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Orthodox focus on unity

VATICAN (CNS): The Great and Holy Council met under a cloud in Crete from June 19 to 26, as the original intention of gathering every Orthodox Church in the world together failed to meet its objective with the absence of the Orthodox Churches of Russia, Bulgaria, Antioch and Georgia.

In the wash up, over 200 bishops from the 10 Orthodox Churches that did turn up affirmed their full unity with one another and, despite their refusal to attend, with the four that stayed away.

“The key priority of the council was to proclaim the unity of the Orthodox Church,” the final message released by the council says. “Founded on the Eucharist and the apostolic succession of her bishops, the existing unity needs to be strengthened and to bear new fruit.”

The message insists that the 14 autocephalous, or self-governing Orthodox Churches, are not considered to be a federation, but one Church. It points out that unity is expressed through and strengthened by the principle that the final authority in the Orthodox Church is expressed in representative councils.

So a regular convocation of pan-Orthodox councils is an important factor in Orthodox life.

The Great and Holy Council is the fruit of over 50 years work. The four Churches that did not turn up, cited reasons ranging from unresolved disputes with other Orthodox Churches to objections over the procedures adopted for running the council.

On June 26, Pope Francis described the council as a positive development, saying they have taken a step forward, even if not with 100 per cent participation.

He described the motivation of those who did not attend as sincere and believes that with time the differences can be resolved, as at least they had been part of the planning and preparation.

The bishops that did attend the council reaffirmed the obligation of Orthodox Christians to spread the gospel and engage in ecumenical and interreligious dialogue.

“The oil of religious experience must be used to heal wounds and not to rekindle the fire of military conflicts,” they insisted.

They also condemned violence, terror and persecution, particularly against Christians and other minorities in the Middle East, and urged their governments and their people to continue welcoming and assisting refugees fleeing war and oppression.

The bishops’ message and the longer, more spiritual Encyclical of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, reaffirms the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman.

“In contrast to the contemporary approach to marriage, the Orthodox Church regards the indissoluble loving relationship of man and woman as a great mystery... of Christ and the Church,” the statement says.

The texts also reaffirm that pollution and climate change have spiritual and moral causes, not just scientific and economic ones.

The roots of environmental destruction “are connected with greed, avarice and egoism, which lead to the thoughtless use of natural resources, the filling of the atmosphere with damaging pollutants and to climate change,” the message says.

“The Christian response to the problem demands repentance for the abuses, an ascetic frame of mind as an antidote to overconsumption and, at the same time, a cultivation of the consciousness that man is a steward and not a possessor of creation,” it continues.

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