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Why we do not go to Crete

Why we do not go to Crete
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14 June 2016 year 16:34

Church official Vladimir Legoida on why the Moscow Patriarchate has proposed to postpone the Pan-Orthodox Council.

The Pan-Orthodox Council has been planned to open on June 16 in Crete. Now it has become clear that the high assembly of Orthodox bishops of some local Orthodox Churches, who may assemble there, by no means can be called Pan-Orthodox. The Churches of Bulgaria, Georgia and Antioch have refused to participate in it. The Serbian Church has proposed to postpone it to another date and to use the time for solving the existing problems. A similar initiative has been put forth by the Moscow Patriarchate; otherwise our delegation will not be able to participate in the Crete Council – this decision was made by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church at its extraordinary session on Monday.

How has this situation happened and what are the reasons for the refusal of a whole number of Orthodox Churches to participate in the Council, which has taken over half a century to be prepared by the efforts of all the Local Churches in the hope to see the triumph of fraternal love?

I will begin with the necessary statement: Councils is a norm of church life. Each Local Church holds councils on a regular basis to deal with problems of its internal church life and relations with other churches. In some places, they are attended only by bishops, in other places by priests, monastics and lay people, along with bishops…

The idea to convene a Pan-Orthodox Council to be attended by all the Local or autocephalous (administratively independent of one another but sharing the Eucharistic communion) Orthodox churches was born in the 20th century 60s and was dictated, above all, by the desire to bear witness to the unity of Universal Orthodoxy. At the same time, a council of such a scale has not been held for over one thousand years, and for this period a considerable number of substantial questions have had time to accumulate and to be addressed. And the procedure for the convocation and conduct of such meetings, too, need to be carefully prepared; for in such matters there are no trifles.

From the very beginning the Russian Orthodox Church took the most active part in the pre-Council work led at that time by Metropolitan Nikodim (Rotov), with His Holiness Patriarch Kirill in his being his secretary. In the 1960s, as many as one hundred topics were supposed to be put on the agenda of the Council under preparation. And our Church managed to work through all of them. By the way, the Russian Church was the only one to work on each of them so substantially. Unfortunately, by the end of the 1970s the list of the issues to be considered by the Council was reduced to… ten. This radical change could not please the Moscow Patriarchate, but the desire to hold a Great Council by all means and to demonstrate the unity of Orthodoxy was stronger.

Through the subsequent years, new obstacles arose and new pauses happened in the pre-Council process due to various circumstances both in international and inter-Orthodox cooperation. For this reason, the last 55 years cannot be called those of uninterrupted preparation of the Council. As for the topics, only six of them have remained on the agenda. Since they all were formulated as far back as the 1960s, it is impossible to refer to them as the most relevant and pressing today. True, they include important ones (the most disputed, too) – ‘Mission of the Church in Today’s World’ and ‘Relations of the Orthodox Church with the Rest of the Christian World’. Among them however, there are no such burning problems as the persecution of Christians in the world today, the family crisis, bioethics…

By the way, concerning the disputes. The six draft documents were published after they were preliminarily approved by the heads of the Churches in January 2016. They were published on the insistence of the Russian Church for them to be discussed in Local Churches. This discussion has shown that the texts have proved to be far from ideal, since a whole number of Churches including the Russian one sent their amendments which were planned to be discussed and introduced if possible prior to the Council as the Procedure excludes discussion at the Council. This situation over the topics has also provoked a lot of disputes and questions, but the Russian Church, in this situation too, tried to harmonize different approaches and to hear everyone – all this to make the Council possible.

Our Church has taken an active part in the discussion on the format of the event in preparation. For instance, now that the Council is to become the first event of this scale to be held for many centuries, we suggested that all the bishops of all the Orthodox Churches, who are about 700 today, should participated in it. Regrettably, this initiative was not supported. The only things, which has been achieved thanks to the proposals of the Russian Church, was to enlarge the delegation to 24 members plus the primate of a Church, instead of 12 initially planned members.

Thus, we have shown flexibility in the process of pre-Council preparations, meeting the desires of our brothers from other Churches and being moved by the spirit of Orthodox unity and solidarity and being aware that Churches exist through centuries in different historical and social contexts, which cannot be ignored. All in all, we did everything to make the Pan-Orthodox Council possible.

The decision of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church Holy Synod of June 1 on the refusal to participate in the Council in Crete has called the Council and its status in question. Among the reasons for it, reference was made to the absence of really relevant items on the Council’s agenda, which need to be promptly considered, the differences among Churches with regard to the preliminarily approved draft documents, the procedural impossibility to edit texts in the course of the Council, etc.

In this situation, the Moscow Patriarchate has exerted every effort to resolve the crisis: the Synod of the Russian Church at its session on June 3 proposed to convene and hold an extraordinary pre-Council conference to consider the existing situation and to come to an agreement on the draft documents. This proposal was perhaps the only realistic way out of the impasse in which the preparation of the Council was caught. Our proposal however was ignored by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. This decision of Phanar was followed by refusals by the Patriarchate of Antioch and the Georgian Church to participate in the Council, while the Synod of the Serbian Church proposed that it should be postponed.

This situation, unlike other above-mentioned disputed topics, excludes any possibility for compromise: either all the Churches participate in the Council or it is not Pan-Orthodox, tertium non datur. The unwillingness of the Patriarch of Constantinople to enter into dialogue with Churches which have refused to take part in the Council for reasons important for them and its reluctance to consider proposals for settling the situation inevitably but predictably lower the status of the Crete meeting, if it does take place at all, to that of an inter-Orthodox conference and calls into question the binding nature of its decisions for all the Orthodox Churches.

Still, there is no need at all to bury the unity of the Orthodox world prematurely. A thousand-year long interruption is a considerable time, so the point is not the death of conciliarity (as some hastened to remark), but a search for mechanisms for its realization. For the time being, there are no reasons for dramatizing the situation: the obstacles, which have arisen on the way of the Council, are serious, but if there is good will and consideration for the concerns of all the Churches, they can be overcome. Indeed, today there is no Orthodox Church that would object in principle to the restoration of the role of Councils as a norm of inter-Orthodox relations. To hold a Pan-Orthodox Council in the future is not only important but also quite possible. If there is a will. The Russian Church does have this will.

The author is the head of the Synodal Department for the Church’s Relations with Society and Mass Media of the Moscow Patriarchate, professor at Moscow State Institute of International Relations.

Version: Russian