"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Friday, January 8, 2016

Will They or Won't They? On the Holding of Church Councils East and West

We will presently know whether the much-promised and much-delayed 'great and holy synod' of Orthodoxy will happen this spring or not. Latest indications--no surprise here--indicate that the Russians want to scupper the whole thing, which is exactly what I feared, as many others have as well. Still, I hold out at least a little bit of hope that the council will come off if only to see that the Russian bully does not get his way.

Holding councils is always a tricky business, as recent Catholic experience abundantly and painfully indicates. But going back further than 1962-65, one finds in conciliar history all kinds of surprises arising that were not anticipated by those who felt the need to call a council in the first place.

I am sometimes asked to recommend books about councils, and herewith a few that I often suggest to people:

I usually begin by suggesting people read Leo Davis's The First Seven Ecumenical Councils (325-787): Their History and Theology (Michael Glazier/Liturgical Press, 1988), 347pp.

Though now nearly 30 years old, it remains in print and for good reason: it is a short, concise, clearly written overview of each of the seven councils, giving enough detail, history, and context without overwhelming the reader.

A Jesuit like Davis, the historian Norman Tanner has authored several invaluable works, including The Councils of the Church: A Short History (Crossroad, 1991), 144pp.

Taking a wider, longer look at councils and the whole phenomenon of 'conciliarism' or 'synodality,' Tanner more recently authored The Church in Council: Conciliar Movements, Religious Practice and the Papacy from Nicaea to Vatican II, which I reviewed in detail here.

Tanner is also the scholar who has given Anglophones the critical edition of the councils, in his invaluable two-volume Decrees of the Ecumenical Councils (Georgetown UP, 1990), 2528pp. This edition contains the Latin and Greek texts alongside English translations.

Among Orthodox scholars treating the question, there are several noteworthy books. The late Orthodox canonist and Archbishop Peter L'Huillier authored The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils

But perhaps the best place to give us a sense of the likely surprises and turmoil to come out of this year's synod--if it happens--is Patrick Viscuso's fascinating book, A Quest For Reform of the Orthodox Church: The 1923 Pan-Orthodox Congress, An Analysis and Translation of Its Acts and Decisions (Inter-Orthodox Press, 2007), 205pp.

Viscuso documents that the 1923 gathering, which can be counted as the origins of the push for the synod that may happen later this year, was a brave, controverted, confused, but hopeful gathering of some but not all Orthodox leaders--in other words, it was just as messy as every other such gathering in conciliar history East or West. As the nearest analogue to what we are likely to see in 2016, this book pays careful revisiting this year.

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