A thousand Orthodox scholars have signed an open letter to Orthodox leaders, urging them to come together for the Pan-Orthodox Council. The meeting, which is meant to take place in a week’s time, hangs in the balance after two churches withdrew and others expressed major reservations.
The council, for which preparations began in 1961, was supposed to bring together all 14 “autocephalous” Orthodox churches, the largest number ever to have come together. But after the Bulgarian church pulled out for reasons which remain unclear, the Moscow Patriarchate said the meeting could not go ahead unless all the churches were present.
The Georgian church also announced yesterday that they would not come. The Patriarchate of Antioch have also said it might not attend, while the Serbian Orthodox church say they would rather the meeting was considered a consultation rather than a council.
In an open letter sent to the 14 Primates of the churches, the scholars, many of them from US universities and part of the Orthodox Church in America, write: “The Holy and Great Council occasions an opportunity to commence a new phase of Orthodox witness. As the eyes of the whole world are upon the Orthodox Church, we beseech all of our leaders to hear the Spirit’s call to conciliar unity.”
Appealing to Orthodox leaders and to all Orthodox Christians, as well as “all people of good will”, the scholars write: “We pray that the impending Council, so much anticipated and so long prepared, will bear forth the fruits of the Spirit, the first among them being the Pan-Orthodox unity.
“Hence, we support the agreement of the Orthodox leaders, publicly announced at the Pan-Orthodox Synaxis in January 2016, to gather together for the Holy and Great Council in Crete in mid-June 2016.”
The scholars say there are no “insurmountable” difficulties – a word which the Moscow Patriarchate have used to suggest the meeting cannot go ahead unless everyone attends.
But the letter also says some churches objections’ are legitimate, and that discussion of the draft conciliar documents – on ecumenical relations, marriage, fasting, the autonomy of the churches, the Orthodox diaspora, and mission – could be reopened.
In a briefing issued to journalists today, Ecumenical Patriarchate spokesman Fr John Chryssavgis said that the council’s decisions would be binding on all churches even if not all of them attended. He said the council’s binding nature had already been agreed.
Fr Chryssavgis added, however, that “any and all decisions and documents will undergo a natural process of reception and adoption by the conscience and consensus of the people of God – that is to say, by the official Churches, clergy and laity of Orthodox faithful throughout the world. That was also the case with paramount decisions and doctrinal definitions even of Ecumenical Councils in the past.”