The Russian canonical school of the 19th and 20th centuries studied the question of the Patriarch of Constantinoples canonical status in the Orthodox Church with care and diligence. For the most part books and monographs on the subject were well-disposed, explaining the Patriarch of Constantinoples exceptionally high position in the Church both during the Byzantine and Turkish periods as a result of particular historical circumstances. During the Byzantine era the Patriarch of Constantinople, as the hierarch of the imperial capital and bishop of New Rome, received not only the primacy of honor but secular privileges of authority as well. During the Turkish period he became the Ethnarch of all the Orthodox subjects in the East, exercising both secular and ecclesiastical authority. However, almost all Russian canonists attributed only the canonical primacy of honor to the Patriarch of Constantinople and in no event any primacy of power over all the Orthodox East.
An attempt by the Russian canonist and historian T. Barsov, to unite the historical and canonical basis in a "symphony" as a justification of the Patriarch of Constantinoples primacy over all other Eastern patriarchs called forth an opposite reaction from the well-known canonist A. P. Pavlov who, while recognizing the historical reasons for the Patriarchs enhanced status, categorically rejected the idea of his canonical power over the whole Orthodox Church.
Furthermore Pavlov, in analyzing Barsovs assertions that precisely "in the question about the Patriarch of Constantinople the substance of the ecclesiastical structure in the East is resolved, i.e. the gradual expansion of the Patriarch of Constantinoples prerogatives and his exceptional elevation with respect to other patriarchs, as well as the primacy of his see in the Christian Church of the East, as the oldest representative of the Orthodox Church", calls such an idea as nothing less than a "theory of Eastern Papism"
Professor Pavlov bases himself on a strict canonical foundation with respect to Constantinople: "A characteristic mark of canonical legislation which elevated the Bishop of Constantinople to the patriarchate, shows that he is always placed in comparison with the Bishop of Rome, the most senior hierarch in the Christian world, and his see, being that of the empires new capital, is recognized as the second one after Rome,"
It was only in the beginning of the 20th century that the question of the formal and canonical status of the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Orthodox Church became more acute and viable in connection with the new theory of Patriarch Meletios Metaxasis of Constantinople who raised the question of the submission of the entire Orthodox diaspora found beyond the borders of the autocephalous churches to the Patriarch of Constantinople, basing this new theory upon the canons of the Universal Church. One of the last Russian canonists, S.V. Troitsky, respectfully but firmly and with the full knowledge of the subject, came out in opposition to this novel theory.
Although Constantinople, in accordance with Emperor Constantines designs, was to be a Christian city and the center and foundation of the newly established Christian empire, nonetheless as Professor Bolotov writes: "The Church of Constantinople could not pride itself for being either of an ancient lineage or of an Apostolic foundation." Consequently, writes Bolotov, in purely ecclesiastical terms, Constantinople had no such privileges, as were the rights of other Eastern churches. The preeminence of Constantinople was based solely upon its political status as the new capital of the Roman Empire. According to St. Gregory the Theologian there were few Orthodox in Constantinople in the 4th Century and it was predominantly Arian.
Professor A. V. Kartashev, himself being in the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople, characterized the status of New Rome (Constantinople) during its foundation as follows: "It cannot be said that the Orthodox reputation of Constantinoples hierarchs was so splendid from the time of its appearance in history as the capital, since Eusebius, the leader of the Arians immediately subjected Byzantium, along with the palace, under his influence. Rome and Alexandria struggled for half a century with Constantinoples Arianism and its emperors. Rome and Alexandria saw themselves as guardians of universal Orthodoxy against the impious thrusts of Constantinople and against its insignificant bishop who was subject to the Metropolitan of Heraclea. It had neither a past nor any achievements before the Church or Orthodoxy. Only annoying pretensions to become some kind of an unwelcome head of the Church and a tool of imperial power. In 381, under the protection of Theodosius the Great, at the Second Ecumenical Council, the reigning city, having not as yet cleansed itself from the stain of Arianism, was proclaimed to be, in the ecclesiastical sense, second in honor after ancient Rome."
It was during the reign of the first Christian emperor, Constantine the Great that those sees which were in the major cities of the dioceses received special privileges over other Metropolitans and the hierarchs of those sees were called archbishops, exarchs and finally, patriarchs. The First Ecumenical Council (Canon 6) acknowledged the higher administrative powers of the three main cities of the empire: Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, subjecting whole dioceses to the territories. The same Council granted the Bishop of Jerusalem (Aelia), as the cradle of Christianity "the honor which flows from his position while the dignity proper to the Metropolitan of the city is safeguarded." It was the Second Ecumenical Council (Canon 3) which equated the Patriarch of Constantinople with Rome and other Apostolic Sees. The literal meaning of that canon granted the prerogative of honor to the Patriarch of Constantinople, putting him in the second place after the Bishop of Rome. The Council granted a special place of honor to the Bishop of New Rome but no power: the Bishop of the new capital continued formally to be subject to the Metropolitan of Heraclea.
Canon 3 of the Second Ecumenical Council reads: "As the bishop of Constantinople, let him have the prerogatives of honor after the bishop of Rome, seeing that this city is the New Rome."
We can see in Canon Three of the Second Ecumenical Council only that the Patriarch of Constantinople, as the bishop of New Rome, must have the prerogatives of honor after the Bishop of Rome. However, this canon says nothing about the supremacy of Rome or Constantinople or about the administrative or judicial rights with respect to those patriarchs.
Nonetheless, the Bishop of Constantinople acted in such a way that the literal interpretation of the canon soon became impossible, since the bishops of the capital began to exert their factual authority far beyond the environs of Constantinople.
According to Pavlov these prerogatives of honor for "both hierarchs (Jerusalem and Constantinople) little by little evolved into the prerogatives of power over ordinary Metropolitans: by way of custom for Jerusalem and by imperial legislation for Constantinople." Thus the laws of Emperors Honorius and Theodosius granted the bishop of the new capital the rights of final decision with respect to disputes between bishops of neighboring territories --Illyricum, as well as over the dioceses of Asia, Pontus and Fracia, which was confirmed by the Council of Chalcedon (Canons 9 and 17) which granted the right of appeal either to the diocesan exarch or to the bishop of the capital city.
Canon 28 of Chalcedon speaks of the acknowledgment of inequality of honor of two named hierarchs (that of Rome having the first place and Constantinople the second), however, according to Pavlov, it equated them in terms the rights of power, i.e. it granted three dioceses to Constantinople with the right to ordain the metropolitans for those dioceses as well as to consecrate bishops for members of different nationalities (barbarians) of those dioceses. This canon became the cornerstone in the matter of the elevation and prominence of the see of Constantinople.
As the third level in Church, matters of its dioceses including judicial authority (canons 9 and 17 of Chalcedon) the Patriarch of Constantinople in principle and according to canons stood on an absolutely the same level with his other brother-patriarchs. However Canons 9 and 17 opened an alternative for the Patriarch of Constantinople, i.e. as a rather far-reaching possibility to interfere in the affairs of other patriarchs as well as an extension of his authority over them.
Thus the Council of Chalcedon established the patriarchs as a third administrative and judicial level within the Church: equal in authority but of different ranks of honor: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Canon 36 of the Council in Trullo ranks the patriarchs in the same sequence with respect to honor but completely equal in power.
The last word in canonical legislation about the place of the Patriarch of Constantinople can be Canon 1 of the Council of Constantinople of 879. This council. says Pavlov, expresses the basic canonical principle that the clergy and leity of one Autocephalous Church (Roman or Constantinople) no matter where they live, are the subjects of o authority their own Auttocephalous Churches It means that one Autocephalous Church cannot interfere in life and authority of another Church in accordance with the 8th canon of the Third Ecumenical Council.
In theory and according to canons, all five patriarchs were recognized as equal in authority among themselves. But this was not so in practice. Already in the 4th century the Bishop of Rome begins to proclaim his pretensions of supreme authority over the whole Church, basing this on the imagined primacy of Apostle Peter over the other Apostles. In his turn, the Bishop of Constantinople, thanks to the political significance of his city, received certain prerogatives over the three Eastern patriarchs. Because of his close proximity to the seat of imperial power, the Patriarch of Constantinople accrued a position of an intermediary between the emperor and other patriarchs who, upon arrival in Constantinople, could approach the emperor only through the intercession of the capitals patriarch.
As a sign of these prerogatives and in distinction from other patriarchs, the bishop of the new capital already in the beginning of the sixth century, assumed the title of "Ecumenical" to which Pope Gregory the Great objected. In time, after the Muslims captured Jerusalem (637), Antioch (538) and Alexandria (641), the Patriarch of Constantinople remained in fact the sole spiritual head in the Christian East and this to a certain extend equated the "ecumenical" Patriarch with the Pope of Rome.
The Patriarch of Constantinople retained his position of primacy among the Eastern patriarchs which came about as the result of New Romes political significance. This was done with the help of the "Household Synod" (synodos endimus) which assumed all the authority of the previous Ecumenical councils. This synod, under the chairmanship of the Patriarch, consisted of bishops and metropolitans who happened to be at the capital in connection with matters of their own churches, and such hierarchs would not infrequently remain there for a number of years enabling the Patriarch to assemble a synod at any time with a sufficient number of bishops.
Thus, according to Ostroumov, Constantinople becomes the central point of Church life in the East and the Patriarch of the capital, with his "Household Synod", acquires a governing position in Church matters and exerts strong influence upon the other patriarchs and thus becoming the de facto highest level of appeal with respect to them.
During the time of Patriarch Photius an attempt was made to elevate the Patriarch of Constantinople over all the other patriarchs by way of secular legislation by means of an epanagoge of Emperor Basil of Macedon. In this document the Patriarch of Constantinople is distinguished from other Eastern patriarchs in that he is recognized as the first among them with the right to resolve any disputes in the other patriarchates. However these epanagoges in general, remained only on paper and did not acquire the force of law.
Nonetheless attempts were made to justify and affirm canonically the prominent status which the Patriarch of Constantinople occupied in fact thanks to the advantageous, for him, historical circumstances. Thus the position of primacy among other patriarchates, not excluding the Roman bishop, was based on the theory of New Rome or "the scepters transfer" but the privilege of his authority were extrapolated form a novel interpretation of Canons 9, 17 and 28 of Chalcedon. All this, when combined with the epanagoge, resulted in the creation of the theory of Eastern Papism.
On the basis of canon 3 of the Second Ecumenical Council the Byzantine canonists created a precise theory of the transfer of all the highest rights from the Roman bishop to Constantinople and the preposition "after" (meta) in the canon was interpreted in the chronological sense, i.e. the Bishop of Constantinople doesnt occupy the second rank after Rome but the first rank, only that he received it later in time.
As a result, by combining the theory of "the scepters transfer" and its primacy in the East, it appeared that the Patriarch of Constantinople is the legitimate and sole bearer of all the privileges and the primacy of the Roman pope and could thus receive appeals not only against the Eastern patriarchs but against the Roman pope himself. Thus, writes Ostroumov, thanks to the perverse interpretation of the canons of Chalcedon and the linkage with the theory of "the scepters transfer" the idea of the "pope in the East" or "the theory of Eastern Papism" was born.
The theory of the "Byzantine pope" however, stood in opposition to the theory of the "five senses". According to this theory as proposed by Peter of Antioch, "There are five patriarchs established in the world by Divine grace: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Just as in the human body, governed by one head, five senses are active, so it is in the Church, the Body of Christ, governed by one Head, Christ Himself, five Patriarchs are established to govern various nations."
It is interesting to note that in this comparison of the patriarchs with human senses, there is already a concept that all patriarchs are equal in authority and are not subordinate one to another but together are subjected to the one Head of the Church - Christ, thus they are completely equal in authority among themselves. According to the canonist Balsamon, "...thus the first Patriarch is not above the second, nor the second over the third: but as five senses are part of the one head and are not divided, so are the heads of the Universal Church have equal honor in all cases"
However with the falling away of Rome from the Universal Church, the primacy of honor went over to the Patriarch of Constantinople, thus the theory of the five senses, excluding the theory of Eastern Papism, does not exclude the fact that the primacy of honor belongs to the Patriarch of Constantinople in relation to the other patriarchs and that he holds the authority of chairmanship but not in the sense of the Roman monarchical authority but simply in the sense of the Saviors Evangelical teaching: he who wishes to be first, will be the servant of all.
The Patriarch of Constantinople retained his high status as Bishop of the capital even after the fall of Byzantium and the occupation of Constantinople by the Turks in 1453. Mehmet II, Byzantiums conqueror, recognized the then Patriarch Gennadios as head of all the Christian subjects in the Turkish Empire.
Later, the patriarchs, during the Turkish yoke, not only preserved their authority within the Church but in the Berat of the Turkish sultans, as ethnarchs received secular authority over all Orthodox including the other Eastern patriarchs. Inasmuch as the dividing lines between Church and secular competence were not firm in Byzantium and were nearly nonexistent in the Turkish monarchy, this expansion of the Patriarch of Constantinoples authority was reflected in purely ecclesiastical mutual relationships in all of the Orthodox East.
Prof. Troitsky summarizes the historical reasons which served to elevate the Patriarch of Constantinople over the other Eastern patriarchs:
At the beginning of the 20th century, the Church of Constantinople once again made an attempt to resurrect the idea of its authority over the whole Orthodox world, developing this trend on the basis of a newly conceived theory about the mandatory and exclusive subordination of the whole of Orthodox diaspora throughout the world to the Church of Constantinople.
In 1922 Patriarch Meletios Metaxasis of Constantinople (1871-1935) raised the question of the subordination of the whole of the diaspora in Europe and America to his authority. This included the subordination of the Russian Eparchy in America. He opened a new eparchy in Europe. There began an intrusion into the ecclesiastical matters of the Orthodox churches in Poland, Estonia, Finland and others.
Prof. Troitsky writes that according to this theory, the jurisdiction of all autocephalous churches ends at the borders of the States in which the given Church is located. Only the Ecumenical Patriarch, on the supposed basis of Canons 9, 17 and 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, can extend his jurisdiction over the whole diaspora, i.e. over the Orthodox eparchies and parishes scattered throughout the world but which are outside the State borders of autocephalous Churches. Thus this theory deprived the remaining Churches of the rights and responsibilities for missionary endeavors given to them by the Lord Himself.
The Russian canonist, S. Troitsky protested in print against these pretensions of the Patriarchs of Constantinople and in defense of freedom of the autocephalous Churches and the attempts to "interject a smoky arrogance of the world into the Church of Christ".
However, the Orthodox Church in North America (now the Orthodox Church in America) in 7/22 May 1922, was the first of all the Churches to reject Patriarch Meletios demands for submission.
The Council of Bishops, having heard the Order of the Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios of 1 March 1922 about his jurisdiction over all the existing Orthodox Churches in Europe and America excluding the autocephalous ones, and that this Order extends to the Russian Eparchy in North America RESOLVED:
Inasmuch as the Russian Eparchy in North America remains a part of her initiator, the Russian Orthodox Church, to affirm: "that the Russian Orthodox Eparchy in North America remains an organic part of the Autocephalous Church of Russia, and thus the Order of the Ecumenical Patriarch does not apply to our Eparchy".
Soon however, the Russian Orthodox Church itself almost became a victim of meddling by the Patriarchs of Constantinople in its internal life. At that time, i.e. in the twenties of our century, when the Russian Orthodox Church found itself subject to cruel persecution by atheistic State authorities, Patriarch Meletios of Constantinople, deviating from the majority of the worlds Church leaders, did not support the imprisoned Patriarch Tikhon and expressed support for the bolshevik-inspired Renovationist schism.
His successor Patriarch Gregorios VII, through his Moscow representative Archimandrite Basil (Dimopoulo), expressed his desire that Patriarch Tikhon divest himself of the government of the Church and that the Patriarchate in the Russian Church be abolished.
In his response of 6 June 1924 Patriarch Tikhon wrote to Patriarch Gregorios of Constantinople:
In no small measure we were shocked and surprised that the Head of the Church of Constantinople, without any prior consultation with us, the legitimate representative and Head of the Russian Orthodox Church, would interfere in the internal life and affairs of the Autocephalous Russian Church. The Holy Councils recognized the primacy of honor alone as the prerogative of the Patriarch of Constantinople and did not, nor do not recognize any primacy of authority.
In connection with the novel theory of Patriarch Meletios (Metaxasis) about the subordination of the Orthodox diaspora, not only that of the Greeks but all the Orthodox wherever they may be, there is presently a question about the correct interpretation of Canons 9 and 28 of Chalcedon. This is not only of academic and scholarly interest but it has a practical significance "inasmuch as the erroneous interpretation of these canons leads to the erroneous understanding of the structure of the Orthodox Church and it can lead to a disruption of the canonical mutual relationships between the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches."
As proof that the Patriarch of Constantinople never had nor does have authority over the whole diaspora on the basis of Canons, Professor S. Troitsky brings out interpretations and commentaries on Canons 9 and 28 of Chalcedon as found in the Pedalion (the Greek Rudder), the official compilation of canons, and he arrives at the following conclusions:
Furthermore, Troitsky points out, not a single canon speaks about the primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople. Such canons do not exist since the Bishop of Rome is considered to be the first. Furthermore "the foundation of the high rank of the Patriarch of Constantinople must be found in the concurrence of the Orthodox Autocephalous Churches which are guided by the teaching of the primacy of the Churchs Founder, Jesus Christ, and that the Churches see no need to change the old order until such time as it is demanded for the benefit of the whole Church."
Finally, according to Troitsky, the right of the Bishop of Constantinople to the title "Ecumenical" and "of Constantinople" rests upon the same general consent of the Autocephalous Churches since today no basis for such titles can be found in the Canons.
How new Churches were established in non-Christian or barbarian lands is explained by Bishop Ioann of Smolensk in his commentary on Canon Two of the Second Ecumenical Council: "Pastors of the ancient Churches were active in the establishment of Churches among pagan people, which sent them preachers, ordained presbyters and bishops for them and undertook the responsibility for their administration. In general, whichever Church baptized the indigent people, at first the hierarchy and the form of administration was received from that Church. The newly-established Churches could not all of a sudden receive the ability for self-administration. But with the passage of time, they became independent"
From this, Professor Troitsky concludes:
In 1996 in connection with the intrusion of the Patriarch of Constantinople upon the immemorial territory of the Moscow Patriarchate in Estonia, the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church considered it their duty to remind Constantinople that "Each Local Orthodox Church is self-administering and does not depend upon the Patriarch of Constantinople in matters of jurisdiction", and that:
We would not have recalled all these sad events of the past and about the activities of the Patriarchate of Constantinople if similar acts had not been done at the present time. It is to our profound regret that the events taking place around the Orthodox Church in Estonia demonstrate that the Patriarchate of Constantinople has not learned the lessons of its tragic past and continues to exploit the opportunities for the expansion of its influence upon the canonical territories of other Churches, bringing about painful shocks to Church unity. (Statement of the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church, 1 March 1996)
Today when throughout the world the separation of Church and State is a given fact, the only thing remaining for the Church are her Canons. Troitsky says:
In a normal situation of any Autocephalous Church, i.e. with the preservation of its Orthodox dogmatical teaching and canonical structure, the Canons do not allow interference on the part of any other Church in her administration, including the Church of Constantinople and specifically the Canons do not foresee any appeals in connection with administrative and judicial matters of its [the local Churchs] supreme authorities.
"The interference of one Church in the life of another can take place at the request of the supreme authority of the latter Autocephalous Church as well as in case of need when one of the Autocephalous Churches deviates from Orthodox dogmatical teaching, or it does not have a sufficient number of bishops for its canonical independence,"
The late Professor Protopresbyter John Meyendorff makes the following suggestion on how to view the future canonical status of the Patriarch of Constantinople:
The Orthodox Church, without a doubt, is in need of a world center for unity but not for authority over Churches. We will hope that the coming Orthodox "Great Council" will find boldness and the ability - with the help of the Holy Spirit - to move away from the long-obsolete system which was worked out in the Byzantine Empire and which still nominally determines the organization of world Orthodoxy. It must move in the direction of a realistic and permanent path assuring that of which the Church is in need: freedom, oneness and love.
Archbishop Gregory Afonsky
Translated by Alvian N. Smirensky
Canons of the Universal Church by which the prerogatives of honor and authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople are affirmed (Taken from Percival).
Canon Three of the Second Ecumenical Council:
The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome.
Canon Nine of the Fourth Ecumenical Council:
If any Clergyman have a matter against another clergyman, he shall not forsake his bishop and run to secular courts; but let him first lay open the matter before his own Bishop, or let the matter be submitted to any person whom each of the parties may, with the Bishop's consent, select. And if any one shall contravene these decrees, let him be subjected to canonical penalties. And if a clergyman have a complaint against his own or any other bishop, let it be decided by the synod of the province. And if a bishop or clergyman should have a difference with the metropolitan of the province, let him have recourse to the Exarch of the Diocese, or to the throne of the Imperial City of Constantinople, and there let it be tried.
Canon XVII of the Fourth Ecumenical Council:
Outlying or rural parishes shall in every province remain subject to the bishops who now have jurisdiction over them, particularly if the bishops have peaceably and continuously governed them for the space of thirty years. But if within thirty years there has been, or is, any dispute concerning them, it is lawful for those who hold themselves aggrieved to bring their cause before the synod of the province. And if any one be wronged by his metropolitan, let the matter be decided by the exarch of the diocese or by the throne of Constantinople, as aforesaid. And if any city has been, or shall hereafter be newly erected by imperial authority, let the order of the ecclesiastical parishes follow the political and municipal example.
Canon XXVIII of the Fourth Ecumenical Council:
Following in all things the decisions of the holy Fathers, and acknowledging the canon, which has been just read, of the One Hundred and Fifty Bishops beloved-of-God (who assembled in the imperial city of Constantinople, which is New Rome, in the time of the Emperor Theodosius of happy memory), we also do enact and decree the same things concerning the privileges of the most holy Church of Constantinople, which is New Rome. For the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of old Rome, because it was the royal city. And the One Hundred and Fifty most religious Bishops, actuated by the same consideration, gave equal privileges (isa presbeia) to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that the city which is honoured with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is, and rank next after her; so that, in the Pontic, the Asian, and the Thracian dioceses, the metropolitans only and such bishops also of the Dioceses aforesaid as are among the barbarians, should be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople; every metropolitan of the aforesaid dioceses, together with the bishops of his province, ordaining his own provincial bishops, as has been declared by the divine canons; but that, as has been above said, the metropolitans of the aforesaid Dioceses should be ordained by the archbishop of Constantinople, after the proper elections have been held according to custom and have been reported to him.
Canon XXXVI of the Council in Trullo:
Renewing the enactments by the 150 Fathers assembled at the God-protected and imperial city, and those of the 630 who met at Chalcedon; we decree that the see of Constantinople shall have equal privileges with the see of Old Rome, and shall be highly regarded in ecclesiastical matters as that is, and shall be second after it. After Constantinople shall be ranked the See of Alexandria, then that of Antioch, and afterwards the See of Jerusalem.
His Eminence, Archbishop Gregory [Afonsky], retired Archbishop of Sitka and Alaska, fell asleep in the Lord at his home here on the evening of Tuesday, April 15, 2008, three days before his 83rd birthday.
The son and grandson of priests, Archbishop Gregory was born George Afonsky in Kyiv, Ukraine, on April 17, 1925. During World War II, he was taken by the German army to work labor camps in Germany. In 1949, he emigrated to the US, where he served as choir director at parishes in New Jersey and Connecticut.
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