Having been brought up as a Roman Catholic, and living in the U.S., I am accustomed to hearing the word council (of bishops) used mostly in the context "Ecumenical Council." Perhaps it is just idiosyncratic to me, but the word council has the connotation "ecumenical," and the word synod has the connotation "local (gathering of bishops)".
We Orthodox Christians of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” of our Lord Jesus Christ call our assembly of bishops and church officials, convened for solving or resolving specific issues and/or regulating matters of ecclesiastical doctrine and discipline, a synod (σύνοδος), not a council (συμβούλιον). The word “synod” comes from the word σύνοδος (synodos) in Greek, no word
in Latin. The word “council” comes from the word συμβούλιον (symvoulion) in Greek, concilium in Latin.
The meaning of the word “ecumenical” in the phrase “Holy Ecumenical Synod” is having “worldwide scope or applicability;” it does not mean “being involved with forming or working for unity among different denominations or religions.” Simply put, a Holy Ecumenical Synod is a holy synod of the Ecumene where “ecumene” is the entire area of the known inhabited world where the faithful, of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” of the Nicene‑Constantinopolitan Creed, live. A Holy Ecumenical Synod is an officially convened gathering of all the hierarchs and church officials of the ecumene of the one Holy Orthodox Catholic Church of our Lord Jesus Christ. Further, in order for a holy synod to be termed ecumenical, it must be accepted as being ecumenical by a later holy synod which also is considered to be ecumenical and/or it must be accepted as being ecumenical by a preponderance of the faithful of the “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church” of our Creed.
The Holy Orthodox Catholic Church has always gathered and will always gather in holy synod, not council. If hierarchs gather in council and not a holy synod, then we know that these hierarchs are not of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. For example, we celebrate the Holy 7th
Ecumenical Synod (Holy 7th
Synod of the Ecumene), not the Holy 7th
Ecumenical Council. Why? Properly speaking, although both a holy synod and a council are hoped to be under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, at a holy synod all official members are expected to show up, and they have an equal vote. More importantly, the vote cannot be overruled by anyone except for the preponderance of devout laity of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed or another holy synod that is equal to or greater in authority than the holy synod called.
It is this last fact that some people seem to misinterpret into assuming that a council and a synod are the same. A lesser synod can always be overruled by a greater synod. As an example, an Archdiocesan Synod (lesser synod) can be overruled by a Patriarchal Synod (greater synod). A synod that is not a holy synod of the ecumene (lesser synod) can always be overruled by a holy synod of the ecumene (greater synod). Orthodox Christians hold that when a synod is gathered together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that synod will always eventually be confirmed by an equal or greater synod than itself. The point of confusion arises since a lesser synod seems similar in function to a council in that a lesser synod can be overruled by a greater synod. However, although this is true, a lesser synod cannot be overruled by just one hierarch, whereas only one hierarch can override a council.
At a council, everyone may also have an equal vote, but the council can be overruled by another person who is not present at the council. For example, simply put, the Roman Catholic Church uses a council system, not a synodal system. The Roman Catholic Pope does not meet and vote with his Cardinals as in a synod, but the Cardinals meet in council, and then the Pope tells them whether they are correct or not. This is not the tradition or way of the "one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church" of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed. The only time the Roman Catholic Church uses more of a synodal system is when it votes to replace a Pope who has died. In this case, there is no Pope to tell the Council of Cardinals whether they are right or not, and there is no other redress either.
Many people are familiar with councils in their local parishes and secular forms of government. For example, the decisions of a parish council may be overruled by the parish, the priest, the hierarch, a diocesan council, or a synod. A city council may have its decisions overruled by the citizens of the city, the mayor, or a court, etc.
For the above reasons, the Holy Orthodox Catholic Church has always gathered and will always gather for solving or resolving specific issues and/or regulating matters of ecclesiastical doctrine and discipline in holy synod, not council.
I hope this helps!
With agape in our Lord Jesus Christ,
+ Father Stephanos