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Johannes Oeldemann {*}

Will the Pan-Orthodox Council Come?

Old Conflicts and New Constellations in the Orthodox Church


From: Herder Korrespondenz, 11/2010, P. 553-557
webmaster's own, not authorized translation


    The preparatory process of a "Pan-Orthodox Council" has been going on for decades. A good relationship between the Patriarchs of Constantinople and Moscow is crucial for the realization of such a meeting. Constantinople has historically and canonically a position of prime importance; at the same time, the Moscow Patriarchate is the Orthodox Church with the largest membership and the greatest influence.


For the Orthodox Church in Germany the 27 February 2010 was a historic day. The Orthodox bishops gathered in Nuremberg announced that in Germany an Orthodox Bishops' Conference has been founded. With it a long-cherished dream of many Orthodox Christians, who have been living for decades in the Western diaspora, became a reality. The unity of the Orthodox Church - all Orthodox Christians basically confess, despite the jurisdictional division into different Patriarchates or autocephalous (independent) local churches, that they belong to it - finds now also a visible expression in a joint bishops' conference.

The "Kommission der Orthodoxen Kirche in Deutschland" (KOKiD), a committee founded in 1994 at the instigation of the Münster Orthodox theologian Anastasios Kallis with the objective to promote the cooperation between the Orthodox Christians in Germany, remains a working structure of the Orthodox bishops' conference. Chairman of the Orthodox bishops' conference' is ex officio the most senior representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Germany, Metropolitan Augoustinos, who is since 1980 head of the Greek Orthodox metropolitanate in Germany.

With their Nuremberg decision, the Orthodox Christians in Germany were the first who in this way implemented the relevant recommendations of a Pan-Orthodox Assembly, the Fourth Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference, which had met in June 2009 at the Orthodox Centre in Chambésy (near Geneva). This pre-conciliar conference got the process of preparing a Pan-Orthodox Council going again, which had already begun in the sixties but came to a halt since the mid-nineties. Due to its difficult external situation - first in the Crusader States (11-13 century), then in the Ottoman Empire (15-19 century), and finally under Communist rule (20th century), the Orthodox Church could convene not even one Pan-Orthodox council in the entire second millennium of the Christian era.

At the Pan-Orthodox council, the autocephalous Orthodox Churches therefore want to discuss the theological, pastoral and canonical issues arising from the changed situation of their churches at the turn of the second to the third millennium. For there are a lot of changes regarding not only the social context in which the Orthodox Christians are living (put briefly: democracy instead of monarchy, pluralism instead of state church) but also the internal constitution of their churches, after the Orthodox Christians do not only live in Eastern Europe, Asia Minor and North Africa but have become a world-wide church through migration. Orthodoxy is therefore no longer everywhere the dominant majority religion, but is in many places in a Diaspora situation.


Draft Texts for a Council

It was owed to the charismatic personality of the then Patriarch of Constantinople Athenagoras I that at the beginning of the sixties a Pan-Orthodox consultation process began in order to deal with this changed situation. At four "Pan-Orthodox conferences" (1961 to 1968) on the one hand inner-Orthodox issues were discussed, on the other hand, the relationship with other Christian churches. At the first Pan-Orthodox conference in Rhodes in 1961, for the aimed-at council of all Orthodox Churches a comprehensive list of topics was compiled, containing eight thematic areas, each with numerous sub-themes.

Already at the Fourth Pan-Orthodox Conference in Chambésy in 1968 one recognized the need for a reduction of the topics that had to be treated. Moreover, on this occasion it was agreed that the envisaged council should officially be called "Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church". The final agenda was laid down by the First Pre-conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference of 1976 in Chambésy.



It comprises ten points. The first four (diaspora, autocephaly, autonomy and diptychs, i.e. the ranking of the Patriarchates) result from the development of the Orthodox Church to a world church. Another three have to do with the changed social situation (Calendar issue, impediments to marriage, fasting rules). While the last three deal with ecumenical issues (relationship with other churches, relations with the WCC, and socio-ethical issues).

In the following years one began to compile draft texts for the council, in order to offer the council fathers a basis for their discussions but also in advance to pursue an agreement on particularly controversial issues. In this way, a number of remarkable documents were written. They give information about today's self-conception of the Orthodox Church and are worth reading also for outsiders. The Second Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy 1982) adopted draft resolutions on "impediments to marriage" (with considerations on mixed marriages), "Adaptation of the ecclesiastical fasting regulations to the requirements of today", and the calendar issue.

At the Third Pre-Conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference (Chambésy 1986), the delegates treated again the importance of fasting and submitted documents on "The Relations of the Orthodox Church to the whole Christian world" (with specific statements about the dialogue with Anglicans, Old Catholics, Oriental Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Lutherans and Reformed) and on "The Orthodox Church and the ecumenical movement". In addition, a document on various socio-ethical issues was adopted, with the cumbersome title "The contribution of the Orthodox Church to the attainment of peace, justice, freedom, brotherhood and love among peoples and the elimination of racial and other discriminations".


Revival of National Ideas

Engine and central coordinating point of the consultation process was the by the Ecumenical Patriarchate maintained Orthodox Centre in Chambésy under the direction of the communicative and intelligent Metropolitan Damaskinos (Papandreou). Much of what has been achieved in the seventies and eighties regarding the inner-Orthodox understanding is owed to his ability for "mediation", as one would put it today. It is therefore probably no coincidence that the process of preparation for the Pan-Orthodox council came to a standstill for several years - not only, but also because of his serious illness after a stroke in 2001.



More important than the absence of the main promoter of the council, however, were the political changes in Eastern and Southeastern Europe. They have not only led to the disintegration of the Soviet Union but also to fundamental changes in the church landscape in the formerly Communist-ruled states. In Ukraine and Romania the Greek-Catholic Churches, which after World War II had been prohibited and forced into the underground, could build again legal church structures. This has not only caused conflicts with the Orthodox Churches in both countries but also burdened the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue in the following years. In Bulgaria, an inner-Orthodox schism emerged, because a part of the clergy called the authority of the still under communist rule elected Patriarch Maxim into question.

In Ukraine, three - sometimes even four - Orthodox "churches" have been competing already for many years to gain the favour of the faithful: There is first the Ukrainian Orthodox Church. She is led by Metropolitan Volodymyr and belongs to the Patriarchate of Moscow. Only she is canonically recognized, i.e. also other Orthodox Churches consider her to be a legitimate Orthodox Church in Ukraine. Secondly, there is still the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Kiev Patriarchate. She is led by "Patriarch" Filaret (a former Metropolitan of the Moscow Patriarchate, who has meanwhile been laicized by Moscow). And thirdly, the Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church, founded by Ukrainian expatriates.

In the background of the competing Orthodox jurisdictions in Ukraine there is, besides inner-church quest for power, above all an 'away from Moscow' movement. It is admittedly understandable as a reaction to Soviet hegemony policy, which involved also the church, but it leads nevertheless to an overemphasis of the National thought, which is actually contrary to the self-understanding of Orthodoxy.

The revival of national ideas, partly with a nationalistic slant, and the quest for breaking away from Moscow's grasp furthered also the emergence of new church structures in Moldova and Estonia - and thus the independence from the Moscow Patriarchate. In the Republic of Moldova a portion of the faithful joined the Romanian Orthodox Church. Due to the linguistic proximity, they felt more connected with her than with the distant Moscow. In Estonia the Estonian Autonomous Orthodox Church has been revived, supported by the public authorities anxious for independence. In the period between the world wars, in the independent Republic of Estonia, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had in 1923 given her the status of an autonomous church (self-governing, but further subordinated to the Patriarchate of Constantinople).

With the re-establishment of this church, which is led by a Greek Orthodox metropolitan, in 1996 a parallel jurisdiction came into being to the Orthodox Metropolitanate of Tallinn and all Estonia that is subordinate to the Moscow Patriarchate. The revocation of the communion between Moscow and Constantinople for several months shows how seriously this step was taken by Moscow.


No Catholic-Orthodox Understanding regarding the Role of the Pope

In this conflictual situation not only the process of preparation for the Pan-Orthodox council came to a halt. Also the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue increasingly suffered from the inner-Orthodox disputes. The eighth plenary meeting of the Joint International Commission for the Theological Dialogue between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church in July 2000 in Baltimore, USA failed mainly because of the conflict within the Orthodox delegation. When in September 2006 in Belgrade the dialogue was resumed after a long break, it came already at the next plenary meeting in Ravenna in October 2007 to a major confrontation. The delegation of the Patriarchate of Moscow under the leadership of the then in Vienna resident Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) left on the first day in protest the meeting because representatives of the Estonian Autonomous Orthodox Church were present, which is recognized as legitimate only by Constantinople, but not by Moscow.

That's why the in Ravenna adopted document has not the signatures of the representatives of the Russian Orthodox Church. This complicates its reception up to this day. The reservations about the document of Ravenna stated by the Russian side are not only of a formal nature but also refer to the content of the document. In the centre of Russian criticism is a section that describes the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate within the Orthodox Church after the separation of East and West Church in a certain parallelism to the role of the Pope in the Catholic Church. The Russian Orthodox Church refuses to acknowledge such a "primatial function" of the Ecumenical Patriarchate within the Orthodox Church - "albeit it is understood in a different way (than the Roman primacy, J.O.)", as the document of Ravenna says.

Due to the inner-Orthodox distortions after the scandal of Ravenna, also the "document of Crete", working basis for the next phase of the international Orthodox-Catholic dialogue, was drawn up without Russian participation. It was compiled by the Coordinating Committee of the Commission in autumn 2008 at a meeting in Crete and is the first attempt of a joint description of the role of the bishop of Rome in the first millennium.



The Russian Church admittedly took part in the discussions on the draft text during the two most recent plenary assemblies of the Commission in Cyprus in 2009 and in Vienna in September 2010, after the problem 'Orthodox Church in Estonia' could be solved by reaching an agreement. In future only autocephalous churches would be allowed to participate in the deliberations of the International Joint Commission. However, neither in Cyprus nor in Vienna it was possible to reach an understanding on the role of the Pope in the first millennium. This is probably not only due to the fact that the "document of Crete" is too much influenced by the Roman view, as it was spread in the press by Orthodox Commission members after the Vienna conference, but at least as much due to the reservations of the Russian side about a text that was written by "the Greeks" together with the Catholics.

It is a great problem for the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue that the Russians are relatively isolated within the international dialogue commission. The Joint Commission is clearly dominated by Greek participants, because not only the representatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but also of the Patriarchates of Alexandria and Jerusalem and the Orthodox Churches of Cyprus and Greece are from the Greek-speaking Orthodoxy.

Moreover, the Russian Orthodox Church can currently not rely on the support of the other Slav-speaking churches. For the Serbian representatives have by virtue of their theological education close relations to Greece, and the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was, due to her still difficult internal situation, not represented at the last meetings of the Commission.

With these considerations I do in no way speak out in favour of an "arrangement into blocks" within the Orthodox church - here Slavs, Greeks there. But the isolated position of the delegates of the Moscow Patriarchate does not only "hurt" their self-confidence as representatives of the by far greatest Orthodox Church (the Moscow Patriarchate has more believers than all the other autocephalous Orthodox churches), it does also not sufficiently justice to the Russian theology, because its quality clearly improved in the last two decades.

Another problem aggravating the inner-Orthodox relations are the various exile communities in Western Europe. During the communist rule in Eastern Europe they broke with their mother churches (which they - rightly or wrongly - assumed to be under Communist influence) and put themselves in charge of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Both the Russian and the Romanian Orthodox Church have been trying for several years to bring these communities back under their jurisdiction - partly friendly wooing and inviting, partly firmly requiring them to join. On such occasions also legal means are used, e.g. to subordinate certain church buildings to the patriarchate again.

As the dispute over the Russian Cathedral in Nice examplarily shows, the exile communities are thus endangered to be deprived of their basis of existence, and so the model of an Orthodoxy that is integrated into Western society is in danger. Moreover, these discussions reveal that, despite declarations to the contrary, among many Orthodox hierarchs the thinking in national categories is still dominant.


The Patriarch Bartholomew and Kirill Maintain Good Contacts

That the process of preparing the Pan-Orthodox council despite these difficulties recently revived has probably not only to do with realizing the urgency of the issues on the agenda but also with the fact that in several Orthodox Patriarchates a change at the executive level took place. With Patriarch Daniel (born in 1951, in office since September 2007) in Romania and Patriarch Cyril (born in 1946, in office since February 2009) in Russia, two patriarchs moved to the top of their churches who not only belong to a younger generation but have also years of experience in the international arena. Both have worked as representatives of their church for a time at the World Council of Churches in Geneva resp. Bossey and know therefore how to behave in the ecumenical context.

The recent change in the patriarchate in Serbia has admittedly not led to an alternation of generations - the new patriarch is 80 years old - but to a change of mentality. Patriarch Irinej (born in 1930, in office since January 2010) turns out to be very open to ecumenical contacts. He has already repeatedly pleaded in favour of a papal visit to Serbia. In August 2010, he personally opened the meeting of the Societas Oecumenica, the European Society for Ecumenical Research at the Theological Faculty of Belgrade. And during his visit to Austria in September, Patriarch Irinej expressly emphasized the readiness of his Church to seek the ecumenical dialogue.

But the further development of the relationship between Constantinople and Moscow will be more decisive for the improvement of the inner-Orthodox relations. After a decade of conflict, the "Synaxis" (Assembly) of the Orthodox patriarchs in October 2008 gave for the first time positive signals again. It opened the way for the convening of the Fourth Pre-conciliar Pan-Orthodox Conference, which - as already mentioned - was held in June 2009, again in Chambésy.



The document on "The Orthodox Diaspora", which was - on the basis of previous preliminary work - adopted at this conference, lays the foundation for a regulated cooperation of the Orthodox Bishops who in the West European and American Diaspora belong to various patriarchates.

The conference adopted also a model constitution for Orthodox Bishops' Conferences in the Diaspora, which formed the basis for the establishment of the Orthodox Bishops' Conference in Germany. A follow-up conference in December 2009 made concrete proposals on how the process for recognition of the autocephaly or autonomy of an Orthodox local church might look like, and so in the intended agenda of the Pan-Orthodox Council only for the diptychs list - where the ranking of the autocephalous churches is determined - so far a proposal for a solution is missing.

The above mentioned progress in the preparation for the Pan-Orthodox Council was probably also made possible by the fact that Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow maintain good personal relationships. The fact that Patriarch Kirill's first journey abroad led him to the seat of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Istanbul could be due to the canonical order within the Orthodox Church. But that Patriarch Bartholomew in May 2010 answered this first visit with a 10-day return visit to Russia was extraordinary.

And so it was admittedly not a sensation but still a surprise to many observers when at the end of his Russia visit Patriarch Bartholomew said that the Pan-Orthodox council should be convened within the next two years.

In order that this ambitious plan can be put into practice, besides the good will of the two top-level hierarchs in Moscow and Constantinople further efforts are certainly needed. For it is not enough when within Orthodoxy the historically and canonically first Patriarchate (Constantinople) and the nowadays most powerful and influential Patriarchate (Moscow) reach agreement. For the convening of a Pan-Orthodox council requires the consent of all autocephalous Orthodox churches. That's why the way to the opening of the Pan-Orthodox Council is perhaps longer than the optimistic reports from Moscow and Constantinople insinuate.


    {*} Johannes Oeldemann (born in 1964) is Director of the Johann-Adam-Möhler-Institute for Ecumenics in Paderborn and member of the Joint Orthodox-Catholic Commission in Germany. Recent Publications: Die Kirchen des christlichen Ostens (2008), Einheit der Christen - Wunsch oder Wirklichkeit? Kleine Einführung in die Ökumene (2009).


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