An examination of the issues brought up by Patriarch Irinej of Serbia in his letter to Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew


Patriarch Irinej of Serbia, on Aug. 13th of this year wrote a letter to the Ecumenical Patriarch detailing his concerns about the situation in the Ukraine. While not addressing the canonical implications of the historical documents surrounding the 1686 submission of Ukraine to Moscow, it emphasizes two much more fundamental and serious issues that he sees as present in this situation.

The first issue that he brings up is the problem of nationalism, or what in current Church discussions has been called ethnopyletism. It is important to recognize that this ethnophyletism is not the natural love of one’s kin or country. When we talk about the heresy of ethnophyletism, this comes about as a result of a conscious effort by the intelligentsia to create a national identity and national consciousness out of political and ideological motives.

Our kin and country are naturally part of what God has given us to love when we are born into this world, and this love when active becomes a unifying force. Nationalism is a man-made ideology that attempts to be a unifying force—but of a different nature with a different goal. “Attainment of a national consciousness and hence membership in a nationality is a process that has to be achieved through ideological and social indoctrination….It is the role of the intelligentisia to transform an individual’s awareness of his relationship to a neighboring villager… or co-religionist into a consciousness of unity on a wider “national” level.”1 The goal and means of this unity is not the perfection of love, which brings about our oneness in Christ, but rather political coherence and independence. Nationalism brings about unity through appealing to pride in one’s identity and history2 and also attempts to build unity through creating an us vs. them mentality stimulating fear and suspicion of the enemy. This leads to a movement of circling the wagons and closing in on oneself.

A true Christian patriotism on the other hand consists not in pride in what is our own and fear of the other, but of loving of our own, being willing to defend it when necessary, accompanied by repentance and humility over our lack of perfect love and our inability to see and relate to those on the other side of our borders as truly our neighbor and brother. True Christian patriotism involves seeing and taking responsibility for the sins of our own nation rather than judging and blaming other nations. True Christian Patriotism brings peace to both ourselves and the world. It is a movement of opening out to the other.

The difference between nationalism and patriotism is that the first appeals to the passions of pride and fear, while the second is the struggle to love and repent. Nationalism involves the intellectual elite finding ways to convince people to believe and defend what they have created, while patriotism is the defense of what God has naturally given us according to the circumstances we find ourselves in. The fruit of nationalism is turmoil and conflict, hatred and suspicion—the exact opposite of love.

Whether it is nationalism, individualism, identity politics, or the “right to _____” (fill in the blank) the seed is the same. Anthony Kennedy in Planned Parenthood v. Casey (1992) states clearly the driving motive of man in our age—“At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.” This is a direct rejection of God as Creator and as the One who gives to His own creation a concept of existence, meaning and mystery that is found in Him alone. This heresy which has arisen today is man’s ultimate claim to be his own god.

It is this atheistic ideology that the Patriarch of Serbia identifies as the root of the conflicts in the Ukraine. It is the root of the conflicts in our own country and really world-wide. We are all neighbors who have been stripped by satan and left wounded and dying on the side of the road, needing Christ’s rescue. This directly effects the Church because the intelligentsia who are trying to build a national consciousness and identity are wanting to include in their man-made creation a man-made church, and as the Patriarch notes this has led to the rise in various places of the “church of the self-ordained”. These self-ordained want the liberty to define their own concept of what the Church is and they believe this is their right. They appeal for help to those in the west who have the same beliefs about everyone being able to determine our own existence and meaning.

When we look at the relationship of nationalism to the Church, it involves the self-willed establishment of a separate identity at odds with and independent of others, whereas the true Church consists in persons in communion who through obedience and love are moving toward being united into one in Christ. The Patriarch of Serbia appeals to Patriarch Bartholomew not to support or empower the states and individuals who are trying to use the faith of the faithful and the Body of Christ for their own man-made purposes, but to consider his responsibility to guard the harmony and unity of the Church.

The second issue that the Patriarch of Serbia brings up the question of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s understanding of itself and its position in the Body. He points out that there is a pan-Orthodox agreement in effect stating that no jurisdiction or Mother church may unilaterally declare a new authocephaly on its own. If the Patriarch of Constantinople decides to act unilaterally, without regard for the agreements that he himself was instrumental in bringing about, then this is understood as further support for the fact that he truly does see himself, not as the ‘first among equals’, but as “first without equal.”

This phrase “first without equal” is reference to a publication by Met. Elpidophoros Lambriniadis that is posted on Constantinople’s Patriarchal website.3 The article was written as part of the conversations in Ravenna between Catholic and Orthodox over the theological and practical understanding of primacy in the Church. During these conversations, Constantinople accepted an ecclesiology that locates the source of primacy in the person of the highest primate himself. Met. Elidophoros’s main point is that the primacy is not something received but has its source in the primate himself. He ends by saying, “ If we are going to talk about the source of a primacy, then the source of such primacy is the very person of the Archbishop of Constantinople, who precisely as bishop is one "among equals," but as Archbishop of Constantinople, and thus as Ecumenical Patriarch is the first without equals (primus sine paribus).” This ecclesiology puts the essence of the primacy in the person of the highest primate rather than locating the essence in Christ. It is an echo of the Catholic doctrine of the papacy. Consider the statements by Patriarch Bartholomew at the recent Synod “In the beginning was the Word… in him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1.1,4) The beginning of the Orthodox Church is the Ecumenical Patriarchate; “in this is life, and the life is the light of the Churches.”4

If we look at the idea of primacy in St Leo the Great, Pope of Rome, we see that this is not what he teaches. The saint teaches that he is not the source of his power and authority as pope—rather they are received as a gift and a trust from Christ and from the people.5 What is received is not given to him absolutely or exclusively. St Leo teaches that this primacy is a power or attribute of Christ that interpenetrates the whole Church. The guarantee of unity is that we are all baptized into Christ and are receiving from Him as the one Head, this same headship or primacy when we become part of His Body. What is different among the different orders of the Church is the scope of the administrative responsibility and power, not the essence of what is received. The layman uses his primacy to become a head over his own body and soul, the priests, and even more so the archbishop have a wider scope for their primacy.6

Met. Elpidophoros criticizes the Moscow Patriarch for walking out and refusing to sign off on the Ravenna document and for insisting on the Traditional view that authority is received from Christ as source,7 mediated by the Church in the person of the other bishops,8 and witnessed to and confirmed by the faithful9 and in the commemorations in the dyptichs.10 (The dyptichs themselves are not the means of giving primacy, but are a way in which the will of the Church as Christ’s Body is expressed and confirmed.) The Metropolitan implies in footnote 4 that this walkout is not really theological, but primarily political—a protest against the Ecumenical Patriarch’s granting of autocephaly to the Estonian Orthodox church. The two really go together. The way in which the Ecumenical Patriarch is using its authority in these cases is a reflection of and acting out on its view of itself as the sole arbiter and source for its own authority. The basic belief seems to be that the scope of his authority is not determined by the Church, but instead remains in himself as unlimited by anything outside of himself. He does not recognize Christ as present in and acting in the whole Church. We see this in how in the current situation of Ukraine where the Ecumenical Patriarch is considering, it seems, unilateral action apart from consultation with or cooperation with the other Churches. To act unilaterally in this situation is a statement that the scope of his authority is not something bound by what the Church in its pan-orthodox agreements has allowed, but something which he can determine for himself. Patriarch Irinej warns that this is harmful to the Church. This doctrine of “first without equals” contains within itself a path to unity and way of creating order that is man centered not Christ-centered, and therefore bound to fail. No man can be a source of unity or life, this belongs only to God.

While I think there is globally much sympathy for the situation of Urkainian Orthodox who, having an independent country want also an autocephalous church, I hear the Serbian Patriarch warning that if the search for this is not separated from political and religious aspirations that are contrary to a Christ-centered unity and way of life, then only harm, not good can come from it.

Anna Stickles


1 Magocsi, P. R. (1978). The shaping of a national identity: Subcarpathian Rus, 1848-1948. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press. p.3

2 Except that this identity and history is not the one God gives us, but the one created by the intelligentsia as they interpret the fabric of history and culture according to their own ideologies. Since man always has conflicting opinions, in reality this attempt to build unity brings conflict instead as clashes start over what it means to be an American, or Ukrainian, or Russian or any other national identity.

3 “First without equals: A response to the text on primacy of the Moscow Patriarchate. By His Eminence Elpidophoros Lambriniadis, Metropolitan of Bursa” (February 12, 2014).

4 From the opening remarks at the recent synaxis Aug 31-Sept 4 2018.

5 See sermons 2-5 on the anniversary of his election as pope.

6 Sermon 4 “Although the universal Church of God is constituted of distinct orders of members, still, in spite of the many parts of its holy body, the Church subsists as an integral whole, just as the Apostle says: We are all one in Christ. No difference in office is so great that anyone can be separated, through lowliness, from the Head. In the unity of faith and baptism, therefore, our community is undivided. There is a common dignity, as the apostle Peter says in these words: And you are built up as living stones into spiritual houses, a holy priesthood, offering spiritual sacrifices which are acceptable to God through Jesus Christ….For all, regenerated in Christ, are made kings by the sign of the cross; they are consecrated priests by the oil of the Holy Spirit, so that beyond the special service of our ministry as priests, all spiritual and mature Christians know that they are a royal race and are sharers in the office of the priesthood. For what is more king-like than to find yourself ruler over your body after having surrendered your soul to God? And what is more priestly than to promise the Lord a pure conscience and to offer him in love unblemished victims on the altar of one’s heart.” See also Epistle 14 where the saint mentions that the differences in the hierarchy are not in the substance of what is received, but in the particular service that the ministry entails.

7 That Pope Leo has received his appointment and does not consider himself the source of it is something stressed throughout his anniversary sermons. He understands that he is not ruling by his own authority nor on his own since Christ has not relinquished his care of the flock, nor has St Peter (sermon 3.2-3). As the current head of the Church he is responsible to be in obedience to these who have not given their power to him, but have allowed him to participate in what they are doing. He comments that the image of St Peter is set before the rulers of the Church to imitate, and the privilege of Peter resides - not in the See of Peter- but wherever judgment is passed in accordance with Saint Peter’s. In other words the unity of the operation of the primacy lies in how Peter is acting in the image of Christ, and the Primates in the image of Peter, and thus the working is one and not divided nor conflicting.

8 That a bishop receives primacy through election by the other bishops, and that the scope of responsibility contained in a given appointment is something determined by the Church, not something which is determined by the person appointed is clear historically and canonically.

9 “Axios, Axios, Axios.”

10 See “Position of the Moscow Patriarchate on the problem of primacy in the Universal Church.” (December 26, 2013).

See also
Anna Stickles11/1/2018 8:34 pm
One other thing to consider: Is a country at war over its identity ready for its own autocephalous church? Autocephaly is not something good in itself. It does not add to liturgical or sacramental fullness, which are already present. It is a pan-orthodox position which involves a certain responsibility to the rest of the Church. "if a man does not know how to rule his own house, how will he take care of the house of God?" (I Tim 3:5) Is autocephaly being sought only for ones own benefit, or is it being sought in a context of what is good for all?
Anna Stickles11/1/2018 8:26 pm
Yes, there are those within both Ukraine and Russia that have differing opinions on whether the two are one nation and people, or whether they have never been the same people, or something in between. These differing cultural/political narratives are something that needs and ongoing struggle on ALL sides to harmonize.

However, this doesn't justify disobedience to the proper ecclesial authorities, nor disregard for proper ecclesial order. It takes patience, faith and prayer, not political maneuvering.
Olivia10/24/2018 7:45 pm
Patriarch Kirill has just recently expressed that Russia and Ukraine are one and the same country and that is not the case! By saying this he proves that the Moscow Poatriarchate also has a nationalistic agenda. So if these schismatic Ukrainians are guilty of ethnophyletism - so is Kirill & Co! Why is that so difficult to see?
Momcilo10/24/2018 4:06 am
Christ is in our midst!
Interesting article, but who is the author?
Afanassy10/23/2018 10:42 pm
Anthony - - -

(Your comment was posted after mine was submitted.)
I agree completely. Absolutist terminology like "First" would inevitably lead to abuse, --- as it did with the Pope of Rome; and as it is now doing with the Pope of Constantinople.
I get that it was meant as an honorific title to impart esteem for the Christ-like accomplishments of a given patriarchate.
But, as you point out, the greatest such accomplishment is humility, and the service of God and others (Mark 12:30,31; Luke 10).
As in my original comment, we need to drop this verbal construct: it only plays upon the weaknesses of men to impart PRIDE.


JohnP10/23/2018 8:56 pm
Dear Anthony,
I couldn't agree more.

It seems the root of such problems is the love of (secular) Glory.
St.Chrysostom did not want to become a Bishop because he was afraid
he would sin with the very beautiful female, called Doxa, Glory.

Nowadays most people are ...wiser than Chrysostom,
in fact they try all means to become bishops, of course they love Glory of the Bishop,
but actually they even look for a prettier Glory, that of Metropolitan,
then Metropolitan of a Greater City, then Patriarch, and ideally Primacy.

St.John Chrysostom was literally kidnapped by the people and was forced to be ordained.
The ultimate solution is to find a procedure to do this nowadays.
Afanassy10/23/2018 8:01 pm
We need to drop the phrase, "First Among Equals".
It is a peculiar (albeit honorific) concept that I knew would lead to (perhaps deliberate?) misinterpretation or manipulation by power-hungry hierarchs.
It certainly constantly requires explanation and rationalization in this era.
Best if we use "Honorable Representative", or something similar, to emphasize that power rests in a Council (under the Holy Spirit), not a Person.

Anthony10/23/2018 2:30 pm
Hi. Do we have any evidence that Christ approved of the man made doctrine of primacy whether that be "first among" or otherwise. We see what Christ told His disciples when they argued over who would be greatest. Likewise we saw the (according to the latin heretics) 'first' of the Apostles St Peter being castigated by the latecomer St Paul at one of the Councils. So what is the point of any first among anything. Ultimately it plays on human ego, and lends a hand to the devil and his workers to create chaos. But no one can see this. All the men of the cloth still continue down this stupid path. Ayios Antonios saw the traps of satan and asked how can anyone be saved? The answer. HUMILITY!!!
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