A Reflection on the Local and Ecumenical Roles of the Patriarch of Constantinople

by Anna Stickles

While we see some statements coming out of Constantinople promoting their patriarch as a bishop over bishops, as first without equal – in practice this is not what exists within the local church in Constantinople. Within this local church Patriarch Bartholomew still sits as protos of a local synod. His signature is not the only one on the Tomos granting autocephaly to the new Ukrainian structure, but this document was signed by the synod in Constantinople. This is a very different situation then the Roman church which has no synodal structure at all and the pope is the sole authority.

This brings up a question – If we talk about the Ecumenical Patriarch as the protos of the ecumenical Church, does this make the synod in Constantinople an ecumenical synod and the pair the governing body for the whole pan-Orthodox church? When we talk about the “rights of New Rome” to adjudicate pan-Orthodox problems outside its own territory are we talking about rights belonging to the person of the Patriarch alone (in this case giving the patriarch alone, without a synod, certain jurisdictional authority) or are we talking about the rights of one local church over the other local churches?

Clearly one bishop acting alone has no authority to make decisions that effect the whole Church, and Patriarch Bartholomew admits this. He does not claim his rights are supreme, but admits that his decisions need to be confirmed on a pan-Orthodox level for them to be universally valid. This however is contradicted by claims that the Patriarch of Constantinople is “ First Without Equals”. I wonder if Metropolitan Elpidophoros, who wrote this document, has considered that if the Patriarch is without equal within global Orthodoxy, then then he has to be consistent and apply this not only in the relation of the Ecumenical Patriarch to the bishops of other churches, but also within the local church of Constantinople. This approach would ultimately lead to the abolishment of Constantinople’s own synod as part of the governing body of the church there, in favor of this synod being purely an advisory body. Let the metropolitans of Constantinople beware. If for the exaltation of the position of their own church within world Orthodoxy they promote their patriarch as first without equal, eventually it will come home and their own synod will be abolished.

It is one thing to grant to the Patriarch of Constantinople a position as protos within the context of a pan-Orthodox gathering. As many have noted “from Her beginning, the Church was organized in an hierarchical and synodical manner”[1]  It is another thing entirely to grant to the Patriarch of Constantinople any kind of jurisdictional authority as protos apart from any synod.  This would be papism.

What is really happening, though, is that the Patriarch of Constantinople is not acting alone as a pope. He is acting in concert with his own local synod. The whole patriarchal synod of Constantinople is promoting the primacy of their Patriarch, but then acting as if this primacy belongs to the local church of Constantinople as “New Rome”.

The problem of one local church’s Holy Synod having authority over, or the ability to interfere in the workings of the other local churches is just as problematic as having a Pope. In the current case – who has been granting the Tomoi of autocephaly to all the modern local churches? Not the Patriarch of Constantinople alone, but rather the local Patriarchate of Constantinople – the Patriarch plus his synod. If one local patriarchate can grant autocephaly why deny that right to the other patriarchates unless of course not all Patriarchates are equal? And this is basically the practical outcome of the Ukrainian senario and also what is intrinsic in Constantinople’s claims.

The ecclesial question here is: Does the protos give his rank/authority to the synod or does he occupy a position as part of the synod thus receiving an authority appropriate to the place he occupies?  Another way of asking this is does the authority dwell in the person or does the person receive it from his position in the Church?[2]

If the person receives the authority by virtue of the particular place he is sitting in, then the Ecumenical patriarch only has ecumenical or pan-orthodox authority within a given pan-orthodox context and activity, not in himself. If as has been claimed, the EP has authority in his own person, then he has it everywhere and at all times. This seems to be behind the tensions of how to sign the declaration of autocephaly[3]. Those supporting a view that the Patriarch of Constantinople alone sign the declaration see the Patriarch as having in himself some kind of authority[4], and those wanting all the Churches to sign are supporting a view that He has this authority only as part of some pan-orthodox conciliar activity. Only a process of all signing with the Patriarch of Constantinople signing as protos, really reflects the synodal essence of the Church.

Traditionally authority has never dwelt essentially in any bishop. Bishops receive their authority, and the scope of that authority from other bishops.[5] Also traditionally the scope of authority for any given bishop is not eternal. It changes according to changing political and ecclesial circumstances, and thus we see throughout the history of the Church various councils, local and general, making rulings that make adjustments as needed. Therefore I think we have to say that that ecumenical authority belongs to the Patriarch of Constantinople only within and when acting as president of some pan-orthodox conciliar activity. Apart from this he has only local authority as head of his own local church. Also, the metropolitans of Constantinople have authority only within their own local church. Their local synod does not gain any kind of pan-Orthodox authority from the fact that their Patriarch is also protos within a pan-Orthodox assembly. The claims of Constantinople that the power to adjudicate resides essentially and permanently in the Patriarch’s own person does not allow for a proper spiritual freedom to adjust to real circumstances.

[1] “The institution of Autocephaly in the Orthodox Church by His Eminence, +Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos” http://www.parembasis.gr/index.php/articles-in-english/5514-2018-11-19-en

[2] Instead of talking about the person of the primate, one could also ask, does extra-local jurisdictional authority – such as rights over the diaspora and the ability to grant autocephaly dwell in the See of a certain city essentially, or is that authority reserved for a pan-orthodox body?

[3] See “The Debate over the Declaration of Autocephaly in a Church by His Eminence, +Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Naupaktos” http://www.parembasis.gr/index.php/articles-in-english/5520-2018-11-22

[4] And ultimately it doesn’t matter what this authority consists of. No matter what authority we propose in this situation, even the authority to bring about consensus, the underlying ecclesiology takes the authority away from the Church as a body, and gives it to a particular person (or local church).

[5] “Primacy and Identity: A Response to ‘First Without Equals’ and the Tragedy of Deficient Ecclesiology” Bishop Irenei (Steenberg) http://orthochristian.com/116859.html

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