The Letter of Met. Hierotheos (Vlachos) to the Holy Synod of Greece

The Greek original can be found in pdf here.

Metropolitan of Nafpaktos and St. Blasios, Hierothos
Nafpaktos, March 30th, 2019

To the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece.

Revered President,
Honored members of the synod,

I know that currently the issue of the autocephaly which was given to Ukraine by the Ecumenical Patriarchate is being discussed by two synodical commissions, namely the Synodical Commission on Inter-Orthodox and Inter-Christian Relations, and the Synodical Commission on Dogmatic and Canonical Law Issues. This is in order to put together the written proposal for the hierarchy of the Church of Greece, in order for them to decide regarding the issue, as they are the responsible ecclesiastical body.

I do not have the honor to be a regular or substitute member of these two major synodical committees, and at this period I am not a member of the regular sitting synod either, but as a member of the hierarchy of the church of Greece, I respectfully submit my point of view concerning the ecclesiological issues in Ukraine for further review.

The subject of autocephaly and patriarchal dignity of a church has a history through the ages, and of course through that history one can determine the way in which autocephaly and patriarchal dignity and honors are given to a church. The issue has multiple levels and is multifaceted, but I will note a few basic points, without going into detail.

  1. A Brief History of Autocephaly and Patriarchal Dignity

The Pentarchy in the Church was established by Ecumenical Councils (2nd, 4th, Trullo) and by the dignity of being the most ancient in the diptychs, they are: Rome, New Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem. The autocephaly of the Church of Cyprus was granted by the Third Ecumenical Council.

The Patriarchal honor and dignity of the Church of Moscow was given by the Protothronos [“First See”] Church (the Ecumenical Patriarchate) in 1589 and was recognized by the other three Patriarchs in 1590 and 1593.

In all the newer Patriarchatess, both their Autocephaly and their Patriarchal dignity ​​and honors ​​were granted by the Protothronos Church of New Rome and Constantinople after a request submitted to her and with reference to (ad referendum) an Ecumenical council, that is to say, the Patriarchal dignity has not yet been finalized.

The autocephaly of the Church of Greece was given by the Protothronos Church (New Rome, the Ecumenical Patriarchate), and was signed, aside from the Ecumenical Patriarch (“decided”), by five former Patriarchs of Constantinople (“jointly decided”), the Patriarch of Jerusalem (“jointly decided”) and other archbishops of the Patriarchal See, without the  “jointly decided”.

Therefore, canon law is in place, as seen in the canons of the Ecumenical Councils, through which the Pentarchy of Thrones is recognized. At the same time, they also recognize that the Church of New Rome and Constantinople has the same place of honor as the throne of Old Rome, and after the collapse of the latter, New Rome became the Protothronos Church with certain privileges and prerogatives.

There is also the law of custom (Anastasios Vavoskos), as was established in the 16th century, and which continues to this day, and it pertains to the newer patriarchates and the newer autocephalies which were granted due to the creation of new States, so for nationalistic reasons.

  1. The Patriarchal and Synodical Tomes Regarding the Granting of Autocephaly and Patriarchal Dignity

It is well known that all the newer Patriarchates, which received their autocephaly and patriarchal dignity during the 19th century and 20th centuries, did so from the Protothronos Church of New Rome and Constantinople (the Ecumenical Patriarchate), after a request from either the ecclesiastical or political authorities in their country. This means that these churches recognized, in practice, the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate to grant or declare autocephaly and Patriarchal dignity.

These are the patriarchates of Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, and the autocephalous churches of Poland, Albania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia. Also, the same happened for the Autonomous Churches of Finland and Estonia.

When one reads the Patriarchal and synodical tomes which were put out by the Ecumenical Patriarchate regarding autocephaly and Patriarchal dignity, one draws two conclusions:

First. The autocephalies are granted by a decision (“we decide”) of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Synod around him. Only the autocephalous Church of Georgia was granted the blessing, recognition, and sanction “for her autocephaly and independence and organization”, to be referred to, of course, to the future Ecumenical Council, which always safeguards and preserves unscathed the unity which is in the faith and in the ecclesiastical canonical order of our Holy Orthodox Church”. In the autocephalies of the other churches there is no reference to the mention of the recognition from the future Ecumenical Council.

Secondly. The decision regarding the granting of Patriarchal dignity to a church is made by the Protothronos Church of New Rome and Constantinople (the Ecumenical Patriarchate), after a request from them, or sometimes from the political authority they are under, and is referred to the Ecumenical Council which will be convened in the future for its “finalization according to [canonical] exactness”, the “completion” of the Patriarchal dignity.

Here, I will quote a characteristic extract from the letter of the Ecumenical Patriarch to the Church of Romania through which he announced his decision to elevate her to a patriarchate.

“We address Your Reverence with joy concerning your new venerable patriarchal title, which was at this time decided freely and recognized by unanimous decision of our Holy and Great Synod. The Church of Christ, which is with us, as a caring mother, perceived and judged the request and decision of her beloved and much-honored daughter, and our sister in Christ, Holy Romania, and did not find an unsurpassable impediment to the good use of oikonomia. So, looking forward and from this moment we give our sisterly consent and recognition for the things that have happened by mutual decision of the church and state to our sister church, in the conviction and expectation, of course, that these things will be decided and finalized according to canonical exactness by all of the Holy Orthodox Church in the Ecumenical or other Great Synod which will be convened at the first opportunity. There is no other way in which things that have already been done with good intentions and for the benefit and glory of the church can be judged. We hold this conviction as certain, that in our view, and having other true examples, we will have the rest of the most Holy and Most Reverend Patriarchs and Heads of all of our Holy Sister Orthodox Autocephalous Churches hold the same opinion and the same vote and there will be a common consensus of all regarding the elevation to a patriarchal dignity of the sister church of Romania, as an honor and a reward due to the blessing of God that has now come through the policy which came about by the unification of the whole pious Romanian State. This elevation is timely and justified, due to the hoped-for growth and advancement in faith and piety, and the continued blooming thereof, which will be beneficial and appropriate” (Anastasios Vavouskos and Grigorios Liantas,“The ordinances for autocephalous and self-governing establishments in the Orthodox Church, pp. 149-150).

In this text we note the following:

A joint decision from both the church and the State of Romania requesting patriarchal dignity was sent to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Then, using oikonomia, the Ecumenical Patriarch recognized the Patriarchal dignity.

However, according to the specificity of the canons, the patriarchal dignity will be made complete (“finalized”) by the Great and Ecumenical Council which is to be convened.

Still, the Ecumenical Patriarch is secure in his conviction that he will, in the future, have  (“we will have”) “the same mind and of the same vote” all the patriarchs and presidents of all the Orthodox autocephalous churches, and “and from this moment, this consensus is common”, “for the elevation to a patriarchal dignity”.

This means that the Patriarch of Constantinople granted, according to oikonomia, the Patriarchal dignity to the Church of Romania, which will be completed according to canonical exactness when it is voted on by the other Churches at the Ecumenical Synod, and then it will be valid from the day it was granted by the Ecumenical Patriarch. Every word has its importance.

This is repeated in the Patriarchal Tomes which were given to other churches. I will mention the example of the Church of Bulgaria’s elevation to a patriarchate by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Specifically, in the Ecumenical Patriarch’s letter to the Church of Bulgaria, in which he announced her elevation to a Patriarchate, there is mention of the fact that the Patriarchal dignity will be established “in finality” by the Ecumenical Council “which alone has the right to elevate some of God’s individual Holy Churches to the Patriarchal dignity and honors”

These texts are clear and do not bear misinterpretation.

  1. Discussion concerning how to declare a church autocephalous

In the 20th century, in an effort to resolve the issue of declaring autocephaly, and in view of the Great and Great Synod, there was a Pan-Orthodox discussion regarding the method by which autocephaly is granted to a church.

Thus, from the first pre-synodical pan-Orthodox conference in Geneva, in November 1976, a text was compiled, with the title: “Autocephaly and the Manner in Which it is Declared”. Within this text it is emphasized that whichever church desires autocephaly should submit a request to their mother church, which, in the cases in which she grants her consent, submits a proposal to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarchate, after the joint decision of the other autocephalous churches, officially declares the Church autocephalous through a Patriarchal Tome, which is signed by the Ecumenical Patriarch. It is desirable for this Tome to be co-signed by the heads of the other autocephalous churches, but it is absolutely necessary that it be signed by the head of the mother church. So, there is a request from the church, the consent of the mother church, the consent of all the churches, and the official declaration by the Ecumenical Patriarchate with the Patriarchal Tome.

Unfortunately, however, no agreement was reached regarding this text, and it wasn’t forwarded to the Great and Great Synod, which convened in 2016 at Kolymbari in Crete, because the Church of Russia, having supporters in other churches, undermined it, as, according to them, it shouldn’t be signed only by the Ecumenical Patriarch, but also by all the heads of the autocephalous churches. The distinction between “decided” and “jointly decided” was not accepted!

This had, as a result, the continued lack of resolution regarding the granting of autocephaly to the churches, according to Canonical exactness, and so therefore to keep the existing oikonomia as it has stood until now, with the customary right of the Ecumenical Patriarch to grant autocephaly. And though they  desired it, it also had as a result the lack of “completion”, according to Canonical exactness, of the autocephalies that were previously granted by the Ecumenical Patriarch to other churches.

This chance for the prevalence of unity between of the Orthodox Churches was lost, and to be exact, the whole of ecclesiastical unity was undermined.

  1. Addressing the issue of Ukraine

There are some facts to consider regarding the issue of Ukraine, which is preoccupying the whole Orthodox Christian world.

First. The eight Churches (Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Greece, Poland, Albania, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia) were granted autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarchate through oikonomia “using the good method of oikonomia”.

Second. In the tomes with which different churches were granted autocephaly and Patriarchal dignity​​, reference is made to the convening of an Ecumenical Council, in which all autocephalous churches will vote regarding the final  recognition of these autocephalous churches.

Third. It is a basic Canonical principle that a church should not insert itself in the decisions that are under the aegis of other churches, and much more in the decisions of the Protothronos Church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which has additional responsibilities in the leadership and the proper functioning of all the Orthodox Churches. A church should not judge another church’s decisions prior to an Ecumenical Council, to which the decisions are referred for completion.

Fourth. The Church of Greece cannot refuse to accept the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate regarding its decision to issue a patriarchal grant of autocephaly to the church in Ukraine. Rather, for the time being, it must accept this decision, and wait to express her opinion and judgment in totality with her vote, when the Ecumenical Council is convened. There, the way in which autocephaly was granted, not only for Ukraine, but also for the other churches, will be judged.

Not accepting the way in which the Patriarchal tome for the autocephaly of Ukraine was granted would call into question the autocephalies of the eight other eight autocephalous churches, including the autocephaly of the Church of Greece, as these autocephalies were granted only by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Fifth: regarding the subject of how the validity of the “episcopacy” of the bishops who were “ordained” by the defrocked, schismatic, or “self-ordained” bishops was accepted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Before it makes a decision, our church must ask the Ecumenical Patriarchate about the method by which it reinstated these “bishops”.

This is based on the Synodical and Patriarchal Tome of 1850, through which the Church of Greece was given its autocephaly. It reads:

“In the Ecclesiastical issues which arise which require consultation and cooperation for better oikonomia and support of the Orthodox church, it is pleasing that the Holy Synod in Greece refer to the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Holy Synod about them. The Ecumenical Patriarch, along with his Holy and Sacred Synod, will gladly grant his cooperation, announcing the things that must be to the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece”.

Therefore, in the case of Ukraine, it is necessary that there should be collaboration and cooperation with the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Much more so since the autocephalous Church of Greece administers, temporarily, the eparchies of the Ecumenical Throne in Greece. If this does not happen, then the Synodical and Patriarchal tome of our own church’s autocephaly will be undermined.

Sixth. This issue, which concerns the granting of autocephaly to Ukraine, cannot be put to a vote by the hierarchy because in such a case we will insert ourselves into the business of another church, and in this case, the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself, and it retains “The highest canonical right” in the eparchies of the “Most Holy, Apostolic, and Patriarchal Throne” in Greece, and in the so-called New Lands.

Placing all the above for your consideration, I remain

Your humble brother in Christ,

Hierotheos of Nafpaktos

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