Patriarchs of the Orthodox Churches have agreed to hold an ecumenical council in 2016, a major event that could bring the 14 autonomous Orthodox Churches closer to each other and allow them to consider closer ties to the Roman Catholic Church.
The summit of bishops is the first of its kind to take place in 1, 200 years.
The patriarchs met in Istanbul at a rare 6-9 March summit or synaxis called by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, who is spiritual leader of the Orthodox but has no authority over the other Churches.
The Churches, representing about 250 million faithful, are in full communion with each other but often have minor disputes among themselves.
While respecting the historical primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarch, based on his role as the bishop of former Constantinople, the Russian Orthodox Church – which with 165 million members is by far the biggest Church – has worked to limit his authority by insisting all decisions among Orthodox must be unanimous and issuing objections to Bartholomew’s efforts to foster closer ties to the Vatican.
In his opening address, Bartholomew reminded the patriarchs that synodal decisions were traditionally taken by majority vote. He made an oblique reference to strains between Istanbul and Moscow, saying “we sometimes give the impression to outsiders that we disagree even about who is ‘first’ among us.”
Russian Patriarch Kirill argued for consensus voting at the council and extensive preparations before the council opens. In the final communiqué, the Russian proposals prevailed. The 2016 date is a year later than expected, to allow for the extra work Moscow wanted.
Bartholomew, who fears that some brother Churches are too isolated from each other and the outer world, said the council must find a way to strengthen the synodal system to help Orthodox Churches resolve their differences and work more as one Church rather than many. “Unless the Orthodox Church places its own house in order, it would be unable to address the world with authority and validity,” he said.
He mentioned “relations with non-Orthodox Christians” as a topic to be debated before the council but gave no specifics.
The council, officially called the Holy and Great Synod, will take place in Istanbul’s Hagia Irene, a former Byzantine church in a courtyard of Topkapi Palace, the home of the Ottoman sultans.