Moscow – An ambitious attempt to bring together leaders of all the world’s Orthodox churches failed when the Russian church and three other churches refused to attend. The heads of the remaining 10 churches led by the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople opened their weeklong meeting Sunday, but without the full representation their gathering fell short of the proclaimed goal.
The Holy and Great Council, which opened Sunday on the island of Crete, was to be the first assembly of all Orthodox primates since 787, when the last of the seven councils recognized by both the Orthodox and the Catholics, was held in Nicaea. Preparations for the council began in 1961, and in January 2016 all 14 Orthodox churches agreed on its basic guidelines and set a date for the meeting. Few expected it to fail after the agreement was reached, but differences between the churches grew wider as the date was approaching.
Unlike the Roman Catholics, the world’s 14 Orthodox churches are equal and have independent leadership. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is based in Istanbul, is considered the “first among equals” since the times of the Byzantine Empire. Bartholomew was the key figure in efforts to convene the council that was supposed to help unity among the world’s 300 million Orthodox.
Syria-based Antioche Patriarchate was the first to refuse to attend the council meeting, citing differences with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem. Tensions further increased in early June, when the Bulgarian church declared its refusal to come to Crete. It argued that the agenda for the meeting doesn’t include some key subjects and objected to the way the meeting was being prepared.
Soon after, the Georgian church also said it wouldn’t attend, citing its objections to a draft document that would welcome marriages between the Orthodox and other Christians. The Russian Orthodox Church then weighed in, saying that it’s necessary to hold another meeting to reconcile the differences before the council. But Bartholomew refused, saying the date and the agenda for the council meeting already has been agreed upon. The Russian church responded by saying that the Holy and Great Council was intended to promote unity and all its decisions should be based on consensus, so the absence of several churches makes the meeting senseless.