While the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople maintains the "pan-Orthodox Council" scheduled to begin on Sunday will take place, the gathering is in disarray after four Eastern Orthodox Churches announced they would not be taking part.

The Holy and and Great Council, as it is officially known, was meant to gather the bishops of the 14 autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches to discuss the mission of Orthodoxy in today's world; the Orthodox diaspora; ecclesial autonomy; the importance of fasting; the relations of Orthodoxy with the rest of Christianity; and the sacrament of marriage.

It is scheduled to be held in Crete beginning June 19 – Pentecost in the Julian calendar – and ending June 26.  

But in recent weeks, four of the Churches – the Russian, Georgian, Bulgarian, and Antiochian Orthodox Churches – have announced they will not take part in the council. A fifth, the Serbian Orthodox Church, had made such an announcement, but decided June 15 that it would, in fact, participate.

Each of the Churchs has given its own reasons for defecting from the council, but they focus on the wording of preparatory documents issues of jurisdiction.

The Patriarchate of Antioch has broken communion with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, because the latter appointed a metropolitan bishop in Qatar, which Antioch claims as part of its terrority. Moreover, it had failed to sign the preparatory document on the sacrament of marriage and its impediments.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church withdrew June 3 because it is highly critical of several passages of the preparatory document on the relations of the Orthodox Church with the rest of the Christian world. The Bulgarian patriarchate maintains that the ecumenical document errs theologically because it acknowledges that there are other Christian Churches – not merely confessions – which are not in communion with Orthodoxy.

The Patriarchate of Georgia followed suit with the Bulgarians, and also objected to the preparatory document on marriage.

And the Serbian Orthodox Church at first joined the dissidents, but on June 15 changed course and announced it would, in fact, take part in the council.

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The Russian Orthodox Church – which is the largest of the patriarchates – held a synod June 13 to discuss the developments, and issued a statement joining with the abstaining patriarchates, and proposing that the pan-Orthodox Council be postponed.

"The Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church noted that the non-participation of even one of the universally recognized autocephalous Orthodox Churches in the Council 'constitutes an unsurmountable obstacle for holding a Holy and Great Council'", the statement says.

The statement also read that if the request of postponing the meeting was not accepted "by the Most Holy Church of Constantinople while the Council on Crete is still convened despite the absence of the consent of several Local Orthodox Churches, the participation of the delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church in it, with profound regret, be considered impossible."

Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk, head of Russian Orthodoxy's department of external Church relations, also made it clear that "all the Churches must take part in the pan-Orthodox Council, and only in this case will the decisions made at the council be legitimate."

That the Russian patriarchate moved only after the other Churches had made their decision has led some observers to believe that the last-minute abstentions were orchestrated by Moscow in order to bolster its importance within Eastern Orthodoxy.

Russian Orthodoxy claims most of the adherents (150 million), and the wealth, of Eastern Orthodoxy, but it ranks fifth among the patriarchates – while the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is quite small, and relatively poor, yet is "first among equals."

Given its prominence and independence – Constantinople having been taken over by the Muslim Ottoman empire in 1453 – Moscow considers itself the "third Rome," and the guardian of Orthodoxy. Much of the squabble over the pan-Orthodox Council may then be seen as part of a power play between Moscow and Constantinople.

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Athenagoras Fasiolo, an Italian archimandrite of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, noted that behind the request to postpone the council, one can glimpse Russian resentment toward its place among the patriarchates, and that "perhaps it is trying to degrade the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch, not by chance pressuring the Churches that are linked by tradition or historical need to the Russian world."

The archimandrite then underscored that "Moscow wants to be the third Rome, despite the fact that no one has acknowledged this title. It perceives itself as an imperial reality, but it is certainly not ecumenical in the real sense of the word."

In the end, the Russian patriarchate consider itself the representative of many people "because of its political history (Peter the Great, the Czarist empire, the Soviet Empire), and not because of its ecclesiastical conscience," Archimandrite Athenagoras said.

How is it that the pan-Orthodox Council risks failure, despite all the preparation that have gone into it? The most immediate preliminary meeting was held in Switzerland in January, but preparations have stretched back to a pan-Orthodox Conference held at Rhodes in 1961.

The January meeting in Switzerland saw lively discussion, but the unanimous approval of five documents for discussion at the council, and the approval, albeit not unanimous, of a document on marriage.

The documents that failed to receive approval regarded more controvesial topics: autocephaly; the order of eminence among the patriarchates, and the adoption of a common calendar.

Despite the hiccups in arranging the pan-Orthodox Council, Bartholomew, the Ecumenical Patriarch, seems confident that it will yet take place.

In his letter of June 9, he wrote that "its postponement or breakdown at the twelfth hour, after decades of preparations, will compromise our Orthodox Church at the inter-church and international level and inflict an irreparable damage on her authority."