There are some religious statements about the world which made history and affected the way people millions of people thought. One was in Pacem in Terris, a denunciation of war issued in 1963 by a dying Pope John XXIII; an earlier landmark in Catholic teaching was De Rerum Novarum which in 1891 accepted the right of workers to form unions. In comparison, the leaders of the world’s 200m Orthodox Christians have rarely, in recent times, managed to speak together and address a clear message to humanity. It is partly in the hope of doing so that bishops of that church will be deliberating in Crete between now and June 26th. What has taken them so long and what do they hope to achieve?
The Holy and Great Council now in progress reflects 50 years of religious diplomacy aimed at bringing together, at least briefly, the independent churches which form global Orthodox Christianity. It has been hard work because many of these churches are institutionally weak and beholden to geopolitics; some barely survived communism and others form tiny minorities in Muslim lands. Some liken the gathering to the last of the great doctrinal councils in 787; others compare it to more recent gatherings like one in Jerusalem in 1672. The status of past and present councils is one of many issues on which the Orthodox have arguments which baffle outsiders. In any case, it's an important gig. For the organizer, Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople, who is first “amongst equals” in Orthodoxy, there were last-minute setbacks: four of the 14 churches that were expected to attend, including the Patriarchate of Moscow, Orthodoxy’s largest, ducked out. But the Istanbul-based Patriarch has insisted that the Council must proceed and that its statements will carry weight.
One document approved by the Council this week (and endorsed earlier by the four churches which didn't attend) looks at the world through an Orthodox Christian lens, using spiritual arguments to denounce inequality, the arms build-up and the ecological crisis as moral diseases. Through statements like this, the Council will enable the Orthodox church to express a “robust theology of global engagement,” says Elizabeth Prodromou, an American professor who is on the team advising Patriarch Bartholomew at the Council. Contrary to the church’s image as exotic and otherworldly, the bishops in Crete will acknowledge their “responsibility for the transformation of the world in the image of the divine kingdom,” or in other words for bringing about practical change.
On a note which some may find startling from a church known for its strict rules and unchanging ceremonies, the Council documents will also emphasise freedom as a precondition for real peace and reconciliation, and the impossibility of imposing beliefs by force. That sentiment comes naturally to Patriarch Bartholomew who apart from his global responsibilities presides, precariously, over a tiny local flock in Muslim Turkey. The only authority he can wield is the moral kind, and he does have that: his sayings on the environment enjoy respect around the globe, and they have deeply influenced Pope Francis. The absence of Moscow and the resurgence of inter-Orthodox squabbles have disappointed him, but the fact that bishops have gathered from places like Albania, Poland, Romania, Serbia and Egypt, as well as Britain, France and the United States, is still a compliment to his diplomatic skills. Bartholomew carries no big stick, and he lives with the reality that people, including his fellow Orthodox leaders, are free to heed him or walk away.