First Pan-Orthodox Synod in 1229 years with some absences
“In Grace We Grow,
In Service We Transcend,
And in Love the Structure is strengthened.”
These are the words of Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch and All the East John X (Youhanna Yazigi), who is heading the third most important Greek Orthodox Patriarchate after Constantinople and Alexandria. You will read his quote on the webpage of the patriarchate, where you can also learn that although its historical See is the ancient city of Antioch, present day Antakya, the address of its head office is in Damascus, Syria.
The Patriarchate’s ecclesiastical jurisdiction reads like a military map of flash points in contemporary war politics. It is the supreme religious authority of the Orthodox Arab-speaking populations in Syria, Lebanon, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates, Oman, Qatar and southern Turkey. Out of all 14 Greek Orthodox patriarchates and churches that make up the present Greek Orthodox Church, the Patriarchate of Antioch has been the one that has suffered the most from the brutality of the present-day wars in the maze of Middle East. And it is the one that experienced the biggest losses among its flock during the latest war in Syria.
However, the Patriarch of Antioch did not become the focus of media attention last week just for his much-suffering land. But because together with the patriarchs of Russia, Georgia and Bulgaria they received a heap of criticism when they decided at the last minute to cancel their participation in a major religious event that took almost 1,000 years to take place.
All four announced last week that they would not attend the Great and Holy Pan-Orthodox Synod, which started yesterday in Heraklion, Crete. They cited reasons of minor importance, such as the sitting arrangements of the bishops during the synod in Crete or the high cost of travel!
Given that the preparation and organization of the synod was the work of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul, which holds the position of primus inter pares as the mother church of all the rest of the Orthodox churches, it was obvious that the occasion of this synod provided a suitable occasion to challenge the primacy of Istanbul.
The Pan-Orthodox Synod was a wish and a plan that the Istanbul Orthodox Patriarchate has been working on since the 1960s. In a TV interview the charismatic Archbishop Anastasios of Albania said that they were discussing the idea to hold a new synod for so long that in the end it had become “like the longest joke.”
And yet, even when it was finally decided to take place this year, the location of the venue had to be changed from Istanbul to Crete because of the Russians’ security concerns.
The fact that this synod would be the first since the Great Schism and 1229 years after the 7th Ecumenical Synod in 787 in Nicaea (İznik) was considered a turning point for the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. Some more enthusiastic ones had already named it as the 8th Ecumenical Synod, which would also confirm the primacy of Istanbul over the other Orthodoxy centers in the coming future.
As it turned out, with the absence of the four, the synod in Crete cannot be called Ecumenical due to the lack of quorum.
The spokesman of the Istanbul Patriarchate tried to put on a brave face by insisting that “it does not change the Pan-Orthodox validity of the council or the Pan-Orthodox authority of its decisions.”
But in particular the war in Syria may prove a turning point for a new era where a strong player, namely the Patriarchate of Russia, may push the numerical superiority of its flock as a reason to lead over history, tradition and faith.