Can Orthodoxy exist without the Ecumenical Patriarchate?


At times, we confront trials and temptations precisely because some people falsely believe that they can love the Orthodox Church, but not the Ecumenical Patriarchate, forgetting that it incarnates the authentic ecclesiastical ethos of Orthodoxy. “In the beginning was the Word . . . in him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1.1,4) The beginning of the Orthodox Church is the Ecumenical Patriarchate; “in this is life, and the life is the light of the Churches.” The late Metropolitan Kyrillos of Gortyna and Arcadia, a beloved Hierarch of the Mother Church and personal friend, was right to underline that “Orthodoxy cannot exist without the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”

– Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, 1 September 2018

These words, spoken by Patriarch Bartholomew before the Synaxis of bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on 1 September, represent a series of bold claims:

  • To love the Orthodox church, one must love the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
  • The beginning of the Orthodox Church is the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
  • The Ecumenical Patriarchate is to the Church what Christ is to humanity: the source of life and light.
  • Orthodoxy cannot exist without the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

How might one evaluate these claims? Firstly, one might observe that, for the first three centuries of the Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate did not exist. On its face, then, the Patriarch’s claims cannot apply absolutely, at all times.

But perhaps Patriarch Bartholomew meant these claims to apply to the period after the establishment of the Ecumenical Patriarchate — the period when its high status was firmly established by the Ecumenical Councils. Is it true that, since its establishment in the fourth century, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been “the beginning of the Orthodox Church,” the “life” and “light” of the Church, and the necessary prerequisite for the existence of Orthodoxy?

Again, historical evidence appears to contradict these claims. From 339 to 843, the office of Ecumenical Patriarch was held by a heretic in 202 out of 504 years — that is, 40% of the time. These included lengthy stretches of time in which no Orthodox bishop occupied the See of Constantinople:

  • Arian patriarchs from 339-380 (37 years)
  • Monothelite patriarchs from 610-666 (56 years, all condemned by name by the Sixth Ecumenical Council)
  • Iconoclast patriarchs from 730-780 (50 years) and again from 815-843 (28 years)

In addition, of course, there was Patriarch Nestorius — condemned by the Third Ecumenical Council — and three other patriarchs who rejected that Ecumenical Council.

After the final defeat of iconoclasm in the 9th century, the Ecumenical Patriarchs were consistently Orthodox for many years. Perhaps now the claim can be made that “Orthodoxy cannot exist without the Ecumenical Patriarchate”?

No. For several years in the 13th century, and for more than a decade before the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the Ecumenical Throne was occupied by patriarchs who capitulated to Roman Catholicism and embraced the “Unia.” Indeed, while some people have recently made much of the fact that the Church of Russia declared itself autocephalous without authorization from Constantinople in 1448, we must remember that, in 1448, the Church of Constantinople was not, in fact, Orthodox, because it had accepted union with Rome, on the terms of Rome.

To what period, then, does the claim apply, that “Orthodoxy cannot exist without the Ecumenical Patriarchate”? Certainly not to the first fifteen centuries of Church history. But it is hard to imagine that Patriarch Bartholomew meant this sweeping claim to apply only to the past 500 years or so. An honest reading of Church history compels us to conclude that the Patriarch’s claim is false: Orthodoxy can exist, and at many times has existed, without the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Furthermore, the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is based on the role once held by the Church of Rome. This role of Rome is directly referenced in the key canons dealing with the role of Constantinople, especially the much-discussed Canon 28 of Chalcedon. No one disputes that, prior to the Great Schism, the Church of Rome was primus among the Churches. If we cannot say, “Orthodoxy cannot exist without the Church of Rome,” how then can we make the same claim about the Ecumenical Patriarchate? Is Constantinople greater than Rome was before the Schism? Does it somehow have even more prerogatives, even more preeminence? Certainly, no one associated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate could reasonably make such a claim. It follows, then, that, because Orthodoxy proved that it could exist without Rome, Orthodoxy can also exist without Constantinople.

Likewise, the Ecumenical Patriarchate cannot be called the indispensible “beginning of the Orthodox Church.” Not in an historical sense, for the Church had its actual beginning at Jerusalem, and the Church long predates the Ecumenical Patriarchate. And not in a theological sense, for the beginning of the Church is not a particular episcopal see, but rather is Christ, who himself is begotten of the Father before all the ages, and who sent the Holy Spirit to establish the Church on the day of Pentecost. All power and authority belongs to Christ (Mt. 28:18), and it is only through Christ that any bishop bears the grace of the Holy Spirit and can act with authority in the Church.

Beyond the factual inaccuracy of the claim that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the “beginning of the Orthodox Church,” it is particularly troubling that Patriarch Bartholomew has identified the Ecumenical Patriarchate with the uncreated Logos, Jesus Christ:

“In the beginning was the Word . . . in him was life, and the life was the light of men.” The beginning of the Orthodox Church is the Ecumenical Patriarchate; “in this is life, and the life is the light of the Churches.”

Here, the Patriarch asserts that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is to the Orthodox Church (the very body of Christ!) what the Divine Logos is to humanity. Never before has such a vision of primacy been asserted — not even by the Popes of Rome in their boldest statements of papal supremacy.

Yet, in this audacious claim, we can see the foundation for Patriarch Bartholomew’s other claims — that one cannot love Orthodoxy without loving the Ecumenical Patriarchate, that the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the beginning of the Church, that Orthodoxy cannot exist without the Ecumenical Patriarchate. If, indeed, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the Divine Logos of the Church, then, certainly, it is both beginning and existential necessity.

But how can we, as Christians, acknowledge any man, or group of men, as holding such a high rank, equal to that of God himself? How can anyone but the true Logos be “life” and “the light of the Churches”? Here, then, is the apotheosis of the claims of Constantinople: it has somehow dared to equate itself with Christ! But we have the actual Christ, who is in our midst and has never abandoned his Church. All of us, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate, depend upon Christ for life and light.

Let us, then, glorify, not a man or a see, but the Lord himself, the only One without whom Orthodoxy cannot exist, the only true life and light of the Church and of all humanity, to whom is due all praise, honor, and glory.

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