Holy and Great Synod 2016: Division Between Greek and Russian Churches

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The Holy and Great Synod, the Panorthodox Council of all Orthodox Churches, which was held June 19-26, 2016, showed that there is a chasm between the Churches of Greece and Russia.

The Extraordinary Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church decided that Russian Patriarch Cyril would abstain from the Synod, after the Orthodox Churches of Georgia, Serbia, Bulgaria and Antioch decided not participate.

“All Churches must participate in the Panorthodox Council,” stated Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, chairman of the Department of External Church Relations, “only in this case will the decisions taken by the Council be valid.” 

“In the 55 years it has taken to organize the Panorthodox Council we have talked about the fact that this needs to be a unifying factor for the Church, in any case it should not cause divisions,” Hilarion underlined. “If we deem preparations not to be complete and that some problems have not yet been resolved, it is better to postpone this Council than to do things in haste and above all in the absence of many local Churches. There cannot be a pan-Orthodox Council if one or more local Churches is not present,” he warned.

However, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, also the head of the Greek Orthodox Church, decided that the Holy and Great Synod will go as planned with the remaining nine Churches.

Analysts say that Patriarch Cyril’s move to abstain from the Council shows that there is a power struggle between the two Patriarchs and, subsequently, the two Churches. Reportedly, Patriarch Bartholomew has said that Cyril wants to become the “third Rome” because he has the power.

The struggle also has a political dimension as Greece represents the West and Russia stands against the West. The Ukraine issue has increased tensions. Experts also point out the close relationship between Patriarch Cyril and Russian President Vladimir Putin. On the other hand, Bartholomew has close ties with the White House, through Archbishop of America Demetrios and the Greek-American lobby. The war has intensified after the tension between Russia and NATO ally Turkey.

Analysts further say that there is a secret “war” on how each of the two big Churches can influence smaller ones. Observers view that Constantinople is more liberal than non-liberal Moscow. Bartholomew wants the Orthodox Church to reach out to more people, while Cyril is against western values and homosexuality. Under Bartholomew’s leadership, the Constantinople Patriarchate has managed to speak to the world and establish itself as a recognized moral authority.

The issue between the Russian and Greek Churches is also evident in the Ukraine. The Kiev Patriarchate believes that there is a basis for establishing an autonomous united Church. The Moscow Patriarchate, on the other hand, raises claims over specific monasteries and church communities in the Ukraine that go as far back as in the days of the Soviet Union.

Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko recently called on Constantinople to recognize the Kiev Patriarchate. However, the influence of Bartholomew is limited compared to the power of Cyril who has a flock of 100 million believers. Bartholomew may be the head of the Orthodox Church, but Cyril has the numbers on his side.

Regarding the Holy and Great Synod, several Patriarchs expressed their disagreement over the seating in the Council. While the Greek organizers wish to have Bartholomew sitting at the head of the table, the Slav Churches condemned the option and complained of “papal practices” that go against the principle of parity between the Primates of the Churches.

On purely religious issues, the Patriarchs disagree over the contents of some documents, which the Council will have to discuss and promulgate, including the one on the relationship between the Orthodox Churches and the other Christian denominations. Critics have asked for amendments to be made.

According to analysts, the decision of the Bulgaria and Georgia Churches – traditional allies of the Moscow Patriarchate – to abstain was affected by the head of Russia’s Church. Allegedly, Patriarch Cyril challenges the leadership of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew since the Church of Russia has over 100 million faithful, a number far higher than the faithful of the Constantinople Patriarchate.

However, the Orthodox Church of Serbia that was to abstain initially, finally decided to participate and the Serbian delegation arrived in Crete.

“It is inconceivable that in the last minute, and despite the unanimous decision to hold (the Panorthodox Council), some Patriarchates decided to be absent from the session, thus challenging the historically accepted positions of the coordinating role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate,” Alexandria Patriarch Theodoros II told Kathimerini, adding that “unity is required, away from political – ethnic interests.”

Nevertheless, the Panorthodox Council went ahead as planned since Patriarch Bartholomew is the only one who had the authority to postpone or cancel it.

The Patriarchates of America, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Serbia, Romania, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania and Czech Lands and Slovakia participated in the Great and Holy Synod.

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