In March 2014, at the time of Russia’s takeover of Crimea, a largely unnoticed meeting took place in Istanbul. The heads of the Eastern Orthodox churches convened under the leadership of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based primus inter pares of the Eastern Orthodox world, and announced that in 2016 it would hold the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church.
The announcement was unexpected. Talk of a Synod, a grand summit of the various Orthodox Christian churches, dates back to the 1920s. However, the last two decades have seen constant jurisdictional tension between Orthodox churches, particularly between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Russian Orthodox Church. The very presence of the Russian Patriarch in Istanbul was surprising, and a sign that the churches were working toward alleviating their disputes.
The proposed Synod can be seen as a successor to the Second Council of Nicaea, the last major pan-denominational summit of Christian churches, which took place in 787 CE. But it also resembles the 1948 Pan-Orthodox Synod in Moscow, held at the start of the Cold War, which brought together the leaders of those Orthodox churches under the Soviet influence. The 1948 Synod concluded by asserting the religious and political superiority of the Orthodox bloc and by condemning the West.
The refusal of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to attend or support the 1948 Synod ensured that its decisions were not fully applied throughout Eastern Orthodox Christianity. But after the fall of communism, Russia has advanced the idea of a unique Orthodox civilization in opposition to the West. The 2016 Synod in Istanbul will aim to rewrite the very foundation of jurisdictional structures within the Eastern Christian world.
While the final topics of discussion are still to be decided, questions about the Orthodox diaspora will have widespread ramifications for the structure of Eastern Christianity. The enlargement of the European Union enabled the increased transnational migration of Orthodox Christians from countries like Romania, Bulgaria, and Greece to Western Europe, blurring jurisdictional lines. Who has authority over the faithful in Western Europe, the United States, Asia, and Australia? Will new churches be recognized as part of the wider Orthodox communion of churches? Furthermore, will the Synod encourage a Catholic-Orthodox rapprochement as is evident in unprecedented relations between Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew?
Religion also plays a complex role in the crisis in Ukraine, where three competing Orthodox churches emerged after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church – which recognizes the primacy of the pope and is popular in Western Ukraine – supported the pro-European stance of the Maidan protests in Kyiv. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) was perceived to be supporting the policies of the Kremlin. Growing anti-Russian sentiments in Ukraine have led to suggestions that the largest Orthodox communities should declare independence from Moscow. This religious community could become the world’s second largest Orthodox Church, after that of Russia. Meanwhile, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kyiv Patriarchate) has already asked for recognition from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Until now, the Patriarchate in Istanbul has been neutral, recognizing only the Ukrainian churches in the diaspora. The announcement of the 2016 Synod could signal a situation whereby the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate temporarily refrain from recognizing new churches.
The continuing conflict in Ukraine and the Middle East could add a global, civilizational dimension to the 2016 Synod. A religious Cold War could force Orthodox churches to take sides between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Ecumenical Patriarchate. As Alicja Curanović sets out in the recent Transatlantic Academy report Faith, Freedom, and Foreign Policy: Challenges for the Transatlantic Community, Russia’s quest for status places the Orthodox Church at the forefront of its civilizational model. In the same report, I argue that the engagement of Eastern Christian churches with the liberal international order is visible in four main areas. Three are the idea of Orthodox civilization, the churches’ engagement with the European Union, and the survival of Eastern Christian churches in the Middle East. But it is the fourth, the 2016 Synod of the Orthodox Church, that has the greatest potential to advance a new religious Cold War by supporting the ideological rhetoric of an Orthodox civilization in opposition to the secular West.
Lucian Leustean is a senior fellow with the Transatlantic Academy, an initiative of the German Marshall Fund of the United States in Washington, DC. The story appeared on the German Marshall Fund of the United States blog.