A few days ago, at the end of the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox churches this month, a Pan-Orthodox Synod was announced by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople to begin in 2016.

This is a big deal.


While preparations have been in the works for decades, this synod, if it comes to fruition, will be the first time the mainstream East has held a Holy Synod, i.e. Council, since the Second Council of Nicaea over 1,200 years ago.

Ten points have been worked on ahead of the Synod. Most revolve around church governance.

Two main thoughts came to my mind in my reflection on this announcement and the previous preparations for this Synod.

1) Is this a possible East-West breakthrough, or a sign of further divergence?

12973226674_58b6abcfeaThe See of Rome has worked hard since Vatican II to create a fraternal dialogue with the Eastern churches. This has especially been the case under the papacies of John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and Pope Francis. Drawing on the spirit and letter of the Second Vatican Council, John Paul II in Ut unum sint opened the door for possible seismic shifts in the papacy’s self-understanding. Benedict XVI also reached out to his brother bishops in the Orthodox churches, especially the Ecumenical Patriarch. However, questions and concerns did surround his dropping of the title “Patriarch of the West.” Pope Francis has undoubtedly allayed some Easterners’ fears. Both before and after he became pope, he has worked hard to advance Catholic-Orthodox relations. His frequent usage of the title “Bishop of Rome,” a more collegial title which has less monarchical connotations, has not gone unnoticed in the East. The sees of Rome and Constantinople appear to be experiencing a grand rapprochement.

12972682375_8be1009f73However, do not expect this Synod to be primarily about East-West divisions. In all likelihood it will have little if anything to say about relations with the West. More than likely this Synod is a sign that the Orthodox churches are developing a new understanding of church governance which relies less on the traditional structure, or more accurately the traditional principles and values, of the Pentarchy. Pentarchy is an ancient understanding of Church governance which understands the Church to be governed by the five ancient and powerful sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. With the rise of new patriarchs and autocephalous (i.e. autonomous) churches in the East, the Orthodox churches have expanded the Pentarchy but retained its core principles.

While the Orthodox disagree with Rome’s claims to primacy, there has been a huge reluctance to convene a council without Rome’s presence. Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox churches have historically lacked a means and a will to call an Ecumenical Council in which one of the Pentarchy, i.e. Rome, was not present. As Richard Gaillardetz notes in his book Teaching with Authority:

The place of universal reception in determining the authority of councils has remained important for the Eastern Churches, leading them to accept the ecumenicity of only the first seven councils. They argue that all subsequent councils lacked the reception of the Eastern Churches and therefore could not be considered ecumenical. In fairness, many Orthodox theologians have similarly refused to grant ecumenicity to the gathering of bishops at Constantinople convened in 867 by Photius, the patriarch of Constantinople, on the grounds that this council has not been received in the West. (198)

12972919603_972f97ddeaPerhaps rather than representing a rapprochement with the West, the calling of a Holy Synod in the Orthodox churches represents a new way of being church. A cynical reading of the announcement might even suggest that the Orthodox might be rid of their concerns about the absence of a deliberative Roman presence at an Ecumenical Council. However, the preparatory meetings have suggested that the question of Roman relations, while not primary, has not been ignored. It remains to be seen whether this Holy Synod will be received as an Ecumenical Council in the East in the same way as the traditional seven councils.

Patriarch Bartholomew has hinted that the Orthodox might be on the verge of a dramatic shift in church governance in the Address by His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew at the Synaxis of the Primates of the Orthodox Churches.

 [W]e must deliberate and decide about the way in which the Holy and Great Synod will convene, that is to say about how the Most Holy autocephalous Orthodox Churches will be represented there in a manner that is fair and consistent with the principles of our ecclesiological tradition. In the first millennium of our Church’s history, when the institution of the Pentarchy of the ancient Patriarchates prevailed, it was considered absolutely necessary for all the ancient Patriarchates to be represented, even if by a small number of delegates. The emphasis was placed not on the number of those in attendance, but on the assurance of representation by all of the Apostolic Thrones. Over the second millennium after Christ, other Patriarchates and autocephalous Churches were also added, with reference to validation of their status by a future Ecumenical Synod (for those not receiving status approval in the past). By analogy, then, and in accordance with the ancient tradition, it would also be desirable in the case of the proposed Holy and Great Synod that all Orthodox Churches recognized as autocephalous today should be represented therein by a number of delegates designated by us, if possible at this Synaxis.


The Orthodox Church, to which we belong by the grace of God, does not have at its disposal any other instrument of preserving its unity except synodality. It is for this reason that any further delay in convening the Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church severely harms its unity. Our responsibility in this regard is immense. The Church of Constantinople, which for a thousand years after the great Schism with Rome has served the unity of Orthodoxy by repeatedly convening Pan-Orthodox Synods, is today equally conscious of its onerous obligation with regard to Pan-Orthodox unity. Thankfully, however, it is not alone in this. The other autocephalous Orthodox Churches, too, proved over fifty years ago that they yearn for the convocation of the Holy and Great Synod of our Church. Behold, the time has come; indeed, “times are impatient.”

Looking at Patriarch Bartholomew’s address, it becomes clear that the main concern of the Synod is church governance:

However, in order to achieve all this, beloved Brothers in the Lord, there is one necessary condition, namely the unity of our Church and the prospect of addressing the contemporary world with a unified voice. This must also concern our present Synaxis inasmuch as we are entrusted with responsibility for the unity of our most Holy Church.


Nevertheless, it is precisely on this point that a serious question arises. How and in what way is the communion of the Orthodox Churches expressed? Historical experience has demonstrated that very often the autocephalous Orthodox Churches act as if they were self-sufficient Churches, as if they say to the other Churches: “I have no need of you.” (1 Cor. 12.21) Instead of seeking the cooperation of other Orthodox Churches on matters pertaining to Orthodoxy in its entirety, they act on their own and initiate bilateral relations with those outside of Orthodoxy, sometimes even in a spirit of competition. Other autocephalous Churches differentiate their position before non-Orthodox and do not actively participate in activities agreed upon at a Pan-Orthodox level. Indeed, more recently, there are some Pan-Orthodox Preconciliar decisions, which are not adhered to by some Churches despite the fact that they cosigned these agreements. Or what can we say of cases where sister Churches of their own accord dispute canonical boundaries of other sister Churches, provoking bitterness and at times turmoil within this communion? All these things render apparent the need for an instrument, whether institutionally endorsed or not, which is able to resolve differences that arise and problems that are created from time to time, in order that we may not be led to division and conflict.

 2) Can it be done? If so, who will make it happen?

12992126684_820a74e1caResistance to a Pan-Orthodox Synod has been strong amongst the Russians. Even recently it has appeared that there will be difficulties in convening the Synod. According to CatholicCulture.org “the Patriarchate of Antioch “suspended” its support for the joint announcement, citing a dispute with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem.”

Is this Patriarch Bartholomew vs. Patriarch Kirill? It is no secret that the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Russian Patriarch are at odds about church governance, Western relations, jurisdiction, and much more. Relations between Constantinople and Moscow are so strained that some people including myself wonder whether the Patriarch of Moscow might try to assume the mantle of leadership for the Orthodox churches from the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople. It would not be the first time.

Patriarch Bartholomew and Patriarch Kirill could not even agree on whether to hold a Pan-Orthodox Synod until recently. Vatican Insider wrote:

Before an agreement was reached, Bartholomew, the supreme spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox faithful around the world, held a long discussion with the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kiril.

And even before this last Synaxis, Asian News reported that “Kirill’s participation was in doubt until the very last, as the Russian patriarch had asked for “another date and another location” for the meeting. In the end, however, he was present when the Synaxis opened.”

Asian News does a good job of summarizing the current situation in the Orthodox world:

Currently, two realities coexist within the Orthodox world . Firstly, Constantinople, towards which the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Sofia, Belgrade, the Churches of Greek language and culture , and the Church of Albania look. Secondly, the Patriarchate of Moscow which includes Georgia and the Churches of Poland and the Czech Republic; and, surprisingly, the Patriarchate of Romania. The Moscow Patriarchate does little to hide its hegemonic ambitions, especially among the Orthodox diaspora .

The decision to convene a pan-Orthodox Synod seems to finally draw to a close an issue [read Church governance] that has lasted for at least five decades [this refers to the pan-Orthodox conferences that have attempted for several decades to set the groundwork for a pan-Orthodox Synod]. The Eastern Churches are autocephalous, and the internal discussions of the Orthodox world, there have been significant divisions that have prevented the possibility of a joint discussion. Perhaps the most critical moment was when Moscow – at the time led by Alexei II – ceased to name the patriarch of Constantinople in liturgies, as a reaction to Bartholomew I’s proximity to the Orthodox Church of Estonia. The tension between the two patriarchates – derived from a theological discussion on the issue of “primus inter parese” [sic; first among equals] – had effectively barred any progress on the preparation of a pan-Orthodox council.

12972811993_8c1fdb3325Ecclesial tensions are also being fueled by secular and political ones. With the limitations placed on the Ecumenical Patriarchate by the Turkish government, the viability of the Patriarchate as the primus inter pares of the Orthodox churches has been called into question. Turkish law requires the patriarch to be subject to the authority of the Republic of Turkey, elected by the Standing Synod of Metropolitan Bishops (which only recently was allowed to have 6 bishops outside of Turkey on its membership), and be a Turkish-born citizen of Greek ethnicity (of which there are few people thanks to the exchange of Greeks and Turks between Greece and Turkey after the Turkish War of Independence). This does not include the limits placed on his functions. Let us hope the tension between Patriarch Bartholomew and Patriarch Kirill does not become an ecclesial Crimea.

I am curious to see what happens. I hope that this Holy Synod will be convened and be a source of healing for not only the Orthodox but the whole of the Christian world. Only time will tell. For now all we can do is hope for the day when we are all one – ut unum sint! – ἵνα πάντες ἓν ὦσιν!




Send to Kindle