Canon Law Class Acts as Global Lab

When the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church met in Kolymvari, Crete, June 19–26, 2016, it culminated a nearly 60-year period of preparation and capped months of anticipatory work in ecclesial circles. Religion media channels had touted it as the first major council of the Orthodox Church since the 7th Ecumenical Council in AD 787, with representative bishops from universally recognized autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches  around the globe expected to gather, in order to make major decisions in church life.

However, when the council finally convened, four of those churches did not show for various reasons, despite the fact that nearly all of them had initially  agreed to come: the Patriarchate of Antioch, the Patriarchate of Moscow, the Patriarchate of Bulgaria, and the Patriarchate of Georgia. To explain their absence, these churches cited either disagreements with pre-conciliar documents or failure to resolve breaches of ecclesiastical borders—or both. For example, the Patriarchate of Georgia objected to the content of the synodal document titled, "The Relation of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World," while the Patriarchate of Antioch refused to participate, among other reasons, unless and until the intractable dispute between itself and the Patriarch of Jerusalem’s claim to the ecclesial jurisdiction of Qatar could be resolved.

Consequently, the “Great and Holy Council” (now referred to by some as simply “The Council of Crete”) and the documents it promulgated have now become a historical object of critical dissection for proponents and detractors alike. They have also become fascinating specimens for study by canonists, like our faculty member, Archpriest Alexander Rentel, Ph.D., who has built his Spring Semester course, titled, “Contemporary Issues in Canon Law,” around the council’s history, preparatory process, and resultant effects.

Amazingly, however, what did not happen in Crete is happening in Crestwood, NY: representatives of churches that both did and did not participate in the gathering in Crete are participating in Fr. Alexander’s class. Among his guest presenters (sometimes virtually present via Skype or through audio recordings) are: Metropolitan Gabriel of Nea Ionia and Philadelphia of the Church of Greece and Metropolitan Hilarion (Alfeyev) of the Patriarchate of Moscow; and Priest Anthony Roeber, Ph.D., professor of Church History at St. Vladimir’s, who offered the viewpoint of the Patriarchate of Antioch. Another major guest is Protopresbyter Nicolas Kazarian, who assisted the drafters of the Message and Encyclical promulgated by the council in Crete, and who is an expert in Orthodox Christianity and geopolitics and the parish priest at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in New York City. Father Nicolas is scheduled to teach three of the classes, and to instruct students in how to draft conciliar documents.

Father Alexander noted the unique opportunity the course is affording his students, saying “We’re the only place that will talk to representatives of attending and non-attending churches; we’re understanding their viewpoints from a parochial experience while discussing them on an international level.

“My students and I are analyzing what happened in Crete from a broad vista, capturing a wide range of perspectives on the council, while studying theological and historical antecedents that engendered the council” he explained.

Father Alexander himself attended the council as a member of the Press Office of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Still, he remarks, by setting up this post-conciliar experiment in his classroom, he’s learning more and more about the rippling consequences wrought by the council in 2016.

“Take the presentation by Metropolitan Gabriel in my class as an example of immersion into global ecclesial thought and discussion,” he said. “He spoke about how important the recent council’s document on autonomy has been to the Church of Greece, particularly in the administration of parishes in its northern territories.

“Metropolitan Gabriel wanted our seminarians to understand recent history, to understand the issue of autonomy, and most of all, to understand the profound implications of the conciliar process and of the importance of properly applying canonical norms,” said Fr. Alexander. “In a stunning statement, Metropolitan Gabriel had stated, ‘If we are not working through synods, we are just liars.’

“‘The world today needs an Orthodox witness,’ emphasized Metropolitan Gabriel,” remarked Fr. Alexander, "and that, he reminded us, is an important ‘fruit of conciliar work.’”

Father Alexander explained further implications of his Canon law course, clarifying how conciliar gatherings and synodal decisions affect “every man and woman” in church life.

“The possibility for Orthodox harmony worldwide is presently constrained by geo-political forces and challenged by theological and canonical influences,” Fr. Alexander said. “That’s why I’ve turned my Canon Law course this semester into a ‘laboratory,’ where seminarians can meet global church leaders, hear out their specific parochial interests, understand the complex issues involved in church unity, study first-hand the authentic documents coming out of a major conciliar gathering—and even learn the process for drafting conciliar documents.

“I’m ecstatic, both as a teacher and as a canonist, that such illustrious churchmen have agreed to join us in open, respectful, and balanced conversation,” he said, “and I’m humbled that what did not happen in Crete, in some small measure, is happening in Crestwood!”

Funding for one guest lecturer in this course, Protopresbyter Nicolas Kazarian, was provided by the Ganister Orthodox Foundation Fund. Read a paper by Fr. Nicolas, titled, “The Crisis of Orthodox Multilateralsim: A Challenge for Pan-Orthodox Conciliarity "in the forum blog," Public Orthodoxy,” here.