Concerning that gathering called by the Ecumenical Patriarch

“Journalism is the first rough draft of history,” according to a famous quote by publisher Philip Graham of the Washington Post. If so, shouldn’t journalists have a sense of history? Especially when the history stretches over centuries?

Like when Reuters reports on a recent conference of Orthodox patriarchs. It starts out OK, then degrades quickly:

Patriarchs of the world’s 250 million Orthodox Christians ended a rare summit in Istanbul on Sunday calling for a peaceful end to the crisis in Ukraine and denouncing violence driving Christians out of the Middle East.

Twelve heads of autonomous Orthodox churches, the second-largest family of Christian churches, also agreed to hold a summit of bishops, or ecumenical council, in 2016, which will be the first in over 1,200 years.

Here’s where to hit the “pause” button.

Are we talking about an “ecumenical council” or an Ecumenical Council, as in a meeting of the leaders of the ancient patriarchates called by the Ecumenical Patriarch? In this case, the upper-case letters really matter.

Either way, this is big news.

But watch how ya throw that term around, buddy. An ecumenical council — no big E, no big C — would be one called by the leaders of all faith groups to settle church-wide matters. And as Theopedia shows, only seven councils — the last in the year 787 — have been honored by Orthodoxy, Protestantism and Roman Catholicism alike. Of course, those events took place before the Great Schism of 1054.

Adds the site:

Many Protestants (especially those belonging to the magisterial traditions, such as Lutheranism and Anglicanism) accept the teachings of the first seven councils, but do not ascribe to the councils themselves the same authority as Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox do. Supporters of the councils contend that they did not create new doctrines but merely elucidated doctrines already in Scripture that had been misinterpreted by heretics. The primary value of these early ecumenical councils is their documentation of the early consensus of doctrines regarding the nature of Christ and the Godhead.

Nor does the roster for the upcoming meeting include Oriental Orthodox churches, which accept only the first three “ecumenical” councils. The Oriental Orthodox include a couple of newsmakers, the Copts of Egypt and the Armenians. Other notables include the Ethiopian and Eritrean Orthodox in east Africa, and the Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church in India.

What’s the deal? Well, none of these churches are currently in communion with the Eastern Orthodox churches (although talks with the Copts are getting interesting) and the Ecumenical Patriarch. Thus, they are not being invited to this gathering of the Eastern Orthodox bodies that are in communion with one another. It would help if the story explained some of these differences.

All told, that’s a lot of Christians to overlook, when it comes to the information in this story. There are some holes.

Dare I add a little finger-waggling on the need to hire religion writers who actually know something about religion?

To be fair, this Reuters story gets a lot right.

It reports correctly that the Russian Orthodox Church has a “partner” (more like a little sister church) in Ukraine. It observes also: “There are two rival Orthodox churches mostly in western Ukraine, both meant to be Ukrainian national churches. Neither is part of the global Orthodox communion and the patriarchs’ communiqué expressed the hope they would one day join it.”

Reuters even shows some traveloggy savvy in pointing out that the 2016 council will be held in Hagia Irene, “a Byzantine church building in the outer courtyard of the Ottoman sultans’ Topkapi Palace. Now a museum, it has not been used as a church since the Muslim conquest of Constantinople in 1453.”

Perhaps Reuters was fooled by the fact that Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch of Eastern Orthodox churches, will preside over the proceedings in 2016. But even a Roman Catholic deacon like Greg Kandra knows the difference.

In his Deacon’s Bench blog, a neighbor on Patheos, Kandra cites a communique from the Patriarchate of Constantinople, terming the planned meeting a “pan-Orthodox council,” not explicitly an “ecumenical” one. The communique also calls it the “Holy and Great Synod.”

Kandra also links to the Ad-Orientem blog, which offers further background. Ad-Orientem points out that Ecumenical Councils aren’t even considered ecumenical before they meet.

In the Orthodox Church a council first needs to meet, and then have its pronouncements received by the universal Church before it is considered Ecumenical. And even then the actual term ‘Ecumenical’ may not be everywhere applied …

But don’t get too worked up over it. The way things work in the Orthodox Church any such final determination, if it actually happens, would almost certainly come long after anyone reading this has been reduced to dust.

Even at the March 6-9 council, Reuters says, the “church of Antioch” — which, I gather, means the Antiochian Orthodox Church — and the leaders of the Czech and Slovak church did not attend “because of disputes with other churches.”

That meeting, BTW, was called a Synaxis, defined as “an assembly for religious worship, especially for the celebration of the Eucharist.”

Is this all too picky? Just for religion geeks or grammar Nazis? In stories this complex, the fine details are absolutely crucial, quite literally the stuff of schisms that change the world.

IMAGE: Icon of the first Ecumenical Council.

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About Jim Davis
  • Thinkling

    I have to admit I can understand why this may sound like just so much insider baseball to some. But to anyone interested in Christian unity, this is a big deal and these nuances will matter.

    I wonder if tmatt will have any coverage of this anywhere.

  • http://www.credobiblestudy.com/ Irenaeus of New York

    It was my understanding that the Eastern Orthodox can never have another Ecumenical Council because there is no longer an emperor to convene one. And whatever potential Ecumenical Council that was held would require another one to look back upon it and certify it as ecumenical in its decrees.

  • R. Howell

    As I understand it the whole “must be received by the whole church” thing is a highly debatable and fairly recent idea. The council of Chalcedon was rejected by the whole Church of Alexandria, which went into schism over it. Yet the remaining churches that did not go into schism consider it ecumenical. I’ve never seen any evidence that, at the time of the first seven councils, anybody said “let’s wait and see if the whole church receives this.” Enforcement began immediately.
    I believe there simply are no clear cut rules for what makes a council authoritative in Orthodoxy. There are guidelines and precedents. But if any council makes a claim to being the Eighth Ecumenical Council, its authority will be hotly debated for generations.

  • Tom B.

    Some of it is picky but when they say this will be the first Council in more than 1000 years, it sure implies they are thinking of it as an Ecumenical Council, which as another commentator noted I believe is regarded as impossible by the Eastern Orthodox. Also since it is ‘just’ a Pan-Orthodox Council, I thought those were held every ten fifteen years or so.


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