(RNS) After a gap of over 1,200 years, including 55 years of preparation, the planned Holy and Great Council of the Eastern Orthodox churches has turned into a cliffhanger only days before it is set to open.
The historic summit of the 14 Orthodox member churches was called by their spiritual head, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, to promote unity among the faithful who had grown apart by geography, language and customs.
But the Russian Orthodox Church, which alone accounts for about two-thirds of the 250 million to 300 million Orthodox believers around the world, cast a pall over the planned June 20-26 meeting on the Greek island of Crete by calling on Monday (June 13) for the session to be postponed.
That came after three smaller churches -- those of Bulgaria, Georgia and the Damascus-based Patriarchate of Antioch -- said they would not attend and the Serbian church also said the meeting should be put off to allow for more preparations.
Their last-minute hesitation, ostensibly over disagreements on documents to be approved, came against a backdrop of much larger tensions within Orthodoxy. Traditionalists in several churches oppose any change despite growing pressure to make some adjustments to the modern world.
Another major change in the past quarter-century, the emergence of the rich and powerful Russian church as an influential player on the international religious scene, has also created tensions as Moscow and the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul seem to compete to be the voice of global Orthodoxy.
The Rev. John Chryssavgis, spokesman for the council, said preparations were going ahead and the meeting would take place even if some churches were absent.
“It is painful that they’re not all here,” he said, stressing that all 14 churches had signed the six consensus documents prepared for the council. “We’re talking about hundreds of signatures by each church committing to the council.
“Maybe they will come. … Anything is possible,” he added.
This has not been a good start for the so-called Pan-Orthodox Council convened under the motto “He called all to unity” and meant in part to help the churches speak with harmony on major issues facing them and other faiths.
“Orthodoxy doesn’t feel like one church,” said theologian Carol Lupu, a former adviser to the Serbian church.
Unlike the far larger Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox have no pope and are organized as national churches with jurisdiction within their borders. The Ecumenical Patriarch is the symbolic head but only has administrative power over his own flock of fewer than 3,000 congregants in Turkey.
The Orthodox first considered holding a council in 1961, shortly before Catholics opened the Second Vatican Council that passed several modernizing reforms.
Preparations dragged out over the years as theologians worked on documents to be approved before their summit opened. The initial list of about 100 issues to consider was whittled down to only the six documents that all churches signed off on by January of this year.
Even those were quite cautious. Pope Francis and his two predecessors, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have tried for decades to forge more cooperation with the Orthodox, but the document on ecumenical relations mentions only international groups such as the World Council of Churches by name.
Some traditionalists have even objected that the document uses the word “churches” for other Christian denominations, insisting that Orthodoxy is the only “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.”
The document on the growing Orthodox diaspora admits it cannot soon solve the problem of overlapping jurisdictions in some countries where immigrants of different ethnic groups each have their own church and bishop. The association of Orthodox bishops in France, for example, lists 10 different churches among its members.
The careful council planning began to unravel two weeks ago when first the Bulgarians, then the churches of Georgia and Antioch, said they could not attend because of disagreements over certain issues. The Serbian church called for the summit to be postponed.
Then the Russian church, which has not been enthusiastic about a council that would boost Bartholomew’s standing as the first among Orthodox equals, announced it also wanted to put off the meeting to allow for more work on the documents.
Church officials play down the idea of a competition between the Greek and Slavic camps in Orthodoxy, but three of the wavering churches have traditional ties to Moscow. Antioch is boycotting because of a dispute with the Jerusalem Patriarchate over who has jurisdiction over the Orthodox in Qatar.
“One church after another declares that it is not participating, which means there will be no consensus, which means it is no longer a Pan-Orthodox Council,” Metropolitan Hilarion, the “foreign minister” of the Moscow Patriarchate, told Russian television on Tuesday. “And we believe that the only way out of this difficult situation is to postpone the council.
“Unity is not something that can be imposed upon churches,” he added. “We do not believe that the whole idea of the council should be abandoned. We simply believe that it should be better prepared.”
Chryssavgis said the council documents could be changed up until the opening of the meeting and absentees forfeited the possibility of influencing them. He added that representatives of the Serbian church were participating in the preparations in Crete despite their leadership’s call for a delay.
The Ecumenical Patriarch does not have the authority to change plans for holding the council after all member churches officially backed it in January, he added.
In contrast to the critics who want everything resolved in advance, Bartholomew sees this council as the first step toward restoring these consultative meetings that were more regular in earlier times before the Great Schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople.
Even with an incomplete list of participants, Chryssavgis said, this council would be still the largest ever held by the Orthodox churches. The interest in it in so many Orthodox churches shows they want more unity than they now have.
“The Ecumenical Patriarch is saying this is a huge step toward that. It should be a beginning to many, many more councils,” he said. “We’re taking the first steps very slowly, very awkwardly.”
(Tom Heneghan is a Paris-based correspondent)