Although only a few days remain until the Eastern Pentecost, when the Pan-Orthodox council has been scheduled, uncertainty remains whether the gathering in Crete will take place. It is the same uncertainty which I described more than two years ago in my CWR article “The Fragile Promise of the Pan-Orthodox Council”. In recent days, the promise of the Council has become particularly fragile. The final meters of the pre-conciliar marathon, which the Orthodox Churches have ran for more than fifty years, has turned into a tense drama. As the race becomes a sprint there is the possibility the runners might collapse just before the finish line, or even decide to run back to the position from which they started.
Let’s briefly review the long distance the Orthodox Churches have covered in reaching the point where they are now. For the first time in modern history, since the Orthodox Churches attempted to meet in the 1860s—when they tried to heal the so-called “Bulgarian schism”—the reality of a Pan-Orthodox Council seems possible. The 19thcentury schism was caused by the Bulgarian Church, which had proclaimed itself independent from the Church of Constantinople; that schism was eventually healed, but not with the presence of all Orthodox Churches. Later, in the 1920s and 1930s, the Ecumenical Patriarchate tried to arrange a Pan-Orthodox venue. Again, only some Churches showed up. For instance, it was impossible for the Russian Orthodox Church to take part because it was under harsh persecutions by the atheist Communist state. When, however, the Russian Orthodox Church organized a Pan-Orthodox gathering in Moscow in 1948, to celebrate 500 years of its autocephaly, some Churches turned down the invitation or did not endorse the politicized anti-ecumenical agenda of the venue.
In the early 1960s, the Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras initiated a process of preparation for a Pan-Orthodox council. It was intended to be similar to Vatican II, which at that time was also in the process of preparation. In 1961, the first Pan-Orthodox conference was held at Rhodes, which inaugurated a process that has lasted until the current time. After Rhodes, a series of regular Pan-Orthodox meetings followed. Delegates from all Orthodox Churches discussed the agenda of the great Council and composed documents to be considered by it. There was only one break in the process; it lasted ten years, from 1999 to 2009, and was caused by the quarrel between the Churches of Moscow and Constantinople over the small Orthodox community in Estonia.
The process of preparation of the Pan-Orthodox Council received a new and strong momentum at the meeting (Synaxis) of the primates of the Orthodox Churches in Istanbul in October 2008. Since then, two more Synaxes have taken place, in March 2014 and January 2016. The last one adopted the final list of the topics and approved the drafts of the documents for discussion at the Council. For approximately two years, during 2014-2015, a special committee elaborated on those drafts.
The institute of Synaxis, as it was conceived in 2008, resembles the ancient Pentarchy—a consent of five patriarchal thrones of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Modern Synaxes include all the primates of the recognized Orthodox Churches. So far, Synaxis has proven to be the most effective instrument of reaching agreement on the issues relevant to all Orthodox Churches. Arguably, even without the Pan-Orthodox Council, Synaxes have demonstrated the solidarity and conciliarity of modern Orthodoxy.
This article continues at [Catholic World Report] As Pan-Orthodox Council Approaches, Conflicts and Uncertainty Intensify