In late November, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew traveled to Romania to participate in the consecration of the newly-constructed national cathedral in Bucharest. While there, he attended a meeting of the Romanian Holy Synod and gave an address on the topic of Ukraine.
In that speech, Patriarch Bartholomew states that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has decided to grant autocephaly to “the ecclesiastical body in Ukraine.” Critically, for the first time, he publicly acknowledges that this unilateral decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is in conflict with the procedure for granting autocephaly that had been agreed upon at the Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar Commission in 1993. Patriarch Bartholomew states:
“Of course, the pre-conciliar treatment of the issue of autocephaly provisioned a different solution. However, once consensus has not been reached – and the Ecumenical Patriarchate is in no way responsible for this – so that Autocephaly be eventually included in the agenda of the issues under consideration at the Holy and Great Council, it is self-evident that the hitherto relevant practice for centuries is applied and be ratified ad referendum at a future Ecumenical Council.”
The 1993 Pre-Conciliar autocephaly procedure calls for the following steps:
- The region in question submits a request for autocephaly to its Mother Church.
- If the Mother Church approves, it submits a proposal to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
- The Ecumenical Patriarchate sends a patriarchal letter to the world’s autocephalous Churches to seek pan-Orthodox consensus.
- The Holy Synods of these Churches each vote on the matter. If 100% of the Churches vote in favor of granting autocephaly, the process continues. Otherwise, it ends here.
- If pan-Orthodox unanimity exists, then the Ecumenical Patriarchate proclaims the new autocephaly by issuing a Tomos, which is signed by the Ecumenical Patriarch and the primate of the Mother Church, and as many of the other primates as possible.
In contrast, it is clear that Patriarch Bartholomew believes that this “hitherto relevant practice for centuries” is for the Ecumenical Patriarchate alone, unilaterally, to grant autocephaly to whatever ecclesiastical body it so chooses, with the decision subject to ratification by a hypothetical future Ecumenical Council.
But is Patriarch Bartholomew correct in his summation of the “hitherto relevant practice for centuries”? What is this “hitherto relevant practice”?
Two important documents, both produced by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, provide valuable insight into this question. The first is the celebrated 1970 letter from Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras to the Moscow Patriarchate; the second is the official position paper submitted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in advance of the 1993 Pre-Conciliar meeting.
In his 1970 letter, Patriarch Athenagoras speaks of the modern autocephalies: “the Churches to which the Holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Ecumenical throne gave the stamp of autocephaly with the approval of the other Orthodox Churches.” Such a stamp of autocephaly still must be confirmed by “a Synod representing more generally the entirety of the local Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, and especially to an Ecumenical Synod.”
The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s official position paper is consistent with Athenagoras. In this paper, the Ecumenical Patriarchate lists pan-Orthodox unanimity as one of the eight essential elements of autocephaly: “the expression of the canonical recognition of the new autocephaly by all the Orthodox Churches, either during the procedure of proclamation or subsequently.” The paper specifically cites the example of the Russian Orthodox Church, whose autocephaly and patriarchal status was not granted by Constantinpole unilaterally, but with the consent of the other Churches:
“As it happens, the example of the Russian Church is eloquent. The bishop of Constantinople, Jeremiah II, being in Moscow, had elevated this Church to the Patriarchate in 1589, which provoked the protests of the recently-elected Patriarch of Alexandria, Meletios Pigas. The following year, a permanent synod gathered in Constantinople with the participation of the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem, who ratified Jeremiah’s gesture and added that the Patriarch of Muscovy would have his own head and would have for first See, like the other Patriarchs, the apostolic See of Constantinople. But the fact that the bishop of Alexandria, Meletios Pigas, was absent from this synod provoked the convocation of a new synod three years later, where the bishop of Constantinople, the bishop of Alexandria, representing the bishop of Antioch, and the bishop of Jerusalem gathered. This synod unanimously endorsed the elevation of the Church of Moscow to the Patriarchate. It is remarkable that the Patriarch Jeremiah, in order to justify his gesture towards the Church of Russia also relied on the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council.”
“The organization of every local autocephalous Church requires the recognition of the ecumenical Church so that its autocephalous existence may be definitive and indissoluble. Thus, for example, the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly to the Church of Romania on the condition that this conferment be definitively endorsed by all the Orthodox Churches gathered in an Ecumenical Council or Great Council, as was otherwise done, with the agreement of the other Orthodox Churches, for the Churches which, on account of circumstances, it proclaimed autocephalous since the mid-19th century and thereafter: this was the case by virtue of its quality as first of the Orthodox Churches, at the same time as the center of their internal unity and the protector of the local Churches in their needs.”
Why is pan-Orthodox agreement so important? Why do we, at Orthodox Synaxis, constantly emphasize conciliarity and consensus, as opposed to unilaterality? In the arena of autocephaly, we cannot express ourselves better than the great Athenagoras, who rightly states, “[F]rom the very meaning of autocephaly itself as an ecclesiastical act, from which certain changes result relative to ecclesiastical boundaries and to the rise of new jurisdictional and administrative powers that bring about a new order in the Orthodox Church as a whole — it may be concluded that the granting of autocephaly is a right belonging to the Church as a whole, and cannot at all be considered a right of ‘each Autocephalous Church.'”
Certainly, we believe that the autocephaly procedure produced by the 1993 Pre-Conciliar Commission is an excellent process that preserves the delicate balance between primacy and conciliarity in the Church. It would be best if the Ecumenical Patriarchate would follow this procedure, even though it has not yet been formally approved by a Pan-Orthodox Council. But if, for some reason, this procedure is not followed, then, at a minimum, the Ecumenical Patriarch must honestly and sincerely follow the true “hitherto relevant practice for centuries,” expressed by his own Ecumenical Throne over recent decades. The Ecumenical Patriarchate is indeed primus, but it is not sine paribus — in the spirit of Apostolic Canon 34, it must not act without its Sister Churches, just as is Sister Churches must not act without their primus.