In 1997, Olivier Clément published the book Conversations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I (published by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press). In the following excerpt, from pages 29-32, Clément discusses the primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in modern Orthodoxy.
The Renewal of Orthodox Ecclesiology
The 20th-century renewal of Orthodox ecclesiology, which began in the Russian diaspora with Georges Florovsky, Nicholas Afanasiev, and John Meyendorff, and later carried on in Greek theology with Nikos Nissiotis and John Zizioulas, has led to a new interpretation of primacy. We can summarize it as follows:
- Each local church (in the proper sense of “local”) is a eucharistic community in communion with all other local churches. This communion, as we have said, is organized around “centers of agreement.” This permanent conciliarity of the Churches is expressed in the phenomenon of “reception.” Certain churches have greater moral authority, and hence a more prestigious capacity of “reception.” These include either sees of apostolic foundation, or cities whose political, cultural, or even symbolic role is, or has been, more significant. In the ancient Church, these “centers of agreement” formed a living and complex hierarchy, spreading from the local level to that of the universal Church, serving as compasses for civilization. Autocephaly is one factor in this complex fabric of multiple interdependencies. The national church, therefore, is only a contingent development which, far from hardening into an absolute autocephalism, should be relativized.
- Universal primacy or “priority” fundamentally consists of service on behalf of the communion of Churches. It is, if we wish, a primacy of honor, as long as we agree that honor brings with it real responsibilities and prerogatives. In the Orthodox Church, primacy belongs to the Church of Constantinople, based on the canons and on long historical experience. When the unity of faith is restored, primacy will again revert to the Church of Rome, according to the model, only now clearly elucidated, of the first millennium.
Together with the Byzantine theologians and virtually unanimous eastern witness of the first millennium, we must accept a Petrine ministry in the universal Church. The primate functions among the bishops as Peter did among the apostles. But we must also underscore the interdependence of the primate and of all the bishops, as well as the importance of the sensus ecclesiae of the people of God, inspired by the “apostolic men,” the elders (startsy, or gerontes) who manifest a strictly personal charism and whom Paul Evdokimov considered to be the “Johannine” dimension of the Church.
Even though he disagreed with the Ecumenical Patriarchate on the question of American autocephaly (which was unilaterally granted by Moscow in 1970 to Orthodox of Russian and Carpatho-Russian origin in the United States), Father John Meyendorff, from a chiefly pragmatic point of view, wrote the following in 1978 in an article entitled “NEEDED: The Ecumenical Patriarchate”:
It is unquestionable that the Orthodox conception of the Church recognizes the need for a leadership of the world episcopate, for a certain spokesmanship by the first patriarch, for a ministry of coordination without which conciliarity is impossible. Because Constantinople, also called “New Rome,” was the capital of the Empire, the ecumenical council designated its bishop — in accordance with the practical realities of that day — for this position of leadership, which he has kept until this day, even if the Empire does not exist anymore… [and the Patriarchate of Constantinople] was not deprived of its “ecumenicity,” being always answerable to the conciliar consciousness of the Church.
In the present chaotic years, the Orthodox Church could indeed use wise, objective and authoritative leadership from the ecumenical patriarchate.
Towards a New Definition of Primacy
This great theological work culminated with the prophetic attitude of Patriarch Athenagoras who, already in 1953, pledged to reunite Orthodoxy. This effort has been faithfully continued by his successors, Dimitrios and Bartholomew. Using the statements of these patriarchs, I will attempt to show how the primacy of Constantinople is being redefined. I will also draw on the works of Metropolitan Maximus of Sardis, The Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church, as well as a collection of his articles, The Local Church and the Universal Church (both in French), published by the patriarchate’s Ecumenical Center in Chambésy.
Primacy is not merely honorific, but neither is it an eastern papacy. Constantinople’s weakness on the material plane, its poverty, ensures its impartiality and, paradoxically, increases its prestige. The ecumenical patriarch has no pretensions to being a “universal bishop.” He claims no dogmatic infallibility, no direct jurisdiction over all the faithful. He has no temporal powers. As a center of appeal whose aim is to preserve the faith and the unity of all, his primacy consists not in power, but in a sacrificial offering of service, in imitation of the One who came not to be served but to serve. He is ready, within a fraternal, synodal context, to place himself at the service of the sister Churches in order to strengthen their unity and to further the mission of Orthodoxy. His service is one of initiative, of coordination and presidency, always with the accord of the sister Churches. An ever-changing form of creative self-offering, which, dare we say, must be earned, primacy derives from the very structures of the Church and is indispensible to ensure the unity and universality of Orthodoxy. It places the sister Churches in relationship, brings them to work and to witness together, and advances their common responsibility. Since the disappearance of the empire, Constantinople assumes the role of the Church which “convenes.” After consulting with and obtaining the consent of the sister Churches, it can become their spokesperson. Finally, it offers recourse for communities in exceptional or dangerous circumstances.
This service carries with it two presuppositions: the principle of conciliarity must be maintained, as well as the principle of non-intervention in the interior affairs of the other Churches.
Patriarch Athenagoras (1948-1972) was the first to apply this notion of primacy. Beginning in 1961, he succeeded in gathering a series of pan-Orthodox conferences, at which, to the surprise of many, the “miracle of unity” blazed forth. In Chambésy, near Geneva, he created a “hearing post,” where he also established a preconciliar secretariat. His two successors visited all the Orthodox Churches, convened several preconciliar conferences, and also held two “synaxes” of all the Orthodox primates — the first in 1992, held in Constantinople itself, the second in 1995, on the island of Patmos. In 1993 and 1995, as a result of this preconciliar work, progress was made on the difficult problem of the diaspora: the creation, in each country, of “episcopal assemblies,” which we have already mentioned.