As the holy synods of the local Orthodox churches deliberate whether or not to accept the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s decision to create an autocephalous church in Ukraine, the character of the text newly-issued tomos may prove decisive in their decisions. While very few, if any, churches appear to be opposed to the idea of an autocephalous Ukrainian Orthodox Church in principle, they may very well oppose the manner in which it was granted and the document granting it. This is because the tomos, as a canonical document, not only grants autocephaly but attempts to define the very nature of autocephaly and assert Constantinople’s vision of its primatial relationship with the other churches. Orthodox hierarchs must read the document carefully and discerningly in order to identify any traps that may have been laid for them in it. In the absence of a conciliar decision, to accept the tomos is to accept the vision of the Church that Constantinople has articulated within it.
Consecrating a New Ecclesiology
Shortly after the Ukrainian translation of the tomos was made available, Archimandrite Cyril Hovorun, an outspoken proponent of Ukrainian autocephaly, made the following public comment in Russian on Facebook:
“After reading the Ukrainian translation of the tomos (the Greek original isn’t available yet), some observers have already come to the conclusion that this autocephaly is curtailed in comparison to the autocephalies of the other local churches. This conclusion, however, is rather hasty.
The degree of Ukrainian autocephaly provided by the tomos is the same as the degree of autocephaly of the other newly-established (νεοπαγή) churches. According to the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s interpretation, this degree [of autocephaly] is by definition less than that of the ancient (πρεσβυγενή) churches. In particular, the newly-established churches have communion with the other local churches through the Ecumenical Patriarchate, whom they recognize as their head.
Constantinople essentially took advantage of the Ukrainian tomos to canonically secure this interpretation of ALL new autocephalies which, by the way, includes that of Moscow. Another question is that not all new autocephalies agree to accept this interpretation. The newly-established Orthodox Church of Ukraine, however, agrees to accept it. And this is its sole difference from the other local Orthodox churches. […]”
In the tomos, this ecclesiology is expressed most explicitly when it states, “we declare that the Autocephalous Church in Ukraine knows as its head the most holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Ecumenical Throne, just as the rest of the Patriarchs and Primates also do.” This is no small statement, as the Orthodox Church knows one head, Jesus Christ (cf. Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:18). While no one disputes that the Patriarch of Constantinople holds a primacy inter pares, the Patriarchate of Constantinople has in recent years rejected this concept, most famously in Metropolitan Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis)’s speech declaring the patriarch to be primus sine paribus, and more recently in statements by Patriarch Bartholomew, such as when he said, “The beginning of the Orthodox Church is the Ecumenical Patriarchate; ‘in this is life, and the life is the light of the Churches’” and “the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the first Church and the head and origin of all the local Churches.”
So then, as expressed in the tomos, how does Constantinople understand its own headship?
The First See is Judged by No One
Historically, the Church of Constantinople’s right to hear appeals from other churches was closely tied to its role as the church of the Byzantine, then Ottoman capital and its patriarchs’ close associations with imperial authorities. Attempts to universalize this right were often contested or simply rejected, as by the 12th century canonist John Zonaras and, following him, St Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain in the Pedalion. The tomos, however, flatly asserts “the right of all Hierarchs and other clergy to address petitions of appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch, who bears the canonical responsibility of irrevocably passing judgment over matters related to bishops and other clergy in local Churches.” This claim to universal jurisdiction has appeared in other recent documents, such as Patriarch Bartholomew’s letter unilaterally receiving Metropolitan Oleksandr (Drabinko) into his jurisdiction, claiming that he “indisputably has the responsibility to judge ecclesiastical matters everywhere and to give them a final conclusion” and his letter dated December 24, 2018 to the primates of the Orthodox churches, which speaks of “the exclusivity of the responsibility and privilege belonging to the Church of Constantinople to treat all ecclesiastical issues without limits.”
Moreover, the tomos requires that “in the case of major issues of ecclesiastical, doctrinal and canonical nature, His Beatitude the Metropolitan of Kiev and all Ukraine must, on behalf of the Holy Synod of his Church, address our most holy Patriarchal and Ecumenical Throne, seeking its authoritative opinion and conclusive support.” As Vladimir Burega, professor and pro-rector at the Theological Academy of Kiev, has observed, this is the culmination of a gradual process of making greater and more exclusive claims to authority. Thus, in the tomos of autocephaly issued to the Church of Serbia in 1879, Constantinople simply requested that the newly-created church consult with the other autocephalous churches “on issues of common ecclesiastical significance which require a common voice and approval.” Not only did Constantinople not set itself apart from the other Orthodox churches, but it correctly identified the purpose of consultation between the churches: finding a common voice. In later tomoi, however, this was gradually transformed into a question of new churches submitting to a higher authority.
The most disturbing aspect of these two claims — universal appellate jurisdiction and being the point of reference for major canonical decisions — is the finality attributed to Constantinople’s decisions. Thus, the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s “judgment over matters related to bishops and other clergy in local Churches” is asserted to be “irrevocable”. So too, its opinion is “authoritative” and “conclusive”. It is very difficult to see how such rights would differ materially from Rome’s doctrine that “the First See is judged by no one.”
The serious ramifications of enforcing such rights can be seen in some of Constantinople’s recent actions within its own jurisdiction. In late November, the Holy Synod of Constantinople suppressed its Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Churches in Western Europe (“Rue Daru”), without any warning or prior consultation with members of the Archdiocese. With Constantinople acting as the highest juridical authority, the bishop and people of this archdiocese have no recourse against an obvious injustice. Asserting such a right across the entire Orthodox world only multiplies the potential for future injustices.
A Church without Boundaries
The tomos declares that the jurisdiction of the newly-autocephalous church is limited to the territory of the Ukrainian state no less than four times. Precedent for the idea that every independent state with a critical mass of Orthodox faithful should have an autocephalous church will no doubt give pause to more than a few churches. Just as many will be troubled by Constantinople’s assertion in the tomos that “the Ecumenical Throne […] bears canonical competence over the Diaspora.”
An even more serious ecclesiological implication of this text is that it enshrines a claim that there are two types of churches: local churches whose territory is limited by the boundaries of states (or perhaps, in the case of the ‘Ancient Patriarchates’, the canons of the Ecumenical Councils) and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, whose territory is boundless. It is boundless in two senses: in its claim to jurisdiction over all places not within the defined territory of a local church and in its claim to have the right to establish stavropegia (parishes, monasteries or other foundations directly under the patriarch) on the territory of any local church. In addition to cementing these claims, the tomos adds another: the right to an exarchate (essentially, a diocese) of the Patriarchate of Constantinople in Ukraine. So here Constantinople asserts its right not only to sole jurisdiction in the diaspora and to establish individual institutions under its patriarch’s direct control wherever he pleases, but also the right to create its own diocese within the territory of an autocephalous church.
A Turning Point in Orthodox History
How the other Orthodox churches respond to Constantinople’s actions in Ukraine will mark a turning-point in modern Orthodox history. If they accept the tomos on Constantinople’s terms and commemorate Epifany as metropolitan of an autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine, they effectively assent to Constantinople’s ecclesiological vision and encourage ever more grandiose claims to special primatial privileges. Few would disagree that there is a very strong pastoral case for creating an autocephalous church in Ukraine. However, the path to this autocephaly is through the narrow gate of a pan-Orthodox council. If the churches reject the tomos, it is not an act of rebellion or a rejection of Constantinople’s canonical primacy, but rather an exercise of their duty to be a part of the universal Church’s decision-making process because as Patriarch Athenagoras, of blessed memory, never ceased to remind us, “the granting of autocephaly is a right belonging to the Church as a whole” and this right cannot be claimed as the sole property of a single church.