A religious summit last held more than 1,200 years ago suddenly risks being downgraded or postponed because of Syria’s four-year civil war. This unexpected twist has come as the world’s Orthodox churches, the second-largest ecclesial family in Christianity, were supposed to be only months away from their first major council since 787.
Now it is no longer clear when or where the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, a summit first proposed at least as far back as 1961 and provisionally scheduled for May in Istanbul, will be held.
With its traditional icons and complex liturgies, Orthodox Christianity can seem like an unchanging remnant of a long-lost era. But it lives very much in today’s world and its 14 autocephalous (independent) member churches can be wrapped up in its politics and subject to its pressures.
The chain of events now threatening to affect the council began last month when Turkey, which opposes Syrian President Bashar al-Assad, shot down a Russian bomber that it said had strayed into its air space while attacking Syrian rebels. Moscow, which supports Assad, demanded an apology and Ankara refused to give it.
The Kremlin reacted with a full range of diplomatic punishments, suspending a joint energy project, banning imports of some Turkish products, and canceling visa-free travel for Russians to Turkey. Russian President Vladimir Putin called the incident “a stab in the back by accomplices of terrorists” and threatened serious consequences for Ankara.
Out of the media spotlight, the Russian Orthodox Church, which has close ties to the Kremlin, also got active. Within days, Metropolitan Hilarion, the church’s influential “foreign minister,” called off a trip he was about to take to Turkey for preparatory talks about the council.
Then another senior Russian cleric asked whether, under these political circumstances, the summit could be held as planned in Istanbul, which has been the center of the Orthodox world since it was Constantinople, capital of the Byzantine Empire, before the Muslim conquest of 1453.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate, headquarters of the loosely-tied Orthodox family, is based there, as is Orthodoxy’s spiritual leader Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I. The plan was to hold the council in Hagia Irene, a church-turned-museum in the Topkapi Palace complex where the Council of Constantinople confirmed the Nicene Creed in 381.
The council might even be postponed, Archpriest Igor Yakymchuk, secretary for inter-Orthodox relations at the Moscow Patriarchate, hinted to RIA Novosti news agency in early December.
“It is not known when it will take place,” he said.
“If the situation deteriorates, it’s quite possible the Council will be held elsewhere. It’s difficult to talk about.”
Yakymchuk made no suggestions, but Russian media began mentioning other possible venues, including Moscow and the Orthodox ecumenical center in Chambesy, outside Geneva.
The chill winds from Moscow are the latest twist in the start-and-stop preparations for the Great Council that go back to at least 1961, when the larger Roman Catholic Church was preparing its own Second Vatican Council to bring it closer in line with modern times.
In the Orthodox world, the 20th century brought enormous changes, starting with the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution and continuing with the Communist takeover after World War II in traditionally Orthodox Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, and other countries.
The influential Russian church, which now makes up about two-thirds of Orthodoxy’s 300 million-strong membership worldwide, was put under tight Communist control, as were the churches in the postwar Soviet bloc, and were mostly cut off from other churches.
Political upheavals and economic problems prompted many Orthodox believers to emigrate from their homes in Greece, Turkey, and the Middle East to Europe, North America, and even further afield. Immigrants there started parishes and dioceses of their own national churches, with the confusing result that some major cities had several different Orthodox bishops.
The collapse of communism across Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union from 1989 to 1991 led to a renaissance of the Russian Orthodox Church, which makes up about two-thirds of Orthodoxy’s 300 million-strong world membership. With strong support from the post-Communist Kremlin and allied oligarchs, the Moscow Patriarchate re-established itself as a moral voice at home and an important presence in Orthodox affairs abroad.
Preparations for the pan-Orthodox council have highlighted differences between the large and well-funded Russian church and the fragile Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is tightly limited by the Turkish state and counts only about 3,000 members in its independent Church of Constantinople.
One problem is how the 14 member churches should decide major issues. Some leaders favored majority voting but the Russian Church insisted on and won a consensus rule, which meant it retained veto power over any changes to be made.
There are disagreements over relations to other Christian churches, especially to Catholics who since the Second Vatican Council have been interested in coming closer and allowing intercommunion among believers split since 1054.
While Bartholomew shows keen interest, the Russian Church has blocked progress because of its dispute with the Greek Catholic Church in Ukraine, which is loyal to Rome. Moscow accuses it of trying to take property and poach believers from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church affiliated with the Russians, something the Greek Catholics deny.
There are also complex questions of authority within Orthodoxy, for example which autonomous member church is responsible for new communities in the diaspora or how to uphold the tradition of one bishop per city in Western countries where there are sometimes several of them according to ethnic backgrounds.
Hilarion, one of the most important figures in preparations for the summit, tipped his hand last year when he said just holding the council would be historic and Moscow saw no need for it to make any changes.
Among churches so rich in tradition and protocol, differences are handled discreetly and symbolism carries weight. A slight delay in holding the council might not be too significant. But moving it from Istanbul to any other location would be an embarrassing setback for the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It would look like Russian interests — both those of the church and of the Kremlin — had taken precedence over all others.