Fr. Alexander Schmemann on Primacy in the Orthodox Church

Fr. Alexander Schmemann

Many of the current jurisdictional controversies within the Orthodox Church involving the Ecumenical Patriarch, relations between Constantinople and Moscow, the status of the “autocephalies” — even the future of the American Orthodox Church — hinge on the question of primacy. While Orthodox Christians have rejected the Roman model of primacy as “supreme power” over the Bishop and local Church, the question of primacy within the Orthodox Church is a complete muddle. In “The Idea of Primacy in Orthodox Ecclesiology,” an essay written in 1960 and now available on the AOI main site, Fr. Alexander Schmemann examines various aspects of the primacy question, an issue he describes as “on the agenda for our time.” As he reminds us, the ecclesiological interpretation of primacy — regional, autocephalous, and “universal” — is “virtually absent” from from Orthodox theology. “We badly need a clarification of the nature and functions of all these primacies and, first of all, of the very concept of primacy,” Fr. Schmemann writes. “For both in theory and in practice there is a great deal of confusion concerning the definition of the ‘supreme power’ in the church, of its scope and the modes of its expression.”


It would not be difficult to prove that the canonical and jurisdictional troubles and divisions, of which we have had too many in the last decades, have their roots in some way or other in this question of primacy, or, to be more exact, in the absence of a clearly defined doctrine of the nature and functions of primacy. And the same unsolved problem constitutes a major handicap for the unity and, therefore, the progress of Orthodoxy in countries like America where, paradoxically enough, the loyalty to a certain concept of “canonicity” leads to the most uncanonical situation that can be imagined: the coexistence on the same territory of a number of parallel jurisdictions, and dioceses…

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In the early Church the canonical tradition was an integral part of ecclesiology — of the living experience of the Church. But little by little it became an autonomous sphere in which the visible ecclesiastical structures, the functions of power and authority, and the relations between Churches, ceased to be explained in terms of the Church-Body of Christ. Loosing its ties with ecclesiology, the canonical tradition became “canon law.” But in Canon Law there was no room for the notion of the Body of Christ because this notion has nothing to do with “law.”

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The Bishop is vested with power, yet the root of this power is in the Church, in the eucharistic gathering, at which he presides as Priest, Pastor and Teacher. “Power” in the Church can be defined and understood only within the indivisible unity of the Church, the Eucharist, and the Bishop. It cannot have a source different from that of the Church herself: the presence of Christ in the sacrament of the “new eon,” of the life in the Spirit.

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Finally we come to the highest and ultimate form of primacy: the universal primacy. An age-long anti-Roman prejudice has led some Orthodox canonists simply to deny the existence of such primacy in the past or the need for it in the present. But an objective study of the canonical tradition cannot fail to establish beyond any doubt that, along with local “centers of agreement” or primacies, the Church had also known an universal primacy. The ecclesiological error of Rome lies not in the affirmation of her universal primacy. Rather, the error lies in the identification of this primacy with “supreme power” which transforms Rome into the “principium radix et origo” of the unity of the Church and of the Church herself. This ecclesiological distortion, however, must not force us into a simple rejection of universal primacy. On the contrary it ought to encourage its genuinely Orthodox interpretation.

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… the development of what may be termed “patriarchal mystique” … finds its first expression in the development of the power of the Patriarch of Constantinople. In its essence this mystique is radically different from that of Papism. The latter has its roots in the experience of the Church as an universal organism, called to dominate the world; the former in the parallelism of the Church and Empire which required an ecclesiastical “counterpart” of the Basileus. Although one must stress again and again, that the origin of the Byzantine Patriarch’s unique power is not “lust of power” but the “Byzantine analogy” between the two supreme powers, yet here also it is the State and not the Church that shapes this new idea of power.

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