Historic Orthodox Council Meets Despite Absence of Four Churches

7 July 2016

Paul L. Gavrilyuk

During the week of June 19, the leaders of the self-governing Orthodox churches worldwide gathered in council on the island of Crete. As the first global Council of the Orthodox Church in more than 1,000 years, this historic event promised to usher in a new era of conciliarity. I had a rare privilege of serving as an external correspondent for the Press Office of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, under the leadership of the Rev. John Chryssavgis. Together with other members of our team, I lived through the dramatic events leading up to the council, was present at some of the council’s sessions and served as a liaison between the council and the outside world, especially the journalists, scholars and ecumenical observers.

This first of two articles describes attempts to subvert the council and how the attempts failed. The second article will deal with the outcome of the council and its importance for Catholics and other Christians.

Preparations for this highly anticipated council began in 1961 and continued, with various setbacks and delays, for more than a half-century. Lacking the central organization of Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy is a communion of the 14 recognized self-governing local churches, with the patriarch of Constantinople enjoying the position of first among equals. Patriarch Bartholomew and his predecessors in the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople have been the main supporters of the conciliar process on the global level.

Historically, there have been tensions and power struggles between the “Hellenic” sphere of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the “Slavic” sphere, which is dominated by the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate). These tensions have to do with different political orientations and historical experiences: The Patriarchate of Constantinople continues to operate in a survival mode since the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans in 1453, having suffered the loss of most of its canonical territories over the past two centuries, while the Patriarchate of Moscow, scarred by the Soviet totalitarian regime, appears to be repeating history by aligning itself with the propaganda machine of Vladimir Putin’s authoritarian state. Constantinople sees the council as the means of consolidating its authority; Moscow fears that its status as the largest Orthodox church numerically may be diminished by the conciliar process.

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