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Is Orthodoxy unravelling?

On Sunday, Orthodox Christians throughout the world celebrated Pentecost. In the East, that feast is considered a celebration of the Holy Trinity, and Whit Monday is dedicated to the Person of the Holy Spirit himself. Orthodox theology stresses that the mystery of the Trinity is both the source and the model for the unity of the Church. It is the role of the Spirit, rather than any human institution or authority, to bring about the union of the faithful.

What could be more fitting, then, than for the “Great and Holy Council of Orthodoxy", which has been in gestation for a century and whose practical preparation has been in progress since the 1960s, to open on the day of Pentecost? As in all churches, however, the reality on the ground does not always do justice to the splendour of the theological vision. The events of recent weeks have revealed to the world a spectacle of division and bickering more akin to secular politics than the deliberations of men of God.

The synod opened in Crete amid confusion and recrimination. Indeed, it has looked close to unravelling altogether. Its qualification as “Pan-Orthodox" was called into doubt and then rendered apparently meaningless as one by one, five of the 14 jurisdictions which make up official or “canonical" Orthodoxy announced they were pulling out in the days before it was due to begin.

What exactly has been going on? It’s hard even for seasoned observers to get a clear picture. First to pull out were the Bulgarians. Many suspected immediately that they were acting as proxies of the Russians, starting a ball rolling which would enable Moscow to walk away without being the first to do so. As expected, the Russians cited the non-participation of the others as a pretext for their own decision to pull out, saying that the meeting could no longer be considered pan-Orthodox, and thus would not be binding on all the churches.

These machinations are easy to fit into the by now familiar narrative of the synod as the battleground between two opposing geopolitical forces within Orthodoxy: the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow. The former represents the historical memory of the ancient Church order, where the five patriarchal sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch exercised a collegial authority. Once Rome had gone into heresy and schism by doctrinal innovations and a jurisdictional power grab (so runs the traditional Orthodox narrative) then the mantle of Ecumenical (ie “worldwide") Patriarch fell to Constantinople, the “Second Rome".

Moscow came late on to the scene, once the Byzantine Empire disappeared and Constantinople was under Turkish domination. Arab conquest had already reduced the Churches of Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria to insignificance, and the demographic centre of Orthodoxy migrated to the Slavic lands. Moscow styled itself as a patriarchate from 1589. As Ottoman rule receded in the 19th century, patriarchal status was given to the chief sees of Bulgaria, Serbia and Romania.

Increasingly, the Russian Church sought to position itself as the natural leader of the world’s Orthodox, the “Third Rome". On paper at least it accounts for between 30 and 40 per cent of Orthodox believers worldwide, and thus for many has a more credible claim to leadership than Constantinople, where Patriarch Bartholomew is spiritual leader of a tiny flock made up of the remnant of Turkey’s once numerous Greek population. He sees in the synod an opportunity to reaffirm the pre-eminence of his see. His strategy is twofold.

First, Bartholomew has for years been courting international good will by promoting causes which can gain him international prestige. His espousal of ecumenical dialogue has pleased world opinion but irritated many in his own Church. He has also espoused causes such as ecology – some say to the detriment of moral stances like the pro-life cause, less likely to gain him secular applause.

The second prong of Constantinople’s strategy is more theological. Scholars close to Constantinople have been flagging up the ancient canonical texts and precedents which show Constantinople throughout history acting as an arbiter and effective centre of Orthodox unity. These theologians do not claim for Constantinople an absolute decision-making power over the whole Church like that claimed by Catholics for the papacy (though some of their opponents accuse them of secretly wanting this).

Instead, they interpret his traditional title of “first among equals" in a way which would give him a kind of non-executive presidency, a position of real influence rather than executive control. The synod gives Bartholomew and his supporters the chance to be seen to be exercising just such a presiding role. This is probably the reason why other forces within Orthodoxy, which do not share a desire to reinforce the position of the “Second Rome", appear unwilling to allow it to appear as a success.

Moscow, of course, is the prime suspect. Spokesmen for Bartholomew have had difficulty in masking the bitterness of their conviction that the Russians are trying to wreck the synod. But we should beware of oversimplification. Binary oppositions rarely do justice to the complexity of conflicts, either in the world as a whole or in the Church. And this is no exception.

It is perhaps reasonable to suspect that the Bulgarians of doing Moscow’s bidding. The Serbs (who were first attending, then not attending, and now apparently attending but threatening to leave) are also close to the Russians. It is less plausible that the non-participation of the Georgians is due to Russian influence (remember that Georgia and Russia were at war only eight years ago). So we must look for factors beyond the political rivalry between Moscow and Constantinople to understand why the synod was never going to be plain sailing.

Opposition to Constantinople’s attempt to ratchet up its prestige is not necessarily due to pro-Russian sentiment. It is worth remembering that in many Orthodox countries there is a historical resentment against Greeks, dating back to the Ottoman era when the Turks allowed Hellenic linguistic and cultural ascendancy over their Christian populations. This memory lives on in places like Bulgaria and Romania. In Arab Orthodoxy it remains a problem, with native clergy often resentful of a certain preponderance of “parachuted" Greeks and Cypriots among their hierarchy.

The Georgian Church seems to have backed out because it finds the draft documents worryingly open to theological currents deemed overly progressive. One case cited was the document on marriage, which was thought to go too far in officially recognising marriages between Orthodox and non-Orthodox, hitherto only tolerated but not condoned.

Concerns that the synod will prove too accommodating to modernity go far beyond Georgia. They are, in fact, present in every branch of Orthodoxy, especially in the convert-dominated circles jokingly referred to as “the Hyperdox", vocally present on the internet. The Church of Greece contains a formidable ultra-conservative wing led by the monks of Mount Athos, so Constantinople cannot even rely unconditionally on those who might be historically most inclined to support it.

Conservatives are worried that the synod might start a process of modernisation which spins out of control. They evoke our experience of Vatican II and its aftermath as a negative precedent. They are particularly worried that the draft document on ecumenism recognises other Christian communions, including the Catholic Church, as being true Churches with valid sacraments. For many, this amounts to a break with tradition giving occasion for schism, such as has already happened with Old Calendarists in Greece and elsewhere.

The Patriarchate of Antioch has also pulled out. It has no particular reputation for fundamentalism. Indeed, in its canonical territory relations with Catholics are warm, intermarriage is common and intercommunion (unofficially) not unknown. It justifies its absence by the failure of the synod to address a dispute with the neighbouring Patriarchate of Jerusalem over a bishopric in Qatar which Jerusalem has established in Antioch’s canonical territory.

This is more than a pretext: the two Patriarchates have broken off communion, and Antioch says it cannot sit at the conference table with a Church with which it cannot share the chalice.

However, it is not impossible that some at Antioch find the draft texts too timid in embracing dialogue with modernity. There are certainly other Orthodox voices which are disappointed that the texts do not go further in confronting the problems of today’s world.

The difficulties surrounding the synod cannot, then, all be reduced to simple spoiling tactics from Moscow. The tensions and controversies which have become embarrassingly apparent are theological, as well as political and cultural. Above all, they are complex.

How should Catholics respond? Obviously, if we sincerely desire reunion, we must pray that some sort of unity will arise from the confusion. Constantinople has decided to proceed with the Council despite the abstentions, in the hope that it will gain adherence over time, perhaps even leading to the establishment of a permanent organ of Orthodox synodal government. It is worth remembering that many previous councils, including some now recognised as Ecumenical in both East and West, took time to be recognised as such.

Cardinal Kurt Koch, representing the Vatican, will probably be secretly hoping that as much as possible of Constantinople’s agenda prevails. Not only is Bartholomew a better strategic ally in that he is more open to dialogue, but in fact his theological vision is rooted in the common ecclesiological traditions of the first millennium, and hopes for unity depend in large part on a rediscovery of that common patrimony.

Catholics should be praying for reconciliation and unity among Orthodox as a necessary condition for the unity of us all. We should also resist temptations for exploiting their difficulties in finding unity to make cheap points about our alleged superiority.

Orthodoxy has much to teach us, perhaps especially in the primacy it gives to the spiritual, the divine and the transcendent. If we are reminded that the divine and the transcendent, in this world, is messily intertwined with the base and the all too human, then it is salutary to remember that that is the very logic of the Incarnation.

Fr Mark Drew holds a doctorate in ecumenical theology from the Institut Catholique. He is priest in charge of the parish of Hornsea in Middlesbrough diocese.

This article first appeared in the June 24 2016 issue of The Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here.




  1. Thomas Lewis Reply

    “The events of recent weeks have revealed to the world a spectacle of division and bickering more akin to secular politics than the deliberations of men of God.”

    In an age when truth no longer matters, it is not surprising – albeit disappointing – to hear people speak in this way. If Orthodoxy is unraveling, then it has been unraveling ever since Barnabas and Paul had that falling out (Acts 15:36-41). The Orthodox Church is a family. Within a family you will have disagreements. Rather than a sign of deterioration, this is a sign of the Church’s dynamic and vibrant, living presence. You will see no polished PR campaigns here.

  2. Geoffrey Reply

    Thank you Thomas. I was thinking the same thing as I read that statement.

    There is a looooooooooot of surmising and speculation stated as fact in this article; all if it with very little and artificial evidence to back the claims.

    So basically:

    If it was a college paper, you’d probably fail.

    If it was a fantasy story, you might make NYT Best Seller.

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