It was supposed to be a historic gathering of the world’s 14 autocephalous Orthodox Churches— the first one on more than a thousand years. But inter-church rivalries and national divisions put it in jeopardy as one church after another pulled out.
Even powerful Russia couldn’t force the Synod’s chairman, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, to cancel the meeting.
A spokesman for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople— the “first amongst equals” in the Orthodox Church hierarchy that Moscow has been contesting over the years— insisted on Wednesday that not only is a long-planned “Holy and Great Council” in Crete going ahead, but it remains a “pan-Orthodox” summit, the results of which are binding on everyone.
“It is a great council, a pan-Orthodox council whose decisions are binding for the Orthodox Church,” said the Rev. John Chryssavgis, an archdeacon as theological adviser to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
He made the statements in an on-line session with reporters from Crete.
The council, set to run June 16-27. One by one, the Orthodox churches of Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia and Russia all announced they weren’t coming and have called for the meeting to be postponed.
Many objected to preparatory documents and agenda items— all of which were unanimously pre-approved in January by the very churches that pulled out.
Bartholomew has been under pressure to postpone the council until there’s unanimity, but Chryssavgis said that he doesn’t have the option to do so, because the decision to hold the synod now was unanimously approved all 14 heads of the Orthodox churches last January.
“No one, including the Ecumenical Patriarch, has right to override that decision,” he said. “I know it’s his dilemma, something he struggles with and agonizes over.”
“No one has right to stand outside the decision about convening the council which was made by consensus, to somehow impose a decision or choose to change their minds about attending,” Chryssavgis said.
Fundamentally, he explained, the status of the council remains the same no matter who actually shows up.
“This council is in fact a pan-Orthodox council, convened and taking place based on a pan-Orthodox consensus,” he said. “The fact some churches may not come does not change its pan-Orthodox standing, or the validity or binding nature of its decisions.”
Historically, Chryssavgis said, there’s precedent for councils being recognized as authoritative despite the absence of many important churches and bishops.
“There have been councils in past attended by very few bishops or churches, because of various circumstances,” he said. “This council will be the largest, most representative council in the history of the Orthodox Church.”
“In that respect,” he said, “it truly is a ‘great’ council, greater than any individual synod of one of the sister churches.”
Chryssavgis argued that disagreements among Orthodox churches the run-up to the council has exposed are precisely why the summit must continue.
“Every council in history has met precisely because there was disunity, because there was a problem or a division, whether it’s theological, administrative, or canonical,” he said. “No council ever met just to have a party.”
“It would be dangerous,” he said, “if we missed this opportunity to take the first step towards conciliarity.”