Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople celebrates an Orthodox liturgy for the feast of the Dormition of Mary at the Panagia Soumela Monastery near Trabzon, Turkey in August 2010. The Patriarch will preside over the Orthodox council to be held in Constantinople in 2016. (CNS photo/Umit Bektas, Reuters)
An Assembly (Synaxis)
of the Primates of the local Orthodox Churches, meeting March 6-9, 2014
in Istanbul, has agreed to convene a Pan-Orthodox council. A “Communiqué of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches” released on March 9th
stated that “the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church … will be
convened and presided by the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople in
2016.” This decision brings to the homestretch a long process of
preparation that goes back as far as the 1920s, had an active phase in
1960s and 1970s, and then was rather quiet until very recently.
last Pan-Orthodox council of this scale was convened in Constantinople
well over a thousand years ago, in 879-880, when Photius was reinstalled
to the Patriarchal throne. That council dealt mostly with the issues of
inter-Church relations and had wide representation of the Eastern
Christian Churches, with over 380 bishops in attendance. Some Orthodox
believe that the IV Council of Constantinople (its other name) was the
eighth and last ecumenical council.
After Byzantium lost most of
its territories, the councils of the same scale became impossible.
Nevertheless, the Eastern Church continued exercising its synodality.
Many Eastern bishops and even Patriarchs were unable or did not want to
stay with their flocks on the occupied territories. They either
preferred,or had no choice but to spend most of their time in safe
Constantinople. The old institution of endemousa synodthat
is, a gathering of all bishops who, by chance, found themselves in the
capitalbecame a major instrument of the Church’s synodality. Not only
the hierarchs under the jurisdiction of Constantinople, but also bishops
and even Primates of other Patriarchates, participated in such
councils, which managed ecclesial matters related not only to the Church
of Constantinople but to the entire Eastern Church.
collapse of the Ottoman empire, the Orthodox Churches began discussing
the possibility of convening a Pan-Orthodox council. In 1923, the
Patriarchate of Constantinople called an inter-Orthodox assembly, which
nevertheless did not consider itself a Pan-Orthodox council. There were
several attempts to convene such a council in the interwar period, but
they were also unsuccessful, mostly because the Russian Church was
isolated and suffered from severe persecutions. The Orthodox Churches
returned to this idea after World War II, and Vatican II especially
inspired the Orthodox to accelerate the process of preparation for the
Pan-Orthodox council. Pan-Orthodox consultations were instrumental in
the preparation process, taking place at Rhodes in 1961, 1963, 1964, and
in Geneva in 1968. These consultations were succeeded by the
Pan-Orthodox commission and the Preconciliar consultations, which took
place from the 1970s until the new millennium. Finally, the institution
of the Synaxis (gathering) of the Primates of the Orthodox
Church took the process of preparation for the Pan-Orthodox council to
its final stage. The last Synaxis took place in Constantinople in 2008.
Many Primates who participated in the Synaxis
were also active participants in the previous preparatory meetings.
They clearly want to accomplish this important work, which has been a
major focus of their lives, as well as the lives of their teachers and
predecessors. If the council does take place, it will summarize the
history of the Orthodox Church of the last century and will be the most
important event in modern Orthodox history.
Risks, compromises, weaknesses
the Pan-Orthodox council has been scheduled for 2016 is of great
significance. The question remains, however, as to how effective it will
be in addressing the issues that really matter for the Orthodox Church.
There also remains also a real possibility that the council can and
will be postponed. A postponement would take place if the tensions
between local Orthodox churches become more intense, or something
transpires within inter-Orthodox relations making council impossible.
Simply put, the inter-Orthodox peace is still very fragile.
participants in the Synaxis were obviously aware of these risks. In
order to minimise them, they adopted a roadmap towards the council. An
inter-Orthodox preparatory committee will be set up, which will work
from September of this year to Easter Sunday of 2015 (April 12th). This
committee will work on the documents that will be considered at the
council, and on the details of its procedures. It will also quickly
intervene if difficult issues arise in inter-Orthodox relations during
the period before the council.
The Synaxis in Istanbul much time
discussing the format of participation of the local Churches in the
council. The agreement is that each Church will send 24 bishops plus the
Primate of the Church, a number doubled from 12 bishops, plus the
Primate, which was agreed in the midway. Because some Orthodox Churches
(for instance, Cyprus, Poland, Czech Lands and Slovakia) do not have so
many bishops, those Churches can send as many bishops as they have. The
initial idea to allow these Churches to “borrow” bishops from other
Churches was abandoned. The number of the participating bishops does not
necessarily matter, because each Church will have only one vote. Only
the autocephalous Churches (whose head bishop does not report to any
higher-ranking bishop) will have right to vote. The autonomous churches
(whose highest-ranking bishops are approved by the patriarch of an
autocephalous Church) will be able to participate in the council only
through their “mother” Churches. Decisions will be taken only if there
is a consensus among the voting Churches. Finally, all the sessions will
be presided over by the Patriarch of Constantinoplea point listed
first among the decisions of the Synaxis regarding the procedures of the
These decisions of the Synaxis are the result of
compromises achieved through very tense negotiations. The main
protagonists of the negotiations were the Patriarchs of Constantinople
and Moscow. Other Primates contributed mostly by suggesting solutions
that would satisfy the two sides.
The Patriarch of Moscow
initially suggested that all Orthodox bishops should take part in the
council. Other Churches did not accept this proposal since it gave the
Russian Orthodox Church, with its over 320 bishops, a distinct
advantage. Instead, a limited number of bishops from each Church was
accepted, which gave the Church of Constantinople with its allies an
advantage over the Russian Church. To balance this decision, the Russian
Church insisted on the procedure of consensus in taking decisions by
the council. (Consensus means a right to veto for each Church and
effectively neutralises the numerical majority of the Churches.)
means that the compromise about the procedures significantly reduces
the possibility of the council accepting any decision regarding burning
issues. Only the council could have an authority to take such a
decision, and yet it has been a priori paralysed in addressing
the issues that divide the Orthodox Churches in our days. This is one of
the weakest points of the upcoming council.
Pressing, divisive issues
most divisive issues on the Orthodox agenda relate to the relations
between the local Churches. The models of these relations are constantly
evolving, reflecting global political frameworks. Understandings of the
fellowship of the Orthodox Churches changes constantly, and there is no
agreement on it. Some Churches consider this fellowship in terms of an
utilitarian cooperation of sovereign entities, which safeguard their
territorial integrity and punish any intruder, including another local
Church. This philosophy reflects the logic of international law and,
particularly, the idea of sovereignty of the national states. Other
Churches believe the pan-Orthodox fellowship should be regarded as a
confederation (or even a federation) of local Churches, with an
effective and not just ritual Primus. The upcoming council
could help in moving to an acceptance of a single philosophy of the
Orthodox fellowship, although that is unlikely.
points of this philosophy were chosen decades ago for the agenda of the
Pan-Orthodox council: the diptychs (the order) of the Churches, and the
procedure of granting autocephaly (which means, literally,
“self-headed”). Since it very unlikely the Churches could reach an
agreement on both issues they were excluded from the agenda of the
council. The issue of granting autocephaly has an immediate implication
in Ukraine. The Synaxis dedicated a disappointingly laconic text to the
situation in Ukraine:
fervently pray for peaceful negotiation and prayerful reconciliation in
the on-going crisis in Ukraine. We denounce the threats of violent
occupation of sacred monasteries and churches, and pray for the return
of our brothers presently outside of ecclesiastical communion into the
There is no mention of the bloodshed during the
recent protests in Kiev and of the military aggression against Ukraine,
where the majority of population is Orthodox. The laconism of the
statement apparently reflects the deep tensions over Ukraine; the
Primates of the Churches did not want to really touch on the Ukrainian
issue, in order to save the council. Any meaningful discussion and
message regarding the crisis in Ukraine would have probably destroyed
the process of council's preparation.
However, the Synaxis did not
completely avoid conflict. The Church of Antioch refused to sign the
documents of the Synaxis because of its dispute with the Church of
Jerusalem over a community in Qatar. The Patriarch of Antioch, John X,
was not present at the Synaxis because of illness. However, he ordered
his representatives to avoid signing the decisions of the Synaxis unless
the problem of the parish in Qatar was solved. His ultimatum did not
work, however, and so the signature of the Church of Antioch is absent.
is no also a signature of the Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia.
The Russian Church facilitated the recent election of Archbishop
Rastislav, the new Primate of that Church. This election is not,
however, recognised by the Church of Constantinople and the majority of
other Orthodox Churches. Finally, the signature of the Orthodox Church
in America is also absent. This Church was granted autocephaly by the
Moscow Patriarchate in 1970, but that autocephaly is not recognised by
the Patriarchate of Constantinople and the majority of other Orthodox
Implications for Catholic-Orthodox relations
ecumenical relations of the Orthodox Church are among the most
important articles on the agenda of the council. It will probably
encourage the Orthodox Churches regarding engagements with other
Churches, including the Catholic Church. However, it is unlikely that
the council will touch on the issues at the core of the
Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, especially the issue of primacy.
position of the Orthodox Churches on the issue of primacy of the Bishop
of Rome depends entirely on the consensus on primacy within the Orthodox
Church. Yet there is no such a consensus on this issue; instead, there
are two dominating interpretations. According to one of them, primus inter pares (“the first among equals”) is just an honorary title, a rudiment of the past, which does not imply any real authority of the first Church. Inter pares
is accentuated in this interpretation, which was recently expressed in
the document adopted by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, Position of the Moscow Patriarchate on the problem of primacy in the Universal Church.
to the other perspective, primacy is something real within the Orthodox
Church, and it implies real authority and responsibility of the first Church. According to Metropolitan Elpidophoros of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, who responded to the document of the Russian Orthodox Church, the first Church, in its primacy, has no equals among the other Churches.
two interpretations of primacy seem to be irreconcilable. And it is
very unlikely that the Pan-Orthodox council can accept a single Orthodox
interpretation of Primacy. Without this, however, it will be difficult
to proceed in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue.
In conclusion, it
seems that the current leaders of the Orthodox Churches are resolved to
be etched in history as the fathers of a council, which in the Orthodox
world will be regarded on the same scale with the ecumenical councils of
the first millennium, (although, in the Orthodox tradition, only the
following council can accept such a council as ecumenical). In contrast
to the first ecumenical councils, however, this one will not touch on
many of the dividing issues, which have been excluded from its agenda.
This fact demonstrates the fragility of inter-Orthodox unity and
cooperation. God performs miracles, however, and there is always a
chance that the council will exceed its tentative agenda, and thus
provide a more firm and viable framework of cooperation between the