Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I has issued a call for unity ahead of an historic meeting of the 14 independent Orthodox churches due to take place later this month on Crete.
The “Holy and Great Council”, presided over by Patriarch Bartholomew, the Istanbul-based spiritual leader of the world’s 300 million Orthodox Christians has been called to discuss their common future and efforts to heal the nearly 1,000-year rift with the Roman Catholics.
All the Orthodox churches, old and new, have never met before – not since the “great schism” of 1054.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate said the “Holy and Great Council is a unique and historical occasion.” Preparations for the meeting have been underway since 1961, when the planning first began.
Rev John Chryssavgis, spokesman for the Patriarch, told The Associated Press that the June 19-26 gathering’s “sole purpose is the affirmation of unity.”
“Unity is a slow and painful process. We don’t have to be united on every point to convene the council; but we do have to convene the council if we aspire to unity,” Chryssavgis said.
The Patriarch’s call was issued following reports that the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, which is due to come to Crete, had threatened to pull out, reportedly asking for some mostly procedural changes to the agenda. It did not say what changes it was requesting or if it would carry out the threat.
Chryssavgis said that “after centuries of isolation, occupation, and persecution,” it won’t be easy for the churches to come together.
“It is very natural, then, for some Churches to feel unsure or uncomfortable about coming together after such a long time, much like members of a family might be skeptical and even mistrustful after a long period of separation,” he said.
The Orthodox churches are independent of each other and have their own leadership. For example, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow is head of the world’s largest Orthodox Church, but is considered equal to other patriarchs.
Bartholomew is called the “first among equals,” but leads a smaller flock than Kirill.
Since the “great schism” there have been about a dozen smaller Orthodox councils over the centuries to discuss theological or doctrinal issues, but there has never been a meeting on the scale of the forthcoming one.