only a few days remain until the Eastern Pentecost, when the
Pan-Orthodox council has been scheduled, uncertainty remains whether the
gathering in Crete will take place. It is the same uncertainty which I
described more than two years ago in my CWR article “The Fragile Promise of the Pan-Orthodox Council”.
In recent days, the promise of the Council has become particularly
fragile. The final meters of the pre-conciliar marathon, which the
Orthodox Churches have ran for more than fifty years, has turned into a tense drama. As the race becomes a sprint there is the possibility the
runners might collapse just before the finish line, or even decide to run
back to the position from which they started.
review the long distance the Orthodox Churches have covered in reaching
the point where they are now. For the first time in modern history,
since the Orthodox Churches attempted to meet in the 1860swhen they
tried to heal the so-called “Bulgarian schism”the reality of a
Pan-Orthodox Council seems possible. The 19th century schism
was caused by the Bulgarian Church, which had proclaimed itself
independent from the Church of Constantinople; that schism was
eventually healed, but not with the presence of all Orthodox Churches.
Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Ecumenical Patriarchate tried to
arrange a Pan-Orthodox venue. Again, only some Churches showed up. For
instance, it was impossible for the Russian Orthodox Church to take
part because it was under harsh persecutions by the atheist Communist state.
When, however, the Russian Orthodox Church organized a Pan-Orthodox
gathering in Moscow in 1948, to celebrate 500 years of its autocephaly,
some Churches turned down the invitation or did not endorse the
politicized anti-ecumenical agenda of the venue.
In the early 1960s, the
Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras initiated a process of preparation for a
Pan-Orthodox council. It was intended to be similar to Vatican II,
which at that time was also in the process of preparation. In 1961, the
first Pan-Orthodox conference was held at Rhodes, which inaugurated a
process that has lasted until the current time. After Rhodes, a series of
regular Pan-Orthodox meetings followed. Delegates from all Orthodox
Churches discussed the agenda of the great Council and composed documents to
be considered by it. There was only one break in the process; it lasted
ten years, from 1999 to 2009, and was caused by the quarrel between the
Churches of Moscow and Constantinople over the small Orthodox community
The process of preparation of the Pan-Orthodox Council received a new and strong momentum at the meeting (Synaxis) of
the primates of the Orthodox Churches in Istanbul in October 2008. Since
then, two more Synaxes have taken place, in March 2014 and January
2016. The last one adopted the final list of the topics and approved the
drafts of the documents for discussion at the Council. For
approximately two years, during 2014-2015, a special committee
elaborated on those drafts.
The institute of Synaxis, as it was
conceived in 2008, resembles the ancient Pentarchya consent of five
patriarchal thrones of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and
Jerusalem. Modern Synaxes include all the primates of the recognized
Orthodox Churches. So far, Synaxis has proven to be the most effective
instrument of reaching agreement on the issues relevant to all Orthodox
Churches. Arguably, even without the Pan-Orthodox Council, Synaxes have
demonstrated the solidarity and conciliarity of modern Orthodoxy.
When it came to holding a Council, however, a number of serious obstacles emerged, some rather unexpectedly.
was the reaction from ultra-conservative circles within the Orthodox
Churches. In recent years, some Churches decisively embarked on a sort
of Kulturkampf, and affiliated themselves at times with forms
of radical conservatism. Those voices effectively paralysed
the leadership of some Churches, and in some cases the official synodal
structures began speaking with those voices.
The main concern of
the Orthodox zealots is ecclesiological: how we define non-Orthodox
Churches. Some Orthodox Churches, just a few weeks before the Council,
decided that the non-Orthodox should not be called “Churches”. They have
encouraged the use of the euphemism “groups” instead. This is the case,
for instance, in the Communication of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (April 13, 2016). Soon after the ROCOR’s statement was promulgated, the Bulgarian Church, in its synodal decision from April 21,
stated that “besides the Holy Orthodox Church, there are no other
churches, but only heresies and schisms, and to call the latter
‘churches’ is theologically, dogmatically, and canonically completely
wrong.” Also, the hierarchy of the Church of Greece at its synodal
meeting in May decided that the Roman Catholic Church should be refused
the name “Church”. As the radical protagonists of the Greek Synod,
metropolitans Seraphim of Piraeus and Seraphim of Kythira, stated in their comment to the Greek newspaper Vima, “they are heretics, and we cannot assign churchness to them.”
The same newspaper published some of the dialogues at the session of the Synod. It is worth quoting from them as they reveal the atmosphere of the discussions:
of Paronaxia Kallinikos asked the Archbishop [of Athens Hieronymos] and
other bishops: ‘What are we talking about today? The Small Euchologion
published by the Apostolic Diakonia of the Church of Greece, in the
chapter About the heterodox, writes: “the return of the heterodox from
the Latin Church”… Are we talking today that these phrases should be changed in the texts of the Great Council?”
The standpoint of the metropolitan of Paronaxia angered his spiritual
brother metropolitan of Kythira Seraphim, who is known as an active
proponent of the conservative wing. “What is that you are saying?” so
he addressed Kallinikos. He then added: “Is this what our elder Father
Epiphanios Theodoropoulos (a conservative spiritual leader, who was
famous for condemning Patriarch Athenagoras for lifting of the anathemas
against Rome)?” Bishop of Paronaxia then replied: “What are you talking
about? Did you forget what our Elder, the blessed metropolitan of Hydra
Ierotheos did when the Roman Catholics arrived at Aegina? Do you
remember how he honoured and respected them?”
metropolitan of Kythira remained firm and steadfast; he even blamed the
Archbishop for his trip to Mytilene [Lesbos] and his meeting with Pope Francis:
“What did you do there with the Pope and the Patriarch? The Pope demoted
you, don’t you understand?”
Despite the protests of more
open-minded Metropolitans Ignatios of Dimitriada, Chrysostom of Messina,
and Gabriel of Nea Ionia, the majority of the Synod eventually complied
with the position of the conservative hierarchs and refused to accept
the word “Church” in application to the Roman Catholic Church.
monastic community of the Holy Mountain (or Mount Athos) made its own contribution to
these discussions. An extraordinary meeting of the abbots and
representatives of the Athonite monasteries took place after the Easter.
They drafted a letter, which was mailed on May 25 to Phanar and other
autocephalous Churches. In this letter, the Athonites suggested avoiding
calling the non-Orthodox Churches “Churches”. They recommended instead
using the terms “Christian teachings and confessions”. It is noteworthy
that the Hagiorite monks have required that the conciliar documents
include references to the council in Constantinople of 879-80, the
hesychastic councils held in the period 1341-1351 (which dealt with the
issue of uncreated grace), as well as the councils that denounced what
they have called “the uniatist pseudo-councils” of Lyon and Florence.
They have stressed in their letter that the Orthodox positions on the
issues of Filioque, the papacy, and nature of the divine grace should be
clarified. While the councils of the 14th century were
clearly anti-Latin, the reference to the council of 879-80 is confusing.
On the one hand, it reinstated Patriarch Photios, who is known for his
criticism of some Western theological positions. On the other hand, that
council reconciled the Churches of the West and East after a long break
in their relations. Therefore, the Hagiorites, probably without
realizing it, encouraged reconciliation between the two Churches.
issue that keeps the Churches nervous is that of marriage. The
hierarchs are cautious not to allow in the document on marriage anything
that would undermine the teaching that marriage is a union of a man and
a woman. Because of this agenda the Churches became particularly
sensitive about this document. Some of them, like the Church of Georgia,
consider it to be not clear enough in promoting the ideal of Orthodox
marriage. The Church of Georgia stated that if the document on marriage
is not revised according to this ideal, its would withdraw from
participation in the Council.
The Russian Church faced one of the
harshest criticisms from the ultra-conservative side. The wave of
critique began immediately after the meeting of the Patriarch Cyril and
Pope Francis in Havana, and continued in the wake of the Council of
Crete. The situation had been worsened even more by the reactions to the
Russian aggression against Ukraine. Some parishes of the Ukrainian
Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate had suspended commemoration
of the Patriarch’s name because of the involvement of the Russian Church
on the side of the aggressor. Most of those parishes, however, are not
However, they created for the radical conservatives a precedent of non-commemoration of the Patriarch’s name. In Russia, there were priests who stopped commemorating the Patriarch because of his meeting with the Pope, and they were immediately suspended. In Ukraine, however, it is much harder to punish such priests. Moreover, in Ukraine even the bishops stopped commemorating the Patriarch. This has been confirmed regarding Bishop Longin of Bacheny, who has promulgated a statement against the Havana meeting and against the Council in Crete. In addition, some bishops in Ukraine, including Metropolitan Agathangel of Odessa, have not ceased commemorating the Patriarch but are refusing to go to the Council.
In short, the radical conservative circles in the
Orthodox Churches have criticised the texts prepared for the Council
because, in their judgement, those documents allow too much compromise
with the Catholic Church and other “heterodox” Churches. The liberals,
on the contrary, consider these texts as too shallow, irrelevant and not
hitting the real problems of the modern Orthodox Church. Indeed, some
of these texts were composed several decades ago and now seem outdated.
Irrelevance of the conciliar texts is another reason of dissatisfaction
with the Council in both ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ wings.
addition to these ‘theoretical’ concerns, the Russian Church raised the
issue of protocol: how the primates of the Churches to be seated during
the sessions of the Council. There are two seating schemes currently
under discussion. The one emphasises the primatial role of the patriarch
of Constantinople. The other one is to demonstrate equality of all
local Churches. Needless to say, Moscow insists on the latter scheme.
of the most ancient Eastern Churches, that of Antioch, has decided to
not go to the Council because of its quarrel with the Church of
Jerusalem over a community in Doha, Qatar. For a long time, it was
impossible to have an Orthodox community on the Arabian Peninsula.
Recently, however, the authorities of Qatar permitted one and even
allowed an Orthodox bishop to be consecrated for that community. The
emir of Qatar chose to support a cleric from the Patriarchate of
Jerusalem, Makarios, who had served there for several years, and not
from Antioch, which claims jurisdiction over the Arabic lands.
In some sense, this conflict reflects the political conflicts in the Middle East, with similar
disastrous consequences for Orthodox unity. The two Churches have even
broken their communion; their primates do not commemorate each other at
liturgy. The Patriarch of Antioch refused to take part in the Synaxes,
where the Patriarch of Jerusalem would be present. Now the Church of
Antioch has decided to not go to Crete if the issue of Qatar is not
solved. The Ecumenical Patriarchate tried to mediate a solution to the
conflict, suggesting that the two Churches come to the Council first and
then the issue would be investigated by a special committee moderated
by Patriarch Bartholomew. Antioch, however, rejected this plan at its
synod held on May 27, and it is most probable it will not participate in
It is even more probable is that the Church of
Bulgaria will not be at Crete either. All the Orthodox world was taken
by surprise when the Synod of the Bulgarian Church decided on June 1st
to not go to Crete. A special statement from the Synod confirmed that
this was a final decision. The explanations given were not much
different from the reservations held by other Churches. However, the final decision was adopted as an ultimatum, which is not to be discussed.
However, apparently there was an agenda behind this
decision of the Bulgarian Church that goes beyond what was put express
in the synodal decision. According to reports in the Greek media, the
Church of Bulgaria wants back the bones of the Bulgarian king Samuel
(+1014), who is considered to be one of the founding fathers of the
Bulgarian state. The Macedonians, however, claim him to be a Macedonian
king, in succession of Alexander the Great. Needless to say, the Greeks
consider the entire Macedonian legacy as their own. They actually found
the bones of Samuel in 1960 on the Albanian border, and placed them to
the Byzantine museum in Thessalonica. Now the Bulgarian and Greek sides
(the Macedonian Church is not recognized as canonical and therefore does
not participate in the quarrel) are arguing about what happened a
thousand years old and have made it a major issue that threatens the
There is also an issue between the Serbian and Romanian
Churches. The latter sends its priests to the region of Timok in eastern
Serbia, where a Romanian minority lives. This practice fits the
jurisdictional principle of the Romanian Churchaccording to this
principle, the jurisdiction of the Church is defined not by territory,
but by the people who belong to the same nation. Therefore, when there
are ethnic Romanians living in the territory of any other Orthodox
jurisdiction, the Romanian Church considers it appropriate to enter that
territory in order to extend its pastoral care to the Romanians there.
Of course, this has caused dissatisfaction in the Serbian Church, whose
council of bishops, held from May 14-25, decided to bring this issue to
the Council. It also warned that if the situation is not resolved, the
Serbian Church would break communion with the Romanian Patriarchate. The
Romanian Church has kept silent; in the meanwhile, it has fully
endorsed the Council and is one of the major apologists for having it.
Another strong endorsement has come from the Church of Albania.
local Churches, therefore, see the Council as an opportunity to solve
their internal problems or the quarrels they have with their neighbours.
They essentially blackmail their sister Churches by saying that if they
do not get what they want they will not go to Crete. This raises the
question of the fullness of the Orthodox representation at Crete. If the
Pan-Orthodox Council eventually happens, it is quite possible that some
Churches will abstain from it. It will then follow earlier precedents,
when there were gatherings of several Churches but some Churches decided
not to participate.
Finally, there is an ongoing argument between
Constantinople and Moscow about whether the Council will be considered
accomplished with some Churches absent, or if the participation of all
local Churches is necessary. The Synod of the Russian Church, on June 3,
made it clear in its statement that all Churches should take part.
According to Moscow the Council would not be valid without the
participation of all the Council.
The position of Constantinople is different. According to the comments of Deacon
John Chryssavgis from the Ecumenical Patriarchate: “If one or more
churches doesn’t attend, or withdraws during the council, or is not
present and doesn’t vote, all the decisions made will still hold and be
binding for all Orthodox churches.” This position was implicitly
supported at the session of the Synod in Constantinople on June 6, when
the hierarchs of this Churches decided to proceed to the Council
regardless of any difficulty that arises.