While the historic Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, which took place in Crete this past June, sought to bridge the gap between Orthodox and non-Orthodox churches, it seems to have created a divide within the Orthodox Church itself.
In recent developments, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who holds the title “first among equals” in the Orthodox Church, sent a letter to the Archbishop of Athens threatening to sever ecclesiastical and sacramental communion with some in the Greek Church who reject the council.
Certain clergy and laity within the Church of Greece, he said in the letter, have called for Orthodox faithful to rebel against the council. This council calls for more unity and ecumenism between the Orthodox and non-Orthodox Christian churches, however some of the language used has been controversial and disputed between Bartholomew and some Orthodox traditionalists.
These actions, which Bartholomew calls “unholy,” extend to more than just Greece. These Greek clergymen and laymen have gone to churches in Bulgaria, Georgia, and Moldova to rally people to their cause. It “stirred up the faithful,” he said and was “unfortunately” received by primates and hierarchs in those churches. He goes on to rebuke some metropolitans in Greece who he complains have conspired with groups who reject the council.
Bartholomew requested that the Church in Greece admonish all clergy that are propagating ideas contrary to the council, which he says is binding on all Orthodox Christians.
“We do not doubt that Your Eminence and the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece wish to do what is right … and to make the appropriate ecclesiastical exhortations and admonitions to the aforesaid clergy and laity, threatening with deposition those who do not comply as is enjoined by the Divine and Holy Canons for the curing of wounds caused in the body of the Church by such conduct, thereby leaving no room for ‘scandal,’” he told the archbishop.
However, the more controversial aspect of the letter comes next. He asked that the Church of Greece tell the these clergymen that if they do not correct themselves, Bartholomew will respond by “severing ecclesiastical and sacramental communion with them, invoking the shared responsibility and obligation of all Orthodox shepherds to safeguard the unity, peace, and the unified witness of the Orthodox Church.”
The issue that makes this controversial is that the patriarch, in the eyes of critics, may be interfering in the Greek Church, which is autocephalous—meaning that it is not subject to authority by any outside bishop, even Bartholomew.
Interference is not entirely unprecedented, Dr. Ines Murzaku, professor of Ecclesiastical History and Founding Chair of the Department of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University, told Crisis Magazine in an email interview.
However, severing communion with churches not under the patriarch’s jurisdiction as a final measure, she explained, is unprecedented. Bartholomew has excommunicated individuals before, but the individuals have been under his jurisdiction.
“Interference and pressure to excommunicate might sound more as rules/jurisdiction that apply in the West,” Murzaku elaborated. “The patriarch might be viewed by many as ‘the Pope of the East’ or ‘Orthodox Pope’” with this level of interference.
Generally, an autocephalous church will resolve internal problems independently, she said. But she also said Bartholomew does have a “primacy of honor” over all of the other bishops.
“He has no real jurisdiction,” Murzaku pointed out, “but on issues that he considers important, he can provide advice which benefits the unity of the Church.” However, it is unclear whether Bartholomew is going beyond his authority by disassociating himself with critics of the council if Greek ecclesiastical authorities decide not to act on the patriarch’s request to discipline dissident clergy under their jurisdiction.
Concerns, such as a bishop wielding too much power, were one of the main causes of the East-West schism of 1054, which lead to the separation of the Bishop of Rome (i.e., the Pope) and the bishops in the East—ultimately dividing the churches for nearly 1,000 years so far.
Although Bartholomew has not been this aggressive toward other churches, it is important to point out that the Russian Orthodox Church—that serves nearly 2/3 of the Orthodox community—has also suggested that this council was not ecumenical.
In an official statement from the Russian Orthodox Church, the church said that this council could be a step toward an actual pan-Orthodox Council in which all churches will take part. However, without all of the autocephalous churches taking part, the documents in this council cannot claim to represent pan-Orthodox consensus, it said.
With the Russian Orthodox Church denying that the council is binding and the Ecumenical Patriarch moving into the jurisdiction of other churches to demand compliance to the council, the status of future relations between individual Orthodox churches becomes uncertain.
“The synod brought forth problems within Orthodoxy which need discernment, honest discussion and, possible resolutions,” Murzaku added. “Problems if not discerned and discussed might potentially cause separation and schism.” These tensions have existed for centuries as rival patriarchs, most notably those representing Russian and Constantinople, jostle for influence.
The ongoing turmoil could have implications for the Orthodox Church’s relationship with the Roman Catholic Church.
One of the main disagreements within the Orthodox Church pertains to the “Relations” section of the council that discusses Orthodox cooperation with other churches. The document stresses the importance of unity and cautions against divisive discussion and language.
“The Orthodox Church considers all efforts to break the unity of the Church, undertaken by individuals or groups under the pretext of maintaining or allegedly defending true Orthodoxy, as being worthy of condemnation,” the document explains.
“In this spirit, the Orthodox Church deems it important for all Christians, inspired by common fundamental principles of the Gospel, to attempt to offer with eagerness and solidarity a response to the thorny problems of the contemporary world, based on the prototype of the new man in Christ,” it goes on to say.
A press office statement prior to the council, written by the Rev. Dn. Paul L. Gavrilyuk on behalf of the office of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, discussed the opposition to this approach.
The statement rebuked “fringe traditionalists” in the Orthodox Church—primarily in Russia, Greece, Bulgaria, and Georgia—as causing division by opposing the condemnation of breaking unity within Christianity “under the pretext of maintaining or allegedly defending true Orthodoxy.”
In the Russian Orthodox Church’s statement following the council, it said that it has not officially reviewed the documents at this point, but that some local churches that attended the conference refused to sign onto the “Relations” document because they disagreed with it.
Murzaku said that before the council took place, the Russian Church had proposed an extraordinary conference to touch on the issues in the “Relations” document.
In the press statement mentioned earlier, the Ecumenical Patriarchate addressed Orthodox-Catholic relation specifically.
Gavrilyuk drew comparisons between the newly adopted “Relations” document and the ecumenical reforms expressed in the “Decree on Ecumenism” in the Second Vatican Council of the Catholic Church. The document used similar language.
Vatican II caused a mountain of controversy within the Catholic Church in the 1960s resulting in schismatic tensions. The documents, including the aforementioned decree, caused some Catholics to reject the Council and others to even abandon the Church entirely, though virtually no Council fathers did so despite lively disagreement over the proper interpretation of the documents in the years that followed. It is unsurprising that some of the same concerns are raising tension within the Orthodox Church. Many critics feared that some of the Council language on ecumenism downplayed the primacy of Rome. Orthodox critics of the “Relations” document seem to have similar fears—that it may be downplaying their teaching on the decentralization of power in Orthodoxy. Orthodox traditionalists are eager to resist papal authority.
Vatican II asserts that there is a “hierarchy” of truths. When engaged in ecumenical dialogue, the Council said, Catholics “must proceed with love for the truth, with charity, and with humility.” The Orthodox council touches on the same concept by phrasing it as a “hierarchy of difficulties.”
The concept that both councils present, Gavrilyuk explains, are pastoral attempts to strengthen unity among Christians. The idea is that not all of the differences are equally important, and that churches should focus on unity.
He sees the “Relations” as building on progress made in Vatican II, which he believes helps strengthen ties between Catholics and Orthodox.
Before Vatican II, the Catholic Church tended to refer to the Orthodox as schismatics who need to be reunited with Rome through absorption, he said. After Vatican II, the Catholic Church emphasized the “special consideration” Orthodox have because of their “true sacraments, above all by apostolic succession, of priesthood and Eucharist.”
Gavrilyuk believes “Vatican II set the stage for other significant developments” that include the Catholic Church and Orthodox Church lifting the mutual excommunications on each other from 1054. Another development he attributes to Vatican II is the Joint Orthodox-Catholic Theological Consultation in the United States that happened in the same year.
The launching of the International Theological Commission also followed Vatican II. Gavrilyuk said this was launched with the intention of re-establishing full communion between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church, which was another important step.
“The document, together with the recent meetings between the pope and the primates of the local Orthodox Churches, gives an impulse to the global Orthodox-Catholic dialogue in a constructive direction,” he wrote. “While the historical importance of the document should not be exaggerated, it nevertheless represents a step towards the re-establishment of the full communion in accordance with Christ’s will in John 17:21 ‘that they all may be one.’”
Similar ecumenical approaches of the Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church could encourage more dialogue. However, the division within the Orthodox Church raises questions as to how it could affect the attempt at more dialogue.
Rome followed the council very closely by sending representatives to observe the council, Catholic News Service reports.
The Vatican was hoping the council would take place, Bishop Brian Farrell, one of the observers said, according to the article.
“Every process that highlights and strengthens unity among Christ’s followers is in line with the Gospel and every process that does not bring about unity is a negation of the prayer of Jesus at the Last Supper” for his disciples to be one, the article reported that he said. “It is hugely important for Christianity and, therefore, for the Catholic Church that the pan-Orthodox council be an effective sign of the unity of Orthodoxy.”