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associated with the Church of Russia, use this canonical wording to argue that Constantinople's primacy is therefore no longer valid or is only honorary, not having any actual authority.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[1], 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 Constantinopolitan 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.

Fr. John Meyendorff saw the need for the primacy of Constantinople:

[The] Patriarchate, for the past many centuries, has been recognized as having a certain responsibility for the entire Church as a center of consensus with a "primacy of honor." This is why it is called the "Ecumenical Patriarchate." Misinformed journalists sometimes identify the Ecumenical Patriarch's position to that of the pope in Roman Catholicism, which is, of course, quite absurd, but it is unquestionable that the Orthodox conception of the Church recognizes the need for leadership of the world episcopate, for a certain spokesmanship by the first patriarch, for a ministry of coordination without which conciliarity is impossible... ("Needed: The Ecumenical Patriarchate," in Vision of Unity (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1987), p. 133.)
Personally, I see no way in which the Orthodox Church can fulfill its mission in the world today without the ministry of a "first bishop," defined not any more in terms which were applicable under the Byzantine Empire or in terms of universal jurisdiction according to the Roman model but still based upon that "privilege of honor" of which the Second Ecumenical Council spoke. We should all think and search how to redefine that "privilege" in a way which would be practical and efficient today. ("The Council of 381 and the Primacy of Constantinople" in Catholicity and the Church (Crestwood, NY: SVS Press, 1983), p. 142.)

Meyendorff thus identifies Constantinople's presbeia in terms other than mere "honor," but that it fulfills a practical need.


The Resident Synod

Beginning at some point in the 4th century, the affairs of the Patriarchate of Constantinople were governed by a particular form of holy synod, referred to as the ενδημουσα συνοδος (endimousa synodos, "resident synod"). Its president was the Ecumenical Patriarch, and its members consisted of all bishops resident in or visiting the imperial capital. The name first appears as a technical term in 448, but the institution itself probably stems from the time of the promotion of Byzantium to the imperial capital of Constantinople in the 4th century. By means of this standing council of bishops, including even hierarchs from outside the jurisdiction of the patriarchate, the business of the church centered at the capital (including the election or deposition of its patriarch) was decided by the participation of representatives from throughout the Orthodox Church. It thus became natural for this synod also to examine affairs of ecumenical importance, particularly those in which it was desired for the emperor to lend his authority.

The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium describes the institution thus:

It was indeed natural, if not inevitable, for individual bishops to gravitate to the imperial capital for personal and official business, that is, whenever they wished to submit some petition or complaint to its court, hence the permanent nature of the synod. Indeed, its convocation was commonplace by the Council of Chalcedon (451), when this established custom was first solemnly recognized (canons 9, 17) (p. 697).

Resident synods were not peculiar to the Church of Constantinople—similar occasional synods of the same kind of composition were also called in Alexandria and Antioch during the Arian controversy—but such synods held in Constantinople took on a special importance in view of its developing primacy connected with its place in the Roman Empire. The first known synod of this type held in Constantinople was in 336 following the dedication of the city as the capital (Maximos, p. 82).

After the Arab invasions of the 7th century, the other Eastern patriarchates participated much less often in the resident synods in the Roman capital, but the synods themselves continued to retain their local and ecumenical authority, and the presidency at them of the Constantinopolitan patriarch naturally led to an increase of his prestige. While the bishops of other autocephalous churches were still taking part in the resident synods, their own prestige and authority grew, as well, connected as they were to the political and ecclesiastical center of Christendom.

Universal right of appeal to Constantinople

Canon 9 (Canon 17 has similar wording) of Chalcedon reads: :If any Clergyman has a dispute with another, let him not leave his own Bishop and resort to secular courts, but let him first submit his case to his own Bishop, or let it be tried by referees chosen by both parties and approved by the Bishop. Let anyone who acts contrary hereto be liable to Canonical penalties. If, on the other hand, a Clergyman has a dispute with his own Bishop, or with some other Bishop, let it be tried by the Synod of the province. But if any Bishop or Clergyman has a dispute with the Metropolitan of the same province, let him apply either to the Exarch of the diocese or to the throne of the imperial capital Constantinople, and let it be tried before him.[2]

St. Nicodemos of the Holy Mountain comments on the meaning of this canon:

So it is evident that the Canon means that if any bishop or clergyman has a dispute or difference with the Metropolitan of an exarchy, let him apply to the Exarch of the diocese; which is the same thing as saying that clergymen and metropolitans subject to the throne of Constantinople must have their case tried either before the Exarch of the diocese in which they are situated, or before the Bishop of Constantinople, as before a Patriarch of their own. It did not say that if any clergyman has a dispute or difference with the Metropolitan of any diocese or parish whatever, they must be tried before the Bishop of Constantinople... That is why Zonaras too says that the Bishop of Constantinople is not necessarily entitled to sit as judge over all Metropolitans, but (only) over those who are judicially subject to him (interpretation of c. XVII of the present 4th C.). And in his interpretation of c. V of Sardica the same authority says: "The Bishop of Constantinople must hear the appeals only of those who are subject to the Bishop of Constantinople, precisely as the Bishop of Rome must hear the appeals only of those who are subject to the Bishop of Rome."[3]

If one does not read the canon as St. Nicodemos suggests, it is possible to conclude that Constantinople could even overrule Rome, something that the pre-Schism Roman church would never have accepted, nor is it likely that any other patriarchate of that time would have either. Within the context of the principle that Constantinople should have "equal prerogatives" to Old Rome, however, this has been interpreted to mean that Constantinople may be the highest court of appeal in the East as Rome was in the West.

Jurisdiction in "Barbarian Lands"

Canon 28 of Chalcedon reads:

Everywhere following the decrees of the Holy Fathers, and aware of the recently recognized Canon of the one hundred and fifty most God-beloved Bishops who convened during the reign of Theodosius the Great of pious memory, who became emperor in the imperial city of Constantinople otherwise known as New Rome; we too decree and vote the same things in regard to the privileges and priorities of the most holy Church of that same Constantinople and New Rome. And this is in keeping with the fact that the Fathers naturally enough granted the priorities to the throne of Old Rome on account of her being the imperial capital. And motivated by the same object and aim the one hundred and fifty most God-beloved Bishops have accorded the like priorities to the most holy throne of New Rome, with good reason deeming that the city which is the seat of an empire, and of a senate, and is equal to old imperial Rome in respect of other privileges and priorities, should be magnified also as she is in respect of ecclesiastical affairs, as coming next after her, or as being second to her. And it is arranged so that only the Metropolitans of the Pontic, Asian, and Thracian dioceses shall be ordained by the most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople aforesaid, and likewise the Bishops of the aforesaid dioceses which are situated in barbarian lands; that is to say, that each Metropolitan of the aforesaid dioceses, together with the Bishops of the province, shall ordain the Bishops of the province, just as is prescribed try the divine Canons. But the Metropolitans of the aforesaid dioceses, as has been said, are to be ordained by the Archbishop of Constantinople, after the elections have first been conducted in accordance with custom, and have been reported to him.[4]

Concerning the meaning of the reference to "barbarian Lands," St. Nicodemos writes:

"Not only are the Metropolitans of the said dioceses to be ordained by him, but indeed also the bishops located in barbarian regions that border on the said dioceses, as, for instance, those called Alani are adjacent to and flank the diocese of Pontus, while the Russians border on that of Thrace."[5].

And so the canon does not refer to all unclaimed territory on the planet according to St. Nicodemos, but only to a specific area on the border of a specific area.


  1. Constantinople shows increasing tendency to Orthodox 'papism' - Russian priest - Russian news source Interfax
  2. (D. Cummings, trans., The Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons Saints Nicodemus and Agapius (West Brookfield, MA: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1983), p. 253).
  3. (D. Cummings, trans., The Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons Saints Nicodemus and Agapius (West Brookfield, MA: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1983), p. 255).
  4. (D. Cummings, trans., The Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons Saints Nicodemus and Agapius (West Brookfield, MA: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1983), p. 271-276)
  5. The Rudder, p. 276


  • 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.)
  • The Oxford Dictionary of Byzantium, vol. I
  • The Rudder of the Orthodox Catholic Church: The Compilation of the Holy Canons Saints Nicodemus and Agapius (West Brookfield, MA: The Orthodox Christian Educational Society, 1983)

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