An English translation has recently been posted online of the thoughts of the well-known contemporary writer of the Greek Orthodox Church, Metropolitan Hierotheos Vlachos of Nafpaktos, concerning The Institution of Autocephaly in the Orthodox Church. His writing is worthy of careful scrutiny.
Regrettably he opens with a false premise, namely that the central issue in the current controversy regarding Church life in Ukraine revolves around the question of autocephaly: What this is, by whom is it granted and how does an autocephalous church relate to the wider Body of Christ. These are all important questions to which the Church as a whole has not yet been able to reach conclusive answers. But they are not the primary cause of the deepening schism that is opening up in the life of our beloved Church. Rather the root of our present disunity is twofold: the blatant unilateralism of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in its intervention in Ukraine without consideration of the voice of the universally recognized Orthodox Church in Ukraine under His Beatitude Metropolitan Onufrey, combined with the recognition of schismatic churches without any requirement of repentance for the actions that led to their separation from the Church in the first instance.
Despite this apparent lack of fuller understanding, Metropolitan Hierotheos does quickly draw attention to the issue that challenges all of us and has perhaps made this crisis inevitable. This is the lack of interdependence in the Church that we frequently refer to as a “family of self-governing churches.” Autocephaly, whatever it means and however it is given, cannot mean independence. Within the Body of Christ that is the Church no member can say of another “I have no need of you.”
More problematically Metropolitan Hierotheos advances the Ecumenical Patriarchate, “the first throne church,” as the ultimate guarantor of the correct balance between hierarchy and conciliarity in the life of the Church that prevents it from falling into the extremes of either Roman Catholic of Protestant ecclesiology. Whilst he acknowledges that the first throne once belonged to Rome, he does not address the question of why this unique ministry might not pass from Constantinople to another See. This omission means he does not evaluate the reasons why Constantinople was elevated to second place in the diptychs after Rome. Neither does he evaluate whether the radical change in Constantinople’s importance as a center of actual Orthodox Church life has rendered it unqualified to fulfil the ministry of “the first throne church” in the contemporary world. On the contrary, he does not seem to see any change coming in the first throne church, but rather that a certain level of dependence on the See of Constantinople is and will continue to be the guarantor of genuine interdependence in the Church.
There is undoubtedly a need for a Protos, a first amongst equals, in the life of the Church. This writer is in full agreement with Metropolitan Hierotheos on this question. But the ability of the Ecumenical Patriarch to fulfil this ministry has now been gravely compromised by his actions with regard to Ukraine, and with profound sorrow we may now be witnessing the final fall of Constantinople. Let us pray and hope that there is yet an occasion for repentance and a restoration of love.