The Crisis of Orthodox Multilateralism A Challenge for Pan-Orthodox Conciliarity

by Rev. Dr. Nicolas Kazarian  |  ελληνικά  |  ру́сский  |  српски

The contemporary Pan-Orthodox conciliar process appeared in parallel to the creation in 1920 of the first global, political and multilateral institution, the League of Nations, which later became the United Nations after the Second World War. This correlation is even more apparent when we look at the well-known Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued in 1920, which clearly established a link between the international response to the tragedy of the Great War and the multilateral engagement of states in preventing future war and called Churches to come together and act as peace builders.

“Wherefore, considering such an endeavor to be both possible and timely especially in view of the hopeful establishment of the League of Nations we venture to express below in brief our thoughts and our opinion regarding the way in which we understand this rapprochement and contact and how we consider it to be realizable; we earnestly ask and invite the judgment and the opinion of the other sister churches in the East and of the venerable Christian churches in the West and everywhere in the world.”

This quote is often used as proof of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s leadership in terms of Ecumenical Dialogue. The creation of the World Council of Churches three years after the United Nations, in 1948, proved it right. Progressively, the Pan-Orthodox and preconciliar process would become a multilateral process, organizing the relations of local Orthodox Churches with a focus on the common goal of responding contemporary issues. Orthodox conciliarity can therefore be defined per se as multilateral. As a communion of Churches, they share a concern for unity, a commitment to reciprocity and recognition of other Sister Churches and a system that should allow the resolution of disputes through dialogue.

However, multilateralism is currently undergoing a deep crisis that reflects the way the Orthodox Church is struggling with conciliarity. The UN’s apparent state of paralysis on the global scene, Brexit in the European Union, the US withdrawing from UNESCO or the Paris agreement on Climate change are just a few examples of a global turn against multilateralism. Are we facing the same danger in the Orthodox Church when it comes to conciliarity? This is possible considering how the Autocephalous Churches currently align on political issues.

Against the backdrop of a difficult political context and the rise of neo-nationalism, multilateralism and conciliarity are in danger, and with them peace and communion. The crisis of multilateralism is marked by a lack of clear goals and means to achieve any goals. Similarly, the crisis of conciliarity reflects the multipolar strategy of Orthodox Churches and the lack of Pan-Orthodox opportunities.

Bilateralism is also certainly the worst enemy of multilateralism, even worse than unilateralism. Multilateralism and bilateralism coexist and often compete. In the Orthodox sphere, this tension takes various forms. It becomes clearer in the ecumenical arena. For example, the Church of Georgia withdrew from the World Council of Churches in 1997 and was opposed to any Ecumenical dimension in the documents of the Holy and Great Council in June 2016. Tbilisi has expressed strong disagreement about the Catholic-Orthodox document issued in Chieti in September 2016. And yet Pope Francis visited Georgia in October of the same year. A paradox? No, just bilateralism!

The Holy and Great Council should have been, and in fact was, a crucial exercise of Orthodox multilateralism despite the absence of four Churches, because the link of communion remained intact, decisions were made, conciliar relationship between Churches were “reciprocal” and unity was preserved. The aftermath of the Holy and Great Council raises several difficulties. The main one is undoubtedly the absence of an institutional space for Orthodox multilateralism, although some Churches have been trying to create events to fill that gap.

Orthodox Churches get together in ecumenical settings, in interreligious fora, or in Episcopal Assemblies in the Diaspora, but there does not seem to be a post-council pan-Orthodox agenda, even though the reception of the Holy and Great Council is determined by their ability to prepare for the next step. Facing this vacuum in terms of a global pan-Orthodox agenda, some churches are trying a multipolar strategy, using commemorations to test the reality of the conciliar nature of the Orthodox Church and their ability to express local leadership, or even more global leadership. In December, for example, the Russian Orthodox Church invited all the Primates of the Autocephalous Orthodox Church to take part in the commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution of 1917. The photo op speaks for itself. Patriarch Kirill was surrounded by the 380 Bishops of the Moscow Patriarchate. The next day, celebrating the reestablishment of the Patriarchate by the Council of Moscow (1917-1918), Patriarch Kirill presided the closing session of the bishops’ Council of the Russian Orthodox Church with the participation of Primates and Representatives of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches except for the Ecumenical Patriarchate and of the Church of Greece. Only two Churches were absent, although four did not come to Crete. The Orthodox world seems unipolar and this is a danger for the conciliarity of the Church.

The crisis of multilateralism in the Orthodox Church is not only a question of leadership, it is also an issue of opportunity. Now that the Holy and Great Council is behind us, pan-Orthodox conciliarity needs more than commemorations, anniversaries, etc. It needs either a multilateral institution that – despite the crisis in multilateralism – or even better a process, a goal, a perspective that will allow pan-Orthodox conciliarity to face the challenges of today’s world.

As Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew put it during his opening address at the Holy and Great Council: “The Church constitutes a single body in the entire world, united in the same faith and the same Divine Eucharist and sacramental life, which is why it also needs synodality on the global level.”


Rev. Dr. Nicolas Kazarian is an expert in Orthodox Christianity and geopolitics and the parish priest at St. Spyridon Greek Orthodox Church in New York City.

Public Orthodoxy seeks to promote conversation by providing a forum for diverse perspectives on contemporary issues related to Orthodox Christianity. The positions expressed in this essay are solely the author’s and do not necessarily represent the views of the editors or the Orthodox Christian Studies Center.