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As most readers will know, a terrible civil war broke out in Georgia’s northwestern Abkhazia region in the early 1990’s, with huge civilian casualties on both sides and finally, the ethnic cleansing of most of the region’s ethnic Georgian population by Apsuan (Abkhaz) militias and Russian troops.

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The roots of this conflict are disputed, with some saying that chauvinistic policies of the newly-minted Georgian government regarding ethnic minorities created a conflict where none had existed before. Others say that elements of the Russian military and intelligence created the conflict in collaboration with a small number of Apsuan opportunists, as part of the Russian “Divide and Rule” policy mirrored in Moldova and Azerbaijan. It is within the realms of possibility that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Georgia’s Patriarch Ilia was a bishop in Abkhazia in the late 1960’s, so he is no doubt quite well acquainted with many of the identities amongst the Orthodox Christian population of today’s Abkhazia. Native Christians are in the awkward position of being under the recognised canonical authority of the Church of Georgia, at a time when no Georgian clergy are permitted to enter the region. Concurrently some elements in the Moscow Patriarchate have been trying to increase their influence and role in religious affairs in Abkhazia, which is not entirely welcomed by all the Orthodox Christians there. It would not be surprising if local Christians felt they were in the midst of a jurisdictional tug-of-war.

Recently one of Abkazia’s Apsuan clergymen filmed an appeal to the Pan-Orthodox Council, requesting recognition of the Church of Abkhazia as an autocephalous Orthodox Church. It makes for interesting viewing.

Please note that the author does not endorse his views or arguments, and our learned Georgian friends will no doubt find ample opportunities to dispute his historical justifications for autocephaly. It is however important to understand the thinking and arguments of a Christian community who feel their needs are not currently being met by existing arrangements, so that creative solutions may be found.

The blog’s readers are welcome to contribute their comments (in a civil and respectful spirit) in response to his appeal.

The Church of Georgia, presiding over the most ethnically diverse country in the region, has generally done a very good job of managing its mission to ethnic minorities in Georgia. Under the authority of the Georgian Patriarchate, we have two Slavonic-language parishes in Tbilisi, two Greek-language parishes on the Black Sea coast, an Aramaic-language parish in the Assyrian town of Qanda in Mtskheta-Mtianeti, and an English-language parish in Tbilisi. Intermarriage between the faithful of different ethnic groups is common. It is not unusual to find Georgians of Armenian, Chechen, Ossetian and Apsuan descent in Georgian or Slavonic-language parishes in Tbilisi, where they are treated the same as any other parishioner.

Abkhazia is also a multi-ethnic region, with churches attended by a mixture of Apsuans, Slavs, Greeks and (in some regions where Georgians remain), Mingrelians. It also has non-Orthodox minorities; Armenian Apostolic Christians, a tiny number of Roman Catholics and Protestants, Muslims and Pagans. Just as the rest of Georgia faces challenges dealing with diversity, so does the region of Abkhazia. With few non-Georgian residents of Abkhazia travelling to Georgia since 1991, it is possible that Apsuan attitudes are frozen within the bitter experiences of the early 1990’s, and impressions of the Georgian Church’s willingness to make accommodations for ethnic differences, liturgical language and regional peculiarities are outdated. It is quite possible that Christian communities in Abkhazia could learn a great deal from their co-religionists in the rest of Georgia in this regard.

It is terribly sad to witness schism, both political and ecclesiastical, within Georgia’s borders, and it is to be hoped that two fraternal peoples who have worshipped side-by-side for centuries and intermarried so extensively can achieve a satisfactory reconciliation with time.

 

 

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We wrote previously about the Synaxis of the Primates , at which time the Church was setting the parameters for the discussions to be held between the different Orthodox Patriarchates in Crete this month.

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Since then, there has been significant difficulty in reaching agreement on many issues, including the texts of documents to be released representing the unanimous view of the Heirarchs on many doctrinal issues.

Recently, the Church of Bulgaria requested a delay in the date of the Council until its concerns on several issues could be addressed, including seating at the council, the role of observers (including Latins and Protestants) and doctrinal issues. Unfortunately this was not resolved and the Bulgarian Church has withdrawn from the Council.

The Serbian Church likewise has withdrawn from the Council, citing ” deteriorating relations between us and the Patriarchate of Romania, which are now hard to overcome, due to the anti-canonical incursion of the latter into Eastern Serbia and the founding of a parallel diocese there, which will lead to severing of liturgical and canonical communion of the two neighbouring Churches if the behavior described above is not terminated”.

The Patriarchate of Antioch has an ongoing jurisdictional dispute with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem in the Persian Gulf, which is unfortunate. There are reports of the Patriarchate of Antioch withdrawing from the Pan-Orthodox Council but the Patriarchate has yet to release a press release to that effect.

Late in May, the Georgian Church released the discussions of its Holy Synod regarding doctrinal concerns they had with the documents released by the Pan-Orthodox Council secretariat. An English translation can be seen here .

Without going into great detail, the Georgian Church’s position on some issues such as mixed-marriages, relations with the Heterodox, and homosexuality is somewhat more conservative than that espoused in the Council’s documents.

On June 13, Patriarch Ilia II sent a letter to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, advising that the Georgian Church would not be participating in the Pan-Orthodox Council. The minutes of the Georgian Synod meeting are presented here in Greek.

Representative of the Holy Synod of the Georgian Church, Archbishop Andrew of Gori and Ateni, reportedly was quoted as saying;

“The goal of the convocation of the future Council is to demonstrate Orthodox unity before the world community and to express the common position of the Orthodox Church on the burning problems of today”. However, this goal cannot be achieved for several reasons: the Eucharistic communion between the Churches of Antioch and Jerusalem has not been restored; in addition to the Church of Antioch, the Churches of Bulgaria and Serbia refused to participate in the Council; several documents including “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian World” contain dogmatic, canonical and terminological inaccuracies and require a serious review; the Church of Antioch did not sign the 2016 Resolution of the Primates of Churches whereby it was decided to convene a Pan-Orthodox Council and she did not sign the Council’s Working Procedure either due to the fact that this document cannot be considered approved; the established Secretariat of the Council has proved to be non-functional since it has not been given the right to make decisions, etc.

After that a discussion took place. As is noted in the official report, “In spite of different opinions, the basic position was manifested in that it is possible to solve the existing problems through active work. Therefore, we together with other Churches also ask to postpone the Council until the general unity is achieved”.

It is to be hoped that all these issues may be resolved promptly and that the long-awaited Great Council of all Patriarchates of the Church may occur soon.

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This week, for the first time in many decades, the Patriarchs of the world’s Eastern Orthodox communion congregated in Switzerland to discuss many vital issues. Rather than being designated as an “Ecumenical Council“, which typically focusses on dogma and heresy, this meeting is known as a “Synaxis” (Greek for “meeting”) and is somewhat administrative in flavour, notwithstanding significant theological issues to be discussed. Since the last major congregation of the Church’s patriarchs, many historical developments have created challenges and opportunities for our autocephalous administrations around the world. The collapse of communist dictatorship in eastern Europe and Russia has been conducive to many tens of millions of people returning home to the Church without fear of persecution. The increased freedom of movement of people from country to country over the past century has seen the Orthodox faith spread beyond its traditional milieu in eastern Europe, Russia and the Middle East, and indeed spreading throughout ethnic groups not hitherto identified as Orthodox. However, this has created issues of overlapping jurisdictions, and duplicated missionary and charitable efforts. For these issues to be ironed out in a single week would be a Herculean task, but the unanimous will of the Patriarchs to meet on neutral territory to seriously address these issues is a very positive initiative.

His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia and our beloved parish priest from Tbilisi, Father Giorgi Zviadadze of Sioni Cathedral and the Tbilisi Theological Academy, can be seen in the video.

The Georgian Church has numerous parishes outside Georgia’s borders, operating under its authority, but of course in places like France, Britain or the United States, they operate side-by-side with parishes under the authority of Constantinople or many other Patriarchates, all of which are attempting to service the needs of their diaspora as well as evangelising the local population. How potential conflicts or indeed competition between parishes of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church within one city or region may be mitigated is beyond the author’s knowledge, but with God’s help such issues may be resolved.

The persecution of Christians in Iraq and Syria, be they of our Eastern Orthodox confession or another Christian group, was of course a major issue to address. Likewise, the fraternal conflict in eastern Ukraine between Orthodox brethren is very distressing for all concerned. The tension between the Moscow Patriarchate in Ukraine and others regarding the status of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church(Kiev Patriarchate) and the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church (neither of which have been formally universally recognised as a canonical churches by the Church) , will be an issue that may take many years to resolve.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s press release is provided in full below.

At the invitation of His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Synaxis of Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches took place at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy, Geneva, from 21st to 28th January, 2016. The following Primates attended:

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria
Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem
Patriarch Kirill of Moscow
Patriarch Irinej of Serbia
Patriarch Daniel of Romania
Patriarch Neophyte of Bulgaria
Patriarch Ilia of Georgia
Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus
Archbishop Anastasios of Albania
Archbishop Rastislav of the Czech Lands and Slovakia

The following Primates were unable to attend: Their Beatitudes Patriarch John X of Antioch and Metropolitan Sawa of Warsaw and All Poland, for health reasons, and Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece, for personal reasons. Nevertheless, all three were represented by official delegations of their Churches.

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The Primates of the Orthodox Churches convened to finalize the texts for the Holy and Great Council. In the framework of the Synaxis, on Sunday, 24th January, a Divine Liturgy was held at the Holy Stavropegic Church of St. Paul. Along with the Ecumenical Patriarch, who presided, Their Beatitudes and Heads of the delegations of the Orthodox Churches concelebrated the Liturgy, with the exception of the Head of the delegation of the Patriarchate of Antioch.

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During the Synaxis, whose sessions were held in the apostolic spirit of “speaking the truth in love” (Eph. 4.15), in concord and understanding, the Primates affirmed their decision to convene the Holy and Great Council. The Council will be held at the Orthodox Academy of Crete from June 16th to 27th, 2016. To this end, the Primates humbly invoke the grace and blessing of the Holy Trinity and fervently invite the prayers of the fullness of the Church, clergy and laity, for the period leading to and the sessions of the Holy and Great Council.

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The items officially approved for referral to and adoption by the Holy and Great Council are: The Mission of the Orthodox Church in the Contemporary World, The Orthodox Diaspora, Autonomy and its Manner of Proclamation, The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments, The Significance of Fasting and its Application Today, and Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World. By decision of the Primates, all approved documents will be published.

The Primates also discussed and determined the establishment of a Panorthodox Secretariat, the by-laws of the Council, the participation of non-Orthodox observers in the opening and closing sessions, and the budgetary costs related the Council.

Moreover, the Primates expressed their support for the persecuted Christians of the Middle East and their ongoing concern for the abduction of the two Metropolitans, Paul Yazigi of the Patriarchate of Antioch and Gregorios Yohanna Ibrahim of the Syriac Archdiocese.

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The proceedings of the Synaxis of the concluded on Wednesday evening, January 27th, 2016, with the closing address by its President, His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.

At the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy-Geneva, 27th January, 2016
From the Secretariat of the Sacred Synaxis.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s homily provides very sound context for the recently concluded activities. For those interested in more detailed administrative issues, His All Holiness’ keynote address can be read here

 

We are now standing at the crossroads of history. For the major difficulties that our contemporaries are encountering require responsibility that exceeds our ecclesial institutions. Christ is in the midst of history. Christ is in the heart of our life. He walks within time. He passes by us, just as He did in Jericho with the blind man. According to today’s Gospel reading, can we hear him in the crowd? Can we see him, lost as we are in our poverty and mendacity? According to the commentary of St. Ephrem the Syrian, “when our Lord saw that the eyes of the blind man’s heart were open while the eyes of his body were blind, He enlightened the eyes of the body just as those of the heart in order that when the blind man chose to hasten towards Him, he would clearly see his Saviour.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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As we wrote about here, in 2016 the heads of all fourteen autocephalous Churches of the Orthodox Church will meet for a Great Council. As some churches did not exist as autocephalous (self-governed) churches at the time of the last Ecumenical Council of 787 in Nicaea, this will be the first time in history that all fourteen hierarchs of the Church will convene to discuss Church affairs in this level of detail. The destination for this council is the Cathedral of Holy Peace, or Hagia Eirene.

The following article by Archdeacon John Chryssavgis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate details the objectives and agenda for this Great Council.

The council of 2016, which has been on the table for discussion and preparation since at least 1961 (although there were earlier proposals for such a council in the 1920s and 1930s), will for the first time ever gather representatives from all fourteen independent Orthodox Churches. The very conception, let alone the convocation of such a great or general council, is entirely unprecedented. It will be attended by patriarchs, archbishops, and bishops from the fourteen autocephalous Orthodox Churches, including those from all of the ancient patriarchates, with the exception of Rome…..

The issues for discussion and decision at the Great Council have been painstakingly determined since the early 1970s, with some of them going back to the early 1960s. The topics and texts include some esoteric items, such as the ranking of churches and discussion about a common calendar; but they also include problems that emerge from adapting an ancient faith to a modern reality—like precepts of fasting and, in particular, regulations of marriage in a multicultural and interreligious world.

Most importantly, the documents tackle sensitive matters, such as relations of the Orthodox Church with the other Christian confessions, the role and response of the Orthodox Church to the contemporary challenges of our age, as well as “unorthodox” (or uncanonical) governance issues facing the Orthodox Church in the Western world.

The article may be read in its entirety here.  Of relevance to the Georgian Church will be the governance of its churches amongst the Diaspora in Russia, Europe and the United States. Patriarch Ilia II of Georgia will attend to represent the Georgian Church at these historic discussions and deliberations.

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At present, the heads or representatives of all the Autocephalous Orthodox Christian Churches are engaged in a meeting (“Synaxis” in Greek) in the Phanar in Constantinople, at the invitation of the His All-Holiness Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch. This includes His Holiness Patriarch Ilia II. His assistant Father Giorgi Zviadadze, the Rector of the Tbilisi Theological Academy and parish priest of Sioni Cathedral, is also in attendance.

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It has been 1227 years since the last and Seventh Ecumenical Council, with Muslim Arab and Turkish invasions, and Communist takeovers, of many Orthodox Christian lands interrupting regular communications between churches. For some time the churches have been moving towards a new Ecumenical Council to resolve some issues outstanding for many years. According to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the purpose of this meeting is ” to deliberate on matters pertaining to the entire Orthodox Church throughout the world and procedural issues for the convocation of the Holy and Great Council, whose preparation is coming to an end.”

Issues of overlapping jurisdictions in ethnically mixed regions have been a bone of contention for some time, that will no doubt be discussed. Georgia suffers from this issue, with both Georgia and the Moscow Patriarchate laying claim to authority over the Church in the Russian-occupied region of Abkhazia. Ukraine also has its share of jurisdictional issues, with Eastern Orthodox communities from both Moscow Patriarchate and the two other self-proclaimed autocephalous Ukrainian Patriarchates in dispute over many issues, including Ukraine’s territorial integrity and national independence.

There are also differences of opinion on the merit of Orthodox Churches engaging in dialogue with the heterodox. The Georgian Church at this time has reservations about the value of such dialogue, whereas the Church of Constantinople is in general more enthusiastic about dialogue, particularly with Old Rome.

The address of His All-Holiness, kindly provided here by the EP’s Hong Kong Metropolitanate, is carefully considered and gives a very good precis on current Orthodox thought on the balance between unity and local autonomy, and Christian values in the midst of a fast-changing world.

“Your Beatitudes and most venerable Brothers in Christ, First-Hierarchs of the Most Holy Orthodox Churches, and honorable members of your entourages,

Welcome to the courtyard of our Church, the martyric and historical Ecumenical Patriarchate, this humble servant of unity in Christ for us all. From the depths of our heart, we thank you for the labor of love, which has brought you here in eager response to our invitation.

We offer glory and praise to our God who is worshipped in the Trinity for rendering us worthy to convene once again in the same place for another Synaxis, as those entrusted by His grace and mercy with the responsibility of leadership for the local autocephalous Orthodox Churches. This is the sixth such consecutive Synaxis since this blessed custom commenced in 1992, shortly after our elevation to the Throne of Constantinople. Like the Psalmist, we too proclaim: “Behold what a good and wonderful thing it is for brothers to dwell in the same place.” Our heart is filled with joy and delight in receiving you and embracing each one of you with sincere love, profound honor and favorable anticipation of our encounter.

Indeed, we could say that our encounter is a great event, both blessed and historical. The breath of the Paraclete has gathered us, and the eyes of those both inside and outside of our Church are anxiously focused on this Synaxis, in anticipation of an edifying and comforting word, which our world so needs today.

This increases and intensifies our responsibility, rendering our obligation more serious, so that through fervent prayer we might seek assistance from above in the work that lies before us; for without this divine support we can do nothing. (Cf. John 15.5) This is why we humbly beseech the Lord, as the Founder of the Church, to bless our work abundantly and through the Paraclete to direct our hearts, minds and decisions for the fulfillment of His holy will, the strengthening and sealing of our unity, as well as the glory of the Holy and Triune God.

As we recall the previous Synaxis meetings of the First-Hierarchs of the Orthodox Churches, all of which with the grace of God were crowned with complete success, we bring to mind in gratitude those who participated in these assemblies, having already departed and being of blessed memory, the late Patriarchs Parthenios and Petros of Alexandria, Ignatius of Antioch, Diodoros of Jerusalem, Alexy of Moscow, Pavel of Serbia, Teoktist of Romania, Maxim of Bulgaria, as well as Archbishops Chrysostomos of Cyprus, Seraphim and Christodoulos of Athens, Vasili of Poland, and Dorotheos of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, whose contribution to the success of these meetings was exceptionally edifying, also bequeathing to us as their successors an example to imitate and a legacy to preserve. May their memory be eternal!

The reasons that led us to assume the initiative for convening this Synaxis are already well known to you from the Letter of invitation, which we addressed to you. Echoing the words of the Apostle, we wrote to you: “There is fighting without and fear within.” (2 Cor. 7.6) Inasmuch as it exists in the world, our Holy Church always endures the turmoil of historical upheaval, which is sometimes very fierce. In the critical times that we are undergoing, this upheaval is especially palpable in the geographical regions, where the Christian Church emerged, matured and flourished, namely in the ancient senior Patriarchates of the Most Holy Orthodox Church. There, frequently in the name of religion, violence dominates and threatens all believers in Christ irrespective of confessional identity. We follow with great sorrow and concern the persecutions of Christians, the destruction and sacrilege of sacred churches, the abduction and assassination of clergy and monastics, even of hierarchs, such as the long kidnapped Metropolitans of Aleppo, Paul of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch and Yuhanna Ibrahim of the Syrian Jacobite Church, whose whereabouts have since been unknown.

Before this phenomenon, which threatens the very existence of the Orthodox Churches, we are called to raise a voice of protest, not as isolated individuals or Churches, but as the one, united Orthodox Church throughout the world.

Nevertheless, the persecution against the Christian faith in our time is not restricted to the above forms of provocative oppression. Equally great is the danger, which arises from the rapid secularization of formerly Christian societies, where the Church of Christ is marginalized from public life, while fundamental spiritual and moral principles of the Gospel are expelled from people’s lives. Of course, the Orthodox Church has never favored the forceful imposition of evangelical principles on people, placing freedom of the human person above objective rules and values. Coercion of any kind does not belong to the nature and ethos of Orthodoxy. Matters pertaining to people’s moral life are treated by the Orthodox Church as being personal, managed by each individual in his or her personal relationship in freedom with their spiritual father and not by the sword of the law. However, this in no way eliminates from the Church its obligation to promote the Gospel principles in the contemporary world, even if these sometimes come into conflict with prevailing ideas.

Our Holy Orthodox Church is characterized by its attention to the traditions of the past, and it is obligated to do this at all times, for “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and to the ages.” (Heb. 13.8) Nonetheless, history advances, and the Church is also required to be attentive to the problems facing people in every age. A traditional Church does not mean a fossilized Church, one that is indifferent to the ongoing challenges of history. Such challenges are particularly acute in our times, and we are compelled to heed them.

One of these derives from the rapid development of technology and the globalization that it sustains. The Orthodox Church has always been ecumenical in its orientation and structure. Its mission has always been to approach and embrace “all nations,” irrespective of race, color, or other physical features, within the body of Christ. Yet this ecumenical approach has always manifested itself within the Orthodox Church with a sense of respect for the particularity of each people, of its mentality and tradition. Today, technology unites all people, and this undoubtedly has positive consequences for the dissemination of knowledge and information. Notwithstanding, it constitutes a channel for the transmission and, indirectly, the imposition of specific cultural models, which are not always compatible with the particular traditions of the same people. The use of technology should not occur indiscriminately or without an awareness of the accompanying risks. The Church must be vigilant on this matter.

Related to this is also the issue – in many ways supported by technology – of the rapid emergence of scientific achievements, especially in the field of biotechnology. The potential of contemporary science extends as far as intervention into the innermost aspects of nature and genetic modifications capable of healing illnesses; however, at the same time, it creates serious ethical problems, on which the Church can and must voice its opinion. We should confess that the Orthodox Church has not demonstrated due sensitivity with regard to this issue. At our previous Synaxis in 2008, we decided to establish an Inter-Orthodox Committee for Bioethics, which, with the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, convened its first meeting in Crete; unfortunately, the response of our sister Churches was not adequate in order to permit the continuation of this effort. We hope that this will happen in the immediate future so that the voice of Orthodoxy may be heard on such an important subject.

Heeding the present-day existential problems of humanity, Orthodoxy too must continue its efforts for the protection of the natural environment. When the Ecumenical Patriarchate – first among all in the Christian world – highlighted the urgency of this issue, already during the tenure of our venerable predecessor Patriarch Demetrios in 1989, maintaining this effort with a series of international scientific symposia under our auspices, the Orthodox Church for a long time remained the sole Christian voice on this serious matter. Today, other Christian churches and confessions also attribute the necessary importance to this crucial problem, but Orthodoxy still provides par excellence the appropriate response through its liturgical and ascetic tradition, capable of contributing to a resolution for this crisis, which as a result of human greed and indulgence today jeopardizes the very survival of God’s creation.

Finally, our most Holy Church is obligated to pay careful and compassionate attention to the problems created by the economic framework of the modern world. All of us are witnesses to the negative consequences of the financial crisis for the dignity and survival of human personhood, an oppressive crisis for human beings in many regions of the planet, and particularly in countries regarded as being financially “developed.” Unemployment of youth, increase of poverty, uncertainty for the future – all these bear testimony to how contemporary humanity is greatly estranged from the application of the Gospel principles, something for which we too are all responsible inasmuch as we often exhaust our pastoral care on “spiritual” matters and neglect the fact that humankind requires food and basic material resources in order to live in a dignified manner as human persons created in the image of God. It is vital that the voice of Orthodoxy is heard on these matters as well in order to prove that it genuinely possesses the truth and remains faithful to the principles of the Gospel.

However, in order to achieve all this, beloved Brothers in the Lord, there is one necessary condition, namely the unity of our Church and the prospect of addressing the contemporary world with a unified voice. This must also concern our present Synaxis inasmuch as we are entrusted with responsibility for the unity of our most Holy Church.

As we know, the Orthodox Church comprises a number of autocephalous regional Churches, which move within certain boundaries defined by the Sacred Canons and the Tomes conferring their autocephaly while at the same time being entitled to full self-administration without any external interference whatsoever. This system, which was bequeathed to us by our Fathers, constitutes a blessing that we must preserve like the apple of our eyes. For it is by means of this system that we may avoid any deviation toward conceptions foreign to Orthodox ecclesiology concerning the exercise of universal authority by any local Church or its First-Hierarch. The Orthodox Church comprises a communion of autocephalous and self-administered Orthodox Churches.

Nevertheless, it is precisely on this point that a serious question arises. How and in what way is the communion of the Orthodox Churches expressed? Historical experience has demonstrated that very often the autocephalous Orthodox Churches act as if they were self-sufficient Churches, as if they say to the other Churches: “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor. 12.21) Instead of seeking the cooperation of other Orthodox Churches on matters pertaining to Orthodoxy in its entirety, they act on their own and initiate bilateral relations with those outside of Orthodoxy, sometimes even in a spirit of competition. Other autocephalous Churches differentiate their position before non-Orthodox and do not actively participate in activities agreed upon at a Pan-Orthodox level. Indeed, more recently, there are some Pan-Orthodox Preconciliar decisions, which are not adhered to by some Churches despite the fact that they cosigned these agreements. Or what can we say of cases where sister Churches of their own accord dispute canonical boundaries of other sister Churches, provoking bitterness and at times turmoil within this communion? All these things render apparent the need for an instrument, whether institutionally endorsed or not, which is able to resolve differences that arise and problems that are created from time to time, in order that we may not be led to division and conflict.

Thus we can clearly see the paramount importance of synodality in the Church. The synodal system has from the outset constituted a foundational aspect of Church life. Every difference or disagreement in matters of either faith or canonical order was set before the judgment of the Synod. A characteristic example of this is St. Basil’s stance on the matter of rebaptism of heretics and schismatics, concerning which he had inherited the austere tradition of his predecessors in Cappadocia: the matter should be judged by a synod of bishops, who are also able to modify the earlier tradition. (Canons 1 and 47) All differences between Churches or outside them were definitively judged by Synods, whose decisions were ultimately adhered to even by those in disagreement. (“Let the vote of the majority prevail.” Canon 6 of the 1st Ecumenical Council.)

This synodal system was and is upheld more or less faithfully, within the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, but it is entirely absent in relations among them. This accounts for a source of major problems. It creates an image of Orthodoxy as being many Churches but not one Church, which by no means concur with Orthodox ecclesiology; instead it comprises an aberration from this ecclesiology and becomes the root of trouble. We are obligated to support the synodal system even beyond the boundaries of our individual Churches. We are required to develop a conscience of one Orthodox Church, and the concept of synodality alone can achieve this goal.

Over fifty years ago, when the late visionary Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras initiated the preliminary steps for the unity of Orthodoxy, the institution of Pan-Orthodox Consultations was established and determined common decisions for the Orthodox on matters pertaining to relations with non-Orthodox. These decisions were considered as binding for all the Orthodox Churches, as if they were incorporated into the “internal regulations” of each of these Churches. Today these same decisions are questioned and even challenged quite arbitrarily and uncanonically by segments within the Orthodox Churches, which purportedly act like ecumenical councils and dispute them, thereby creating confusion among their faithful flock. Unfortunately, this phenomenon is even tolerated by the hierarchal leadership of some Churches, with unforeseen consequences for the unity of their flock. However, synodal decisions must be respected by all, for this is the only way that we can preserve the unity of the Church.

Nonetheless, these Pan-Orthodox Consultations have not themselves exhausted the effort for the unity of Orthodoxy. The Churches decided from very early on that the convocation of a Holy and Great Council was absolutely necessary for the Orthodox Church, formally announcing this to the entire Christian world and commencing preparations for this extraordinary and historical event. The agenda for this Synod was finally restricted to ten topics, of which eight have already run the course of their preparatory stage and been placed before us for determination by the Holy and Great Council. The remaining two topics, namely the manner of declaring a Church as autocephalous and the order of Churches’ commemoration in the sacred Diptychs, have encountered serious difficulties in their preparatory stage, and so the majority of the sister Orthodox Churches decided that they should not present an obstacle for the convening of the Holy and Great Council, which should be confined to the already prepared topics (one of which, namely regarding the declaration of a Church as autonomous, still requires approval by a Pan-Orthodox Preconciliar Consultation).

Of course, even among the topics prepared on a Pan-Orthodox level, there are still some details that need certain revisions and updating inasmuch as they were formulated and agreed upon a long time ago, when different circumstances and presuppositions prevailed. These include, for instance, matters related to the social conditions of the world, such as the relationship of the Orthodox Church with non-Orthodox Christians, the Ecumenical Movement, and so forth. These documents must be revised by an Inter-Orthodox Committee created for this purpose in order that they might be presented to the Holy and Great Council in a manner adapted to today’s reality.

This is what we have to say about the agenda of the Synod. Nonetheless, it is evident that all the anticipated topics of the Synod pertain to matters of internal nature and organization for our Church. Our predecessors, who determined the agenda of the Synod, rightly decided that, unless the Orthodox Church places its own house in order, it would be unable to address the world with authority and validity. However, the world’s expectations of this Holy and Great Council will surely also include a reference to matters preoccupying people of our time in their daily life, which is why it is mandatory for this Council to extend a Message of existential importance for people in our age. Such a Message – once again well prepared by a special Inter-Orthodox Committee, formulated and approved by the Fathers of the Council – will constitute the voice of the Orthodox Church to the contemporary world: a word of consolation, comfort, and life, which contemporary humanity awaits from the Orthodox Church.

Of course, the convocation of the Holy and Great Council will also demand certain provisions of administrative nature, on which we are called to reflect and resolve during our present Synaxis, as the most appropriate and responsible for this task. Thus, we must deliberate and decide about the way in which the Holy and Great Council will convene, that is to say about how the Most Holy autocephalous Orthodox Churches will be represented there in a manner that is fair and consistent with the principles of our ecclesiological tradition. In the first millennium of our Church’s history, when the institution of the Pentarchy of the ancient Patriarchates prevailed, it was considered absolutely necessary for all the ancient Patriarchates to be represented, even if by a small number of delegates. The emphasis was placed not on the number of those in attendance, but on the assurance of representation by all of the Apostolic Thrones. Over the second millennium after Christ, other Patriarchates and autocephalous Churches were also added, with reference to validation of their status by a future Ecumenical Council (for those not receiving status approval in the past). By analogy, then, and in accordance with the ancient tradition, it would also be desirable in the case of the proposed Holy and Great Council that all Orthodox Churches recognized as autocephalous today should be represented therein by a number of delegates designated by us, if possible at this Synaxis.

Another topic of administrative nature requiring our resolution is that which pertains to the method of pronouncing decisions by the Holy and Great Council. For reasons of fairness to every autocephalous Church, irrespective of the number of its delegates, it is imperative that each autocephalous Church retains the right of a single vote in the final process of decision-making, which will be exercised by its First-Hierarch during the voting process. What remains crucial is the question about whether the final decisions of the Synod will be determined by unanimity or majority among the Churches in attendance at the Synod. If the criterion of our choice is the ancient canonical tradition of the Church, the canonical order compels that the “majority vote” ultimately prevails in the Synod’s decisions. (See Canon 6 of the 1st Ecumenical Council) This probably held true in the ancient Church even with regard to matters of faith, given that in many of the larger Synods, such as the 3rd Ecumenical Council and others, even those ultimately declared as heretics by the Synod and repudiated by the Church, namely those comprising the minority, would also have been in attendance. Nonetheless, with regard to matters of canonical nature, the order recommended by tradition undoubtedly leads to final decision-making by majority vote, without this of course ruling out the possibility of an always desirable unanimity. It is up to us to decide about this matter as well.

Beloved Brothers in Christ,

Our Synaxis here is of vital importance. It comes at an historical and providential time, when the Church is suffering formidable upheaval and its ability to exercise its salvific mission is being assessed. Nothing any longer can be taken for granted, as it might be in other ages; everything can change from one moment to another. Complacency is the cause of destruction. Even state authorities cannot provide a guarantee for the Church; neither can affluence or secular influence; nor again do societies welcome the Gospel teaching without debate and dispute. Today we must convince people that we have the word of life, the message of hope and the experience of love. And in order to achieve this, we must have validity and credibility.

A fundamental presupposition for us to convince the world is first of all our own internal unity. It is regrettable and perilous for the validity of the Orthodox Church that to outsiders we often appear divided and dissenting. We hold and proclaim the most perfect ecclesiology; yet we sometimes refuse to apply it. We have a precise order in the Church, defined by the Sacred Canons of the Holy Ecumenical Councils; yet we sometimes give the impression to outsiders that we disagree even about who is “first” among us. We possess the synodal institution as an authority, to which everyone is supposed to conform; yet we allow – whether through carelessness or misdirected ambition, which frequently conceals individual self-defense – the synodal decisions to be trampled by segments of our flock that lay a claim to the infallibility of faith. Generally speaking, we manifest signs of dissolution. It is time for us to give priority to unity – both outside of our Churches as well as among them.

The Orthodox Church, to which we belong by the grace of God, does not have at its disposal any other instrument of preserving its unity except synodality. It is for this reason that any further delay in convening the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church severely harms its unity. Our responsibility in this regard is immense. The Church of Constantinople, which for a thousand years after the great Schism with Rome has served the unity of Orthodoxy by repeatedly convening Pan-Orthodox Synods, is today equally conscious of its onerous obligation with regard to Pan-Orthodox unity. Thankfully, however, it is not alone in this. The other autocephalous Orthodox Churches, too, proved over fifty years ago that they yearn for the convocation of the Holy and Great Council of our Church. Behold, the time has come; indeed, “times are impatient.” Preparations can never be perfect. Let us be satisfied with what we have agreed thus far. Let us resolve without delay – with love and in accordance with the Sacred Canons – any difference we may still have in our relationships to one another. “Let us love one another, so that with one mind we may confess” the one Triune God and the Lord, who suffered and was risen for all people without exception, to a world that is in such dire need of the message of God’s love. Let us proceed to the convocation of the Holy and Great Council as soon as possible, and let us permit the Paraclete to speak, surrendering to His breath.

This is what we have in fraternal love to express to you, dearest Brothers in the Lord, at the commencement of the proceedings of our Synaxis.

 “Now to Him who by the power at work within us is able to do far more abundantly than all that we ask or think, to Him be glory in the Church and in Christ Jesus to all generations, for ever and ever. Amen.” (Eph. 3.20-21)

 (Phanar, March 6, 2014)

 
 

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Today is the second Sunday of the pre-Lenten period, with Meatfare Sunday (the last day of meat consumption before Pascha) falling next Sunday. Following from last week’s theme of repentance and forgiveness, the theme of today is the Parable of the Prodigal Son.

According to the Gospel of Saint Luke (Luke 15:11-32),

“11 And he said, A certain man had two sons: 12 and the younger of them said to his father, Father, give me the portion of goods that falleth to me. And he divided unto them his living.13 And not many days after the younger son gathered all together, and took his journey into a far country, and there wasted his substance with riotous living. 14 And when he had spent all, there arose a mighty famine in that land; and he began to be in want. 15 And he went and joined himself to a citizen of that country; and he sent him into his fields to feed swine.16 And he would fain have filled his belly with the husks that the swine did eat: and no man gave unto him. 17 And when he came to himself, he said, How many hired servants of my father’s have bread enough and to spare, and I perish with hunger! 18 I will arise and go to my father, and will say unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and before thee,19 and am no more worthy to be called thy son: make me as one of thy hired servants.20 And he arose, and came to his father. But when he was yet a great way off, his father saw him, and had compassion, and ran, and fell on his neck, and kissed him. 21 And the son said unto him, Father, I have sinned against heaven, and in thy sight, and am no more worthy to be called thy son. 22 But the father said to his servants, Bring forth the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet: 23 and bring hither the fatted calf, and kill it; and let us eat, and be merry: 24 for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found. And they began to be merry.

25 Now his elder son was in the field: and as he came and drew nigh to the house, he heard musick and dancing. 26 And he called one of the servants, and asked what these things meant. 27 And he said unto him, Thy brother is come; and thy father hath killed the fatted calf, because he hath received him safe and sound. 28 And he was angry, and would not go in: therefore came his father out, and intreated him. 29 And he answering said to his father, Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment: and yet thou never gavest me a kid, that I might make merry with my friends: 30 but as soon as this thy son was come, which hath devoured thy living with harlots, thou hast killed for him the fatted calf. 31 And he said unto him, Son, thou art ever with me, and all that I have is thine. 32 It was meet that we should make merry, and be glad: for this thy brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found.”

The simplest interpretation of this is for Christians to imagine themselves as foreigners in a distant land, far from their Father’s house and full of regret for their reckless and disobedient conduct. Through the Lenten period, we are to engage in metanoia (repentance or “change of mind”) and to follow the long and winding road back to God where we belong. The parable assures us that our repentant return home will be greeted with joy by the Father, not justified by our worthy acts but through God’s forgiveness and love. One can think of “the Father’s House” as being salvation and reunification with God. The prodigal chose to walk away from salvation by his own free will and to live foolishly and sinfully, and by his own free will he resolved to repent, to return home and to live humbly under the authority of his Father’s will. Concurrently, the elder brother, by removing himself from the household out of resentment at the favourable treatment the prodigal son received, at least temporarily has removed himself from salvation and God’s presence.

The iconography associated with this parable is very well discussed here

In the Georgian context, it is worthwhile considering how we, as individuals or as a Church, fit into the framework of this parable. Over three-quarters of the Georgian population now declare themselves to be Orthodox Christians. It is worth noting that, to avoid persecution and to improve career prospects, many of today’s Georgian Christians were Communist Party members or Komsomol members in the Soviet era, and openly repudiated organised religion in general or Christ in particular, not unlike Saint Peter repudiating Christ in Jerusalem on the day of Christ’s crucifixion. Upon sincere demonstration of contrition and metanoia, the Church has joyfully received its former enemies into its midst as brothers and sisters in Christ. This is in the glorious tradition of the Early Church Fathers who joyfully baptised the same Roman troops and civil administrators who had previously persecuted them.

Having been accepted “back home” into God’s house, it is imperative for Christians in Georgia to remember the grace that has been bestowed upon them when considering how to deal with the other peoples of the region. The histories of the Georgian and Armenian peoples have been intertwined for millennia, sometimes competitive, sometimes co-operative, but despite the schism over the Council of Chalcedon, it is important for these two peoples to see each other as brothers and sisters in Christ with some outstanding disagreements, rather than as intractable antagonists. Thousands of Coptic Christians have settled in Georgia, fleeing religious persecution in their homeland, but the welcome they have received from Georgian Orthodox parishes when seeking to pray in the temple has often been less than effusive. Some wonderful opportunities to embrace new arrivals or long-standing ethnic minorities as brothers and sisters in Christ, to baptise or chrismate them, and to gently integrate them into Georgian society, have sadly been lost, with some people behaving like the prodigal son’s older brother, filled with anger and resentment when schismatics seek to return home.

At various times in history, many of the people of the North Caucasus, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Turkey had accepted baptism and were vigourous members of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. Georgian missionaries played no small part in this, using their God-given abilities as orators, teachers and healers to bring the word of God to these regions, and many gave their lives to enlighten these neighbouring peoples, whom they viewed as being equally worthy of salvation as their own people. It is a mark of contempt for these great Georgian evangelists that some people today, claiming to speak for the Church, seek to denigrate or insult neighbouring people of different religions or races simply because they are not Kartvelian.  

Many Muslims from neighbouring countries had Christian ancestors who were forced into apostasy under threat of torture or execution.  I have discussed before the Christian civilisation of the Caucasian Albanians of Azerbaijan, the Christian communities established by Georgian missionaries in Ossetia and Daghestan, and the hundreds of thousands of Christians who inhabited every major town and city in the Persian Empire in the past. Many Muslims from the region are curious about Christianity and are very open to discussing our religion, and not a few are willing to apostasise themselves from Islam and accept Christian baptism when dealt with kindly. When confronted with a person considering “returning home” to the Church, even from a nationality or faith that some consider to be an intractable enemy of the Georgian Church, it is important to consider that we all have been welcomed home by our Father through His grace rather than our own virtue. To reject our neighbours’ sincere approaches places us, rather unfavourably, in the role of the elder brother of the prodigal son. Unlike the elder brother, many of us in the past were in open opposition to God’s Church in Georgia; while the elder brother could with some justification say “Lo, these many years do I serve thee, neither transgressed I at any time thy commandment”, there are precious few of us here can truthfully say the same.

For those still in two minds on this issue, one can direct them to the will of the Holy Spirit as expressed in Saint Peter’s vision in Acts 10.

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As we have mentioned before, there is evidence that the Apostle Matthias was martyred in Colchis  (the ancient name for Georgia’s Black Sea regions) and buried in Gonio, near Batumi. Today is his feast day.

The elevation of Matthias from the Seventy to the Twelve Apostles is interesting, as it is one of the first written accounts of Apostolic Succession,. Saint Luke’s account of events in the Acts of the Apostles is;

“In those days Peter stood up among the believers (a group numbering about a hundred and twenty) and said, “Brothers, the Scripture had to be fulfilled which the Holy Spirit spoke long ago through the mouth of David concerning Judas, who served as guide for those who arrested Jesus— he was one of our number and shared in this ministry.” (With the reward he got for his wickedness, Judas bought a field; there he fell headlong, his body burst open and all his intestines spilled out. everyone in Jerusalem heard about this, so they called that field in their language Akeldama, that is, Field of Blood.) “For,” said Peter, “it is written in the book of Psalms, ” ‘May his place be deserted; let there be no one to dwell in it,’ and, ” ‘May another take his place of leadership.’ Therefore it is necessary to choose one of the men who have been with us the whole time the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from John’s baptism to the time when Jesus was taken up from us. For one of these must become a witness with us of his resurrection.” So they proposed two men: Joseph called Barsabbas (also known as Justus) and Matthias. Then they prayed, “Lord, you know everyone’s heart. Show us which of these two you have chosen to take over this apostolic ministry, which Judas left to go where he belongs.” Then they cast lots, and the lot fell to Matthias; so he was added to the eleven apostles.” Acts 1:15-26

The Nicene Creed, developed in 325 at the First Ecumenical Council, describes the Church as being “One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic”. Given that the Twelve Apostles all reposed almost two millennia ago, for outsiders this description may seem odd. Orthodox Christians believe in Apostolic Succession; tracing a direct line of apostolic ordination, Orthodox doctrine, and full communion of Orthodox jurisdictions from the Twelve Apostles to the current Episcopacy of the Orthodox Church. All three elements are integral to apostolic succession. It is through apostolic succession that the Church is the direct spiritual successor to the original body of believers in Christ as the Son of God, composed of the Apostles. This succession manifests itself through the unbroken succession of its bishops back to the Apostles.

Ordination of a bishop requires the presence of three other bishops. It is not mandatory that the candidate already be ordained as a priest or deacon, but in most jurisdictions that is the norm.

Elections of Patriarchs vary somewhat from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, but it is generally performed by secret ballot. The repose of a Patriarch generally triggers the appointment of a caretaker Patriarch who organises elections as soon as possible. Each Patriarchate has its own statutes governing such elections, which may take into account dioceses abroad as well as consultation with the laity. National governments are often tempted to interfere with this process, which is generally quite vigorously resisted.

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