Canon 28 and Eastern Papalism: Cause or Effect?

By: George C. Michalopulos

ABSTRACT: Orthodoxy today is at a crossroads in America and throughout the world. One of the great challenges facing us has to do with inter-Orthodox cooperation. Specifically, how are new mission fields identified? Which of the established churches evangelizes them? And how are they granted autocephaly? What is the purpose of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and by what authority does it claim primatial honors? More importantly, is there a difference between primacy and supremacy? The purpose of this essay is to evaluate the primatial claims of the Church of Constantinople and specifically, Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, which has become the proof-text as it were of recent Constantinopolitan claims which have startled many in the Orthodox world.

I. The Ecumenical Patriarchate and Its Claims

Recent events have forced the issue of Constantinopolitan supremacy to the fore. Previously, this topic was dealt with (if at all) in essays found in theological journals and speeches delivered at symposia, but because of the feebleness of the Patriarchate of Constantinople (and Orthodoxy in general) the controversy surrounding it quickly dissipated.

Unfortunately, matters came to a head in America due to long-simmering disputes that have existed in American Orthodoxy in part because of the existence of multiple jurisdictions. The spark that lit the fuse was an address given at Holy Cross School of Theology on March 16, 2009 by the Chief Secretary of the Holy Synod of Constantinople, the Very Rev Dr Elpidophorus Lambriniades.1 This speech may have been partly in response to an article written by Metropolitan Philip Saliba, the primate of the Antiochian archdiocese in North America. Saliba’s essay questioned the validity of Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon.2 Although Saliba was singled out for criticism by Lambriniades, his speech immediately galvanized opposition to him (and the Phanar) from almost all quarters. The firestorm was based in part on its many criticisms of American Orthodoxy, including its unsettling briefs regarding the speaker’s perceptions of parish life, monastic communities, and the primates of other jurisdictions. Likewise, his vituperative comments against the OCA, and even the faculty and graduates of Holy Cross itself were risible to the extreme.

Of course, not all of his arguments were invalid. Salient points were made (as pointed out in this writer’s own response)3 accompanied with incendiary assertions. Many American readers saw the speech as not only a broadside at American Orthodox ecclesiology, but also a bill of particulars that the ecumenical patriarchate will use to make its claims for global supremacy in the Orthodox world. If true, it is to be viewed as a trial balloon floated in anticipation of the upcoming pan-Orthodox synod that is tentatively scheduled for June on the island of Cyprus.

How did we get here? The Church of Constantinople, and its patriarch have long enjoyed primacy of honor within the Orthodox Church. This primacy is known by the Latin formula primus inter pares, literally "first among equals." This honorific was first attached to the Bishop of Rome by custom and later ratified by canon.4 With the rupture between East and West in 1054, it devolved by default to the Archbishop of Constantinople who thanks to various canons arising from the Second Ecumenical Council, was placed second in line in the primatial sequence (to the detriment of the Patriarch of Alexandria). Before the twentieth century, this insistence on primacy was viewed in its correct light, that is primacy, not supremacy. To be sure, some patriarchs had a rather exalted view of their office but the popes in Rome or the Christian emperors of Byzantium usually put them in their place.

Since the time of Patriarch Meletius IV Metaxakis (d. 1935) however, the ecumenical patriarchate has formulated a more robust view of its place in Orthodoxy. These new ideas, together with the high-handed antics and startling reforms of Meletius set alarm bells off throughout Orthodoxy. So stunning and novel were Meletius’ claims to universal jurisdiction, that St John Maximovitch, the then-Archbishop of Shanghai, felt compelled to immediately criticize them in no uncertain terms. 5 Nor was he alone horrified by these scandalous claims. Indeed, criticism of Metaxakis has not dissipated over time; they continue to this day. 6

Although Metaxakis’ tumultuous career and controversial reforms have been studiously ignored by his successors, his novel theories of Constantinopolitan supremacy have become enshrined as the official doctrine of the ecumenical patriarchate (as shall be examined more fully in section 5). The basis of Metaxakis’ claims rests with one long-forgotten canon (28) that was formulated at the Fourth Ecumenical Council held in Chalcedon, in AD 451. We must therefore look at this canon in its entirety, that is to say its origins, context, and validity. For purposes of brevity, it will henceforth be known as "Canon 28," and the Fourth Ecumenical Council will be known as "the fourth council," or simply, "Chalcedon."

II. The Fourth Ecumenical Council

Before we can actually examine the historicity and context of Canon 28, a brief word must be said about the council from which it arose. This council was called by the Emperor Marcian to resolve a long-festering christological dispute regarding the nature of Christ which had been precipitated by the claims of an archimandrite named Eutychus who taught that Jesus the man had only one nature (physis). So powerful was Jesus’ divine nature that it had totally overwhelmed His human nature, hence this doctrine was labeled as monophysite. Its popularity became a destabilizing factor in Byzantium within the city of Constantinople itself as well as in the non-Greek areas of the empire.

The monophysite teaching was a response to an earlier one labeled Nestorianism (named after Archbishop Nestorius of Constantinople, d. 431), which held that Jesus had two distinct natures. Nestorius taught that these natures were so different that the Virgin Mary could only rightly be called Christotokos — the bearer of Christ, rather than Theotokos, that is to say, the Mother of God. The Nestorian heresy had been dealt with at the Third Ecumenical Council which was held at Ephesus in 431. It was revived shortly thereafter in the infamous "Robber Council" of 449. This latter council was called by Patriarch Dioscorus of Alexandria and was held in Ephesus. Dioscorus made it a point to not invite bishops from the West; Pope Leo I however was able to formulate a treatise detailing the orthodox views involving all christological matters. Unfortunately the bishops who attended suppressed his "Tome".

This second Ephesian council did not resolve anything however. Eutychus promoted his counter-heresy and in short order was degraded and condemned as a heretic by Anatolius, the Archbishop of Constantinople. Assured of the rightness of his cause, he appealed to Pope Leo I the Great, the emperor, and his wife Pulcheria. Another council was called, this time in the city of Chalcedon. Leo took no chances this time and sent three papal legates to preside. The council began with the reading of Leo’s tome that had been suppressed at Ephesus. The overwhelming majority of the bishops agreed with Leo and upheld Eutychus’ condemnation. For good measure, Nestorianism was likewise repudiated and a new statement of faith was drawn up, one which confirmed that the man known as Jesus had but one person with two natures: he was both perfect God and perfect man, with the latter not being subsumed into the former.

Unfortunately, this did not end the controversy. Bishops in Egypt and Syria remained defiant and the first schism in Christianity occurred, resulting in the installation of two rival popes in Alexandria, one clinging to the monophysite doctrine, the other upholding the Chalcedonian view. (The schism, along with the dual papacy of Alexandria survives to this day). In addition, one of the council’s canons (28), likewise had a lingering effect, some of which we are dealing with at present. According to the official acta of the council, twenty-seven canons were officially recognized. Sometime later, three additional canons were furtively inserted but one of these, Canon 28, was hastily removed on order from Pope Leo upon the recommendations of his legates, who coincidentally were not present when this particular canon was drafted. For several centuries thereafter, no more mention was made of Canon 28 and the following ones, 29 and 30 respectively, were viewed as commentary upon other canons and not as canons in and of themselves.

As for the offending canon, its verbiage was certainly troubling in that it elevated Archbishop Anatolius of Constantinople to patriarchal status and confusingly, made him overlord of three autocephalous metropolitan sees (Asia, Thrace, and Pontus). Both actions were unsettling to say the least. Previous to this time, the Christian world had only three commonly recognized patriarchates — Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch. These had been identified as such because of their firm apostolic foundation as well as their antiquity. Now it seemed as if by mere statute that patriarchal dignity could be bestowed. The legality of such an action was troubling to say the least; if nothing else, custom alone dictated against such a precedent as far as the other patriarchs were concerned. 7 A careful reading of this canon in its entirety indicates that its authors were quite aware of the implications of what they were doing and went out of their way to insert verbiage which would provide a rationalization for their actions:

Following in all things the decisions of the holy fathers, and acknowledging the canon which has been just read, the one hundred and fifty bishops beloved of God (who assembled in the imperial city of Constantinople, which is the New Rome, in the time of the Emperor Theodosius of happy memory [AD 180]), 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 to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that city which is honored 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 (emphasis added).

To effect the exaltation of the Byzantine archbishop, the authors of this canon waited for a day in which the papal legates were not in attendance (as mentioned). Even so, they had to make their case by special pleading and excessive redundancy. Once the legates who had actually presided over the council got wind of it, they rejected it out-of-hand, as did Leo. It was not hard to see why; after all, dioceses with ruling bishops were independent churches in and of themselves. They had not heretofore looked upon the other three patriarchs as their suzerains. In fact, Canon 2 of the Second Ecumenical Council — the same council which elevated Constantinople to secondary status after Rome-specifically stated that the bishops of Alexandria, Antioch, Asia, Thrace and Pontus "alone [could] administer their affairs." Canon 28 therefore single-handedly (and rather suspiciously) abrogated this earlier canon to its own benefit. This of course is curious, why for example did it not demote Alexandria or Antioch? (Is it possible that Constantinople dared not degrade Antioch or Alexandria because of their apostolicity?)

This warrants further investigation. In the first millennium autocephaly was rarely given because most regional churches headed by metropolitans were considered to already be autocephalous. Theodore Balsamon (d. 1195), Patriarch of Antioch and one of Byzantium’s greatest canonists, wrote that "…formerly all the heads of the provinces were autocephalous and were elected by their respective synods." 8 The Archbishop of Constantinople himself was a suffragan bishop of the Church of Heraklea, and he received his own honors from the metropolitan of that city. Thus the elevation of the Constantinopolitan archbishop to actual supremacy over and above the three metropolitans in question was highly irregular in its own context as can be gathered from the firestorm that erupted. The Archbishop of Constantinople was by a furtive statute now a "Metropolitan of Metropolitans," an ecclesiological oxymoron.

In addition, Leo objected to the fact that this canon ran counter of both the Councils of Nicaea and Constantinople (AD 381), as well as the already established prerogatives of the various churches. Leo grudgingly conceded that because of Canon 10 of the second council, Constantinople had the right to claim second place in the primatial sequence. On the other hand this new canon, with its expanded powers over other dioceses, was an obvious violation to Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical Council:

None of the bishops who are most beloved by God should extend their authority to another diocese, which had not previously and from the beginning been under them or their predecessors.

Leo’s championship of the canonical precedents of the first three councils stood him on solid ground. He certainly could not be accused of inconsistency nor was he being self-serving: he himself respected the prerogatives independent sees, as can be evidenced by the letter that he wrote (the "Tome of Leo") and submitted for the approval of the council.

The invalidity of Canon 28 was therefore obvious. In a letter to Marcian, Leo stated in no uncertain terms that Constantinople was not an apostolic see. 9 Writing in a separate letter to the Empress Pulcheria, he used even more forceful language: "As for the resolution of the bishops which is contrary to the Nicene decree, in union with your faithful piety, I declare it to be invalid and annul it by the authority of the holy Apostle Peter." 10 Faced with this opposition Anatolius quietly withdrew it, never openly bringing it up again.

Time however, was on Anatolius’ side. Leo had more serious problems to contend with, particularly trying to dissuade Attila from attacking Rome. As far as Leo and his successors were concerned, the illegality of the canon remained in force (at least in theory) but given the dire straits of the see of Rome, there was little that they could do as Constantinople quietly enhanced its grip over the three archdioceses in question.

Further investigation of the geopolitical landscape of fifth century Christendom would undoubtedly shed more light on this subject. For our purposes however, it is vital to note the irregularity of Canon 28 and how unsettling it was in its own time. Although its territorial ambitions were strictly limited, it was obvious that an unfortunate precedent had been set. In addition, the acquisition of the patriarchal dignity by the Byzantines only roiled the waters further. Not only was such an honor now bestowed by statute, thus diminishing the luster of the three apostolic sees, but the bearers of this new title viewed it as a first step to explore even greater avenues of glory.

III. The Evolution of the Patriarchate of Constantinople to Ecumenical Status

An additional black mark against Byzantium (besides its lack of apostolic foundation) was that it could not claim that it had always upheld )rthodox doctrine. After the first council condemned Arianism, the Flavian successors of Constantine remained resolutely Arian, as did the bishops of that city. Indeed Arianism remained in place in that city and its church for several decades thereafter. Thus the bypassing of Alexandria by Constantinople did not set well with the Orthodox parties for doctrinal reasons as well. This was no small matter. None of the other patriarchs had heretofore promoted heresy, whereas Byzantium provided a never-ending stream of novel teachings — Nestorianism had been taught from the patriarchal throne of Constantinople itself, for example. It was left to another patriarch, John IV Neustetes ("the Faster," d. 595), to further upset the equilibrium with his assumption of the title "ecumenical patriarch," a term which was abrasive to its non-Greek hearers and was handily swatted down by Pope Pelagius II and his more illustrious successor, Gregory I (the Great).

To be sure, prerogatives and protocols have always been deemed necessary for the good order of the Church. The canons of the first three councils clearly reflected a profound respect for diocesan boundaries. As well, they reinforced Christian humility in that they did not allow bishops to usurp authority that did not belong to them. By simple logic alone, this precluded any concept of universal supremacy.

That being said, the patriarchal status of Constantinople remained in place. However, the appropriation of the title "ecumenical" by John IV ("the Faster") another matter entirely. In Gregory’s eyes, any such talk of a patriarcha universalis was more reminiscent of the antichrist than of a Christian pastor. In addition, it implied universal supremacy, a role which even he, as the successor of Peter, did not possess. John for his part apologetically replied that ecumenical meant something different than its plain meaning; in other words, the idiomatic understanding of the word had changed from that of "universal" to "imperial," at least in the living Greek language of the East. The Greek adjective (oikoumenekos) had nuances that were untranslatable in Latin (which even certain Catholic critics today admit. 11)

All this special pleading fell on Gregory’s deaf ears. Gregory told John in no uncertain terms to not call himself "universal," saying that reference to such a title was "ill-advised." Simple logic dictated to Gregory that if one patriarch was universal, it would deny the very "office of bishop to all their brethren." 12 For good measure, he wrote both the patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch regarding his concerns as well, informing them "Not one of my predecessors ever consented to the use of this profane title, for to be sure, if one patriarch is called ‘universal,’ the name of patriarch is denied to the others." 13 Nor did he stop there: in a letter to the emperor, Leo flatly stated that such a title amounted to "blasphemy." 14 In any event, John, like Anatolius before him, decided that discretion was the better part of valor, and refrained from using that title again, at least in correspondence with the West. This was true of most of his successors as well.15

The controversy surrounding the very title itself merits some mention at this point. There is sufficient contemporaneous evidence that it was hardly ever used even in Constantinople. As shocking as this sounds, evidence for this assertion is not lacking. As noted above, John IV himself never used it again in public, nor did the majority of his successors. Even Photius the Great (d. 867), whose irregular elevation to the patriarchal throne of Constantinople precipitated a schism with Rome and who enjoyed the full support of the emperor in his rivalry with the pope dared not use it in his correspondence with the pope.

Surprisingly, this appears to have been the case even after the Great Schism. After the Fourth Crusade (1204) for example, the Byzantine Empire split into three successor-states: Nicaea, Epirus, and the Trebizond, each with their own imperial court and hierarchy. The Orthodox Patriarchate of Constantinople relocated to Nicaea and one of its incumbents, Patriarch Germanus II, sent a letter to the John Apocaucus, the Metropolitan of Epirus, which he signed as "ecumenical patriarch." This provoked the recipient to remark that he had never heard of such a thing, even though he had served for years in the offices of the patriarchate of Constantinople itself.16 To be sure, real tension existed between the rival empires of Epirus and Nicaea, a fact that certainly exacerbated tensions between these two churches. Yet Apocaucus’ rebuke is unequivocal and his knowledge of the inner workings of the patriarchate must be accepted as valid. Certainly the fact that he was not rebuked for this retort to the patriarch in Nicaea is probative as well.

At any rate, by the late thirteenth century, no such reticence existed. Patriarchs used this term in profligate fashion and with the crumbling of the Byzantine Empire, no one called them to task for it. What accounted for this change in attitude? The answer lies in the changing dynamic between Byzantine church and state. It is a paradox, but the See of Constantinople maintained its dioceses while the empire was losing land to the Seljuk Turks. In addition, the newly established churches of Serbia and Russia looked to the Ecumenical Patriarch for support. Their history and interaction with the ecumenical patriarchate has implications for us today, specifically in the matter of evangelism and autocephaly.

IV. Evangelism and Autocephaly

One of the glories of the Roman Empire was its ability to promote the Christian faith among its many peoples. Even the barbarian tribes that struck fear in the hearts of Romans were eagerly converting to Christianity, usually to Arianism. With the quashing of Arianism, many of these nations just as eagerly accepted Orthodoxy. Once such nation was the Khanate of Bulgaria, and in the ninth century, its church received autocephaly and a concomitant patriarchal status. The shoe was now on the other foot and the Patriarch of Constantinople found himself to be objecting to the granting of patriarchal honors to a see that was neither ancient nor apostolic. Although there would be jostling between these two patriarchates for the remainder of the time of the First Bulgarian Empire and the suppression of its patriarchal dignity for a time, the autocephaly of that church was never revoked.

Byzantium’s most successful evangelistic mission began somewhat later, during the reign of St Photius the Great. It was because of this brilliant man (who began his career as a bureaucrat in the civil service) that the two Thessalonican brothers Cyril and Methodius were able to establish the first mission in Moravia. Though modest in scope, it planted the seeds of Christianity among the Slavs and within two centuries it would bear much fruit.

Unlike the experience with Bulgaria, relations with Serbia were not as contentious. St Sava, the founder of that church was on excellent terms with Byzantium and the other patriarchates as well, having traveled extensively to Jerusalem and Mt Athos for many years. He received his consecration as archbishop of the autocephalous Serbian church in 1219 from the aforementioned Patriarch Germanus II at Nicaea (where the patriarchs of Constantinople were still in exile). When the Latin Empire of Byzantium was overthrown and Orthodoxy restored in that city, the title of Ecumenical Patriarch came to be openly used and its bearers started looking at their role in a more robust fashion. One such patriarch, Philotheus Coccinus (d. 1376) wrote a letter to the princes and dukes of Russia, describing his office thusly:

Since God has appointed Our Humility as leader of all Christians found anywhere in the oikoumene, as protector 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 throughout the cities and countries everywhere on earth and teach in the Word of God, doing so unfailing, since such is our duty. But since it is beyond the capacity of one weak and helpless man to walk around the entire oikoumene, Our Humility chooses the best among men, the most eminent in virtue, and sends them to the ends of the universe. One of them goes to your country, to the multitudes which inhabit it, another reaches other areas of the earth, and still another goes elsewhere, so that each, in the country and place appointed to him, enjoys territorial rights and episcopal see, and all the rights of Our Humility.17

In contrast to the startled reaction of the Metropolitan of Epirus in the prior century, such a high-handed view did not appear arrogant to the various daughter churches. Indeed, it was welcomed: in his biography of St Sava written a century later, the Serbian writer Domentijan uses the title "ecumenical patriarch" liberally and calls this ecclesiarch "the father of the fathers of the whole oikoumene."18 The Russian princes likewise accepted the ecclesiastical sovereignty of the Byzantine patriarch-albeit through the mediation of the Metropolitan of Kiev-with scarcely a thought. There were practical reasons for this, in the case of the Serbs, the Byzantine hierarchy respected the ethnicity of the Serbian nation and after a few altercations involving the forcible removal of Greek bishops from Serbia, accepted as a fait accompli the creation of sovereign Serbian dioceses. As for the Russians, the Metropolitan of Kiev was viewed as the focal point of Russian unity and an honest broker, beholden to none of the princes in particular. Even if a metropolitan were Russian, just the fact that he had been chosen by Constantinople made him appear unbiased.

More to the point, the above self-description of the Byzantine patriarch was not viewed in its own time as supremacist. As Aristeides Papadakis points out in his monumental study of the Eastern church in the post-schism period, "…[a]lthough these forceful affirmations are reminiscent of western papism [sic], the resemblance is unintentional. The patriarchs were by no means attempting to redefine or change their ecclesiological position…For the Orthodox Church the nature of episcopal power was vastly different, as its repeated condemnation of the papacy’s extreme claims to universal dominion indicate."19 Moreover, there were practical considerations that mitigated against the rise of an Eastern papalism besides the plain and universally accepted theological ones. If nothing else, the catastrophic events of the Fourth Crusade must have opened their eyes to the dangers of assigning supreme ecclesial authority to one man.

Evangelism is one thing, however the maintenance and growth of a native church is necessary if it is to prosper. Autocephaly therefore is to be desired, not suppressed. Though Photius and his successors reacted tactlessly to Bulgaria’s independence, in the grand sweep of the history of Orthodoxy this was anomalous, at least previous to the twentieth century. Byzantium could not have been known for its greatest legacy had it not been willing to grant independence to its missionary endeavors that it carefully nurtured time and time again. One of the hallmarks of Orthodox Christianity is the tenacity with which it is maintained by the various native cultures that have embraced it. Often this can erupt in a xenophobia and tribalism, but that is the dark side of an otherwise glittering coin.

Given Orthodox resilience, it is impossible to believe that autocephaly is not only desired, but enduring. It is not in fact a new phenomenon but as already mentioned above, the normal state of affairs in almost every local church of the first Christian millennium. Certainly this was true of the regional metropolitan archdioceses, whose prerogatives were respected by the patriarchal sees. Given that during this same time period Christendom was defined by the borders of the Roman Empire, this was to be expected. The special place of the pope was accommodated within this scheme as well: that of first among equals, primatial within the Church but not supreme over it. With the creation of the Bulgarian and Serbian churches however, a new element arose in the definition of autocephaly, that of the church as the defining characteristic of the nation-state itself. With the creation of the Bulgarian, Serbian, and later Russian patriarchates, ecclesiastical independence came to mean political independence, but more importantly, it defined the political identity of the inhabitants of these lands as well.20 Nation and state, throne and altar, came to be viewed as two sides of the same coin. An entirely new paradigm that was unknown in early Byzantium but which prevails today.

The Slavic experience of a national church was not lost on the Greek successor state of Epirus, whose emperor likewise demanded that his autocephalous metropolitan be given patriarchal dignity as well. If the Bulgars and Serbs could (because of this new theory) enjoy the privileges of a church that defined their nation, so should the Greeks of the West to his mind.21 Their request was rejected out-of-hand by the patriarch-in-exile in Nicaea who reasoned otherwise: just as these other nations should have a patriarchate that defined their polity (thereby ratifying their nationality), it made no sense for Greeks to be represented by two different patriarchates since they were one nation (albeit one that was unfortunately divided into two different states). Notice for our purposes that the idea of autocephaly based on culture was upheld here by the very ecumenical patriarchate that seems at present to deny the legitimacy of churches based on culture. Irony abounds: both the Bulgarian and Serbian churches continued in their autocephaly until 1767, when they were suppressed by the Ottoman Empire, much to the sorrow of those two nations.

V. Present Claims for Canon 28

The crux of the problem today however, is that claims of primacy that are virtually indistinguishable from supremacy; hence the very real fear of papalism. Clearly, the archbishops of Constantinople had always had a rather exalted view of their archdiocese that was perfectly understandable given the glory of that city in late antiquity. Beginning with Anatolius, the patriarchal claim was first promoted and in the following century, the unfortunate adjective "universal" was appended to it. On the other hand, it was just as clear that neither of these claims were wholeheartedly accepted. Even after the Schism of 1054, it was only the slow decline of the office of emperor that made the title "ecumenical patriarch" normative in the Orthodox East. And even then, the exact meaning of the term "ecumenical" was very much open to debate, as even the Byzantines themselves admitted in their hasty explanations to Gregory I.

To its credit, the website of the Ecumenical Patriarchate begins an exposition of the role of bishop in a non-controversial fashion, rightly stating that bishops are supreme within their dioceses. It also rightly quotes the relevant passages in Canon 28 (although never once mentioning its less-than-glittering conception). Nor for that matter does it explain how one archbishop can now possess sovereignty over independent archdioceses (the aforementioned Asia, Pontus, and Thrace). More to the point, it does not explain how the plain text of Canon 28 which mentions these same provinces and their respective bishops who are "situated in barbarian lands" means all barbarians, that is to say throughout the whole world. The text is specific in this regard: it plainly states that only those bishops who reside within these provinces — albeit among "barbarians"-likewise owe their ultimate sovereignty to Constantinople.

Interestingly enough this is not lost on the partisans of the Phanar. They hastily add that the "…adjective ‘barbarian’ modifies the noun ‘nations,’ which is omitted from the text of the canon, but which is inferred." But is this interpretation correct? The writer of this essay attempts to prove this point by mentioning the fact that in another time, the respected Byzantine canonist Zonaras equated "barbarians" with "nations."22 We are not told however what specifically Zonaras was referring to, was this his understanding of the term barbarian or was it the accepted understanding of this term among the Greek-speaking population? This raises other questions since languages change over time: did barbarian mean at the time of Chalcedon or the time of Zonaras? The website does not answer this question.

Such sleight-of-hand gives away the game: by means of a clever but false syllogism, the case of Phanariote supremacy is propagated. First the canon is accepted as non-controversial (it wasn’t). Then by a careful bit of legerdemain, when it mentions the "bishops of these aforesaid provinces" who are "situated in barbarian lands," we are to take it to mean that these bishops are somehow adjacent to barbarian lands. And finally, by an equally clever stroke, barbarians in general are made to be synonymous with nations since a much later canonist stated that this was so (even though we are not sure if he was referring to this canon). Since there were no doubt barbarians adjacent to the aforesaid Thracian, Pontic, and Asiatic barbarians we must therefore believe that all barbarians equal all nations, hence, those areas that have not been evangelized by already established churches belong to the ecumenical patriarchate.

What is surprising is that even with the grandiose claims of Philotheus Coccinus who saw himself as a universal pastor, the idea that the Ecumenical Patriarchate could evangelize in areas where there were already established churches strains credulity. A careful reading of Philotheus’ self-understanding of his office shows that his role as universal teacher was to send bishops to the "ends of the earth" and that they were to be accorded the same honors and dignity that he himself enjoyed. This bears repeating: they were not to be his auxiliaries but rulings bishops in their own right, enjoying "territorial rights and episcopal see, and all [the] rights of Our Humility." If this insistence upon full episcopal prerogatives is plain (and it is), then can autocephaly be far behind? Coccinus’ comments lead inexorably to this conclusion. After all, had he wanted to do so, he could have revoked the autocephaly of Serbia and Bulgaria if he were truly a patriarcha universalis rather than merely a primatial one.

Be that as it may, none of the patriarchs before the twentieth century ventured into the areas of other churches. Coccinus himself was writing to the Russian princes who belonged to an ecclesiastic province of the See of Constantinople. On the other hand, circumstances under the Turkish occupation precluded any evangelistic activity at all. Yet even within the primatial mindset of Constantinople during this time, the prerogatives of the other churches were upheld. Although the autocephalous patriarchates of Serbia and Bulgaria were unfortunately quashed, those of Antioch, Jerusalem, and Alexandria were resolutely — and with great difficulty-maintained (albeit as dependencies of Constantinople).

Even outside of the boundaries of the four ancient patriarchates scrupulous attention was paid to ecclesiastic protocols. For example, as far as Constantinople was concerned, the vast Siberian expanse was the evangelistic responsibility of Moscow, even though it had yet to be annexed politically to the Russian state. According to the modern interpretation of Canon 28, the Ecumenical Patriarchate should have been able to evangelize that area since it was essentially a no-man’s land. Likewise it could have established missions in Japan and the Far East, where Russia had influence but no political control whatsoever. It did not. Later, Russian prerogatives in North America were accepted as well even when Greek Christians came under its fold, as the letter of Patriarch Joachim III of Constantinople to the Holy Synod of Moscow attests.23

What then accounts for the lack of seriousness of the present claims? The answer lies with the remarkable career of Patriarch Meletius IV Metaxakis, a brilliant reformer whose own allegiance to the canonical order and conciliar norms of the Orthodox Church was shaky at best. It was during his reign that the term ecumenical was given its present hyperbolic meaning. Part of the answer lies in the tumultuous times in which Meletius lived. Because of his familial relationship with Eleutherios Venizelos, the equally brilliant reformist prime minister of Greece, Metaxakis was elected as Archbishop of Athens by usurping the throne. Like his relative, he was enamored of the West and tried to push through audacious reforms.24 Like Venizelos he was a member of a Masonic lodge, a startling and embarrassing revelation to say the least.25 (Venizelos had been excommunicated because of his membership in this fraternity.) Upon the restoration of the previous archbishop whom he had earlier displaced, Metaxakis went into exile in America, where he had an enthusiastic following among that portion of the Greek-American community that despised the monarchy and viewed Venizelos as their champion. While in America, he established a separate jurisdiction called the "Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America" to the extreme displeasure of the Metropolia, the successor of the Russian Orthodox Greek-Catholic Archdiocese of North America. The new archdiocese was to be an eparchy of the Church of Greece, to which he anticipated returning to someday. However by some twist of fate, Metaxakis was instead proclaimed Patriarch of Constantinople (even though he was in the United States). In a move that can only be seen as extremely expedient, he rescinded the Church of Greece’s claim on the new archdiocese and made it an eparchy of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, whose head he now was.

Meletius, who actively sought allies in Western religious circles, saw himself as the focal point of unity in the non-Catholic Christian world by dint of his new title. Whereas "ecumenical" in previous ages had meant "imperial," and then later universal pastor of he Orthodox oikoumene, in Metaxakis’ eyes it now truly did mean "universal." He could not be universal however while Moscow’s patriarchate was being reestablished in 1918 by Tikhon Bellavin (who had earlier been archbishop in America). Metaxakis therefore began negotiations in with the so-called Renovationist Church, a Soviet puppet that was established as a counter-church to the Patriarchate of Moscow. Like Metaxakis, the Renovationists believed in many of the same reforms. Their activities of course were to the detriment of Patriarch Tikhon who was bravely trying to maintain the Russian church in the face of overwhelming odds and unspeakable terror. If the Russian patriarchate could be quashed, then Metaxakis’ overlordship of the Orthodox world would have been complete. (The Renovationists for their part were also at odds with the Metropolia, bringing lawsuits against them in the American court system for the express purpose of seizing their property.)

In the end, the aftermath of the First World War ended Metaxakis’ career on the patriarchal throne. The "Catastrophe" (as it is called by the Greeks) was the result of the rout of the Greek armies by Mustapha Kemal. It led to the massive exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. The Turks forced Metaxakis, who was an enthusiastic supporter of Prime Minister Venizelos, into exile. Following his tumultuous tenure, the Turks degraded the patriarchate considerably. To this day, it does not accept the ecumenical title for the Patriarch of Constantinople. Unfortunately, even in spite of his disastrous tenure, his successors accepted his grandiose claims and acted upon them, thus further alienating the other Orthodox Churches, primarily those of Serbia and Russia.

VI. More on Autocephaly

The problem of autocephaly was dealt with in the previous "Response" by this author, however impending events gives this issue new urgency. In the opinion of the Phanar, absent an ecumenical council, only the ecumenical patriarchate has the right to bestow ecclesiastical independence. In the opinion of Moscow and its daughter church in America, this is true as far as it goes. Moscow maintains however, that in addition to these methods, a mother church can bestow autocephaly as well.

Contrary to the claims of some Phanariote apologists, this is not a self-serving claim by Moscow. In the first millennium the Church of Georgia according was granted autocephaly by Antioch, its mother church. Although the actual history of the inception of this church is vague, that it was a province of Antioch is undisputed. Balsamon of Antioch clearly stated that one of his predecessors had earlier granted autocephaly to Georgia merely through a "local" council.26 As far as he was concerned there was nothing controversial about this. In his opinion, autocephaly was statutory, that is to say it could be granted by councils, imperial decree, or grants by mother churches.27 (Coincidentally, the position of the Moscow patriarchate its partisans.28) His commentary in this regard shows that the bestowal of autocephaly was itself an unremarkable event. Thus it is incumbent upon Constantinople to prove its allegations in this regard; that is to say that only two methods exist for granting ecclesiastical independence (rather than three). If this is true, then the Church of Georgia is by definition uncanonical.

Interestingly enough, even the views of the Patriarchate of Constantinople have not been as rigid as they seem to indicate at present. That is to say, that only it or an ecumenical council can bestow autocephaly on a local church. In 1879 the Serbian royal house and the Metropolitan of Belgrade approached Patriarch Joachim III of Constantinople, asking for the reinstatement of Belgrade’s autocephalous status. Belgrade did so because Constantinople was its mother church. Joachim for his part assented, using the various canons at his disposal, including Canon 28. Be that as it may, Joachim’s statements regarding the recognition of Serbian autocephaly indicated that there were many models that governed the birth and maturity of a local church, not just ecumenical councils. In particular, the life and well being of the nation — that is socio-political considerations-could be taken into account. For his part, Joachim:

…recognized that Local Churches may be established "not only in conformity with the historical importance of the cities and countries in Christianity, but also according to political conditions of the life of the people and nations." Referring then to Canon 28 of Chalcedon and other canons, as well as the opinion of Patriarch Photius…he reaffirmed: "The ecclesiastical rights, especially those of parishes, usually conform to the structure of the state authority and its provinces."29

These words clearly recognized that the history of late antiquity was one of dynamic church formation. The canons of the first councils (local as well as ecumenical) clearly took into account the hustle and bustle that was apparent in these times. As was well known, many of these canons antedated the See of Constantinople’s elevation to patriarchal status. Perhaps the most important canon for recognition of a local church’s independence was Apostolic Canon 1 which mandates that at least two bishops be present for the consecration of a new bishop, and canon 4 of the First Ecumenical Council which states that the appointment of a new bishop can only be made by election of at least three bishops sitting in a local council.

These canons reflected the fact that the independent status of the many local ecclesiastical regions found in antiquity. The existence of these canons therefore begs an important question: by what sanction were bishops granted the right to administer their own affairs (as stated for instance in canon 8 of Ephesus) and to consecrate other bishops (Apostolic canon 1)? As stated earlier, these churches were "already autocephalous." That is all well and good, but how did they receive their independence? No doubt some were of apostolic origin — Alexandria, Ephesus, Antioch, Rome, Corinth-spring instantly to mind. But not all were. The proliferation of new ecclesiastical regions (such as Hippo, Ancyra, Lyons,) throughout the first half-millennium precludes this possibility. It stands to reason therefore that autocephalous churches themselves founded many of these regional synods.30 Some may have started out as missions; others were formed because of political exigencies (i.e. the redrawing of imperial diocesan boundaries, the loss of a region to war, etc.). Yet all of them possessed the canonical prerogatives that inured to all churches, despite their relative youth.

Therefore Joachim’s general statements about "political considerations" must be viewed in this light. Yes, Constantinople may be a grantor of independence, but many of the canons that governed the life of the Church were anterior to Constantinople’s own foundation. To put not too fine a point on it, historical and political considerations very often do play a significant role in the establishment of an independent church. As such, churches can bestow autocephaly on regions adjacent to them. The only consideration was that the new ecclesiastical regions have at least three contiguous dioceses.

More to the point, Constantinople had been Serbia’s mother church. It was Patriarch Germans II who consecrated St Sava as Archbishop of Pec, the then-capital city of Serbia. It stood to reason therefore that Serbia’s elite should beseech Joachim for reestablishing this honor. Indeed, the Serbs took a real risk in going to the Phanar since it was a subject of the Ottoman Empire (as had been Serbia). There was no guarantee that Turkey would allow the Phanar to bestow a tome of autocephaly on Serbia. It was not in Turkey’s interests to see its breakaway provinces become independent nation-states with vigorous churches. One of the methods the Turks had used in subjugating their Christian subjects was the threat of excommunication that the Patriarch of Constantinople could level on any incipient rebellion. This threat would be removed if the Serbian patriarchate was reestablished. It would have been far more expedient for the Serbs to approach the Holy Synod of Moscow which was free of foreign domination and with whom the Serbs had excellent relations.

VII. Conclusion

This validity — indeed, legality-of Canon 28 is therefore troubling to say the least. The fact that it was excised from the official drafts of the Council of Chalcedon should tell us something. It was conceived during a time of great turmoil in the West, and its unsettling nature was apparent to many in its own day and context. It was never accepted by Rome and only surreptitiously in the East. Thus it is impossible to take it seriously given its origins; one can only do so by means of tortuous logic (as was demonstrated by the language used by Phanar’s own apologist — see section 5 above).

Likewise, the evolution of the Archbishop of Constantinople to patriarch, and then to ecumenical patriarch, was done in fits and starts and only when popes or emperors were unable to contain the ambitions of these bishops. This should tell us something about its provenance and those who stake ecclesiastic claims on it would do well to reconsider their position. If this title had little legitimacy when it was first proposed, then it strains logic to believe the passage of time has made it more so.

In the final analysis, such posturing stands in stark contrast to the Gospel. The legitimacy of any bishop is his fidelity to the Gospel of Jesus and not to grandiose titles that were arrogated during a time that no longer exists and by legalisms that are only tenuously related to the spirit of the Gospel. As Pope Gregory the Great said in reaction to John IV, the only title he wanted for himself was servus servorum Dei ("servant of the servants of God.")



  2. Metropolitan Philip Saliba, Canon 28 of the 4th Ecumenical Council—Relevant or Irrelevant Today? (The Word, Feb 2009).
  3. The address was given by the Rev Elpidophorus Lambriniades on March 16, 2009. The reply was written by this author and published on March 25. Both can be accessed on and
  4. Canon 6 of the First Ecumenical Council (Nicaea, AD 325).
  5. St. John Maximovitch, The Decline of the Patriarchate of Constantinople delivered at the Second All-Diaspora Sobor of the Russian Church, Srmski Karlovtsy, Yugoslavia, 1938.
  6. See for example Archbishop Gregory Afonsky, The Canonical Status of the Patriarch of Constantinople in the Orthodox Church (Mar 24, 2009); Patiarch Alexii II of Moscow and All Russia, A Letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch Concerning the Situation of the Diaspora (Feb 2, 1005). For a contemporaneous Greek response to the idea of Constantinopolitan overlordship, see footnote no. 16 below.
  7. John J. Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (London: Penguin, 1997 ed.), p 48.
  8. John H. Erickson, The Challenge of Our Past: Studies in Orthodox Canon Law and Church History, (Crestwood, SVS Press, 1991), p 92.
  9. Leo the Great, Epistolarum 104
  10. Ibid., Leo the Great, Epistolarum 104.
  11. John the Faster,
  12. Gregory I, Epistle 18.
  13. Ibid., Epistle 43.
  14. Ibid. Epistle 20.
  15. John the Faster,
  16. Erickson, Op cit., p 108.
  17. Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy: The Church 1071-1453 A.D (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1994), p 309.
  18. Erickson, Op cit., p 108.
  19. Aristeides Papadakis, The Christian East and the Rise of the Papacy: The Church 1071-1453 A.D (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1994), p 309.
  20. Erickson, Op cit, p 107. (See also W Bruce Lincoln’s The Romanovs: Autocrats of All the Russians [New York: Dial Press, 1981], p 7.)
  21. Ibid.
  23. Mark Stokoe, Orthodox Christians in North America 1794-1994 (in collaboration with Leonid Kishkvosky, OCPC: 1995), p 32.
  24. He believed priests should be clean-shaven and wear Western garb, that bishops should be allowed to marry, and that fasting rules should be relaxed. As patriarch, he instituted the adoption of the Gregorian Calendar.
  25. Although there are no canons which expressly condemn membership in the Lodge, this is because Freemasonry is a relatively recent development. In 1933 however, Archbishop Damascene of Athens commissioned a study of this fraternity and subsequently the Church of Greece issued a strong statement which reiterated the long-held views of the Orthodox Church regarding this organization. (Cf
  26. Balsamon
  27. Erickson, Op cit., p 102.
  28. Alexander Bogolepov, Toward an American Orthodox Church: The Establishment of an Autocephalous Church (Crestwood: SVS Press, 1963, [2001 ed.]), pp xvi-xix, 10-11.
  29. Ibid., pp 14-15.
  30. Ibis., pp 9-10.



George Michalopulos is a layman in the Orthodox Church in America. He is married to the former Margaret Verges of Houston, Texas, and the father of two boys, Constantine and Michael. Together with Deacon Ezra Ham, he is the author of The American Orthodox Church: A History of Its Beginnings (Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2003), as well as several articles and essays published on the Orthodox Christian Laity website. He has served as parish council president of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Tulsa, OK, and twice was a lay delegate to the Clergy-Laity Congress of 1998 and 2002. He helped found Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Mission, a parish of the OCA in 2003 and continues to be active in pan-Orthodox events in the greater Tulsa area.

A Letter To The Ecumenical Patriarch Concerning The Situation Of The Diaspora

By: Patriarch Alexis of Moscow and All Russia

2005.02.01 Sourozh

In our first issue of August 1980, Sourozh published a lengthy article by Archbishop Paul of Finland entitled ‘Suggestions for Solutions to the Problem of the Orthodox Diaspora’ (reprinted in Sourozh, No. 91, February 2003, pp. 3-19). In it the primate of the Orthodox Church of Finland reviewed the various submissions made by four regional autocephalous Churches to the Preparatory Commission for the Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church which has been in the planning stage for some forty years. In his conclusions Archbishop Paul strongly urged the Patriarchate of Constantinople to relinquish the theory of the supremacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the whole diaspora and to reject any talk of ‘barbarian areas’ as an anachronism.

The fact that in the intervening twenty-five years nothing has changed emerges clearly from the text we print below. On 18 March 2002 Patriarch Alexis wrote to Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople outlining the position of the Russian Church regarding the claims to the Ecumenical Patriarchate to jurisdiction over the worldwide Orthodox “diaspora,” coming to the same conclusions as did Archbishop Paul. More recently there has been a further exchange of letters, but none has gone over the ground as thoroughly as does the present text. The English version given below is translated from a French version of the Russian original.

Patriarch Alexios of Russia

Patriarch Alexis of Moscow and All Russia


To His Holiness Bartholomew, Ecumenical Patriarch and Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome

Your Holiness, Beloved Brother and fellow celebrant in God,

We greet you fraternally and wish you grace and mercy from God our Saviour.

We have received the message of Your Holiness, No. 129 of 11 April 2002, concerning the situation of the Archdiocese of Russian Orthodox Parishes in Western Europe. Reading this letter, we were very troubled by the great number of bitter reproaches and unjust accusations that you formulate therein. In any case, however, we wish to follow the precept of wise Solomon (Proverbs 17:9): “He that covereth a transgression seeketh love; but he that repeateth a matter separateth very friends.” Not wishing to put to the test for no good reason the feeling of brotherly love between our two Churches, we shall not consider in detail these awkward expressions, for we think that it is more a case of unfortunate misunderstandings deriving, in our opinion, from an erroneous understanding of the problems that you have raised. This is why we think that it is better to move on immediately to the interpretation of Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council advanced by Your Holiness, an interpretation with which we disagree completely.(1)

This canon in fact defines the area of responsibility of the Patriarchal See of the Church of Constantinople by limiting it to the ancient provinces [called “dioceses” by the Roman government of the time, Ed.] of [Proconsular] Asia, Thrace and of Pontus, that is, to the provinces that correspond to modern-day Turkey, Bulgaria and Greece. It does not at all follow from this canon that ‘every province not belonging to another patriarchal see’ should be subject to the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Constantinople’s Misapplication of the Term "Among the Barbarians"

It seems obvious that this inaccurate interpretation derives from an erroneous understanding of the term “among the barbarians” (en tois barbarikois) and of the context of this expression. It is erroneous in that it assumes that the issue here does not concern “barbarian” peoples living either in the Roman Empire or beyond its limits, but administrative entities (defined by the State) and inhabited primarily by “barbarians.” Yet there is no doubt but that this expression refers not to provinces but to peoples; it is not used in an administrative, but in an ethnic sense. This follows clearly from the considerations that we shall develop below.

…there is no doubt but that this expression [“among the barbarians”]refers not to provinces but to peoples; it is not used in an administrative, but in an ethnic sense.

As you know, during the Hellenistic and Byzantine periods the term barbaros referred to individuals belonging to peoples whose language, culture and customs were not Greek. Thus St Gregory of Nyssa, in the third of his works Against Eunomius, can speak of a “barbarian philosophy” (barbariki philosophia), while Eusebius of Caesarea speaks of “barbarisms in the Greek language” (idiomata barbarika), St Epiphanius of Cyprus of “barbarian names” (barbarika onomata) and Libanius, the teacher of St John Chrysostom, of “barbarian customs” (barbarika ithi). Similarly the Apostle Paul thinks of anyone who speaks neither Greek nor Latin, the official languages of the Empire, as a “barbarian” (barbaros): “Therefore if I know not the meaning of the voice, I shall be unto him that speaketh a barbarian (barbaros), and he that speaketh shall be a barbarian (barbaros) unto me” (1 Cor 14:11). Such “barbarians” could equally well live outside as within the Empire. The Apostle preached to the “barbarians” without ever leaving the Roman Empire (cf. Rom 1:14) and the Acts of the Apostles call the inhabitants of Malta “barbarians,” even though the island was part of the Empire, simply because the local language was Punic.

As regards the expression to barbarikon, it is certainly the case that this expression can be used to refer to territories outside the limits of the Empire, and it is in this sense that the term is used, for example, in the Canon 63 (52) of the Council of Carthage. There it is said that in Mauritania there were no councils because that country was located at the very edge of the Empire and borders on barbarian land (to barbariko parakeitai). Nevertheless, it can also refer to anything that is barbarian, and therefore to territories which, while inhabited by barbarians, form part of the Empire.

How the Term "Among the Barbarians" is Used in Canon 28

It is precisely in this sense that the term is used in Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon. Reference is not being made to the barbarian peoples in general, but to certain well-defined peoples ‘belonging to the above-mentioned provinces’ (ton proeirimenon dioikeseon), i.e. the barbarians living in the provinces of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, which were an integral part of the Eastern Roman Empire. Thus the canon subordinates to the see of Constantinople the bishops of the barbarians living within the ecclesiastical boundaries of these three dioceses.

All the Byzantine commentators on the canons — Alexios Aristenus, John Zonaras and Theodore Balsamon, as well as Matthew Blastaris, author of the Syntagma — understand by the expression en tois barbarikois precisely and only those barbarian peoples within those three provinces, thereby underlining that the barbarian peoples in neighbouring provinces were not subjected to Constantinople by this canon, but remained under the jurisdiction of other Orthodox Churches. Thus Aristenus writes that only the metropolitans of Pontus, Asia and Thrace are under the bishop of Constantinople and are consecrated by him; the same applies to the bishops of the barbarians in these provinces, since the provinces of Macedonia, Illyria, Thessaly, the Peloponese and Epirus were at that time subject to the authority of Rome (Syntagma 2.286; Kormchaia kniga [1816], P. 73). According to Zonaras, it is the bishop of Constantinople who is responsible for the consecration of bishops for the barbarians living in the provinces mentioned, while the remaining provinces, viz. Macedonia, Thessaly, Hellas, the Peloponese, Epirus and Illyria were subject to Rome (Syntagma 2.283, 284).

In the Syntagma of Blastaris we read that the bishop of Constantinople also has the right to consecrate the bishops of barbarian peoples living on the edges of these provinces, such as the Alans and the Rousoi, since the former live next to the diocese of Pontus and the latter next to the diocese of Thrace (6.257). In the latter case it is a question of a late ecclesiastical practice (Blastaris’ comments concern the fourteenth century) according to which the barbarian lands next to the three provinces mentioned were included in the jurisdiction of the bishop of Constantinople. Moreover, it is stressed that the jurisdiction of the bishop of Constantinople was extended to these territories precisely because of their nearness to the areas assigned to him by Canon 28 of Chalcedon, though in the canons themselves the possibility of such an enlargement is not foreseen.

Thus these ancient and authoritative commentators confirm that the Council of Chalcedon did not give to the bishop of Constantinople rights over “barbarian” territories except within the limits of the three provinces mentioned, of which only the province of Thrace is situated in Europe.

Thus these ancient and authoritative commentators confirm that the Council of Chalcedon did not give to the bishop of Constantinople rights over “barbarian” territories except within the limits of the three provinces mentioned, of which only the province of Thrace is situated in Europe. Aristenus and Zonaras, for example, indicate clearly that in Europe the right of the bishop of Constantinople to send bishops for the barbarians extends only to Thrace, since the other provinces are subject to the bishop of Rome. As regards the frontiers of the Church of Constantinople in Asia, Balsamon makes this comment in his interpretation of Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council:

Note that the metropolitans along the Black Sea up to Trebizond are called “Pontic,” while the metropolitans near Ephesus, and in Lycia and Pamphylia are called “Asiatic,” though not, as some say, those in Anatolia, since in Anatolia it is [the bishop of] Antioch who has the right to consecrate (Syntagma, 2.284).

Constantinople’s Claims about “Diaspora” are not Historically Tenable

It is also appropriate to note that in this canon it is not a question of a “diaspora,” but of autochthonous “barbarians” living in their own lands. They became Christian largely as the result of missionary activity and Christianity did not reach them through a foreign homeland, as is the case with a “diaspora.” This is why one is distancing oneself from historical reality and mixing up differing concepts if one extends the field of application of a canon that concerned autochthonous peoples who became Christian as the result of missionary activity with the phenomenon of a diaspora made up of people who have departed for a foreign land, but who were brought up in the Orthodox tradition in their homeland.

…the statement by Your Holiness [Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew] that as a result of Canon 28 of Chalcedon “Western Europe and all the lands recently discovered in America and Australia belong to the area of responsibility of the Ecumenical Patriarch” seems completely fictitious and is without canonical foundation.

Thus the statement by Your Holiness that as a result of Canon 28 of Chalcedon “Western Europe and all the lands recently discovered in America and Australia belong to the area of responsibility of the Ecumenical Patriarch” seems completely fictitious and is without canonical foundation. These distant lands actually have no connection with the three provinces mentioned in Canon 28 and are nowhere near them. Moreover, the majority of the Orthodox faithful of the Churches in these territories are not native-born; they represent peoples that are traditionally Orthodox and have religious traditions that they wish to preserve. As regards Orthodox jurisdiction in the canonical territories that belonged to the Church of Rome before the schism of 1054, no authoritative pan-Orthodox decision has ever been taken.

All of this is supported by historical facts that indicate that until the 20s of the twentieth century the Patriarch of Constantinople did not in fact exercise authority over the whole of the Orthodox diaspora throughout the world, and made no claim to such authority. For example, in Australia the Orthodox diaspora was initially served by Jerusalem, and the Patriarch of Jerusalem sent priests there. In Western Europe, from the beginning, the parishes and Orthodox communities were dependent canonically on their Mother Churches and not on Constantinople. Similarly, in other parts of the world, in order to follow the commandment of Christ (Mt 28:19f.), zealous missionaries from local Orthodox Churches, including Constantinople, preached the Gospel and baptised the native peoples, who then became the children of the Church that had illumined them by Baptism.

The Roots of Jurisdictional Division in North America

As regards America, from 1794 Orthodoxy on that continent was represented exclusively by the Church of Russia, which by 1918 had brought together some 300,000 Orthodox of different nationalities (Russian, Ukrainians, Serbs, Albanians, Arabs, Aleuts, Indians, Africans, English). The Greek Orthodox were among them, receiving antimensia for their parishes from the Russian bishops. This situation was recognised by all the local Churches, who released clergy for the American parishes into the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church. The Patriarchate of Constantinople followed the same practice. For example, when in 1912 the Greek Orthodox in America asked His Holiness the Patriarch of Constantinople Joachim III to send a Greek bishop, the Patriarch did not send a bishop himself, nor did he refer the request to the Church of Greece, but recommended that it be referred to Archbishop Platon of the Aleutian Islands and North America so that the question could be settled by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church.

Jurisdictional pluralism in North America began in 1921, when an “Archdiocese of North and South America” was created without the agreement of the Russian Church, which was not informed of the matter.

Jurisdictional pluralism in North America began in 1921, when an “Archdiocese of North and South America” was created without the agreement of the Russian Church, which was not informed of the matter. It is at this point that the situation you describe arose, i.e. “In spite of the Holy Canons, the Orthodox, in particular those who live in Western countries, are divided into ethnic groups. Their Churches have at their head bishops chosen on ethnic grounds. Often they are not the only bishops of their cities, and sometimes they are not on good terms with one another and fight among themselves,” something that is “a source of shame for all Orthodoxy and the cause of unfavourable reactions that have negative results for the Orthodox Church.” As we have seen, the blame for this sad situation cannot be attached to the Russian Church. On the contrary, seeking to bring American Orthodoxy into line with the rest of the Orthodox world, as Mother Church she granted autocephaly to her daughter Church. In doing this the Russian Church acted only within the limits of its own canonical jurisdiction and with a view to a future pan-Orthodox decision concerning the establishment of a single local Orthodox Church in America. We might note that, already in 1905, a proposal for the creation of such a Church had been presented to the Holy Synod by Saint Tikhon of Moscow, who was then Archbishop of the Aleutian Islands and North America.

It is sad to observe that the Most Holy Church of Constantinople did not support the action taken in 1970 and has not contributed to the union that was so desired. Until now this remains a source of discord and discontent on the part of many Orthodox in America.

Canon 28 Does Not Dimish the Rights of Autocephalous Churches

In spite of Your Holiness’ affirmation that “no other Patriarchal see has received the privilege or canonical right” to extend its jurisdiction beyond the provinces that belong to the canonical territories of the autocephalous Churches, history demonstrates that Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council that subjected the three provinces mentioned to Constantinople did not in any way diminish the rights of the other autocephalous Churches, in particular as concerns ecclesiastical jurisdiction over foreign lands. Thus the Church of Rome appointed bishops throughout most of Europe (excepting Thrace), while the Church of Alexandria assigned bishops to the countries south of Egypt (and subsequently throughout most of Africa), and the Church of Antioch did so in the East, in Georgia, Persia, Armenia and Mesopotamia. The jurisdiction of the Church of Constantinople, however, for its part, for a long time remained confined within what had been the boundaries of the provinces of Asia, Pontus and Thrace before that Council.

We should also note that historically both the primacy of honour established by Canon 3 of the Second Ecumenical Council and its jurisdiction over the three provinces mentioned above were given to the Church of Constantinople solely for political reasons, i.e. because the city in which the see of Constantinople was located had acquired the status of a political capital and had become “the city of the Emperor and the Senate.” Thus Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council stipulates that:

In taking this decision as to the precedence of the Very Holy Church of Constantinople, the New Rome, we note that the Fathers [of the Second Ecumenical Council] have in fact rightly granted precedence to the see of Old Rome because that city was the Imperial City. Moved by the same considerations the 150 bishops beloved of God [of this Council] have granted the same precedence to the Very Holy See of New Rome, justifiably thinking that the city honoured by the presence of the Emperor and the Senate and enjoying the same civil privileges as Rome, the ancient Imperial City, should also have the same high rank as she has, in the affairs of the Church, while still remaining second after her.

We do not intend to enter into discussion on this question now, but one should nonetheless not forget an obvious fact: the present situation of Constantinople after the collapse of the Byzantine Empire does not justify constant recourse to this canon, and still less to an excessively broad interpretation of its meaning.

Constantinople’s Unilateral Policy of Expansionism

The inclusion within the jurisdiction of the Very Holy Church of Constantinople of new provinces other than those bordering on the original three dioceses, which has taken place in the course of history, is not, in our opinion, linked with Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. The reasons were entirely other. Thus the provinces mentioned by Your Holiness — Illyria, Southern Italy and Sicily — did not belong ‘always’ to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, but were taken by force from the Roman Church and given to the Church of Constantinople by the iconoclast Emperor Leo the Isaurian, without reference to Canon 28. One of the most important reasons for this action on the part of Leo the Isaurian was that the Church of Rome was opposed to the iconoclastic policies of the Byzantine Emperor, whose political power extended to those territories at that time.

The inclusion within the jurisdiction of the Very Holy Church of Constantinople of new provinces other than those bordering on the original three dioceses, which has taken place in the course of history, is not, in our opinion, linked with Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council. The reasons were entirely other.

As regards the Russian Church, she was initially subject to the Church of Constantinople not because of Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, but because of the general principle according to which converted peoples are subject to the Mother Church that had Christianised them, until they have acquired the conditions necessary for autocephaly. By becoming an autocephalous Church, the Russian Church received the same rights of mission beyond its canonical boundaries as the other local Orthodox Churches, since, as has been shown, the Holy Canons do not give precedence to any particular Church in the realisation of this right.

Such is the authentic pan-Orthodox tradition in this matter, and the Very Holy Church of Constantinople always respected it until the moment when Patriarch Meletios IV developed the theory of the subordination of the whole Orthodox diaspora to Constantinople. It is precisely this theory, which is clearly non-canonical, that is quite obviously “hostile to the spirit of the Orthodox Church, to Orthodoxy unity, and to canonical order.” It is itself, in fact, the expression of “an expansionist tendency that is without canonical foundation and is unacceptable on an ecciesiological level.” By claiming a universal spiritual power, it does not correspond to the Orthodox canonical tradition or to the teaching of the Holy Fathers of the Church, and represents a direct challenge to Orthodox unity. In fact, there is no reason to agree with Your contention that the whole of the Orthodox diaspora does not finds itself under the spiritual jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople solely because Constantinople “tolerates this situation temporarily and for reasons of ‘economy’.”

…Patriarch Meletios IV developed the theory of the subordination of the whole Orthodox diaspora to Constantinople…which is clearly non-canonical, that is quite obviously “hostile to the spirit of the Orthodox Church, to Orthodoxy unity, and to canonical order.”

This last expression has particularly roused our incomprehension and disquiet, since it seems to point to an intention on the part of the Church of Constantinople to continue in the future to pursue a unilateral policy of expansion that is foreign to a spirit of brotherly love and conciliarity. In this respect, it is worthwhile recalling a judicious remark of Patriarch Diodoros of Jerusalem of blessed memory that is contained in his letter to Your Holiness (No. 480, dated 25 July 1993) to the effect that only a pan-Orthodox Council has the right to resolve the complex question of the diaspora. Neither the Orthodox Church of Romania nor the Orthodox Church of Poland shares the view put forward by Your Holiness of the problem of the diaspora. This is clear from the reports submitted by these Churches in 1990 to the Preparatory Commission for the Holy and Great Council.

Moscow Resists Constantinople’s Interference in the Russian Church

Bearing in mind what has been said, we are completely justified in contesting the statement of Your Holiness to the effect that the Exarchate of Russian Parishes in Western Europe is “one of the forms of pastoral care that is incumbent” upon the Church of Constantinople. The theory that this Exarchate is obliged to be subject to the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople is refuted by the very history of this ecclesiastical entity. We must remember that in the official documents of the Church of Constantinople concerning the status of the Russian parishes in Western Europe it is accepted that their Mother Church is the Russian Orthodox Church, and that the system of administration established for these parishes has a provisional character. There is no ambiguity concerning this in the Tomos of Patriarch Photios of 17 February 1931. Commenting on this document, Patriarch Photios himself wrote in a letter (No. 1428, 25 June 1931) to Metropolitan Sergii, Deputy Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal Throne, that “the situation should remain in this provisional state until, with God’s help, unity can be re-established with our Sister Church of Russia.”

Similarly, His Holiness Patriarch Athenagoras, in a letter (No. 671, 22 November 1965) to Archbishop Georges of Eudokiada, mentioning the fact that “the Church of Russia has freed itself of divisions, acquired an internal organisation and freedom of action in its affairs outside Russia,” announces the suppression of the Exarchate of Russian Parishes in Western Europe, “which had a provisional character,” and recommends that it join itself to the Patriarchate of Moscow, “which can and should always demonstrate and manifest its fatherly love for these parishes.” The fact that the Patriarchate of Constantinople received back into its jurisdiction this diocese of Russian parishes in 1971 does not change in any way the provisional character of the current situation of the Russian Archdiocese, since in its first paragraph the relevant Tomos refers back to the Tomos of Patriarch Photios. Thus the Church of Constantinople, in these official documents, has recognised unambiguously the right of the Archdiocese of Russian Parishes in Western Europe to reunite itself with the Mother Church — the Russian Orthodox Church — without this being the manifestation of “an extremely secularised and erroneous spiritual state” or of “an erroneous ethnic understanding.”

As regards the proposals of His Eminence Metropolitan Kirill of Smolensk and Kaliningrad made during his stay in Paris from 10-12 February 2001, this subject has already been touched upon in negotiations between delegations of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and Moscow in Zurich on 19 April 2001 and in a letter of Metropolitan Kirill to Metropolitan Meliton of Philadelphia (No. 2062, 17 July 2001). While travelling through Paris, His Eminence Metropolitan Kirill was invited by Archbishop Sergii of Eukarpia to a meeting of the Council of the Archdiocese. At this meeting, the hierarch of our Church made no specific proposals, and when he was asked how he saw the future of the Archdiocese, he presented the position of our Church, which has never been concealed and to which we are irrevocably attached.

This position is the following: the existence of an isolated group of Russian parishes in Europe is the result of the tragedy of the Russian people provoked by the Revolution. At the present, when the consequences of the Revolution have been overcome, the return of the parishes of the emigration to the bosom of the Patriarchate of Moscow would be completely normal. This desire for the restoration of the spiritual unity of our people is reflected in the declaration you have mentioned, which was made by the Holy Synod on 8 November 2000, where it is question of those children “who live beyond the limits of the Russian State” (not “outside the limits of the Russian Church,” as is incorrectly stated in Your letter). We continue to be saddened to see that the legitimate and natural desire to bring together again our own people, who live dispersed for historical and political reasons, is the object of such harsh and unjust attacks on the part of the primate of a Church that has experienced a similar tragedy.

Question of “Diaspora” Must be Resolved

The question of the Orthodox diaspora is one of most important problems in inter-Orthodox relations. Given its complexity and the fact that it has not been sufficiently regularised, it has introduced serious complications in the relations between Churches and has without a doubt diminished the strength of Orthodox witness throughout the contemporary world. Nevertheless, we hope very much that the sustained efforts of the local Orthodox Churches will enable us in the end to find a pan-Orthodox solution to the problem at the Holy and Great Council of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The historical responsibility is all the greater for any actions directed against the achievement of an agreement pleasing to God on this key question.

[W]e call upon Your Holiness to follow the precepts of the Holy Fathers, expressed in Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical council, to wit, “that the canons of the Fathers not be infringed upon, and that worldly pride and power not slip in under the pretext of holy actions…

This is why, for the true good both of Orthodoxy and the Church of Constantinople, which is dear to us for reasons stretching back over centuries, we call upon Your Holiness to follow the precepts of the Holy Fathers, expressed in Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical council, to wit, “that the canons of the Fathers not be infringed upon, and that worldly pride and power not slip in under the pretext of holy actions, and that we do not lose, bit by bit and without noticing it, the freedom that Jesus Christ our Lord, the Liberator of all men, has given us by his Blood.” Faithful to the tradition of the Holy Fathers, we ask earnestly and sincerely that Your Holiness renounce an attitude of mind that is an obstacle to the accord so ardently desired, and work hard for the speedy convocation of the Holy and Great Council.

We ask of God peace, health and length of life for Your Holiness, we salute You once again in brotherly fashion, and we continue to respect You and to love Your Holiness in Christ.

+ Alexis, Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia

(1) Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) is discussed at length by Archbishop Peter L’Huillier in his book, The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996), pp. 267-296, where he reaches the same conclusions as the Patriarch (Ed.).

Sourozh, No. 99, February 2005, pp. 1-11

Canon 28: Yesterday and Today

By: Fr. John H Erickson


The Decree of the Fourth Ecumenical Council:

A vote [psiphos] of the same holy council
taken in favor of the prerogatives presbeia of the throne
of the most holy Church of Constantinople.

Following in every detail the decrees of the holy fathers, and taking cognizance of the canon just read of the 150 bishops dearly beloved of God who gathered under Theodosius the Great, emperor of pious memory, in the imperial city of Constantinople, New Rome, we ourselves have also decreed and voted the same things concerning the prerogatives of the most holy Church of the same Constantinople, New Rome. For the fathers rightly acknowledged apodedo-kasi the prerogatives of the throne of the Elder Rome because it was the Imperial City, and moved by the same consideration the 150 bishops beloved of God awarded apeneiman the same prerogatives to the most holy throne of the New Rome, rightly judging that the city which is honored by the imperial authority and the senate and enjoys the same civil prerogatives as the imperial city of the Elder Rome, should also be magnified in ecclesiastical matters as she is, being second after deuteran met’ekeine-n her.

Consequently kai ho-ste, the metropolitans – and they alone – of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, as well as the bishops of the aforementioned dioceses who are among the barbarians, shall be ordained by the aforementioned most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople. Each metropolitan of the aforementioned dioceses, along with his fellow-bishops of the province, ordains the bishops of the province, as has been provided for in the canons; but the metropolitans of the aforementioned dioceses, as has been stated, shall be ordained by the archbishop of Constantinople, after proper elections have been made according to custom and have been reported to him.

This text presents some delicate hermeneutical problems. Historians are obliged to wrestle with what it meant in its original historical context, but canonists and churchmen must also consider how it has been interpreted and applied over the centuries. For Chalcedonian Orthodox Christians, this text is an integral part of the ancient canonical corpus that still serves as a common point of reference for the life of their churches. For them – but possibly for others as well, Catholics and perhaps even non-Chalcedonian Orthodox – this is a living text. Reflection on it continues to shape church life in various ways. How have reactions to this text contributed to Christian divisions in the past? What can renewed consideration of this text mean for the future?

As its rubric in the most ancient manuscripts indicates, what we commonly call canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon is more precisely a vote concerning the presbeia – the prerogatives or primacies – of the see of Constantinople.1 What is meant here by presbeia? The vote in question, taken during the council’s final session, approved – over the strenuous objection of the Roman legates – a motion prepared the previous evening by a relatively small number of council fathers. Why did the legates, and thereafter successive popes, object to it? These questions point to one of the most fundamental but also most divisive issues in ecclesiology: What is the nature and basis of primacy?

The announced title of this paper was “Chalcedon Canon 28: Yesterday and Today.” If time permitted, no doubt it would make sense to proceed in chronological fashion, from “yesterday” to “today,” examining in turn the circumstances leading to canon 28, the actual formulation of canon 28, and then interpretations and assessments of canon 28 from late antiquity through the middle ages on down to modern times. If only because of limitations of time, however, it may be useful to reverse this sequence and to begin by reviewing some of the more conspicuous aspects of modern discussion of this text. Two tendencies can be noted: a tendency to dichotomize and a tendency to project later realities and preoccupations onto the church life of the fifth century.

Orthodox and the Roman Church: Claims and Counterclaims

It has become commonplace, first of all, to distinguish Eastern and Western approaches to church order rather sharply. In examining the Church’s historical relationship to civil society scholars frequently have contrasted a “principle of accommodation” or “political principle” in the East to a “principle of apostolicity” or “Petrine principle” in the West.2 In these assessments, the solemn preamble of Chalcedon canon 28, with its emphasis on the significance of imperial status for ecclesiastical primacy, is seen as offering a classic example of Eastern accommodation of church structures to socio-political realities, while the reaction of the Roman legates, subsequently pursued by Pope Leo and his successors, is seen as offering an example of the “Petrine” approach, according to which Rome’s primacy is a consequence of its apostolic foundation and of its bishops’ succession from Peter. Are these differences of approach so absolute as to be irreconcilable? While the Eastern Orthodox and Roman churches remained in communion for many centuries after Chalcedon and its canon 28, these centuries were punctuated by a number of schisms and disputes, often related to the question of Roman primacy. Does this mean that fundamental differences in ecclesiology, present already at the time of Chalcedon, were simply papered over at the time, leaving us today with no real hope of reconciliation save through submission of one side to the ecclesiological presuppositions elaborated more fully and explicitly by the other side in the later course of its historical development? We shall have to return to such questions.

Many more differences between Eastern and Western approaches to ecclesiology have been detected. These reflect the very different historical trajectories of our churches; and very often these differences do appear to be irreconcilable, or at least they have been presented as though they are irreconcilable. Consider, for example, the self-presentations of the Catholic Church and of the Orthodox Churches in the 19th century. In the course of the century, two popes – Pius IX and Leo XIII – made overtures to the “dissident Orientals,” as the Eastern Orthodox usually were labeled. In his 1848 Letter to the Easterners, Pius IX acknowledged that these did indeed “serve Christ,” but he lamented that these “scattered sheep” were “aliens from this holy throne of the Apostle Peter” and exhorted them to “return within the enclosure of the fold of the Lord.” The pope addresses himself especially to those “who, accomplishing the holy ministry…, excel others in ecclesiastical honors,” but he studiously avoids referring to these personages as bishops, much less as brother bishops heading sister churches.3 Clearly for him as for most Catholics of the period in question, Christian reunion was above all a matter of due submission to the Roman pontiff rather than of reconciliation of separated churches.

In the course of his letter, the pope referred to various ancient examples of what he considered appropriate Eastern recognition of papal primacy, including the famous cry of the assembled fathers of Chalcedon, “Peter has spoken through Leo!” In their own detailed response to this papal letter, the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem together with their synods put forward their own very different understanding of the significance of Chalcedon. “His Holiness ought not overlook how, and after what examination, our fathers cried out as they did in praise of Leo.” Before accepting Leo’s Tome, its every detail was carefully scrutinized by the council fathers, thus offering “manifest proof that an ecumenical council is not only above the Pope but above any council of his….” As for the various prerogatives that the ancient canons ascribe to Rome, these were based on custom sanctioned by conciliar decisions, made – as Chalcedon canon 28 insists – “because it was the imperial city.” In these conciliar decisions, “nothing is said of the pope’s special monopoly of the apostolicity of St. Peter, still less of a vicarship in Rome’s bishops and a universal Pastorate…. The reason assigned for the primacy was not ‘Feed my sheep,’ not ‘On this rock I will build my Church,’ but simply old custom and the fact that the city was the imperial city.” The pope enjoins the Easterners to “cast away everything that has crept in among them since the separation,” but in fact he is the innovator. It is actually the Orthodox who have “preserved the Catholic Church as an incorruptible bride for her Bridegroom,” for it is they who uphold in all its integrity the faith of “the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church of the Seven Ecumenical Councils” and maintain without alteration the practice of the early church, when “each local self-governing church, both in the East and West, was totally independent and self-administered” by “local synods.” The Romans, by contrast, have abandoned conciliarity in favor of “monarchy” and “monopoly of the gifts of the Holy Spirit.” 4

This response of the Eastern patriarchs and bishops to the letter of Pius IX met with wide-spread favor in the Orthodox world. The Orthodox Church, apologists insisted, was conciliar as opposed to papal. It valued spiritual unity, in contrast to the Catholic Church, which insisted above all on institutional unity under the jurisdiction of the Roman pontiff. It recognized Christ as the true head of the Church, rather than the pope. It maintained, in its system of autocephalous churches – utterly independent yet united in faith – , the spirit of the early Church’s pentarchy of patriarchates. In this way it was able to preserve ancient tradition intact, unlike the Roman Church with its myriad innovations. In this way also, it was able to consecrate the unique gifts of the various Orthodox nations unto the working out of God’s design for the world.

The weakness of these arguments, however, became increasingly clear, even to the Orthodox, in the course of the 20th century. Like the pre-World War I system of sovereign nation states, on which in so many respects it was modeled, the system of autocephalous churches failed to meet the many challenges of the modern world – a world radically different from that of the ancient ecumenical councils, a world different even from that of Byzantium and the Turkocratia.

Constaninopolitan Assertions in the Last Century

One of the most conspicuous signs of this failure has been periodic confrontation, this time within the Orthodox world, concerning the significance of Chalcedon canon 28. During the 18th and 19th centuries, effective leadership of the Orthodox Churches had passed to the Russian Church, even though it ranked only fifth in the order of precedence enshrined in the diptychs. The Church of Constantinople was still recognized as “first among equals,” but its hegemony, shrinking along with the Ottoman Empire as new nation-states and national churches emerged in the Balkans, found effective expression only among the ancient patriarchates. In the wake of World War I and the Russian Revolution, all this changed dramatically. The Russian Church faced liquidation at the hands of Russia’s new Soviet masters. Meanwhile the Church of Constantinople discovered new opportunities to express its leadership in Orthodox affairs, even as it lost its old power-base within the Ottoman Empire.

Particularly significant in this regard were initiatives taken by Meletios (Metaxakis), former archbishop of Cyprus and then archbishop of Athens, who served as patriarch of Constantinople from December 1921 to July 1923 and later went on to become patriarch of Alexandria. During his brief but busy tenure in Constantinople, he assembled a pan-Orthodox congress; took various ecumenical initiatives; and – particularly significant for our present purposes – introduced the canons of Chalcedon, and especially canon 28, as justification for a series of interventions on Europe and America. These included:

  • establishment of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America, on the grounds “the enactments of the canons and the traditional practice of the Church give to the most holy and apostolic patriarchal and ecumenical see the spiritual government of Orthodox communities outside of the regular boundaries of each of the Churches of God”;
  • appointment of a patriarchal exarch for the Greek Orthodox of Western Europe; and
  • granting the status of autonomy to the Orthodox Churches of Finland and Estonia, which before World War I had been part of the Russian Orthodox church.

During the interwar years Meletios’ successors in Constantinople continued his policies years in various ways, most notably in Poland and in Western Europe, but following World War II, after the Soviet government at long last allowed the Russian Orthodox Church to reorganize, that church was quick to respond to what it regarded as Constantinople’s unwarranted claims and actions. It is not necessary here to review the Moscow’s arguments or Constantinople’s counter-arguments or to comment at length on the successive crises – over Moscow’s 1970 grant of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church in America or Constantinople’s reactivation of Estonian autonomy following the breakup of the Soviet Union – that have marred relations between these two churches ever since. It is enough to observe that, for the Orthodox, the question of how Chalcedon canon 28 is to be interpreted has enormous practical implications.5

The Legitimacy of Constantinople’s Interpretation of Canon 28

Does Constantinople’s interpretation of canon 28 accurately reflect its original intention or at least represent a legitimate extension of its meaning? Or does it serve simply as a pretext for unwarranted “neo-papalism,” as the Russian Church has charged? A purely historical exploration of what this canon meant in its original context will not answer such questions any more than it will resolve modern differences between Catholic and Orthodox understandings of primacy, products as they are of very different historical circumstances. But such an exploration may be instructive nonetheless. A full study of this subject cannot be undertaken here, but it may be possible to identify some points of agreement and not just points of disagreement. At the very least, it may be possible to identify what the various parties took for granted at the time of the council.

The first and most obvious point is that all parties took for granted the happy coincidence of church and empire. As Christian apologists had recognized long before, the church’s universal vocation (“go into all nations”) and the Roman Empire’s aspirations to universality neatly complemented each other. As Vittorio Peri has put it, “The ecumenism of the Church and that of the State were so intertwined culturally and so ‘harmonized’ between themselves that they became interdependent in the common consciousness and behavior of Christians.” 6 In this situation, relationships of filiation and dependence in the ecclesiastical sphere quite naturally corresponded closely to the prevailing patterns of government and public life. The gospel spread from major cities to outlying areas, from capitals to dependencies. To a high degree, therefore, the geopolitical importance of a city and the antiquity of its church’s foundation coincided, reducing the potential for conflict between “accommodation” and “apostolicity,” at least until the rise of Constantinople opened the question in a fresh way.

The empire provided the template, as it were, for the church’s evolving structures for communion and communication, and this was a template that took for granted the preeminent role of cities in the structuring of society. It was, in other words, a template that differed significantly from our own modern society or, for that matter, from many other societies that could be mentioned (warrior empires, seigneurial agrarian societies, nomadic or semi-nomadic cultures…). It did not begin by defining the outer limits or borders within which social controls would be uniformly exercised. Rather, it started with a number of urban centers, each with a keen sense of its own identity, whose effective force would be variously felt over a more or less extended hinterland. We therefore should avoid projecting our later notions of patriarchates, i.e. neatly defined and uniform autocephalous entities, each possessing something analogous to the modern state’s internal and external sovereignty, onto the church of the Roman Empire, just as we should avoid projecting later notions of papal monarchy onto it. The church was an ordered communion of local churches, just as the empire itself was an ordered commonwealth of cities.

Of these local churches, some – depending on a variety of factors – might possess certain prerogatives, privileges, honors, rights and powers. But these presbeia – these primacies – were not uniform or held in equal measure. If one examines texts of this period, one cannot but be struck by the fluidity of terminology. Word like presbeia, primatus, privilegia, time-, honores, potestas, proteia, and auctoritas are used in various combinations and almost interchangeably. Often, though not always, context can indicate more precisely what is meant in a given case. In some cases presbeia may mean simply seniority or precedence, but in other cases it may mean the rights and prerogatives that go with seniority, i.e. an institutionalized position of responsibility. In some cases time- may mean “honor” as we so often understand that word today: a mark of public recognition without practical consequences (cf. the honorary degree or honorary citizenship). But more often, as Brian Daley has reminded us, “honor” in the ancient world suggests “the grateful recognition not only of political goodness but of political service,” recognition normally expressed “through bestowal of office: an institutionalized position of public responsibility.” 7 Honor was inseparable from responsibility and from recognized capacity for making authoritative decisions. Thus when canon 3 of I Constantinople accorded the bishop of Constantinople the “primacy of honor,” the presbeia te-s time-s, “after the bishop of Rome,” it was not simply recognizing his moral leadership and prestige. It anticipated the major role that his see would play in the eastern part of the empire, above all in restraining the ambitions of Alexandria.

If I Constantinople canon 3 was rather vague about the content of presbeia, that was not the case with Chalcedon. At most critical points, it distinguished between the merely honorific on the one hand, and specific rights relating to jurisdiction and practical influence on the other. At the end of session 6, for example, when emperor and empress formally received the council’s definition of faith, Marcian decided to honor the little city of Chalcedon and the church in which the council was meeting: “In honor of the holy martyr Euphemia and of your holinesses, we have decreed that the city of Chalcedon, in which the holy faith has been confirmed by this synod, shall have the rank (presbeia) of a metropolis; but we only wish to honor it with the name (onomati mono-…time-santes), and the proper role of the metropolitan city of Nicomedia is to be preserved.” 8 On the other hand, there was nothing merely honorific about the presbeia conferred on the throne of Constantinople by canon 28. The canon itself is very clear on this point: “the metropolitans – and they alone – of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, as well as the bishops of the aforementioned dioceses who are among the barbarians, shall be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople.”

As suggested earlier, the presbeia of the churches were not identical or uniform. Canon 28 gave Constantinople certain clearly specified – and clearly delimited – rights with regard to ordinations within the three civil dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace. Two other canons (9 and 17) gave him certain less clearly defined rights in matters of judicial appeal. According to canon 9, “if a bishop or cleric has something against the metropolitan of the province in question, let him appeal either to the exarch of the diocese or to the see of the imperial city of Constantinople…” Similarly, according to canon 17, “if someone has been wrongly treated by his metropolitan, let him make an appeal either to the exarch of the diocese or to the see of Constantinople, as has been said earlier.” It is the subject of much debate whether these provisions are meant to apply, like the jurisdictional details of canon 28, only to the three minor civil dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, or whether they are intended to recognize Constantinople as an alternative court of appeal for the entire eastern part of the empire.9 The latter seems to me more likely. Certainly even for the period between 381 and 451, cases of appeal are on record not only from the three minor civil dioceses but also from the diocese of Orient, whose “exarch” would ultimately bear the title of patriarch of Antioch.10 It is important, however, to recognize why such appeals might be directed to Constantinople rather than to the “exarch of the diocese.” Exarchal structures, particularly in the three minor dioceses, were ill-defined and undependable, whereas in Constantinople, thanks to the continual flow of visiting bishops from all parts of the empire, a convenient court of appeal, in the form of the synodos ende-mousa, could easily be convoked by the capital’s archbishop.11

The point here is that Constantinople’s rather wide-ranging rights in matters of appeal were clearly distinguished from its rights in matters relating to ordination, which were much more limited both in geographic extent and in their nature. As Chalcedon canon 28 clearly specified, “the metropolitans – and they alone – of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace…shall be ordained by the most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople.” Similar distinctions were made with regard to the presbeia of other major sees. The Council of Sardica, for example, gave Rome specific but very wide rights in matters of appeal, but this did not mean that Rome enjoyed comparably wide rights in matters of ordination, and neither the canons of Sardica nor other canons directly addressed the question of Rome’s wider role within the communion of the churches. Quite simply, at the time of Chalcedon the prerogatives or presbeia of major sees still were not uniform or evenly distributed, and neither were the bases for these various prerogatives clearly defined. The patriarchal system of the age of Justinian had not yet fully emerged – and, a fortiori, the modern system of autocephalous churches.

The Main Reason Why Canon 28 is Ambiguous

Here we come to the main reason why Chalcedon canon 28, in some respects so clear, was also quite ambiguous and potentially misleading. As Archbishop Peter (L’Huillier) has observed, the canon “did not have the purpose of defining the primatial prerogatives of the see of old Rome but only those of the see of Constantinople.” 12 In this context, Rome’s presbeia were mentioned only as a point of reference and to provide a certain, by-no-means perfect analogy. Much the same holds true for canon 6 of Nicea, to which Chalcedon canon 28 will allude. Here the exceptional situation obtaining in Egypt, where custom in effect made the archbishop of Alexandria the metropolitan over several provinces, was justified by reference to the similar situation of Rome in relation to the suburbicarian provinces of Italy. No reference to Rome’s apostolicity, or to any wider prerogatives it might have, was necessary. So also in Chalcedon canon 28, the analogy drawn between the prerogatives of Rome and Constantinople was not intended to minimize the importance of Rome’s apostolicity. (On other occasions, e.g. in their letter to Pope Leo, the council fathers could speak in much more deferential terms to the holder of the most venerable and preeminent apostolic see of Rome.) Even in the initial section of canon 28, the drafters of the text made a subtle difference between Rome and Constantinople even as they drew an analogy between them. The fathers of Nicea “rightly acknowledged apodedo-kasi the prerogatives of the throne of the Elder Rome” whereas the fathers of I Constantinople “awarded apeneiman the same prerogatives to the most holy throne of New Rome…” 13

But why was it necessary for the redactors of this text to develop its long and laborious initial section in the first place? The answer is quite simple. Consider the style of the opening formulation: “Following in every detail,” which so strikingly echos the introduction to Chalcedon’s dogmatic horos. Here, just as with the dogmatic horos, the goal is to demonstrate the continuity of tradition, above all the council’s fidelity to Nicea, while at the same time explaining this tradition and giving it contemporary application. The same concern can be seen in the curious restrictive clause in the dispositive second section of the canon: “the metropolitans – and they alone…” And then, “Each metropolitan of the aforementioned dioceses, along with his fellow-bishops of the province, ordains the bishops of the province, as has been provided for in the canons.” The allusion here is to Nicea canon 4, which along with canon 5 and the concluding sentences of aforementioned canon 6 deals entirely with the structure of the provincial church. Here, just as in the initial section of the text, it was necessary to demonstrate Chalcedon’s fidelity to Nicea, in this case meaning that it was necessary to demonstrate that the supervision of provincial episcopal elections would remain in the hands of the provincial metropolitans, as provided for by Nicea, rather than pass to Constantinople.

The Nature and Basis of Primacy

Earlier I posed a question that frequently is asked when basic issues in ecclesiology are discussed: What is the nature and basis of primacy? From the foregoing, it is clear that when we are referring to the church of the Christian Roman Empire the question should be phrased slightly differently: What is nature and basis of primacies? Within the one church, bishops of the various local churches exercised a variety of responsibilities. Collectively they were responsible for maintaining the ecumenical well-being of the universal church, but they did not exercise this responsibility in identical ways. They were bishops of particular sees – sees with various characteristics, some large, some small, some distinguished by apostolic foundation, some by geopolitical circumstances, some by both, some by neither. But precisely because of the particular characteristics of their sees, some of these bishops had responsibilities that were more far-reaching than others – in matters of ordination or appeals, for example, or in matters that were less specific but no less vital, particularly when these related to definition of the faith. There were, in short, various levels and various kinds of primacy. But these various primacies, whether at local or regional or universal levels, were all intended to be of service in and for the Church understood as a communion in faith and love.

These various primacies were not simply honorific, a matter of high titles, chairmanship at meetings and the first seat at banquets. They could involve effective decision-making and juridical power. But the power of a primate was not absolute or something that could be wielded in arbitrary fashion, as though the primate were outside and above the collective episcopal college. The primary responsibility of those exercising a primatial role within the church was oversight, care, sollicitudo, phrontis, and through oversight the strengthening of their brother bishops. Their responsibility was to see to it that the canons were observed, that due process was maintained, that the faith was rightly taught, that no scandal bring the church into disrepute, etc. “Do not transgress the ancient landmarks which your fathers have established.” (Prov. 22:28) This biblical injunction was on the lips of many churchmen at the time of Chalcedon. They understood themselves to be guardians of the tradition, and this included not only the symbol of faith but also the canons, not just the church’s apostolic faith but also its received order. This concern is evident both with those responsible for the drafting of canon 28 and with the Roman legates and eventually Pope Leo, who complained precisely that it violated ancient canonical order and the accepted prerogatives of the churches. But as the example of Chalcedon itself indicates, both in its dogmatic decree and in its canon 28, sometimes it was necessary not just to safeguard the tradition but also, in view of changing circumstances, to explain it and give it contemporary application. When is such re-articulation of tradition appropriate? What distinguishes legitimate renewal from illegitimate innovation?

On such questions, there obviously was disagreement at Chalcedon, and there has been disagreement since. Can the conception and practice of papal primacy that developed in the West from the 11th century onward be regarded as a legitimate development, a natural evolution from common principles held by all in the early Church? Or is it, as the Orthodox so frequently have charged, a dangerous innovation, whereby the pope has effectively severed himself from the common fellowship with those who faithfully maintain the legitimate tradition? Or, on a different front, do Constantinople’s 20th-century initiatives in the so-called “diaspora” represent a legitimate contemporary application of Chalcedon canon 28’s provisions for “bishops…who are among the barbarians”? Or are they unwarranted intrusions into the internal life of other Orthodox Churches, the result of overweening ambition and self-interest which can only be destructive of Orthodox unity?

At the time of the last major anniversary of the Council of Chalcedon, in 1951, there was little agreement on such questions. In the fifty years since then, Orthodox and Catholics, both independently and together, have made efforts to address these questions in new ways, in hopes of internal renewal and of ecumenical reconciliation. There is both good news and bad news to report.

Contemporary Implications

The good news and the bad news from among the Orthodox can be reported very quickly and easily. The good news is that the issues of the “diaspora,” the diptychs (i.e., the order of precedence of the churches), and autocephaly and autonomy were placed on the agenda of the long-awaited Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. The bad news is (a) that preparatory papers and schemata reveal sharp disagreements on many basic issues, such as how Chalcedon canon 28 is to be interpreted; and (b) that preparations for the council itself, never speedy, now seem to be indefinitely on hold, due to new tensions between Constantinople and Moscow.

The good news from among Catholics is that developments in ecclesiology from Vatican II onward have helped to place the question of papal primacy in a new light. Particularly significant was the council’s rediscovery of episcopacy as a true and proper order, “that by episcopal consecration is conferred the fullness of the sacrament of orders.” 14 In principle, therefore, it is now recognized that the jurisdiction of the bishops, and not just their “power of orders,” is derived directly from Christ through sacramental ordination rather than by delegation from the Pope. Equally important was discovery of the collegial nature of the episcopate and the beginnings of a more satisfactory way of accounting for the pope’s place within the episcopal college. Theologians like Rahner, Congar, McBrien, Semmelroth and others can argue that “there is only one subject of supreme authority in the Church: the episcopal college under papal leadership which can operate in two ways: through a strictly collegial act e.g., a general council or through a personal act of the pope as head of the college.” 15 Seen in this perspective, every primatial action in principle is collegial in nature. Primatial ministry in principle is situated within the episcopal college, not outside it or over it, and the exercise of this ministry must be evaluated accordingly.

This understanding of primacy certainly comes closer to that of the early Church than did the papalism of Vatican I, and for this we should be thankful. But the actual exercise of primacy in the Catholic Church often goes in directions quite at odds with the perspective offered by its leading theologians. Lengthy demonstration of this point is not necessary here. It is enough to quote from the concluding words of Fr. Tillard’s book The Bishop of Rome: “The bishop of Rome is the sentinel who ‘watches’ over the people of God, which is his true function; but he often prefers to act as if he were the only one in charge, instead of alerting the bishops as authentic pastors in the Church of God.” 16

Finally, from Orthodox – Catholic dialogue also comes good news and bad news. The North American Orthodox – Catholic Theological Consultation has issued some encouraging statements on Apostolicity (1986) and on Conciliarity and Primacy (1989).17 Challenging past tendencies to dichotomize, for example, the consultation found no intrinsic opposition between a “principle of accommodation” in the East and a “principle of apostolicity” in the West, for “at a time when East and West were united in one Christian Roman Empire, neither approach necessarily excluded the other, for both pointed and aspired to universality.” 18 The Orthodox – Catholic Joint International Commission was to have taken up the subject of Conciliarity and Authority in the Church in 1990, and quite possibly it would have produced an agreed statement at least advancing discussion of the subject of primacy. Unfortunately, following the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, new challenges to Orthodox – Catholic relations have arisen, and it is unlikely that the Joint International Commission will return to its previous agenda in the near future.

Two Outstanding Problems Left to Address

If and when Orthodox and Catholics resume discussion of issues relating to primacy, at least two outstanding problems will have to be addressed:

(1) One problem arises from the way in which the ultimate basis for papal authority has been discussed hitherto. Catholic theologians long argued that the papal office and the episcopacy exist iure divino, whereas intermediary entities like patriarchates and metropolitanates are simply administrative institutions established by ecclesiastical law. One problem with this approach is that it seems to posit a qualitative distinction between two kinds of ecclesiality, one primary and necessary, the other derivative and dispensable. In contrast to the local or particular church headed by its bishop on the one hand, and the universal church headed by the pope on the other, intermediary entities like patriarchates (but conceivably also other groupings reflective of diverse cultural patrimonies) are only nominally churches, possibly acceptable for pastoral reasons but lacking a properly theological basis. For their part, Orthodox theologians have been inclined simply to deny that the papal office is a matter of ius divinum and to argue that church order above the level of the local church, whether intermediary or universal, is determined by the competent authority (the ecumenical council but conceivably also the emperor) in response to particular sociological and political circumstances — in short, it is determined by ecclesiastical law. The main difference, then, between Catholic and Orthodox conceptions would appear to lie simply in their evaluation of the basis for universal church order (i.e., papal primacy), Catholics saying iure divino and Orthodox saying iure ecclesiastico, and not in their evaluation of the basis for intermediary ecclesial entities. The issue of primacy on any level but the universal therefore has not been addressed from a theological perspective.

This schematization represents, grosso modo, the way that Catholic and Orthodox understandings of ecclesiology have been pitted against each other in past polemics and possibly also in more recent discussions. Is any other approach possible? As a number of modern studies have argued, the concept of ius divinum is not very helpful here. Its implication is always that certain institutions are necessary, and the others, historically contingent, are a matter of relative indifference. But as Fr. Tillard has observed, “No clear boundary exists which permits us to say: ‘What is on this side has been positively willed by God, what is on that side is entirely dependent on human freedom’.” 19 If the Church were merely a societas instituted long ago by Christ, such a schema might be possible. But the Church is also the living body of Christ, which is always being constituted in history by the Holy Spirit, as the locus for restored communion of men and women with God and with each other. The necessity of a given structure for the Church, at whatever level, therefore does not depend simply on whether it was explicitly mandated or established in Scripture but rather on whether it responds to what the nature of the Church itself demands. In this perspective, perhaps, it may be possible to reach a deeper understanding of the ecclesiological significance of primacy as such, and not just of universal primacy.20

2. A second problem has to do with our “reading” of church history. Often we speak of our unity during the first millennium. But such appeals to history can be misleading or even dangerous. We all know the old adage, that you can prove anything by Scripture. Much the same could be said of church history. Both the 19th-century papal initiatives vis-à-vis the East and the Eastern responses to these initiatives appealed to the undivided Church of the first millennium, or the Church of the seven ecumenical councils, but they drew from the historical record very different conclusions. We still face the same problem today. Should more weight be given to Leo the Great’s legates at the Council of Chalcedon, who referred to him as universalis papa, or to Gregory the Great, who pointedly objected when Eulogius of Alexandria referred to him as universalis papa? Should we regard as particularly significant the fact that St. John Chrysostom appealed to Pope Innocent of Rome after his deposition from the see of Constantinople, or should we also take into account the fact that he appealed as well to Venerius of Milan and Chromatius of Aquilea? In an interview given soon after the publication of Ut Unum Sint, Cardinal Cassidy of the Pontifical Council for Christian Unity gave a non-technical exposition of his understanding of the exercise of the Roman primacy in the early Church: “When one studies the first centuries to see what primacy was and how it was exercised, fundamentally it was to maintain communion.” Bishops nominated by their local churches would request communion with the bishop of Rome, “and when the bishop of Rome accepted that bishop into communion, all of the churches automatically accepted that bishop in communion.” Also, “when in a church or between churches there were problems or disputes, they went to Rome to ask the bishop for mediation and eventually, if it was necessary, to make a decision in order to maintain the unity of communion.” 21 An Orthodox theologian or historian would present the historical record somewhat differently, even in a non-technical exposition. He would point out, for example, that while other bishops sent letters of communion to the bishop of Rome, the bishop of Rome also sent letters of communion to the other bishops.

Orthodox and Roman Reconciliation

But should we be bothered by such differences in our presentations of the historical record? Some might argue that, if we could remain in communion during the first millennium despite such differences, such differences should not divide us now. A statement made by Joseph Ratzinger in 1982 perhaps could be construed in this way:

Rome must not require more of a doctrine of the primacy from the East than was formulated and experienced in the first millennium. On July 25, 1976, when the Patriarch Athenagoras addressed the visiting Pope as the successor of Peter, the first in honor among us, and the presider over charity, this great Church leader was expressing the essential content of the declarations on the primacy of the first millennium. And Rome cannot ask for more. Reunion could occur if the East abandons its attacks on the Western development of the second millennium as being heretical and accepts the Catholic Church as legitimate and orthodox in the form which it experienced in its own development. Conversely, reunion could occur if the West recognized the Eastern Church as orthodox and legitimate in the form in which it has maintained itself.22

But would either Catholics or Orthodox consider this a satisfactory basis for reunion? Would either side be willing at this point to regard issues relating to papal primacy, for example, simply as theologoumena? One of the anathemas of Vatican I reads:

If, then, any one shall say that it is not by the institution of Christ the Lord, or by divine right, that Blessed Peter should have a perpetual line of successors in the primacy over the Universal Church; or that the Roman Pontiff is not the successor of Blessed Peter in this primacy — let him be anathema.23

Does this apply to my Catholic neighbor, presumably because of his Western mentality, but not to me, because of my Eastern mentality? It seems likely to me that many Catholics would be confused by reunion on such terms and that most Orthodox would reject it.

Doctrinal agreement between Catholics and Orthodox on the subject of papal primacy may one day be possible, but it will not be achieved simply by a retrospective ecumenism that looks only to the mythic “undivided Church of the first millennium.” Deeper exploration of the meaning of primacy for the ongoing life of the Church is needed. It is easy to explain why second-millennium Roman Catholic developments in ecclesiology and other areas took place as they did. It might even be possible for the Orthodox to accept these developments as legitimate in their own very particular historical context – to acknowledge, for example, that Vatican I represented a legitimate, if partial, response to certain perceived needs within the Roman Catholic Church. Conversely, if Joseph Ratzinger’s remarks offer any indication, Roman Catholics are willing to recognize “the Eastern Church as orthodox and legitimate in the form in which it has maintained itself.” But both Orthodox and Catholics must consider whether their understanding and practice of primacy corresponds to what the nature of the Church requires at this point in history, on the eve of the third millennium. Given what Fr. John Meyendorff has called the “pragmatic realism” of the Orthodox Church on this point – her “dynamic and living ability… to preserve her own norms, her own principles of polity, her own divinely established eucharistic structures in the midst of contemporary realitities” 24 – , it should be relatively easy for the Orthodox to consider this question – in principle, at least. For Roman Catholics, given the burden of their previous ecclesiological formulations and their present administrative structures, this task in principle should be more difficult. In reality in may be easier. In an address at the Seminary of Rome in 1984, Pope John Paul II offered a refreshing survey of papal titles:

It is said – and this is true – that the Pope is Vicar of Christ…. The attribution, the phrase in question, is undoubtedly a strong one that arouses trepidation. I must tell you that I prefer not to abuse this phrase, and to use it only rarely. I prefer indeed to say “Successor of Peter”; but I prefer even more to say “Bishop of Rome.” 25

If this can be not only said but also lived out, Orthodox and Catholics may hope one day for agreement even on this very difficult issue of primacy in the Church.



  1. For a thorough discussion of the text itself and of the circumstances of its drafting, see especially Archbishop Peter L’Huillier, The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils (Crestwood, NY: St Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1996) 267-96. Other recent treatments of Chalcedon canon 28 include André de Halleux’s irenic “Le décret chalcédonien sur les prerogatives de la Nouvelle Rome,” Ephemerides Theologicae Lovanienses 64 (1988) 287-323. Especially useful among older presentations are Emil Herman, “Chalkedon und die Ausgestaltung des konstantinopolitanischen Primats,” in A. Grillmeier and H. Bacht, Das Konzil von Chalkedon 2 (Würzburg, 1954) 459-90, and A. Wuyts, “Le 28me canon de Chalcédoine et le fondement du Primat Romain,” Orientalia Christiana Periodica 17 (1951).265-82.
  2. For example, the classic presentation of Francis Dvornik, Byzance et la primauté romain (Paris, 1958) and also Anton Michel, “Der Kampf um das politische oder petrinische Prinzip der Kirchenführung,” in Das Konzil von Chalkedon, 491-562.
  3. Quoted in introduction to Encyclical Epistle of the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church to the Faithful Everywhere, Being a Reply to the Epistle of Pius IX to the Easterners (reprint South Canaan, PA: Orthodox Book Center, 1958) 3-4.
  4. Encyclical Epistle 11.
  5. Joseph E. Olšr and Joseph Gill, “The Twenty-eighth Canon of Chalcedon in Dispute Between Constantinople and Moscow,” in Das Konzil von Chalkedon 3, 765-83. Contemporary inter-Orthodox debate is also presented, from the Constantinopolitan perspective, by Metropolitan Maximos of Sardes, The Oecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church: A Study in the History and Canons of the Church (Thessaloniki: Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies, 1976) 132-233.
  6. “First Millennium of Roman Tradition,” The Jurist 52 (1992) 84.
  7. ”Position and Patronage in the Early Church: The Original Meaning of ‘Primacy of Honor’,” Journal of Theological Studies NS 44 (1993) 529-53 at 531.
  8. Cited by Daley, 544.
  9. For discussion of these canons see, among others, L’Huillier, Church of the Ancient Councils, 229-36 and 251-54.
  10. See Patricia Karlin-Hayter, “Activity of the Bishop of Constantinople Outside his Paroikia between 381 and 451,” in Kathegetria: Essays Presented to Joan Hussey… (Camberley, Surrey: Porphyrogenitus, 1988) 179-210, who calls attention among other things to the importance of imperial rescript of 421, which authorized appeals to Constantinople from the entire eastern part of the empire, including Eastern Illyricum and Orient.
  11. On the synodos ende-mousa see J. Hajjar, Le Synode Permanent dans l’Eglise byzantine des origins au XIe siècle (= Orientalia Analecta 164, Rome, 1962).
  12. Church of the Ancient Councils, 282.
  13. The similarities but also the differences between Rome and Constantinople were brought out as well by the imperial commissioners in their “official” exegesis of the canon: “We declare that in conformity with the canons, the primatial rights ta proteia and exceptional honor te-n exaireton time-n of the dearly beloved-of-God Archbishop of Elder Rome have been preserved, but that it is necessary that the very venerable archbishop of the imperial city of Constantinople New Rome enjoy the same prerogatives of honor presbeia time-s, and therefore that he should have authority to ordain the metropolitans in the dioceses of Asia, Pontus and Thrace.” And the text goes on to describe procedures for this in detail, calling attention to its restricted nature.
  14. Lumen Gentium 21.
  15. Patrick Granfield, The Limits of the Papacy (New York: Crossroads, 1990) 85.
  16. (Wilmington, DE: Michael Glazier, 1983) 193.
  17. Available most conveniently in The Quest for Unity: Orthodox and Catholics in Dialogue, ed. J. Borelli and J. Erickson (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, and Washington: United States Catholic Conference, 1996) 125-30 and 152-55 respectively.
  18. “An Agreed Statement on Apostolicity as God’s Gift in the Life of the Church” para. 13, in Quest for Unity, 129.
  19. Church of Churches: The Ecclesiology of Communion (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1992) 304.
  20. On this subject note the conclusions of Klaus Schatz, Papal Primacy: From Its Origins to the Present (Collegeville, MN: Liturgical Press, 1996) 180-181: “The real problem and task today… is not the strengthening of the episcopal office as exercised by the individual bishops. Instead it is the theological revaluation and practical strengthening of the functions of supra-diocesan structures whether those be national bishops’ conferences or similar bodies on a continental scale. Theologically these supra-diocesan structures must be seen as ecclesiastical authorities with their own rights and not as bodies that exercise papal power by delegation. They represent an independent expression of episcopal collegiality.”
  21. Quoted in Origins 25.4 (June 8, 1995) 50.
  22. Theologische Prinzipienlehre: Bausteine zur Fundamentaltheologie (Munich: E. Wewel, 1982) 209, quoted by Granfield 190-91
  23. Denzinger 3058.
  24. “The Ecumenical Patriarchate, Yesterday and Today,” in The Byzantine Legacy in the Orthodox Church (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 1982) 241.
  25. Osservatore Romano, March 5-6, 1984, p. 6, quoted by Granfield, Limits, 184.

V. Rev. John H Erickson is the Peter N Gramowich Professor of Church History at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Seminary.

The Decline of the Patriarchate of Constantinople

By: St. John Maximovitch, Archbishop of Shanghai and San Francisco

An excerpt from a report on all the Autocephalous Churches made by Archbishop John of Shanghai to the Second All-Diaspora Sobor of the Russian Church Abroad held in Yugoslavia in 1938. It explains how the Ecumenical Patriarchate has expanded its jurisdiction beyond its canonical boundaries to cover the whole inhabited world.

St. John Maximovitch

St. John Maximovitch

Historical Background

The primacy among Orthodox Churches is possessed by the Church of the New Rome, Constantinople, which is headed by a Patriarch who has the title of Ecumenical, and therefore is itself called the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which territorially reached the culmination of its development at the end of the 18th century. At that time there was included in it the whole of Asia Minor, the whole Balkan Peninsula (except for Montenegro), together with the adjoining islands, since the other independent Churches in the Balkan Peninsula had been abolished and had become part of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Ecumenical Patriarch had received from the Turkish Sultan, even before the taking of Constantinople by the Turks, the title of Millet Bash, that is, the head of the people, and he was considered the head of the whole Orthodox population of the Turkish Empire. This, however, did not prevent the Turkish government from removing patriarchs for any reason whatever and calling for new elections, at the same time collecting a large tax from the newly elected patriarch. Apparently the latter circumstance had a great significance in the changing of patriarchs by the Turks, and therefore it often happened that they again allowed on the Patriarchal Throne a patriarch whom they had removed, after the death of one or several of his successors. Thus, many patriarchs occupied their see several times, and each accession was accompanied by the collection of a special tax from them by the Turks.

In order to make up the sum which he paid on his accession to the Patriarchal Throne, a patriarch made a collection from the metropolitans subordinate to him, and they, in their turn, collected from the clergy subordinate to them. This manner of making up its finances left an imprint on the whole order of the Patriarchate’s life. In the Patriarchate there was likewise evident the Greek “Great Idea,” that is, the attempt to restore Byzantium, at first in a cultural, but later also in a political sense. For this reason in all important; posts there were assigned people loyal to this idea, and for the most part Greeks from the part of Constantinople called the Phanar, where also the Patriarchate was located. Almost always the episcopal sees were filled by Greeks, even though in the Balkan Peninsula the population was primarily Slavic.

In the Patriarchate there was likewise evident the Greek “Great Idea,” that is, the attempt to restore Byzantium, at first in a cultural, but later also in a political sense.

At the beginning of the 19th century there began a movement of liberation among the Balkan peoples, who were striving to liberate themselves from the authority of the Turks. There arose the states of Serbia, Greece, Rumania, and Bulgaria, at first semi-independent, and then completely independent from Turkey. Parallel with this there proceeded also the formation of new Local Churches which were separate from the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Even though it was unwillingly, under the influence of circumstances, the Ecumenical Patriarchs permitted the autonomy of the Churches in the vassal princedoms, and later they recognized the full independence of the Churches in Serbia, Greece, and Rumania. Only the Bulgarian question was complicated in view on the one hand of the impatience of the Bulgarians, who had not yet attained political independence, and, on the other hand, thanks to the unyieldingness of the Greeks. The self-willed declaration of Bulgarian autocephaly on the foundation of a firman of the Sultan was not recognized by the Patriarchate, and in a number of dioceses there was established a parallel hierarchy.

The boundaries of the newly-formed Churches coincided with the boundaries of the new states, which were growing all the time at the expense of Turkey, at the same time acquiring new dioceses from the Patriarchate. Nonetheless, in 1912, when the Balkan War began, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had about 70 metropolias and several bishoprics. The war of 1912-13 tore away from Turkey a significant part of the Balkan Peninsula with such great spiritual centers as Salonica and Athos. The Great War of 1914-18 for a time deprived Turkey of the whole of Thrace and the Asia Minor coast with the city of Smyrna, which were subsequently lost by Greece in 1922 after the unsuccessful march of the Greeks on Constantinople.

Here the Ecumenical Patriarch could not so easily allow out of his authority the dioceses which had been torn away from Turkey, as had been done previously. There was already talk concerning certain places which from of old had been under the spiritual authority of Constantinople. Nonetheless, the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1922 recognized the annexation to the Serbian Church of all areas within the boundaries of Yugoslavia; he agreed to the inclusion within the Church of Greece of a number of dioceses in the Greek State, preserving, however, his jurisdiction over Athos; and in 1937 he recognized even the autocephaly of the small Albanian Church, which originally he had not recognized.

The Patriarch is extremely hindered in the manifestation even of his indisputable rights in church government within the boundaries of Turkey, where he is viewed as an ordinary Turkish subject-official, being furthermore under the supervision of the government.

The boundaries of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the number of its dioceses had significantly decreased. At the same time the Ecumenical Patriarchate in fact lost Asia Minor also, although it remained within its jurisdiction. In accordance with the peace treaty between Greece and Turkey in 1923, there occurred an exchange of population between these powers, so that the whole Greek population of Asia Minor had to resettle in Greece. Ancient cities, having at one time a great significance in ecclesiastical matters and glorious in their church history, remained without a single inhabitant of the Orthodox faith. At the same time, the Ecumenical Patriarch lost his political significance in Turkey, since Kemal Pasha deprived him of his title of head of the people. Factually, at the present time under the Ecumenical Patriarch there are five dioceses within the boundaries of Turkey in addition to Athos with the surrounding places in Greece. The Patriarch is extremely hindered in the manifestation even of his indisputable rights in church government within the boundaries of Turkey, where he is viewed as an ordinary Turkish subject-official, being furthermore under the supervision of the government. The Turkish government, which interferes in all aspects of the life of its citizens, only as a special privilege has permitted him, as also the Armenian Patriarch, to wear long hair and clerical garb, forbidding this to the rest of the clergy. The Patriarch has no right of free exit from Turkey, and lately the government is ever more insistently pursuing his removal to the new capital of Ankara (the ancient Ancyra), where there are now no Orthodox Christians, but where the administration with all the branches of governmental life is concentrated.

The "Self-Aggrandizement of Constantinople"

Such an outward abasement of the hierarch of the city of St. Constantine, which was once the capital of the ecumene, has not caused reverence toward him to be shaken among Orthodox Christians, who revere the See of Sts. Chrysostom and Gregory the Theologian. From the height of this See the successor of Sts. John and Gregory could spiritually guide the whole Orthodox world, if only he possessed their firmness in the defense of righteousness and truth and the breadth of views of the recent Patriarch Joachim III. However, to the general decline of the Ecumenical Patriarchate there has been joined the direction of its activity after the Great War. The Ecumenical Patriarchate has desired to make up for the loss of dioceses which have left its jurisdiction, and likewise the loss of its political significance within the boundaries of Turkey, by submitting to itself areas where up to now there has been no Orthodox hierarchy, and likewise the Churches of those states where the government is not Orthodox. Thus, on April 5, 1922, Patriarch Meletius designated an Exarch of Western and Central Europe with the title of Metropolitan of Thyateira with residency in London; on March 4, 1923, the same Patriarch consecrated the Czech Archimandrite Sabbatius Archbishop of Prague and All Czechoslovakia; on April 15, 1924, a Metropolia of Hungary and All Central Europe was founded with a See in Budapest, even though there was already a Serbian bishop there. In America an Archbishopric was established under the Ecumenical Throne, then in 1924 a Diocese was established in Australia with a See in Sydney. In 1938 India was made subordinate to the Archbishop of Australia.

At the same time there has proceeded the subjection of separate parts of the Russian Orthodox Church which have been torn away from Russia. Thus, on June 9, 1923, the Ecumenical Patriarch accepted into his jurisdiction the Diocese of Finland as an autonomous Finnish Church; on August 23, 1923, the Estonian Church was made subject in the same way, on November 13, 1924, Patriarch Gregory VII recognized the autocephaly of the Polish Church under the supervision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate—that is, rather autonomy. In March, 1936, the Ecumenical Patriarch accepted Latvia into his jurisdiction. Not limiting himself to the acceptance into his jurisdiction of Churches in regions which had fallen away from the borders of Russia, Patriarch Photius accepted into his jurisdiction Metropolitan Eulogius in Western Europe together with the parishes subordinate to him, and on February 28, 1937, an Archbishop of the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch in America consecrated Bishop Theodore-Bogdan Shpilko for a Ukrainian Church in North America.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate has desired to make up for the loss of dioceses which have left its jurisdiction, and likewise the loss of its political significance within the boundaries of Turkey, by submitting to itself areas where up to now there has been no Orthodox hierarchy, and likewise the Churches of those states where the government is not Orthodox.

Thus, the Ecumenical Patriarch has become actually “ecumenical” [universal] in the breadth of the territory which is theoretically subject to him. Almost the whole earthly globe, apart from the small territories of the three Patriarchates and the territory of Soviet Russia, according to the idea of the Patriarchate’s leaders, enters into the composition of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Increasing without limit their desires to submit to themselves parts of Russia, the Patriarchs of Constantinople have even begun to declare the uncanonicity of the annexation of Kiev to the Moscow Patriarchate, and to declare that the previously existing southern Russian Metropolia of Kiev should be subject to the Throne of Constantinople. Such a point of view is not only clearly expressed in the Tomos of November 13, 1924, in connection with the separation of the Polish Church, but is also quite thoroughly promoted by the Patriarchs. Thus, the Vicar of Metropolitan Eulogius in Paris, who was consecrated with the permission of the Ecumenical Patriarch, has assumed the title of Chersonese; that is to say, Chersonese, which is now in the territory of Russia, is subject to the Ecumenical Patriarch. The next logical step for the Ecumenical Patriarchate would be to declare the whole of Russia as being under the jurisdiction of Constantinople.

However, the actual spiritual might and even the actual boundaries of authority by far do not correspond to such a self-aggrandizement of Constantinople. Not to mention the fact that almost everywhere the authority of the Patriarch is quite illusory and consists for the most part in the confirmation of bishops who have been elected to various places or the sending of such from Constantinople, many lands which Constantinople considers subject to itself do not have any flock at all under its jurisdiction.

The Decline of Moral Authority

The moral authority of the Patriarchs of Constantinople has likewise fallen very low in view of their extreme instability in ecclesiastical matters. Thus, Patriarch Meletius IV arranged a “Pan-Orthodox Congress,” with representatives of various churches, which decreed the introduction of the New Calendar. This decree, recognized only by a part of the Church, introduced a frightful schism among Orthodox Christians. Patriarch Gregory VII recognized the decree of the council of the Living Church concerning the deposing of Patriarch Tikhon, whom not long before this the Synod of Constantinople had declared a “confessor,” and then he entered into communion with the “Renovationists” in Russia, which continues up to now.

In sum, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in theory embracing almost the whole universe and in fact extending its authority only over several dioceses, and in other places having only a higher superficial supervision and receiving certain revenues for this, persecuted by the government at home and not supported by any governmental authority abroad: having lost its significance as a pillar of truth and having itself become a source of division, and at the same time being possessed by an exorbitant love of power—represents a pitiful spectacle which recalls the worst periods in the history of the See of Constantinople.

From "Orthodox Word", vol. 8, no. 4 (45), July-August 1972, pp. 166-168, 174-175.

Canon 28 of the 4th Ecumenical Council – Relevant Or Irrelevant Today?

By: Met. Philip Saliba

Met. Philip Saliba

Met. Philip Saliba

Talk given by Metropolitan Philip, Primate of the Self-Ruled Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese at the Conference of the Fellowship of St. Alban and St. Sergius held at St. Vladimir’s Seminary, June 4-8, 2008.

Of all the canons dealing with Church authority and jurisdiction, there is probably none more controversial and debated in inter-Orthodox circles today than Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, held in the city of Chalcedon in the year 451. Those of us familiar with Church history know that the Ecumenical Council was called to put an end to the ongoing Christological debates of the time. While this was the main focus of the Council, like other councils before and after, it dealt with other pressing issues of the day. Canon was no exception. It reads as follows:

Following in every detail all the decrees of the holy Fathers and knowing about the canon, just read, of the one hundred and fifty bishops dearly beloved of God, gathered together under Theodosius the Great, emperor of pious memory in the imperial city of Constantinople, New Rome, we ourselves have also decreed and voted the same things about the prerogatives of the very holy Church of this same Constantinople, New Rome. The Fathers in fact have correctly attributed the prerogatives (which belong) to the see of the most ancient Rome because it was the imperial city. And thus moved by the same reasoning, the one hundred and fifty bishops beloved of God have accorded equal prerogatives to the very holy see of New Rome, justly considering that the city that is honored by the imperial power and the senate and enjoying (within the civil order) the prerogatives equal to those of Rome, the most ancient imperial city, ought to be as elevated as Old Rome in the affairs of the Church, being in the second place after it. Consequently, the metropolitans and they alone of the dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, as well as the bishops among the barbarians of the aforementioned dioceses, are to be ordained by the previously mentioned very holy see of the very holy Church of Constantinople; that is, each metropolitan of the above-mentioned dioceses is to ordain the bishops of the province along with the fellow bishops of that province as has been provided for in the divine canons. As for the metropolitans of the previously mentioned dioceses, they are to be ordained, as has already been said, by the archbishop of Constantinople, after harmonious elections have taken place according to custom and after the archbishop has been notified.

Proper Interpretation of Canon 28

The issue of the proper interpretation of Canon 28 and its relationship to the so-called "disapora" is crucial, not only to the Church in North America, but to the relationship of all Orthodox churches worldwide to each other, and to their witness to the world. As Patriarch ALEKSY of Russia has said: "The question of the Orthodox diaspora is one of the most important problems in inter-Orthodox relations. Given its complexity and the fact that it has not been suffi ciently regularized, it has introduced serious complications in[to] the relations between Churches and, without a doubt, has diminished the strength of Orthodox witness throughout the contemporary world." (For more information on the historical background of Canon 28, I recommend the book The Church of the Ancient Councils: The Disciplinary Work of the First Four Ecumenical Councils, by the late Archbishop PETER L’Huillier, published in 1996 by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.)

The issue of the proper interpretation of Canon 28 and its relationship to the so-called "disapora" is crucial, not only to the Church in North America, but to the relationship of all Orthodox churches worldwide to each other, and to their witness to the world.

It is my opinion that there are three types of canons: 1) Dogmatic; 2) Contextual; and 3) "Dead" canons. Canon 28 is by no means a "dead" canon, since there is still great controversy over it today, and so many commentaries, both past and present, show how controversial it has been, to say the least. I believe that Canon 28, historically, is a contextual canon and not a dogmatic one; it gave the city of Constantinople certain rights as the New Rome for secular, political reasons because it was the seat of the emperor. At the same time, the Fourth Ecumenical Council considered (Old) Rome to be the first among equals. What does this say to us today? Let us begin by stating that the whole idea today of "Rome," "New Rome," and "Third Rome" would be absurd. If we want to give prominence to any city in Christendom, we should give it to Jerusalem, where the history of salvation was accomplished.

The second part of the Canon dealt with the Dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace. Canon 28 gave Constantinople jurisdiction over the metropolitans of the barbarians and those three provinces or dioceses, which today are only Bulgaria, Northeastern Greece and European Turkey.

We can also ask, Is this Canon dealing with a dogmatic issue or a pastoral administrative one? In my opinion it clearly deals with an administrative question. If Antioch or Alexandria had become the seat of imperial power, likely this Canon would have made either of them New Rome. If we were to follow the reasoning of Canon 28, in fact, then Russia could rightfully claim, as it did historically, to be the Third Rome, and the Church of Greece could have made the claim to be the Fourth Rome during the captivity of the Russian Church under Communism.

Given the lack of a new Great Council, common sense would dictate that, with the current captivity of the church in Constantinople (whose indigenous flock totals just a few thousand), there is no reason for Canon 28 and it is no longer relevant today. We do have a problem, however: we have a responsibility to the past and the councils of the past, but there is no Great Council to address this issue. We must therefore explore other solutions.

The Relevance of Canon 28 Today — Constantinople’s Long Arm

While the Canon is not relevant to the question of different "Romes," it is profitable for us to look at its relevance today, especially to the subject of administrative organization in North America. We are well aware of the complex issues regarding the so-called "diaspora" and the desire of our Orthodox people, especially in North America, to have an administratively united church. As you must know, there are basically two interpretations of this Canon that extend back into history. Some claim that this Canon implies that Constantinople has authority over all territories outside the geographical limits of autocephalous churches.

Those on the other side of the argument say that this interpretation is, in fact, misinterpretation. Archbishop PETER in his book, The Church of the Ancient Councils, states that "such interpretation is completely fantastic." For those holding this view, any autocephalous church can do missionary work outside her boundaries and can grant autocephaly to such missions. Archbishop PAUL of Finland, in summarizing the position of the Orthodox churches, has stated in the reports submitted in 1990 to the Preparatory Commission for the Great and Holy Council that "the Patriarchates of Antioch, Moscow and Romania strongly oppose the authority of Constantinople over the diaspora and [maintain] that the theory remains an anachronism as far from the modern age as the year 451 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council is from the Twentieth Century."

Patriarch ALEKSY of Russia has stated that "…until the 1920′s the Patriarch of Constantinople did not in fact exercise authority over the whole of the Orthodox diaspora throughout the world, and made no claim to such authority."

Patriarch ALEKSY of Russia has stated that it was only in 1921 that Patriarach MELETIOS Metsakis developed a theory of universal jurisdiction for Constantinople. "Historical facts indicate that until the 1920′s the Patriarch of Constantinople did not in fact exercise authority over the whole of the Orthodox diaspora throughout the world, and made no claim to such authority." The Russian Orthodox Church responded in a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarchate regarding the case of Bishop BASIL (Osborne) as follows: "With respect to Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, it is vital to recall that it concerns only certain provinces, the boundaries of which represent the limits of the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople over the bishops ‘of the barbarians.’"

We see, then, that the notion that this Canon extends the authority of the throne of Constantinople to all territories that are not part of one or another local church is a novelty, and one not recognized by the Orthodox Church as a whole. This misinterpretation of Canon 28 would extend beyond territorial issues to such things as the claim that a representative of the Patriarchate of Constantinople should chair any Episcopal assembly, anywhere in the world. This claim can extend down to local clergy groups, Pan-Orthodox associations and organizations, and so forth.

Weaknesses in SCOBA

In 1961, we in the United States and Canada formed the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops (SCOBA) in the Americas (SCOBA). I have been a member of SCOBA since 1966. The misinterpretation of Canon 28 has not been helpful to the work of SCOBA. In my opinion, SCOBA has four major defects. First, the representation of the Orthodox Churches in SCOBA does not reflect reality in North America. Neither the Moscow Patriarchate nor the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia (ROCOR) are represented in SCOBA, while the Ecumenical Patriarchate has four of the nine seats.

Second, the insistence that the Exarch of the Patriarchate of Constantinople must be the President of SCOBA is not what was agreed upon at the beginning. The constitution of SCOBA which has never been amended, provides that there shall be a rotating presidency. Subsequently, at the insistence of the Antiochian Archdiocese, Archbishop SPYRIDON and then Archbishop DEMETRIUS were elected by the SCOBA members after the retirement of the later Archbishop IAKOVOS of thrice-blessed memory.

The third defect of SCOBA is that its decisions are not internally binding. In the 1990 documents before the Preparatory Commission for a Great and Holy Council, in discussing the Western European situation, some autocephalous churches suggested the formation of Episcopal Assemblies whose decisions can be internally binding.

I would like to quote here again from the letter from the Russian Orthodox Church to the Preparatory Commission. "The relations between jurisdictions and dioceses to the Mother Churches would remain the same, but in all purely internal matters, which would include education, teaching, the diakonia, Orthodox witness, ecumenical relations on the local level, pastoral practice, the Bishops’ Assembly would serve in joint effort as one whole unit and autonomous in its relationship to the mother church." This Bishops’ Assembly, for example, would address non-canonical situations in North America such as the infringement of the Patriarchate of Jerusalem in North America with the blessings of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

Most of the people in my Archdiocese have no intention of returning to their place of origin…Our people are here to stay, and we are indeed an indigenous church in North America.

A fourth problem with SCOBA, I believe, is the assumption that we are a "disapora." On the contrary: the only way to move the cause of Orthodox unity forward in North America is to insist that we are not a "disaspora." We have been here two hundred years. The late Protopresbytr, John Meyendorff, of blessed memory, states in an essay in his book A Vision of Unity that diaspora is a biblical term and has a perfectly adequate equivalent – "dispersion." He says later in the same article: "There is no promised land any more except the heavenly Jerusalem."

Most of the people in my Archdiocese have no intention of returning to their place of origin. This is true even of new immigrants, let alone those of the third or fourth generation. Our people are here to stay, and we are indeed an indigenous church in North America. I believe that the Church in North America is mature enough to take care of herself without any interference from the outside. Those who support an ethnocentric reading of Canon 28 and insist that unity on a national basis cannot be discussed, then, are naïve and bury their heads in the sand. While they may delight in holding lectures and conferences on the environment, the witness and mission of the church is ignored.

A Church Based on Nation-States, not Ethnicity

The Orthodox principle is not to organize the church based on ethnicity, but, in the modern world, upon the nation-state. Ironically enough, when ethnic ecclesiology began to flourish and prosper in the nineteenth century, it was the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Constantinople itself that condemned ecclesiological ethno-phyletism as a heresy in 1872. During our Archdiocese Convention last July in Montreal, Canada, I shared with my clergy and laity what I said on the subject to my brother bishops at the Archdiocesan Synod Meeting on May 31, 2007, and I summarize my thoughts in what follows.

Since 1966, I have lived with two obsessions: 1) The unity of our Archdiocese; and 2) Orthodox unity in North America. Where are we now in regard to this latter unity? Unfortunately, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church in North America is now divided into more than fifteen jurisdictions based on ethnicity, contrary to the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils. Our canons clearly state that we cannot have more than one bishop over the same territory, and one metropolitan over the same metropolis. I regret to tell you that we Orthodox are violating this important ecclesiological principle in North America, South America, Europe and Australia. In New York, for example, we have more than ten Orthodox bishops over the same city and the same territory. I can say the same thing about other cities and territories in North America.

We are not alone; the same thing has happened in Paris, France. There are six co-existing Orthodox Bishops with overlapping ecclesiological jurisdictions. In my opinion and in the opinion of Orthodox canonists, this is ecclesiological ethno-phyletism. This is heretical. How can we condemn ethno-phyletism as a heresy in 1872 and still practice the same thing in the twenty-fi rst century here in North America? When I lived in Damascus, Syria, and Beirut, Lebanon, in the early 1950s, there were large Greek Orthodox and Russian Orthodox communities there, but they were not under the Archbishop of Athens or the Patriarchate of Moscow, but under the omophorions of the Antiochian local bishops. Due to wars and social upheaval, we now have a large Lebanese community in Athens, Greece, and they are under the omophorion of the Archbishop of Athens. They do not have a separate jurisdiction just because they are Lebanese Orthodox.

Archimandrite Gregorios Papathomas, a professor of Canon Law and Dean of St. Sergius Theological Institute in Paris, France, wrote, "The defining criterion of an ecclesiastical body has been its location. It has never been nationality, race, culture, ritual or confession." In First Corinthians (1:2) St. Paul writes, "To the Church of God which is at Corinth . . . ," and again in Second Corinthians he writes, "To the Church of God which is at Corinth . . . ." He writes to the Galatians, "To the Church of Galacia . . ." (1:2). We learn from the Apostles and the Fathers that the church is one church, one and the same church, the body of Christ, found in Antioch, Jerusalem, Alexandria, Constantinople, Greece, Rome, Russia, and so forth. Based on all of this, it is simply wrong to call the church Russian or Greek or American, because the church, in essence, transcends nationalism, race and culture. Here in North America we distort Orthodox ecclesiology by our ethnic jurisdictions.

The Challenge of Orthodox Unity

The twenty-first century has dawned upon us. What, then, is to be our response to the challenge of Orthodox unity in North America? SCOBA was established in 1961; some of its founders were the late Archbishop IAKOVOS and the late Metropolitan ANTONY Bashir. May their souls rest in peace. Under "Objectives" in Paragraph I, Section C, the original constitution of SCOBA, adopted January 24, 1961, states that "the purpose of the conference is the consideration and resolution of common ecclesiastical problems, the coordination of efforts in matters of common concern to Orthodoxy, and the strengthening of Orthodox unity." Last year, between October 3 and 6, SCOBA invited all canonical Orthodox Bishops to meet in Chicago, Illinois, to discuss common Orthodox problems. The communiqué issued on October 5, 2006, did not mention a word about Orthodox unity in America.

Again in November, 2006, a meeting of Inter-Orthodox priests met in Brookline, Massachusetts. A draft statement dated January 22, 2007, was circulated and not a word about Orthodox unity in North America was mentioned. I am convinced that serious attempts are being made, by some hierarchs in North America and abroad, to sweep the whole question of Orthodox unity, in this hemisphere, under the rug. After the Brookline encounter, one of my Antiochian clergy wrote to me the following: "Two of the Greek priests gave very strong talks on unity. We did decide, however, that given the landscape, we would use the word ‘cooperation’ and not ‘unity’ in our printed records." This statement, my friends, speaks for itself.

We Orthodox must put our house in order, if we want to have a serious Orthodox mission in North America.

I believe that an Ecumenical Council would be very difficult at this time. It would probably cause a division, or numerous divisions in the Church, and this would be counter-productive. After all, if an issue such as changing the calendar causes splits and division, imagine what would happen if we were to discuss more serious issues. Fortunately or unfortunately, we no longer have the Byzantine emperor to enforce decisions that such a council might make.

As an alternative, I propose the formation of an inter-Orthodox commission, located some place like Geneva, Switzerland, on which each autocephalous church and each self-ruled church would have a permanent representative. To this commission they would bring issues and problems to be discussed on behalf of the mother churches, and they would deal with specific Orthodox problems throughout the world. The decisions of the commission would be submitted to all mother churches for action.

With all the obstacles we face, have we reached a dead end? No, with the All-Holy Spirit working in the Church, there are no dead ends. I am sure that thousands of Orthodox clergy and hundreds of thousands of Orthodox laity in North America are deeply committed to Orthodox unity. We Orthodox must put our house in order, if we want to have a serious Orthodox mission in North America. This unity will begin with our clergy and laity, on the local level. My generation is slowly, but surely, fading away. It is up to you and our younger generation to carry the torch and to make the light of a unified Orthodoxy shine on this continent and everywhere.