Has Patriarch Bartholomew Repudiated Apostolic Canon 34?

In an interview with the Serbian magazine Politika, published in Greek today by Romfea, Patriarch Bartholomew gives an in-depth discussion of his understanding of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s role in world Orthodoxy and how that relates to its actions in Ukraine. At one point, he expresses his understanding of Apostolic Canon 34, which reads:

The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him [who is the first] do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.

According to Patriarch Bartholomew,

Of course, we also take into account Canon 34 of the Holy Apostles, but this canon refers to the bishops of each nation, who should recognize their protos as head and not do anything without his opinion and, correspondingly, the first of each nation should not do anything without the opinion of his bishops.

This canon seeks to ensure unity and concord within the local Church. It is not a canon that concerns the relations between the local Churches, but rather the internal governance of a local Church. Therefore, it does not refer to the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s relationship with the other Churches.

This appears to be a part of a general shift in the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s self-understanding in recent years and stands in marked contrast to the understanding of Canon 34 expressed, for example, by Archbishop Job Getcha in 2009:

As for the privileges of the Ecumenical Patriarch on the all-Orthodox level, they are also interpreted from the viewpoint of the Ecumenical Patriarch in the spirit of Apostolic Rule 34. That is the patriarchs and heads of autocephalous Orthodox Churches should know who is first among them, recognize him as their head, and should not do anything special without his consent nor should the head do anything without their consent. The ecumenical patriarch has a right to accept letters of appeal and care for the unity of the church by convening all-Orthodox meetings attended by heads of each patriarchate and autocephalous church (or their representatives) but he cannot decide anything himself, without them, unilaterally. We see this practice was used in the latest meeting of heads in the Phanar in October of last year. And one cannot see here any ‘eastern papism.’


Likewise, Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon states,

The Eastern Churches have never recognized their primus (Constantinople) as having a ministry of universal jurisdiction, but only a ministry in accord with the meaning of Apostolic Canon 34, mentioned above. The Patriarchate of Constantinople could not interfere in their affairs, but would be responsible for the canonical order among them and would only intervene when he was asked to do so in cases of emergency or of trouble or some sort of anomaly. He would also be responsible for convoking councils dealing with issues that affect the entirety of the Orthodox Churches, always with the consent of the other patriarchs. The same principles continue to be applied since the creation of other patriarchates and autocephalous Churches, which make up the current structure of the Orthodox Church.

With the exception of occasional difficulties in their mutual relations, principally due to nationalist tendencies, the Orthodox Churches have accepted the idea of primacy as exercised within the Orthodox Church by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the spirit of Apostolic Canon 34, as we have analyzed above.

translated from: “La Primauté dans l’église. Une Approche orthodoxe” in L’Église et ses institutions, ed. Archimandrite Grigorios Papathomas and Hyacinthe Destivelle, O.P. (Paris: Cerf, 2011): 224.

Has Patriarch Bartholomew, by rejecting the application of Canon 34 to his primacy, crossed the line into exactly such an “eastern papism” and claimed universal jurisdiction?

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