A new ecclesiastical split?
The Holy and Great Pan-Orthodox Council meeting commenced on the Greek Island of Crete on June 20. Although the preparation for the meeting took almost a century, it may become the starting point for an ecclesiastical split rather than help unify the Orthodox Christian world.
The reason for this is the position of several Orthodox Churches, refusing to participate in the meeting, among which were the Georgian Orthodox Church.
Why are all Orthodox Christians gathering in Crete? What does this meeting aim at accomplishing and what has become the reason for this split? Zurab Jashi, a theologian, provides the answers to these questions:
What does the gathering in Crete mean and what issues will be discussed there?
The meeting aims at facing the present challenges within the Orthodox Church together and presenting a common image of the church to the world. Since the 20th century, in the midst of sweeping changes throughout the world, the Orthodox Church has started seeking answers to certain questions related to these changes. One of the main documents to be discussed at the meeting is entitled: “The mission of the Orthodox Church in today’s world. As it is explained in the document, “The Church never will remain indifferent to the problems of humanity during any point in history. Rather, it shares people’s anguish and existential problems… The document emphasized human dignity, freedom and moral responsibility. It states the Orthodox Church’s mission as a bearer of love through service and as a result, condemns war, injustice and any form of discrimination. The adoption of this document will greatly help to overcome stereotypical attitudes, whereby religion, especially the Orthodox Christian denomination, will help conquer the fanaticism and hatred against people with different religious and moral beliefs. In fact, this document consolidates the highest of human values and grants them spiritual profundity. This is the underlying principle for the other practical issues to be discussed by the Holy and Great Pan-Orthodox Council, including the recognition of other Christian Churches despite the existing ecclesiological and doctrinal differences. Another important issue to sanctify marriages to people of other Christian denominations.
Why is Georgia not attending the meeting? Who else has refused to participate in the meeting?
Along with Georgia and Russia, the Churches of Antioch and Bulgaria have also decided to stay away from the meeting. They are refer to different reasons for this. The Antioch Church is concerned about a conflict over ecclesiastical jurisdiction in Qatar, while the Bulgarian Church insists that the Council should discuss the issues related to the Church’s ritual and moral practices.
As for Georgia, it expressed a strong protest against taking part in the meeting. The decision was unexpectedly made at the Holy Synod meeting a few days ago.
The Georgian Patriarchate has a negative view about certain doctrinal issues on the Council’s agenda. In particular, the Holy Synod is against referring to non-Orthodox churches as official ones, which the Council is expected to discuss at the meeting. The Holy Synod’s stance is that only the Orthodox Church is mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. Therefore, the Holy Synod considers an Orthodox Christian marrying a non-Orthodox Christian to be unacceptable.
In addition, the Holy Synod is discontent with the issue of the Georgian Orthodox Church’s ranking in the so-called ‘Diptychs’ (the order in which Orthodox churches commemorate each other at their services).
The Russian Orthodox Church will also not attend the Council meeting, under the pretext of being in solidarity with other Orthodox Christian Churches that have certain claims against the Council.
Has the position of the Russian Orthodox Church influenced the Georgian Church’s demarche?
The influence of the Russian church is evident, and not only in relation to the meeting. This influence can be felt in most of the policy and prevailing ideology of the modern Georgian Orthodox Church. Anti-Western propagandist rhetoric comes from Russia. The negative attitude towards the Council meeting has been fueled by anti-Western sentiments: it is viewed as a proxy of western liberalism. Apart from this general outlook, the Georgian and Russian Orthodox Churches together demand that the Council’s resolutions be based on consensual decision-making rather than on a majority-vote, which in reality, will make it impossible to reach any decisions and will paralyze the Council.
What are the negative implications of the absence of the Georgian Orthodox Church at the meeting?
Unfortunately, having refused to participate in the Council meeting, we have taken another big step towards obscurantism.
The situation with regard to religious tolerance is far from being where it should be in Georgia nowadays. And the main reason for this is that the Church does not allow both the clergy and laity to acquire even elementary knowledge of the Orthodox canonical traditions and theological foundations. Religious institutions lack intellectual resources.
The explicitly authoritarian nature of rule prevailing in the Church is particularly destructive. Any form of disobedience to anyone higher up in the hierarchy of the Church is regarded as a sin and enmity to the Church.
A clergyman and moreover, a person of higher standing is virtually never wrong. That’s the dominating credo nowadays, and it essentially contradicts 20-century old Orthodox intellectual and moral traditions.
Therefore, it’s quite logical that it is undesirable for the hierarchy to introduce theological education in the church, which will create the necessary criteria to access moral behavior and faith within the Church, subsequently subjecting the hierarchy’s views and actions to critical judgment on part of the congregate.
That’s the logic that our hierarchy is driven by when stressing the importance of the Georgian Orthodox Church’s particularly outstanding spiritual mission in the world, and it sees no need to develop open relations with the rest of the Orthodox world, as well as with other Christian denominations.
The less the opportunities for the religious congregate to become familiar with different lifestyles and way of thinking in other churches, the more deprived it is of the ability to critically assess the actual state of affairs in the Church and the more dependent it is on its hierarchy’s will.
Why is the meeting convened on the Island of Crete?
Initially, the venue of the meeting was going to be the church of St. Irene in Istanbul, where the Second Ecumenical Council meeting was held during the end of the 4th century. However, the location of the meeting was later changed upon the Russian Patriarchate’s request. It was due to a political reason-the increasing tensions between Russia and Turkey. Security problems, related to the latest terrorist attacks in Istanbul, were also named as a reason.
Is the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople a key figure in the Orthodox Christian world?
The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople is ranked first among other patriarchs. Unlike the Pope of the Roman Catholic Church, he cannot single-handedly make decisions that are binding for all churches. Moreover, as part of the Orthodox ecclesiology, similar to patriarchs in other Churches, he enjoys authority only over the Church of Constantinople. As for other Churches, they are led via consent from the local archbishop council. Regarding the Orthodox ecclesiology, in general, leadership is elected according to conciliar principles, which also allows the participation of ordinary parishioners.
Are other denominations entitled to participate in the Council meeting?
Representatives of other denominations may participate in the meeting in the capacity of observers. As reported, Pope Francis will send representatives to the Pan-Orthodox Council meeting in Crete.
When did the Council hold its last meeting and what decisions were reached then?
Formally, a meeting of such scale has never been held. In the first millennium of the Church’s history, ecumenical Christian councils were conducted under the status of World Council. The present Council does not enjoy World Council status. In addition, the World Council addressed canonical and doctrinal issues, rejecting various religious fallacies. For example, the last such meeting, the Seventh Ecumenical Council, was held in Constantinople in 787. It was then that theological teachings about honor and veneration of the holy icon, as a means of the believers’ communication with God, was accepted. That meeting was preceded by a negative attitude towards the icons, during the period of rule of Byzantine Emperors.