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Behind Vatican Walls: Synods and Councils

Alicia Ambrosio

Friday, June 17, 2016

Orthodox patriarchs and primates walk at the Orthodox Academy of Crete as they meet to consider a draft message of the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church in Chania on the Greek island of Crete June 17. The heads of Orthodox churches were preparing to attend the June 19-26 Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church in Chania. The council is intended to be the first meeting of all the Orthodox churches in more than a millennium. (CNS photo/Sean Hawkey, handout) See ORTHODOX-COUNCIL-BARTHOLOMEW June 17, 2016.
A historic gathering of orthodox leaders is scheduled to take place on the Greek island of Crete later this week. The Great and Holy Council, as it called in the Orthodox church, would be the first such meeting in over a thousand years. With days to go before the start of that that meeting various orthodox churches are bringing new concerns to the table, asking for the meeting to be postponed, and announcing boycotts.
50 years of preparation
The council was the idea of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras who was “first among equals” of the Orthodox Church from 1948 to 1972. In the 60s he launched the idea that a “Great and Holy Council” was needed. While the Roman Catholic Church was able to call an Ecumenical Council in in 1959 and convene the first session of that council in October of 1962, the Orthodox Church spent the next 50 years - and three patriarchs- planning the Great and Holy Council.
Preparations entered the final stages in the last year: a date, location and agenda were agreed upon. Following the tradition of the Orthodox Church those elements had to be agreed upon unanimously by orthodox church leaders in order to be adopted. Even with a last minute disagreement on the location, a consensus was still reached. (Originally the synod was to be held in Istanbul, seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Russian Orthodox Church officials refused to set foot on Turkish soil after a Russian military plane was shot down by Turkish forces. The patriarchs voted to move the council to Crete).
Fast forward to May of this year. One by one several of churches began raising concerns about the agenda, the working procedure, and even the seating arrangement at the council, not to mention quibbles about items that are and are not on the official agenda. The Orthodox Churches of Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia and Russia announced that they will not attend the council.The Serbian Orthodox Church initially refused to attend then went back on that decision.
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew has been in Crete since early this week. The ten patriarchs who are still participating have arrived on the island and issued an appeal to the four absent churches to join them. A spokesperson for the Ecumenical Patriarch told Associated Press will reach out to the four no shows in attempt to find a way to address their concerns about synod.
What are the objections being raised by the various churches?
Antiochian Orthodox Church
The Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East was established in 42 AD by the apostles Paul and Barnabas. Although it was founded in what is today Antakya, Turkey the Patriarchal See of the Antiochian Church is in Damascus.
According to the patriarchate, the Antiochian Church has jurisdiction over all the middle east where there are no other autonomous churches. In 2004 the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem established a formal presence in Qatar, appointing a Bishop to be responsible for Orthodox faithful in that country. The Antiochian Patriarchate did not take this well, and has essentially refused to sit at a table where the Jerusalem Patriarch is present, unless and until the issue is resolved. (i.e. Antioch’s jurisdiction over Qatar is formally recognized by the orthodox churches).
 Orthodox Church of Bulgaria 
The reasons offered by the Orthodox Church of Bulgaria focused on the logistics of the council. The Bulgarian bishops said the seating arrangement for the council violates the principle of equality between the Ecumenical Patriarch the heads of the autonomous churches. As well, the place designated for observers and guests was deemed “inappropriate” by the Bulgarian bishops.
Aside from who sits where, the Bulgarian bishops said in a statement they feel there are items missing from the council agenda that need to be addressed because they are timely and relevant to the church today. However, there was no indication of what those topics might be.
Orthodox Church of Georgia
Doctrinal and political reasons were cited by the Georgian church as reason for not participating in the synod. Georgian church leaders said in a statement they did not see how a synod could go ahead as long as two of fourteen autonomous churches (Antioch and Jerusalem) are in a dispute. The bishops of the Georgian church also cited what they believe to be doctrinal errors in some of the documents on the synod agenda. Of particular concern: the document on the Orthodox church’s relations with other churches. According to the Georgian church, there is no such thing as a non-Orthodox Christian Church. As such any other Christian denomination should not be treated or referred to as a church. The Orthodox Churches of Georgia and Bulgaria both withdrew from the World Council of Churches for this reason.
Serbian Orthodox Church
In early June Serbian Orthodox leaders decided they could not participate in the synod. In a statement the leaders of the Serbian church pointed to disputes between some of the orthodox churches, saying those disputes need to be resolved before a synod can be considered. They proposed delaying the synod in order to resolve those differences.
By mid June the Serbian Orthodox leaders changed their mind yet again, deciding to attend the synod. The Serbian Orthodox delegation arrived in Crete June 16 but reserves the right to leave if the concerns of the Serbian Church are not addressed.
Russian Orthodox Church
Taking a slightly different approach, the Russian Orthodox Church leaders called for the synod to be postponed. In light of the Bulgarian, Georgian and Antiochian Churches pulling out of the synod, Moscow proposed postponing the synod. The June 13 proposal from Moscow suggested turning the scheduled gathering in Crete into a pre-synod preparatory meeting. However, that proposal came with an ultimatum: postpone, or we won’t participate. Just to show there were no hard feelings, the Russian bishops expressed their full collaboration in working towards a future synod.
For more on the structure and function of the Great and Holy Council, visit

Every week brings new, exciting, and sometimes juicy headlines from behind Vatican walls and every week Alicia delves deeper into one of those headlines. For a full run down of what’s been happening behind Vatican walls, watch Vatican Connections. Already watch the program? Come back every Friday for an in-depth look at an issue, headline or person. Season 4 of Vatican Connections airs every Friday at 8:00 pm ET.

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