TOWARDS THE NINTH OECUMENICAL COUNCIL?
I believe…in One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church; I acknowledge one Baptism unto the remission of sins; and I look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come. Amen.
The Symbol of Faith
1. Introduction: The Seven Oecumenical Councils
It is well known that the Church has held Seven Oecumenical Councils. These are the Councils of Nicea (325), Constantinople (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantinople (553), Constantinople (680-1) and Nicea (787).
There are extra-ecclesial groups, or ‘isms’, that reject these Councils. These include Non-Chalcedonianism, sometimes called semi-Monophysitism, which rejects the Fourth Council and accepts only the first Three Oecumenical Councils; Roman Catholicism, which rejects parts of the First, Second, Sixth and Seventh Councils (as well as the Eighth Council – but more about that below) and then added spurious Councils, which they call ‘Oecumenical’; and Anglicanism and other forms of Protestantism, which seem not to accept any of the Oecumenical Councils. This is because their beliefs appear to be based not on the Holy Spirit, but on individual interpretations of the Hebrew Old Testament and the New Testament and intellectual speculations - however there are individual Protestants who theoretically accept parts of these Councils.
2. The Eighth Oecumenical Council
It should be made clear that the number seven has no dogmatic significance. No more indeed than the ancient error of Three Sacred Languages (Hebrew, Greek and Latin – this was pure nationalism); or the Roman Catholic numbering of ‘Seven Sacraments’ (in fact there are many more than seven sacraments, since the whole Church is sacramental); or, that error so beloved by Anglicans, the numbering of ‘five Patriarchates’ (the ‘Pentarchy’ – in reality an attempt to petrify the Church in the ninth century before the defection of Rome - today there are nine Patriarchates, of which the ancient ones, whose real centres are in Istanbul, Damascus and Nairobi, are so tiny as to be statistically almost irrelevant, five or six Autocephalous Orthodox Churches and a number of Autonomous Churches). Indeed, to say dogmatically that there can only be Seven Councils, Three Sacred Languages, Seven Sacraments or Five Patriarchates (the ‘Pentarchy’), and that any other numbers are ‘heretical’, simply shows gross ignorance, almost superstition.
As regards the ‘Seven Councils’, most Orthodox consider that there is an Eighth Oecumenical Council. This was the Council of Constantinople in 879, which recognised the Seventh Council as Oecumenical. The 383 Fathers who attended this Council came from all over the Orthodox world, including from the then still Orthodox Church of Rome. With this number of Fathers, this was the largest Council since Chalcedon in 451 and unanimously proclaimed the immutability of the Creed, without the filioque, and anathematised those who changed it. It was called Oecumenical by the canonist Theodore Balsamon in the twelfth century, by Nilus of Salonica and Nilus of Rhodes in the fourteenth century, later by St Simeon of Salonica, St Mark of Ephesus, Patriarch Gennadius Scholarius and, in the seventeenth century, by Patriarch Dositheus of Jerusalem. More recently, its Oecumenical nature has been recognised by twentieth-century academic theologians, both Greek and Russian, for example Fr John Romanides and Archbishop Basil (Krivoshein).
Why then is it not universally recognised as ‘Oecumenical’? Simply because Councils are recognised as Oecumenical only by the following Oecumenical Council. And so far there has not been a Council to succeed the Eighth. And why is this? Simply because, despite highly significant Local Councils such as the Hesychast ones of 1341, 1347 and 1351 or the Council of Jerusalem in 1672, the Church has been so persecuted that the summoning of a Council has proved to be impossible. Who were these persecutors?
Firstly, there were the Muslims, who in the seventh and eighth centuries conquered the territories of three ancient Patriarchates, then the defection of the Latin Patriarchate of Rome, then the Turks, who conquered the territory of the one remaining ancient Patriarchate and the Balkans, then the Mongols and Tartars, who threatened the survival of Russia, then Catholics and Protestants, who severely disrupted and disrupt the life of all the Local Churches, then Deists and Freemasons, who were very active in Synodal Russia and more recently have been very active in Constantinople and the Middle East, then phyletist (nationalistic) and simoniac Phanariots, who severely undermined the integrity of the Greek Churches and those in the western Balkans and, finally, in the twentieth century Nationalists, Communists, Fascists and various other Western Materialists
On account of the activities of all these groups, the summoning of a Council of the whole Church has been rendered impossible, out of the question. Thus, in 1977 the great Serbian theologian, the ever-memorable Archimandrite Justin (Popovich), quite rightly dismissed out of hand the concept of summoning a ‘Great Council’, at a time when most Orthodox Churches lived under Communist oppression and the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Antioch lived under either Muslim or Vatican or else Masonic domination, resulting in apostasy, the persecution of the Orthodox Tradition and old calendarist schisms (1).
3. Why could there be a Ninth Council in the near future?
Today, the position is quite different. The Local Churches of Eastern Europe are in a very different situation from the 1970s, the 1980s and even the 1990s. By far the largest Local Church, the Russian, with 75% of all Orthodox, has become free and is being reborn on account of Her faithfulness to the Orthodox Tradition, piety and calendar, as witnessed to by the hundreds of thousands of Her New Martyrs and Confessors, who are being canonised in Moscow. Although this clearly displeases the enemies of Orthodox Tradition and piety, it is a fact. As His Beatitude Patriarch Ignatius of Antioch and All the East has said: ‘Russian Orthodoxy is the guarantor of Pan-Orthodox unity, which is now particularly important’. For the first time in a thousand years the Orthodox Churches which represent over ninety-five per cent of the world’s Orthodox are now politically free to hold a Council.
However, Councils are not held without reason. There must be important matters to discuss, movements which are heretical and which disrupt the workings of the Church. This is, after all, why the previous Eight Councils were held - in order to define the Orthodox Faith against heresies and issue canons defining how the Church works. Below we shall examine what could be on the agenda of such a Council.
4. Who could summon the Council and who could take part?
All the Oecumenical Councils were summoned by the Emperor of New Rome (Constantinople), who also provided the necessary infrastructure and finance for the Oecumenical Councils. This is the reason why Seven of the Eight Councils were held in Constantinople or nearby, Ephesus being the one exception. Here there is an obvious problem, inasmuch as since the fall of New Rome in 1453, in the City that is its successor, Moscow, there is at present no Emperor. Moreover, there is not even a successor to the throne, left vacant since 1917 (2). If there were, he might well be acclaimed at once. Is it then the case that the Orthodox world should wait until a legitimate successor to the throne of the Orthodox Empire appears, so that a Council could then be called?
There is an alternative. This would be that the nine Orthodox Patriarchs (in diptych order - Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Georgia, Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria) and administrative leaders of the Autocephalous Churches (Cyprus, Greece, Albania, Poland, Czechoslovakia and the disputed America), together with the Autonomous Churches (the tiny Churches of Sinai and Finland and the disputed Autonomous Churches of Japan and still dormant China) circulate a memorandum among one another and organise a Council. This would be without historical precedent, but there is no canonical reason as to why such an event could not occur. The Church does not depend on an Emperor.
All diocesan bishops of the Local Orthodox Churches should take part in such a Council. Titular metropolitans/bureaucrats without dioceses, and ‘vicar-bishops’ – both Roman Catholic institutions (titular metropolitans being merely the equivalent of cardinals) without Patristic precedent - should not take part. This would ensure that the voice of the faithful, represented by their Archpastors, would be heard.
5. Where could a Council be held?
Since the very first Church Council took place in Jerusalem (Acts 1), why should it not take place there again? If some objected that this hotbed of tensions between the Old Testament values of Jews and Muslims (‘an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth’ (3)), is no place for a Council of the New Testament Church, for fear of terrorist outrages, the alternative might be, as we suggested a year ago in Moscow, in the New Jerusalem Monastery outside Moscow (4). However, if the Greek world insisted for ethnic reasons that a Council take place on the much-reduced territory of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, we can think of no better place than Mt Athos.
6. What could be on the agenda?
As we have already said, Councils are not called without very good reason. If there are no heresies to challenge and no administrative matters to define, why hold a Council at all?
It has been noted that history has challenged the articles of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed in chronological order and Councils have been called to answer these challenges. Thus the Creed first confirms belief in God the Father, in God the Son, His divine and human nature and the events of His earthly life, His Incarnation, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension and Coming Again, and in the Holy Spirit. And the Oecumenical Councils confirmed belief in and defined these articles through history.
Thus, the first Seven Councils were much preoccupied with the central dogmas of the Holy Trinity and the Person of Christ, the bulk of the Creed, as well as administrative matters and the issuing of canons, and the Eighth Council was concerned with the Holy Spirit. (Further definitions of our understanding of the Holy Spirit and the essence and energies distinction came with the Palamite Councils of the fourteenth century. Although defined at Local Councils, in fact their definitions were accepted Oecumenically, that is, universally). However, in recent times, it is the later articles of the Creed that have been challenged. Surely, these could be on the agenda.
But first on the agenda could be the reception of the Council of Constantinople of 879 as the Eighth Oecumenical Council. This recognition of this Council, recognised by the still Orthodox Church of Rome at the time, would be an explicit call to present-day Roman Catholicism and its many hundreds of offshoots to repent and return to the Church and Faith of the first millennium, relinquishing all later heresies and errors. At a time when Roman Catholicism and its offshoots are in a state of profound crisis and disintegration, there could be no more timely call and reminder to return to the Faith and historic Christian roots.
As for challenges to the later articles of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed, these include above all doubts on the nature of the Church. In our time, Faith in the Church has been challenged by those outside the Church, who do not know Her as their Mother. Thus there has come about the syncretistic heresy of ‘ecumenism’. Those Orthodox who have sadly been involved with this heresy have provoked extreme and sectarian reactions among others, leading to old calendarist schisms. Neither side has understood the nature of the vestiges of the old Western Patriarchate of Rome, and many simple faithful have been scandalised by the political compromises, calendar apostasy and personal ambitions of the elite. Lack of canonicity on the question of the identity and definition of the Church by ‘official’ ‘representatives’ of some Local Churches has led to the formation of uncanonical groupings.
Here there needs to be a definition that although there can be no Church outside the (Orthodox) Church, nevertheless there are those outside Her who have preserved important parts of the piety of the heritage of Orthodoxy. This is the case especially with Non-Chalcedonianism and Roman Catholicism, both of which have wandered much less far from the Church than the latter’s Protestant offshoots. This is why although the Orthodox Church recognises no sacramental plenitude outside Herself, nevertheless She is prepared to use economy with regard to the significant vestiges of Churchliness, such as sacramental forms outside Herself, in receiving repentant heterodox into Her bosom.
Conciliar proclamations in this field would also finally make clear to the Non-Orthodox world the Church’s definition of ‘one Baptism unto the remission of sins’, as expressed at the end of the Creed. How such a Council would be received by Non-Chalcedonianism and Roman Catholicism and its offshoots is unclear. Nevertheless, after a nearly a thousand years in the latter case, a call to repentance during a time of crisis, providing a clear last chance, cannot be superfluous (5).
If the above deals with an external matter and answers the questions of the Non-Orthodox world, there is in this field also an internal matter which needs to be dealt with. This is finding the solution to the ever more important question of the Church in the Diaspora (6). At present, in countries in Western Europe, North and South America and Australasia in particular, dioceses of Local Orthodox Churches are uncanonically superimposed on one another on the selfsame territory.
In order to find some solution here, a number of issues must be taken into account (7). These include:
1.The will of the faithful in the various Diasporas and their perception as to who their Mother-Church is.
2.The existence of several generations of native peoples (therefore local faithful who are not of immigrant Diasporas) who have accepted the Orthodox Faith in one or other Orthodox dioceses in recent generations.
3.Historic missionary traditions (e. g. in Alaska, Japan, China).
4.The ability of Mother-Churches to spiritually nourish native faithful and Diaspora faithful and provide infrastructure (including hierarchs who speak the local languages, catechisms, liturgical translations and Church music) for them.
5.The geographical proximity of any particular Diaspora to the nearest Local Church.
Finally, this Council could also deal with the last words of the Creed concerning ‘the resurrection of the dead and the life of the age to come’. At the present time there is much confusion about the resurrection, with many denying the resurrection of the body. They have probably been influenced by disincarnate, gnostic philosophies, the pagan practice of cremation from the West and other anti-ecclesial and therefore anti-anthropological concepts, threatening the integrity of the human person. These originate in atheism and the denial by the Darwinian animalist theory of man’s divine origin and destiny. They include such Communist/Nazi concepts as terrorism, abortion, stem-cell research, eugenics, genetic engineering, euthanasia etc as well as the widespread acceptance of sexual slavery and immorality.
As regards the life of the age to come and the destiny of the soul after death, some have taken extreme positions. Also false predictions have been made by various groups, giving rise to the reappearance of sectarian milleniarist doctrines of apocalyptic and despairing tendency, not least those of the neo-pagan and pantheistic ‘Green’ Movement, which do not accept God as Love. Here too then the Fathers of this Council could make definitions that would destroy the seeds of doubt sown by those who mislead the faithful.
Conclusion: The Reception of the Ninth Council
We have called this brief article ‘Towards the Ninth Oecumenical Council?’. The use of a question mark is deliberate, as there is no certainty that such a Council, even of it took place, would be recognised or ‘received’ as ‘Oecumenical’. The decisions of Councils are recognised as having Oecumenicity only for their spiritual and dogmatic authority.
This recognition would be given by the faithful, the guardians of Church Truth, over time. None of the Oecumenical Councils was recognised as such immediately and history knows of ‘robber councils’. In other words, the recognition or ‘reception’ of a Council can only come after it has taken place, both historically and ‘meta-historically’, that is in history and beyond history.
For those who are attached to numbers, such a Ninth Oecumenical Council could be seen as an affirmation of the Holy Trinity, for nine is three by three. For those who are attached to languages, this could be the first Council, at which many of the declarations and discussions would be made in English, the common language. But much more importantly than any of this, the Council would deal with issues which have been awaiting discussion ever since 1917, solutions to which are becoming more and more urgent as the twenty-first century unfolds.
Priest Andrew Phillips,
19 April/2 May
1)See his ‘On the Summoning of the ‘Great Council’ of the Orthodox Church’, presented to the Serbian hierarchs on 7 May 1977, and soon translated into very many languages on account of the author’s theological authority and the widespread approval it met with among the Orthodox faithful, who at once recognised the truths expressed therein.
2)We discount George Hohenzollern, not only on account of his immediate origins, but also on account of his ancestors’ history since 1917.
3)See Gandhi: ‘An eye for an eye and we are all blind’.
4)See: Orthodox Russia and a World Council of Orthodoxy, a talk given at the Institute of Philosophy in Moscow on 18 May 2007 (also on this website in Russian under Events 2007).
5)Thus, Roman Catholicism not only ignored the call to repentance given to it at Fatima in Portugal in 1917, but actually deformed that call into an anti-Orthodox Crusade! For the Orthodox, and not sectarian, interpretation of the events there see: ‘Pastyrskoye Bogoslovie’ (Part II), p. 41, by the Russian theologian Archimandrite Konstantin Zaitsev, Jordanville 1961.
6)Ever more important because of the size of the Diaspora. Thus in Ireland, fifteen years ago a country without any Orthodox Diaspora to speak of, there are now 200,000 Orthodox from Eastern Europe, mainly from Russia and the Ukraine. This is 5% of the total population.
7)See p. 203 of ‘Tserkovnoye Pravo’ (Canon Law) by Archpriest Vladislav Tsypin, Moscow 1994, and its reference to the Council of Carthage.