The Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, meeting right now in Crete, has been some five decades in the making. Despite news reports to the contrary, the Orthodox Church has had numerous such councils since either the eighth or eleventh century—depending on whether the Seventh Ecumenical Council (787) or the Great Schism (1054, roughly) is the supposed occasion of the last meeting. (We Catholics, of course, recognize 21 ecumenical councils.)
Another misconception that has been repeated in statements and reports (especially by spokesmen of the Ecumenical Patriarchate) is that the convocation of the council was unanimous, signed onto by all fourteen of the universally recognized autocephalous (self-governing) Orthodox Churches. That is not true: Antioch never signed the documents that set the council in motion. (An important point that contradicts the impression given by others.)
Why is Antioch absent? And what are the implications of its absence for the unity of the Orthodox Churches?
To understand why Antioch never signed onto the council, we must first distinguish its objection from the other objections that have arisen. Some of the council documents contain phrases or themes that have come under fire. On this basis, two churches—Bulgaria and Georgia—have absented themselves from the council. And because there is not a truly pan-Orthodox consensus (He said, he said. Who's to say?), Russia has also bowed out.
But while Antioch did have problems with one of the documents, and while it is also concerned that the council not take any measures that would break pan-Orthodox unanimity, the key to its non-participation is the fact that the Patriarchate of Antioch is currently not in communion with another ancient apostolic Orthodox see, that of Jerusalem. While objections to the various documents could be worked out during the council itself, Antioch argues is that it is impossible for bishops to share a council table who cannot share the Eucharistic table. (Surely the Faith shared by the national eastern churches transcends (and trumps?) mere jurisdictional disputes?)
Why is Antioch not in communion with Jerusalem? In short, because in 2013 the Jerusalem Patriarchate appointed a bishop in Qatar, an area that has been defined as part of the territory of Antioch since at least the fifth century. According to Orthodox canonical tradition, the proper response to an incursion into universally defined ecclesiastical territory is a break in communion—a step that Antioch took after trying to work things out with Jerusalem for about a year.
Qatar is probably not the first place people think about when they imagine Christianity in the Middle East (if they imagine it at all), and indeed, there is only a single Orthodox parish in the whole country. But Qatar has a long association with Antioch and was the homeland of St. Isaac of Syria (also called Isaac of Nineveh).
The parish in question, located in Doha and largely attended by immigrant and guest workers from a variety of Orthodox cultures, is not really the subject of a “turf war” between Antioch and Jerusalem, though it might seem that way from the outside. (If it walks like a duck... .) The parish was founded in 1997, through the influence of (now retired) American ambassador Patrick Theros (who now serves as something of an ambassador to the US for the Jerusalem Patriarchate), and its first priest was the now-Patriarch Theophilos III of Jerusalem. Though Theophilos was a priest of the Jerusalem Patriarchate, during church services he commemorated the Antiochian metropolitan archbishop of Baghdad, as a sign that he was on Antiochian territory. (This is not a terribly unusual situation. There is, for instance, a Russian parish in Sharjah in the United Arab Emirates whose clergy commemorate the Antiochian bishop.)
The situation—a Jerusalem priest serving in Antioch’s territory—was provisional at best. But there is a reason why no Antiochian clergyman had been assigned to the parish in Qatar: The Qatari government wouldn’t allow it. Qatar is fomenting unrest in Syria, and since the Antiochian church is based in Damascus, Qatar will not issue visas to Antioch’s clergy. It is therefore impossible for Antioch to minister directly to this piece of its territory.
The arrangement of allowing a Jerusalem cleric to serve the parish while commemorating the Antiochian bishop worked fine until March 2013, when Jerusalem decided to consecrate its priest in Qatar as the “Archbishop of Qatar.” In Orthodox ecclesiastical terms, naming an archbishop for a territory is claiming it. But what need is there for an archbishop for a single parish? What’s more, the Jerusalem Patriarchate does not maintain a diocesan structure. All of its bishops are essentially auxiliaries to the patriarch, and most of them do not even live in their sees (and haven’t for centuries).
It is hard to see how this act on Jerusalem’s part was in any way a response to a pastoral need in Qatar, especially given the concerns of many of the faithful under Jerusalem’s care. When Antioch responded to this provocation, Jerusalem rejoined by claiming not only Qatar but also the archdiocese of Bosra (Bostra) and Hauran in Syria (all of Syria is under Antioch). In June 2013, an agreement was hammered out in Athens that returned things to the status quo ante. But Jerusalem immediately reneged on this agreement and refused to withdraw its claim.
Since 2013, Antioch has repeatedly attempted to resolve the situation, not least by asking the Ecumenical Patriarch to mediate a settlement, a role traditionally played by Orthodoxy’s most senior hierarch (and when the churches of the East couldn't resolve matters amongst themselves, to whom did they turn...? Rome! Pope Clement might be of interest to those who want to know the role the popes exercised in the early Church. And, how about the Formula of Pope St. Hormisdas?). The Ecumenical Patriarchate has a strong record of influence over Jerusalem: In 2008, Bartholomew successfully removed Jerusalem’s presence in the US, and in 2005, he led a pan-Orthodox council that deposed the previous patriarch. To date, however, he has not resolved the Qatar issue. (To those national eastern churches who object to the Ecumenical Patriarch acting in a pope-like manner to resolve inter-church disputes, Bartholomew's actions could be seen as problematic.)
That brings us to the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church, now convened in Crete without four of the churches in attendance. Enthusiastic for the council throughout the fifty-five years of its preparation, Antioch participated in the pre-conciliar meetings. But it has consistently maintained that the break in communion must first be healed before the council can be held. Otherwise, such a council is not of Christian brother shepherds united in one mind but rather a political body divided into factions. (Unfortunately, the national eastern churches are prone to a factionalism which is, in a word, foreign to the mind of Christ.)
It should be clear by now that Antioch’s problem is not the same as those expressed by the other dissenting churches; rather, it goes to the heart of how a council can be held at all. The authority of the Orthodox episcopacy is one and conciliar. It is not an authority that is merely administrative; rather, it is primarily Eucharistic. If the Eucharist cannot be shared between the episcopacy, then the authority of the episcopacy is not truly functioning and conciliarity is not possible. And communion cannot be restored temporarily merely for the sake of the council. There is a real wound that must be healed. (But when someone keeps ripping off the bandaid to reopen the wound... ?)
Unfortunately, the peculiar character of Antioch’s problem seems to have been lost in the usual media shuffle about rivalry between Constantinople and Moscow. But Antioch is not a football to be tossed between these teams. Indeed, Antioch, much like Romania, is in a peculiar place in the Orthodox world, in that it is not easily aligned with either Greek or Slavic ecclesiastical concerns.
This is why Antioch is the key to the Holy and Great Council. Antioch’s church has traditionally been a bridge between cultures and nations, ever since its apostolic founding in the first century by Ss. Peter and Paul. Its flock has always been multi-cultural, beginning with Greek, Syriac, Persian, Georgian, and Central Asian cultures and now extending to Turkish, North American, Western European, and Latin American peoples. That is why, if the Ecumenical Patriarch would dedicate himself to solving Antioch’s problem, he could show himself a truly honest broker and not merely a representative for the Hellenic churches of Orthodoxy.
Some trust was lost when Jerusalem disavowed the agreement it had struck in Athens and Constantinople did nothing in response. More trust was lost when Antioch continued to insist that Qatar had to be resolved before the council, and Constantinople replied, at the last possible minute, that committees would be appointed to look into the matter only after the council.
Andrew Stephen Damick is pastor of St. Paul Orthodox Church of Emmaus, Pennsylvania, and author of Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy and An Introduction to God.
Samuel Noble is a researcher in medieval Arab Orthodox Christianity, a Ph.D. candidate in Religious Studies at Yale University, co-editor of The Orthodox Church in the Arab World 700-1700 and co-translator of Arab Orthodox Christians Under the Ottomans 1516-1831.