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Orthodox churches find it difficult to overcome differences

April 8, 2011

MOSCOW

Diptychs, an arcane liturgical term that describes the order in which Orthodox churches commemorate each other at their services, is one of the tangled issues blocking plans for what could be the first great church council in 1,200 years.

Some Orthodox leaders say the churches need to get together to discuss common issues and speak with one voice on such important topics as bioethics, sexuality and the environment, but differences over arcane church issues such as diptychs and autocephaly (the independent status of Orthodox churches) run deep.

There are about 250 million Orthodox Christians in the world, belonging to 14 or 15 independent Orthodox churches, depending on which church is counting. The Patriarchate of Constantinople, for example, does not recognize the autocephaly (independence) granted by Moscow to the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) in 1970, and does not commemorate the OCA in its diptychs.

Diptychs are at the heart of church protocol. A leader of the Georgian Orthodox Church cited its founding in the fifth century in explaining why his church won’t back down in its demands for greater recognition.

If the Georgian church agrees to the current ninth place it holds in the diptychs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, or Ecumenical Patriarchate, and most other Orthodox churches, Metropolitan Theodore of Akhaltsikhe and Tao-Klarjeti told ENInews, “This means that we cross out our entire history. That is why we cannot agree with this under any circumstances.”

The Patriarchate of Georgia is sixth in the diptychs of the Russian Orthodox Church, with which it is very close despite overall Georgian-Russian tensions.

Theodore was among representatives of 14 Orthodox churches who gathered at the Orthodox Center of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambesy, Switzerland in late February in the latest attempt to hammer out a consensus in preparation for a pan-Orthodox council. However, the Chambesy meeting ended without further agreements.

Consultations to hold a modern-day council began in the 1970s, with a hiatus following Communism’s collapse as churches struggled with newfound freedom and jurisdictional issues.

The post-Soviet Russian Orthodox Church has emerged as the largest in the world and chafes at any suggestion that the Patriarch of Constantinople, also known as the Ecumenical Patriarch for his role as the symbolic leader of Orthodoxy, is comparable to a pope. The Russian church received its independence from Constantinople in the 16th century. Seven great councils, known as ecumenical councils, at which doctrine was confirmed, are Orthodoxy’s foundation. The last was held in 787.

Both Moscow and Constantinople agree that Orthodoxy needs to streamline procedures for making statements and granting independence.

“This is exactly why the Catholic Church had the Second Vatican Council, because it clarified many questions,” Metropolitan Emmanuel of France, who represented Constantinople at Chambesy, told ENInews. “It’s not because the Catholic Church had its synod that we have got to have ours, but I think everyone agrees to the need for a clear unanimous position of our church. We cannot just be preparing for 50 years and not come to an agreement.”

Archpriest Nikolai Balashov, who represented the Russian church at Chambesy along with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, told ENInews that statements that are presented as the unified position of Orthodoxy should not come across as solely the initiative of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

“In order for the Ecumenical Patriarch to speak on behalf of all the churches, they should be convened before to exchange opinions,” he said. Emmanuel said the procedure for granting independence discussed at Chambesy would have the Ecumenical Patriarch proclaim autocephaly and sign a tomos, or declaration of independence, that would then be forwarded for signing by primates of all the other churches.

He said that not all the churches agreed with the form the signatures would take. That question appeared to raise, once again, tensions between Moscow and Constantinople that seem minor to outsiders but are of great symbolic importance within Orthodoxy and a vestige of its tumultuous history.

The Georgian church’s 11th century tomos, for example, disappeared during 13th century wars with Turks and Persians.

Balashov said Moscow has no qualms with the Ecumenical Patriarch signing first, but that discussion arose over whether his signature “should in some other way fundamentally stand out from that of all the other primates.”

Archbishop Jeremiasz of Wroclaw and Szczecin of the Polish Orthodox Church cautioned that Orthodoxy should not necessarily emulate Rome in articulating positions on politics, sexuality and other social issues.

“If each local church is a full, universal, united apostolic church, it means that God’s grace is present in it, the Holy Spirit is moving in it, and the Holy Spirit will show the Polish church, the churches of Alexandria, Constantinople and Russia how to act in given conditions,” he told ENInews.

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