Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church to be Held in Western Crete

By on January 30, 2016

According to a press release from the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the next Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Church— a monumental gathering of the world’s Orthodox Christian hierarchs the likes of which hasn’t occurred in more than a thousand years— will take place at the Orthodox Academy of Crete, in Kolymbari, a town west of Hania.

The last Pan-Orthodox council of this scale was convened in Constantinople well over a thousand years ago, in 879-880, and had representation of the Eastern Christian Churches, with over 380 bishops in attendance.

The Synod will take place from June 16th to the 27th. On the Sunday of Pentecost, June 19, 2016, a Divine Liturgy will be celebrated by the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and concelebrated with the various heads at the Saint Minas Cathedral in Herakleion, seat of the autocephalous Church of Crete.

The heads of the church decided at a meeting in Switzerland to relocate the synod from Istanbul, which is the headquarters of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, due to geopolitical circumstances that would have prevented the Russian delegation to travel to Turkey.

Those who are expected to attend are the heads or representatives of 14 autocephalous churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Georgia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, Greece, Poland, Romania, Albania, and Czech and Slovakia.

The Orthodox Academy of Crete

The Orthodox Academy of Crete

The Patriarch of Constantinople is recognized as “first among equals” in the Orthodox world but the Orthodox Church doesn’t have the vertical structure that the Roman Catholic Church has, with the Pope as its head.

Individual churches— called “autocephalous” or self-governing, handle their own administrative matters. Adding further confusion to global Orthodoxy are the so-called “diaspora” churches— new world churches established for immigrants who emigrated from Orthodox countries like Greece, Serbia, Russia and elsewhere to places like the United States, Canada and Australia.

These churches grew side by side, with bishops setting up dioceses and archdioceses on each other’s territory— something that is uncanonical according to Orthodox Christian Church law.

For example, in the Chicago region alone, there is a Greek Orthodox Metropolis (diocese) whose bishop (Metropolitan) reports directly to the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in Istanbul, Turkey. There is also a Serbian Orthodox diocese and a Romanian Orthodox diocese, made up of ethnic Serbs and Romanians, respectively. There are others too, including Antiochians, Ukrainians and even numerous break-away churches calling themselves “Orthodox Christian” but not recognized by any of the other churches.

Complications aren’t only on local levels, but nationally too, and practically in every country where Orthodox Christians exist.

In the United States, for example, there is a Greek Orthodox Archdiocese which has no real power as a body, since what was the “Archdiocese of North and South America” was carved up into a U.S. archdiocese, a Metropolis of Toronto covering Canada, a Metropolis of Central America covering and a Metropolis of Buenos Aries covering South America.

Five independent Greek Orthodox metropolises with bishops reporting directly to Constantinople exist in the United States, loosely confederated in a body known as the Archdiocese of America.

And this is the Greek Orthodox church, alone.

Add to that complicated mix, a break-away church called the Orthodox Church of America that formed from ex-Russian church members and was granted “autocephaly” or the right to self-govern, only by the Church of Russia.

Constantinople and most other Orthodox Churches doesn’t recognize the OCA’s autocephaly. In fact, one of the items expected to be discussed at the synod in June is exactly the question of who grants autocephaly.

Adding to the complexity of the Orthodox structure are a host of internal rivalries, strife between national churches and even animosity.

The biggest of the “byzantine” rivalries is the one between Moscow and Istanbul.

Moscow considers itself almost the de facto head of global Orthodoxy and has often belittled Constantinople within Orthodoxy, simply because of its sheer size.

The Church of Greece has rivalries with Constantinople, too, going as far as not sending its national Archbishop to recent meetings in Switzerland and opting instead to send a low-level delegation of lesser bishops.

There is a bitter feud between churches over the fate of the Church in Ukraine, as well, with a huge power play under way between Bartholomew and Moscow’s patriarch Kirill.

Erasmus, a religion blogger for the Economist explained the divide in a recent post.

Upon arriving in Geneva last week to attend the preliminary meetings, Kirill made a carefully calibrated address that effectively spelled out Moscow’s conditions for continued participation in any Pan-Orthodox efforts, the biggest concern Ukraine.

In that country the two biggest Orthodox institutions are the globally recognized Ukrainian Orthodox Church, ultimately under the Moscow Patriarchate, and the 25-year-old Kiev Patriarchate which strongly supports Ukrainian independence and the government’s battle against Russophile rebels in east.

These two bodies have identical services; the main difference is that they pray for, and obey, different bishops.

On the one hand you have the Ukrainian loyalists to Moscow who make up the main church and on the other you have a many Ukrainians, in the homeland and the diaspora, who dream of their country having a united Orthodox church which would look politically to Kiev and ecclesiastically to the ancient see of Constantinople, in other words to Patriarch Bartholomew.

The new territories are a temptation to Bartholomew, whose own Patriarchate is practically imprisoned by the Turkish government and whose only major financial support comes from an ever-growing restless flock in the United States.

In the end, the synod will prove to be a monumental gathering of the world’s Orthodox Christian leaders, complete with its Byzantine intrigue, rivalries, ferocious politics and jockeying of power, and the tiny coastal town on the west side of Crete will resemble Washington DC, London, or any other world capitol where money and power are the key motivators.

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