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The Primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate


primacySource: MYSTAGOGY

By His Eminence Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos and Agiou Vlasiou

At times, as in our days, there arises the issue of the privilege of honor of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the so-called Primacy, which is not just an honor of politeness, but it has specific canonical responsibilities.

It is known that the primacy of honor of the Ecumenical Patriarchate is safeguarded by the Ecumenical Synods.

In the 3rd Canon of the Second Ecumenical Synod it was ruled: “The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the primacy of honor after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome.”

Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod ruled: “Following in every detail all the decrees of the holy Fathers … we ourselves have also decreed and voted the same things about the primacy of the most holy throne of this same Constantinople, New Rome.”

And the Sixth Ecumenical Synod, also known as the Penthekti (Quinisext), decrees in Canon 36: “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 primacy 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.”

When one studies these passages carefully, as well as the entire letter and spirit of these sacred Canons, it is observed that the Second Ecumenical Synod places the Bishop of Constantinope “after” the throne of the Bishop of Rome, which then belonged among the system of Orthodox Churches. It is also observed that the Fourth Ecumenical Synod and then the Sixth Ecumenical Synod grant to the throne of New Rome “equal” primacy with the throne of Old Rome.

But when the Pope of Old Rome was cut off in 1009 from the system of the Orthodox Churches, then the Archbishop of New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch had no “equal” among the system of Orthodox Churches, but all the Primates of the Autocephalous Churches were placed “after” him.

The privileges of these honors are not simply precedence, but they have canonical functions, including the granting of autocephaly or the limitation of privileges or even essential interventions and revocations. Characteristic are the cases of the recently established Patriarchates, whose Patriarchal value was given by the Ecumenical Patriarch and their proclamation will be, as it is said in the texts of each Tomos, “at the Ecumenical or other upcoming Great Synod”, which has still not happened. For this reason it has been argued that the process of elevating these Churches using a strict canonical-legal view has not yet been completed (Professor Spyros Troianos).

I will proceed to present four scientific papers that refer to the substance and canonical value of the Primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which clearly differs from the alleged primacy of the Pope of Rome, and that there could be no confusion between these two realities.

1. The first is the work of the ever-memorable Metropolitan Maximus of Sardis that is titled: “The Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church”.

Metropolitan Maximus of Sardis, using the sources thoroughly and appropriate scientific aids, analyzed thoroughly, among other things, how the ecclesiastical administration was organized from the emergence of Christianity as well as that of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. That is, he essentially studied how the administrative system of the offices of Metropolitan and Patriarch came to be.

From the sources and the entire tradition of the Church it appears that firstly from the beginning each Local Church was aware of her completeness, since the Bishop who shepherded each Local Church was aware that he was “in the form and place” of Christ. But this awareness did not lead to isolation from the common union of the Churches, “because completeness is not of its own acquisition, but a gift of God according to grace to all the local Churches.”

From the ancient Church it seems that a special importance was given to the apostolic Churches, that is, the Churches established straight from the Apostles and therefore the succession of these Bishops were associated with the one apostolic figure. As the Metropolitan says: “It is understood that their witness was immediately associated with the local Churches of apostolic times and were reliable witnesses of the local Churches, which have indirect references to apostolic times through the Mother Church.”

So, an apostolic Church had a privileged position in the reliable witness to apostolic tradition. Thus there arose a “system” of “mother” and “daughter” Churches and there was a unity between the Churches, which was a spiritual unity, a unity of faith and love.

In these conditions, during the first four centuries there was created the need to form synods between the Churches, to express the unity of the Church organically. So the local Churches gathered in provincial Synods and the head of each province was the Bishop of the civil Metropolis, who chaired these Synods and entered into communication with the other Bishops of the other Metropolises.

It is apparent that over time, to maintain the unity of the Church, they joined the political system that divided up the Roman Empire. Thus was created the Metropolitan system, with the Metropolitan as “First”, and even from the third century there began to form the function of the Exarch, that further developed in the fourth century and was made a condition for the emergence in the fifth century of “a new discretionary administrative gradient of the Patriarch”.

Therefore, while in the post-apostolic period a necessary element for the unity of the Church was “the interaction of the local Church in time or history towards the past, and especially to the first Church of the apostles”, but then however a prerequisite for unity was considered “as the local or geographical calibration of the identity of the Churches in the faith and life in their ‘opinion of Jesus Christ’.” And by this concept was the synodical institution emphasized.

The conclusion of the Metropolitan of Sardis is important:

“According to this, even if all the bishops, according to their divine constitution, are equal, by this measure they receive the gift of episcopal grace, by partaking of the same unbroken apostolic succession, but in accordance with the canonical system of the ecclesiastical institution they are not equally honored, having received different names and different rights, according to the measure of development of these historical-ecclesiastical positions, on the basis by which they emerge as presbyters and after major influence on the other, they enjoy particular priveleges and supervise in advance the general character of ecclesiastical matters.

The tradition of the Church created this practice of ‘hierarchy of honor’, which later came to be otherwise called ‘primacy of honor’, and the denial of the reality of such, in the name of the false notion of ‘equal honor’, is a stealthy replacement of known catholicity through dubious democratic equality.”

2. The second important document which will help us to see the formation of the system of the administration of the Church, with the Ecumenical Patriarch as its prominent figure, who not only has a coordinating role, but also a leading one for the whole constitution of the unity of the Church, is the text by Helene Glykatzi-Ahrweiler titled “Orthodoxy and Byzantium (330-1461)”. We will identify some characteristic points of this study.

Mrs. Ahrweiler studies how the two powers operated, namely the Emperor and the Patriarch, in the christianized Roman Empire.

As she highlights, these two powers of the Emperor and the Patriarch operated parallel to each other and the one did not enter the jurisdiction of the other. “The place and mode of action of both the emperor and the patriarch in their relationship was institutionally determined: to the emperor belonged the salvation of bodies, to the patriarch the care of souls. It was mandatory that the enthronement of the emperor be blessed by the patriarch and the election of the patriarch be in line with the will of the emperor.”

Thus, the “parallel power and harmonious partnership of these two rulers, the emperor and the patriarch, characterized the entire life of the Orthodox Empire and Church according to Byzantine historical reality, despite some exceptions and deviations.”

Then, what is particularly important is that in the Roman Empire there not only functioned these two parallel powers, namely the Emperor and the Patriarch, but also two parallel hierarchies, namely the State and the Church, “which underlie and support Byzantine society: the first, the cosmic hierarchy (lay, political and military) stems from the imperial power, the second, the spiritual, leads to the patriarch.”

The author notes very characteristically:

“Quite schematically of course, we could say that in the parallels between the state machine and ecclesiastical organization, the patriarch corresponds to the emperor, the archbishops to the rulers of autonomous provinces who referred straight to the emperor, the metropolitans correspond to the generals of themes (provincial administrations), while the bishops to the commanders of a turma, and the protopresbyters to counts of bandons.

This parallelism emphasizes the dual hierarchy, secular and ecclesiastical, the two pillars of Byzantine society. The patriarch had an advisory role in the secular, while the role of the emperor in theological matters was limited.”

Also, another point that is emphasized, is that any relationship the Emperor had with the civil administration throughout the empire, such was the relationship between the Ecumenical Patriarch and the spiritual ecclesiastical administration of local Churches, and even the other Patriarchates. Besides, “Constantinople is not only the New Rome, but it is also at the same time the New Jerusalem, and the seat of the patriarch belonged to the jurisdiction of the lands of the first global Christian empire.”

Of course, the position of Ecumenical Patriarch strengthened much more in its struggle for overcoming the heresies that emerged in the Church. As the author notes, Arianism appeared in Alexandria, and Monophysitism appeared again in the East and was supported by Alexandria. The Ecumenical Patriarchate played a leading role in addressing these heresies and in his region the Ecumenical Synods gathered. Therefore, “the role of the Church of Constantinople in the formulation of doctrine” was decisive, which helped in exalting the Ecumenical Throne.

She concludes very characteristically: “With the support of the emperor and the state, the Constantinoplitan Church fought against multiple heretical movements and remained faithful to the spirit and letter of doctrine, the proper faith, in Orthodoxy that is, that she had methodically, patiently and for centuries ornamented and processed within her.”

Thus, it seems very clear from this analysis, how on the one hand, the system of the administration of the Churches was formed, and on the other hand how it was experienced and expressed in the practice of the Primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople, which was not simply a primacy of honor, but a primacy of ministry, initiative, coordination of the other Churches, but also preserved the revealed truth. It is not simply a primacy that is a function of the mode of administration of the Church, which it received from the political administration of the Roman Empire, but primacy is related to the struggle for the preservation of Orthodox doctrine and the experience of the Church.

3. The third important text, which examines the leading presence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate from the fall of Constantinople to the present, is that of Professor Vlasios Feidas, who notes that “the authentic voice and reliable guarantor of the continuity of Orthodox tradition was the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which as the Mother Church exercised the, as predicted by the sacred canons, spiritual supervision over subordinates under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Orthodox peoples.” This happened mainly during the Turkish occupation.

It is known that after the conquest of the Roman Empire and Constantinople by the Ottomans, Mehmed the Conqueror gave privileges to the Orthodox Milliyet (nation) and gave to the Ecumenical Patriarch appropriate jurisdictions. The Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, since he was in the capital of the Ottoman Empire and had contact with the Sultan, it was natural for him to take initiatives for the proper functioning of all Orthodox Churches.

It is important what Professor Vlasios Feidas says on this topic:

“The Ecumenical Patriarchate remained in the post-Byzantine period the key institutional pillar of the administrative organization of the Orthodox Church, on the one hand because it was the first throne of the Orthodox Church, on the other hand because it had a vast administrative jurisdiction, which at the time of the fall of Constantinople (1453) extended from the Mediterranean to the Baltic Sea and from central Europe to the Volga.

After the seventh century the Patriarchates of the East declined (Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem), and the Great Schism of the Churches of East and West (1054) have extended the mission of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for the proper operation and continued growth of the Orthodox Church.

The annexation of Syria, Palestine and Egypt in the Turkish state by Sultan Selim I (1512-1520) facilitated the coordination of the Eastern Patriarchates by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which was the official representative of all Orthodox Christians of the Turkish state.

Therefore, during the period of Turkish rule, the Ecumenical Patriarch shouldered in extremely critical times and under very adverse conditions, the primary responsibility for the defense of the spiritual coherence of all Orthodox Christians. This mission was supported with consistency and continuity by the Patriarchates of the East, while it boosted by the restoration of unity the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox peoples.

Indeed, the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem supported in an impressive manner the multifaceted mission of the Ecumenical Patriarch, while the autonomised autocephalous archdioceses of Ochrid, Pec and Tarnovo, which administered the ecclesiastical autonomy of the Orthodox Serbs and Bulgarians, finally joined its jurisdiction. Impressive was the dedication to the Ecumenical Patriarchate by both the mighty empire of Russia, and the autonomous principalities of Wallachia and Moldavia, which variously strengthened its spiritual mission in difficult times.

Therefore, the Orthodox Church ran outside of the boundary of the Turkish state, but not outside the boundary of the spiritual mission of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, besides the key position of the Patriarch, also developed other institutions, such as the Endymousa (Resident) Synods, which was a Synod consisting of Metropolitans, who were distinguished for their wisdom, experience of things and the power of speech, and who had Metropolises near Constantinople and for this reason remained permanently in Constantinople, as well as the operation of a twelve patriarchal sessions “with a two year term and a rotation scheme among the metropolitans, while other community affairs of the patriarchate were assigned to the National Joint Council”.

What appears from this text is how through the centuries the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate was determined, but also its great contribution in difficult times both for the preservation of the Orthodox faith, and to preserve the unity of the Orthodox Church.

4. And the fourth text, by Olivier Clément, who studied the Primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarch within the entire administration of the Church, and of course had in view all that was mentioned previously, makes these important observations.

He observes:

“Primacy is not rulership, nor is it a simple honor. The communion with the first bishop and the ability to take recourse before it does not recommend but it verifies the fact that one belongs to the universal Church. The first bishop has primacy of initiative and presidency.”

The Ecumenical Patriarchate, after the deduction of the Church of Rome from the Orthodox Church, acquired stronger privileges and serious responsibility to safeguard the unity of the entire Orthodox Church. It does not simply preside over a confederation of independent Churches, but is the coherent link of unity of the Churches.

And of course “the primacy belongs to the Church of Constantinople, because of the canonical arrangements and long historical experience.” The Ecumenical Patriarchate, by the vacuum created with the absence of the Roman Emperor, who convened the Ecumenical Synods, acquired this responsibility. And in this spirit encountered serious problems when various ethnicities tried to gain autocephaly. The Ecumenical Patriarchate made ​​the consequential understandings and eventually acknowledged the autocephaly and signed the relevant Tomos.

In a crisis observed in the 17th century in the Russian Orthodox Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate replied:

“This privelege was a privilege of the Pope before this Church broke away due to arrogance and malice. But since the Church is now split, all the cases of the Churches will be brought before the throne of Constantinople, who will decide, because, according to the canons, it has the same primacy to that of ancient Rome” (Patriarchal and Synodical Tomos of 1663).

The Primacy of the Church of Constantinople is not simply a primacy of honor, but it is the center of the unity of the Churches and the safeguarding of the faith; it is a ministry of initiative, coordination and presidency; it is a center of testimony, universality and a preservation of the synodicity of the Church; it is the center to which a local Church takes recourse when in a situation of crisis, and then the Ecumenical Patriarchate takes initiative to restore normality and canonicity. In this sense it is said that the Church of Constantinople is the mother of Churches.

Olivier Clément observes:

“Primacy is not an empty honor, nor is it an eastern Papism. Besides the physical weakness of Constantinople, its poverty ensures its selflessness and, paradoxically, increases its prestige. The Ecumenical Patriarch has no claim to be a ‘universal bishop’. It does not claim any doctrinal infallibility, no direct jurisdiction over all the faithful. It has no worldly power.”

“Its primacy, the center of mediation to safeguard the faith and the union of all, is not power, but it is a sacrificial offering ministry, in imitation of Him who came not to be served but to serve. It is ready, within the confines of synodicity, to be made ​​available to the sister Churches to uphold their unity and achieve the mission of Orthodoxy. The ministry is a ministry of initiative, coordination and presidency, always with the consent of the sister Churches.”

“Primacy, although a creative renunciation which must always be renewed and, somehow, always be worthy of one, belongs to the structure of the Church, and it is necessary to ensure the unity and universality of Orthodoxy.”

“It brings the sister Churches in a relationship, leading them to cooperate and bear mutual witness, activating their shared responsibility. Since the end of the Empire, then, it has the role of ‘inviting’ Churches. After first conferring with the sister Churches and obtaining their consent, it may represent them. It is a refuge for the communities in an exceptional and dangerous situation.”

“This ministry involves two conditions: on the one hand, preserve the principle of synodicity; on the other hand, the principle of non-interference in the internal affairs of other Churches.”

From these four texts by distinguished scholars, it appears clear that the Primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarch, without undermining the synodicity of the Church, plays a crucial role in the unity of the Church through the hierarchical structure.

Original Source: Translated by John Sanidopoulos.  Originally published on January 17, 2014 (English).



  1. False, unjustified claims for Primacy in Orthodox Church, actually to become Orthodox Pope. Sorry, there is no Byzantine Empire and Constantinople since 1453.It is Turkish Islamic city Istanbul. Besides, Patriarchs remaining in Istanbul have created a lot of problems for Orthodoxy, particularly in the XX century, creating disunity and splits,interfering into affairs of Orthodox Churches, falling down into secularism and ecumenism. The current Patriarch instead of fixing mistakes and heresies of his predecessors and facilitating the unity of the Orthodox Church is doing his best to create a unity with the heretical Catholic Church and for that reason he is trying now to convene the VIII Ecumenical Council even without the approval of all Orthodox Churches. There is only one reason for the VIII Ecumenical Council – to overcome the liturgical confusion and disunity within Orthodoxy that has been created by uncanonical forceful introduction of the new calendar.
    By doing this Patriarch Bartholomeo will really achieve the respect and honor in the World Orthodoxy. May God enlighten and encourage him to do that!

  2. While all the above may be “historically” true, I think that the situation of the Orthodox Church throughout the world is quite different then t was in the era of the Ecumenical Councils. It appears to me that Met. Hierotheos, who I honor as a pious and God-fearing Orthodox bishop would have us think that all the Canons from the past just automatically transfer across the ages and are exactly applicable today as they were then. I question as to whether it is so clear cut. We know longer are a part of the system of the Christian Roman Empire (Byzantium), neither is Constantinople (Istanbul) technically “New Rome” for it does not function as the capital of any Empire, Christian or otherwise. While Clement states that the “primacy” is not Eastern papism nor does the Patriarch of Constantinople have jurisdiction over other Orthodox Churches the PR department at the Phanar doesn’t seem to clearly communicate the nuances of this because in almost every press release the Patriarch is called the “leaders of the world’s Orthodox.”

  3. According to the late Fr. Meyendorff, the pre-eminent theologian and historian of Byzantium, here is what “first among equals means.” This title refers to and is associated primarily with the other Patriarchs. (Rome, Constantinople, Jerusalem, Alexandria and Antioch) When these Patriarchs met periodically, the “first among equals” would “chair the meetings.” Not having more power or authority than the others, only chairing the meetings. The other responsibilities were to an arbitrator of disputes between the other Patriarchs and keeping the records of these meetings. THAT’S IT!!! Canon 28 of Chalcedon did not give the “first among equals” authority over all territories all over the world. What this canon said was that the Bishop of Constantinople had ecclesiastical authority (consecrate bishops) for territories around the Black Sea – not anywhere further. So, what Istanbul has been trying to do is create this title and the bishop with this title as the “Leader of All the Orthodox” with powers and authority surpassing anything ever intended. Basically, trying to create an “Eastern Pope” where he rules all the Orthodox Churches everywhere. Well, this is just an innovation and lie. This is exactly what Rome did boosting it’s authority over the centuries making the Pope of Rome the “Vicar of Christ” who is infallible in Church decisions. All the Roman Catholic churches worldwide report to, take order from and are ruled from Rome – one central authority. HOWEVER, the Holy Apostles never organized the Church in this manner. Every “territory” had it’s own church with it’s own bishops who ruled over their own territory without outside interference. The Church was organized by autocephalous churches in each “territory/country” as “local churches.” When a dispute arose threatening the Church as whole, an Ecumenical Council was called where the Church “collectively” issued canons and documents concerning these issues. These councils may be chaired by the “first among equals” with the Emperor watching closely over them. Regarding autocephaly; there are no Canons giving the Pat. of Istanbul special authority to grant or rescind autocephaly. In fact, when Constantinople and all the Eastern bishops fell into heresy by signing at the Council of Florence (except one). When Bishop Isidore returned to Kiev(an appointed bishop by Constantinople), the Kievan people threw him out, elevated their own bishop to ruling status and proclaimed autocephaly. Now, even though Constantinople refused to recognize the Kievan/Rus autocephaly for 150 years, it was Constantinople that fell into heresy. The hubris of Constantinople is rather clear and over the centuries it has tried to usurp more and more power and authority over all the Orthodox of the world. All anyone has to do is re-read Orthodox Canon Law. Each “local church” rules itself with it’s own bishops” without any foreign bishops control or over-sight!

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