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.
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."
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