When Orthodoxy in Dialogue published the full text of the Ukrainian Church’s Tomos of Autocephaly on January 16, 2019, we appended the following note: “Orthodoxy in Dialogue welcomes discussion and debate on the ecclesiological assumptions implicit and explicit in the Tomos—particularly in its understanding of the primacy and canonical prerogatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate—which might seem contrary to other modern articulations of Orthodox ecclesiology.” Mr. Zheng’s commentary presents a well-written and thoughtful response to these kinds of questions.


Holy, Glorious, and All-Laudable Apostle Andrew the First-Called
Patron of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

The ongoing crisis surrounding the new Ukrainian autocephaly has blended historical, political, canonical, and doctrinal problems into a rank polemical stew, which it’s hard to even sniff without getting a little dizzy and bad-tempered. Here I hope to set aside as far as possible the historic particularities of Orthodoxy in Ukraine, and focus on the one ingredient with the most far-reaching potential for world Orthodoxy. This is the matter of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s special privileges, which it asserts in its intervention in Ukraine.  

What’s New in the Ukrainian Tomos

After the Tomos of Autocephaly for the Orthodox Church of Ukraine was published, Vladimir Burega, a professor at the Kyiv Theological Academy, wrote a helpful analysis of it, comparing it with previous Tomoi issued to other Churches and highlighting elements that set the Ukrainian Tomos apart.

Among the latter is an explicit restriction of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine to the territory of the Ukrainian state, and the assertion of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s authority over “the Diaspora.” The Church of Ukraine is forbidden to found parishes “…in regions already lawfully dependent on the Ecumenical Throne, which bears canonical competence over the Diaspora.”

Also striking is the bold statement of the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s special status. Prof. Burega notes that this is a culmination of a trend seen in 20th-century Tomoi (for Poland, Albania, and the Czech and Slovak lands), where the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s role as supreme, final appellate authority is stated. The Ukrainian Tomos reiterates this with stronger language, granting Constantinople the power of “…irrevocably passing judgment over matters related to bishops and other clergy in local Churches.” It also says that the Church of Ukraine “…knows as its head the most holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Ecumenical Throne, just as the rest of the Patriarchs and Primates also do.”

Several commentators point out that, if and when other Orthodox Churches accept the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, they will likewise give implicit consent to the terms of the Tomos, including its claims regarding the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s authority. Thus the question of recognizing the Church of Ukraine becomes also a question of recognizing the claims of Constantinople, and those who assent to the first may still balk at the latter. This is why Orthodox Synaxis refers to “The Trap in the Tomos,” and why the claimed privileges of the Ecumenical Patriarchate ought to be examined distinct from the case of Ukrainian autocephaly.

Two Kinds of Autocephaly: Full and Probationary

Apart from its role as final appellate authority, Constantinople also claims the sole right—outside of an ecumenical council—to grant and revoke autocephaly. This right was asserted in the documentFirst Without Equals,” published in 2014 by Metropolitan Elpidophoros of Bursa.

Archbishop Job (Getcha) of Telmessos, another spokesman for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, elaborated on this right in an interview with the BBC. One can deduce from his words that Constantinople considers there to be two levels of autocephaly. One is found in the four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, as well as the Church of Cyprus—their autocephaly were ratified at Ecumenical Councils. However, none of the other Churches received such confirmation; and, since they were created by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, “…then at some point the Ecumenical Patriarchate could, if necessary, revoke this [autocephalous] status.” Archbishop Job then airs the possibility of abolishing the Moscow Patriarchate.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate has thus introduced two classes of autocephaly—full autocephaly and probationary autocephaly. The majority of Churches today fall into the second category.

With these new Churches the Ecumenical Patriarchate  maintains its role as Mother Church and, in its maternal solicitude, reserves the right to pull wayward children back beneath its skirts. Today it’s hard to imagine such a right being fully exerted in most places, without the aid of a friendly local government (as in Ukraine) or an empire (as in Ottoman times). But it can impact local Churches even if they can’t be reabsorbed. Local factions, dissatisfied with prevailing currents in their Church, might find hope in appealing to the Ecumenical Throne and obtaining a favorable and “irrevocable” ruling, thereby legitimating disobedience or even rupture from the local body.

The tight oversight by the Ecumenical Patriarchate written into the Ukrainian Tomos—both through its final appellate authority and its direct possessions (stavropegia, i.e., parish churches, monasteries, schools, etc., under the direct jurisdiction of Constantinople) within Ukraine—is an expression of the probationary character that Constantinople attributes to the new autocephalies.

Which Canonists? 

Central to the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s claimed prerogatives are certain canons from the Ecumenical Councils. The Ukrainian Tomos names two favorites, canons 9 and 17 of Chalcedon. Orthodox Synaxis has published the commentary of St Nicodemus the Hagiorite on these canons, which even in his time were being interpreted by Constantinople as granting it broad privileges.

St. Nicodemus situates the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s view within the polemic against the Latins:

For our own authorities, being opposed to the rule and authority of the Pope, and desirous to honor the patriarch of Constantinople, have inclined to exaggeration.

He states his dissent clearly:

The Bishop of Constantinople has no authority to officiate in the dioceses and parishes of other Patriarchs, nor has he been given by this Canon to grant a decision in reference to an appeal on the part of the whole Church.

Without weighing St Nicodemus’ argument, it is worth noting that he, along with the canonists he cites in support (Zonaras and Balsamon), are among the most eminent canonists of the Church of Constantinople. That does not mean that they are correct on every point, or that other eminent canonists don’t have different opinions; but the Ecumenical Patriarchate speaks and acts as if its current interpretation is obvious and widely accepted, and can only be challenged on the basis of ignorance or ambition.

Is There Another Way?

The vision of the Orthodox Church as a fraternal, decentralized web of autocephalous Churches doesn’t seem to stand up to the messy realities of territorial and political squabbles. The increasingly pronounced self-understanding of Constantinople as First Without Equals, holding supreme appellate authority, is an attempted solution to this problem.

Recently, Patriarch Daniel of Romania proposed a different solutiona permanent pan-Orthodox synod:

If synodality is a permanent canonical norm at the local level, it must be today a permanent practice also at pan-Orthodox or universal level, not just in exceptional or in crisis situations, but in maintaining and permanently asserting the ecclesial communion and the pastoral and missionary co-responsibility of Orthodoxy in today’s world.

The refusal of several Churches to attend the 2016 Council in Crete showed some of the obstacles to convening such a standing synod. A key difference between the Cretan Council and Patriarch Daniel’s proposed synod is that Crete was the result of decades of planning, with a highly regimented, pre-approved agenda. Presumably this global standing synod, meeting regularly, would be able to address disputes without restriction or hurry. 

But the challenge of getting everyone into the same room has only grown since 2016. The existing grievances remain, and the new Orthodox Church of Ukraine brings another difficulty. Now the Ecumenical Patriarchate can demand the presence of the new Church of Ukraine at any pan-Orthodox synod, as a condition for its own participation and the synod’s very legitimacy. The Ukrainian dispute would somehow need to be resolved before the pan-Orthodox synod can meet—but of course, multiple Churches have expressed their view that only a pan-Orthodox synod can resolve the Ukrainian dispute.

Constantinople, as coordinator of the Cretan Council, would seem to favor the idea of continued pan-Orthodox synods. However, unless the Ecumenical Patriarchate secures a dominating function in this permanent synod, it would render the Patriarchate’s alleged privileges largely superfluous. What need for a final appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarchate when, by its own admission, Ecumenical Councils have a higher authority? What need to request autocephaly from Constantinople? If such councils meet every year or more, what churchwide role would be left for the Ecumenical Throne beyond maintaining the bulletin board and opening the mail? Wouldn’t such a prospect perturb the proponents of “First Without Equals?”

If by God’s mercy the pan-Orthodox synod can convene, I can foresee another issue, which is the question of how its rulings are received. While a toothless synod will do little good, the notion of an infallible synod is dangerous. After the Cretan Council the Synod of the Bulgarian Orthodox Church (which had not participated) issued a critique of some of the council statements. Among their points, this one deserves attention here:

…the final criterion for the acceptance of Church Councils is the vigilant dogmatic conscience of entire Orthodox pleoroma (the fullness of the Body). It states that the Ecumenical Council does not provide automatic or mechanical correctness of the faith professed by Orthodox Christians.

The need for pan-Orthodox unity must be balanced with the catholicity of each local Church. The assumption of mechanical correctness, whether in councils, canons, or a particularly prestigious see, must be challenged in order for Orthodoxy and Orthodox synodality to thrive.

See the extensive Ukraine section in our Archives by Author.

Joseph Zheng holds a BA in history and Asian studies and an MEd, both from Temple University in Philadelphia. He is an as yet unpublished poet and YA horror novelist who also blogs on Orthodox themes at The Swan of Endless Tales. He attends a parish of the American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese under the Ecumenical Patriarchate.   

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