The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, which has been the subject of planning for more than fifty years, opened in Crete on June 19 without representatives of four of its branches—including the Russian Orthodox Church—after they pulled out of the meeting less than three weeks before it began. The theological and historical problems the boycotters cite are in fact closely intertwined with church politics, and the last-minute pullouts will undermine the authority of the Orthodox hierarchy. 

The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church voted not to attend the Pan-Orthodox Council at an extraordinary meeting on June 13. Regardless of the extensive reasoning provided, the main result was clear: the Patriarch of Moscow torpedoed the event. Without its second-largest player—the Russian Orthodox Church headed by Patriarch Kirill—the council will no longer have the same kind of legitimacy for the Orthodox world, though Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, the Istanbul-based “first among equals” of the Orthodox patriarchs, has gone ahead with it in any case.

The Bulgarian, Antioch, and Georgian churches had earlier declined to take part in the council, citing theological objections to the documents, which have been worked on by several generations of church officials and theologians for more than half a century.

When the latest drafts of the documents were published in the late winter, they drew heavy criticism from across the spectrum of the Orthodox Church. The most controversial text is the document titled “Relations of the Orthodox Church With the Rest of the Christian World.” Traditional Orthodox ecclesiology unambiguously views all other Christian groups and communities as heretical, but with the advancement of the ecumenical movement in the twentieth century, contacts with other Christian communities began to develop and the term “Christian churches and confessions” has come into common use. Critics of the document, which refers to Christian unity, propose rejecting all innovations and returning to the traditional attitude toward non-Orthodox Christians.

Such debates may seem abstract, but would have real consequences. In February 2016, Patriarch Kirill met with Pope Francis in a meeting widely termed “historic” and held up as a source of hope for a new stage of cooperation in the Christian world. If the text on relations does not retain its key principles, the meeting with the Pope could be denounced as a meeting with a heretic. Active cooperation with Catholics and Protestants in the spheres of education and philanthropy would be undermined. Of course, some cooperation would persist, but it would become formally contradictory to the official position of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Another document, “The Sacrament of Marriage and its Impediments,” is opposed by the Georgian Orthodox Church because it allows for, under certain circumstances, the blessing of marriage between Orthodox Christians and followers of other faiths. Many churches now allow this practice, and once again, returning to a strict position would have practical implications.

For example, let’s say a certain Russian ruler has a daughter who lives in the Netherlands and wants to marry a Dutch Calvinist. The pious ruler asks the Patriarch of Moscow to officiate the wedding. However, the Patriarch refuses, saying that in 2016 the Orthodox Church made a decision not to bless marriages with followers of other faiths. The Russian ruler is dismayed and, seeing his dismay, the Patriarch starts trying to figure out a way to bypass the prohibition. Does the Patriarch need this kind of trouble? I think not.

On June 12, Russia’s Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev said: “If we feel that the preparations are not complete, that there are still some unresolved questions, it is better to postpone the council than to conduct it in haste.”

In fact, plans for the council have been anything but hasty, having been underway for fifty-five years. Preparations began in earnest two years ago, and all Orthodox churches made a joint—and entirely voluntary—decision to hold the council in June 2016. So why did the churches wait until just two or three weeks before it was scheduled to begin to announce they would not participate?

Church officials have given theological, political, and even economic excuses to justify their decision, but during the last fifty years, conferences have been held, protocols prepared, and documents drafted, and the timeline for the council was unanimously approved twice. It might have seemed, therefore, that backing out simply wasn’t an option. But rather than offering their own versions of the documents or amending council procedures, the highest echelons of the ecclesiastical hierarchy did just that.

Refusing to participate in the Pan-Orthodox Council is the most hapless and helpless choice possible, and the actions of the four churches can only be interpreted as a fairly explicit nod to Orthodox fundamentalists who dismiss the council as iconoclastic and ungodly and say that the main objective of the Greeks is to “codify the heresy.”

Yet the decision of the churches to withdraw from the council reveals an even more serious problem. If the churches jointly make certain decisions and then easily shrug them off, then what other choices are they unwilling to be held accountable for? The withdrawal from the council is a major blow to the authority of the Orthodox churches and the Orthodox hierarchy.

In the run-up to the council, two approaches clashed: the side that believes the council is primarily defined by its results—the number of documents approved—and those who believe the council is above all a process, and that beginning talks is the most important thing. After all, there is no reason to expect the Pan-Orthodox council to limit itself to one brief meeting, and the documents will likely be revised again and again.

The first approach fits well with the concept of the church as a party united by a specific ideology. If a council is to be held at the highest level, then this council should have final documents that formulate a position. The problem is that it’s impossible to formulate a single Orthodox ideology. Orthodox Christians in Russia, for example, live in a very different world than Orthodox Christians in Lebanon or the United States. 

Notably, all of the churches that have decided to withdraw share the position that the documents are the main criterion of the council’s success: if there are still qualms over the documents, there is no reason to go.

Despite some churches snubbing the council, it could still serve as a unifying beginning. After all, ten of the fourteen Orthodox churches are still siding with Patriarch Bartholomew.

The Russian Orthodox Church has unquestioningly become part of the opposition by refusing to attend the council. It will therefore have to base its strategy on contrasting itself with Constantinople. This will not be very difficult since the divide between Moscow and Phanar—home of the Patriarchate of Constantinople—has been the primary line of opposition for many centuries. A different question is how productive this will be in the current situation.

The main result of the “non-council” is disappointment. The majority of laymen, clergy, and even some of the bishops are disappointed. The fragmentation of the Orthodox world has turned out to be devastating, and the hopeless lack of unity has frightened many Orthodox Christians throughout the world. That which could previously be swept under the rug is now obvious to everyone—and not just to Orthodox Christians.

  • Sergei Chapnin