Non-Orthodox Observers at HGC Were Moved by the Conciliarity and Spirituality in Orthodoxy

It was a moving experience for me to be able to catch a glimpse of the hierarchs and other participants in the Holy and Great Council in the space where they did their work.

I had the privilege of being present at the opening and closing sessions where I heard His All Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew first express his vision and hope for the historic gathering, and then thank God for the successful conduct and conclusion of the Council. I also heard his heartfelt congratulations and thanks to the hierarchs, theologians, and scholars who devoted themselves tirelessly to its holy work.

It was obvious that I was not alone among the observers in being deeply moved by being able to participate even in those modest slices of the work of the HGC.

There were also a number of non-Orthodox observers in the impressive auditorium of the Orthodox Academy of Crete, and I was honored that they shared their thoughts with me.

Inviting non-Orthodox observers to the Holy and Great Council was one of the important matters under discussion during its period of preparation. It was finally decided that they would be invited to hear the messages of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and the primates of the other autocephalous Churches during the opening and closing sessions.

The visitors were able to learn about the work of the council during the closed sessions from their Orthodox friends and colleagues, and they were impressed with what they heard.

Official Photo of the opening session of the HGC. Credit: Dimitrios Panagos

After the closing session, I was able to speak with Bishop Christopher Hill, a member of the Anglican Church and the President of the Conference of European Churches.

He grasped what even the Orthodox members of the media sometimes missed: “The Council is not just an event but a process… For me, the importance is the beginning of the conciliar process,” he said.

The bishop also understood the HGC’s significance for the Orthodox diaspora, telling me, “It is enormously important for the churches in North America, given both the tensions and the opportunities for their mission which require different circumstances from what prevail in their ancient heartlands in Europe and the Mediterranean world.  We are in a very different world now and this is a process that will help the mission of the Orthodox churches in today’s world…We support that. Christians need to support each other in their common mission in Jesus Christ for the Gospel of God for human society.”

I was very interested to know what he believed Orthodoxy brings to ecumenical discussions.

“First, you bring tradition in the best sense, the deep sense of the continuity of the Church from the New Testament and the patristic age. A sense of continuity is important in a world that is changing all the time. Second, the spirituality that it brings. It’s is not just a trivial thing of the custom of [non-Orthodox churches] now using icons. The third element is the very special newer thing that the Ecumenical Patriarchate in particular brings is the deep theological concern rooted in patristic and Orthodox theology for the environment,” he said.  

He was also delighted to return to the island of Crete. In between the open and close of the council he enjoyed visiting special holy places on the island and experienced some of the famous Cretan hospitality, which he said his weight gain proved to be very generous.

He first visited the island as a student in 1965. “It’s a fantastic place,” he said, but added what he will bring home this time is being deeply impressed with the work of the Council and its meaning for the future.

I also had a conversation with the Old Catholic Archbishop of Utrecht in the Netherlands is Goris Vercanmen, who is also the president of the International Old Catholics Bishops Conference and he was very pleased to be in Crete.

“I am really touched by the openness I observed, and the Orthodox churches opening themselves up to the modern world,” he said, and continued, “Someone said to me we are here in order to be healed, and we are healing one another. It means the Church is reaching out to the world and to modernity. It’s extremely important for society in the United States and in Europe to engage in social questions, environmental issues, and to the individual need for spirituality.”

Archbishop Goris also noted Orthodoxy’s contributions to the Ecumenical movement, emphasizing ecclesiology.

“Orthodox theology has a feeling of ‘being Church’ that is extremely important,” and he noted also the Orthodox Church’s emphasis on the Eucharist.

“The Church is born around the table of the Eucharist. We are there incorporated and interested in one another, and interested in the world in order to work for the Kingdom of God,” he said.

Experiencing Orthodox spirituality is one of the motivations for non-Orthodox participation in the Ecumenical movement.

The Archbishop said that “The tradition of prayer and the belief that together we are the Body of Christ, that we belong to something bigger than ourselves, that the Church is not an organization, that it is an organism and that organism is given to the world as the living Lord in the midst of the world,” is an important Orthodox contribution.

“In the Ecumenical movement there is such a strong need for this kind of experience and the perspective of being Church, because we lost that a little bit,” in the West, he said.

“The experience of the presence of the Lord is connected to being Church,” he emphasized, adding that “the experience of the living presence of the Lord…has to be experienced in the Church as a living body, where brothers and sisters are entrusted to one another and on behalf of the Lord, entrusted to the world.”

Roman Catholic Bishop Brian Farrell is from Ireland. After we shared observations about the beauty of both glorious islands, Crete and Ireland, he told me his thoughts about the Council.

“This has been an extraordinary occasion in which we have seen how the tradition of conciliarity in the Orthodox Church continues and is taking on new vitality and strength, and we are full of hope that as all churches are challenged by the new situation that exists in the world we will be able to work together more closely and in this way respond to the real questions of the people who look to the Church for answers,” he told me.

The bishop is in charge of organizing the Catholic Church’s ecumenical activities and has been a member of the Joint International Commission for Theological Dialogue Between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church for 13 years.

“We have been examining for a long time the structure of authority and conciliarity in the Church. We are presently working to develop the theological principles that were in effect in the first millennium, because in the second millennium we divided, and in the third we must find a model for us to come together,” he said.

Bishop Brian noted that their work is not easy because any model for the new situation for coming together also has implications for the internal affairs of the separated Churches. “But that is the whole point of our dialogue – to bring the two churches together in a way that is respectful of the huge diversities – and that diversity is a richness, not an error of history.”