This entire address, by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, is well worth reading. We would particularly draw the reader’s attention to part (ii) (“The Conciliar Nature of the Eastern Church”), in which the Ecumenical Patriarch sets forth his understanding of conciliarity in Orthodoxy, and the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Address by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew on Councils and Conciliarity. Kadirga Center for Visual Art (October 1, 2010).
It is with sincere joy that we accepted to address your international conference organized by the UNESCO Chair on Religious Pluralism and Peace in the context of the year when Istanbul is celebrating its prominence as the cultural capital of Europe. This assembly is exploring the recent studies on the Councils of the Church with respect to new challenges that these present for theology and history. In this context, we shall also hear presentations about the extraordinary work of the Conciliorum Oecumenicorum Generaliumque Decreta and the Mansi 3.
We welcome you to this magnificent city, which bridges two entire millennia of Christian civilization and two continents of literary culture. Within this remarkable city, the Church of Constantinople was founded by St. Andrew, the “first-called” of the Apostles, while the Ecumenical Patriarchate has a history spanning seventeen centuries, during which it retained its administrative offices in this very city.
Moreover, this entire region is filled with significance for the Christian Church. All of the earliest councils of the Church, which provided the definitive and formative doctrine of the Christian faith, were held in neither Italy nor Greece, but in Asia Minor. Moreover, it is here that St. John (the Apostle of love) wrote his Gospel; and it is here that St. Paul (the Apostle to the nations) traveled to visit the earliest apostolic communities.
The Orthodox Church is certainly characterized by this profound sense of continuity not only with the times but also with the documents and teachings of the Apostolic Church. In particular, with regard to its faith and practices, and as the bearer of an uninterrupted living tradition of true faith lived out in its worship and life, the Orthodox Church adheres to the decisions of the first seven Ecumenical Councils.
In this respect, then, the project of the critical edition of the great councils of the Christian churches – both in manuscript as well as in digital form, collecting all the acts and documents of the councils of the Church throughout the centuries, in all languages and alphabets – lies at the very core of Orthodox doctrine and at the heart of Orthodox spirituality. Allow us to outline briefly the reasons for the importance of this exceptional cultural event.
(i) The Conciliar Nature of God
For the Orthodox Church, conciliarity derives from the very essence of God. The fundamental doctrine of the Holy Trinity – the teaching about God as three distinct persons, rather than as a monolithic deity – underlies all our theology. Salvation, too, is always understood in personal terms; it implies personality and involves communion. The entire concept of God in relation to humanity and the world is a way of fellowship and sharing.
The classical description of the conciliar nature of God is found in the Book of Genesis, a source respected by all three of the monotheistic religions. It is also artistically depicted in the masterpiece by Andrei Rublev, whose famous icon reveals the three persons of the Holy Trinity sitting around the chalice of communion. It is the story told in the eighteenth chapter of the hospitality of Abraham and Sarah as they welcome three strangers in the Palestinian desert.
(ii) The Conciliar Nature of the Eastern Church
It is on the teaching about the Holy Trinity, and not on any worldly concept of authority and power, that the entire conciliar and hierarchical structure of the Orthodox Church rests. For the Orthodox Church does not have a centralized authority or leadership, instead comprising a constellation of independent and equal sister churches, among which the Ecumenical Patriarchate possesses historically and traditionally the first rank.
In this regard, the Ecumenical Patriarchate bears a primacy of honor and service within Orthodox Christianity throughout the world. Its authority does not lie in administration, but rather in coordination. This is not a sign of weakness, but precisely of conciliarity. For the Church of Constantinople serves as primary focal point of unity, fostering consensus among the various Orthodox Churches.
Therefore, the appearance of the acts of the ancient councils is an invaluable contribution to the understanding of the mind of the early Church. It is our fervent prayer and hope that this publication will take into consideration the distinction among the various councils, some of which dealt with critical issues of theological doctrine, while others resolved matters of canonical order and yet others included decisions concerning more confessional, administrative, liturgical, and pastoral matters. The Ecumenical Patriarchate would gladly assist toward this purpose by providing guidance with regard to the Councils of the Orthodox Church, particularly of the second millennium.
(iii) The Conciliar Nature of our Future
Finally, the notion of conciliarity has captivated the interest of the entire Orthodox world in recent years, as the Heads of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches met in Istanbul in October, 2008, and declared their commitment to the process of preparation for the Holy and Great Council, which will – with the grace of God – be held with the participation of all the Sister Orthodox Churches as soon as the particular canonical difficulties are overcome and the appropriate procedures are realized.
In this regard, the Synaxis of 2008 decided to activate the 1993 agreement of the Inter-Orthodox Consultation of the Holy and Great Council in order to resolve the pending matter of the Orthodox Diaspora. As a result, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in its status and responsibility as the coordinator of pan-Orthodox matters, has already called and will continue to call pan-Orthodox meetings, to which all of the autocephalous churches are invited.
Beloved conference participants,
From our brief remarks on the importance of the councils of the early centuries for the very teaching and life of the Orthodox Church in our day, you will admire why the work of preserving the precious acts of these councils is an invaluable service to the entire world.
It is a task for which all Orthodox Christians are forever grateful and which, in many ways, was influential in inspiring the revival of Orthodox interest in the developments and decisions of the early Church. And it is a task that shapes the very mission and vision of the Orthodox Church in the future.
We therefore sincerely congratulate all those involved in the sacred project of preserving the acts of the Church Councils for posterity and wholeheartedly pray that the fruit of these efforts will be increasingly embraced and appreciated by people of our time – both religious and secular, both concerned scholars and the wider public. For this reason, we also applaud the initiative to honor such projects within this festive cultural year for the city of Istanbul.
May God bless all of you.