The last time the 14 separate branches of the Orthodox church met, in 787, they hadn’t yet split with the Roman Catholic church.
So pulling together a Holy and Great Council meeting of the global representatives of 300 million Orthodox Christians for next week hasn’t been easy—even with the event being discussed since 1961.
A number of issues have cropped up in the last 1,000-plus years. The short list includes: the Archbishop of Constantinople’s historical position as “first among equals” despite the Moscow Patriarchate’s superior numbers and wealth; Moscow Patriarch Kirill’s meeting with Pope Francis that angered Orthodox who consider Catholics heretics; and the struggle between the Jerusalem and Antioch Patriarchates over who has jurisdiction over Qatar.
The initial list of issues to discuss topped 100 items; Orthodox leaders managed to whittle it down to 6. The goal of council organizer Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I: not to settle centuries of disagreement, but to find consensus by starting small.
“Bartholomew is not making this event an end in itself, but the start of a long process for Orthodox renewal,” AsiaNews translated from La Croix, a French newspaper. “This is why he has deliberately limited the discussion to the texts on the agenda, even if this means initially accepting a minimalist consensus.”
- The mission of the Orthodox church in today’s world
- The Orthodox Diaspora (and which Orthodox patriarchates can claim jurisdiction over the various scattered members)
- Autonomy and the means by which it is proclaimed
- The sacrament of marriage and its impediments
- The importance of fasting and its observance today
- Relations of the Orthodox church with the rest of the world
But Bartholomew may have put too many limits on the discussions. Less than three weeks before the council was set to begin, the Bulgaria Patriarchate warned that unless more items were added to the agenda, it would not attend.
The Antioch Patriarchate, which broke off relations with the Jerusalem Patriarchate after Jerusalem appointed a bishop in Qatar three years ago, said it would be pointless to come unless those differences are soothed over.
"If the council convenes whilst two apostolic churches are not in communion with each other, this means that the participation in the synodical sessions is possible without taking part in the Holy Eucharist, which deprives the council of its ecclesiological character and grants it an administrative quality, contradictory to the steadfast Orthodox synodical tradition,” stated the Secretariat of the Antiochian Holy Synod.
Antioch also wanted more on the agenda: specifically, the possibility of unifying the date that the Orthodox celebrate Easter, the “challenges of the youth,” and “presenting a common witness in the world of today.”
The Georgia Patriarchate was the next to bow out, objecting to the use of the word “churches” with regards to Catholic and Protestant “heretics.”
Then the Serbian Patriarchate sent a letter, saying “it sees obstacles” to its participation and suggesting the council be changed to a “consultation” instead.
Finally Moscow, which claims 100 million of the world’s 300 million Orthodox faithful, said that without full participation, the council would be pointless. Moscow, which sees the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople as a rival, objected to the original proposed meeting site of Istanbul and wanted all 400 of its bishops (the Orthodox church has 700 overall) to attend.
“We do not believe that the whole idea of the council should be abandoned,” Moscow Patriarchate Metropolitan Hilarion said on Russian television. “We simply believe that it should be better prepared.”
Archbishop Evstraty, spokesperson for the Kiev Patriarchate, disagreed. He said the decisions should be made together at Crete, not beforehand in separate meetings.
“Without the Russian Orthodox Church and three or four more churches, the council can go ahead, but it will no longer be a symbol of Orthodox unity, but rather of division,” he said.
But John Chryssavgis, Bartholomew’s theological advisor, said unity can happen even if some participants are missing. (Read his open letter here.)
“The Ecumenical Patriarch is saying this is a huge step toward that. It should be a beginning to many, many more councils,” he told Religion News Service. “We’re taking the first steps very slowly, very awkwardly.”
Trying to avoid disagreements misses the council’s purpose, he told Crux.
“We’re meeting precisely because we have differences,” Chryssavgis said. “If there were no differences, what would be the point?”
He likened the Orthodox patriarchates to an estranged family.
“I think what we’re seeing is the typical response of a family that hasn’t gotten together in a long time. When family members come together after a long period of separation and isolation, people are naturally going to wonder, ‘What will I say to so-and-so? Where will I be sitting? Do people care about my concerns?’ Some are going to be afraid their interests will be overlooked.”
Meanwhile, more than 1,000 Orthodox scholars encouraged the leaders to hold the meeting as scheduled.
“We are convinced that the best venue for settling significant disputes today, as in the times of old, is the Council itself,” they wrote in an open letter. “To postpone the council once again, is to fail to live up to the principle of conciliarity on a global level.”
The council won’t solve 1,000 years of disputes in 10 days, the scholars wrote. “But we hope that this council will be a beginning of the healing process and that it will usher in a new era of global conciliarity and unity.”