The Eastern Orthodox Church’s “Great and Holy Council,” which is set to begin in Crete on Sunday, June 19 (Eastern Pentecost), has been touted as Orthodoxy’s first “ecumenical council” in over a millennium. The facts on the ground are less grand. Despite nearly a century of on-and-off preparation, the Council has been at risk of derailment this month, as several members of Orthodoxy’s worldwide ecclesiastical confederacy have, for varying reasons, pulled out. The most striking defector is the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate), the largest Orthodox jurisdiction in the world. But the absence of other historic churches, such as those of Antioch and Bulgaria, has left many asking whether the Council should proceed.
What is all the fuss about? There are several agenda items covering intra-Orthodox ecclesiastical governance that in theory should not be terribly concerning, but that nevertheless reveal deep divisions within Orthodoxy along ethnic and national lines.
For instance, the question of the so-called “Orthodox diaspora” is fraught with difficulties. Many Orthodox living in the West would prefer to remain under the wing of bishops in their historic homelands, rather than coalesce around an autocephalous (self-governing) local church. Tied to this issue is the question of who decides when a newly established local church becomes self-governing and under what conditions. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has long asserted this right for himself; other patriarchal churches in world Orthodoxy remain unenthused about his claim.
Another point of contention concerns the sacrament of marriage and its impediments. While the Council’s preparatory document on the topic is hardly controversial—especially compared with the documents that emerged during and after the Catholic Church’s recent Synod on the Family—some conservative voices within Orthodoxy worry that certain prelates are trying to steer the Orthodox Church toward being more accepting of “irregular situations.” (This despite the fact that the Council document clearly states that Orthodoxy “does not deem it possible for her members to contract same-sex unions or enter into any other form of cohabitation except marriage.”) Other observers remain concerned that the Council will not go far enough in defending the indissolubility of marriage, a principle with which the Orthodox have struggled for more than a millennium, since the conflation of civil and ecclesiastical marriage law during the heyday of the Byzantine Empire.
But undoubtedly the most contentious agenda item at the Council concerns the Orthodox Church’s relationship to the wider Christian world. In the weeks leading up to the meeting in Crete, local bishops’ assemblies and individual clerics from around the world began scoffing at the idea that the Orthodox should assign the term “churches” to non-Orthodox communions. The Catholic Church drew most of the ire, with polemical terms such as “schismatics” and “heretics” being tossed Rome’s way. Regardless of one’s opinion on the matter, it seems unlikely that the Council will promulgate any document as far-reaching as Lumen gentium or Unitatis redintegratio, two cornerstones of contemporary Catholic ecclesiology and ecumenism. And even if it did, would most of the Orthodox world accept it?
All of this points to the larger, uncomfortable question of what authority this Council will have when it wraps up on June 26. Earlier this week, Archdeacon John Chryssavgis, an official spokesman for the Ecumenical Patriarch, stated that the Council’s decisions will be binding on all Orthodox churches, whether they choose to participate or not. That may be a hard pill to swallow, particularly since the Moscow Patriarchate governs approximately two-thirds of all Orthodox Christians. Moreover, as recent history has shown, Moscow has felt free to ignore or outright contradict statements emanating from the Ecumenical Patriarch concerning matters of primacy and jurisdiction, leading some to wonder whether a split between the two bodies is on the horizon.
For Catholics, much of this no doubt sounds like an argument for why Orthodoxy needs the Office of St. Peter now more than ever. Without a sharply defined (and universally agreed upon) doctrine of primacy, it seems that Orthodoxy will always be at risk of succumbing to internal conflicts with no way to resolve them.
Those on the Orthodox side of the divide likely have a different take. Although the failure of all Orthodox Churches to cooperate in the Council is regrettable, maybe all this means is that the time is not yet ripe for a pan-Orthodox gathering. Better to have no Council at all, some say, than one that produces convoluted, contentious, and compromising statements that will leave the faithful arguing for half-a-century over their purpose and meaning. Certainly Catholics today can appreciate that.
Gabriel Sanchez is assistant editor at Angelus Press and blogs at Opus Publicum.