The historic “Holy and Great Council” happening on the island of Crete— the first of its kind in more than a thousand years and this particular one— more than five decades in the planning— has commenced.
What was supposed to be a joyful occasion for the world’s second largest Christian denomination has turned to frustration, uncertainty and even conflict, with four Churches absent— each deciding at the last minute to withdraw despite full agreement to attend back in January.
The idea of such a council was hatched in the 1960s by then Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras, a giant of world Orthodoxy who had spent decades as Archbishop in the United States and say— and experienced— first hand the power not only of a strong Orthodox presence in a secular nation like the United States, but the significance of Christian unity through ecumenism, or cross-faith dialogue.
Since then, numerous meetings of Orthodox leaders from the world’s 14 autocephalous Churches have taken place in order to formulate talking points and an agenda.
Fast forward five decades to early 2016 where all Church leaders met in Switzerland to finalize plans for the Holy and Great Council. All agreed to the council’s agenda and talking points— and most importantly, all agreed to attend.
The council was originally supposed to be held in Istanbul, Turkey— seat of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, also known as the “first amongst equals” in Orthodox hierarchal order.
But modern geopolitics got in the way of ancient Church traditions when Turkey downed a Russian fighter jet that crossed into its airspace for a few seconds, causing a crisis in Turkish-Russian relations.
The incident made it impossible for the Russian delegation to travel to Turkey and Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew— in a concession and a show of respect to the Russians, initiated plan B and moved the council to Crete.
Fast forward again to April and May— just weeks ahead of the proposed start date of the council and trouble began emerging as one by one, churches started airing objections to various matters that were to be discussed— as well as some petty arguments they had amongst themselves.
The Bulgarians were arguing about 1,000-year old bones of a king claimed by Greeks (and currently housed in a museum in Thessaloniki), the FYROM church (which isn’t even canonical) and the Bulgarians who consider the king one of the founders of their modern state.
The Patriarchates of Jerusalem and Antioch were fighting over a land mass of sand— also known as Qatar, where Orthodox Christians could probably counted on two hands and who would claim the territory and name a bishop.
The ultra-conservative Georgians and (again) the Bulgarians refused, in any official documents produced by the synod, to call any non-Orthodox Christian Churches (i.e. the Roman Catholics) by the title of “Church” and insisted they be referred to as “groups”— even heretics.
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.”
Even 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”.
“They are heretics, and we cannot assign churchness to them,” Metropolitans Seraphim of Piraeus and Seraphim of Kythira, stated in local newspaper interviews.
And there are other differences— many— that all seemed to emerge just weeks prior to the council’s start.
One by one, like dominoes, the Churches of Bulgaria, Georgia and Antioch announced they were officially pulling out of the council. Then Russia— because without these churches, their representative said, the council would not be complete.
But to many, the absence of these Churches was an excuse for Russia, which has had its own own agenda of asserting its primacy over Constantinople— and world Orthodoxy— ever since it emerged with such power after the communist Iron Curtain was lifted.
Ecumenical Patriarch appealed to these Churches to change their mind and called out the “small minority” of hierarchs who were obstructing the fullness of the council.
“A small minority, which wants to put at risk the proceedings of the Synod with further delays should not intimidate the vast majority of Orthodox leaders who wish to pursue their commitment to carry out the convention on this year’s feast of Pentecost… The Holy and Great Synod will provide an opportunity to begin a new phase of Orthodox testimony. As the eyes of the world are turned to the Orthodox Church, we appeal to all our leaders to listen to the Spirit call for conciliar unity.”
The Rev. Dr. John Chryssavgis, an Archdeacon at the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople published a YouTube video explaining why the Council has gone on— with or without the four absent churches and why its results will be binding for all Orthodox Christians— even if their hierarchs were not present in Crete.
Photo: Primates from the Orthodox Church gathered in a Small Synaxis at the Patriarchal and Stavropegial Monastery and Orthdox Academy of Crete on 17 June to consider a “draft message” of the Holy and Great Council. From left to right: His Beatitude Archbishop Sawa of Warsaw and All Poland (Herakleion); His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos of Nova Justiniana and All Cyprus; His Beatitude Patriarch Irinej of Serbia; His Beatitude Patriarch Theodoros of Alexandria; His All-Holiness the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew; His Beatitude Patriarch Theophilos of Jerusalem; His Beatitude Patriarch Daniel of Romania; His Beatitude Archbishop Ieronymos of Athens and All Greece; His Beatitude Archbishop Anastasios of Tirana, Durres, and All Albania; His Beatitude Archbishop Rastislav of the Czech Lands and Slovakia. (Holy and Great Council Press Office)