Pan-Orthodox Council: Russian Absence Saves Ecumenical Patriarchate’s Status — for Now

NEWS ANALYSIS: The historic council ended Sunday, leaving more questions than answers.

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople attends the Divine Liturgy at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul with Pope Francis on Nov. 30, 2014.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople attends the Divine Liturgy at the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul with Pope Francis on Nov. 30, 2014. (photo: Gokhan Tan/Getty Images)

KOLYMBARI, Crete — It has been a tough week for globalists, even on the island of Crete.

The weeklong “Holy and Great Council of Orthodox Churches” concluded on June 27, with the release of a message and broad encyclical that, mainly, asserts its vitality, relevance and primacy as the “one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church” — the English translation even refers, twice, to the Orthodox Catholic Church.

Holy See diplomats can be relieved that the document represents no setback for ecumenical relations, a Vatican priority for more than 50 years.

In the Holy Father’s words — delivered as he flew home from Armenia, a nation with a predominantly Orthodox local Church, although one in communion with the Oriental Orthodox Churches rather than with the participants at Crete — the council represents “a step forward” because it brought 10 autocephalous (self-governing) Churches together, and encounter yields greater understanding, in Francis’ view.

Yet the Holy and Great Council made public an enormous gulf in worldviews between the historic ecclesial power of Constantinople and the earthly power of Russia.

By opting “exit” through its refusal to participate in the council, the Russian Orthodox Church — by far the largest of the 14 autocephalous Churches that comprise the Orthodox communion — foiled Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople’s dream of projecting global Orthodox unity.

Yet the Russian Church also served to elevate Bartholomew’s status by giving him an unimpeded stage in Crete to project his leadership as “first among equals.”


Vatican’s View

Pope Francis sent two observers to the council: Cardinal Kurt Koch, president of the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity, and the pontifical council’s secretary, Bishop Brian Farrell.

They were denied participation in the council. Instead, they were invited to opening and closing ceremonies, as were observers from the Oriental Orthodox Churches.

“We believe very strongly in the unity of the Orthodox Church, so we have been eagerly waiting for this moment,” Cardinal Koch told the Register.

The cardinal added that the last-minute decisions against participation by the Russian Orthodox and three other autocephalous Churches did not invalidate what had taken place.

“I think this question [of the absence of four Churches] is temporary. There are difficulties, but they can be overcome. It’s a process,” he continued.

The Holy See has been engaged in dialogue with the Orthodox Churches of the Byzantine tradition for more than 50 years, with the next meeting scheduled in Italy in September.

But, Cardinal Koch recalled, there have been periods of tension. The dialogue was suspended from 2000 to 2006.

“We had tremendous difficulties with Churches that emerged from communism. Trust was lost. But little by little, especially with the help of Patriarch Bartholomew, difficulties were discussed and overcome,” explained the cardinal. “He was able to bring the Churches back to the table.”

At that time, the problems especially related to Greek-Catholic communities trying to get properties back from Orthodox Churches in Ukraine and Romania, as well as accusations that Catholic priests were proselytizing in Russia.

But today, Cardinal Koch continued, the Holy See has strong relations with the Russian Orthodox Church, symbolized by the meeting between Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis four months ago in Cuba.

“We’ve had marvelous, friendly visits and normal relations, full of hope for the future,” said the cardinal.

And whatever caused the Russian Orthodox Church to drop out, “it has nothing to do with us,” he said firmly.


‘Everything Is Normal’

“Everything is normal with this council,” professor Alberto Melloni reassured the Register in Crete, adding that it took 100 years for the Council of Trent to convene.

Melloni, who teaches Church history at the University of Modena-Reggio and the University of Bologna, serves as director of the St. John XXIII Foundation for Religious Studies, which has published the Decrees of the Ecumenical and General Councils series, including the first critical edition of the first millennium’s ecumenical councils and the Byzantine and post-Byzantine Councils of the Orthodox Church.

“The fact that this council has been celebrated is the real accomplishment, and it’s the success of Constantinople,” Melloni said.

Melloni explained that it is not unusual for eleventh-hour decisions to be made about participation in historic Church councils: “Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev ordered Russian observers to attend the Second Vatican Council in 1962 at the very last minute.”

Does Melloni think President Vladimir Putin told the Russian delegation not to attend the Holy and Great Council this month? 

“We don’t know, but there is strong evidence President Putin imposed the meeting of Patriarch Kirill with Pope Francis.”


Constantinople’s Gain

According to Melloni, the Russian Orthodox Church planned to exert strong control over council proceedings.

It managed to win agreement that a “consensus” model of decision-making would be used, which effectively gives veto power to one voice.

“Having this principle of consensus, the Russians could have been a perpetual threat” to Constantinople’s goals, explained Melloni. “Bartholomew can thank Patriarch Kirill and Metropolitan Hilarion [effectively, the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign minister] for giving him a council that was able to run by consensus” because they stepped aside.

As a result, “this council proves the ability of the Orthodox to gather as a worldwide community,” he said.

The historian considers this pan-Orthodox experience to be relevant to the Catholic Church because “synodality is a field of battle” for all churches.

He reminded the Register that Pope Francis transformed last year’s synod on the family “from a banal meeting” into a semi-council, to endorse the authority of bishops working through a conciliar structure.


Mystical Resilience

Two related 20th-century phenomena have tremendous bearing on what unfolded on the island of Crete — and both testify to the mystical resilience of the Orthodox Church: the post-communist renaissance of the Russian Orthodox Church and the resurgence of Orthodox theology in the diaspora since the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917.

In his indispensable history The Orthodox Church (Penguin Books, 1997), Timothy Ware (now Bishop Kallistos of Diokleia) dedicates a chapter to “The Twentieth Century I: Orthodoxy and the Militant Atheists.”

He recounts the communist assault on the Russian Orthodox Church from 1917 to around 1988, as well as the face-off between other communist regimes and autocephalous Orthodox Churches.

As brutally as the regime persecuted the Church, just as fiercely did the Church manifest indestructibility.

Russian theologian Vladimir Lossky wrote in 1944, “In every place where the faith has been put to the test, there have been abundant outpourings of grace, the most astonishing miracles — icons renewing themselves before the eyes of astonished spectators; cupolas of churches shining with a light not of this world. … Nevertheless, all this was scarcely noticed. The glorious aspect of what has taken place in Russia remained almost without issue for the generality of mankind.”

So the renaissance of the Russian Orthodox Church since communism’s collapse in 1991 is one of Christianity’s great modern miracles.

It has created a muscular Church and powerful Church leadership, not keen on deferring to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, whose Greek Orthodox Church of Constantinople is on the point of extinction.

The Church of Constantinople, with some 2,000 local believers, has been hounded by the Turkish government (which closed its only seminary) and routinely humiliated by the local Muslim population, which opened Ramadan this year with prayers in the Hagia Sophia, Christianity’s first cathedral and Constantinople’s see.

As scholar Melloni observed, what was probably annoying the Russian Orthodox Church most about the Holy and Great Council was the “too large role” it felt the council gave to the patriarch of Constantinople — who relies largely on bishops and theologians living in the large Orthodox diaspora, especially in North America and Western Europe.


Creative Diaspora

The second phenomena that greatly influenced proceedings in Crete has its roots in early 20th-century history, as well.

Professor Paul Gavrilyuk, an adviser to the Holy and Great Council, wrote a fascinating account in First Things magazine of how Orthodox theology has flourished in the West after the Bolshevik Revolution sent religious thinkers into exile.

The vitality of Orthodox theological scholarship continues to this day, explains Gavrilyuk, Aquinas Chair in Theology and Philosophy at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minn.

Patriarch Bartholomew drew heavily from this contemporary talent bank to prepare the Holy and Great Council.

One reason is jurisdictional: Although the patriarch’s home Church is miniscule, the majority of Orthodox faithful in North America fall under the control of the Church of Constantinople.

In the chaotic lead-up to the council — when Churches from Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia, Russia and Serbia advocated postponing it (although the Serbians subsequently shifted their position and attended) — explaining Patriarch Bartholomew’s decision to forge ahead to the Western press fell largely to Father John Chryssavgis, a theological adviser to Constantinople from Australia, who lives in Maine.

In First Things, for example, Father Chryssavgis and Gavrilyuk assert “a minority [of Churches] desire ethnic isolation.”

Even before the May-June crisis, Father Chryssavgis criticized the “paranoia,” “provincialism” and “ethnocentrism” coming from the Russian Orthodox Church in a public lecture at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary in Crestwood, N.Y., on Feb. 1.

He angrily declared: “It’s … deplorable to see contemporary leaders, exposed to and educated in the global challenges of the modern world, less interested in transcending parochialism and prejudice than their predecessors, who were restricted by an oppressive xenophobia behind the Iron Curtain. Isn’t this sin of nationalism alone sufficient reason to convene the Great Council? How can we so brazenly justify this heresy?”

The Russian Orthodox Church undoubtedly heard Father Chryssavgis’ performance.

At the Holy and Great Council, Father Chryssavgis served as Patriarch Bartholomew’s chief spokesman, together with Orthodox Archbishop Job of Telmessos, a Ukrainian Canadian.


No Need to Demonize

Not everyone attending the gathering blamed the Russian Orthodox for not coming. Romanian Archbishop Nifon was quick to warn against demonizing Russia and pointed to the authenticity of Russians living their faith.

Writing on June 23, Catholic Father Mark Drew counseled Catholic Herald readers: It’s a mistake to accuse Russia of undoing the council.

“Spokesmen for Bartholomew have had difficulty in masking the bitterness of their conviction that the Russians are trying to wreck the synod. But we should beware of oversimplification. Binary oppositions rarely do justice to the complexity of conflicts, either in the world as a whole or in the Church. And this is no exception,” the priest wrote.

Father Drew pointed out other antagonisms at work: a historical resentment of Greek dominance of Orthodoxy among some Churches, for example, and fears that council documents were too accommodating to secular society — or not engaged enough.

He evoked the important, and long-simmering, complaints from the Church of Antioch, which decided not to attend the gathering, over Constantinople’s failure to solve a jurisdictional dispute with the Church of Jerusalem.

The Church of Antioch has strong communities around the world, including the United States.

Terry Mattingly, founder of the “Get Religion” website and a member of an Antiochian Orthodox Church in Tennessee, explained, “The Qatar dispute is actually a major escalation in decades of tensions between Arab Christians and the Greek bishops that rule them, operating in a system that is ultimately propped up by the Ecumenical Patriarch.”

As Metropolitan Hilarion told on June 14, “You can’t impose unity.”


What’s Next?

Time will tell whether the Orthodox Church can institutionalize the council process, as was advocated by the Romanian Orthodox Church and supported by others.

The Orthodox Church has certainly survived far bigger conflicts and contests.

Asked what’s next, Cardinal Koch commented: “Some surprise of God! We try to respond to the possibilities we find in each moment.”

Senior Register correspondent Victor Gaetan is an award-winning

international correspondent and a contributor to Foreign Affairs magazine.