The Great Council and Orthodox disunity

The Great Council of the Eastern Orthodox churches has come and gone without much fanfare, let alone media headlines, but the week-long gathering of prelates from around the world in late June did reveal fissures and fault lines that will shape the Orthodox future. The Great Council, held in Greece and planned for over a century, had not been previously held for a thousand years due to the schism between Catholicism and Orthodoxy and subsequent social and political upheavals and obstacles to Orthodox unity. For many observers, the refusal of several bishops (from the Russian, Georgian, Bulgarian, and Antiochian churches) to attend the council became part of a plot line involving rivalry, competition, and the growth of fundamentalism and traditionalism in world Orthodoxy.  At a call-in conference run by the Council of Foreign Relations, political scientist Elizabeth Prodromou said the narrative about rivalry for dominance in the Orthodox world between the Ecumenical Patriarch, historically the “first among equals” in Orthodox leadership, and the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church led the media coverage of the event, particularly over the concern about whether the former would exercise pope-like authority.

Prodromou says this narrative was first “laid out by the Moscow Patriarchate and more specifically the Putin government…. That the church has been able to exercise leverage over the other three who didn’t come [is] also very much related to Russia’s geopolitical objectives in Europe and Eurasia….” That the council spoke out forcefully against religious nationalism did not please the Russian state, but the Russian church is limited in maneuvering within such an authoritarian polity, she adds. The council showed the Orthodox churches in Cyprus and Albania among the most open on a range of issues, particularly the relation of Orthodoxy and democracy.  In fact, it was the bishop of Cyprus who said at the close of the council that the “single greatest challenge” to unity and progress within the Orthodox Church is “fundamentalism.” Several other church leaders and observers have targeted Orthodox fundamentalism as hampering the work of the recent council. RW attended a conference at Fordham University in New York in late June that specifically sought to define Orthodox fundamentalism and come up with a response to the phenomenon. The dilemmas of defining and applying the elusive concept of fundamentalism to Orthodox churches marked many of the presentations.

Edith Humphrey of Pittsburgh Theological Seminary said that while the early fundamentalist Protestant movement tried to condense the basic tenets of Christianity and bring Christians together, Orthodox fundamentalists are “maximalists,” in that they press for the preservation and restoration of a full range of traditions and teachings throughout church history. “I’m unconvinced of the use of ‘fundamentalism’ for Catholicism and Orthodoxy,” she added. She cited the 2009 statement “A Confession Against Ecumenism,” drawn up by a group of Greek clergy and monks, as well as broader advocacy of the old church calendar, re-baptism of converts, sexual abstinence for women during menstruation, and the teaching on “toll houses” (which holds that believers have to face purgatorial trials by demons after death), as characterizing the views of such traditionalists or “tradox,” as she called them. Father Oliver Hebel, an Orthodox military chaplain, argued for the term “restorationists” rather than fundamentalists in that such Orthodox believers seek to restore the ancient church as a bulwark against the modern world and church. He noted that there is a “convert syndrome” in such a movement, with many ex-evangelicals likely to embrace such a stance, although many such restorationists are also cradle church members. Nadieszda Kizenko of the State University of New York presented a case study on the revival of traditional practices of confession among the Russian Orthodox as a sign of such fundamentalist growth, although she too was hesitant to use the term.

Since the fall of communism, confession has become even more rigorous than in the pre-1917 period (even if practiced on a much smaller scale), including such practices as writing one’s confession as a preparation for the rite, in some cases having a “spiritual father” (rather than an ordinary parish priest) to hear one’s confession, and a stronger connection being made between confession and receiving the Eucharist, according to Kizenko. Nikolaos Asproulis of the Volos Academy for Theological Studies in Greece was more outspoken in identifying fundamentalism in the Greek Orthodox Church. He identified Orthodox theological fundamentalism as embraced by only about 4 percent of members and led by Greek monks on Mount Athos—although present in such lay movements as Zoe. This camp stresses the infallibility of church fathers, apocalyptic language (such as referring to the “purified” versus outsiders), the importance of spiritual fathers, and a strong critique against ecumenism and religious dialogue. A much larger ethno-religious fundamentalism links Orthodox identity with Greek nationalism—as represented by the Greek Orthodox Salvation Movement—and is concerned mainly about ethnic continuity and survival and agitated over the immigration crisis and the growth of religious pluralism in Greece.

(A transcript of the Council on Foreign Relations conference can be downloaded at