THE experience of fighting for consensus during the Primates’ Meeting in January has prompted the Archbishop of Canterbury to assure Orthodox patriarchs of his prayers as they prepare for their own fraught conference later this month.
During a pilgrimage to Cappadocia, in Turkey, Archbishop Welby told the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, that he had been praying for everyone involved in the upcoming Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church.
Planning for the Council, which will include the bishops of most of the universally recognised Churches in Eastern Orthodoxy, began in 1961.
It was called to address many of the issues that divide the Orthodox Churches, such as autonomy, the sacrament of marriage, and relations with non-Orthodox Churches. It is thought to be the first time that the leaders of the Orthodox Churches have gathered together since 787.
Speaking during vespers in the former church of St Constantine and St Helena in Sinasos, Archbishop Welby said: “Our experience as Anglicans this year, in far simpler meetings, has taught me more of the complexities of convening and presiding at such global gatherings.
“It leads me, with a deep sense of fraternal love, to assure you of my prayers as you now look to the inauguration of this great gathering. All other churches and Christian bodies can only be encouraged and strengthened by a renewed and more visibly unified Orthodox Church in our midst.”
The Council, which is due to meet in Crete from 16 June, will no longer feature representatives from the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, who pulled out last week.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which has argued that any one Church should be able to veto the decisions of the Council, raised concerns that the Bulgarians’ absence would neuter the Council.
But the Ecumenical Patriarchate has insisted that the meeting will go ahead. A spokesman for the Patriarchate, the Revd Dr John Chryssavgis, told the Catholic Herald: “It is unquestionably unfortunate and deeply painful that the Bulgarian Church decided not to attend, but only weeks ago . . . it had approved all of the documents of the council without exception and it had signed every text and regulation without condition.”
Divisions between the Churches have repeatedly surfaced during the build-up to the Council: the Antiochian Church have raised objections to the proposed document on marriage, and the Georgian Church have expressed concern about the statement on ecumenism.
Even the location of the Council had to be moved from Istanbul to Crete after the Russian Church objected, saying that its delegation would be not safe in Turkey, since relations between the Russian and Turkish governments have broken down over the war in Syria.
The fate of the Orthodox Churches in Ukraine is another flashpoint — any move to recognise the autonomy of the churches under the local Kiev Patriarchate is likely to be fiercely opposed by the Russian Church, whose Moscow Patriarchate oversees the historical Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
Archbishop Welby told Patriarch Bartholomew that he had been particularly praying for the Patriarch and his colleagues as they sought to “find ways to enable the Council to be an event experienced by all the Orthodox faithful”.
The Archbishop also hailed the deepening friendship between the Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Communion, recalling Patriarch Bartholomew’s visit to Lambeth Palace last year before the Paris climate change summit (News, 6 November).
“In a time when, for the first time, surveys show that those in the UK who say they have no faith outnumber those who say they are Christians, the importance of our visible expression of love and support is inestimable. This pilgrimage draws us closer to Christ and thus to each other.”