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Explainer: The ‘Holy And Great Council’ Of Orthodox Churches

Patriarch Bartholomew I (center) and the heads of other Orthodox churches participate in the Holy and Great Council of Orthodox Churches on Crete on June 20.
Patriarch Bartholomew I (center) and the heads of other Orthodox churches participate in the Holy and Great Council of Orthodox Churches on Crete on June 20.

The convening of the "Holy and Great Council" of Orthodox churches was meant to promote unity among the world's 300 million Orthodox believers. But the event -- in preparation for 55 years, and the first such meeting in 1,200 years -- has already turned into a showcase of religious disagreement.

Going into the historic meeting, which began this week on the Greek island of Crete, the Russian Orthodox Church -- the world’s largest Orthodox church -- and three other Orthodox churches boycotted the gathering, claiming inadequate preparation.

Bartholomew I, the Istanbul-based ecumenical patriarch considered the "first among equals" of the heads of the independent, or autocephalous, Orthodox churches, and regarded as the spiritual leader of Orthodox believers, has been the driving force behind the initiative to hold the council.

But observers say that some leaders in the Russian Orthodox Church view Bartholomew as a rival and consider his push to organize the council as an attempt to diminish or usurp their authority.

What Is The Holy And Great Council?

It is -- or should be -- a synod of bishops of all the 14 recognized autocephalous churches of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Unlike the Catholic Church, which has a single, undisputed leader in the pope, the Orthodox Christians are divided into self-governing provinces, each with its own leadership. The council was meant to be the first meeting of all Orthodox leaders since 787, when the last of the seven ecumenical councils recognized by the heads of both the Eastern and Western Christian church was held in Nicaea (present-day Iznik in northwestern Turkey).

What Are The First Seven Ecumenical Councils?

The first seven ecumenical councils, held between 325 and 787, were meetings of bishops and scholars convened in order to reach a Christian consensus and to restore, continue, and develop a unified Christendom. All were held during the rule of the Byzantine Empire, but by the last ecumenical council, all major western sees, although still in communion with the Byzantine state church, were outside the political control of the empire. The 1054 East-West Schism would formally enshrine the split between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches.

What Are The Main Issues For Discussion?

The council, preparations for which began in 1961, was convened to address problems within Orthodox Christianity that have appeared since the beginning of the 20th century, ranging from the relations between the different autocephalous independent Orthodox Churches and the organization of church life outside of the traditional territories of these churches to moral and ethical issues.

A six-point list was officially approved for discussion by the council:

· The mission of the Orthodox Church in today’s world
· The Orthodox diaspora
· Autonomy and the means by which it is proclaimed
· The sacrament of marriage and its impediments
· The importance of fasting and its observance today
· Relations of the Orthodox church with the rest of the Christian world

Some of the most contentious issues that have failed to be resolved in advance of the council, such as the issue of a common calendar and official lists of the living and departed that are commemorated in churches, have been struck off the original agenda.

How Many Autocephalous Orthodox Churches Exist?

There are 14 autocephalous Orthodox churches, four of which are boycotting the council -- the Russian church being by far the largest, with more than 100 million members, one-third of the total number of Orthodox believers.

Churches Attending The Council:

Church of Constantinople
Church of Alexandria
Church of Jerusalem
Church of Serbia
Church of Romania
Church of Cyprus
Church of Greece
Church of Poland
Church of Albania
Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia

What Churches Are Not Attending The Council?

The leader of the Russian Orthodox Church, Patriarch Kirill, said in a message to the council that he would not attend since he considered the Crete gathering a preparatory session for a synod that will unite all the churches "without exception" at a later date.

However, observers say members of the Russian Orthodox clergy have been deeply suspicious of Bartholomew’s actions, voicing concern that the council could pave the way to closer ties with the Vatican, Protestants, and others. Such ideas are anathema to a part of Russia’s conservative clergy, some of whom regard Russia’s Orthodox Church as the new Rome -- the true successor to the Byzantine Christian church after the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453.

Another disagreement was over the seating arrangements, with the Russian church strongly opposing, according to some reports, a plan for Bartholomew to take a presiding seat during the council session. Instead, the Russian and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church reportedly insisted that the participants sit at a round table.

The Church of Bulgaria was the first to drop out, citing the seating plan, a lack of “particularly important” topics on the agenda, and the handling of documents.

The Church of Antioch, the Damascus-based patriarchate, refused to attend because of an ongoing dispute with the Jerusalem Patriarchate over the jurisdiction of the Muslim Gulf state of Qatar.

Catholicos-Patriarch Ilia II of All Georgia said the Church of Georgia would not attend over the council's rejection of a Georgia-proposed document.

Observers say that the Bulgarian, Georgian, and Antioch churches may have been influenced by the Russian Orthodox Church.