‘On a Summoning of the Great Council’

In response to the “First Pre-Conciliar Conference” held in Chambesy, Switzerland (near Geneva) in November 1976, Archimandrite Dr. Justin Popovic composed “On A Summoning of the Great Council of the Orthodox Church.” In this, Fr. Popovic (1894-1979), spiritual father of the monastery of Celie Valjevo (Serbia), expressed his “grievous considerations for the future council.” The Orthodox Christian Information Center has the complete text here.

This letter is “dated” in that, written more than 30 years ago, it could not foresee the fall of communism and the revival of the Russian Church, nor anticipate the expansion of the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to include members from outside of Turkey. And it is always risky to draw close analogies from one historical moment to the present. But some of the language in the letter reads as if it could have been written yesterday. Here are some selections in which Fr. Popvich gives some thoughts on the “diaspora” and the historical background and justification for a Great Council:

On new local Churches:

The fate of the Church neither is nor can be any longer in the hands of the Byzantine emperor or any other sovereign. It is not the control of a patriarch or any of the mighty of this world, not even in that of the “Pentarchy” or of the “autocephalies” (understood in the narrow sense). By the power of God the Church has grown up into a multitude of local Churches with millions of faithful, many of whom in our days have sealed their apostolic succession and faithfulness to the Lamb with their blood. And new local Churches appear to be rising on the horizon, such as the Japanese, the African and the American, and their freedom in the Lord must not be removed by any “super-Church” of the papal type (cf. Canon 8, III Ecumenical Council), for this would signify an attack on the very essence of the Church. Without their concurrence the solution of any ecclesiastical question of ecumenical significance is inconceivable, not to mention the solutions to questions that immediately concern them, i.e. the problem of the diaspora. The age-old struggle of Orthodoxy against Roman absolutism was a struggle for just such freedom of the local Church as catholic and conciliar, complete and whole in itself. Are we today to travel the road of the first and fallen Rome, or of some “second” or “third” similar to it? Are we to believe that Constantinople, which in the persons of its holy and great hierarchs, its clergy and its people, so boldly opposed for centuries past the Roman protectionism and absolutism, is today preparing to ignore the conciliar traditions of Orthodoxy and to exchange them for the neo-papal surrogate of a “second,” “third” or other sort of Rome?

6. Most Venerable Fathers! All the Orthodox behold and realise how important, how significant today is the question of the Orthodox diaspora both for the Orthodox Church in general and for all the Orthodox Churches individually. Can this question be decided, as Constantinople or Moscow desires, without referring to, without the participation of the Orthodox faithful, pastors and theologians of the diaspora itself, which is increasing every day? The problem of the diaspora, without doubt, is a church question of exceptional importance; it is a question that has risen to the surface for the first time in history with such force and significance. For its solution there would be cause indeed to convoke a truly ecumenical council in which all the Orthodox bishops of all the Orthodox Churches would truly participate. Another question that, in our view, could and should be considered at an authentic ecumenical council of the Orthodox Church is the question of ecumenism. This, properly speaking, is an ecclesiological question concerning the Church as theandric unity and organism, a unity and organism that are placed in doubt by contemporary ecumenical syncretism. It is also related to the question of man, for whom the nihilism of contemporary, and especially atheistic, ideologies has dug a grave without hope of resurrection. Both questions can be resolved correctly and in an Orthodox manner only by proceeding from the theandric foundations of the ancient and true ecumenical councils. For the present, however, I leave these problems aside so as not to overburden this appeal with new discussions and expand it unduly.

The question of the diaspora is, then, both grievous and extremely important in contemporary Orthodoxy. However, do the conditions at present exist that would guarantee its solution in council as correct, Orthodox, and according to the teaching of the Holy Fathers? Is it possible, indeed, for there to be a free and real representation of all the Orthodox Churches at an ecumenical council without outside influence disturbing them? Are the representatives of many, especially of the Churches under militantly atheistic regimes, really able to express and defend Orthodox principles? Can a Church that denies her own martyrs be an authentic confessor of the Cross of Golgotha, or a bearer of the spirit and conciliar consciousness of the Church of Christ? Before a council takes place, let us ask ourselves whether it will be possible for the consciences of millions of new martyrs, made white by the blood of the Lamb, to speak out in it. The experience of history teaches that whenever the Church is crucified, each of her members is called upon to suffer for her Truth, and not to debate artificial problems or to look for false answers to real questions – “fishing in muddied waters” in order to satisfy personal ambitions. Shall we not remember that so long as the persecutions of the Church endured, no ecumenical councils were convened – which does not mean that the Church of God in those times did not live or function in a conciliar fashion. Quite the contrary, the age of the persecutions was its period of richest fruits.

And when afterwards the First Ecumenical Council gathered, there gathered also the confessors with their wounds and scars, the bishops tried in the fire of suffering, who then could freely testify concerning Christ as God and Lord. Will their spirit be present also at this time? In other words, will the bishops of our own age who are similar to the martyrs be present at the council that is now preparing, so that this council might think in accordance with the Holy Spirit and speak and decide according to God, and that there not be heard in it primarily those who are not free from the influence of the powers of this world? Let us consider, for example, the group of bishops of the Russian Church Outside of Russia who, for all their human weakness, bear upon themselves the bonds of the Lord and of the Russian Church that has fled into the wilderness from the persecutions in no way inferior to those of Diocletian: these bishops have been excluded in advance by Moscow and Constantinople from participation in the council, and in this way condemned to silence. Let us think of those bishops of Russia and of other openly atheistic countries who will be unable to participate freely in the council or to speak and make decisions freely; some of them will not even be allowed to attend the council. Not to mention the impossibility of them or their Churches preparing in a worthy manner for so great and significant an occasion. Is this not more than sufficient proof that at the council the conscience of the martyred Church and the conscience of the ecclesiastical pleroma will both be silent, that their representatives will not be allowed even to enter – such as occurred with one of the most illustrious witnesses of the persecuted Church at the assembly in Nairobi (I refer specifically to Solzhenitsyn)?

Some historical background:

1. From the minutes and resolutions of the “First Pre-Conciliar Conference,” which, for some unknown reason, was held in Geneva, where it is difficult to find even a few hundred Orthodox faithful, it is clear that this conference prepared and ordained a new catalogue of topics for the future “Great Council” of the Orthodox Church. This was not one of those “Pan-Orthodox Conferences,” such as were held on Rhodes and subsequently elsewhere; nor was it the “Pro-Synod,” which has been at work until now; this was the “First Pre-Conciliar Conference,” initiating the direct preparation for the celebration of an ecumenical council. Moreover, this conference did not begin its work on the foundation of the “Catalogue of Topics,” established at the first Pan-Orthodox Conference in 1961 on Rhodes and unelaborated up until 1971, instead it compiled a revision of this catalogue and set forth its own new “Catalogue of Topics” for the council. Apparently, however, not even this catalogue is definitive, for it will very likely again be altered and supplemented. Lately, the Conference has also reconsidered the methodology formerly adopted in the planning and final preparation of topics for the council. It abbreviated this entire process in view of its haste and urgency to summon the council as soon as possible. For, according to the explicit declaration of Metropolitan Meliton, presiding chairman of the Conference, the Patriarchate of Constantinople and certain others “are hastening to summon” and celebrate the future council: the council must be “of short duration” and occupy itself with “a limited number of topics”; moreover, in the words of Metropolitan Meliton, “The Council must delve into the burning questions that obstruct the normal functioning of the system linking up the local Churches, into the one, single Orthodox Church…” (“Acts,” p.55) All of this obliges us to ask: what does it mean? Why all this haste in the preparation? Where is all of this going to lead us?


3. All the contemporary “problematics” concerning the topics of the future council, the uncertainty and mutability of their invention, their determination, their artificial “cataloguing,” as well as all the new changes and “revisions”, demonstrate to every true Orthodox conscience one thing only: that at the present time there are no serious or pressing problems that would justify the convening and celebration of a new ecumenical council of the Orthodox Church. And if, nevertheless, a topic should exist, worthy of being the object of the convocation and celebration of an ecumenical council, it is unknown to the present initiators, organizers and editors of all the above-mentioned “Conferences” with their previous and present “catalogues.” If this were not the case, then how is it to be explained that, beginning with the meeting in Constantinople in 1923, continuing through Rhodes in 1961 and up to Geneva in 1976, the “thematics” and “problematics” of the future council have been constantly changed? The alterations extend to the number, order, contents and the very criteria employed for the Catalogue of Topics that is to constitute the work of this great and unique ecclesiastical body – the Holy Ecumenical Council of the Orthodox Church, as it has been and as it must be. In reality, all of this manifests and underscores not only the usual lack of consistency, but also an obvious incapacity and failure to understand the nature of Orthodoxy on the part of those who at the present time, in the current situation, and in such a manner would impose their “Council” on the Orthodox Churches – an ignorance and inability to feel or to comprehend what a true ecumenical council has meant and always means for the Orthodox Church and for the pleroma of its faithful who bear the name of Christ. For if they sensed and realized this, they would first of all know that never in the history and life of the Orthodox Church has a single council, not to mention such an exceptional, grace-filled event (like Pentecost itself) as an ecumenical council, sought and invented topics in this artificial way for its work and sessions; – never have there been summoned such conferences, congresses, pro-synods, and other artificial gatherings, unknown to the Orthodox conciliar tradition, and in reality borrowed from Western organisations alien to the Church of Christ.

Historical reality is perfectly clear: the holy Councils of the Holy Fathers, summoned by God, always, always had before them one, or at the most two or three questions set before them by the extreme gravity of great heresies and schisms that distorted the Orthodox Faith, tore asunder the Church and seriously placed in danger the salvation of human souls, the salvation of the Orthodox people of God, and of the entire creation of God. Therefore, the ecumenical councils always had a Christological, soteriological, ecclesiological character, which means that their sole and central topic – their Good News – was always the God-Man Jesus Christ and our salvation in Him, our deification in Him. Yes, He – the Son of God, only-begotten and consubstantial, incarnate; He – the eternal Head of the Body of the Church for the salvation and deification of man; He – wholly in the Church by the grace of the Holy Spirit, by true faith in Him, by the Orthodox Faith.


Moreover, is it correct, is it Orthodox to have such representations of the Orthodox Churches at various pan Orthodox gatherings on Rhodes or in Geneva? The representatives of Constantinople who began this system of representation of Orthodox Churches at the councils and those who accept this principle which, according to their theory, is in accord with the “system of autocephalous and autonomous” local Churches – they have forgotten that such a principle in fact contradicts the conciliar tradition of Orthodoxy. Unfortunately this principle of representation was accepted quickly and by all the other Orthodox: sometimes silently, sometimes with voted protests, but forgetting that the Orthodox Church, in its nature and its dogmatically unchanging constitution is episcopal and centred in the bishops. For the bishop and the faithful gathered around him are the expression and manifestation of the Church as the Body of Christ, especially in the Holy Liturgy: the Church is Apostolic and Catholic only by virtue of its bishops, insofar as they are the heads of true ecclesiastical units, the dioceses. At the same time, the other, historically later and variable forms of church organisation of the Orthodox Church: the metropolias, archdioceses, patriarchates, pentarchias, autocephalies, autonomies, etc., however many there may be or shall be, cannot have and do not have a determining and decisive significance in the conciliar system of the Orthodox Church. Furthermore, they may constitute an obstacle in the correct functioning of the conciliar principle if they obstruct and reject the episcopal character and structure of the Church and of the Churches. Here, undoubtedly, is to be found the primary difference between Orthodox and papal ecclesiology.

If this is so, then how can there be represented according to the delegation principle, that is by the same number of delegates, for example, the Czech and Romanian Churches? Or to an even greater extent, the Patriarchates of Russia and Constantinople? What groups of faithful do the first bishops represent and what the second? Recently the Patriarchate of Constantinople has produced a multitude of bishops and metropolitans, almost all of them titular and fictitious. Is it possible that this is a preparatory measure to guarantee at the future “Ecumenical Council” by their multitude of titles the majority of votes for the neo-papal ambitions of the Patriarchate of Constantinople? On the other hand, the Churches apostolically zealous in missionary work, such as the American Metropolia, the Russian Church Abroad, the Japanese Church and others are not allowed a single representative!


  1. George Michalopulos :


    I would be very wary of second-guessing this wise man (who I believe is going to be glorified as a saint). His words are like arrows through our hearts. I stand with him: unless all Orthodox are invited to this council, then its findings will be of little import. We in America struggled to create a Local Church. True, our martyric witness was not as gruesome as others, but it is very possible that it will soon turn out that way. We don’t need a “first throne” with serious papal envy to tell us that we are Orthodox or who our bishops are.

  2. John Couretas :

    George: Yes, and he asks us to look at the Church not only from the top down, but from the ground up.

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