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Why the Orthodox Church council planned over 55 years could fail before it starts

The Russian church, the biggest of all 14 Orthodox jurisdictions, has just decided to withdraw from the Pan-Orthodox Council. Its planning started in 1961; the last full gathering goes back to 787. What went wrong?

After decades of preparation, the Orthodox Church had set high hopes on its council set to open on June 19 on the island of Crete - the first one to be held since the year 787.

Some 350 bishops from the world's 14 autonomous Orthodox churches were appointed to discuss and resolve contentious issues within the different national churches.

However, five churches have decided to cancel their participation - most recently the Russian Orthodox Church announced it was pulling out on June 13. The Patriarch of Moscow justified this decision to the Holy Synod by declaring that the Pan-Orthodox Council threatened to further divide rather than unite the different national churches of Orthodox Christianity.

In this DW interview, Professor Thomas Bremer exposes some Orthodox peculiarities.

DW: Professor Bremer, the Orthodox Church is not a monolithic block. How is it structured?

The Orthodox Church is composed of 14 autonomous churches. Each of these churches is responsible for a certain territory and has its own management. They nevertheless see each other as one Orthodox Church.

Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I, Copyright: ATTILA KISBENEDEK/AFP/Getty Images

Regarded as the spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians: Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew I

The Patriarch of Constantinople has traditionally been seen as the head of all Orthodox Church leaders; the other most important leading figure is the Patriarch of Moscow. Why are there ongoing difficulties between these two patriarchates?

As it was the seat of the first Orthodox Church in Antiquity, Constantinople has retained its special status. However, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, based in today's Turkey, is now very small. There are only a few thousand members living in Istanbul, as Constantinople is now called. There are other members of that church based on Greek islands and in other parts of Greece. Constantinople also administers other dioceses in non-Orthodox regions: Orthodox Christians living in the US or in Germany are traditionally members of the Patriarchate of Constantinople as well.

In comparison, Moscow is by far the largest branch of the Orthodox Church. There are probably more than 100 million members in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and several other states.

So even when arguments between both patriarchates concern theological issues, they are influenced by the struggle for leadership within the Orthodox Church.

It sounds like a farce: this first council to be held in 1,200 years was prepared over 55 years; this sudden boycott of the meeting threatens its failure days before its opening. How did that happen?

It was already presumed that some difficulties could be expected. The first trigger came when the Patriarchate of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church signaled its withdrawal on June 1. That was surprising, because consensus ruled throughout the preparations over the past two years. All documents had been adopted unanimously - either by the leaders of the churches or by their delegated bishops.

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill, Copyright: EPA/Alexandre Meneghini / Pool

Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill seeks to assert leadership in the Orthodox faith

They were all informed about the planned agenda. So it did sound strange and surprising when the Bulgarians claimed that the meeting was not well prepared and that more time was needed, and that the council should be postponed.

It gave the impression that many of them had not been aware of what they had gotten themselves into. And just as it was about to become concrete, they realized that they actually didn't want it to be that way.

Bulgaria, Georgia, Serbia, Antioch and Russia are now demanding to postpone the meeting. What exactly was supposed to be discussed and negotiated at this council?

There are exactly six texts that were prepared and published ahead of the council. A further text was to be prepared - it does not exist yet. These six texts deal with different aspects: the mission of the Orthodox Church in the world today; its relationship with the rest of the Christian world; fasting, as the Orthodox Church has very strict rules on fasting; the sacrament of marriage; how churches can acquire a certain level of autonomy; and finally the Orthodox Diaspora, or members of the Orthodox Church living in non-Orthodox countries.

These are the six items that were retained from a long list. Drafts on these issues were the only ones they managed to agree upon.

What is the planned procedure to discuss these drafts at the council?

The council's rules specifically state that no other item can be added to those six themes. These texts can either be accepted as is, or rejected, or modified to be accepted. The rules also stipulate that these drafts can only be adopted unanimously. Every church has a right of veto.

Now five churches have cold feet and have requested the postponement of the council. What are they gaining through this?

Prof. Dr. Thomas Bremer, Copyright: Niina Into

Professor Thomas Bremer is an expert of Eastern Church Studies at the University of Münster

If the council does not take place now, I do not know what will happen, if more energy will be invested to allow it to happen soon, or if it will be put on ice indefinitely.

Orthodox Christians are nevertheless part of a modern society; the Church still needs to find a way of connecting with that fact. What will happen if it avoids doing that?

There are Orthodox theologians living in the US contributing to the critical debate initiated by the texts of the council as well. They say: Those are not the answers we need today. As the Orthodox Church is demonstrating how difficult it is to find unity within its structures, it is also in danger of further losing its connection to modernity and to the people who live in modernity - in the West as well as in Orthodox Christian countries.

Thomas Bremer is a leading German Eastern Church expert. He is currently a professor for Ecumenism, Eastern Church Studies and Peace Research at the Ecumenical Institute of the University of Münster.

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