The Ecumenical Patriarchate violated Canon 5 of Sardica in the Filaret appeal


On 12 November 2018, the Holy Assembly of the Serbian Orthodox Church formally rejected the purported rehabilitation of deposed clerics by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Holy Assembly referred to the decision as “canonically unjustified.” This may refer to many different canons, but we wish to focus on one in particular: Canon 5 of Sardica.

Previously, we published an article discussing several problems with the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s decision of the appeal of Filaret Denisenko. That article stated, “We have found no written canonical procedures governing the EP’s ‘right of appeal.'” However, we neglected Canon 5 of the Council of Sardica, which does set forth procedural rules for canonical appeals.

Canon 5 of Sardica focuses on appeals to the Bishop of Rome, rather than to Constantinople. However, it is applicable to Constantinople because the prerogatives of Constantinople are based on the prerogatives previously accorded to Rome. (For example, writing after the Great Schism, the canonist Theodore Balsamon stated, “the matters defined with regard to the pope are not his privileges alone, so that all condemned bishops must from necessity go before the throne of Rome, but that this is understood in a certain sense as to Constantinople.”) The canons of Sardica were also explicitly ratified by Canon 2 of the Council in Trullo (the “Quintisext Council”), which has ecumenical standing in the Orthodox Church.

If, in fact, Constantinople has the right to hear appeals from bishops outside of its own jurisdiciton, then it is bound to follow the procedures set forth in Canon 5 of Sardica. Here is an English translation of the Greek text of that canon:

Decreed, that if any bishop is accused, and the bishops of the same region assemble and depose him from his office, and he appealing, so to speak, takes refuge with the most blessed bishop of the Roman church, and he be willing to give him a hearing, and think it right to renew the examination of his case, let him be pleased to write to those fellow bishops who are nearest the province that they may examine the particulars with care and accuracy and give their votes on the matter in accordance with the word of truth.

And if any one require that his case be heard yet again, and at his request it seem good to move the bishop of Rome to send presbyters a latere, let it be in the power of that bishop, according as he judges it to be good and decides it to be right — that some be sent to be judges with the bishops and invested with his authority by whom they were sent. And be this also ordained. But if he thinks that the bishops are sufficient for the examination and decision of the matter let him do what shall seem good in his most prudent judgment.

This canon allows for two types of appeal to Rome. The first appeal requires the following:

  1. The desposed bishop must appeal to the Bishop of Rome.
  2. The Bishop of Rome must agree to hear the appeal.
  3. The Bishop of Rome must write to the bishops of the provinces nearest to that of the deposed bishop, inviting them to join him in hearing the appeal.
  4. The assembled bishops must “examine the particulars with care and accuracy.”
  5. The assembled bishops must vote on the matter.

If, for some reason, this first appeal to Rome doesn’t settle the matter, the deposed bishop has the option to appeal to Rome again, and the second appeal proceeds as follows:

  1. The deposed bishop must again appeal to the Bishop of Rome.
  2. The Bishop of Rome must agree to hear the second appeal.
  3. The Bishop of Rome may (but is not required to) send legates to the disputed region, to join the bishops of the neighboring provinces in deciding the second appeal.
  4. The bishops of the neighboring provinces, called together by the Bishop of Rome and possibly (but not necessarily) including the legates of Rome, make the final decision.

Does the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s handling of the Filaret appeal comply with Canon 5 of Sardica, to which it is subject? It appears not. The Ecumenical Patriarch did not invite the bishops of the neighboring provinces — in this case, this would appear to be the bishops of the canonical Church of Ukraine — to participate in the appellate hearing. And the bishops who did hear the appeal did not “examine the particulars with care and accuracy” — we know this, because they did not even review the official documents of the Russian Orthodox Church when it deposed and later excommunicated Filaret, despite those documents being readily available online.

If the Ecumenical Patriarchate wishes to be seen as the leader of Orthodoxy, and even as a court of last appeal for bishops, then it must respect the canons of the Church. Otherwise, it is no more than an arbitrary dictator, rather than a Christ-like leader in the spirit of the Holy Apostles and the great Patriarchs of old.

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