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Quaker and Ecumenical essays by Eden Grace
© 2022 Eden Grace

The conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church:
definition and implications

Independent Study
Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology
May 2000

It is an unmistakable fact of the 20th century that the Christian church has rediscovered an interest in itself. Ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church, has flourished in the last 50 years or more. Stimulated by such things as the modern ecumenical movement, the Second Vatican Council, and the Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar process, theologians, church leaders and ordinary Christians have brought renewed attention to the questions of “what is the church?” “How is meant to function in its earthly form?” “What are its instruments of authority?”

Eastern Orthodoxy has experienced a particularly poignant ecclesial renewal. After centuries during which Orthodox theology existed in what has been called a “Western captivity” — an exile of sorts, in which most theological activity took place in western Europe, subsumed by the Roman Catholic/Protestant polemic, while most autocephalous churches lived in isolation from each other, in uncongenial political contexts — Orthodox churches are now reasserting the living tradition of authentic Orthodox ecclesiology. Socio-political change, diaspora experience, development of missiology, and the ecumenical conversation have all stimulated new ecclesial self-understanding.

In attempting to express its authentic identity, the Orthodox church has rediscovered that it is “neither papal nor protestant.”1 Orthodoxy resists the vertical authority structure of the Roman Catholic church; “as a third way beyond the antithesis that had been set up during the Reformation era, Eastern Orthodox ecclesiology seemed to present a view of the church that hallowed its traditions as even Roman Catholicism did not and that nevertheless did not identify those traditions with an authoritarian and juridical institution.”2 Likewise, Orthodoxy resists the horizontal, individualistic pietism of the Protestant church. The Orthodox church is neither overly horizontal nor overly vertical in focus; rather, it is conciliar.

Under any circumstance, Orthodoxy has “an intense ecclesial consciousness.”3 The Church is a subject of doctrinal, and not simply political, consideration. The renewed interest in the conciliar nature of the church has highlighted the distinctive approach and importance of ecclesiology for Orthodoxy. The Church, as an article of faith, is neither a mystical body nor an historical institution. Rather, it is an incarnational reality, an embodiment of the triune God, set in order by the Holy Spirit.

The Church is constitutive of Christian faith precisely because of its trinitarian, relational nature. Human life in the image of God is life in relationship: relationship with the world, other people, and God. Human spiritual fulfillment is not a moral attainment or accomplishment, it is a way of being in relationship. The Church is the place where such relational fulfillment is (or should be) most realized. Indeed, a solitary Christian is a contradiction in terms. To be a Christian is to be part of a Christian community. Therefore, the qualities of the community are anything by incidental. The way of being as Church is the way of being as Christian.

The modern Orthodox ecclesial renewal, and its reexamination of patristic conciliarity, has centered around several nodes of inquiry. The Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar movement — the process of preparing for a Great and Holy Synod of the Orthodox Church — has stimulated deeper consideration of the meaning of a Council within Orthodoxy. The Russian theology of sobornost — a complex and evocative synthesis of trinity, unity, catholicity and conciliarity — highlighted the relational spiritual quality of the Church at all levels which undergirds the conciliar event. “Eucharistic ecclesiology” has focused attention on the local eucharistic community as the most fundamental instance of the Church, upon which conciliarity is rooted. The modern ecumenical movement, with its project of comparative ecclesiology and the dominance of Protestant confessionalism, has created an urgent need to articulate more clearly the Orthodox understanding of the Church. Through each of these four venues, a consensus has emerged which reaffirms that the Orthodox Church is by nature conciliar, and should experience its conciliar nature at all levels. A corresponding awareness has emerged that the Church is not always faithful to its conciliar nature, and may benefit from a self-examination, critique and perhaps corrective.

elements of a definition of conciliarity

No concise theological definition exists to describe the conciliar nature of the Church. However it is possible to describe the elements of such a definition, and I will attempt to do so here. At its most superficial level, conciliarity refers to the holding of councils for the purpose of common agreement in faith and practice. However this level of description utterly belies the theological meanings of conciliarity. Therefore, the first claim to make is a negative one: conciliarity can not be defined by describing a council. The church has experienced a variety of patterns of councils at many levels, in many historical contexts. An external description of a council — its membership, constitution, or procedures — can not provide a normative definition of conciliarity. Such an external study, focusing on the council as an institution of church government, with certain criteria necessary for validity, represents an ecclesiology of form which is foreign to Orthodox theology. The question is not “what is a valid council” but “what is a council and how does it reflect the conciliar nature of the church itself”4

Thus our second element of a definition, also in the negative, is that conciliarity is, at the core, non-institutional. Orthodox ecclesiology is an ecclesiology of content rather than form. The church is the life of grace and communion with God, the sacrament which expresses (represents, makes present, fulfills) the reality of new life. This sacrament takes a certain form, but it is not reduced to it. It is certainly not fulfilled simply by the convening of the external form of a council or synod.

To put this is a more positive sense, conciliarity is an all-pervasive, constitutive mark of the Church. “For conciliarity is not something which the Church has — it is what the Church is5 Conciliar theory begins by seeing the Church itself as council, just as the Greek word “ekklesia” literally means synod or council. “The Church’s synodal structure is a constitutive principle, which is of divine origin, essential and irreplaceable.”6

Synodality … is a characteristic expected to pervade every expression of ecclesial life. … The synodal expression of ecclesial life should be found in every act of communion among all the members of the body of Christ. … The church’s order is an organic expression of the very nature of the church.7

Thus, according to a conciliar model, all matters of faith and practice at all levels of the Church should be determined by a council. Conciliarity is not, as is sometimes assumed, an attribute of the episcopacy. It is a defining attribute of the entire Church, from patriarch to laity, for conciliarity is not something to be found in the church, it is the very nature of the church.

The deepest meaning of conciliarity is trinitarian. “Each person of the Holy Trinity lives not for himself but for the other.”8 Because the Trinity is council, a communion of persons, the Church is also council; the church reproduces on earth the Trinitarian mystery of unity. The conciliar Church is “an orderly communion of persons freely united in the Holy Trinity in truth and in love.”9 This is not due to any authoritative command that the Church “ought” to be conciliar, but because, by participation in the divine life, the Church takes on the qualities of the Trinity. “The very act of organizing the life of the Church becomes an act of worship and in this worship we participate in the very life of God: Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”10

Conciliarity is the experience of divinely restored human life. It describes an experience of synergy between God and humans, in which humans participate with God through the Holy Spirit in the formulation of Truth. “Through conciliarity, the nature of the Church as theanthropic communion in Christ is expressed.”11 By participating in the conciliar life of the community — unity in diversity through mutual-indwelling — we participate in the divine life, and vice versa. Thus conciliarity is found “in every act of communion among all members of the Church’s body.”12 Rooted in Matthew 18:20, it represents an understanding of Christian life lived in mutually accountable community.

According to most Orthodox theologians, conciliarity is hierarchical. This is closely tied to its trinitarian nature, for the Trinity itself is hierarchy. It is claimed that, far from being contradictory or competing systems, conciliarity actually presupposes and requires hierarchy. (This is a point which I will return to, since, speaking from my own Christian tradition of radical non-hierarchy, I am not convinced of the necessity of hierarchy as a element of a definition of conciliarity.)

Conciliarity, as the communion of divinely restored humanity, is deeply eucharistic. It is in the eucharist that we are made one in Christ, a unity in diversity. The revival of eucharistic ecclesiology has especially emphasized the fact that unity and catholicity are attributes of the eucharistic community. All conciliar activity is grounded in the eucharistic experience.

Through its eucharistic nature, conciliarity manifests the catholicity of the Church. Each eucharistic community is the one holy catholic and apostolic church in its fullness. The conciliar communion between these communities guarantees the catholic identity of each and the unity of the entire body of Christ. The common celebration of the eucharist as the climax of a Council seals the unity of the Church which is a divine gift.

Conciliarity is, of course, historically normative for the Church. Although the central role of the Council in the Tradition can not be disputed, it bears some review here. In the earliest days of the Christian community, the Church existed only in Jerusalem. The followers of Jesus experienced their new faith in such a way that their life together in community was of central importance. They came together as a whole Church whenever important decisions needed to be made. This lived experience of the apostles — that their faith impelled them into relationships of mutual accountability and in-dwelling — forms the basis for all future conciliar activity. As the church grew in the next centuries, so did the manifestations of, and understanding of, conciliarity. When the church spread beyond Jerusalem, each local church was seen as being the same, full, catholic church. Unity of the faith was maintained by councils between the local churches. When the church became an Imperial Church, with the Emperor holding some right over it, the concept of council evolved again. The Emperors began to call councils of bishops for the sake of civil order and imperial unity, although the bishops maintained their own goal of unity of faith. The seven “Ecumenical Councils” existed within this concept of the Christian empire, and can not be repeated. However, it is a mistake to think that the Ecumenical Councils exhaust the concept of conciliarity. While we can not replicate the context of the past, we must look always for manifestations of conciliar life in the current situation.

As a corrective against rigid traditionalism, it must be clear that conciliarity is a dynamic and living experience. This is necessarily the case in light of the pneumatological, incarnational, sacramental emphasis above. The Conciliar Church is not simply the Church which follows the teachings of the Councils of the past, but is primarily the Church which lives in spirit-filled conciliar relationships today. This point has become increasingly clear through the experience of the Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar movement, as we shall see.

Thus we have accumulated a list of adjectives to describe conciliarity: non-institutional, constitutive, trinitarian, theanthropic, hierarchical, eucharistic, catholic, traditional, and dynamic. Clearly this is a complex idea which eludes mechanical definition. Ultimately, it is an experience which is given by grace and recognized by faith. It can not be created, but only received in gratitude and humility.

Following logically from this, a Council, as an event, is “a reflection and manifestation of the conciliar nature or conciliarity of the church”13

implications of this definition of conciliarity

One of the results of the renewed interest in conciliar theory among Orthodox theologians has been a fruitful process of self-examination and critique. Rediscovering this basic emphasis in Orthodox ecclesiology, and presenting it to the world via the ecumenical movement, has let to a reconsideration of both theology and practice within the Orthodox Church.

There seems to be general agreement among Orthodox theologians that the conciliar life of the Church has broken down in recent times. There is a confusion in practice which stems from a neglect of the theology, especially in the area of the conciliarity of the whole church at all levels. There are various explanations of what went wrong. Some would say that the development of provincial councils as the preeminent instrument of church government obscured the local councils on which conciliarity is based, and which included bishops, priests and lay people. Others would see the call for the inclusion of lay people in councils as a secularization and democratization of the holy synod.

Hopko offers an explanation of how Orthodox conciliarity broke down in practice as

the result of an unfortunate combination of late Byzantine hierarchical thinking and modern Westernized ‘school theology’ mixed together with contemporary ‘neo-patristic’ and ‘eucharistic’ ecclesiology — all poorly understood and wrongly applied.14

The patristic idea of the bishop as the icon of God is now interpreted without benefit of the patristic context, in which each bishop was rigorously engaged with all other bishops. Instead, a neo-platonic “emanationist” doctrine and a counter-reformation doctrine of “holy orders” combine to place bishops “at the top of a hierarchical ecclesiastical structure no longer understood as imaging the Holy Trinity”15 In the cultural context of the Ottoman and Russian empires, such bishops ruled over the faithful by virtue of their special grace, authority and power. Priests and deacon were their delegates. The people themselves had no Christian ministry of their own. This is clearly far from the apostolic model.

Carras16 offers a similar critique in terms of spiritual corruption and loss of relational spirituality. He sees contemporary Christians as so far gone in our selfishness that we don’t even perceive the problem of our lack of conciliarity. Instead, we assert our own rights, and try to justify ourselves. The church councils, when they are founded on “me” individualism rather than “thou” conciliarity, will become tyranny. Carras reminds us that St. Gregory the Theologian described how the councils of bishops were consumed with rivalry, power and ambition. Our human lack of faithful response to God’s gift has undermined the conciliar beauty of the Church. But we can repent of our self-centeredness and separation. We can experience death, resurrection and new life in Christ. We can experience what we were made for: participation in the divine life.

It seems clear that some of the loss of conciliarity can be attributed to an over-emphasis on so-called “universal” ecclesiology, for which “eucharistic” ecclesiology has been offered as a corrective. In the crudest terms, universal ecclesiology is top-down, whereas eucharistic ecclesiology is bottom-up. Universal ecclesiology, which is the ecclesiology of the Roman Catholic Church, sees the whole church in the whole world as a single organic entity with a single head. Each local manifestation of the church is a part of the body. Afanassieff17 reminds us that universal ecclesiology is a product of the imperial mindset, which sees unity as derived from centralization. This was the Roman political ideology, and it seemed logical to church theologians like Cyprian, who were worried about the looser, more subjective, unity of the conciliar church — a number of autonomous local churches united by concord and love, except that in practice they were sometimes more engaged in discord and enmity.

Using Paul’s image of the body of Christ, Cyprian developed the idea that fullness and unity are attributes of the whole church, and each local manifestation is merely a member or part of that whole, not itself possessing catholicity. The Catholic Church is the sum of its parts, like the branches of a tree.

But universal ecclesiology is not the only means to Christian unity, and it was not the pattern of the primitive church. This was eucharistic ecclesiology. In the early centuries, every local church was autonomous and independent. This was not just historical circumstance; it was a doctrinal assertion that the eucharist assembly constituted the church. The Universal Church idea, when it took hold, represented a change in both circumstance and doctrine. Recent Orthodox theology has sought to reclaim eucharistic ecclesiology as being more authentically Orthodox and more suitable to a conciliar church.

Eucharistic ecclesiology claims that the local church is the Body of Christ in its eucharistic aspect — by partaking of the one loaf which is the one body of Christ, the eucharistic community becomes the Body. “The local church is autonomous and independent, because the Church of God in Christ indwells it in perfect fullness. … There may be a plurality of such manifestations, but the Church of God itself always remains one and unique.”18 Each local church is the whole church, and at the same time all the local churches together are the one church. “In the Church, unity and plurality are not only overcome: the one also contains the other.”19 There is no sense of the church being made up of parts. Rather, the eucharistic assembly around a bishop — the diocese — is the fundamental unit of the church. Anything larger, such as a metropolitanate or patriarchate, is derivative in nature, consisting simply of a number of dioceses in mutual fellowship.

In eucharistic ecclesiology, the catholicity of the Church is fundamentally a concrete, visible aspect which is made real in the eucharist. The eucharist is the experience which brings together the “many” and the “one”, the “already” and the “not yet.” This one eucharistic community transcends all natural and social divisions. The one bishop at the table signifies the one catholic church before God. The catholicity of the church is christological, in that it is a mark of the real presence of Christ in the Christian community. It is pneumatological in that it is dynamic in history. It is local because it is living and concrete. The fact that catholicity is eucharistic, is highlighted by the fact that the conciliar activity of the church from the earliest time was concerned with issues of eucharistic communion as the local churches related to each other.

It is clear that each of these ecclesiological thrusts — universal and eucharistic — contains a certain view of the catholicity of the church, of where the fullness of the church is located. Catholicity and conciliarity are related but not identical concepts. “One could characterize conciliarity as the ‘conscience’ and realization of catholicity.”20 If we accept the proposition that conciliarity is catholicity made manifest, then both universal and eucharistic ecclesiologies will have distinct views of the church council. One of the places where this distinction is most clear is in the understanding of how authority operates in the Church.

Much discussion has taken place between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches on the topic of authority and primacy. The simplistic version is that supreme authority for Roman Catholics lies in the papacy, whereas for Orthodox it lies in the Ecumenical Councils. While the actual situation is much more complicated than that, the element of truth here is that the two models of ecclesiology, universal and eucharistic, do lead to two understandings of supreme ecclesial authority, monarchical and conciliar. The Orthodox Church is still in process of reclaiming its understanding of conciliar authority.

Beginning in the 19th century, Orthodox theologians began to express a critique of authority in both Roman Catholicism and Protestantism. Khomiakov, a Russian lay theologian, felt that his sobornost concept was an important response to the Western ideas of Papal infallibility, Protestant individualism and Reformed rationalism, all of which placed authority in the autonomous individual rather than in the collective body of Christ. Khomiakov wrote:

Protestantism was nothing more than papal individualism brought to its logical conclusion. Rome had imposed upon the Christian West unity without freedom; the Protestants achieved freedom, but at the expense of unity. Yet neither unity without freedom nor freedom without unity was of any use. They both meant the isolation of man, and his exclusion from the redeeming influence of true Christian fellowship. The West had rejected the fundamental teaching of love, on which the whole life of the Church was based.21

The Orthodox understanding of authority through freedom and love takes shape in the concept of reception. A council is not authoritative in and of itself, but only as it is received. A council is the supreme authority in faith, not because it has juridical power, but because it has charismatic authority which has withstood the test of reception over time. Councils do not have automatic infallibility. It is the church which affirms the council. “Truth in the church does not depend upon any infallible institution but is an experience always available in the communion of the Church – this communion being understood, of course, both as faithfulness to tradition and as openness to the consensus fidelium today.”22 The importance placed on reception is the consequence of eucharistic ecclesiology — every church is the whole church, which recognizes the whole church in other local churches. Ultimate authority lies in the Holy Spirit, who can not finally be captured by a council.

Councils of bishops can err. How is it determined that a council is ecumenical or not? Who or what validates a council? There is no satisfactory answer to that question, according to Ware23. Reception by the whole church is a simplistic answer, but what about the case of Chalcedon? It was not received by the whole church. Which was flawed, the council? or the churches which did not receive it? How do we decide? There is some danger that an overemphasis on reception democratizes the conciliar principle by requiring councils to be, in a sense, ratified in a juridical process. The true sense of reception is more subtle. Either a council is taken into the life of the Church, or it is not. Reception is not expressed formally; it is lived. The validity of a council is not ultimately based on any external criteria, but rather on the presence of God.

In universal ecclesiology, reception does not make as much sense. How can a universal council be subject to a local church? Rather, the local churches, as parts of the universal church, are naturally subject to its pronouncements. According to universal ecclesiology, unity of the one organism in its many parts requires a single head, which for Cyprian was the throne of Peter. This throne was to be shared collectively among all the bishops, just as the oneness of the Church is distributed among all the local churches. The corpus of the bishops in concord preserves the unity of the local churches. The bishop embodies the church, so that concord of bishops constitutes unity of the church.

Cyprian felt that the church of Rome was the root of the universal church, and as such it rose above the “harmonious multitude” of the local churches. Cyprian didn’t himself take this doctrine to the logical conclusion, but it is clear what that conclusion would be — there really should be a corresponding single bishop rising above the general concord of the bishops, and this would naturally be the bishop of Rome. “If a universal theory of the Church is adhered to, the doctrine of primacy will somehow be a necessary concomitant.”24

It is clearly too simplistic to contrast an ecumenical council with the Pope as analogous concepts. According to Afanassieff, the idea of the universal church being governed by a universal council is not an alternative to the idea of primacy. In fact, the ecumenical council presupposes primacy, in two ways: first, it assumes that the bishops who participate in the council are themselves “heads” of their churches. The local body has a head. Why, then, shouldn’t the universal body? Second, the ecumenical council begs the question of who convokes it and who enforces its decisions. When the idea of the ecumenical council was fully developed and enacted, it presupposed an Imperial Church, with an Emperor as its head. The Ecumenical Council, as it came to be known in the imperial context, was a product of universal ecclesiology.

Is there a corresponding idea of primacy in eucharistic ecclesiology? Obviously (according to Afanassieff), one person must preside at the eucharist, and certainly would have done so from the very beginning. The eucharistic leader would naturally also be the leader of the church community, and would therefore represent the community in its relations with other communities. “Though a local church did contain everything it needed within itself, it could not live apart from the other churches. … Every local church must be in concord with all the other churches, because within the Church of God, ever one and only one, there can be no discord.”25 Each accepts (receives) the life of the others into its self, thereby bearing witness that the other is in conformity with the will of God. If the life of the other is rejected, this implies that the other is not in conformity with the will of God. A system of mutual recognition through a fellowship of equality served the purpose of unity and catholicity without the need for primacy.

In eucharistic ecclesiology, churches recognize each other, rather than bishops. According to Afanassieff, one of the local churches will naturally rise to a place of priority, due it its exceptional faithfulness of witness, but this is not the same thing as primacy.

Eucharistic ecclesiology excludes the idea of primacy by its very nature. … In eucharistic ecclesiology, priority belongs to one of the local churches; but the concept of primacy, in its historical shape and setting, assumes that primacy belongs to one of the bishops, and that he governs the whole Church by established right.26

The church which holds a place of priority doesn’t have power over the others, or have more honor than the others, but rather makes a self-sacrifice for the sake of the others. It won its place through services rendered, and not prestige. It can’t force other churches to conform to its will, but the doctrine of the church in priority is held to be orthodox, and contrary doctrines, heretical. If it starts to set itself as a power over the others, it will lose its place of priority.

It is not at all obvious to me that one church should rise above the others, and be granted authority as the “first among equals.” Why should this be necessary or inevitable? The assumption that the church requires a human hierarchy seems entirely unexamined by Orthodox theologians. The assertion that Christ is the Head of the Church is, according to Afanassieff, no answer to the question of primacy, since Christ is an invisible Head. All churches acknowledge Christ as the Head, but that doesn’t help us when it comes to church governance. The church also needs a visible head.

Yet I question that assumption. I wonder if it is true, that Christ’s headship is not directly operative in the church. Orthodoxy leaves space for the work of the Holy Spirit in the highest levels of council by refusing primacy, but creates human headship at other levels of the church. But if we say we don’t need a visible head at the universal level, then why do we need a visible head at the local level (bishops)? And within the autocephalous churches, why do we acknowledge primacy of one bishop as patriarch? Either we accept the concept of visible heads, or we don’t. And of course, it is assumed, we must have visible heads. How could it be otherwise?

Afanassieff is right that by pulling the thread of “visible head”, we unravel the whole episcopal system. That’s exactly what we Quakers have done. We go back to the original assumption — that Christ, an invisible head, is not directly relevant to governance — and try to answer the question differently. The assumption that Afanassieff makes leads to a separation between the church and Christ’s Headship. Our institutional life no longer has a direct spiritual leadership. Instead we put human leadership in the place of Christ. This is the crux of Quaker critique of the traditional church.

But isn’t this also a critique which can be derived from within Orthodoxy? Ware says “Orthodox theology never treats the earthly aspect of the Church in isolation, but thinks always of the Church in Christ and the Holy Spirit.”27 This is exactly where I think Afanassieff’s logic is flawed. He presupposes a division between the Church and the Spirit, so that human institutions of hierarchy are needed in the place of God’s direct government. I question whether this is indeed necessary.

The concept of hierarchy in the church is based on idea of hierarchy within the Trinity. The Trinity is three persons who share the one reality. Each of the three is interrelated with the others in a matrix of relationships which forms the ultimate model of conciliarity. But there is order within the Trinity. The Father presides, as the origin of Trinitarian life. The primacy of honor belongs to the Father; the Son and Spirit are like the two hands of the Father. “The church becomes hierarchical in the sense in which the Holy Trinity itself is hierarchical: by reason of the specificity of relationship.”28

There is sometimes a tendency to oppose “conciliar” and “hierarchical”, or to subsume one within the other. But true conciliarity is neither clericalism nor democracy. Because the Trinity, in Orthodox theology, is hierarchical, hierarchy is the essential quality of conciliarity. Hierarchy means mutual recognition of unique persons, and obedience within mutual relationships. It is not a matter of subordination or clericalism.

Ultimately, the inner relationships of the Trinity are a mystery. Given that this is so, I don’t feel convinced that those inner relationships are hierarchical in nature. Preservation of a specificity of relationship and person within the Godhead does not, in my mind, require any ranking among the three. I wonder, rather, if we have failed to overcome our limited human imagination, and are unable to conceive of true, sublime, equality and mutuality. Have we constructed a Trinity which reflects our human power structures? Might we instead take inspiration from the triune life of unity in diversity to challenge the patters of human power and domination?

Perhaps the theology of hierarchy has become too deterministic and “realized.” An eschatological perspective of “already/not yet” might help bring some balance. There is no separation between the church visible and the church invisible, for the two make up a single continuous reality. The invisibility is only in reference to our earthly ability to perceive, not in reference to actual existence. There is no distinction between the ideal church and the actual, concrete church. Yet there is a human element in the church. “The Church on earth exists in a state of tension: it is already the Body of Christ, and thus perfect and sinless, and yet, since its members are imperfect and sinful, it must continually become what it is.”29 “The mystery of the church consists in the very fact that together sinners become something different from what they are as individuals; this ‘something different’ is the Body of Christ”30.

Wainwright also reminds us of the eschatological gaze of the church. The Church is already and also not yet one. The Church is one because our Lord is one. Yet our human response belies that unity, revealing our predilection for separation – from God and from each other. An overly exclusivist ecclesiology claims “we are the true Church; all others have separated from us.” An overly docetic ecclesiology claims “institutional unity is unimportant because the Lord knows the membership of the invisible church.” Eschatological ecclesiology holds these two in tension. “The Church is becoming what it will be. In this perspective, we can both admit that some disunity still exists among Christians and also see the need to overcome such disunity; we can rejoice in the measure of unity which we already have and at the same time commit ourselves to striving for its increase.”31 Perhaps this eschatological emphasis will help us refrain from claiming that our human power structures already represent the Kingdom in all its fullness.

On a similar note, one unexplored aspect of the authority and infallibility of councils has to do with the dialectic of tradition and change. We stated above that conciliarity is both traditional and dynamic. A council’s authority is the authority of the Holy Spirit who lives through it, and then continues to move into new, contemporary contexts. As the living Church grows and changes, the question is raised about the perpetual authority of past councils. As Patriarch Ignatios IV said in an interview:

“I think we must stop this confusion of Tradition with history, stop looking at history in this rather formal and materialistic manner. We must take the Holy Spirit much more seriously, leaving him free to be active now and for the future. Without that we shall always continue living in the past. … Is it not true that we must preserve what has been handed down to us? Yes. But what is it that we have been given? Life in all its fullness. And this Life has always expressed itself in relation to real needs and in a way which is understandable and communicable to the men and women who are — and who are meant to be — ‘the temples of God’, precisely so that the Holy Spirit will not disappear and so that the Church will not ‘disincarnate’ itself in a book, or in a particular ‘elite’.”32

This question is raised rather pointedly as a result of the growing convergence with the non-Chalcedonian churches. If the Eastern and Oriental Orthodox churches can reach a point of full eucharistic communion on the basis of a shared substance of Christological doctrine, albeit in divergent words, it raises the question of the distinction between the true substance of faith and its verbal expression by the councils. Which is “Orthodox” from the Council of Chalcedon — the experience of faith or the words which were used to express it? Perhaps the Orthodox apaphatic tradition can be helpful here. Orthodoxy has always understood that ultimate truth dissolves words and concepts, and it may be good to be reminded that this is true, even of the great councils and creeds. No conciliar formulation of Truth can claim abiding authority, as if we had managed to capture the Holy Spirit in an earthen vessel. The Church abides in Truth through the continuing and ever-present gift of divine participation, an eternal now.

Thus far we have considered the implications of conciliarity on the supra-diocesan level. However, much attention has been given in recent decades to questions of local and parish life, especially in regards to the role of laity and the significance of ordination in the conciliar life of the church.

It is clear that, in the Orthodox Church, ordination is not an objectified thing which conveys a power to be possessed by the ordained individual (and not by the non-ordained). In fact, there is no such thing as a non-ordained Christian. At the most basic level, we are all ordained by our baptism, called into an ordered community of transforming relationships. The variety of “orders” represent the diversity of relationships within the Church and in its relation to the world.

According to Zizioulas, ministry is essentially ambassadorship — representation by participation. It is a charism of the community, lifted up in one person in a representative way. There is no individual ministry which is separate from the community. It is the particular ministry of the ordained minister to represent the interests of the people of God. The grace of the ordained minister is a gift to the whole community, exercised by the minister on behalf of all and for all.

The validity of ministry is based on the validity of the community to which the ministry belongs. Recognition of ministries becomes recognition of communities. “Instead of trying to recognize each other’s ‘orders’ as such, the divided communities of our time should rather try to recognize each other as ecclesial communities relating to God and the world through their ministries in the way that is implied in the mystery of Christ and the Spirit.”33

The bishop has a particular ministry as the focus of unity, both of the church community which he heads, and between that community and all others. To the extent that the bishop embodies the unity of the church in time and in space, through apostolic succession and through conciliarity, he does so as a representative of his community. Apostolic succession is carried through the community, which is the guardian of the faith through time, rather than through the episcopal office per se. The unity which is represented by the council of bishops is not constitutive of the council or of the bishops themselves, but only of the communities which raise up, send and hold accountable the individual bishops.

The office of bishop, as the living image of God on earth, is so necessary that without a bishop (according to Ware)34, the church does not exist. But likewise, without the church, the bishop does not exist. The bishop has the special tasks of ruling, teaching and celebrating the sacraments. The whole people of God are also given spiritual gifts. In particular, charismatic and prophetic ministries are given to the laity. Sometimes these come in conflict with the hierarchy, but there is never any true contradiction, since the same Spirit is at work in both. “Bishop and people are joined in an organic unity, and neither can be properly thought of apart from the other.”35

The orders of the church are not a system of autonomous administration, but are rather “an integral part of the Church as the sacrament of the Kingdom”36 The presbyters form the church council with the bishop. The presbyters, in their plurality in council, represent the laity. This plurality is transformed into unity by the special charism of the bishop. Conciliarity is rooted in the relationships between the orders of the church.

This principle has become obscured by the practices by which bishops are elected, which often do not reflect the basic accountability of the bishop in the eucharistic community. The question of the election of bishops becomes key in understanding the bishop as representative of the catholicity of the local church. If they are elected solely by the other bishops, as is common today, there is a tendency for the bishops to see themselves as a class apart from the church, with special rights and privileges. Yet the participation of the council of bishops in election serves as an expression of the fullness of the local church, recognized as catholic by the other churches. If bishops are elected by the people (priests and laity), there is a tendency to see the bishop as an employee of the church or representative of a particular local ethnic or political agenda. Yet participation by the people allows the local accountability and representative nature of ministry to be clearly drawn. It may be that the ideal situation would involve a combination of the two methods, thereby highlighting the dual focus of the bishop.

The question of election of bishops is just one of the areas in which there has been a popular call for increased lay participation in church governance. Although many Orthodox would agree that there is a need for increased conciliarity at the parish level (which I will discuss momentarily), the larger question of the role of laity in the conciliar nature of the church is far from decided.

The call for lay participation has been met with a range of responses from theologians and hierarchs. Schmemann feels that the catholicity of the church at any supra-diocesan level is fulfilled through the council of bishops without lay participation. The supreme power in the Church belongs to the bishops. The contemporary tendency to try to include priests and laity in the council of bishops distorts the idea of conciliarity, which is based on a hierarchical principle. It creates the impression that the laity have different interests from the clergy, and can only be adequately represented by lay persons. However, it is the particular ministry of the clergy to represent the interests of the people of God. If every member is participating according to his (or her) calling, there should be no need for any conciliar structure other than the council of bishops.

Sabev, on the other hand, sees historical precedent for lay participation in councils of bishops:

Bishops are considered bearers of the major responsibility for the unity of the church, the fulfillment of conciliar fellowship and decision-making at councils and synods, but these decisions should be a result of the collective, collegial voices of all those present, searching for coherence and consensus. The Acts of the Apostles, early patristic writings and the Acta and canons of councils and assemblies clearly indicate the role of both clergy and laity in many church gatherings. In an organic body, each organ is in vital relation and interaction with the others.37

The idea is that the laity are the guardians of the faith, the bishops are teachers. Therefore, the laity may participate in the deliberations of a council of bishops, but can not take part in the final decision.

The Moscow Synod (1917–18) of the Russian Orthodox Church rejected the idea of a “bishops only” synod and included lay participation. This decision was clearly a result of several influences which are considered suspect by other Orthodox. Sobornost, the romantic Russian theology of Khomiakov, was modeled after the rural peasant collectives, and promoted the idea of lay representation. The Russian church was emerging from a time of Czarist domination, and standing on the brink of the Soviet era. Many theologians consider this synod to be an aberration.

That may be true, but I think it can not be said, as some have claimed, that the concept of “representation” is foreign to Orthodoxy.38 Isn’t the whole idea of ordination a theology of representation? What is meant, I think, is that the idea of a lay voice is foreign to Orthodoxy. What is at stake that makes theologians reject lay participation so strongly? Whose power is challenged by a lay voice?

One thing that is certainly clear is that, at the level of the parish, conciliarity and lay participation are in need of renewal. Some of the difficulty at the parish level stems from a persistent confusion about the nature of the parish, a unit of ecclesial life which did not exist in the early church. The pattern of the early church was of a eucharistic assembly with a council of presbyters gathered around the bishop. This pattern was completely transformed by the shift to a parish system. By dismantling the council of presbyters, and establishing each one instead as priest of a parish community, the bishop-presbyter relationship was transformed into one of subordination and delegation of power. At the parish level, the conciliar nature of the church was utterly obscured, and an excessive clericalism reigned. In recent times, the laity have expressed a deep desire for a more conciliar parish.

It is interesting to ask why, when the church grew beyond the single urban congregations, it preferred a parish system to a proliferation of bishops. The early churches, all located in urban centers, had a sort of natural catholicity because of the diversity of their members. The church was not identified with a preexisting community (race, ethnicity, class, trade/vocation, etc). With the conversion of the empire, this began to change, and local churches began to be identified with other forms of community. But these communities could never be catholic, since they were defined by narrow common interest. The acceptance of the parish system wherein each local community is bound with others in a larger unit, was an attempt to counteract the danger of the church being absorbed by natural society.

This situation is still true today. The local parish is still conditioned by its context, and thus essentially limited in catholicity. Therefore it is from the diocese that the parish receives its catholicity. The bishop’s particular ministry is to be the bearer of catholicity. In order to fulfil this call, the bishop must be in conciliar relationship with the parishes through the priests.

Some theologians, most notably Zizioulas, seem to wish for a reversion to the time when the eucharist was celebrated in the presence of all four orders of ministry (bishop, presbyter, deacon and laity). However, most contemporary Orthodox would recognize that, unlike the patristic period, today the concrete expression of the church is the parish. This of course raises questions about the role of the priest. He now does much of what was originally the work of the bishop, and he does not function as the presbyter of old. He is not simply the bishop’s delegate, but he is not autonomous either.

There is agreement that the parish, for a long time, lost its conciliar quality. Church participation became pietistic rather than communitarian. When parish councils began to emerge, often by lay initiative, they were seen in juridical terms, effectively legislating a division between material and spiritual. Especially in Protestant-dominated countries, parish councils began to function as if the priest were their employee. The pendulum had swung too far in the direction of an American congregational model of lay governance.

The way to transform this situation will certainly not be through a brute assertion of clerical power. Rather, an embrace of conciliarity, understood in terms of each member discovering his (or her) particular gift and vocation within the church, can empower the parish to experience conciliarity in its fullness. “If the conciliar principle is not restored on the parish level, its other expressions will remain meaningless and inoperative.”39

As a way of summing up the implications of conciliarity, we might usefully return to the concept of sobornost, which is perhaps the most integrative and spiritually evocative form of Orthodox ecclesiology. Sobornost, as an integrating ecclesial principle, was articulated by Khomiakov, a 19th century Russian lay theologian. Khomiakov was inspired by agricultural collectives which practiced consensus decision-making; he saw it as a sign of the voice of the Holy Spirit when all agreed. The word sobornost is hard to define, but at a simplistic level it translates “catholic” in the creed. However, according to Ritchey, it does not have the connotation of universality, but rather of organic unity and fellowship in faith and love.40

Sobornost is a “fellowship of members united together in mutual love where each member is free to achieve his or her potentiality but in the spirit of prayerful consideration and personal constraint.” 41 Sobornost can be translated catholicity, but it is much more than simply universality, by which is meant that the church is everywhere. Khomiakov said sobornost-catholicity is

to apply the trinitarian model to the life of the Church; unity in multiplicity, oneness in diversity, togetherness in dispersal, a catholicity realized in quality not in quantity, in depth rather than in breadth, a characteristic communicated by the Holy Spirit which enables individual communities, and even persons, to give full and complete manifestation to the mark of catholicity.42

“Unity, catholicity and conciliarity are the essence of the church’s being; and sobornost is an overarching principle of their intertwinement.”43 At its deepest, sobornost is “the reflection of Trinitarian unity in man and his relationship to other men [sic]”44 It is essentially an organic, rather than institutional, image of the church.

pointing the way forward

The two contexts which have most stimulated Orthodox conciliar reflection are the Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar process, and the modern ecumenical movement. Both of these conversations have benefited greatly from the conciliar revival of recent decades, and will undoubtedly continue to do so.

Beginning in the early 1960s, the Orthodox churches began the process of preparations for a universal council of the Orthodox Church. It was determined to call the council a Great and Holy Synod rather than an Ecumenical Council, since ecumenicity is only perceived in retrospect, as a result of the reception process. In addition, it was recognized that an Ecumenical Council, in the manner of the patristic Councils, can not be replicated in this post-imperial context. Rather, the attempt was to experience afresh the conciliar consensus of the entire Orthodox church — an enormous proposition which will take some time yet to achieve.

The pre-conciliar process was begun with much enthusiasm in 1961, but was slowed down in the early 70’s, as the churches recognized the dimension of the task. When the first Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference was convened in 1978, there was a much deeper understanding of the issues facing the church today. It was felt to be essential that the Council concern itself with issues which will make a substantial difference in the lives of Christians, not just abstract doctrinal proclamations which hardly cause a ripple. The original agenda from 1961 had to be completely revised in order to allow the people truly to raise up the agenda of the Council. It came to be understood, through the subsequent process, that the pressing issues of the current Council are: to put in order the jurisdictional questions, and to define the relationship of the Orthodox Church with other churches. “The judgment of history upon the Council under preparation will depend on the Pan-Orthodox solving of these questions upon the basis of sound Orthodox ecclesiological and canonical criteria.”45 The current preparatory process prior to the Council itself requires intensive work on gathering a consensus on these most difficult issues in Orthodoxy today.

Orthodoxy, through this process, has discovered some very significant things about conciliarity which perhaps could not have been revealed quite so sharply in the absence of actually trying to convene a Council. There are still some who doubt the usefulness of a Great and Holy Synod, or see it as an anachronistic and imperial form of conciliarity. Before a Council is ready to be convened, more questions must be satisfactorily answered. The Council is not yet ripe.

The process of intensive preparatory work on each of the agenda items before the meeting highlights how the Council seals the unity of the church rather than creates it. When the Council is ready to be held, it will be because the local churches have lived into new and deeper relationships, common action, and consensus of opinion. This “delay” in the convocation of the Council is in no way a deferment of conciliarity, as if, due to some various failings, the church was not able to be a conciliar church at this time. Rather, the current process, prolonging the preparations for the council, gives evidence to the deepest conciliar nature of the church. Conciliarity is growing, through the power of the Holy Spirit, such that when the Council is finally felt to be ripe, the whole church will feel the presence of God through the Council. Indeed, conciliarity is, in its deepest sense, embodied in this time of ripening. This is a profoundly important insight, both for panorthodoxy, and for the ecumenical movement. Visible conciliar unity will come, not as an achievement of the church, but as a gift from God, grown through our ever-deepening relationships, to be received in thanksgiving, humility and praise.

The ecumenical movement has provoked much reflection on conciliarity, both by Orthodox and non-Orthodox participants. In particular, the Orthodox churches have been called upon to articulate the basis on which they are willing to engage in ecumenical activity with non-Orthodox. The problem of an exclusivist self-understanding for ecumenical engagement is obvious: “Can one particular Church, when identifying its limits with those of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, accept a similar self-identification on the part of other churches without relativizing its own continuity and logicality?”46

It seems to me that this is only a dilemma within universal ecclesiology. Clearly, there can not be two universal churches. But in Orthodox eucharistic ecclesiology, each church is the full church, recognizing each other as full churches. There should be no inherent challenge to the self-identification of a church to accept another church. Indeed, a church which accepted no other could not really be living the trinitarian life of unity in diversity. It would have become a monad, in isolation, a non-relational church, which is no church at all. Just as a solitary Christian is no Christian, “a eucharistic community which deliberately lives in isolation from the rest of the communities is not an ecclesial community.”47 Conciliarity is based on the conviction that “no local Church could be a Church unless it was open to communion with the rest of the Churches.”48 This would seem to provide a very congenial basis for ecumenism, particularly as visible unity has increasingly been defined in conciliar terms.

The concept of conciliarity in has grown within the World Council of Churches over time. Uppsala (1968) summoned the member churches to “work for the time when a genuinely universal council may once more speak for all Christians.” This made explicit what was implicit in the New Delhi (1961) articulation of church unity: unity is a process by which “all in each place” are eucharistically united, and each local community is conciliarly united with all others in a universal fellowship. This image of visible unity as conciliar fellowship places great weight on the eucharistic/conciliar aspect of unity. Salamanca (1973) further elaborated the vision of Uppsala by describing conciliar Christian unity as follows: “the one Church is to be envisioned as a conciliar fellowship of local churches which are themselves truly united.” Each local church should be truly — organically — united, since each contains the fullness of catholicity within itself. This is obviously a model which resonates with Orthodox conciliar theory.

As a model to be taken up by the ecumenical movement, it poses some problems. The definition of church unity, in this concept, is concretely linked to the idea of place. A local church is “all in each place.” This is certainly the traditional Orthodox model, rooted in the experience of the Imperial Church. But is it anachronistic in this non-Imperial age? Can geopolitical concepts of space really be considered elemental to the church? Is God’s sense of space confined to our three-dimensional perception? The experience of the Orthodox church in diaspora, and of growing religious pluralism in the “Orthodox countries”, indicates that the imperial model has irrevocably broken down. It may not be possible to organize the universal church into geographical provinces, and even if it were, it may not be desirable. The temptations of the church to enter into nationalistic and racial politics have proven too great in the past. There is a sense in which unity in space erodes catholicity, reduces the imperative for relatedness.

The emphasis in eucharistic ecclesiology on concrete, material acts of unity, most significantly in sharing the one loaf, should remind us that a non-geographical definition of unity can not simply mean a reversion to mystical, invisible unity. To take a Trinitarian approach, we would look for a conciliar unity of diversity, even at the local level. In this respect, the agreements on “full communion” which have been achieved in many places represent a conciliar, Trinitarian, relational model of spatial unity.

The modern ecumenical movement is a pre-conciliar movement. In this respect the experience of the Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar movement is instructive. Even in the case of a universal Orthodox Council, true unity must rise organically from the lived experience of the people of God. The Council doesn’t create, manufacture or negotiate the terms for unity. It recognizes the unity which is given. Likewise, the ecumenical movement can encourage, stimulate and proclaim our progress toward Christian unity, but it can not create it. Conciliarity is an expression of Truth, not a determiner of it.

A conciliar view of the church recognizes that the walls which divide Christians

“do not reach to heaven. … The grace and mercy of God are wider than the dividing lines of canons, structures and jurisdictions. … The body of Christ is one and cannot be divided. … Sobornost implies unity in a legitimate diversity: freedom for differentiations in liturgy, spirituality, culture, theology and structure relevant to the particular situation of a local church, while still expressing the same basic truth and Christian love. Since the main source of division and schism is the failure of moral unity, leading to pride and rivalry, intolerance and fanaticism, the road toward renewed fellowship is to be found in repentance and charity”49

What we experience now in the ecumenical movement is not the fullness of conciliarity, since our intercommunion is not complete. Sobornost becomes a call to the fullness of unity which is not yet ours. But we can say that we have experienced the spirit of sobornost in our ecumenical fellowship already, and that “our councils today are called to give greater expression to the fullness, integrity and totality of life in Christ and to help articulate common faith, truth and love.”50

From a sobornost view of the church, the church is an organism, and its conciliar structure is an organizational entity which serves the living body. The experience of the Orthodox Church has it rediscovers and revives its conciliarity, and deepens it understanding of the spiritual journey toward a Great and Holy Synod, demonstrates that ecumenical progress will be made from the bottom-up, by local churches living in closer love and harmony. The work of ecclesiastical authorities can only codify and celebrate what they Spirit has already done.


1 Thomas Hopko, “On ecclesial conciliarity,” in The legacy of St. Vladimir, ed. by J. Breck, J. Meyendorff, and E. Silk (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: 1990), p. 211.
2 Jaroslav Pelikan "The Sobornost of the Body of Christ", ch. 6 in Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture, v. 5 of the series The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989) p. 294.
3 Hopko p. 209.
4 Alexander Schmemann “Toward a theology of councils,” in Church, World, Mission: reflections on Orthodoxy in the West, (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1979) p. 163.
5 Hopko p. 224.
6 Lewis J. Patsavos “The synodal structure of the Orthodox Church,” St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 39 no 1, 1995, p. 73.
7 Michael A. Fahey “Eastern synodal traditions: pertinence for western collegial institutions,” in Episcopal conferences: historical, canonical and theological studies, ed. by Thomas J. Reese, SJ, (Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 1989) p. 254.
8 Costa Carras “The problems of conciliarity,” Sourozh 35, 1989, p. 38.
9 Hopko p. 224.
10 Carras p. 37.
11 Patsavos p. 71.
12 ibid.
13 Bp. Maximos Aghiorgoussis, “Theological and historical aspects of conciliarity: some propositions for discussion,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 24, 1979, p. 5.
14 Hopko p. 220.
15 ibid p. 221.
16 Carras op cit. passim.
17 Nicholas Afanassieff, “The church which presides in love,” in The Primacy of Peter: essays in ecclesiology and the early church, ed. by John Meyendorff, (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992) passim.
18 ibid p. 109.
19 ibid.
20 Todor Sabev, “The nature and mission of councils in the light of the theology of sobernost,” Ecumenical Review 45, 1993, p. 263.
21 Mary G Ritchey, “Khomiakov and his theory of Sobernost,” Diakonia 17 no 1, 1982, p. 55.
22 John Meyendorff “What is an ecumenical council?,” St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 17 no. 4, 1973, p. 270.
23 Bp. Kallistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, new ed. (New York: Penguin Books, 1993) p. 252.
24 Afanassieff p. 99.
25 ibid p. 112.
26 ibid p. 115.
27 Ware p. 240.
28 John D. Zizioulas Being as Communion: studies in personhood and the church, (Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985) p. 223.
29 Ware p. 244.
30 Ware p. 244, quoting Meyendorff, Ecumenical Review (1960).
31 Geoffrey Wainwright, “Conciliarity and eucharist,” Mid-Stream 17, 1978, p. 149.
32 Ignatios IV, “The dichotomy between theological speculation and the reality of the church,” Sourozh 20, 1985, p. 14–16.
33 Zizioulas p. 246.
34 Ware p. 249.
35 ibid p. 250.
36 Schmemann p. 168.
37 Sabev p. 266.
38 ref. Aghiorgoussis op cit.
39 Schmemann p. 173.
40 Ritchey p. 57.
41 ibid.
42 ibid p. 58.
43 Sabev p. 261.
44 Ritchey p. 53.
45 Metr Damaskinos., “Towards the great and holy council,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 24, 1979, p. 108.
46 ibid p. 110
47 Zizioulas p. 236.
48 ibid p. 241.
49 Sabev p. 265–66.
50 ibid p. 268.

comprehensive bibliography

on conciliar ecclesiology:

Afanassieff, Nicholas, “The church which presides in love,” in The Primacy of Peter: essays in ecclesiology and the early church, ed. by John Meyendorff, Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1992, p. 91–143

Aghiorgoussis, Maximos, “Theological and historical aspects of conciliarity: some propositions for discussion,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 24, 1979, p. 5–19.

Bria, Ion, The sense of ecumenical tradition: the ecumenical witness and vision of the Orthodox, Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1991.

Burns, Patrick, “Communion, councils, and collegiality: some Catholic reflections,” in Papal Primacy and the Universal Church, ed. by Paul C. Empie and T. Austin Murphy, Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1974, p. 151–172.

Carras, Costa, “The problems of conciliarity,” Sourozh 35, 1989, p. 36–43.

Denisenko, Filaret, Metr., “The catholicity of the universal and local churches,” Communio Viatorum 24 no 3, 1981, p. 123–136.

Fahey, Michael A., “Eastern synodal traditions: pertinence for western collegial institutions,” in Episcopal conferences: historical, canonical and theological studies, ed. by Thomas J. Reese, SJ, Washington DC: Georgetown University Press, 1989, p. 253–265.

FitzGerald, Thomas and Peter Bouteneff, eds., Turn to God, Rejoice in Hope: Orthodox Reflections on the way to Harare, Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1998.

FitzGerald, Thomas, “Conciliarity, Primacy and the Episcopacy,” St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 38, 1994.

Gregorios, Paulos, “Ecclesiological issues concerning the relation of Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches,” in Does Chalcedon divide or unite? ed by Paulos Gregorios, William H. Lazareth and Nikos A. Nissiotis, Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1981, p. 127–137.

Hajjar, Joseph, “Patriarchal synods and the new eastern code of canon law,” in Collegiality put to the test, ed. by James Provost and Knut Walf, London: SCM Press, 1990, p. 88–97.

Hopko, Thomas, “On ecclesial conciliarity,” in The legacy of St. Vladimir, ed. by J. Breck, J. Meyendorff, and E. Silk Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press: 1990, p. 209–225.

Huizing, Peter and Knut Walf, eds. The Ecumenical Council: its significance in the constitution of the church, New York: Seabury Press, 1983.

Ignatios IV, “The dichotomy between theological speculation and the reality of the church,” Sourozh 20, 1985, p. 10–16,

Konstantinidis, Chrysostomos, Metr., “Authority in the Orthodox church,” Sobernost (incorporating Eastern Churches Review) ns 3 No 2, 1981, p. 197–209.

Loya, Joseph A, “For harmony and freedom in truth: radical visions of the church from 19th century Russia,” Ostkirchlichen Studien 33, 1984, p. 302–309.

McKibben, Michael T., Orthodox Christian Meetings. Columbus OH: St. Ignatius of Antioch Press, 1990.

Meyendorff, John, “What is an ecumenical council?,” St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 17 no. 4, 1973, p. 259–273.

————, The Orthodox Church, 4th ed. Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1996.

Orthodox/Roman Catholic Consultation in the USA, “An agreed statement on conciliarity and primacy in the church,” St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 34 no. 4, 1990, p. 343–355.

Papadopoulis, John, “On the hierarchy of the church,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 1 No 2, 1955, p.142–151.

Patsavos, Lewis J., “The synodal structure of the Orthodox Church,” St. Vladimir's Theological Quarterly 39 no 1, 1995 p. 71–98.

————, “The primacy of the See of Constantinople in theory and practice,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 37, 1992, p. 233–258.

Pelikan, Jaroslav, "The Sobornost of the Body of Christ", ch. 6 in Christian Doctrine and Modern Culture, v. 5 of the series The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.

Ritchey, Mary G, “Khomiakov and his theory of Sobernost,” Diakonia 17 no 1, 1982, p. 53–62.

Sabev, Todor, “The nature and mission of councils in the light of the theology of sobernost,” Ecumenical Review 45, 1993, p. 261–270.

Schmemann, Alexander, “Toward a theology of councils,” in Church, World, Mission: reflections on Orthodoxy in the West, Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1979, p. 159–178.

Timiadis, Emilianos, Metr., “Consensus in the formulation of doctrine,” Mid-Stream 20, 1981, p. 177–190.

————, “Reception, consensus, and unity,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 26, 1981, p. 47–61.

Vischer, Lukas, “Conciliar fellowship and councils: churches on their way to a universal council,” Ecumenical Review 41, 1989, p. 501–514

Ware, Kallistos, Bishop, “Patterns of episcopacy in the early church and today: and Orthodox view,” in Bishops: what kind? ed. by Peter Moore, London: SPCK, 1982, p. 1–26.

————, “The exercise of authority in the Orthodox church,” Ekklesia, 1982, p. 941–969.

————, The Orthodox Church, new ed. New York: Penguin Books, 1993.

————, The Orthodox Way, rev. ed. Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1995.

White, Gavin, “Collegiality and conciliarity in the Anglican Communion,” in Authority in the Anglican Communion, ed. by Stephen W. Sykes, Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1987, p. 202–220.

Zizioulas, John D., “Ecclesiological issues inherent in the relations between Eastern Chalcedonian and Oriental non-Chalcedonian churches,” in Does Chalcedon divide or unite? ed by Paulos Gregorios, William H. Lazareth and Nikos A. Nissiotis, Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1981, p. 138–156.

————, Being as Communion: studies in personhood and the church, Crestwood NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1985.

on the Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar process (in chronological order):

Ware, Kallistos, Bishop, “Towards the great council?,” Eastern Churches Review 4, 1972, p. 162–168.

Aghiorgoussis, Maximos, “Towards the great and holy council: the first pre-synodal pan-Orthodox conference in Geneva,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 21, 1976, p. 423–428.

Papademetriou, George C., “Theological reflections on the forthcoming Great Council,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 24, 1979, p. 95–98.

Damaskinos of Tranoupolis, Metr., “Towards the great and holy council,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 24, 1979, p. 99–116.

Poyarkov, Juvenaliy, Metr., speech [no title given], Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate 3, 1980, p. 43–49.

Bobrinskoy, Boris, “The second panorthodox preconciliar conference,” Sourozh 12, 1983, p. 18–25.

Denisenko, Filaret, Metr., “Concerning the decisions of the Second Pre-Council Pan-Orthodox Conference,” Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate no 8:53–55; no 9:35–38; no 10:40–43; no 11:45–48, 1983.

Skobei, Grigory N., “The second Pre-Council Pan-Orthodox Conference,” Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate 8, 1983, p. 56–62.

“Second pre-council conference,” Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate 1, 1983, p. 62.

“Session of the Inter-Orthodox Commission for the Preparation of the Council,” Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate 5, 1986 p. 53.

Denisenko, Filaret, Metr., “Decisions of the Third Pre-Council Pan-Orthodox Conference,” Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate no 3:52–54; no 5:56–59; no 6:46–49; no 7:52–54, 1987.

Skobei, Grigory N., “Third Pre-Council Pan-Orthodox Conference,” Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate 2, 1987, p. 48–50.

Interorthodox Preparatory Commission, “The Orthodox diaspora: the text adopted by the Interorthodox Preconciliar Preparatory Commission of the Holy and Great Council,” Sourozh 55, 1994, p. 45–46.

on ecumenical conciliar theory:

Bria, Ion, “Ecclesial unity in the ecumenical movement: theology and expectations,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 26, 1981, p. 314–324.

Deschner, John, “Visible unity as conciliar fellowship,” Ecumenical Review 28, 1976, p. 22–27.

Houtepen, Anton, “Toward conciliar collaboration: the WCC and the Roman Catholic communion of churches,” Ecumenical Review 40, 1988, p. 473–487.

Lazareth, William H, “The meaning of ‘conciliar fellowship’,” Mid-Stream 18, 1979, p. 68–71.

Nelson, J Robert, “Conciliarity/conciliar fellowship,” Mid-Stream 17, 1978, p. 99–117.

Nissiotis, Nikos A., “Visions of the future of ecumenism,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 26, 1981, p. 280–304.

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