On the “Great and Holy Council” of Crete: A Response to E. Sotiropoulos

By Protopresbyters Fr. Peter Heers D.Th. and Fr. Anastasios Gotsopoulos


On the one year anniversary of the "Council" of Crete, the following article was published in Greek on the website romfea.gr. The intent of the article was twofold: both to commemorate the anniversary of the gathering and to provide a response to a misleading article written by Evangelos Sotiropoulos, a journalist at the Huffington Post. The translation and editing of the article has been greatly delayed, for which we apologize to the many subscribers to this site and others who have written asking for a response in English to Mr. Sotiropoulos' article. In spite of the delay, we believe our readers will still find the article quite timely, informative and helpful.

There is another reason for the delay in publishing the text, first in Greek and then in English. Responding to critics, especially those who reach a wide, but uninformed audience, is a venture doomed to bring mixed results.

On the one hand, a response will assist those confused or mislead by the critic's distortions to see the entire picture and put each aspect of the problem in context, hopefully thus dispelling the cloud of misinformation which has been created. On the other hand, a response will give credence and legitimacy to the critic and the appearance that he is qualified to speak on these matters. This is all the more true when responding to non-academics or theologically uninformed journalists who write for highly politicized newspapers.

In spite of our reservations, we offer this analsysis and response for the sake of the faithful and good-willed readers and pray that it will serve to establish them on the rock of faith.

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The Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) invited the Protopresbyter Fr. Peter Heers, Professor of the Holy Trinity Seminary in Jordanville, New York, to speak on the Council of Crete at the yearly clergy gathering of the Diocese of Eastern America (3/21/2017),2 in the presence of His Eminence, Archbishop Hilarion, and several hierarchs.

Mr. Evangelos Sotiropoulos criticized Fr. Heers’s homily in a text that was published originally on the website “The Huffington Post” and in Greek translation on ROMFEA. Calling upon the fact that he had traveled to Crete, Mr. Sotiropoulos characterizes Fr. Peter’s criticism as “malicious words” containing “erroneous declarations, misleading statements, false equivalents and omissions”! Since, however, he has not offered sufficient support to his criticism, he is in danger of fulfilling the words of the psalm: “upon his own pate shall his unrighteousness come down…”

In more detail:

1. The number of participants in the Pan-Orthodox Council. Mr. Sotiropoulos takes issue with the speaker for his reference to the small number of bishops that participated in the Council (about 160 bishops). He did not, however, rightly perceive the blame of the Council with regard to the number of bishops nor the comparison to certain of the Ecumenical Councils! Of course the problem is not the number of participants itself, but why we have arrived at this number. Why should the number of bishop-members have been so limited when today there is no technical obstacle for a gathering together in one place, in Council, all Orthodox bishops in the world, the number of which does not surpass 900. If in 325, 451, or 787 AD, 318, 630, or 350 bishops respectively could and did come together, it is incomprehensible that 800 or 900 bishops could not come together in our day for such an event! Is it not?

Let us be sincere, dear ones! The limitation of the number of participating bishops has nothing to do with ecclesiological or theological criteria but with matters of phyletism, tactics, and political balances, or, to put it more simply, some of the organizers feared that if the participation of all Orthodox bishops was allowed the votes in their favor would not add up! Let us reflect on the number of bishops of the Church of Russia (368) and it will become clear why the participation of all the bishops in the Council of Crete was not allowed (One of the supporters of the Council, the hieromonk Dositheos, of the Holy Monastery of Tatarna, suggests the same thing, indirectly but clearly!) The criteria that decreed the non-participation of all the bishops were not based on ecclesiology but on phyletistic opportunism.

Yet we cannot pass over the serious ecclesiological issue that is raised, according to the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s leading theologian-bishop, Metropolitan of Pergamus John (Zizioulas), by the intentional exclusion of a portion of the bishops. The Metropolitan writes: “A Synod, therefore, is not an institution that lies above the local Church; it is an institution that expresses the unity, the coincidence, the consent and the reciprocation of local Churches. Something like this is secured – by way of structure and organization – by the rightful participation in Synods by all of the bishops… This is why – from an ecclesiological aspect – every kind of Synod that excludes the presence of bishops (unless there is an unavoidable historical necessity) from participating in a Synod, is considered a serious deviation. There have been – and there still are – such ecclesiologically unjustified deviations…But when a Synod can be comprised of all participants, and yet certain participants among them are chosen and are rendered masters over the remaining bishops – [it is] an act that corrodes very dangerously the foundations of Ecclesiology and creates anomalies and digressions. . .Naturally, the ideal situation is the assembling of all bishops.”3

2. “Great and Holy” or broadened “Council of Primates”? The phrase in Fr. Peter’s lecture, that the Council of Crete was a “Council of the Primates with their companies”, was borrowed from the Metropolitan of Nafpaktos, who justifies it fully in his well-documented intervention in the meeting of the Hierarchy of the Church of Greece (November, 2016),4 to which we refer Mr. Sotiropoulos. Of course, it is not we who belittle the bishops but the manner in which the Council operated, which compelled a moderate bishop of the Church of Greece to deny his participation in the representation because he does not want to be a “decoration”! Furthermore, the fact that on the official website of the Council all the bishop-members are shown as having signed the texts when in fact a significant number of them, more than 40, did not accept and did not sign the text on the “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian World” shows no respect to the episcopal office! Finally, no respect is shown to the episcopal office when the Council’s organizers tolerated the Archbishop of Cyprus signing “in their stead” on behalf of those bishops who, in fact, refused to sign the above-mentioned text (see further down § 4 d).

3. The voting. On the topic of voting, Fr. Heers’s lecture noted that the vote of the Primates had decisive value and it alone was really considered, independently of the will of their local Churches (see further down § 4 a, b, c).

4. The Conciliar abolition of conciliarity. Mr. Sotiropoulos accuses Fr. Peter because the latter claimed the Council leads to an “abolition of conciliarity” in the Orthodox Church. In fact, to support his criticism Mr. Sotiopoulos reproves the conciliar decision (May 2016) of the Hierarchy of the Church of Greece as being foreign to the conciliar practice of the Church. Mr. Sotiropoulos shows his ignorance of conciliar norms and history when he writes: “The Church of Greece arrived in Crete with specific demands to change the Pre-conciliar documents; this positioning, especially in advance of a Council, is questionable at best. Why? Well, for one, a rigid, pre-determined approach removes the Holy Spirit from working amongst the bishops when they assemble in Council.”

Mr. Sotiropoulos’ criticisms are baseless, both from an historical and a theological standpoint:

a) According to the essence of the conciliar institution and the conciliar practice of our Church, the bishop-members of a Council, even of an Ecumenical one, participate in the discussion on matters of faith expressing not their personal opinions but carrying the ecclesiastical mindset of their local Church, which, of course, is also their own mindset. Basically they function as mandataries of their local Church. And if this holds true for every bishop-member of a local Council, it holds much truer when a local Church has conciliarly named a specific representation, which will participate in a Pan-Orthodox or Ecumenical Council and has bound it conciliarly to a specific theological position. It is inconceivable for the mandataries to act spurning the will of the commander whom they represent.

By conciliar decision, the Hierarchy of the Church of Greece elected particular members as representatives to the Council of Crete and by a unanimous conciliar decision bound the representation to express and support a specific theological position regarding the larger theological and ecclesiological issue. The unanimous conciliar decision was not the result of a hurried and careless judgment but the fruit of discussions and reflection of several months that were carried out not only in the Church of Greece but in almost all of Orthodoxy. The unanimous conciliar decision of the hierarchy of the Church of Greece did not leave open the possibility of adjustment of its decisions by the members of the representation. Indeed, how could the alteration of a dogmatic position be allowed? The representation was obliged to express and support the specific theological and ecclesiological position and only this position.

Furthermore, this decision of the hierarchy before the Pan-Orthodox Council is neither foreign to the conciliar practice of our Church nor “questionable”, as Mr. Sotiropoulos claims. We bring to mind:

i) The Council of Rome, composed of 125 bishops, which was represented at the Sixth Ecumenical Council by its delegation, in addition to the papal legates. The representation brought to the Sixth Ecumenical the written decision of the Council of Rome.5

ii) The papal legates-representatives of pope St. Leo the Great at the Robber Council of Ephesus (449), who, upon seeing that the Council was veering into a Christological teaching opposite to that of the pope, St. Leo, whom they represented and to whom they were bound, said the “contradicitur” and departed from the Council.6

iii) The legates of the pope, St. Leo, at the Fourth Ecumenical Council (451), who brought to the Council the renowned “Tome of Leo” and required that its Christology be accepted. It is noteworthy that, while they refused to negotiate in the least with respect to St. Leo’s Christological teachings, which the Council finally accepted, they were accommodating on issues of a technical nature, which are of lesser importance (e.g. they discussed and finally accepted the composition of another text and not the “Tome” itself as the oros of faith).

iv) The representatives of the Pope and of the Eastern Patriarchates under Arab occupation at the other Ecumenical Councils, who brought epistles from their Patriarchs in which they confessed the dogmatic faith of the Church.

It is therefore clear that, for the conciliar practice of the Church, the obligation of the representatives to the Patriarch (and, of course, it follows, to the local Church) which it represents and whose mindset it brings to the Council was customary and assumed. The representation of a local Church is bound to express with exactitude the ecclesiological mindset of the local Church, which cannot but be non-negotiable. It is entrusted to its discretional competence to negotiate on issues of lesser importance or matters of a technical nature only, always, however, within the theological bounds of the direction that it has received from its Church.

In the particular case, the representation of the Church of Greece was bound by the unanimous conciliar decision of the hierarchy not to accept the designation of the heretical communities as “Churches”. We repeat that this decision was the fruit of theological discussions several months long. Mr. Sotiropoulos wonders fearfully what would have happened if the Greek representation had kept the obligation that it had received and some other Church insisted on an opposite view. We cannot understand this fear! Very simply, the Council would not have decided upon that point but would have referred the matter to a serious and thorough re-examination, as did happen with many other vital matters in the pre-conciliar preparation. The deferment of the decision would have been preferable to what we now live through with a supposedly Pan-Orthodox decision at such a level, which can be anything but flattering for the Church and Her theological production.

b) Disregard for the fundamental 34th Apostolic Canon

According to the 34th Apostolic, the bishops of each local Church ought, in matters that concern “the common state of the Church,” to confer and co-decide with their Primate in Council: “do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it.” This fundamental canon stipulates and binds not only the bishops but the Primate as well to act always within the bounds of the Council and to be bound by the conciliar decision: “But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all.” When we have a unanimous conciliar decision of the hierarchy, by what canonical right did the Archbishop of Athens sign on behalf of the Church of Greece, contrary to “with the consent of all”? Is this not violation and disregard of the fundamental 34th Apostolic Canon?

c) Violation of the Council’s Procedure itself

According to the Working Procedure of the Great and Holy Council (article 12 § 3), each Autocephalous Church, independently of the dissent of certain hierarchs (“one or more hierarchs” according to §2) in its representation, “may cast an affirmative vote on the basis of the principle of internal majority, which is expressed by its Primate.” That is, the vote of the Primate of each Church is legitimized “on the basis of the principle of internal majority” of the representation and thus it is supposed to express his local Church.

What does this mean for the Orthodox Church, which boasts not to be ruled papally but has a conciliar form of rule? It means that the representatives of each Church, if there was no explicit obligation from the Church that they represent, would decide together whether to accept the texts, and Her Primate, as a representative of each Autocephalous Church, “on the basis of the principle of internal majority,” would vote not according to his own opinion but according to the collective decision of his Church’s representation.

Yet the Council of Crete violated its very own Working Procedure! The representation of the Church of Serbia was constituted of the Patriarch and 24 bishops. Only 7 Serbian bishops accepted and signed the controversial 6th text (“Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World”), while 17 would not approve or sign it (see Appendix Ι). What was the result? Because their Patriarch signed it the Church of Serbia is considered as being in agreement! Is this not a dissolution of conciliarity? Is it not a violation of the 34th Apostolic Canon? Is it not a violation and dissolution of the Council’s Working Procedure (article 12 §3)? Was there an “internal majority” in the representation of Serbia, when 17 out of 24 hierarchs did not agree with the text and did not sign it? Was this violation not perceived by the “President of the Holy and Great Council which assembled in Crete, [the] guardian of the dogmatic and canonical order of the Eastern Church”?7 We would very much like an answer to this question.

The irony is that, although we the Orthodox emphasize the need for the Vatican to base the relations between Primate and Local Church on the 34th Apostolic Canon, the Pan-Orthodox Council itself plainly transgressed it.

d) Primate or Pope?8

The things that took place with respect to the voting of the Church of Cyprus are unthinkable, concerning which Mr. Sotiropoulos is silent: 4 or 5 of the 17 bishops of the Cypriot ecclesiastical representation would not sign the controversial text. What happened thereafter? The Archbishop of Cyprus signed for each one «on his behalf» (see Appendix I). In fact in an interview with a Greek-American newspaper he characterized the disagreeing bishops of his Church as a “fifth column … in the Council”! He is the same one that insultingly attacked the Church of Greece, forcing Archbishop Ieronymos to respond to him heatedly.

It is clear from the aforementioned examples that at the Council of Crete there was not only disregard and dissolution of the conciliar spirit of the Orthodox Church but also a disdain for the episcopal office by the “Protos”. Unfortunately, this was all tolerated and accepted by the “Pan Orthodox Council” and the “President of the Holy and Great Council which assembled in Crete, [the] guardian of the dogmatic and canonical order of the Eastern Church.” Or, rather, upon this very basis the “Council” was “successfully” carried out, without which it would have disintegrated entirely.

We accuse the pope of disregarding the conciliar institution yet we do not see that the so-called “Pan-Orthodox Council” was founded upon the papal mentality of the supposed superiority of the “First”, disregarding and dissolving any sense of Orthodox conciliarity and canonical order. The “First” acts in a papal manner opposite to the opinion of his synod and this is acceptable to the “Council”!

It is grievous and a sign of the decline of the canonical order that there is, on such a high level, a “conciliar” dissolution of the conciliarity of the Local Churches and the imposition of the “First” of each Church with papal powers.

5. The Absence of the four Patriarchates. Let us focus a bit on the absence of the four Patriarchates from Crete. The ancient Patriarchate of Antioch, the Patriarchate of Russia, the Patriarchate of Bulgaria, and the Patriarchate of Georgia, declined to participate in the Council of Crete and, what is most important, they declined to accept either its decisions or the gathering itself as a “Great and Holy Council” of Orthodoxy.

a) Mr. Sotiropoulos considers the reasons to which the four Patriarchates appeal for their non-participation in Crete as “wholly inadequate.” In fact, aligning himself with the defenders of Crete, he proposes or more rightly limits the four Patriarchates’ motivations for their non-participation only to geopolitical interests and phyletism. Ιt is tragic for churchmen to see everything through geopolitical lens and not to be able to comprehend that it is possible for a Church to differentiate itself for spiritual, theological, or ecclesiological reasons! Of course, not to do them an injustice, this is what the people experience: they lead their lives on the basis of political, diplomatic, geopolitical, and public-oriented interests, they move on the basis of these “principles,” and thus they think that the others must act on these presuppositions as well. How could they suspect that some may act on the basis of their faith and not with political interests? It is apparent that they judge others on the basis of their own mindset.

Of course, it is obvious that political parameters exist as well, as they have existed always throughout Church history. Nevertheless, it is also unquestionable that while the Churches of Bulgaria and Georgia may not have a number of outstanding theological personalities, they have still remained strict adherents to Orthodox ecclesiology, (as is apparent in their stances on marriage, relations with the heterodox, etc.).

It was, after all, the representation of the Church of Georgia which, by its presence and positions, overturned the ecumenists’ aims at the 13th Meeting of the Mixed Committee of the Theological Dialogue of the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox in Aman of Jordan (15-23/9/2014). What manipulation did those in charge not use to catch the Orthodox representations by surprise and make them accept the outrageous text which they had prepared! Yet, the small Church of Georgia upset their plans at the last minute, only being joined afterward by the Church of Russia and others.

Also, it is no small detail that the Churches of Bulgaria and Georgia, discerning the counter-productive nature of involvement, have abstained from the World Council of Churches for decades now. One cannot but stand with the greatest respect before this, their choice, for it is well known what the WCC offers: funding of projects, scholarships to executives of Churches and theological schools, travel grants, conferences, special gifts, etc. And this sacrifice is coming from the poorest of the Local Orthodox Churches, which, nonetheless, have the “backbone” to reject funding and other “benefits” of membership in the WCC. How can we then, with a light heart, insult them saying that the main criterion of their behavior is political opportunism? Is it possible for one who gives priority to politics to disregard the generous funding and the other “offers” of the WCC and the related ecumenical organizations?

Closing this paragraph, let us remember an extract from the statement of the Metropolitan of Bachka (Serbia) Irenaeus (Bulovich), who was referring to the text “Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World”:

“The Council of Crete, however, through the text in question, ought to have borne witness to its ecclesiological identity and self-consciousness more clearly, consistently, and exactly. Unfortunately this was not possible, since in the numerous preliminary sessions in Geneva, in spite of the disapproval of many and the sharp criticism exacted, the text - for reasons never divulged - was not seriously re-evaluated, as was the desire and suggestion of the Primates of the autocephalous Churches, but it was sent on as is, essentially untouched, to the Council, where, due to a lack of time and consensus, only cosmetic changes were made, with the exception of the amendment of the Church of Greece upon its most controversial and easily misunderstood point. Let us not hide or deceive ourselves. This problematic text is the first and foremost cause of the four Orthodox Patriarchates’ refusal to participate in the Council, while the Church of Serbia struggled and wavered regarding its participation until the last minute”!

Let Mr. Sotiropoulos, who exalts himself on the fact of his journalistic presence on the outskirts of the “Council,” pay close attention to these words from a bishop who actually took part in the Council.

b) According to article 8 (§ 1-2) and article 11 of the Council’s Working Procedure, the conciliar work is carried out with regard to the texts that have been unanimously accepted by the Pan-Orthodox Pre-conciliar Committees.9

Yet the text “The Mystery of Marriage and Its Impediments” had not been approved and signed by the Patriarchate of Antioch nor by the Patriarchate of Georgia in the pre-conciliar period! And yet, in violation of the Procedure, the text was introduced, discussed, and approved in Crete!

c) Also, Mr. Sotiropoulos does not serve the truth when he says that Antioch agreed to the Council and then withdrew, since:

i. The Patriarchate of Antioch from very early had many times stated – whether for well or ill is not of the moment – that, if the issue of Qatar was not solved, it would not take part in the Council. How then does Mr. Sotiropoulos falsely claim that Antioch agreed and then the last minute did not participate?

ii. The Patriarchate of Antioch did not agree and did not sign the Council’s Working Procedure either! Truly, Mr. Sotiropoulos, what sort of a “Pan-Orthodox Council” is this, when not even its Working Procedure had been approved by all the Orthodox?

iii. Most importantly: the Patriarchate of Antioch did not sign the decisions of the Synaxis of the Primates that was the most decisive for the Council (Chambessy 27/1/2016) either. At this Synaxis it was decided where and when the Great and Holy Council would be convened (Crete, 16-27/6/2017), its Working Procedure, its Daily Agenda, the constitution of the Inter-Orthodox Secretariat, the funding, the invitation of heterodox as Observers, that is, all the important issues of the Council. The Patriarchate of Antioch did not agree and did not sign this decision, noting in the space for the signature: “The Church of Antioch has an opposing view and for this reason does not sign” (see Appendix II)!10 Consequently, the Council was not convened by the agreement of all the Local Churches, in violation of the Working Procedure and the pan-Orthodox practice up to that point.

We ask Mr. Sotiropoulos to read the Conciliar decision of the Patriarchate of Antioch of the 27th of June, 2016,11 and he will realize that he has fallen a victim to misinformation and consequently he does an injustice to both himself and the truth.

6. Church and churches. Mr. Sotiropoulos attempts to refute the claim that only in the 20th century, in the context of the Ecumenical Movement, was western Christianity characterized a Church with the theological meaning of the term, and he refers to Orthodox statements since the Seventh Ecumenical Council in 787: the Encyclical Letter of St. Mark of Ephesus (1440); the Replies of Patriarch Jeremiah II to the Lutherans (16th-century); and, the Reply of the Orthodox Patriarchs to Pope Pius IX (1848), among others.

Unfortunately for Mr. Sotiropoulos, the texts to which he refers all but support his views. These texts have nothing to do with the theological production of Crete! For the invalidation of Mr. Sotiropoulos’s claim we refer to a text of the Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos.12 As for us, very summarily we point out:

• The Encyclical of St. Mark of Ephesus (1440): St. Mark does not characterize Rome as a Church. He always refers to the “Latins”, whom he characterizes as heretics and he speaks with the harshest words about the Latins’ delusions! Among many other things the Saint wonders: "So whence did they suddenly appear to us as Orthodox, who were judged as heretics for so many years and by so many Fathers? Who has made them so easily Orthodox? Gold and your profit [have made them], if you wanted to say the truth. Rather they have not made them Orthodox, but, having made you similar to them, they have thrust you away into the lot of the heretics"!13

Truly, what connection has the Saint’s text with Crete?

• The responses of the Patriarch Jeremiah II to the Lutherans: The way in which the Patriarch writes to the Lutherans is truly worthy of imitation: with politeness, refinement, and love but also with absolute clarity he expounds upon the Orthodox faith, refuting their delusions one by one in three long responses and he calls them to deny the delusions and draw nigh to Orthodoxy! Would that the Council of Crete expose with such clarity and fullness the Orthodox teaching regarding the heterodox Christians and call them to become integrated into the One, Holy Catholic, and Apostolic Church of Christ! The Patriarch Jeremiah writes in his second epistle:

“Finally, having understood Orthodoxy from the Holy Scriptures, come enter into it with all your souls, O wise and sagacious men, and put far away from you every irrational innovation, which the host of Ecumenical Teachers and of the Church has not accepted. ... Therefore, if up to the present something has been violated, you who are prudent may correct it from now, and you will be worthy of praise by God, as well as by men and by us. For to err is human, but correction is angelic and salvific. May you take care of this, also, so that the grace and the mercy of God may be with you.”14

Yet when the Lutherans in the reply insisted on their views, the patriarch concludes his third long epistle thus:

“Therefore, we request that from henceforth you do not cause us more grief, nor write to us on the same subject if you should wish to treat these luminaries and theologians of the Church in a different manner. You honor and exalt them in words, but you reject them in deeds. ... Therefore, going about your own ways, write