Divided Unity: Why Russian Church is missing largest Orthodox gathering in Crete

© His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
The largest Orthodox gathering in more than a thousand years will begin without its largest representative, the Russian Church, as well as three others that decided to drop out.

But what may look like unity is, in fact, a total lack thereof. What could have been a demonstration of harmony revealed a split instead.

Four of the fourteen recognized independent churches are not in attendance at the Cretan gathering. Among them is the largest, the Russian Orthodox Church, with an estimated 160 million faithful out of an around 300-million strong Orthodox world. Other absentees are the Bulgarian and Georgian Churches, and the Damascus-based Antioch Patriarchates, which together represent up to 15 million believers. Despite more than 50 years of preparation, these Churches had unresolved issues and asked for the meeting to be postponed until the moment when all outstanding disagreements had been settled. The joint Orthodox Divine Liturgy that was celebrated in Crete’s Heraklion on Sunday – without representatives from the Russian, Georgian, Bulgarian, and Antioch Churches – reminded those not in attendance that their voices had gone unheard.

All four of the absent Churches had their own reasons for not going. In early June, the Bulgarian church was the first to pull out, complaining of a lack of “particularly important” subjects to discuss – among the topics on the agenda was one document entitled “The Importance of Fasting and Its Observance Today.”

The proposed seating plan was also criticized, as it had the ecumenical Constantinople patriarch Bartholomew taking a presiding seat during the council session, while the Bulgarian Orthodox Church reportedly insisted that the participants sit at a round table, which they considered to be more appropriate given their independent statuses.

The Orthodox churches, unlike the Catholic Church, have no common leadership. The Patriarch of the Istanbul-based Church is historically considered “the first among equals,” but has no authority over the other Orthodox churches.Then days later, the Antioch church followed suit, but for a different reason: it wanted its ongoing dispute with the Jerusalem Patriarchate to be resolved ahead of the council. Relations between the two had been cut off due to a row over which jurisdiction the Muslim Gulf state of Qatar should belong to. When this demand went unmet, the Damascus-based patriarchate announced that it wasn’t coming either.

The Serbs were also hesitant to go. Then the Georgia Church, and finally the Russian Church, said that they were not going to attend the gathering, since it was clear that there was no unity at all. All decisions of the council must be reached by consensus, which means the absence of even a single church renders it mute. Russia was the last to withdraw, saying that it wanted to try to “save the situation that looked like a deadlock.” Following four pullouts, it proposed that the Constantinople Patriarchate call an emergency meeting of all potential participants in a last attempt to overcome the revealed divides. The initiative found little support, however.

Numerous observers were quick to call the Russian postponement offer “a boycott”

… its intentions, imperialist; and its aims, to divide.

© His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

Some went as far as to accuse the Russian Church of engaging in a “struggle for spiritual influence over the world’s Orthodox faithful” with the Istanbul-based Patriarchates, insinuating that it had pressured the other three churches to drop out in order to sabotage the Constantinople-initiated gathering. Others speculated on a possible war for influence over the three other Churches.

The official reaction from the Russian Church was not as dramatized. “I do not see the current situation as catastrophic. I believe it is one of the stages of preparation for the Pan-Orthodox Council,” the head of external relations at the Russian Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hilarion, told me in an interview. Russian Patriarch Kirill also said he considered the Crete gathering a preparatory session for a truly Pan-Orthodox congress that could be held “without exception.”“Our prayers will be with you in the days of the work ahead of you,” he added. For now, though, the goal of establishing harmony seems farther away than ever. The organizers of the “Holy and Great Council” say the decisions made by the remaining ten churches will be binding – a claim that can hardly be accepted by those that don’t attend. Some say that unity would be hard to reach even if the Orthodox Council was able to bring the leaders of all fourteen Churches together – “rarely would one expect fourteen people to agree on any difficult issue if they are truly honest.” That may be true indeed. Sadly, though, they will not even have a chance to try.

Maria Finoshina, RT correspondent, Crete

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.