The Special Bishop of Caesar

While criticism of the close relationship between the Russian Church and state is (with good justification!) common, less attention is paid to the fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople exists and claims primacy solely due to its relationship with now-extinct civil authorities. But it is only this history that can explain much of Constantinople’s modern-day behavior. There is, to put it bluntly, an emperor-shaped (or, more accurately, a sultan-shaped) hole in Constantinople’s heart that forces Ecumenical Patriarchs to court the support of the most unexpected worldly powers, from Harry Truman in Athenagoras’ day to Petro Poroshenko today. Writing in 1911, the English Roman Catholic scholar Adrian Fortescue sketched the pathos of Constantinople’s role as ‘the special bishop of Caesar’ with equal erudition and acerbity:

The rise of the see of Constantinople, the ‘Great Church of Christ,’ is the most curious development in the history of Eastern Christendom. For many centuries the patriarchs of New Rome have been the first bishops in the East. Though they never succeeded in the claim to universal jurisdiction over the whole Orthodox Church that they have at various times advanced, though, during the last century especially, the limits of their once enormous patriarchate have been ruthlessly driven back, nevertheless since the fifth century and still at the present time the Patriarch of New Rome fills a place in the great Christian body whose importance makes it second only to that of the Pope of Old Rome. To be an orthodox Christian one must accept the orthodox faith. That is the first criterion. And then as a second and visible bond of union all Greeks at any rate, and probably most Arabs and Slavs, would add that one must be in communion with the oecumenical patriarch. The Bulgars are entirely orthodox in faith, but are excommunicate from the see of Constantinople; a rather less acute form of the same state was until lately the misfortune of the Church of Antioch. And the great number of Orthodox Christians would deny a share of their name to Bulgars and Antiochenes for this reason only. Since, then, these patriarchs are now and have so long been the centre of unity to the hundred millions of Christians who make up the great Orthodox Church, one might be tempted to think that their position is an essential element of its constitution, and to imagine that, since the days of the first general councils New Rome has been as much the leading Church of the East as Old Rome of the West. One might be tempted to conceive the Orthodox as the subjects of the oecumenical patriarch, just as Roman Catholics are the subjects of the pope. This would be a mistake. The advance of the see of Constantinople is the latest development in the history of the hierarchy. The Byzantine patriarch is the youngest of the five. His see evolved from the smallest of local dioceses at the end of the fourth and during the fifth centuries. And now his jurisdiction, that at one time grew into something like that of his old rival the pope, has steadily retreated till he finds himself back not very far from the point at which his predecessors began their career of gradual advance. And the overwhelming majority of the Orthodox, although they still insist on communion with him, indignantly deny that he has any rights over them. Though they still give him a place of honour as the first bishop of their Church, the other orthodox patriarchs and still more the synods of national churches show a steadily growing jealousy of his assumption and a defiant insistence on their equality with him. An outline of the story of what might be called the rise and fall of the see of Constantinople will form the natural introduction to the list of its bishops.

We first hear of a bishop of Byzantium at the time of the first General Council (Nicaea, 325). At that time Metrophanes (315-325) ruled what was only a small local see under the metropolitan of Thrace at Herakleia. Long afterwards his successors claimed St Andrew the Apostle as the founder of their see. This legend does not begin till about the ninth century, after Constantinople had become a mighty patriarchate. There was always a feeling that the chief sees should be those founded by apostles; the other patriarchates—Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem—were apostolic sees (Alexandria claimed St Peter as he founder too), and now that Constantinople was to be the equal of the others, indeed the second see of all, an apostolic founder had to be found for her too. The legend of St Andrew at Constantinople first occurs in a ninth century forgery attributed to one Dorotheos, bishop of Tyre and a martyr under Diocletian. St Andrew’s successor is said to be the Stachys mentioned in Rom. xvi. 9; and then follow Onesimus and twenty-two other mythical bishops, till we come to a real person, Metrophanes I. The reason why St Andrew was chosen is the tradition that he went to the North and preached in Scythia, Epirus and Thrace. No one now takes this first line of Byzantine bishops seriously. Their names are interesting as one more attempt to connect what afterwards became a great see with an apostle. Before the ninth century one of the commonest charges brought against the growing patriarchate was that it is not an apostolic see (e.g. Leo I. Ep. 104, ad Marcianum), and its defenders never think of denying the charge; they rather bring the question quite candidly to its real issue by answering that it is at any rate an imperial one. So the first historical predecessor of the oecumenical patriarch was Metrophanes I. And he was by no means an oecumenical patriarch. He was not even a metropolitan. His city at the time of the first Nicene synod was a place of no sort of importance, and he was the smallest of local bishops who obeyed the metropolitan of Herakleia. The council recognized as an ‘ancient use’ the rights of three chief sees only—Rome, Alexandria and Antioch (Can. 6). The title ‘patriarch’ (taken, of course, from the Old Testament as ‘Levite’ for deacon) only gradually became a technical one. It is the case of nearly all ecclesiastical titles. As late as the sixth century we still find any specially venerable bishop called a patriarch (Greg. Naz. Orat. 42, 43, Acta SS. Febr. III. 742, where Celidonius of Besançon is called ‘the venerable patriarch’). But the thing itself was there, if not the special name. At the time of Nicaea I. there were only three and only three bishops who stood above other metropolitans and ruled over vast provinces, the bishops first of Rome, then of Alexandria and thirdly of Antioch. It should be noticed that conservative people, and especially the Western Church, for centuries resented the addition of the two new patriarchates—Jerusalem and Constantinople—to these three, and still clung to the ideal of the three chief Churches only. Constantinople eventually displaced Alexandria and Antioch to the third and fourth places: they both refused to accept that position for a long time. Alexandria constantly in the fifth and sixth centuries asserts her right as the ‘second throne,’ and Antioch demands to be recognized as third. The Roman Church especially maintained the older theory; she did not formally recognize Constantinople as a patriarchate at all till the ninth century, when she accepted the 21st Canon of Constantinople IV. (869) that establishes the order of five patriarchates, with Constantinople as the second and Jerusalem as the last. Dioscur of Alexandria (444-451) bitterly resented the lowered place given to his see. St Leo I. of Rome (440-461) writes: ‘Let the great Churches keep their dignity according to the Canons, that is Alexandria and Antioch’ (Ep. ad Rufin. Thess., Le Quien, Or. Christ. I. 18), and he constantly appeals to the sixth Canon of Nicaea against later innovations (Ep. 104, ad Marc.). He says, ‘The dignity of the Alexandrine see must not perish’ and ‘the Antiochene Church should remain in the order arranged by the Fathers, so that having been put in the third place it should never be reduced to a lowered one’ (Ep. 106, ad Anatolium). St Gregory I. (590-604) still cherished the older ideal of the three patriarchates, and as late as the eleventh century St Leo IX. (1045-1054) writes to Peter III. of Antioch that ‘Antioch must keep the third place’ (Will, Acta et scripta de controversiis eccl. graecae et latinae, Leipig, 1861, p. 168). However, in spite of all opposition the bishops of Constantinople succeeded, first in being recognized as patriarchs and eventually taking the second place, after Rome but before Alexandria. It was purely an accident of secular politics that made this possible. The first general council had not even mentioned the insignificant little diocese of Byzantium. But by the time the second council met (Constantinople I., 381) a great change had happened. Constantine in 330 dedicated his new capital ‘amid the nakedness of almost all other cities’ (St Jerome Ckron. A.D. 332). He moved the seat of his government thither, stripped Old Rome and ransacked the Empire to adorn it, and built up what became the most gorgeous city of the world. So the bishop of Byzantium found himself in a sense the special bishop of Caesar. He at once obtained an honored place at court, he had the ear of the emperor, he was always at hand to transact any business between other bishops and the government. Politically and civilly New Rome was to be in every way equal to Old Rome, and since the fourth century there was a strong tendency to imitate civil arrangements in ecclesiastical affairs. Could the prelate whose place had sufficiently become so supremely important remain a small local ordinary under a metropolitan? And always the emperors favored the ambition of their court bishops; the greater the importance of their capital in the Church, as well as in the State, the more would the loyalty of their subjects be riveted to the central government. So we find that the advance of the Byzantine see is always as desirable an object to the emperor as to his bishop. The advance came quickly now. But we may notice that at every step there is no concealment as to its motive. No one in those days thought of claiming any other reason for the high place given to the bishop except the fact that the imperial court sat in his city. There was no pretense of an apostolic foundation, no question of St Andrew, no claim to a glorious past, no record of martyrs, doctors nor saints who had adorned the see of this new city; she had taken no part in spreading the faith, had been of no importance to anyone till Constantine noticed what a splendid site the Bosphorus and Golden Horn offer. This little bishop was a parvenu of the parvenus; he knew it and everyone knew it. His one argument—and for four centuries he was never tired of repeating it—was that he was the emperor’s bishop, his see was New Rome. New Rome was civilly equal to Old Rome, so why should he not be as great, or nearly as great, as that distant patriarch now left alone where the weeds choked ruined gates by the Tiber? Now that the splendor of Caesar and his court have gone to that dim world where linger the ghosts of Pharaoh and Cyrus we realize how weak was the foundation of this claim from the beginning. The Turk has answered the new patriarch’s arguments very effectively. And to-day he affects an attitude of conservatism, and in his endless quarrels with the independent Orthodox Churches he talks about ancient rights. He has no ancient rights. The ancient rights are those of his betters at Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. His high place is founded on an accident of politics, and if his argument were carried out consistently he would have had to step down in 1453 and the chief bishops of Christendom would now be those of Paris, London and New York. We must go back to 381 and trace the steps of his progress. The first Council of Constantinople was a small assembly of only 150 eastern bishops. No Latins were present, the Roman Church was not represented. Its third canon ordains that: ‘The bishop of Constantinople shall have the primacy of honour (τὰ πρεσβεῖα τῆς τιμῆς) after the bishop of Rome, because that city is New Rome.’ This does not yet mean a patriarchate. There is no question of extra-diocesan jurisdiction. He is to have an honorary place after the pope because his city has become politically New Rome. The Churches of Rome and Alexandria definitely refused to accept this canon. The popes in accepting the Creed of Constantinople I. always rejected its canons and specially rejected this third canon. Two hundred years later Gregory I. says, ‘The Roman Church neither acknowledges nor receives the canons of that synod, she accepts the said synod in what it defined against Macedonius’ (the additions to the Nicene Creed, Ep. VII. 34); and when Gratian put the canon into the Roman canon law in the twelfth century the papal correctors added to it a note to the effect that the Roman Church did not acknowledge it. The canon and the note still stand in the Corpus juris (dist. XXII. c. 3), a memory of the opposition with which Old Rome met the first beginning of the advance of New Rome. The third general council did not affect this advance, although during the whole fourth century there are endless cases of bishops of Constantinople, defended by the emperor, usurping rights in other provinces—usurpations that are always indignantly opposed by the lawful primates. Such usurpations, and the indignant oppositions, fill up the history of the Eastern Church down to our own time. It was the fourth general council (Chalcedon in 451) that finally assured the position of the imperial bishops. Its 28th canon is the vital point in all this story. The canon—very long and confused in its form—defines ‘the most holy Church of Constantinople the New Rome’ shall have a primacy next after Old Rome. Of course the invariable reason is given: ‘the city honored because of her rule and her Senate shall enjoy a like primacy to that of the elder Imperial Rome and shall be mighty in Church affairs just as she is and shall be second after her.’ The canon gives authority over Asia (the Roman province, of course—Asia Minor) and Thrace to Constantinople and so builds up a new patriarchate. Older and infinitely more venerable sees, Herakleia, the ancient metropolis, Caesarea in Cappadocia, that had converted all of Armenia, Ephesus where the apostle whom our Lord loved had sat—they must all step down, because Constantinople is honoured for her rule and her senate. The Roman legates (Lucentius, Paschasius and Boniface) were away at the fifteenth session when this canon was drawn up. When they arrive later and hear what has been done in their absence they are very angry, and a heated discussion takes place in which they appeal to the sixth canon of Nicaea. The council sent an exceptionally respectful letter to Pope Leo I. (440-461) asking him to confirm their acts (Ep. Conc. Chal. ad Leonem, among St Leo’s letters, No. 98). He confirms the others, but rejects the twenty-eighth categorically. ‘He who seeks undue honours,’ he says, ‘loses his real ones. Let it be enough for the said Bishop’ (Anatolius of Constantinople) ‘that by the help of your’ (Marcian’s) ‘piety and by the consent of my favor he has got the bishopric of so great a city. Let him not despise a royal see because he can never make it an apostolic one’ (no one had dreamed of the St Andrew legend then); ‘nor should he by any means hope to become greater by offending others.’ He also appeals to canon 6 of Nicaea against the proposed arrangement (Ep. 104). So the 28th canon of Chalcedon, too, was never admitted at Rome. The Illyrian and various other bishops had already refused to sign it. Notwithstanding this opposition the new patriarch continued to prosper. The Council of Chalcedon had made the see of Jerusalem into a patriarchate as well, giving it the fifth place. But all the eastern rivals go down in importance at this time. Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were overrun with Monophysites; nearly all Syria and Egypt fell away into that heresy, so that the orthodox patriarchs had scarcely any flocks. Then came Islam and swept away whatever power they still had. Meanwhile Caesar was always the friend of his own bishop. Leo III. the Isaurian (717-741), filched his own fatherland, Isauria, from Antioch and gave it to Constantinople; from the seventh to the ninth centuries the emperors continually affect to separate Illyricum from the Roman patriarchate and add it to that of their own bishop. Since Justinian conquered back Italy (554) they claim Greater Greece (Southern Italy, Calabria, Apulia, Sicily) for their patriarch too, till the Norman Conquest (1060-1091) puts an end to any hope of asserting such a claim. It is the patriarch of Constantinople who has the right of crowning the emperor; and the patriarch John IV., the Faster (Νηστευτής, 582-595), assumes the vaguely splendid title of ‘OEcumenical Patriarch.’ The new kingdom of the Bulgars forms a source of angry dispute between Rome and Constantinople, till just after the great schism the oecumenical patriarch wins them all to his side, little thinking how much trouble the children of these same Bulgars will some day give to his successors. Photios (857-867, 878-886) and Michael Kerularios (Michael I., 1043-1058) saw the great schism between East and West. Meanwhile the conversion of the Russians (988) added an enormous territory to what was already the greatest of the Eastern patriarchates.

The Turkish conquest of Constantinople (1453), strangely enough, added still more power to its patriarchs. True to their unchanging attitude the Mohammedans accepted each religious communion as a civil body. The Rayahs were grouped according to their Churches. The greatest of these bodies was, and is, the Orthodox Church, with the name ‘Roman nation’ (rum millet), strange survival of the dead empire. And the recognized civil head of the Roman nation is the oecumenical patriarch. So he now has civil jurisdiction over all orthodox Rayahs in the Turkish empire, over the other patriarchs and their subjects and over the autocephalous Cypriotes as well as over the faithful of his own patriarchate. No orthodox Christian can approach the Porte except through his court at the Phanar. And the Phanar continually tries to use this civil jurisdiction for ecclesiastical purposes.

We have now come to the height of our patriarch’s power. He rules over a vast territory second only to that of the Roman patriarchate. All Turkey in Europe, all Asia Minor, and Russia to the Polish frontier and the White Sea, obey the great lord who rules by the old lighthouse on the Golden Horn. And he is politically and civilly the overlord of Orthodox Egypt, Syria, Palestine and Cyprus as well. So for one short period, from 1453-1589, he was not a bad imitation of the real pope. But his glory did not last and from this point to the present time his power has gone down almost as fast as it went up in the fourth and fifth centuries. The first blow was the independence of Russia. In 1589 the czar, Feodor Ivanovich, made his Church into an autocephalous patriarchate (under Moscow), and in 1721 Peter the Great changed its government into that of a ‘Holy directing Synod.’ Both the independence and the synod have been imitated by most Orthodox Churches since. Jeremias II. of Constantinople (1572-1579, 1580-1584, 1586-1595) took money as the price of acknowledging the Russian Holy Synod as his ‘sister in Christ.’ It was all he could do. His protector the Sultan had no power in Russia, and if he had made difficulties he would not have prevented what happened and he would have lost the bribe. Since then the oecumenical patriarch has no kind of jurisdiction in Russia; even the holy chrism is prepared at Petersburg. In two small cases the Phanar has gained a point since it lost Russia. Through the unholy alliance with the Turkish government that had become its fixed policy, it succeeded in crushing the independent Servian Church of Ipek in 1765 and the Bulgarian Church of Achrida (Ochrida in Macedonia) in 1767. The little Roumanian Church of Tirnovo had been forced to submit to Constantinople as soon as the Turks conquered that city (1393). In these three cases, then, the Phanar again spread the boundaries of its jurisdiction. Otherwise it steadily retreats. In every case in which a Balkan State has thrown off the authority of the Porte, its Church has at once thrown off the authority of the Phanar. These two powers had been too closely allied for the new independent government to allow its subjects to obey either of them. The process is always the same. One of the first laws of the new constitution is to declare that the national Church is entirely orthodox, that it accepts all canons, decrees and declarations of the Seven Holy Synods, that it remains in communion with the oecumenical throne and all the other Orthodox Churches of Christ; but that it is an entirely autocephalous Church, acknowledging no head but Christ. A Holy Synod is then set up on the Russian model, by which the theory ‘no head but Christ’ always works out as unmitigated Erastianism. The patriarch on the other hand is always filled with indignation; he always protests vehemently, generally begins by excommunicating the whole of the new Church, and (except in the Bulgarian case) Russia always makes him eventually withdraw his decree and recognize yet another sister in Christ.

In 1833 the first Greek parliament at Nauplion declared the Greek Church independent; Anthimos IV. of Constantinople first refused to acknowledge it at all and then in 1850 published his famous Tomos, allowing some measure of self-government. The Greek Church refused to take any notice of the Tomos, and eventually Anthimos had to give way altogether. In 1866 the cession of the Ionian Isles, and in 1881 the addition of Thessaly and part of Epirus to the kingdom of Greece, enlarged the territory of the Greek Church and further reduced the patriarchate. In 1870 the Bulgars founded an independent national church. This is by far the worst trouble of all. They have set up an Exarch in Constantinople and he claims jurisdiction over all Bulgars, wherever they may live. The Bulgarian Church is recognized by Russia, excommunicate and most vehemently denounced by the patriarch. The inevitable moment in which the Phanar will have to give way and welcome his sister too has not come yet. The Serbs set up their own church in 1879, the Vlachs in 1885—both establishments led to disputes that still distress the Orthodox Church. The Austrian occupation of lands inhabited by orthodox Christians has led to the establishment of independent Churches at Carlovitz in 1765, at Hermannstadt (Nagy-Szeben) in 1864, at Czernovitz in 1873 and of a practically independent one in Hercegovina and Bosnia since 1880. The diminishing power of the oecumenical patriarch is further shown by the resistance, always more and more uncompromising, shown when he tries to interfere in the affairs of the other patriarchates and autocephalous Churches. In 1866 Sophronios III. of Constantinople wanted to judge a case at the monastery of Mount Sinai. Immediately the Patriarch of Jerusalem summoned a synod and indignantly refused to acknowledge his ‘anti-canonical interference and his foreign and unknown authority.’ The Church of Greece since its establishment has had many opportunities of resisting the patriarch’s foreign authority. She has not failed to use each of them. The see of Antioch still bears the excommunication proclaimed against her late Patriarch Meletios (†Feb. 8, 1906) rather than allow the Phanar to interfere in her affairs. The patriarch of Alexandria (Photios) has sent away the legate whom the Phanar wished to keep at his court. The Church of Cyprus, now for nearly nine years in the throes of a quarrel that disturbs and scandalizes the whole orthodox world, has appealed to every sort of person—including the British Colonial Office—to come and help her out of her trouble. From only one will she hear of no interference. Every time the Phanar volunteers a little well-meant advice it is told sharply that it has no authority in Cyprus; the Council of Ephesus in 431 settled all that and, in short, will his All-holiness in Constantinople mind his own business?

[Excerpted from: Claude Delaval Cobham (with introductions by Adrian Fortescue and H.T.F. Duckworth), The Patriarchs of Constantinople (Cambridge, 1911), 21-35]

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