For some even the slightest change in relations with Rome will end up with tradition being swept away

The fate of the Pan-Orthodox Council, which is due to start its deliberations in Crete this Sunday, hangs in the balance. At present it seems that the Bulgarians will definitely not be there, neither will the Antiochenes, and it looks as if the Serbs, Georgians and the Russians are pulling out as well. There is a useful summary of what is going on in this article at the Guardian website.

The trouble, for us outsiders, is that it is very difficult to understand why this is happening. The Council has been over five decades in preparation, so the idea that it needs more time to prepare really seems unreasonable. Again, the Bulgarian objections to the seating plan look like a pretext. Again, the objection to the way the documents of the Council were drawn up, being made now, when the way they were drawn up was supposedly approved by all parties, seems suspect at this late stage. But one thing is clear: five out of the 14 Orthodox churches do not want to meet. And one of those five, Russia, is the biggest of the Churches, which means that a meeting, if it does take place, will hardly be able to speak for all Orthodox.

But why don’t they want to meet? Trawling round the many Orthodox websites, what emerges, it seems to me, is a fear that the Council, if it meets, will open some sort of floodgate to modernity, which will result in the sweeping away of tradition. In fact, as observers have noted, the tone and content of the documents is extremely conservative, clearly designed to calm any such fears; but the slightest hint of change – and in particular rapprochement with Rome, and ecumenism in general – is clearly enough to make many parties cry halt even before the Council begins.

Certain Orthodox Churches are happy to be ecumenical, such as that of Constantinople, but this is clearly not shared by Bulgaria or Georgia, or the monks of Mount Athos. Of course, ecumenism is an “iceberg issue”, only one 10th of which is above the surface, and which masks much deeper matters at stake.

Incidentally, at the Second Vatican Council, Archbishop Lefebvre’s supporters made a great play of defending the traditional liturgy, as their headline stance, but the real problem for them was the declaration on religious freedom, Dignitatis Humanae. Similarly, the radical Orthodox traditionalists are known as Old Calendarists, but the Julian calendar issue is the rallying cry for a deeper concern with ecumenism, which they regard as the great “pan-heresy”.

For the Orthodox Churches ecumenism is the great divider: for some a good and necessary thing, for others, the thin end of the wedge, leading to a collapse of tradition.

At this point it may be useful to remember why the Catholic Church and others embarked on our current ecumenical endeavours. The first reason was theological, because Christ founded only one Church, and wanted that Church to be one. So, to work for unity is to do the work of the Lord. The second reason was because divided churches do not give a coherent witness to the Lord. And thirdly, when faced with so many external threats, such as atheism and secularisation, the various Christian churches needed to unite against the common threat rather than squabble amongst themselves.

These reasons have not gone away in the last few decades, indeed they have become more pressing, and to their number has been added Islamic terrorism in the Middle East. The ancient but numerically tiny Orthodox Churches in the Middle East now face extinction, thanks to the threat of ISIS.

That the 14 autocephalous Churches cannot even meet does not bode well for their co-operation with each other, let alone with Catholics, in the face of all these threats, and hardly gives a good example to the world of Christian harmony and charity. Now is clearly not the time to be quarrelling over seating plans, rather it is the time for getting ready for mission to the world.

Of course we have been here before. There were many reasons for the fall of the Byzantine Empire, but one contributing factor was the way the Empire fatally weakened itself through internal religious strife, rather than facing the external threats of the time. History, sadly, seems to be repeating itself.