On Ecumenical Patriarchal Claims to Universality

Fr. John Meyendorff 1926-1992

In the case of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, it is obvious that the power of its incumbent is always defined in reference to his position in the Christian oikouméne, the universal empire and the universal church indivisibly united. The title of ‘Ecumenical Patriarch’ has no other meaning. Of course the empire of Justinian, of Basil II and of John V Palaeologus hardly represented the same political reality, and the relationships between the patriarch and the powerful emperors of the past were different from those that prevailed during the Palaeologan period. However, the principles and ideals of the oikouméne had remained the same, with the patriarchate now carrying a much heavier responsibility for their preservation than it ever had in the past, precisely because the emperors were now politically much too weak to play their former role in the Christian world. Of course, the patriarch in the fourteenth century, was not invested with the externals signs of imperial power (which the Roman popes had assumed already in the early Middle Ages and which were also to be adopted by the patriarchs of Constantinople after the capture of the city by the Turks), but was gradually and de facto taking up the position of main spokesman for the Orthodox ‘family of nations’.

…[W]hereas [Patriarch Athanasius I] accepted the Byzantine political ideology of the empire and expressed the greatest respect for the ‘divine majesty’ of Andronicus II, acknowledging his traditional power in the field of Church administration, Athanasius also demanded from the emperor a strict adherence to the faith and ethics of Orthodoxy, and obedience to the Church. Upon returning to the patriarchate in September 1303, he had Andronicus sign a promise ‘not only to keep the Church fully independent and free, but also to practice towards Her a servant’s obedience, and to submit to Her every just and God-pleasing demand’.

…Quite naturally, the ideals of Patriarch Athanasius would serve as inspiration to the monks who, after 1347, came, like him, to occupy the Patriarchate… the power and authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate was re-emphasized anew, especially in terms of its concern for the ‘universal’ Church.

…[O]fficial documents described the role of the Church of Constantinople in terms of ‘universal solicitude’. A document issued in 1355 by Patriarch Callistus is particularly revealing. It is addressed to the group of hesychast monks in Bulgaria — including St. Theodosius of Trnovo —  who apparently were advocates of Constantinopolitan centralism. They were, together with Callistus himself, fellow disciples of St. Gregory of Sinai on Mount Athos. In this document, Callistus sternly criticizes the Bulgarian Patriarch of Trnovo for failing to mention the Ecumenical Patriarch, as his superior. The Patriarch of Constantinople, according to Callistus, ‘judges in appeal, straightens out, confirms and authenticates’ the judgments of the other three ancient Patriarchs: Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. How much more, he asks, he must also be recognized as lord (kyrios) of the Church of Bulgaria, whose primate, according to Callistus, has received the title of ‘Patriarch’ in only an honorific sense, but is not essentially different from one of the metropolitans, subjected to Constantinople… This restrictive view was hardly shared by the Patriarch of Trnovo himself who, in 1352, had even consecrated a Metropolitan of Kiev without referring to Constantinople.

This trend toward reaffirmation of Constantinople’s primacy is also apparent in patriarchal documents relative to Russia. In 1354, the synodal act of Patriarch Philotheos appointing Bishop Alexis as Metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia proclaimed: ‘The holy, catholic and apostolic Church of God [i.e. of Constantinople], which administers always all things for the better, according to the unfailing privilege and power granted to it from on high, by the grace of Christ, manifests its concern and solicitude over all the most holy churches wherever they are found, so that they may be governed and directed for the good and in accordance with the Lord’s law. In 1370, addressing Grand-prince Dimitri of Moscow, Philotheos calls himself bluntly the ‘common father, established by the Most-High God, of all the Christians found everywhere on earth’. In another letter, written in the same year to the princes of Russia, urging them to submit themselves to their Metropolitan Alexis, Philotheos expresses the theory of ‘universal solicitude’ in a way, practically indistinguishable from the most authoritarian pronouncements of the Roman Popes:

“Since God has appointed Our Humility as leader of Christians found anywhere in the inhabited earth, as solicitor and guardian of their souls, all of them depend on me, the father and teacher of them all. If that were possible, therefore, it would have been my duty to walk everywhere on earth by the cities and the countries and to teach there the Word of God. I would have to do so unfailingly, since this is my duty. However, since it is beyond the possibility of one weak and mightless man to walk around the entire inhabited earth, Our Humility chooses the best among men, the most eminent in virtue, establishes and ordains them as pastors, teachers and high-priests, and sends them to the ends of the universe. One of them goes to your great country, to the multitudes which inhabit it, another reaches other areas of the earth, and still another goes elsewhere, sos that each one, in the country and place which was appointed for him, enjoys territorial rights, an episcopal chair and the rights of Our Humility.”

In 1393, Patriarch Anthony (1389-90, 1391-7) not only reaffirms, in a letter to Novgorod, his leadership of ‘all the Christians in the universe’, but also, in his letter to the Muscovite Grand-prince Basil I, indignantly reproaches Basil for having forgotten that ‘the Patriarch is the vicar of Christ and sits on the very throne of the Master’.

There is no doubt that the definition of the Patriarch as ‘vicar’ of Christ is directly inspired by the Epanagoge, the well-known legal compendium of the Macedonian period, describing the functions of the Byzantine oikouméne and defining the role of the ‘Ecumenical Patriarch’ not in terms of his sacramental functions, but rather in his political and social responsibilities: the author (possibly Photius) wants to affirm the role of patriarch as ‘a living image of Christ’ in society, without according that particular religious function to the emperor. Verbal dependence upon the Epanagoge also appears in the text of Philotheos quoted above as it appears in the definition of the functions of the patriarch in the Epanagoge:

“The throne of Constantinople, receiving its honor from the empire, was given primacy through synodal decrees… The responsibility and care for all the metropolitanates and dioceses, the monasteries and churches, and also judgment and sanction, depend upon the patriarch of the area. But the incumbent of the See of Constantinople can… rule on issues arising in other thrones and pass final judgment on those.”

We have seen above that the canonical tradition and ecclesiology of the Byzantine Church are incompatible with the formal literal meaning of the letter of Philotheos, which represents the Patriarch as a ‘universal’ bishop with the local metropolitans acting only as his representatives. The language used by the patriarchal chancery in drafting documents addressed to Russia must have been chosen for ad hoc reasons with the aim of impressing the still relatively unsophisticated Slavs with the importance of Byzantium as centre of the Christian world, even at the expense of strict canonical consistency… It is important to note, however, that the source of this rhetoric is to be found in civil law, representing Byzantine political ideology, and not theological and canonical literature per se. (Byzantium and the Rise of Russia, pp. 112-115)

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