Prerogatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

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In history and in canonical literature (i.e. the Church's canons and traditional commentaries on them), the Ecumenical Patriarchate has been granted certain prerogatives (presbeia) which other autocephalous Orthodox churches do not have. Not all of these prerogatives are today universally acknowledged, though all do have precedents in history and canonical references. The following is a (non-exhaustive) list of these prerogatives and their reference points:

The nature of Constantinople's primacy

Constantinople's position as having "prerogatives equal to those of Old Rome" is based in the letter of the canons on its position as the imperial city, a position which passed away with the Fall of Constantinople in 1453. Some canonists, especially those associated with the Church of Russia, use this canonical wording to argue that Constantinople's primacy is therefore no longer valid or is only honorary, not having any actual authority. Some may even go so far as to put forward the Third Rome theory regarding Moscow, implying that Moscow has replaced Constantinople as the capital of the Orthodox Christian commonwealth.

Yet other canonists, especially those associated with the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself, point out that in the ancient Church, Rome continued to maintain its position of both honor and authority in primacy even after its status as the imperial capital had long faded. Its position as the imperial city was not the only factor in its primacy, but also longstanding tradition had hallowed its place of authority in its sphere. As such, Constantinople's primacy also remained even though its political fortunes waned.

Often, in the exercise of its primacy, Constantinople has been accused of papism, which is something of an exaggerated accusation, because papism is the claim for one bishop of direct and absolute jurisdiction in every diocese, something which the Ecumenical Patriarch has never claimed for himself.

The difference of opinion is not completely partisan, however, as some Russian canonists adopt the view more commonly associated with Constantinipolitan canonists, such as J. Sokoloff, a prominent professor at the St. Petersburg Theological Academy:

In general, there was complete reciprocity between the patriarchs of the Orthodox East, complete mutual love, brotherly respect and spiritual unity and rapport. Talk of papacy in the Orthodox East is thus quite out of place; the Patriarchs of Constantinople, who have occasionally been erroneously accused of papist tendencies, never aspired to absolute domination in the Eastern Orthodox Church. They were always motivated by fraternal love and solicitude in their relations with the other patriarchs of the East. There has never been and there never will be a papist spirit in the Orthodox East (quoted in Maximos, p. 299).

One can find this same sort of wording in statements from the Ecumenical throne itself, such as in the 1794 sigillion of Patriarch Gerasimus III:

...For this reason, our most holy, patriarchal, Apostolic and Oecumenical throne, striving for blamelessness in itself, provides what is right and blameless and what it has itself to the other patriarchal and Apostolic thrones. It does not take away from them what is theirs by law, nor does it consider it has a right to act above the laws, but it certainly contributes towards the rights and needs of others, as far as possible (quoted in Maximos, p. 296).

Fundamentally, the difference in opinion is based in a different conception of universal Church governance. Either each autocephalous church is to be regarded as absolutely sovereign in its sphere, unanswerable to any others, or there is a mutual interdependence of the churches and patriarchs upon one another, and this interdependence is expressed in the primatial leadership of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

In the former view, while it is often admitted that other Orthodox churches might cut off communion with an erring patriarch, that break in communion is not regarded as truly binding. Thus, individual sovereignty is absolutely maintained. In the latter view, however, autocephalous churches are truly answerable to one another, and the tribunal which exercises this accountability, when invited by appeal, is the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Both positions have difficulty when worked out in practice, as there is always the possibility that a given patriarch or Ecumenical Patriarch may act in a tyrannical manner. Historically, though, tyrannical patriarchs have been deposed, typically led by either the Ecumenical Patriarch himself (in the case of other patriarchs) or by the clergy of that patriarchate (in the case of the deposition of their own patriarch), often in conjuction with a patriarch from a neighboring autocephalous church, such as Alexandria.


  • Maximos, Metropolitan of Sardes. The Oecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church. Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1976. (A hard to find, but detailed and thorough study of the question from the viewpoint of a Constantipolitan canonist.)

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