One of the arguments against autocephaly the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is that it was granted without a consensus of the other national Churches. I’ll speak about consensus in a moment but first I think it’s worth pointing out that the Moscow Patriarchate (through its representative Metropolitan Hilarion of the Department of External Affairs) contends that “administratively the Orthodox Church is a confederation (using the language of civil society and a comparison with a political structure) of independent Churches which are not subordinate to each other, even if by protocol they occupy certain places.”

His Eminence goes on to say that the Churches are

…like countries in the United Nations. They are listed in a certain order, but it does not mean that one country is subordinate to another one. In the same way, the Orthodox world has never known subordination of one Church to another Church. Now the Patriarchate of Constantinople wants to create such subordination, and the newly established organization in Ukraine is an “autocephalous church” (I say it in inverted commas), designed in accordance with the desires of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. It is not a truly independent Church, because the tomos granted to it lays down many conditions on which it receives this so-called “autocephaly.”

Sticking to the Orthodox anglosphere the OCA in its response to events agrees with Moscow that the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU) is illegitimate and so they will not commemorate the primate of the OCU His Beatitude Epiphaniy, Metropolitan of Kyiv and All Ukraine noting “That no changes be made to the diptychs, noting that the Orthodox Church in America has not been formally requested to make such changes.”

Bracketing for the moment the ecclesiological question of whether or not the Orthodox Church is administratively one or not, there is the epistemological question of the nature of consensus. What do Orthodox Christians mean by the term?

While some (notable the Moscow Patriarchate) seem to think any decision about the autocephaly of the Church in Ukraine be one to which all the Churches agree (i.e., unanimous). Moreover, this unanimity must be reached before any action is taken.

The former at least is not the plain meaning of consensus; the latter seems impossible given the requirement of a unanimous decision. And, in both cases, this turns “consensus” into a heckler’s veto.

The Catholic scholar James Chastek writing at Just Thomism offers what I think is a helpful insight as Orthodox Christians work through our current ecclesiastical crisis. In his post Consensus and Silence, he writes that what I would call the only relative value of consensus:

In the end, scientific or academic consensus is just one more set of arguments, no more or less than Plato’s descent of regimes, Mill’s Socrates and the pig, Hume’s fork, or Euclid 3.16.

He goes on to say that the appeal to consensus conceals within itself “the breakdown in social trust that allows people to accept an argument without having to go through it all.” Sociologically he traces this wound to trust to the growing “disillusioned with authority in the ’60’s and ’70’s.” Over time, distrust–suspicion–has become an intellectual habit of the disillusioned. And so “insisting on consensus is probably just a symptom of this disillusion.”

While Chastek is concerned with the peer review process in academia, his observations about this process are equally applicable to the Church. “Consensus is largely peer review, peer review is peer pressure, and peer pressure only silences dissent when it is relatively weak.” When the community is intellectually, morally and spiritually healthy. there is no

…need to silence anyone since contrary opinions never arise. They’re never even thought. You don’t usually need to tell people that what they’re thinking is not comme il faut any more than you need to tell them that what they’re wearing is.

What I think Chastek is pointing to is this: In a healthy community there is an ability to disagree agreeably. There is no need to silence minority opinions. The eccentric knows he views are marginal but there is still room for his views in the community.

It is only when I forget that our discussions, debates, and disagreements are all in the service of articulating the truth or am insecure in my own convictions that I am tempted to impose silence on those who disagree with me.

This temptation “is exacerbated” when I or the community has become “rigidly peer-pressured” and abandons an appreciation for the positive role of “eccentrics.”

In other words, we are where we are because (some of us at least) have grown to value conformity more than charity. The schism in Ukraine has gone on for almost 30 years. By the standards of the Great Schism–now more than a 1,000 years long–this is small potatoes.

But in both cases, I see a worrying tendency to seek out reasons to avoid the hard work that reconciliation requires.

To its credit, Constantinople has been willing to do the hard work. At the Council of Crete and in bilateral discussions with Moscow, the Ecumenical Throne tried to involve other Churches in the process of reconciling the various splinter groups in Ukraine. Unfortunately, these overtures were not reciprocated by Moscow or some of the other local Churches.

The challenge we face is this. To think of the Church administratively as a confederation of Churches degrades the conciliar nature of the Church. AAnd if, as Metropolitan Hilarion contends, the Church administratively is merely a confederation of Churches in which no Church “is subordinate to another one” consensus is nothing more the heckler’s veto rather than what it should be: the shared discernment of the truth.

In Christ,

+Fr Gregory