It is not the grand reunification gathering organisers had hoped for but the Great Pan-Orthodox Council, meeting in Crete since Sunday and until the 26th of June, is on a mission.
This is to end the more than 1000-year schism that since 787 has split the church into 14 separate and independent orthodox primacies. Four have decided to stay away, notably Russia’s Archbishop Kirill, head of the biggest and wealthiest branch.
On Sunday a “divine liturgy” with a common mass was held in Heraklion, led by Orthodoxy’s supreme figure, the ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Bartholomew.
This meeting was more than 50 years in the making as the 14 churches tried to bring their 250 million followers together. However the Syrian, Bulgarian, and Georgian churches cried off at the last minute citing procedural gripes, the Russians joining them after. This was despite their supposed agreement to the talks framework at a synod in Geneva in January.
Six major subjects are on the table today among them the family, the diaspora, ecumenism, and fasting. Subjects have been chosen in a bid to bring orthodoxy up to date, but it has all been thrown into doubt by the stay-aways.
“Orthodox Christians are not and should not behave as a federation of churches, this was said repeatedly by many of us. We are one church, one body, and any differences can only be resolved within a council,” said Bartholomew opening the gathering.
Bartholomew’s calls are significantly undermined by the absence of Archbishop Kirill. The latter leads a church of around 130 million members in Russia and Ukraine, representing more than half the worldwide Orthodox congregation. Already benefiting from the support of the Kremlin,his personal position was bolstered by a historic meeting with the Pope in Havana in February.
By his absence from Crete Kirill prevents the Council claiming “pan-orthodoxy”, and launches a challenge to the historic supremacy of Constantinople.
- The eastern orthodox churches’ split with Rome was formalised in 1054 when the heads of both groups excommunicated each other. The issues dividing those two churches, such as the use of images in religion and the type of bread needed for communion were exacerbated by the main dispute over to whether the old or new capital of the Roman empire should have supremacy.
Constantinople later fell into Muslim hands and was to become the Turkish capital of Istanbul.