(BloombergView) - Pope Francis' enormous popularity -- his Twitter accounts in different languages have a total of about 30 million followers, about as many as Bill Gates and more than Adele -- is a consequence of his openness to diversity and a softer approach to dogma. He represents a modernized Catholic Church. By contrast, the world's second biggest Christian denomination is proving so resistant to modernization that its plans to adopt some timid changes for the first time since 787 have fallen through. I'm proud to be resistant to modernization. Look at all the wondrous things the Fathers have had to say about it.
The Pan-Orthodox Council that is scheduled to begin on Crete this weekend was more than 50 years in the making. It was intended to establish a common modern agenda for the 14 Eastern Orthodox churches, with a total of 225 million to 300 million faithful. In recent years, thanks to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, traditionally considered first among equals by Orthodox church leaders, the preparations were moving along nicely: draft documents were approved, meetings among the heads of the 14 churches were held, and plans were made for a bigger gathering of dignitaries. Yet the Russian Orthodox church, the biggest of all potential participants, has pulled out at the last moment, following the defection of three smaller churches, and the Council has been rendered meaningless or even damaging to future attempts to bring Orthodox Christianity into the 21st century. Bringing the Church into the 21st century is not one of the goals. The effort, if anything, is to make the Church's position clear to the wider world. We aren't seeking to change. We're seeking to transform the world.
Pope Francis has made surprisingly liberal statements on matters such as remarriage, abortion and homosexuality; the Orthodox leaders never meant to go as far as that. Their draft document on the church's mission in the modern world skirts contentious issues. Its section on discrimination, for example, fails to mention sexual orientation. The document affirms love and peace as the church's ideals, criticizes racism, inequality, moral degradation and "liberal globalism" -- it's an agenda as conservative as it is anodyne. These are two separate issues. The pope is being interpreted as liberal and the Church is not trying to be groundbreaking at this Council. Even if the Church were to be more bold in its initiatives, they would not be the dreamy liberal agenda items this author seems to think are so desirable and hip.
Yet the Council could have changed the Orthodox churches' ossified attitude toward the rest of Cristendom, which has not changed since the Dark Ages. To Orthodox Christians, all other denominations are heresies, not churches. Some steps toward more ecumenism and more openness would already constitute serious progress for what is now the most conservative of Christian denominations. Patriarch Bartholomew, a friend of Pope Francis's, was determined to push it through. Christendom is spelled with an H because... you know... it's Christ's dominion. These are not ossified opinions. These are enduring truths that won't change because everyone else has joined the Church of You're Ok I'm Ok. Even the so-called liberal Roman pontiff isn't going around rewriting Orientaluim Ecclesiarum or any such thing. We aren't going to change these topics, but we might well clearly express our openness to bringing all to Christ. It would be disingenuous to be a used car salesman about who we are and what we believe and then show people the fine print after we hand them the keys.
Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Kirill appeared to be among the modernizers. In February, he held an extraordinary meeting with Pope Francis. They signed a joint declaration that showed the pope's willingness to concede political points important to Moscow just to keep the dialogue going. The move got Kirill in hot water with the more conservative believers at home: Some priests in Russia even stopped mentioning the Patriarch in their prayers and were promptly removed from their parishes; it was harder to stop priests in Ukraine, formerly loyal to the Moscow Patriarchate, from rebelling in the same way. Again, not modernization. The Pope is clear on his position. The Patriarch is clear on his. They could meet because there were no illusions as to the scope of the discussion.
Rumors spread among Russian conservative believers that the planned Pan-Orthodox Council was planning to allow bishops to marry, priests to remarry, abolish monkhood or move all the churches to the same calendar -- the one the rest of the world uses (in Russia, Christmas is celebrated 13 days later than in the rest of the world because the Church hews to the Julian calendar). The Patriarchate had to issue a special statement to allay those fears. In Orthodoxy there are lots of safeguards to keep us from unwelcome innovation. Much like launching a space shuttle you have to have everyone announce their readiness and someone has to hit the big red button. For centuries the big red button has been unreachable because not everyone was ready to clear their section for launch. This isn't frenzied handwringing. This is an appropriate response to an important event with the power to change every single aspect of our lives.
Conservative forces in other Orthodox churches protested a draft document on relations with the rest of the Christian world: They argued that its call for "restoring Christian unity" went against the dogma. The Georgian Church -- like conservative elements elsewhere -- had a separate problem with a proposal that would allow marriages between Orthodox believers and other Christians if the children are brought up Orthodox.
The conservative push back alone may not not have torpedoed the Council. Kirill, however, appeared to be concerned with Bartholomew's role as the chief organizer. In Istanbul, where the Ecumenical Patriarch is based, his flock is limited to about 3,000 people, yet if he managed to bring the Orthodox confessions closer together and open them to the rest of the world, he would end up with an oversized role. The Russian Patriarch couldn't really express these fears publicly, so the Bulgarian church, closely allied to the Russian one, was the first to call for a postponement of the Council, objecting, among other things, to the proposed seating arrangements that would give Bartholomew too much prominence. When their call was ignored, the Bulgarians withdrew from the Congress. This is some unfounded drivel. I don't think he read the voluminous position put out by the Russian Church on the Council.
The Georgians quickly followed suit. The Antiochian Church, with parishes in Syria and Lebanon, withdrew for its own reasons -- a dispute with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem over which of them should cater to Orthodox believers in Qatar, along with a perceived lack of attention to its plight as a result of the Syrian war. The defections allowed Moscow to withdraw, too, claiming the Council wouldn't be truly pan-Orthodox without all the churches participating. The Russian Church can arguably be called the most engaged Church in this 50 year plus process. There were once a hundred topics on the agenda. Moscow was the only Church to write a paper for every single one of them. They have gone to all the meetings, held numerous meetings internally, formed and reformed committees to study topics, etc. That seems like quite a waste of resources for a poorly camouflaged attempt to crater the Council.
Even if all the churches took part in the Council, the Orthodox faith would still have a long way to go. Now, the disagreements and the internal strife are making the goal of contemporary relevance all but unattainable. A long way to go... where? I don't think I want to buy a plane ticket with you.
The ultraconservatism and inflexibility of the faith is an underestimated factor that's hindering the modernization of countries such as Russia and Greece. Until Orthodox Christianity takes steps toward the rest of the Christian world and starts relaxing its harsh dogmatism, these nations will continue to feel the pull of their distant past. If you are in possession of a precious jewel you do everything possible to protect it. You don't recut it to a more modern cut. You don't break it into pieces to make it more manageable. Certainly we should announce the Good News in a language that the world understands, but we should never feel compelled to change the Evangelion itself to make it more palatable for people with ever changing tastes.