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MOSCOW, June 16. /TASS/. Delegations of national (local) Orthodox Churches gather on the Isle of Crete on Thursday to attend the Holy and Great all-Orthodox Council that opens later on the same day.
For the participating delegations, the period until June 26 will be filled with joint services, prayers, meetings, and sessions where the attendees will be expected to endorse the documents drafted in advance. Provisions of the latter documents will have mandatory force for the Churches that attend the Council.
The Council was expected to bring together the delegations of all the fourteen local Churches, each delegation comprising twenty-four bishops, but several weeks before the Council the Churches began to cancel their participation one after another.
Cancelations were announced by the Bulgarian, Antioch (Syrian), and Georgian Churches. The Russian and Serbian Churches also refused to take part in the Council and asked for putting it off so that there was time to eliminate the contradictions that had cropped up and to convene it with the participation of all the Churches eventually.
The Serbian Church took an eleventh-hour decision to return to the Council but said it would walk out if the participants refused to consider the problems of the absent Churches.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, or Fener in line with the name of the district in Istanbul where it is located, acts as the steering party and sets up the conciliar procedures. Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople also has the status of the Patriarch of the Universe and is traditionally regarded as the first among the equal.
However, the plans for holding a Council and its details are discussed with all the presumable participants well in advance.
For instance, the heads of all the local (national) Churches gathered in the village of Chambesy near Geneva in January 2016 where the decision on the dates and venue of the All-Orthodox Council was taken.
At first, there were plans to convene it in the St Irene’s Church in Istanbul but Moscow Patriarchate asked for changing the venue in the light of a deterioration of Russian-Turkish relations in November 2015.
The participants opted for the Isle of Crete, which also stays under the canonical jurisdiction of Constantinople Patriarchate.
Disagreements with the procedure became the main cause for the decisions of local Churches to stay away from the milestone Council. The Ecumenical Patriarchate ignored the numerous wishes and requests on their part.
For instance, no changes in the texts of documents put up for voting can be made in the course of the Council. Each Church has one vote - either for the document or against it.
After familiarization with the draft documents many Churches submitted their amendments for the documents but the Patriarchate ignored them eventually. As a result there is no All-Orthodox consent on practically any document, but the problem is they can be adopted only in a single package.
Moscow Patriarchate came up with a proposed package of about a hundred documents but only six of them were selected for the Council in the final run. They concern fasting, marriage, the ways of declaring autonomy of the Orthodox Churches, the mission of the Church in the world nowadays, and relationship with the rest of the Christian world.
Also, the Churches turned out to be displeased with the pattern, along which their delegations were supposed to take seats at the conference table. The canon suggests equality of all the Churches, but the pattern proposed by the Ecumenical Patriarchate was indicative of their inequality.
Pressure of this kind on the part of Fener was regarded as an attempt to superimpose ‘eastern papacy’ on the Council participants on an analogy with the Roman Catholic Church where the Pope is the Primate of the entire Church.
This would mean an encroachment on the main principle of Eastern Orthodox Christianity, which declared Jesus Christ to be the Supreme Ruler of the Church and the patriarchs are intercessors elected by local Churches.
After the Bulgarian Church refused to take part, Moscow Patriarchate proposed convening an All-Orthodox conference for mapping out a strategy that would hold water in the current circumstances. The Ecumenical Patriarchate ignored this proposal, too and the Synod of the Russian Church, which held an emergency meeting on June 13, said the Russian Church would not take part in the Council if several other Churches were absent from it.
Like the Serbian Church, Moscow Patriarchate proposed its postponement, which would provide time for eliminating all the contradictory points.
The local Churches’ disagreement with the texts of documents exposed poor preparations for the Council and unwillingness of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to meet sister Churches halfway.
The final decision on either convening or postponing the pan-Orthodox Council is up to Fener, which looks to be determined to convene it, despite the refusal of several Churches to attend.
Under a ruling of the Constantinople Patriarchate’s Synod, neither of the local Churches can influence the process of preparations for the Council. The more so as the heads of all of the local Churches agreed on the dates and venue of the Council during their steering meeting in Switzerland in January 2016.
Deacon Vladimir Vasilik, an Assistant Professor at St. Petersburg State University, told TASS earlier about his vision of possible reasons behind Constantinople’s refusal to postpone the Council."The Constantinople bureaucrats display mulish obstinacy as they look down on their brethren and feel reluctant to change anything. By doing so they contravene the plenitude of the Orthodox Church and demonstrate their desire to establish dictatorship of the Constantinople Patriarchate," he said.
Reverend Andrei Novikov, the father superior Moscow’s Holy Trinity Church on Sparrow Hills and member of the Biblical and Theological Commission of the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, told TASS that the situation around the pan-Orthodox Council demonstrates that "the Constantinople Patriarchate is seeking to superimpose its authority on the entire Orthodox world but this authority doesn’t exist in practical terms." "It is craving something bigger that a rather conventional superiority of rank but the superiority of administrative powers," he said. "There’s a feeling, which exists not only in the Russian Orthodox Church, that what we can see now is a manifestation of the so-called eastern papacy."
The Holy and Great Orthodox Council may enjoy an all-Orthodox status in case it is attended by all of the 14 churches. Should any of them be absent, it will lose the Pan-Orthodox status and its decisions will not be binding on those absent. The Russian Orthodox Church has already downgraded it to an Orthodox general conference. Its decisions will not be binding on the Bulgarian, Antioch (Syrian), Georgian and Russian Churches.
A week ahead of the All-Orthodox Council, its message to the entire world was drafted. The Russian Orthodox Church did not take part in wording this text.
The situation around the Council when several Churches have refused to attend it is no reason to speak about any split in the Orthodox world, as a split means the absence of liturgical communication, i.e. when Orthodox Churches do not recognize each other’s rites and are allowed to serve liturgies only in their own churches.
"A split is out of the question as a split means the loss of unity of liturgical communication, it is a situation when one Orthodox church stops to recognize others, when people do not serve liturgies together," hieromonk of the Russian Orthodox Church Makariy (Markish), a cleric of the diocese of Ivanovo-Voznesensk, said. "Differences between churches do exist, first of all, the issue of the calendar. One church celebrates Christmas on December 25, another one - on January 7, but we never call it a split. We serve liturgies together."
Bearing in mind the fact that the Russian Orthodox Church is the biggest among all the Orthodox Churches, it would not be an exaggeration to say that the interests of about 111 million out of the world’s 153 Orthodox believers will not be represented at the Council. It decisions will be meant for a 42-million fold.
Preparations for the Holy and Great Orthodox Council have been going on, with long breaks, since September 1961, when the first all-Orthodox conference was held in Rhodes. It was the first official meeting of all Orthodox Patriarchs since the latest Ecumenical Council in 787.
The latest Holy and Great Council the Russian Orthodox Church agreed to recognize was held in the 8th century, or before the East-West of Great Schism in 1054. The Second Council of Nicaea, or the Seventh Ecumenical Council, was held in Nicaea in 787. It was attended by about 400 bishops representing primarily the eastern churches and legates (personal representatives) of the Pope.