The Russian Orthodox Church said on Monday it would not go to a historic meeting of all of the world's Orthodox churches because other churches have walked out.
The meeting on the Greek island of Crete due to start on Sunday could be the first in more than a millennium.
Hilarion, a bishop who heads the Moscow Patriarchate's department of external church relations, said in a televised statement that Russia would not take part if others are walking out, and suggested the meeting be postponed.
“We have made a decision that we will not be able to take part in the all-Orthodox Synod if other churches do not go,” Hilarion said.
The announcement of the Russian Orthodox Church with an estimated 100 million flock is a heavy blow to the plans by Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomaios I who hoped the gathering of leaders from 14 independent Orthodox churches later this month could promote unity among the world's 300 million Orthodox Christians. Bartholomaios I ranks as “the first among equals” in the Orthodox world.
Bulgaria's Orthodox Church put the plans in jeopardy last week saying it would not attend, citing differences over the agenda.
Unlike the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox churches are independent and have their own leadership.
Hilarion said the Russian church will reach out to Bartholomaios I to suggest postponing the meeting until the differences are resolved and all the churches agree to come. Russia will have to give the Crete gathering a miss if Bartholomaios does not agree to reschedule, the Russian church said in a statement at the end of an extraordinary meeting in Moscow.
“All churches should take part in the all-Orthodox Synod and only in this case the decisions of this assembly will be legitimate,” Hilarion said.
Orthodox church leaders haven't held such a meeting since the year 787, when the last of the seven councils recognized by both Orthodox and Catholics, was held. The “great schism” that divided the Roman Catholics and the Orthodox followed in 1054 amid disputes over the Vatican's power.
The Holy and Great Council has been 55 years in the preparation. Since the “great schism” there have been about a dozen smaller Orthodox councils over the centuries to discuss theological or doctrinal issues, but there has never been a meeting on the scale of the Holy and Great Council.