If Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew had had his way, the Eastern Orthodox churches would be holding their Holy and Great Council this week in the former church of Hagia Irene in Istanbul where an ecumenical council in 381 approved the Nicene Creed.
But the Russian Orthodox Church refused to go because of tensions between Turkey and Russia over the war in Syria, so he switched the meeting to a modern Orthodox Academy in the tiny fishing port of Kolymvari in western Crete.
Faced with the famously slow pace of Orthodox negotiations, the spiritual head of the world’s 250-300 million Orthodox also wanted to get this Council to take some decisions by majority vote.
The Russians, who represent up to two-thirds of the world’s Orthodox, insisted on consensus voting, however. That would respect all members’ opinions, they argued — but also give them an effective veto over decisions at the summit. Again, Bartholomew gave in to save his plan to hold the first Pan-Orthodox Council in over 1,200 years.
Last week the Russians announced they would not attend the Council, which got down to its formal deliberations on Monday. The Ecumenical Patriarch is holding the meeting anyway, but it is unclear how successful it can be if four of Orthodoxy’s 14 autocephalous churches are absent.
Council officials are reluctant to speculate about Moscow’s motives, but their frustration at the pressure it exerted during preparations for the Council was clear. “The Russians regularly asked for modifications of the texts and said that if they were not made, they would not sign,” Council spokesman Fr John Chryssavgis told The Tablet.
”Now they say many of their own ideas were not accepted,” said the spokesman, who attended preparatory rounds. “I wonder if the representatives of the Church of Russia attended the same meetings.”
Since Moscow’s refusal, several Western experts in the politics of the Orthodox world have shed light on the approach of the Russian Church that has become a major player on the world religion scene since the fall of communism and a close ally of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Moscow is still attached to a sense of imperial grandeur and is not backing the universal mission advocated by Bartholomew,” Andrea Riccardi, founder of the Sant’Egidio movement, told the Turin daily La Stampa.
“The decision (to stay away) expresses and illustrates the fragmentation of the Orthodox Churches, which are confined within their national borders,” the Italian historian said. “On the contrary, the great dream of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople has always been to steer Orthodoxy away from traditionalism and nationalism.”
Riccardi thinks the Moscow Patriarchate did not plan to sabotage the Council but also did not strive to make it a success. “If they had really wanted to make the Council flop, they would have had the opportunity to do this in the preparatory phase,” he said.
“Bartholomew wants to relaunch the Orthodox mission in the world, taking stock of the world’s problems and portraying the image of a united Church. The Russian vision, however, is restricted within its imperial confines, the confines of their great country. “
Riccardi said the absentee churches “risk turning into nationalist and traditionalist minorities in countries facing a demographic crisis, where Protestant Christian groups are on the rise. Orthodoxy is currently facing a deep crisis.”
In Paris, Orthodox intellectual Jean-François Colosimo said rivalry between the two patriarchates could be traced all the way back to the 15th century when Moscow began seeing itself as the “Third Rome” after the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453.
Although Moscow cannot challenge the Ecumenical Patriarch’s traditional status as the first among equals within Orthodoxy, it can exert pressure because of its far larger size, the historian and publisher told the daily La Croix, the French daily newspaper.
“But it’s a giant with feet of clay — half the Russian Orthodox are in Ukraine, where war has been raging for more than two years and threatens to blow up the Ukrainian Orthodox Church.” he said.
There are three competing Orthodox churches in Ukraine, only one of which is under Moscow’s authority. The parliament in Kiev last week urged Bartholomew to help them unite into one national church, which would break away from the Russian church and considerably thin its ranks.
“Paradoxically, the absence of Patriarch Kirill of Moscow at the Council is a consequence of his meeting with Pope Francis,” Colosimo said, referring to the two church leaders’ short meeting in Havana in February.
“This event, which was long delayed to avoid annoying the ultra-nationalist right wing of his church and risk a schism, finally crystallised a campaign against Kirill within his own synod.”
The Russian church has thus ended up “as the champion of an intransigent and minority Orthodoxy … more marginalised than strengthened,” he said.
Thomas Bremer, a historian of Orthodoxy at Münster University in Germany, noted the Moscow Patriarchate often worked closely with the Kremlin, but that did not mean its decision was influenced by President Putin.
“Moscow’s church is the biggest (in Orthodoxy) and an important power player in all relations between churches,” he told German Radio.
“It takes positions on political questions too, including military issues like the Syrian war,” he said. “I would not say it is Putin’s tool, rather it has its own positions that often overlap with those of the Russian government — and, by the way, with most people in Russia.”