Who is the Head of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church?
The most disturbing thing that is happening in relation to the Ukrainian Ecclesiastical Question is the realization that it is evolving into a major ecclesiological problem, since the ambitions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are now extended to the entire Church, because it claims the right to intervene in the internal affairs of all the local Orthodox Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches. He claims, as he writes in his letter to Archbishop Anastasios of Albania, to be able to intervene across boundaries in worldwide Orthodoxy “ex officio and out of obligation”: “… not only in cases of Doctrine, holy Tradition, and Canonical Church Regulations, or even of general matters concerning the entire body of the Church, but also in all matters pertaining to important issues of specific interest to one or another Local Church” (92).
These attempts by the Patriarchate of Constantinople to arrogate rights which belong exclusively to the universal Church are expressed explicitly in the so-called Tomos that the Ecumenical Patriarchate issued and handed over to Epifany at the Divine Liturgy of Theophany at the Phanar on January 6, 2019. Commenting on this Tomos, the Emeritus Professor of Canon Law at the University of Athens, Panagiotis Boumis, among others, says the following in his special study on this topic: “Further in the fourth paragraph it is written: ‘In addition to the above, 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.’ And one wonders: how is it declared without a doubt that an Autocephalous Church recognizes ‘the Ecumenical Throne as its head’ and all the more so the other Patriarchs? And among the other Patriarchs, are the Ancient Patriarchs included?” (93).
Church historians have noted that in none of the Tomoi of Autocephaly which the Ecumenical Patriarchate has issued over the past 170 years to Churches in its ecclesiastical jurisdiction is it written that the head of these Churches is the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. These Churches are the following: Greece (1850), Serbia (1879), Romania (1885), Poland (1924), Albania (1937), Bulgaria (1945), Czechia and Slovakia (1998).
Unfortunately, this novel theory that the Church of Constantinople is the Head of all the Churches receives the support and cooperation of certain collaborators of the Ecumenical See who interpret Apostolic Canon 34 and stress that, according to this Canon, someone among the Primates should be considered “Protos” and “Head” of the rest. Among the supporters of this novel and vapid theory is the very dear and very respected and distinguished canonist, Theodoros Giagkos, dean of the Theological School of the Aristotle University of Thessaloniki and a member, under my presidency, of the Synodal Committee on Canonical Issues of the Church of Cyprus. In his recent study on the Autocephaly of the Church in Ukraine, Theodoros Giagkos notes the following: “While the synodal institution at the level of the local Churches is defined by the Statutory Charters, where the responsibilities of the Protos are sufficiently defined, in Pan-Orthodox synodality, the Protos, as well as his responsibilities, are treated with skepticism” (94). He continues, “The synodal institution, according to the canons, principally functions harmoniously when the position of the Protos is accepted by the members of the synod. ‘[They] account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent.’ Of course, in the East we do not have a Pope, but we do have a Protos who has the responsibilities of the Head (95). This means that he has primarily the initiative to solve the problems that concern the Churches acting and deciding together with the members of the synod. ‘But neither let him do anything without the consent of all.’ From the harmony (unanimity) of synodality follows the doxology of the Triune God. ‘For so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit’ (Apostolic Canon 34). At the level of the local Churches the above fundamental synodal principles are applied without much doubt. In contrast, at the Pan-Orthodox level, there is often reluctance to respect the institution of the Protos” (96).
The issue, then, of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s headship, as expressed in the so-called Tomos of Autocephaly of Ukraine, as well as in the arguments of certain collaborators of the Ecumenical See, raises the question of who is the Head of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.
Historically and canonically, the answer regarding the headship of the Catholic Church is one and indisputable. Over the course of her two thousand-year history, the Orthodox Church did not entrust any of her Bishops with the title and responsibilities of the Head of the Church. In Apostolic Canon 34, the concept of “Head” which is applied to the “Protos” of the eparchial synod, is mistakenly transferred to the so-called global level in order to justify a global protos as “Head” of the “Protoi” of the universal Church, something that cannot be accepted. Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite explains with great clarity that, “primacy at the global level, apart from the primacy [πρωτοκαθεδρίας] (in the sequence of the Taxis) among the equal Primates does not exist in the Church. The Primates of the Local Orthodox Churches are equal in honor according to the “privileges of honor” [πρεσβεῖα τιμῆς] and differ only according to the Taxis (order) of honor” (97).
On the same subject, Dositheos of Jerusalem writes: “Many are the major parishes, many the Churches, many the Leaders and Presidents [Ἡγεμόνες, καί Πρόεδροι] in the Church, and the Archons, but none among them is the Leader of Leaders, the President of Presidents, the Archon of Archons, as among those Archons, Leaders and Presidents, one is of Rome, equal in honor and equal in power and nothing more” (98).
Moreover, the Orthodox Bishop of the Eparchy of Zara of Dalmatia, who was generally recognized to be most learned, His Eminence the Doctor of Canon Law of pan-Orthodox standing, Nikodim Milaš, who lived around the end of the 19th century, in his famous and weighty volume The Ecclesiastical Law of the Eastern Orthodox Church, deals with this issue seriously and, among other things, makes the following very interesting comments: “When Christ founded the Church on earth, he gave all His Apostles equally the same authority in her (Matthew 18:17-20, 28:19-20; John 20:21-22). He kept, however, for Himself, the highest governance of the Church, calling Himself the head of the Shepherds and the only highest Shepherd (John 10:14-16). When the issue was stirred up among the Apostles as to who among them has privileges of honor, Christ condemned the very notion of this (Matthew 20:22-27, 23:8-12; Mark 9:34-35, 10:42-45; I Peter 5:2-4), saying that He is the only Head of His salvific Kingdom, His Church (John 18:36; I Peter 5:4; Hebrews 13:20).”
He then highlights the following, as said by the Apostle Paul: “The husband is head of the wife, as also Christ is head of the church; and He is the Savior of the body” (Ephesians 5:23). And again: “He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (Ephesians 1:22-23). Also in his Epistle to the Colossians he states: “And He is the head of the body, the church, who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He may have the preeminence” (Colossians 1:18).
As this most wise hierarch, Nikodim Milaš, points out: “The acts of the Apostles most certainly confirm this (Acts 1:21-26, 6:2-6, 15:1-29) and the Apostle Paul, seeing some who were attempting to establish privileges of honor in the Church, criticizes this tendency in scathing terms (Galatians 2:6-14). The Fathers of the Church of later centuries confirm these things [Basil the Great (Preface on the Judgment of God, number 3): “The one and only true head, that is, Christ… prevailing”; Gregory the Theologian (Logos 31): “The One Christ is the one Head of the Church”; See also Gregory of Nyssa (Logos 12, Against Eunomios), Theodoret of Cyrrhus (Commentary on the Epistle to the Ephesians 1:23), Theophylact (Commentary on I Corinthians 11:3). Today the Eastern Orthodox Church confesses this teaching, as follows: “Only Christ is the head of the Church (Ephesians 5:23, Colossians 1:18).” Therefore, if in the Churches their leading Hierarchs are called their heads, this should be understood as meaning that they are individually Christ’s stewards within His own eparchy and partial heads (Acts 20:28). The head of the shepherds is, according to the Apostle Peter (I Peter 5:4), Jesus Christ alone (Orthodox Confession, Part I, Question 85). ‘For a mortal human cannot be the universal and eternal head of any catholic Church. Our Lord Jesus Christ Himself is the head and He, at the helm of Governance in the Church, steers her through the Holy Fathers…'” (99)
Also in the paragraph about the Church’s unity, the eminent Bishop of Zara in Damatia points out: “If the Church, as is true, is a spiritual kingdom, her unity, her oneness, is and should be spiritual… As a spiritual kingdom, the Church cannot have an earthly, visible head in whom the Church’s whole authority coalesces because the Church’s divine founder enveloped all His Apostles, through their rights, in the discipline of authority. All of them necessarily share the same authority inasmuch as they are successors of the Apostles and leaders of different local Churches” (100).
We must, however, stress that dogmatically, the clearest answer was given by the Apostle Paul and it is the one that Nikodim Milaš emphasizes in his aforementioned work: “… And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all” (101).
It is therefore more evident than the sun, with historical, canonical, dogmatic, Scriptural and Patristic documentation that none of the Primates, Patriarchs of Presidents of Autocephalous Churches can replace the only timeless Head of the Church, Our Lord Jesus Christ.
The Church, in her synodality and catholicity, has no other Head apart from our Lord Jesus Christ. The Ecumenical Councils are those that exercise supreme canonical authority in the Church and not any Primate of a local Orthodox Church.
The Ecumenical Council has always been believed to be and ecclesiologically interpreted by the Church as the Church’s infallible and supreme institution. “For only the Ecumenical Council,” stresses Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite, as has been reported, “is the final and most general [κοινότατος] Judge of all the Patriarchs, as we have said, and none other” (102).
Therefore, any ambitious Primate of a local Orthodox Church must always remember the reply that the Lord gave to two of His disciples, James and John, the sons of Zebedee, when they asked for primacy, provoking the other disciples to resent them: “But Jesus called them to Himself and said to them, ‘You know that those who are considered rulers over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. Yet it shall not be so among you; but whoever desires to become great among you shall be your servant. And whoever of you desires to be first shall be slave of all’ (103).
All of the above would certainly have been kept in mind by the author of the Patriarchal Encyclical of 1895 which, responding to the papal invitation to false union from the Pope of Rome, succinctly confutes all the false papal teachings, writing the following about the “primacy” of the Pope: “But having recourse to the fathers and the Ecumenical Councils of the Church of the first nine centuries, we are fully persuaded that the Bishop of Rome was never considered as the supreme authority and infallible head of the Church, and that every bishop is head and president of his own particular Church, subject only to the synodal ordinances and decisions of the universal Church as being alone infallible, the Bishop of Rome being in no wise excepted from this rule, as Church history shows. Our Lord Jesus Christ alone is the eternal Prince and immortal Head of the Church…” (104). Here we should mention that this Encyclical is signed by the Ecumenical Patriarch at the time, Anthimos, as well as twelve other metropolitans of the Ecumenical See.
With all these substantial arguments mentioned above, the novel theory that the Ecumenical Patriarch is the Head of the Orthodox Catholic Church is, I believe, both canonically and dogmatically rebutted.
Translated from: Metropolitan Nikephoros of Kykkos and Tellyrias, Το σύγχρονο Ουκρανικό ζήτημα και η κατά τους θείους και ιερούς κανόνες επίλυσή του (Nicosia, 2020), 122-136.
(92) BARTHOLOMEW (Archbishop of Constantinople and Ecumenical Patriarch), “The Ecumenical Patriarch’s Letter in Response to the Letter of the Archbishop of Albania (01/14/2019).” https://www.patriarchate.org/-/letter-to-archbishop-of-albania-2019-01-14
(93) Π. Ι. ΜΠΟΥΜΗ (Emeritus Professor of the University of Athens), «Παρατηρήσεις στόν Τόμο Αὐτοκεφαλίας τῆς Οὐκρανικῆς Ἐκκλησίας», January 24, 2019, https://www.romfea. gr/katigories/10-apopseis/26620-paratiriseis-ston-tomo -autokefalias-tis-oukranikis-ekklisias
(94) Θ. ΓΙΑΓΚΟΥ, «Ἀπό τή Σύνοδο τῆς Κρήτης στήν Αὐτοκεφαλία τῆς ἐν Οὐκρανίᾳ Ἐκκλησίας», November 29, 2019, orthodoxia.info/news/από-τη-σύνοδο-της-Κρήτης-στην-αυτοκεφα/
(95) The emphasis is my own.
(96) Θ. ΓΙΑΓΚΟΥ, «Ἀπό τή Σύνοδο τῆς Κρήτης στήν Αὐτοκεφαλία τῆς ἐν Οὐκρανίᾳ Ἐκκλησίας», November 29, 2019, orthodoxia.info/news/από-τη-σύνοδο-της-Κρήτης-στην-αυτοκεφα/
(97) «Σύγκληση Πανορθόδοξης Συνόδου γιά τό Οὐκρανικό ζητοῦν 4 Μητροπολίτες (Κονίτσης Ἀνδρέας, Πειραιῶς Σεραφείμ, Κηθύρων Σεραφείμ καί Αἰτωλίας Κοσμᾶς)», November 29, 2019, www.ethnos.gr/ekklisia/ekklisia-tis-ellados/74798_sygklisi -panorthodoxis-synodoy-gia-oykraniko-zitoyn-4
(98) DOSITHEOS (Patriarch of Jerusalem), Ἱστορία περί τῶν ἐν Ἱεροσολύμοις Πατριαρχευσάντων, διῃρημένη ἐν δώδεκα βιβλίοις, ἄλλως καλουμένη Δωδεκάβιβλος, Volume I (Books I and II), (Thessaloniki, 1982), 283.
(99) Nikodim Milaš (Bishop of Zara of Dalmatia), Τό Ἐκκλησιαστικόν Δίκαιον τῆς Ὀρθοδόξου Ἀνατολικῆς Ἐκκλησίας, (Athens, 1906), 289-291.
(100) Idem., 294-295.
(101) Ephesians 1:22-23.
(102) Saint Nikodemos the Hagiorite, Πηδάλιον, (Athens, 1957), 193: commenting on Canon 9 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council.
(103) Mark 10:42-44.
(104) Ἐγκύκλιος. Πατριαρχική καί Συνοδική Ἐπιστολή, πρός τούς Ἱερωτάτους καί Θεοφιλεστάτους, ἐν Χριστῷ Ἀδελφούς, Μητροπολίτας καί Ἐπισκόπους, καί τόν περί αὐτούς Ἱερόν καί Εὐαγῆ Κλῆρον, καί ἅπαν τό εὐσεβές καί Ὀρθόδοξον πλήρωμα τοῦ Ἁγιωτάτου Ἀποστολικοῦ καί Πατριαρχικοῦ Θρόνου Κωνσταντινουπόλεως, (Constantinople, 1895), 10-11. [English translation: https://sourcebooks.fordham.edu/mod/1895orthodoxencyclical.asp ]