As this magazine reports, the Patriarch of Constantinople has called for unity ahead of the Pan-Orthodox Council which is to be held later this month in Crete. This call by Patriarch Bartholomew is more than just a form of words. Unity among the Orthodox is currently in rather short supply.
First of all, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church is threatening to walk out of the council even before it has begun, thus wrecking its claims to be a council of all the Orthodox Churches (of which there are 14). Despite the fact that this Council has been more than half a century in preparation, the Bulgarians are not happy with some of the arrangements made. It is a pity that the objections have surfaced so late in the day; the suspicion must remain that this is a deliberate attempt to torpedo the council at the last minute.
Secondly, it seems that the Antiochene Orthodox Church will not be represented at all. This is because the Church of Antioch has severed relations with the Church of Jerusalem over a jurisdictional dispute about the Orthodox parish in Qatar. So it seems certain at this point that the Pan-Orthodox Great and Holy Council will be lacking the participation of one of the historical patriarchal sees, which will surely make it less than pan-Orthodox.
Why does this matter? The clue lies in the words of the spokesman of Patriarch Bartholomew, who identified the sole purpose of the Council as “the affirmation of unity.” He added: “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.”
The unity that is dear to the Patriarch of Constantinople’s heart is of course the unity of the various Orthodox churches with each other, but this unity is an aspiration at present as the current difficulties with Bulgaria and Antioch show. The unity that is dear to the heart of Pope Francis and all his predecessors is of course the unity between East and West, but this can only come about if the Orthodox first of all find unity among themselves.
At the heart of all this, so people who understand the Orthodox world tell me, is a disputed understanding of the role of the Patriarch of Constantinople within Orthodoxy. The Patriarch is primus inter pares, first among equals, but is this simply a primacy of honour, or does it mean something more? Does the Patriarch have a position analogous to that of the Archbishop of Canterbury in world Anglicanism, or is he in fact more like an Orthodox Pope?
To complicate matters, the position of Constantinople Patriarchate is at best extremely precarious. The Patriarch’s flock is tiny, and the Phanar, the district he has lived in since 1599, is a tiny enclave in the Muslim and overwhelmingly fundamentalist district of Fatih. The Phanar looks today very much like an historical relic; at least that is the view from Russia, home of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is the head of the largest of the Orthodox autocephalous churches.
Despite the Bulgarian threats to withdraw, the council is certain to go ahead, as it is surely too late to arrange a postponement.
Its deliberations will be interesting. Most of the subjects under discussion are really only of interest to the Orthodox, such as the questions to do with jurisdictional matters. (There is a good overview by Dr Adam Deville here.) However, unless these intra-Orthodox questions are sorted out, there will be no real progress towards dialogue (let alone reunion) with Rome. At present there is dialogue between Rome and Constantinople, but many of the other Orthodox Churches are not on board. For that to happen, we have to hope and pray that the Council in Crete is a success.
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