Responding to the refusal of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church to attend the Pan-Orthodox Council and indications that some other Orthodox Christian churches might withdraw, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has called on all Orthodox churches to attend.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church’s Holy Synod decided on June 1 to call for the postponement of the meeting, officially the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox churches, citing several objections to the agenda and other arrangements. The Bulgarian church said that unless there was a postponement, it would not attend – a position that amounted in practice to a refusal to take part.
The Georgian Orthodox Church, like the Bulgarian church subject to significant Russian influence, also has objected to at least one agenda item and reportedly also could boycott.
In Moscow, media reported a Russian Orthodox Church spokesperson saying that it was possible that the Orthodox churches of Serbia and Antioch also might not participate.
After a special meeting of the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on June 6, a statement said that the Synod had been informed “with surprise and wonder of the positions and opinions expressed recently by some sister Orthodox Churches”.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s statement said that after evaluating these positions and opinions, the Synod had “ascertained that no institutional framework allows for the revision of the Synodal process already under way”.
“The Ecumenical Patriarchate, which bears the first responsibility for safeguarding the unity of Orthodoxy, calls all to rise to the occasion and participate, on the pre-determined dates, in the sessions of the Holy and Great Council, as was decided and signed on a pan-Orthodox level both by the Primates during the Sacred Synaxes, as well as by those authorized by each Delegation during the entire lengthy preparatory process of the Council.”
The Pan-Orthodox Council, the first such gathering in about a millennium, has been in preparation for more than four decades, with arrangements having been stepped up after a formal decision on holding the historic gathering in 2016.
But it has been beset with controversy, essentially emanating from Russia, especially after the eruption of tensions between Moscow and Ankara over Turkey’s 2015 downing of a Russian military aircraft. Those tensions came on top of long-standing difficulties between the Russian Orthodox patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate – the latter, in theory, the first among equals in Orthodox practice that rejects the system of clerical hierarchy with a supreme pontiff of the kind used by the Roman Catholic Church.
It had been envisaged that the Holy and Great Council would be held in Istanbul, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch, but under Russian pressure the venue was moved to Crete. The Pan-Orthodox Council is to be held from June 18 to 27.
The Russian Orthodox Church said, after the announcement by the Bulgarian Orthodox Church that it would not attend, that the withdrawal of the Bulgarian church would make the Pan-Orthodox Council impossible.
“The absence of even one of the churches from the Council will amount to an insurmountable obstacle,” the Russian church statement said, given that the council’s “decisions can only be adopted on the basis of consensus”, a report in the Catholic Herald said.
In Moscow, speaking to television channel Russia 24, the head of the department for external church relations of the Moscow Patriarchate, Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, said that preparations for the council had been going on for 55 years.
But it turned out, he said, that these preparations were not over because some of the churches had expressed dissatisfaction with the course of the preparations.
“And one church, namely the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, has already announced its refusal to participate in it. It is possible that two more churches will refuse to participate – the Antioch and Serbian,” Hilarion said.
“We proposed to the Patriarch of Constantinople to hold a pre-council conference to address all the issues because of which the churches are now, one after the other, refusing participation in the council. If these issues are resolved, then, the council will be held. If they are not resolve, then it is probably better to postpone it,” the Russian cleric said.
Hilarion said that decisions in the council should be taken “by consensus, that is unanimous”.
If at least one Orthodox church “or two, or three” are absent, that would mean there was no consensus. “What is the legitimacy of this council as its decisions will be taken to a church that refused to participate in it, and not for some technical (reason), but for reasons of principle?” Hilarion said.
Whatever Hilarion said regarding the Serbian Orthodox Church and his hint at a boycott, as of June 7, the most recent statement by that church was after a meeting of its Synod in late May, saying that they had adopted a document expressing their principle position on all major issues to be discussed and decided upon at the Great Council. That statement made no reference to a possible boycott, but perhaps the Russian church – given that the political closeness between Moscow and Belgrade is matched by the ties between the respective churches – has privileged information.
The Antioch church has expressed misgivings and hinted that it may withdraw against the background of its jurisdictional dispute with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.
The Russian behaviour regarding the Pan-Orthodox Council also has been seen as directed against the Ecumenical Patriarch himself.