USA discussed this agenda during its meeting in Washington, D.C., September 28-29, 1977. The Consultation welcomed the agenda as an important step toward the future Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. The following suggestions summarize various observations on the agenda by members of the Consultation. We hope that these suggestions may be of some value and of some service in the preparation of the study documents to be used as the basis of the Great Council's initial discussions.

The Agenda

Topics 1-3. The first three topics (fasting regulations, impediments to marriage, calendar) involve practical issues which deserve the attention of the Orthodox Churches. They are a fitting subject of a Great Council both because a common solution to these issues would enhance the daily life of the Orthodox Christians, and because they offer to the Council the opportunity for reflection on religious issues in the context of today's world.

Topic 1. We understand that some changes in fasting practices are advisable in view of the changing conditions and rhythm of life on some geographical areas of the Orthodox Church. It is now altogether clear, because of insufficient study, what has been the result of the changes pertaining to fasting regulations within the Roman Catholic Church. This should provide basis for the exercise of caution in the matter of proposed changes within the Orthodox Church. Disciplinary changes pertaining to fasting practices do not automatically bring about the hoped for spiritual fruits without careful preaching and instruction about the reasons for these adaptations. Another question to be raised with regard to these changes is to what extent common practices are necessary to preserve the unity of the church. Finally, discussion about fasting practices should, above all, seriously raise the question of the proper Christian attitudes toward the material world, modern consumerism, availability of foods, modern hedonism, ecology, religious discipline in contemporary society, and the like.

Topic 2. The issue regarding impediments to marriage, pertaining to both clergy and laity, as well as the possible issue of the eligibility of married clergy for the episcopate, requires discussion on the basis of an explicitly formulated theology of marriage, the presbyterate, and the episcopate. Other related themes to be dealt with are human sexuality in general, celibacy and monasticism.

Topic 3. With regard to the calendar question, the impact of Christian agreement on a common Easter date would be considerable both within and without the Christian world. The calendar question also offers an opportunity to address the question of the relationship of the church to modern science. However, a caution may also be sounded: unprepared changes in calendar matters could signal enormous pastoral problems.

Topic 4. It seems to us that the resolution of the Diaspora problem might serve to better express the communion ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church. The question of the Diaspora should be investigated against the background of the idea of the catholicity of the church. An attempt in this regard has already been made at the Second World Conference of the Orthodox School of Theology, Penteli, Athens, August 19-29, 1976.

Topic 5. On the question of the relationship of the Orthodox Church to other Christian churches and communities, special attention should be given to promoting closer relations with the Oriental Churches, the Roman Catholic Church, the Old Catholic Church, and the Anglican Communion. We see that this may involve a thorough study of the principles which have traditionally determined Orthodox views regarding the ecclesial status of "separated Christians," and "separated churches."

Topic 6. The question of the ranking of autocephalous churches raises the issue of the practical and theological significance of rank per se within the Orthodox Churches. Why, for instance, has the actual importance--past or present--of certain churches in fostering the life of the entire church been the crucial factor in their gaining prominence in rank among their family of churches?

Topic 7. It seems to us that under the theme of autonomy and autocephaly some consideration should be given to the limits of uniformity compatible with the unity of the church.

Topic 8. We feel that the consideration of the terms under which autonomy is granted to local churches might take in view the history of the Roman Catholic Church's practice of removing the status of "missionary church" from locally established churches. The history of the relationship between Rome and the Roman Catholic Church of North and South America, as well as Africa, may be useful in this matter. In this connection, the Anglican model of granting independence to missionary churches may also be instructive for the Orthodox Church.

Topic 9. We hold that the presence of the Orthodox Church in the World Council of Churches is a valuable witness of the apostolic and catholic tradition. We feel that Orthodox participation in the ecumenical movement as outlined by the Patriarchal Encyclical of 1920 is an indispensable factor in Christian efforts toward cooperation and unity between Christian churches and communities.

Topic 10. We believe that in proclaiming Christian ideals to the world the church may explicitly call attention to what it has learned from its experience in the world concerning basic Christian ideals. Hence theological reflection is needed on the presence of the Holy Spirit in the world outside the church and the values of the world in the eyes of the church. Under this topic the following specific themes may be given special attention:

  1. Justice and human rights;

  2. Ethical Consensus on many important issues such as sexuality, cohabitation without marriage, abortion, medical issues pertaining to the preservation of life, and the like; and

  3. Study of the roles and methods of effective preaching, Christian education, and liturgical celebration toward spiritual renewal, i.e., the nature of the experience of the living God over against contemporary secularism and the modern experience of the "absence of God."


Conclusion

The agenda of the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church has in view the status and unity of the Orthodox Church primarily in practical terms. However, these matters cannot be adequately discussed without raising deeper theological issues about the nature of discipline, unity, the church, the Gospel, and life. The Great Council can settle the practical issues in order to strengthen the life of the Orthodox Church. It can also make a real contribution to the proclamation of the Gospel in today's world through the witness of an effective Orthodox consensus on important theological issues pertaining to the church's presence in today's world.

Washington, D.C.
September 29, 1977
16th meeting



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