Needed: A Universal Primate in the Orthodox Church


Much has been said not just in recent months but even over the past few decades of how the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the first among equals in the Orthodox Catholic Church, has been acting in a papal manner. He is, it is said, interfering in the affairs of other Orthodox churches, allowing himself to be dubbed primus sine paribus (first without equal), claimed that his patriarchate is the “beginning” of the Orthodox Church and the “mother” of all the churches.

What I propose to write here is not a criticism of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew or his close associates at the Phanar. I will leave that to others. Rather, let us imagine together what a universal primacy for the Orthodox might look like in which a man could truly act as that primate and be accepted easily and gladly by all the Orthodox churches. I cannot say whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate ought to be or is this primate, as we know from history that primacy in the Church is not fixed in a single episcopal see nor above other sees. And it is also not supremacy as Rome claims for herself.

We should also remember that, despite the “needed” in the title here, primacy (even universal primacy) is something that the Orthodox Church already has (it’s defined in Apostolic Canon 34), because someone always presides at synods and synaxes.

The following is, in any event, what we might hope and imagine a universal Orthodox Christian primacy could be (and at times in history, has been) like. In short, this is a call for him to be like Christ.

Imagine that our older brother would excel among us in honesty and forthrightness and would eschew intrigue.

Imagine that he would exceed us all in his willingness to sacrifice himself and his desires, in his willingness to decrease so that Christ might increase.

Imagine that our older brother was the boldest among us in evangelizing his own flock and in evangelizing the flock that is not yet in his fold, whom Christ “must bring also” into the Church of Jesus Christ from whatever communion, confession, denomination, religion or irreligion in which they currently reside, not ceasing until the whole of humanity becomes the Body of Christ.

Imagine that this primate among us would be such a man that his brothers among the patriarchs and metropolitans and archbishops would seek him out because of his great love for them, rather than engaging in a series of negotiations and maneuvers by letters published in the presses and delivered by ecclesiastical emissaries.

Imagine a Church so wounded by love that her shining witness of martyrdom placed the one who presided near to the glory of God and away from the glory of men and of governments.

Imagine a primate who is more eager to be in the company of the holy than in photo ops with the mighty.

Imagine an older brother for whom the unity and the good estate of the churches of God is more critical than his own influence and prestige—and even his own survival.

Imagine a patriarch who does not tackle issues with human wisdom, but by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, in which earnest prayer and fasting are the means by which everything is done, far more than committees and discussions and meetings.

Imagine an older brother whose authority is based not on lengthy historical claims but on how he shines the light of Christ to the nations and on how he encounters and comforts the afflicted.

Imagine a primate who is Christ to us, who is so much Christ to us that we desire merely to be with him, to feel his love and warmth.

Imagine a Church that is not so much institution as a fiery chariot of the Word of God, bringing the power and life of the One Who is Light and Life wherever it is is taken up into the heavens of prayer.

Imagine a primate who will give up everything so as not to lose anyone.

Imagine a patriarch for whom the loving will of all the other patriarchs and primates is necessary for his life as a churchman and for his authenticity, which is attained for him by his love for them rather than by appeasing them or dominating them.

Imagine an older brother who seeks to be as an apostle rather than as a king, who is a pastor rather than a potentate, who is poor in all things so that all might become rich in Jesus Christ.

Imagine a primate who emphasizes the royal priesthood of all who belong to Christ, who seeks to support their ministry, who begins everything with making their offering holy and acceptable to God.

Imagine a Church for whom and in whom and to whom Christ is all in all.

Is this not a man and his Church whom we would all gladly acknowledge as the first among us, as the one without whom nothing can be done, as the one whom we call upon in time of need, as the one who is truly a shepherd and teacher and friend?

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