“When sobornost becomes a grassroots phenomenon, then it will be renewed and open to us in a new way and with greater strength. This renewed sobornost will once again help people to overcome the temptations of separation, individuation, and nationalization (from the word ‘nationalism’), which is the restriction of love to compatriots – loving only those from your own nation and ethnicity, while withholding love from anyone else.”
The age of ecumenical councils is over, and we must revive the original understanding of sobornost within the Church, while looking for new ways to embody it, including strategies that work “from the bottom up”, in and through living relationships, said the Rector of St. Philaret’s Institute, Fr. Georgy Kochetkov, commenting on the situation surrounding the Pan-Orthodox Council in Crete, which is scheduled for 16-26 June.
Preparations for the Pan-Orthodox Council, which was to be the first council of primates and representatives of the Orthodox Christian churches in more than a thousand years, have been underway for more than 50 years. The Serbian1, Bulgarian and Georgian churches, as well as the Antiochian Patriarchate, have already declined to participate. On Monday 13 June, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church also issued a statement saying that it “considered it impossible for the Russian Orthodox Church to participate in the Council in Crete under circumstances of incomplete representation of [other Orthodox] Churches.”
“The whole Orthodox world is discussing the convocation of the Pan-Orthodox Council. It is difficult to say what will happen in the immediate future, but this really is not the question. In my opinion, all of the enormous difficulties associated with the convocation of this Council, the form its meetings should take and how decisions should be made, are related not just to the disintegration of church life but to the need to again change the very understanding of sobornost within the Church.”
Fr. Georgy recalls that prior to the first Ecumenical Council, “the sobornost or catholicity of the church was perceived primarily as being ‘gathered’ or ‘collected’ from the inside perspective, and as shared life in the fullness of the Holy Spirit – as the ‘unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Ephesians 4:3). From the time of the first Ecumenical Council, the emphasis has been shifted and sobornost gained a supplementary meaning – that of counciliarity. Hence, the Ecumenical Councils themselves are seen as expressions of sobornost.”
But Fr. Georgy is certain that since the end of the Constantinian Era, which was associated with the symphony of church and state, sobornost can no longer be defined through counciliarity. “We have to return to the understanding of sobornost which existed in the Church prior to the first Ecumenical Council. Then, both councils and genuine unity (which is lacking today) will be possible,” said the SFI Rector.
He expressed confidence that there is no need to continue the age of Ecumenical Councils: “councils are gone to return no more.” “Even if the Pan-Orthodox Council takes place in a week it will not be ‘ecumenical’. Traditionally, we say that there were seven Ecumenical Councils, for which we can thank God. The history of the Ecumenical Councils was complicated, ambiguous and troublesome, but altogether extremely important for the entire Church and for all Christians. But that era is well and truly over, and we must look for new ways to express and embody our sobornost,” emphasized Fr. Georgy.
In his opinion, “we must, of course, begin with local sobornost ‘from below’, which emerges from living relationships of unity and love between believers who are faithful to Christ, the Church and each other.” “When sobornost becomes a grassroots phenomenon and springs out of the soil of living grace, then it will be renewed and open to us in a new way and with greater strength. This renewed sobornost will once again help people to overcome the temptations of separation, individuation, and nationalization (from the word ‘nationalism’), which is the restriction of love to compatriots – loving only those from your own nation and ethnicity, while withholding love from anyone else.” said Fr. Georgy. He emphasized that “unfortunately, all today’s nations are inclined to this sort of nationalism in various forms and to varying degrees; alas, nobody is free of it, and having illusions about freedom is of no help.” This nationalistic phenomenon, Fr. Georgy reminds us, is called Phyletism, and was condemned at one of the Constantinopolitan councils.
“The revival of sobornost within the Church is very important, because without it there is no catholicity – and where there is no catholicity, there is no the Church, per se. And at that point Christ’s gift of life together as the new people of God is gone. Humanity is now enduring the enormous temptation of rejecting this gift from God, believing that it has ‘outgrown’ the need for God’s gift. We point out flaws or sins of individual Christians or Christian structures, and arrive at the flawed conclusion that Christianity as a whole does not improve anything in this world and is capable of giving us nothing more. As the argument goes, even if Christianity used to give something to humanity as a whole, this era is now over. This is an utter lie, a slander against God’s grace and against God Himself, and blasphemy against the Church,” said the SFI Rector.
“But to be able to prove it, however, we need to change; we need to be renewed in our understanding, we need to really see the mystery of the Church and reveal it within ourselves and through ourselves. It is for this reason that we say that Christians should live in communion and in service. And Christians should strive – at least strive – to create communities, brotherhoods and other forms of unity, spiritual movements that are likely to be more perceptive to God’s will than more rigid church structures, which tend to be too inert and restricted by external circumstance,” said the priest.
In his view, “it is impossible and unnecessary to simply and mechanically continue the practice of ecumenical or pan-Orthodox councils, because life has gone the other way.” “If we are trying to bring back the old ways artificially – dreaming of symphony between church and state and trying to implement it – the result will be ineffectual and even discrediting to the church,” said Fr. Georgy. “The Constantinian Era of church history is over, and the indestructible union of church and state should cease to exist, as it is something that is not pleasing to God in our times,” he added.