The worldwide Orthodox Church has begun its historic move toward unity in Crete without some key players such as the Russian patriarchate but it is still a Pan-Orthodox meeting and its decisions will be binding says a spokesman from the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
The Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople arrived on the Greek island on June 15 with other patriarchs following him for the first such meeting in 1,000 years.
On his arrival Bartholomew expressed his "joy of fulfillment of our historical mission" and urged the Orthodox Church across the world to join him. The Holy and Great Council, he said, is "our sacred mission".
The Ecumenical Patriarch noted, however that the joy of the historic events is clouded by the decision of some churches not to attend.
The June 16-27 council will take place without the Orthodox churches of Antioch, Bulgaria, Georgia and Russia which all call for a postponement and said they would not come.
"The responsibility for their decision lies with those same churches and their primates, since, just five months ago, at the Synaxis of the Orthodox Primates in Geneva, we made a decision and put our signatures to it, that we should come to Crete in June and realize this vision held over many years," said Bartholomew.
'BINDING PAN-ORTHODOX COUNCIL'
"It is a great council, a pan-Orthodox council whose decisions are binding for the Orthodox Church," said the Rev. John Chryssavgis, an Australian-born theological adviser to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople.
Bartholomew had noted that in Geneva the intent had been that "all our churches cherish, to declare and proclaim the unity of our Orthodox Church, and to examine and reach a common resolution of the problems that are of concern to the Orthodox world."
It is not too late for those churches to reconsider, noted Bartholomew "even at this very last moment, and honour their signatures and come to Crete, where, along with the joy of the fulfillment of our historical mission, we shall also have the joy of partaking of the hospitality and nobility of all Cretans, from the most elderly among them, to the youngest child."
The Ecumenical Patriarch also thanked those who have worked for months in order for the Holy and Great Council to take place, "together as a group and each one individually who have worked zealously, selflessly and with great willingness for this great event of the Holy and Great Council of our Orthodox Church to take place."
The Russian Orthodox Church is said to have 100 million followers making it largest church among some 300 million Orthodox believers, The Moscow Patriarch Kiriill is close to President Vladimir Putin.
The Istanbul-based Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is often described as as "the first among equals" among Orthodox Christians and is senn by many as the spiritual leader.
Bartholomew has met Pope Francis a number of times and Kirill met the Catholic leader at a historical Havana encounter in February.
Items on the agenda have been under discussion for more than 40 years by Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commissions and Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar Conferences.
In preparation for the Holy and Great Council, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew convened a Synaxis of Primates of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches at the Orthodox Centre of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Chambésy, Geneva, from 21 to 28 January 2016. For months now, a Small Synaxis of the Primates has been scheduled for 17 June as well.