Orthodox council flounders as 4 churches back out

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is first among equals in the Orthodox Church hierarchy.

CNS PHOTO | PAUL HARING

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople is first among equals in the Orthodox Church hierarchy.

June 27, 2016
CINDY WOODEN
CATHOLIC NEWS SERVICE

Orthodox patriarchs and primates are holding their first pan-Orthodox council in 1,200 years, but several Orthodox churches, including the largest, have refused to attend.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has urged leaders of Orthodox churches to join him for the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church.

Four of the churches - the Antiochian, Bulgarian, Georgian and Russian Orthodox - announced they would not attend the gathering running from June 19 to 26 on the Greek island of Crete.

Leaders of the Orthodox churches have been discussing hopes for such a council for almost 100 years. Planning meetings began in the 1960s.

The patriarchs and primates of the 14 autocephalous or self-governing Orthodox churches met in Switzerland in January and voted unanimously to convene the council.

The 14 primates also adopted the procedures to be followed and the draft texts to be voted upon. But in the days leading to the meeting's scheduled opening, the synods of some of the churches objected to parts of the proposed texts, the procedures or both.

Arriving on Crete June 15, Patriarch Bartholomew - the "first among equals" of the Orthodox primates - said participating in the council is a "sacred mission."

Church leaders who decide not to attend, he said, bear responsibility for reneging on their commitment to realizing "this vision held over many years, which all our churches cherish, to declare and proclaim the unity of our Orthodox Church and to examine and reach a common resolution of the problems that are of concern to the Orthodox world."

However, the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria has demanded that the meeting be postponed until a discussion could be held on its list of concerns, which included its criticism of the how little the texts under consideration could be amended.

The Bulgarians also objected to the invitation of observers from non-Orthodox churches.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and Bishop Brian Farrell, council secretary, were to attend the meeting as Roman Catholic observers at the invitation of Patriarch Bartholomew.

THEOLOGIANS MEET

Just a few hours after the patriarch arrived in Crete, Orthodox theologians held a conference in Rome to discuss the content of the six documents proposed for the council.

They also spoke about the importance of the council for demonstrating Orthodox unity.

Tamara Grdzelidze, the Georgian ambassador and former staff member of the World Council of Churches, told conference participants that the Orthodox Church describes itself as "divine and human."

The controversy surrounding the pan-Orthodox council, she said, demonstrates "the human part needs a lot of work."

While the intra-Orthodox differences are garnering headlines, she said, "the Orthodox churches, when they decided to convene this council after 1,200 years, were not concerned about any dogmatic question - they do not have a problem of dogmatic unity or spiritual unity - but how to apply this unity in today's world."

The documents to be considered at the council are largely pastoral, including regulations regarding marriage and fasting and organizing Church life in countries outside the traditional Orthodox territories.

ORTHODOXY AND MODERNITY

One document is focused on Orthodox relations with other Christians and another tries to explain the mission of Orthodoxy in modern societies.

"It is one thing to say that we are spiritually together and we are one," Grdzelidze said. "But if we don't practise it to make decisions, then it is very difficult to prove it to the world."

UNITY A MIRACLE

Bogdan Tataru-Cazaban, Romanian ambassador to the Vatican and former professor on the Orthodox theological faculty at the University of Bucharest, told the conference "it's a miracle" the Orthodox churches have maintained their spiritual and dogmatic unity given historical situations - from war to communist oppression - that prevented leaders of all the churches from meeting for centuries.

The struggles should not surprise or scandalize people, he said. "Throughout history, unity always has been a work in progress."