After 55 years of planning, the historic holy and great council of 14 Orthodox churches in Crete may collapse over power struggle
After an interlude of more than a millennium, 55 years of careful planning, and within days of its opening, the first global gathering of Orthodox churches since the year 787 is teetering on the brink of collapse amid dissent and power struggles.
The historic “holy and great council” of the world’s 14 self-governing Orthodox churches, due to begin in Crete on Sunday, may not go ahead after five pulled out.
The unravelling of the week-long Pan-Orthodox Council, which has been in preparation since 1961, began with Bulgaria saying earlier this month it wanted a postponement, citing disagreements over the agenda.
On Monday, the Russian Orthodox church – the largest and richest – announced it would not attend the meeting, dealing what may be a fatal blow to the gathering.
The council was called by the ecumenical patriarch, Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the “first among equals” of leaders of the global Orthodox churches, which collectively represent 300 million people. In the past 1,000 years there have been smaller council meetings, but none on the scale of the Crete gathering.
The aim of next week’s meeting is to discuss their future, issues of unity and efforts to heal the bitter rift with the Roman Catholic church, which dates back to the “great schism” of 1054.
Agenda items include the mission of the Orthodox church in the 21st century, autonomy, marriage, the importance of fasting, and relations with the rest of the world.
On 3 June, the Bulgarian Orthodox church reversed its earlier commitment to attend the meeting. Among its reasons were disagreements over the agenda and the proposed seating plan for the 500 participants. It cancelled a chartered flight to Crete and informed the heads of the other 13 churches about its decision. The Serbian, Georgian and Antioch churches followed suit, leading to Russia saying it would not attend without all churches present.
Hilarion Alfeyev, a bishop in the Russian church, said: “We have made a decision that we will not be able to take part in the all-Orthodox synod if other churches do not go. All churches should take part … and only in this case the decisions of this assembly will be legitimate.”
The council’s organising committee has called dissenting churches to a meeting on Friday to try to resolve differences. “There is no mandate to change or postpone and we are going to proceed,” said the Rev Alexander Karloutsos, a member of the council’s organising committee.
Mark Woods, a contributing editor to Christian Today, said he was doubtful that the council could take place without the Russian church. But, he added, “if it doesn’t go ahead, it’s a blow to Bartholomew’s authority. It represents a diplomatic failure on the part of the ecumenical patriarch and his advisers. It’s a great pity that they are now at the stage where things have erupted into a crisis.”
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