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Vasily Chernov: In Absentia

The decision of the Russian Orthodox Church not to attend the Pan-Orthodox Council was predictable. It was announced after the ROC’s traditional allies—the Orthodox Churches of Antioch, Georgia, Serbia, and Bulgaria—had said they were not coming either. This means that, while most local Orthodox churches will attend, the largest church in terms of number of adherents (the ROC) will not. We need to keep in mind, however, that an overwhelming majority of the tens of millions of self-identifying Russian Orthodox people are connected to their church by their infant baptism alone and can hardly be seen practicing any sort of faith later in their lives.

General church councils possess supreme canonical authority in the Orthodox Church. In a national Orthodox church, the local council may try to depose any bishop of whatever rank. However, for the Orthodox Church acting as a whole, the councils are not so much administrative in purpose as (speaking theologically) a way to know God’s will through hearing each other. For this reason, the councils form the foundation for the global identity and unity of the Orthodox Church, which has no single visible touchstone of unity, as Catholics do, for example, in the Pope.

The Primates of the Local Orthodox Churches and their delegations participate in the opening session of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church at the Orthodox Academy of Crete. PHOTO: © SEAN HAWKEY.

The Primates of the Local Orthodox Churches and their delegations participate in the opening session of the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church at the Orthodox Academy of Crete. PHOTO: © SEAN HAWKEY.

So, what made the ROC withdraw herself from a council, the preparations for which began as early as 1961, with enthusiastic Russian involvement?

Part of the problem is probably Moscow’s specific vision of how joint decisions are to be made. According to Cyril Hovorun of the Stockholm School of Theology, “there are two aspects to the issue: the Council itself and the pre-conciliar process. Both are important, but the Council is the objective goal, and the pre-conciliar process is a way to achieve it. Yet, now the means are trying to become the end—the preparatory process is attempting to replace the council. For this reason, some churches would prefer to actually make all key decisions in advance, so that the Council might simply approve them. But this sort of logic contradicts the very idea of a Council and has led to the present fiasco.”

The ROC and her allies believe it would be better to settle all quarrels privately, and for the Council to remain an event at which the bishops merely parade in their beautiful vestments and demonstrate the glory of Orthodox unity. Yet many other Orthodox churches do not share this approach. They believe that all conciliar decisions should be made within the context of open discussion, not in the behind-the-scenes negotiations of the ecclesiastical diplomats. They also believe that it is our ability to communicate—not to intrigue’—that ought to form a basis for any ecclesial unity.

Another thing that influenced the Russian Сhurch’s decision not to come to the Council was their fear of any conciliar decision—even one that had originally been drafted in Moscow. Once a text is approved by conciliar authority, it takes on a life of its own. The ROC is determined to maintain primacy in its domestic sphere over any other authority, however supreme, and not to allow any interference from outside, however canonical. For that purpose, they insisted on a consensus principle of decision-making at the Council, which would allow any participating church to veto any motion (according to their interpretation of that rule). But even that did not seem secure enough for Moscow, and there were statements to the effect that no act of the Holy and Great Council could be considered canonical by the Russian Church unless it was ratified by her own local council. On the contrary, many churches beyond Moscow’s reach value the fact that the Pan-Orthodox Council may help them to pass beyond their traditional ethnic and historical limitations and to overcome some internal problems. “A Great Council is above and beyond any individual church council or synod,” according to John Chryssavgis, Archdeacon of the Ecumenical Throne and theological adviser to Patriarch Bartholomew.

In this context, one should consider Moscow’s oft-repeated accusation that Constantinople has a “papist” tendency to want to become the sole leader of the Orthodox, extending the influence of the Ecumenical Patriarch over otherwise independent national churches. Constantinople’s primacy of honor is a given fact, however, which even Moscow has always acknowledged and affirmed. For instance, when Patriarch Alexy II of Moscow died in 2008, it was the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew who presided at the funeral service in the Cathedral of Christ the Savior in Moscow.

The reason that the Russians are so wary of what they call the “papism” of their historic Mother Church of Constantinople is no mystery. In the Russian Church, the Patriarch of Moscow has a measure of power, enshrined by statute, that is hardly compatible with the Orthodox ecclesiology according to which all bishops are equal. Indeed, the Russian patriarch is almost as supreme in his church as pre-Vatican II Popes were in theirs. Of course, Constantinople has neither the means nor the desire to put her finger into Moscow’s pie, but the very notion that there is any authority higher than “the Moscow Vatican” makes the Russian Church leadership lose self-control.

Another factor in the ROC’s decision to withdraw from the Council is global politics. When the Soviet leaders allowed the ROC to appear on the international stage decades ago, they had wanted to achieve diplomatic ends—that is, to persuade other nations that religion enjoyed freedom under Communist rule. For the modern Russian regime, the Church’s diplomatic services have proved to be rather useless. Most international projects of the Moscow Patriarchate have failed. That includes Ukraine, where the ROC has been unable to overcome a painful split in the Orthodox community, losing most of her influence even among her own adherents. In that context, the Russian government sought to restrict the ROC’s outside presence and to replace an Orthodoxy of international heights—pompous, but still intellectual—with a nationalistic religion of startsy (elders) and great sacral places and objects. The second option is less demanding of resources and more befitting the unique Russian way.

One has to accept that, while the councils remain a crucial element of the Orthodox tradition, within that tradition there is a plethora of incompatible ideas of what a council is and how it works. Recently there has been much scandal around the Pan-Orthodox Council, arising from a desire for it to work as a picture-perfect church event. That may well also be a factor in the ROC’s decision, because, for Moscow, it is the glorious appearance that matters—and now this will not appear! According to Protodeacon Andrei Kuraev, a well-known Russian religious blogger, “the council, which had been intended as a PR-project ‘triumph of Orthodoxy,’ in fact reveals our shame. We lack unity. We lack theology. We lack courage to face our problems, to name them, and to seek to solve them. It is no longer a matter of diplomacy or mass media. The Council crisis is a theological issue. Who are we?” Indeed, if understandings of conciliarity turn out to be so different between churches, can we any longer view the Orthodox Church as a single entity?

Not all experts, however, are so pessimistic. If we take it for granted that this council is not a church show but a space where some hard work is to be done, mistakes fixed, and voices heard, things look much better. “This Council crisis,” says Hovorun, “may give churches a chance to re-evaluate the idea of conciliarity and to review their own identity. The participants may share in an open discussion of the most burning matters of today. We can start to reconsider conciliarity right during this council”.

Even with the Russians not going to Crete, there will be a discussion and they will take part in it, not as participants, but as observers and commentators. “If one or more churches does not attend, or withdraws during the Council, or is present but does not vote, all the decisions will still be binding for all Orthodox churches. Certainly, if somebody is missing, it is a vacuum we will feel, and we will regret it very, very much. I think it will have an impact not just on the Council, but also on the church that chooses not to come… If a church chooses to withdraw and not attend, I think it would be a sad reflection of the self-marginalization of that church,” says Chryssavgis.

The withdrawal of the Russian Church will not stop the Council from discussing issues that are related to it, if they have theological or moral dimensions. One of these subjects—Ukraine—is especially sensitive for Moscow. “Although most of those who fight in Ukraine on both sides are Orthodox Christians, often belonging to the same Moscow Patriarchate, the Orthodox world has long been failing to face the issue. I think the Cretan Council might give its evaluation of the Ukrainian conflict, which is to the shame of the entire Orthodox world,” concludes Hovorun.

Surely, the Holy and Great Council cannot force the ROC to accept or at least to receive the decisions made in her absence? There are, however, matters that lay outside of any individual administration’s control. That includes the media and cyber-sphere and, paradoxically, the Orthodox tradition. In years past, a Catholic ruler could prevent a Papal decree from being accepted within his realm by forbidding printers to publish it. Nowadays, it is impossible to prevent the dissemination of information in this way, so nobody will be able to stop Russian Orthodox believers from appealing to the Council’s resolutions, at least in the context of their consciousness and private religious practice. They will see that the Orthodoxy of their Russian Church leaders is not the only possible Orthodoxy, and that their Synod’s legislation is only one set of possible opinions.

In the course of its history, the Orthodox Church has often provided a space for local ambitions to triumph. Happily, it has not lost its universality, and this is the reason why it attracts so many people worldwide. Many councils later called “ecumenical” were far from universally representative, but were called “ecumenical” because they dared to speak about things that mattered for many and still do. The Russian Orthodox Church was not present at any of those councils, for she did not yet exist. But later, she was happy to accept their decisions and integrate them into her life. Why should we not think that the same will happen again this time?

Dr. Vasily Chernov is an independent analyst of politics and religion in Eastern Europe. 

This article first appeared online in Russian at