Arabic original here.
“I implore you, let us not demand everything, lest we lose everything.” A little less than a thousand years ago, these wise words were written with blazing fire as the estrangement between Rome and Constantinople started to accelerate, leading to the Great Schism in 1054. From that time until today, not a single letter has fallen away from these wise Antiochian words. With these expressions, Patriarch Peter III of Antioch addressed Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople in 1054, asking him in a fraternal letter to distinguish “between what must be avoided, what must be reformed, and that about which silence must be kept” in the dispute with Rome, imploring him to look “with attention to good intention, so if the faith is not in danger, then we must prioritize peace and love over other things because the Westerners are our brothers, even if they very often err.” The Patriarch of Antioch closed his letter by saying, “Therefore, I cast myself at your feet and implore you to be more lenient than you have been, lest you too also be one who, desiring to raise one who has fallen, only makes his fall heavier.”
This position of Antioch lies at the heart of Antioch’s gift and role as a “bridge” between the churches, prophetic Antioch who warns of dangers and calls for unity. How applicable is the position of the wise Patriarch Peter III of Antioch, who did not deviate from the necessity of reforming what is corrupt in faith and dogma and the necessity of leniency in what does not touch on either, to the situation of the Orthodox Church today and to the necessity of distinguishing between what is important and what is more important!
With the acceleration of the process of estrangement between Moscow and Constantinople over Ukraine, which may bring the Orthodox world to a spasm of schism resembling the schism of 1054, the events of 1054 come once more to the fore and the same equation is posed to the conscience of the universal Orthodox Church with the growing dispute between the two poles of Orthodoxy over the issue of granting autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in Ukraine.
After Constantinople’s decision to name two Ukrainian bishops as its emissaries in Ukraine for preparing, alongside all ecclesiastical and political parties, for the disputed autocephaly, a harsh response came from the Holy Synod of Moscow on September 14, considering this step to be a violation of the canonical ecclesiastical territory of the Moscow Patriarchate, since the Orthodox Church in Ukraine has, by the admission of all Orthodox churches, the system of an autonomous church dependent on the Russian Church. So Moscow decided to “suspend” communion with Constantinople and to not commemorate Patriarch Bartholomew, along with other decisions that will lead, if there are further negative developments, to a “break in communion” with Constantinople.
The situation is very difficult, as both sides are entrenched in hard-line positions. It is a thorny situation in terms of history and canon law, as well. Each side has its canonical arguments and documentation, intransigent in its belief that it possesses all the right and truth. The truth, however, is not entirely with one side or the other. The media war between the two today is fierce. Each side has its articles, historical studies, and ecclesiastical, canonical arguments. They are pursuing statements from the other Orthodox churches here and there, not to mention Western political interventions great and small.
In this climate of gathering storm clouds, the Holy Synod of Antioch is currently meeting in the Patriarchal Monastery of Balamand, presided over by His Beatitude Patriarch John X. On the agenda are Antioch’s great worries and concerns, challenges and dangers. There is no space here to delve into the hierarchy of priorities of what is important: -Antioch- and what is more important: -the universal Church-.
What is the required Antiochian position? Is what is required a middle-way, colorless position on the Ukrainian issue? No. Is what is required an Antiochian “compromise” position? Of course not. Is what is required a position that sides with one side or the other? Of course not. What is required, then?
More than any time in the past, the Orthodox world today is lacking systematic, objective and scholarly ecclesiastical mechanisms for resolving conflicts between the churches or between two or more sides among them, mechanisms that at the same time would take into account the Church’s geography of the past, geography of the present and geography of the future, not so that the Church may position herself without standards or generally accepted truths, following and imitating today’s world, nor at the same time positioning herself in the past as a fossilized museum-piece, without any analysis of the requirements of the present and future with intelligence and pastoral acumen.
What is required, then, is a principled Antiochian position, one that rests on universal ecclesiastical principles, that reminds both sides and everyone involved of the correct ecclesiastical standards and the need for bringing the universal Orthodox Church out of deadly and oppressive internal competition at the expense of mutual complimentary, leading to suicide. This position should remind both parties of the dialectic between what is important and what is more important and should lead to an Antiochian initiative to bring brothers together without taking a position for or against, no matter relative correctness of one side or the other. True brotherhood and love of the Lord and His Church today require of us to return to the equation of Peter III of Antioch who spoke to history and has spoken to us with his golden words to Patriarch Michael, that in today’s crisis we might not “demand everything, lest we lose everything.”