Disagreements over procedure plague the attempt to bring Orthodox churches together for the first time in centuries
The solemn opening of the pan-Orthodox Council in Crete is scheduled to take place on June 19, the day which marks the solemnity of Pentecost in the Julian calendar. But as the historic day approaches, the likelihood of the council’s being postponed seems increasingly plausible. The meeting would see all 14 patriarchates and autocephalous Orthodox Churches come together for the first time in centuries. Some Churches are threatening outright not to send their delegations to Crete without an assurance that their requests will be granted. This is one of the reasons why yesterday, the Synod of the Patriarchate of Moscow officially asked the Patriarch of Constantinople to convene “an extraordinary pre-conciliar pan-Orthodox meeting before Friday, June 10, in order to ascertain the feasibility of the Council on the specified dates.”
These difficulties are nothing new: Orthodox Churches have been discussing this meeting for the past 50 years. It was only thanks to the tenacity of Patriarch Bartholomew and the pressing dramatic situation faced by Churches in the Middle East that an agreement was reached in January – at the meeting of primates held in Chambésy in Switzerland – to hold the meeting in Crete. However, disagreements over how the Council was to be conducted remained and are now surfacing again.
The main obstacle is the possibility of reviewing and amending the six documents that the Assembly of the Orthodox Churches should promulgate. Bearing in mind the difficult process of drawing up the texts (two other texts were shelved because of the impossibility of reaching a consensus), Constantinople is keen to minimize the amount of time spent on discussing these. Moscow, on the other hand, insisted on them being published before the meeting at Chambésy and this obviously sparked a debate over the contents. The three most controversial documents being discussed in the Orthodox world are the ones to do with the sacrament of marriage and its impediments (the Churches of Antioch and Georgia did not sign in Switzerland), the one on the relationship between Orthodox Churches and today’s world, and the one on relations with other Christian denominations. A number of requests for amendments have been made (some were presented by the monks on Mount Athos). The Synod of the Patriarchate of Moscow says it repeatedly asked Constantinople for the question to be dealt with by the secretariat in charge of preparing the Council. But the request was not granted and the secretariat has only met once in recent months to discuss logistical issues.
The most intransigent stance has been adopted by the Bulgarian Church, which is openly calling for the event to be pushed back; if it is not, then Sofia says it will not send its delegation to Crete. But the threat of a possible defection is also coming from the Patriarchate of Antioch, which is unhappy about the failure to solve the dispute with the Patriarch of Jerusalem regarding the jurisdiction over Orthodox faithful in Qatar. A day or so ago, Constantinople announced the setting up of a bilateral committee to resolve the problem but it pointed out that it would only be meeting after the pan-Orthodox Council has ended. But this is considered unacceptable by the Patriarchate of Antioch, which officially broke off its ecclesial communion with Jerusalem last year over the Qatar affair and wants the matter to be resolved before the Council meetings begin. This is a thorny issue, which the Synod of Moscow, in a communiqué, has cited as yet another reason for rethinking whether it is really opportune for the imminent meeting in Crete to go ahead as scheduled.