Father Edward Henderson is an Eastern Orthodox priest who serves as pastor of St. John the Baptist Russian Orthodox Church, a parish of the Diocese of the West of the Orthodox Church in America located in Berkeley, Calif.
Growing up as an Episcopalian in Fort Myers, Fla., Father Henderson attended Bishop Verot Catholic High School, became Eastern Orthodox after graduating in 1996 and attended Florida State University, where he received a B.A. in 2000. He then studied Russian at the U.C.L. School of Slavonic and East European Studies in London from 2000 to 2004, leading him to decide to become a priest.
Father Henderson graduated in 2009 from St. Tikhon’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in South Canaan, Penn., taught at St, John of San Francisco Orthodox Academy from 2010 to 2013 and was ordained a priest in 2013 before being assigned to his current parish in Berkeley.
On July 19, I interviewed Father Henderson by email about his perspective on the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church that recently met in Crete.
Some media commentators have compared the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, which met earlier this summer in Crete, to the Second Vatican Council in its significance for Eastern Orthodoxy. What made this “Holy and Great Council” so historically significant?
If you look at the history of this council, the idea of convening it began over 100 years ago. The political upheavals of the early 20th century and the rise of communism in Eastern Europe held back any serious plans for this council. Furthermore, many traditionalist and conservative voices within the Orthodox Church have been very apprehensive of convening such a council. With the fall of communism, serious preparation for the council began.
What were some obstacles to convening the council?
One of the points of contention was representation. On the one hand, some held that all Orthodox bishops should be invited to this council and decisions be made by majority vote. On the other hand, some held that each autocephalous Orthodox Church should have equal representation. If we were to follow the first proposal, the Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the local churches, would have an overwhelming representation and there would be fear that each of their bishops would vote exactly the same way. If we followed the second proposal, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Jerusalem and the churches of Greece and Cyprus would form an overwhelming voting bloc.
In the end, it was agreed that each church would have one vote, that they could send up to 20 bishops in their delegations but that all decisions would be made by consensus rather than majority vote.
Having grown up Episcopalian and attended a Catholic high school before going to Florida State University, you have extensive personal experience with non-Orthodox Christians and non-believers. How would you explain this council to them and why they should care about it?
One of the sad realities of this council is that it went largely unnoticed in the global media. Moreover, this council has had little to no impact on most Orthodox Christians. So, how can we expect other Christians to be impacted by this council? Although the Orthodox are more visible now, we are still largely unnoticed in North America and Western Europe.
Continuing the ecumenical inroads of recent pontiffs, Pope Francis held a first-ever meeting with the Russian Orthodox patriarch in Cuba, and he previously told Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople that he sets “no conditions” to full restoration of communion between East and West. What influence did these initiatives from Rome have on the council?
I do not believe these initiatives from the Roman Catholic Church had any influence on the council.
Many Eastern Orthodox Christians seem wary of reconciling with the Vatican because of how they perceive the status of Byzantine Catholic churches already in full communion with the pope, many of which (Ruthenian, Greek, Russian, Hungarian, Ukrainian, etc.) seem to have lost some autonomy over their Eastern traditions in order to remain or reunite with Rome. What role did such concerns play in the council?
As far as I know, the issue of the Eastern Catholic Churches was not addressed at this council.
Based on this council, how realistic is it to expect the Orthodox and Catholic churches to enter communion with each other in the near future, and why or why not?
Given the contention surrounding the council, I am more concerned about Orthodox unity. How can we even seriously consider full communion with the Roman Catholic Church when our own house is in such disorder?
Secondly, although the Orthodox-Roman Catholic dialogue has significantly improved relations between us, we do have serious disagreements, which would need to be addressed and settled before entering into full communion. Nevertheless, despite our differences, what we share in common is very important and should be the basis by which we cooperate with one another in our daily lives. If we cannot be in full communion, we can at least be good neighbors to one another and work together on issues that concern all of us.
From your perspective as an Orthodox pastor, what did the council accomplish?
Patriarch Daniel of Romania expressed hope that this council would lead to subsequent councils. I think, despite the problems surrounding the council, most of the local churches were present. I hope this will lead to a truly Pan-Orthodox council and future councils that will address the pastoral challenges of our contemporary world. There are so many issues that need to be addressed on a Pan-Orthodox level.
Your Orthodox Church in America is recognized by the Russian patriarch as an autocephalous church with its own ecclesiastical hierarchy, but other Orthodox churches do not acknowledge your administrative independence from Moscow. What role did the O.C.A. play in this council and how did this lack of recognition from the Greeks and other Orthodox churches affect it?
The Orthodox Church in America received her autocephaly from the Moscow Patriarchate in 1971. Originally, the council was going to discuss the manner in which autonomy and autocephaly are granted. That would have had a great impact on the O.C.A. However, these matters were not discussed.
Ultimately, the question is not whether the O.C.A. should have autocephaly but whether or not the Moscow Patriarchate has the right to grant autocephaly. Because the Ecumenical Patriarchate and several other autocephalous churches regard us as still being the North American Metropolia of the Russian Orthodox Church, we were not invited to the council, as they would hold that we are represented via the Moscow Patriarchate. However, there was at least one O.C.A. priest who attended the council as an observer.
Nevertheless, the O.C.A., overall, has a good relationship with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Recently, our primate, Metropolitan Tikhon, concelebrated with Patriarch Bartholomew at the Phanar in Constantinople.
Several themes were prepared for the council, but documents were not issued on all of them. What was the reason for that?
Over the decades of preparation, many themes were proposed. The themes that were agreed upon seem to be those in which there was common consensus. However, again, with the recent statements by various bishops who were at the council and the absence of four local churches, even the approved documents are being contested.
Four Orthodox churches planned to participate in the council but did not end up coming. What was the reason for this absence and how does it affect the legitimacy of the council?
About two weeks before the council was to convene, the Bulgarian Church decided not to attend. The Georgian Church then made the same decision. The Patriarchate of Antioch, due to an unresolved dispute with the Jerusalem Patriarchate, then decided not to attend. In response to this, the Russian Orthodox Church called for a postponement of the council. This proposal was rejected and, thus, the Russian Orthodox Church did not send a delegation. This is very problematic because it meant that the majority of Orthodox Christians were not represented through their bishops. So, it is difficult to even call the council "Great" or "Pan-Orthodox.” I personally think it would be more appropriate to call it an "Inter-Orthodox" council.
What impact do you see this council having on ecumenical relationships between the Eastern Orthodox and other Christians?
Once again, I wonder how significant will this council be. The Orthodox Church, overall, has been very active in the ecumenical movement and in ecumenical dialogue. As Orthodox Christians living in countries where we are a religious minority, interaction with other Christians is unavoidable. We are each other's neighbor, co-worker, friend, etc. This is the reality regardless of the council.
Any final thoughts?
Why did Jesus Christ establish his church? He established it for our salvation. The Holy Spirit guides the church, guides her bishops and guides her councils so that we may remain on the path to salvation. If the council was guided by the Holy Spirit, it will be thus revealed and if not, it will also be thus revealed. The most important thing we can do is strive to live according to the Gospel, to repent of our sins and to participate in the life of the church.
Sean Salai, S.J., is a contributing writer at America.