Primacy and Identity

A Response to ‘First Without Equals’ and the Tragedy of Deficient Ecclesiology


Author’s Preface (2018)

The paper that follows was originally drafted in 2015 as an internal reference document for members of various theological commissions, as a response to documents that had then been somewhat recently published and generated debate over the preceding years. The more recent events of 2018, centred in Ukraine but relating to questions of ecclesiological primacy that affect the whole Orthodox world (and which, at the present moment,1 are still very much ongoing), have given cause to disseminate the text more broadly, as a small study of some of the core ecclesiastical and theological principles involved.

We are witnessing, at the present moment, a fuller realisation of the disastrous theological and ecclesiological positions outlined in the text below, which were already nascent three years ago (and indeed further back). Improper theological visions of Church hierarchy and primacy have since led beyond the bold assertion of the unsupportable concept of a Primate who is ‘first without equals’, to the actual implementation of this flawed ecclesiology in one See’s direct violation of canonical order, based precisely on its insupportable belief that it has ultimate authority to act in its own right, in a manner binding upon all others.2 That this position, and the dire actions associated with it, is contrary to canonical order is the subject of many studies already; that it is the ‘logical’ fruit of a flawed vision of primacy and authority, rooted in misapplications of Trinitarian theology and a failure to understand episcopal-sacramental participation in the Body of Christ, is the object of what follows below.

Original Introduction

The question of primacy has become a troubled one in contemporary Orthodox discussion. Due in large degree to the tendency to develop extremes that react against extremes — a perceived extreme of emphasis on personal, magisterial primacy, often reacted to with an extreme of depersonalised primatial ambiguity — a considered reflection on the question has been difficult to foster. The very term, ‘primacy’, is distasteful to some; yet this Scriptural principle of due order and unity has always been a part of the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church. In an environment where ecclesiastical taxis, or good order, is taken as in some sense a reflection of the orderliness of creation itself, discussions over the right expression of that taxis are not (or ought not be) discussions over power and authority. Rather, they address the way in which the Church’s life is maintained in harmony, in order that her full mission may be accomplished without hindrance.

It is interesting, then, that over the past decade, it is chiefly through reactions to a document that is the fruit of extra-Orthodox dialogue (namely, a text from the Joint International Commission on Theological Dialogue Between the Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church3) that rifts in the intra-Orthodox understanding of primacy have arisen. We are referring to the so-called ‘Ravenna Statement’ of the Joint Commission’s plenary session of 13th October 2007, which has thus far proved the most problematic of all the documents produced in the almost forty years of the Commission’s existence (due at least in part to the absence of participation of the Russian Orthodox delegation in the production of the text).4 For its part, the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate had in 2007 tasked a Synodal Theological Commission to consider the question of ecclesial primacy in light of the ongoing discussions of the Joint Commission5; however, the publication of the Ravenna Statement in October of that year without Russian Orthodox involvement6 led the Synod to publish a response, in the form of its ‘Position of the Moscow Patriarchate on the Problem of Primacy in the Universal Church’ (2013).7 As the primary objections of the Russian Orthodox Church to the Ravenna document centred on the question of primacy as it relates to the Church at its broadest level (that is, not diocesan, nor autocephalous-patriarchal, but at the global / inter-autocephalous or ‘universal’ level), the response issued in the Patriarchal Position focussed chiefly on this question, and largely within the framework outlined by the Ravenna text itself.8

What is perhaps most interesting about the aftermath of the Moscow Patriarchate’s publication of this Position in 2013 is not that it required a return to some of the fundamental historical questions underlying the discussion between Orthodox and Roman Catholics, relating to the taxis of the pre-schism Church,9 but instead the strong responses it provoked amongst others within the Orthodox community itself. Most notably, the Moscow Patriarchate’s text elicited an almost immediate reaction by two scholar-clerics of the Patriarchate of Constantinople: an extraordinary document by His Eminence Elpidophoros (Lambriniadis), Metropolitan of Bursa, entitled ‘First Without Equals: A Response to the Text on Primacy of the Moscow Patriarchate’10; as well as an article by Archimandrite Panteleimon (Manoussakis) entitled ‘Primacy and Ecclesiology: The State of the Question’.11 Bold claims are put forward in both documents (including what I believe to be the first statement in 2,000 years of Orthodox history, made by a sitting Hierarch, in which it is directly stated that the Patriarch of Constantinople is, in his person, primus sine paribus, ‘first without equals’; we shall comment on this further, below), and both documents have been widely circulated in the years since. Disputes over their contents, and that of the document of the Moscow Patriarchate, have been frequent. And yet a directly theological-ecclesiological reflection on the statements of the Patriarchal Position, together with the criticisms of both Metropolitan Elpidophoros and Archimandrite Panteleimon, seems yet to be forthcoming.

It is this that I should like to attempt in the pages to follow. Not a whole-scale attempt at addressing the themes of conciliarity and primacy writ large, but a response to three key elements on the topic put forward in the Moscow Patriarchate’s 2013 Position, which have received direct criticism in the reactions that followed: namely (1) the primacy of Christ in the hierarchical structure of the Church, and how this relates to the theological primacy of Bishops and the hierarchical primacy of broader regions; (2) the reality of administrative primacy as grounded in conciliar consensus, and whether this amounts to a ‘depersonalisation’ of primacy that falls foul (as is claimed by both Lambriniadis and Manoussakis) of an Orthodox Trinitarian theology; and finally (3) the question of primacy as shared within the communion of Church Hierarchs, broaching directly the question of primus inter pares versus primus sine paribus.

1. The Primacy of Christ: Primacy as Christology

a. Participation in the Primacy of the Saviour

The first point that must be emphasised in any discussion of primacy is that it is fundamentally a theological reality. It is ecclesiological only in so much as all Orthodox ecclesiology is an extension of, and participation in, the theological mystery of God’s eternal being and economic self-revelation to man. Any ecclesiology that endeavours to ground itself in something other than the participatory theology of the Church is, at its core, not ecclesiology at all but a para-ecclesiology.

We take pains to emphasise this fact because it grounds one of the most self-evident and significant realities relating to the question of primacy in the Church, and yet one which is nonetheless continually disputed; namely, that the singular primus of the Church is none other than Jesus Christ Himself. Primacy is and always must be Christological, and the question of individual primacy (that is, primacy as exercised by certain individuals or bodies) always centres on His Person.

The Scriptures are replete with testimony to this most basic fact of Orthodoxy’s theological ecclesiology. St Paul notes:

The Lord Jesus Christ is the head of the body, the church: Who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things He might have the pre-eminence (Col 1.18).12

And again, to the same Church:

Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in Him, which is the head of all principality and power (Col 2.8-10).

And once more, to the Church in Ephesus, where he prays:

That the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give unto you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him: the eyes of your understanding being enlightened; that ye may know what is the hope of His calling […] and what is the exceeding greatness of His power to us who believe, according to the working of His mighty power, which He wrought in Christ, when He raised Him from the dead, and set Him at His own right hand in the heavenly places, far above all principality, and power, and might, and dominion, and every name that is named, not only in this world, but also in that which is to come: and hath put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be the head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fulness of Him that filleth all in all (Eph 1.17-23).

It would be possible to go on at length with Scriptural passages that emphasise this basic fact of our Orthodox ecclesiology — that Christ is the Head of the Church — but these are well known and these few selections suffice to make the point. The point is so significant precisely because it stations Orthodox ecclesiology wholly in the realm of her theological confession. As the Church is the mystical Body of the Saviour (Now ye are the body of Christ, and members in particular . . .; 1 Cor 12.27), so the ‘leadership’ or ‘headship’ we identify within this Body is first and foremost Him Who is its Head, and not a structure of created organisational authority.

The significance of this point — which is, for Orthodox, a confession of faith — cannot be overstated, for it is precisely in respect to this reality that the authority of the Church’s pastors, her Bishops, resides. Those who are the shepherds of Christ’s flock are so not because of either a personal charism of leadership skill nor a communal fiat of nomination (though both may be involved in the process of selection), but because by the Apostolic grace of consecration they are united to, and come to participate in, the life and work of the Great Shepherd (cf. John 10.11, 14, 16). The authority by which a Bishop acts and works is the authority of Christ Himself, of Whom the Bishop is become an icon and in Whose ministry he participates through the charism of his consecration.13

Everything, everything, about the Bishop’s place the Church emphasises this singular reality which is at the centre of the Orthodox confession of the Church as Christ’s living Body. The attire of the Bishop is Christological: when he is fully vested he wears the suffering Christ’s crown of thorns, he is adorned in Christ the King’s imperial robes, he holds the Good Shepherd’s pastoral staff; and in the form of the Great Omophorion he, called to be a living icon of Christ, bears the lost sheep upon his shoulders and lifts it up to the right hand of His Father. Sacramentally the Bishop is the chief celebrant of the Holy Mysteries, and chief among them the Holy Eucharist — where he offers, for Christ, that which is Christ and which Christ Himself mystically offers; that great mystery of liturgical iconography summed up in the proclamation, ‘Thine own of Thine own, we offer unto Thee….’

When the Bishop blesses, he similarly does so as an icon of Christ: thus his hands take the symbolic form of Christ’s name; or he takes the dikiri and trikiri in his grasp and blesses with the confession that Christ, in His human and divine natures, is One of the Holy Trinity. When the Bishop preaches, he does so holding his crozier — the shepherd’s crook — speaking with the voice of the Good Shepherd for the sake of the good estate of His sheep.

And so on. The richness of the liturgical and pastoral rites of the Church emphasise over and again the fact that the Bishop is primatial amongst his flock (that is, their functional head in the local church, their despota or ‘master’) entirely because of his iconographic-sacramental participation in Christ, Whom he makes present mystically in the divine work and life of his office. There is no clearer confession of this Christological grounding to the Bishop’s primacy than the rite of the vesting of the Hierarch at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy. The Bishop, who is greeted in festal honour and robed in the purple mantle of the king for his entrance and prayers of preparation, is placed upon the cathedra where he is ritually stripped of his signs of personal dignity (his mantle is removed; so too his klobuk, his usual panagia, his ryassa) and he is reduced to a condition of liturgical nakedness: he stands solely in his cassock (the only time a Hierarch ever appears in such a state of ‘liturgical undress’ in the temple), precisely so that he can be liturgically invested with insignia of the icon he is charismatically charged to become by his consecration: the icon of Christ. And so the Hierarch’s individual personality is diminished, and he is visually transformed by the symbolic garments of Christ — and all behold this transformation, which takes place in their midst, as a visual confirmation that it is Christ Who now stands amongst them, mystically present in the Bishop (despite all his personal weaknesses and unworthiness), and Who thereby governs His flock.

If perhaps it seems I am dwelling at unexpected length on the Christological significance of the Bishop in a text dealing with broader ecclesiastical primacy, the justification for this comes from the fact that the chief confession of primacy in Orthodoxy is intimately bound up in this reality. As is succinctly stated in the 2013 statement of the Moscow Patriarchate:

In the Holy Church of Christ, primacy belongs to her Head – our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, the Son of God and the Son of Man.14

This strikes us as such a self-evident point that justifying it further ought to be superfluous; yet in the heated discussions over primacy that have taken place in subsequent years, this fundamental reality has been directly challenged. This is most dramatically the case in a text which suggests that a distinction between Christ as Head of the Church, and Bishops as her actual / personal leaders, creates a gap of ‘naiveté’ that fails to account for the fact that Christ is ‘not physically present’ with the Church except in the elements of the Eucharist:

Indeed, on both the regional and local levels, ecclesial structures presuppose that the bishop is Christ’s living icon. No Orthodox would accept the claim that the bishop is not needed as head of either the diocese or the metropolitanate, simply because that role is filled by Christ himself. Furthermore, the naiveté of such an assertion ignores the profound theological significance of Christ’s ascension. Apart from the Eucharist Christ is not with us physically […].15

The logic of this argument needs to be examined. What is suggested is that, since the Orthodox confession that Christ is the Head of the Church does not stop us from having Bishops who, at the local level, lead that same Church, by the same logic a suggestion that since Christ is the Head of the universal Church, the Church need have no universal, human (episcopal) head, is ‘naive’. Where this argument breaks down, of course, is in its failure to perceive what we have spoken about above — namely, the fact that the charism of the episcopal office is precisely one of participation in the genuine presence and active governance of Christ. The fact that Christ has ascended in glory to His Father ‘and shall come again in glory’ (as is recited in the Creed) must be held together with the confession of the Divine Liturgy in which the priest praises God for that ‘which has already come to pass for us … the Cross, the tomb… the ascension in glory, the sitting at the right hand, and the second and glorious coming again16; indeed, the Lamb Who was slain before the foundation of the world (Apoc. 13.8), Who ‘was taken up’ out of the sight of His disciples (cf. Acts 1.9), is the same One Who assured them, I am with you always, even unto the end of the age (Matthew 28.20); and the singular confession of the Church is that Christ most certainly is present with us, in the charismatic reality of those whom He has called to be His living icons (as also in the ‘food and drink’ of the Holy Mysteries).17

The conclusion that needs to be drawn here is that the participatorial nature of episcopal ministry, united to the life of Christ rather than standing ‘in stead’ for Him, prevents us from ever wandering down the path of suggesting that, since Christ ‘is not with us physically’, He is not therefore actively present with us in the sacramental reality of the episcopal office (and the entire clerical hierarchy of Bishops, Priests and Deacons). The Lord needs none to stand ‘in stead’ for Him (much less to substantiate His primacy), because in His ministers He is Himself present and active. This is the fundamental reality of episcopacy as a sacramental, Christological mystery.

b. Distinctions of Primacy — A Threefold Measure

We can come, at last, to the heart of the question of primacy, since everything rests on a right understanding of what we have discussed above. Primacy, in Orthodoxy, is always Christ’s; it is unequivocally a Christological reality, a personal authority reserved solely for the Lord Himself, which becomes ecclesiastical inasmuch as the ecclesia, the Body of that same Lord, participates mystically in His life.

How is this ecclesiology, then, manifest in reality? How does participation in Christ’s personal primacy relate to the hierarchical structures of the Church?

The 2013 document of the Moscow Patriarchate, following the basic categorisations of the Ravenna Statement of 2007 which identified three realms of Church administration — the local, regional, and universal levels we have mentioned above — clarified this position with reference to those same categories; namely, primacy at the local (diocesan) level, that of the regional (autocephalous) church, and that of the universal church. For the sake of clarity, I wish to reduce this tripartite distinction to a twofold structure, since the second and third categories of primacy are ecclesiologically and theologically similar, and differ solely in the extent of their administrative scope.

To put the matter as plainly as possible, there is only one theological vision of primacy in Orthodoxy, and that is the primacy of Christ we have described above. Since this primacy is that in which the Bishop participates iconographically, liturgically and pastorally through the charism of his consecration, the sole and singular expression of theological-ecclesiological primacy is that of the local Bishop shepherding his flock. In the person of the Bishop, standing upon his cathedra in the midst of the flock entrusted to him, the primacy of Christ is mystically manifest.18 The most fundamental ‘unit’ of Orthodox ecclesiology is always the chalice, the ‘one cup’,19 which in ecclesiological terms relates to the city, the Hierarch’s resident See in which this cup is lifted up in the Eucharistic sacrifice, and here the mystery of the one Primus is fully disclosed in the liturgical life of the local flock.

This equates precisely to the ‘first level’ of primacy identified in the 2013 document of the Moscow Patriarchate, which is described as that of the diocese (eparchy), where the primacy is the Bishop’s and the source of his primacy the Apostolic succession bestowed upon him through his consecration. That document states:

The ministry of the bishop is the essential foundation of the Church […] In his church domain, the bishop has full power, sacramental, administrative and magisterial. […] The bishop’s sacramental power is most fully expressed in the Eucharist. In celebrating it, the bishop represents the image of Christ, presenting the Church of the faithful in the face of God the Father, on one hand, and giving the faithful God’s blessing and nourishing them with the truly spiritual food and drink of the Eucharistic sacrament, on the other. As head of his diocese, the bishop leads the congregation’s divine worship, ordains clergy and assigns them to church parishes, authorising them to celebrate the Eucharist and other sacraments and religious rites.

A few points need to be made here. Firstly, the statement that ‘the Bishop has full power’ within his diocese, like the statement that ‘the source of the Bishop’s primacy in his diocese is the apostolic succession handed down through episcopal consecration,’20 does not suggest a division of the Bishop’s authority from the ruling primacy of Christ. Rather, it is precisely because the consecration of the Bishop draws him, sacramentally, into the ministry of the One Christ, that the Bishop is the ‘primus’ of his See. He is so because Christ is so, and the source of his authority is his communion in the pastoral work (‘authority’) of the Saviour.

The second point to be made with reference to the Bishop’s primacy at this ‘local’ (i.e. diocesan, eparchial) level is that it is chiefly a theological / liturgical reality. The Bishop as ‘chief shepherd’ is first and foremost the celebrant of the Holy Mysteries, the one who draws the faithful towards the face of the Father and bestows upon them the blessings of the Holy Trinity. That is to say, the substance of the Bishop’s primacy at this local level is in manifesting the being and work of Christ to his flock: offering them His Body and Blood, His divine forgiveness, His pastoral instruction, etc., and drawing them in turn unto their Saviour.

It is only in connection to this, and as a practical extension of it, that the Bishop’s local primacy also includes elements of what we might call ‘administration’. Not only does he ordain clergy and establish parishes, but:

The bishop’s administrative power is expressed in that the clergy, monastics and laity of his diocese as well as parishes and monasteries, except for stavropegial ones, and various diocesan institutions (educational, charitable, etc.) obey him. The bishop administers justice in cases of ecclesial offences. The Apostolic Canons state: ‘Let not the presbyters or deacons do anything without the sanction of the bishop; for he it is who is entrusted with the people of the Lord and of whom will be required the account of their souls’ (Apostolic Canon 39).21

The most significant element of this statement (as well as of the Apostolic Canon it quotes) is that the administrative primacy of the Bishop, even within his own See, is a pastoral extension of his liturgical office, and that pastoral-administrative authority exists for the sake of good order. This may seem another self-evident point, but it is critical to a right understanding of episcopal authority and primacy in broader terms. The sole realm of theological primacy envisaged in Orthodoxy is that which the charism of consecration bestows upon the Hierarch, making of him a living icon of the Good Shepherd; all other manners and modes of primacy (e.g. ranks of authority in the formation of parishes, ordering of institutions, etc.) are practical extensions of this fundamental Christological-episcopal primacy, borne for the sake of good order and unity, even at the local level alone. To put this succinctly: administrative primacy is a practical application of theological primacy; it is never identified with it.

Let us turn, then, from this diocesan / eparchial level to the broader two identified both in Ravenna in 2007 and the Patriarchal Position of 2013: namely, that of the autocephalous Local Church, and that of the ‘universal Church’. The Moscow document spends considerable space differentiating between the types of primacy exercised in each of these realms (and whence that primacy derives), largely because the 2007 Ravenna document against which it is reacting framed the discussions in those categories. However, if we can take a step back from Ravenna, what is significant is that both of these realms (regional and universal) share a common attribute with reference to primacy; namely, primacy in both cases is but an extension of the function of local administration with reference to increasingly large locales, but in neither case is there a differentiation as regards the fundamental primacy of Christ, as it is exercised equally in the charismatic ministry of every Orthodox Bishop. Or, to put that another way: there is no distinction of Christological-ecclesiological primacy amongst Bishops, whatever their rank and on whatever level of locality they operate (be it eparchial, regional or universal); there is, however, an orderly and important distinction of administrative primacy that is established to ensure peace, unity and good order amongst the flock of Christ.

The 2013 Moscow document addresses the types and origins of the primacy of Bishops in each of these categories distinctly. At the level of the autocephalous Local Church, it notes, primacy belongs to the Bishop elected as such by the council of her Hierarchs; and the source of his primacy is thus the election by a synod which holds full ecclesial power.22 At the level of the universal Church (i.e. the interrelationships of all the Local Orthodox Churches) there exists a primacy of honour, as established by the diptychs.23 What is implicit in the descriptions of each that follows in that document, but which we might make explicit here, is that these distinctions of primacy at the regional and universal level are entirely distinctions of administrative interrelationships. Thus the primatial powers of a First Hierarch within an autocephalous Local Church differ from those of the primatial powers of a Bishop within his own diocese on precisely (and solely) administrative grounds:

It is the power of the first among equal bishops. He fulfils his ministry of primacy in conformity with the church-wide canonical tradition expressed in Apostolic Canon 34: ‘It behoves the Bishops of every nation to know the one among them who is the premier or chief, and to recognise him as their head, and to refrain from doing anything superfluous without his advice and approval: but, instead, each of them should do only whatever is necessitated by his own parish and by his territories under him. But let not even such a one do anything without the advice and consent and approval of all. For thus will there be concord, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit: the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit’.

Note that the Apostolic Canon’s thrust, in demanding that the Bishops of a region acknowledge one ‘as their head’, is to ensure that ‘there will be concord’ there. The Canon not only does not imbue the one who is recognised as ‘head’ as having a sacramental-ecclesiological authority greater than any of his brother-Hierarchs; it in fact explicitly states that each such Bishop ‘should do whatever is necessitated by his own parish and by his territories under him’. And what is contained in the ‘whatever is necessitated’ of this canon? Precisely the exercise of that ministerial life in which Christ, the true Primus of the Church, is manifest to His flock in every place and time. None of this authority, symbolism, power or significance is in any way arrogated to the first-among-equal Bishops that the autocephalous Local Church elects as its ‘first’; rather, he becomes the embodiment of the pastoral cooperation of all the Bishops, that there be concord and that God be glorified in all things. The Canon states that those Bishops will ‘refrain from doing anything superfluous without his advice or approval’; but it does not give him either a theological or ecclesiastical mandate to determine the actions of his brethren. Indeed, the Canon goes on to state that the Bishops of the autocephalous Church should not ‘do anything without the advice and consent and approval of all’ — that is to say, it does not relegate the ultimate authority of consent and approval to the First Hierarch, but to the synaxis of all the Hierarchs of the region.

We see the same thing when we examine the next level of authority: that of the universal Church. Here the Moscow Patriarchate’s 2013 document states:

The source of primacy in honour on the level of the Universal Church lies in the canonical tradition of the Church fixed in the sacred diptychs and recognized by all the autocephalous Local Churches. The primacy of honour on the universal level is not informed by canons of Ecumenical or Local Councils. The canons on which the sacred diptychs are based do not vest the primus (such as the bishop of Rome used to be at the time of Ecumenical Councils) with any powers on the church-wide scale.24

This is stated emphatically for reasons of the debate that prompted the text, but the point is entirely in keeping with the theological and canonical tradition of the Church we have seen exemplified above. Primacy at the universal level is but an extension of primacy at the level of the autocephalous Churches: it is a mutually agreed upon structure of administrative unity that fosters concord in the life of the Church throughout the world; but it presents no alteration to the basic primatial structure of the Church at the theological-ecclesiological level, which is always a fruit of the charism of episcopal consecration and is not modified in scope or authority (any more than Christ Himself could be altered in scope or authority) based on the office held by a specific Hierarch with reference to the administrative life of the Church’s unity.

This is all summed up nicely in §6 of the Moscow Patriarchal statement:

Primacy in the Church of Christ is called to serve the spiritual unity of her members and to keep her life in good order, for God is not the author of confusion, but of peace (1 Cor 14.33). The ministry of the primus in the Church, alien to temporal love of power, has as its goal the edifying of the body of Christ . . . that we . . . by speaking the truth in love, may grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ, from whom the whole body . . . according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body unto the edifying of itself in love (Eph 4.12-16).

c. Criticisms of This Distinction of Primatial Authority

Before coming to the question of primacy with respect to individual primates, we must pause to take account of some of the criticisms that have been levelled against the vision of primacy described above; namely, in the texts of Metropolitan Elpidophoros and Archimandrite Panteleimon, already mentioned. Both regard the distinctions set forth by the Russian Orthodox Church to be problematic, and their reactions raise questions that deserve answers.

Metropolitan Elpidophoros objects strongly to the foundational issue of identifying the primacy of the Lord as distinct from the primacy of Hierarchs:

The first differentiation contrasts primacy as it applies to the life of the Church (ecclesiology) and as understood in theology. Thus the text of the Moscow Patriarchate is forced to adopt the novel distinction between on the one hand the ‘primary’ primacy of the Lord and on the other hand the ‘secondary’ primacies [“various forms of primacy... are secondary”] of bishops, although later in the same text it will be suggested that the bishop is the image of Christ [cf 2:1], which seems to imply that the two primacies [are] identical or at least comparable, if not simply identified. Even the scholastic formulation of such distinctions between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ primacies demonstrates the stealthy contradiction.25

And he goes further:

Moreover, the desired separation of ecclesiology from theology (or Christology) would have destructive consequences for both. If the Church is indeed the Body of Christ and the revelation of the Trinitarian life, then we cannot talk about differences and artificial distinctions that shatter the unity of the mystery of the Church, which encapsulates the theological (in the narrow sense of the word) and Christological formulations alike. Otherwise, church life is severed from theology and is reduced to a dry administrative institution, while on the other hand a theology without repercussions in the life and structure of the Church becomes a sterile academic preoccupation. According to Metropolitan John of Pergamon: ‘The separation of the administrative institutions of the Church from dogma is not simply unfortunate; it is even dangerous.’26

What is significant about this set of criticisms is that they are strikingly self-contradictory. In arguing that the Russian Orthodox Church is wrong to distinguish between (a) the ultimate primacy of Jesus Christ and (b) the primatial authority located in individual Bishops, the author is either implicitly rejecting a clear distinction between Christ’s primacy over His Church and that of a human Bishop (which, suffice it to say, would be a rather strange claim); or he is left, at the other end of the pendulum’s arc, to suggest that the two types of primacy are in fact categorically different, which then leaves open precisely the charge of ‘church life severed from theology and […] reduced to a dry administrative institution’ that is, curiously, his own accusation in the second quotation. Neither of these is tenable. Rather, in maintaining that the ultimate primacy over the Church is Christ’s, and Bishops participate in this primacy through their consecrated charismata (precisely the Christological-sacramental position maintained by the Church), one discovers the ‘solution’ to the dilemma that isn’t really there at all.

Secondly, to speak in terms of Christ’s ‘eternal primacy’ versus the ‘various forms of primacy in the Church in her historical journey in this world [which are] secondary’ (to use the actual language of the 2013 Patriarchal statement, which doesn’t actually employ ‘the scholastic formulation of such distinctions between “primary” and “secondary”’ — an accusation that is as inaccurate as it is polemical) is no more novel a distinction than Christ Himself makes when He announces that those who follow Him will, for example, cast out demons in My Name (Mark 16.17). We would presumably consider it neither novel nor sophistic to suggest that there is a distinction between the ultimate power over demons, darkness and death that is God’s alone, and the participation in that divine power evidenced in the lives of His followers at whose hands these miracles take place. It is an obvious fact that when we consider the relationship of man and God, we are always speaking of participation in that which has its ‘primary’ or ultimate reality beyond ourselves; and when we address the question of ecclesiastical primacy and authority this is no different. It ought to go without saying that, when the ultimate primacy over the Church resides in the eternally-begotten, super-essential and eternal Son of the Father, any and all primacy exercised in the hearts and bodies of this God’s human creatures is going to be solely of a participatory nature.

What is fundamentally at flaw in the criticisms identified above is a distortion of the very thing they claim to maintain: namely, an authentically Christological confession of primacy itself. Since primacy is being conceived (in these quotations) as something other than a participation in Christ’s own primatial ministry, it becomes all but impossible to maintain it with integrity in light of the unity of Christ — Whose power and grace must therefore either be divided, or merely mimicked. This flaw is also at play in a second set of criticisms, levelled against the specific differentiations in levels of primacy contained in the Moscow text:

The second differentiation which in our opinion is attempted by the text of the Moscow Patriarchate pertains to the three ecclesiological levels in the structure of the Church. It is here, it seems, that the entire weight of that text hangs. The text states that the primacy of the local diocese is understood and institutionalised in one way, while on the provincial level of an autocephalous archdiocese it is understood in another, and on the level of the universal church in yet another way (cf. 3: “Due to the fact that the nature of primacy, which exists at various levels of church order (diocesan, local and universal) vary, the functions of the primus on various levels are not identical and cannot be transferred from one level to another”).27

The criticism then goes on to challenge the differentiation of the sources of primacy in these three realms, as well.28 But here we are encountering the same fundamental error: by divorcing the question of primacy from participation in the ministry of Christ — which is common to all Bishops through the grace of consecration — and identifying it instead somehow in a personal appropriation of a given hierarchical office, problems are being created that do not actually exist (e.g. the ‘problem’ of distinguishing between primacy in different regional contexts), and realities that do exist are being denied (e.g. the nature of theological primacy as sacramental/participatory, distinct from administrative organisation). As to the question of whether ‘the primacy of the local diocese is […] institutionalised in one way, while on the provincial level […] and on the level of the universal church in yet another way,’ the answer to be given is an emphatic ‘yes’. It is precisely because the fundamental primatial authority of the whole Church, at every level, is the consistent primacy of Christ in which every Bishop charismatically participates, that the administrative primacy over different categories of the Church’s structure (be they metropolia, autocephalous bodies or the universal Church) is wholly identified in different modes of institutionalisation. The much-cited Apostolic Canon 34, which we have already quoted above, makes explicit that the primatial authority of the First Hierarch in a region is different than the primatial authority of the diocesan Bishop (of which he is also one) — being an office intended to promote unity amongst those brother Bishops. The same holds true on a larger scale. So what is levelled as a criticism is in fact the very heart of authentic primatial distinction in Orthodoxy: the universal primacy of Christ, in which each and every canonical Bishop participates in his hierarchical ministry, such that the primacy of structural administration will always be other than this. The latter is a functional office provided in humility for the good ordering of the flock, that in the harmony of the Church Christ might ‘have the pre-eminence’ (cf. Col 1.18).

2. Primacy and Individual Primates: A Trinitarian Question?

a. Locating Primacy in Distinct Individuals

Thus far we have dealt with the basic question of primacy as it relates to Christ’s relationship to His Church. What we have not yet covered is the issue of primacy as it relates to individual identity; or, more particularly, the ways in which the exercise of primatial authority relate to the individuals in whom it is exercised.

Sacramentally, there is but one means of raising a man to participate in the charism of Christ’s primatial authority: namely, the laying on of hands in Apostolic succession at his consecration to the episcopacy — a sacramental act. However, the means of appointing an individual Hierarch to a position of primatial authority at an administrative level vary. Generally this is through election by a synod or council (as is identified in the 2013 Patriarchal document29); and then at the universal level by the dignity accorded in the accepted (but changeable) rankings of the diptychs. In both cases, what is immediately observed is that there is a distinction between the bestowing of administrative primatial authority upon a given individual, and the primatial authority itself. This may seem a peculiarly self-evident statement, but it will become critical in addressing some of the curious statements made over the past decade, that call it into question. In the case of the First Hierarch of a Local Church, the office and responsibilities of the First Hierarch are not dependent upon his person but are bestowed upon him by the council of the Local Church, and normally enumerated within a printed statute.30 Similarly at the universal level, the diptychs describe a hierarchy of honour and preeminence that is afforded the first-among-equals (and other ranks) of all the Local Churches by the accepted recognition of all those Churches. It is not a personal or self-contained reality but an acclamation of consensus, and therefore it can be (and, as a matter of historical testimony, has been) altered by the consensus of the Local Churches when deemed appropriate (e.g. in the transference of primacy from Rome to Constantinople).

As straightforward as they are, the assertions summarised in the above paragraph have in fact been challenged, and I will return to the precise questions over conciliarity and primacy that have led some to suggest that, for example, the diptychs are post hoc affirmations of a fundamental hierarchy of primacy that they cannot alter (an entirely fallacious argument). But first we must address the question that underlies such criticisms, which is whether the discussion of primatial authority, discernible apart from the concrete individuals holding primatial offices, is a distortion of Orthodox teaching. Or, to put this in the form of a question: if we can envisage the primacy of a First Hierarch apart from the concrete identity of the First Hierarch himself, or the primacy of an Ecumenical Patriarch apart from the concrete, personal identity of that Patriarch, are we not forcing a divide between individual and institution that is counter to the very nature of Orthodox theology?

b. A Question of ‘Depersonalisation

The charge that it is precisely such a distortion is not infrequent in the highly polemical context of our day. In intra-Orthodox discussions over primacy, and particularly where questions of the primacy of the Patriarch of Constantinople (in relation to that of the First Hierarchs of the other Local Churches) are raised, this question becomes one of the most fundamental issues of dispute; but it is relevant beyond the contexts of these often passion-charged debates. It provokes the fundamental question of whether proper theology demands that authentic primacy be embodied in the individual identity of a given primate. Is the episcopal primus of the universal Church constituted as such in his individual identity, or is he such by conciliar affirmation and voluntary co-recognition?

A repeated accusation levelled against the distinction of primacy in conciliarity (i.e. as constituted by conciliar affirmation) from primacy resident in the concreteness of a singular individual, is that it is ‘depersonalising,’31 and this is a question deserving of some serious reflection. It is absolutely correct to state that ‘in Christian theology, the principle of unity is always a person’32 (though we might question the loose use of the term ‘person’ here, which is symptomatic of a debased usage of this term in much theological writing today); but what is in question in this discussion is which ‘person’ (or Person) we are speaking of when we refer to primacy exercised in the Church. It is, in fact, possible to de-emphasise the role of an individual without depersonalising the life of the Church more broadly, since the one Person Who must remain central is Christ Himself; and as St John the Forerunner once noted, in order for this to take place it is sometimes the case that He must increase, but I must decrease (John 3.30).

We can see this in an example from the life of the Church, in which any possibility of an individually-constituted primacy is clearly refuted by the witness of primacy transcending any specific individual, however high his station. This example is the so-called ‘Council of Jerusalem’ recorded in Acts 15.6-29. The first gathering of the Church’s hierarchical forebears came in the assembly of the Holy Apostles in Jerusalem, coming together in order to resolve the question of Judaising approaches towards the reception of Gentile converts. Significant to our question is the fact that, while the primus of the Apostles, St Peter, was present and actively participated in the activities of that synaxis (which was largely grounded in a dispute between St Paul and himself), actual primacy over the gathering was exercised not by him but by St James (cf. Acts 15.13 ff.). There are a number of reasons for this: Jerusalem was by tradition St James’ See; the dispute between Sts Peter and Paul was such that having either as the head of the body called to bring about resolution may have been problematic, etc. — but a key observation is clear: he who was established (by none other than Christ) as what in later terminology we might call primus inter pares, namely St Peter, did not exercise administrative primatial authority over that Apostolic gathering. This modification of administrative hierarchy, for the purposes of coming to a clear determination of God’s will, appears so second-nature to the Apostles that St Luke’s account of the synaxis doesn’t even draw attention to it as a question of protocol. It is simply understood that, in order for unity of Spirit to reign, such that the Apostles could say with one voice, It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us . . . (Acts 15.28) — that is, for the true and singular primacy of God Himself to be given free voice — the administrative hierarchy amongst them would be reconfigured as the needs of the situation demanded.

What are we to make of this? Was the Lord’s bestowal of a unique primatial dignity upon the person of St Peter invalidated by the latter’s not exercising primatial authority over an Apostolic gathering, or by submitting to the administrative primacy of a brother Apostle in Jerusalem? Certainly not. Rather, what is evidenced in the encounter (which is, we should remember, the first and in many ways a paradigmatic example of hierarchical interrelations in the Church’s life) is that the truly unequalled primacy of God (Who alone is primus sine paribus) is always that to which the individual administrative primacy of concrete Hierarchs is subservient; and when that Divine primacy is best given voice by the humble relegation of human primatial authority to different individuals than those who normally hold it, this is to be the expected and natural measure taken by the Church’s leaders standing subservient to their true and sole Head. This is also the fundamental definition of conciliarity: not that the conciliar nature of the Apostolic community is ‘democratic’ through lack of an absolute human autocrat whose authority is singular and intractably linked to his individual identity; rather, that the investiture of primatial authority within the community is always a functional expression of the participation of the whole in the active primatial authority of God.

The message to take away from this moment in the Church’s memory is that St Peter, whilst being the rock of the Apostolic community and the first amongst that hierarchical body, was not the ‘source’ of authority or unity amongst them. In other instances, where unity was best served by his primatial dignity being exercised as such, it was; but this was not an absolute. The ‘source’ of primacy remains Christ in Whom the Apostles participate, not the identity of any of the Apostles themselves.

c. Trinitarian Criticism of a Distinguished Primacy

But what are we to make, then, of the questions raised over an apparent ‘depersonalisation’ of the primus in a vision of the Church’s ecclesiology that does not invest a specific individual with the absolute authority of an arche or ‘source’ for conciliar unity? Is there not perhaps some traction in the claim that seeing primacy as not identical with the individual primate, forces a damaging distinction between person and reality? Such are the suggestions of Metropolitan Elpidophoros,33 and even more strongly of Archimandrite Panteleimon, who writes:

There is no either / or distinction between conciliarity and primacy. No council is conceivable without a primus. Philosophically speaking, the emphasis on primacy conforms with the idea that the “one” is both logically, ontologically, and chronologically prior to the “many.”34

Setting aside for a moment the fact that a council without a primus is eminently conceivable (indeed, every council which comes together to elect a new first-hierarch is one in which there is no established primus, but rather a ‘locum tenens’ of a primatial throne, which itself is testimony to the fact that proper primatial order can be maintained apart from an individual claim to primacy), here we arrive in territory where particular attentiveness is required. The arguments put forward to defend the idea that primacy as a governing principle cannot be separated from a primate in his distinctive identity, tend to make reference to the Church’s articulation of God as Holy Trinity, and the seemingly compelling theological references made in this regard actually tend to obscure important points about both God and man.35

The basic concept put forward to shore up an absolute, individual primacy in the realm of ecclesiology is generally a comparison with the relations of the Divine Persons of the Holy Trinity, in which the Orthodox confession of the monarchia of the Father (articulated in its most lasting form by the Cappadocian Fathers in the post-Nicene disputes of the mid-fourth century) is superimposed upon the human relations of authority in diversity. This essential theological distinction, which safeguards the identity-in-distinction of the Persons of Father, Son and Holy Spirit precisely by articulating their distinctiveness in relation to the sole ‘source’ (arche) of their relations, the Father Himself, is the heart of the Church’s confession of Trinity. That which the Son uniquely is, He is in relation to His being begotten of the Father; and that which the Spirit uniquely is, He is in relation to His proceeding from the Father — in both cases, the Father is the ‘sole-source’ (mone-arche) of those relations by which we articulate both the unity and the distinctive traits of all the Divine Persons.

With reference to our present discussion, this theological vision is superimposed upon ecclesiological territory in some creative, though profoundly problematic, ways:

The Church has always and consistently understood the person of the Father as the first in the communion of persons of the Holy Trinity (‘the monarchy of the Father’). If we were to follow the logic of the text of the Synod of Russia, we would also have to claim that God the Father is not Himself the anarchic cause of the divinity and fatherhood […] but becomes a recipient of his own ‘primacy’. Whence? From the other Persons of the Holy Trinity? Yet how can we suppose this without invalidating the order of theology, as St Gregory the Theologian writes, or, even worse, without overturning – perhaps we should say ‘confusing’ – the relations of the Persons of the Holy Trinity? Is it possible for the Son or the Holy Spirit to “precede” the Father?36

Or, as here:

The mystery of the Holy Trinity places in front of us, in an eminent way, the dialectic between the One and the many, identity and difference. It is well known that what safeguards the oneness of God and prevents the doctrine of the Holy Trinity from lapsing into tritheism is the person of the Father. The ‘monarchy of the Father’ indicates neatly that the coincidence and confirmation of unity and plurality in the Holy Trinity is exercised by a person — the Father. As the symbol of our faith, the Creed that we recite in every Eucharistic gathering attests, in its first article, the one God we believe in is a person, the Father […]. The oneness of God is safeguarded not by some impersonal divine essence, but by the person of the Father.37

To simplify what is being suggested in both of these examples, the (suggested) ‘depersonalisation’ of ecclesiological primatial authority from the individual identity of a hierarchical primate would be, in (supposedly) parallel theological terms, to depersonalise the Father from His distinctive personal attribute of being the sole arche, or source of the relations within the Holy Trinity. It would be, in other words, to engage in a troubling (if not theologically heretical) parallelism: just as the unity of the Godhead is destroyed if that which unifies-and-distinguishes the Divine Persons of Father, Son and Spirit is conceived of as a separately existing ‘divinity’ distinguishable from the three Persons in relation, so the unity-in-diversity of the Church’s primatial hierarchy would be destroyed if the principle of primacy were envisaged as existing in some separately-constituted ‘primatial authority’ discernible apart from an actual primus existing in relation to other Hierarchs. And the suggestions of the criticisms carry forward with this basic idea: just as the Son cannot be Son without being in relation to the Father, so a non-primatial Hierarch cannot be who he is unless he is in relation to a primus, etc.

At first blush this all sounds rather compelling, but it is grounded on theological assumptions that are deeply, and irretrievably, flawed. First and foremost amongst these is an overlooking of the fact that there exists no tradition in the Church’s heritage — canonical or historical — of relating episcopal authority to the Father, which is an essential and necessary element in such criticisms. Apart from one or two exceptions in a few early pastoral letters, the office of Bishop has always been explicitly attached, in terms of iconic significance and charismatic participation, to the Person of the Son, never to the Father; and so it must be with reference to the Son’s personhood that the Bishop, as Christ’s icon, is discussed. Suggestions that a primacy which is not intrinsically personalised is somehow an abrogation of the orderly monarchia of the Trinity is to place the Bishop into the role of icon of the Father, who then becomes the source (arche) of relations with his brethren — rather than as an icon of Christ Who always has His Personhood articulated through His relation to His Father. But this latter is precisely the reality of episcopal primacy: it is not a function of self-contained personal authority (no First Hierarch or Patriarch is arche, the ‘source’, of primatial authority), but a question of being grafted into the life of Him Whose authority is always that of His Father.

Indeed, properly articulated Trinitarian theology demands, rather than tolerates, that episcopal primacy be conceived as something always existing in the relation of an individual with something (indeed, some One) beyond himself. Firstly this is the episcopal communion in Christ which bestows the sacramental primacy of his office and ministry; and at the higher administrative levels it is in the calling into the relational work of administrative primacy that is the fruit of the inter-personal relations of the Church’s hierarchy expressed in her councils, her diptychs, etc.

The ‘Trinitarian’ criticisms levelled against a proper distinction of primatial authority are in fact fundamentally flawed applications of Trinitarian distinctions to the realm of ministerial relations. No element of Orthodox tradition substantiates what is simply an insupportable association of the Bishop’s authority — in his own individuality and in his relation to his brother-Hierarchs — with the eternal arche of the Father; this is, quite simply, a misappropriation of Trinitarian distinctions to human subjects. The greatest danger it poses is that, in asserting that one or another Bishop can be discerned as representing the Father’s personal identity as arche of the intra-Trinitarian relations, it sets up the possibility (fundamentally counter to the whole witness of Orthodox tradition) of seeing one Hierarch as himself being the arche of primatial authority in relation to others — even leading to the disastrous assertion, actually vocalised by some in our present day, that one Bishop might constitute, in himself, the source of all primatial authority, rendering him not ‘first among equals’, but ‘first without equals’.

d. ‘Primus sine paribus’: The ‘Logical’ Conclusion to a Flawed Dogmatic Ecclesiology

Finally we come to the question of where these articulations of primatial authority leave us with respect to the relationship between primates in the Church’s life. However one may feel about the tripartite distinction of territories described in Ravenna (local, regional and universal) and the fact of primatial realities at all three levels (diocesan Bishops, First Hierarchs, and ranked Patriarchs), the fact of the matter is that different degrees of primacy do exist in Orthodoxy, and the chief question is how rightly to understand their interrelation.

From a study of the issues we have explored thus far, the conclusion in terms of primatial relationships ought to be self evident. As the distinction of primatial authority on broad territorial levels (e.g. regional or universal) is an act of mutually-agreed administrative cooperation amongst Bishops who all participate equally in the singular primacy of Christ, the ranking of Hierarchs with respect to that administrative primacy is always a functional ranking of theological and pastoral equals. The common (though late) phrase, primus inter pares (‘first among equals’) is a way of articulating just this: a distinction of administrative authority amongst individuals who all, and each, participate in the indivisible and un-rankable primacy of the Son of the Father.

Nevertheless, efforts persist in speaking in other terms. The phrasing of Archimandrite Panteleimon is telling:

They [the Orthodox, as opposed to the Roman Catholics] give, however, little or no thought to the fact that the synod as a manifold body (as a gathering of bishops) presupposes the office of the One — that is, the one primus who, although inter pares as far as his sacramental faculty is concerned, remains nevertheless unequal in his primacy.38

And the issue could not be put any more starkly than in the words of Metropolitan Elpidophoros:

If we are going to talk about the source of a primacy, then the source of primacy is the very person of the Archbishop of Constantinople, who precisely as bishop is one ‘among equals,’ but as Archbishop of Constantinople is the first-hierarch without equals (primus sine paribus).39

With all due respect to the erudition of these two authors, there is simply no theological defence for this remarkable position. The sole primus sine paribus is Christ Himself, and precisely because all Bishops receive the grace of participating in His ministerial work through the laying on of hands at their consecration, there can be no Bishop — whatever his rank or office — who is primus except inter pares. We would be forced into a position either of suggesting that some Bishops participate more in the life and ministry of Christ than do others (since they are not inter pares), or that Christ’s Person and ministry are themselves subdivided amongst His ministers in such a way that one or another amongst them exercises elements of His pastorate that others do not. Suffice it to say that there is simply no precedent for either position in Orthodox ecclesiological tradition.

As shocking as the claims of these two authors are (and Metropolitan Elpidophoros’s statements that the Archbishop of Constantinople is, himself, the ‘source of primacy’ and ‘the first-hierarch without equals [primus sine paribus]’ are as close to ecclesiological heresy as I have ever seen in print), it is helpful to understand that they are but the ‘logical’ conclusions of the flawed dogmatic ecclesiology that undergirds them. When the dogma of the Trinity is misappropriated onto ministerial relationships, such that the ‘source’ of primacy, its arche, is understood to reside in the individuals who hold hierarchical offices, rather than being a thing participated in by those individuals, then and only then can the Trinitarian-relational questions raised by these authors have any traction at all — and unsurprisingly, it leads to disastrous results. That one primate can be ‘unequal in his primacy’ as himself the sole arche of all primatial relations, is as far from Orthodox ecclesiology and Trinitarian theology as it is possible to go.

3. Conclusion: Primacy in Communion

With what, then, are we left? Are we, by denying that the source of primacy for any one of the Church’s Hierarchs is his own concrete identity, left to conclude that primacy is a disorderly, ‘democratised’ and depersonalised concept divorced from living individuals?

The experience of the Church makes clear that this is not the case. The flock of the Church has always met her one Primus, her Lord and God, mystically present in each of her Bishops; and amongst those Bishops an orderly taxis of administrative primacy has always ensured — despite struggles and periods of fierce dispute — that the Lord’s true primacy is given the space of concord and peace in which to reign. While Christ has always been equally met in each Bishop on whom He bestows that Apostolic grace, His Bishops have nevertheless consistently followed the example set forth by that same Christ when he called St Peter to be His ‘First’, and have ensured that amongst themselves — not by divine dictate nor less by individual dignity, but by a consensus of mutual love and humility — good order reigns. In each region today, as always, diocesan Bishops submit in mutual respect to the one they deem their ‘head’; and when those heads themselves come together, they, like their brethren, seek not the glory of being (i.e. personally constituting) primatial authority, but in deference to one another and to the ultimate, active sovereignty of God, they call one amongst themselves ‘head’, that the whole Body may function peaceably in carrying out its work of life.

The Bishops of the Church, in their intercommunion and orderly taxis, manifest in the world the active primacy of her sole Head: Jesus Christ the Lord. It is He and He alone Who is the arche of their primatial offices, and their relations one with another. With Him and in Him they are called to serve, participating in that divine Life which is bestowed upon all Christians, and through which the Good Shepherd of the sheep is manifest in the midst of His flock.

Postscript (October 2018)

The above study demonstrates, I hope, that what has taken place thus far in 2018 with respect to the Patriarchate of Constantinople’s actions towards the other Local Orthodox Churches (as relates to the situation in Ukraine) is the tragic, and yet entirely expected, result of a deficient ecclesiology that has been brewing in the theological writings of some of its representatives for many years. When it is believed that primacy comes from the ontological identity of one primate with the arche, the ‘source’ of all primacy and unity in the way that the Father is the sole arche of the relations in the Trinity, the door has already been opened to an arrogation of universal primacy to a specific individual, or a specific Local Church. It is but the ‘logical’ next step that such beliefs would lead to concrete actions built on this premise: the assertions of one Patriarchate’s authority over another’s, outside of a conciliar context; the belief that one Patriarchate can rescind or revoke decisions made by conciliar consensus, even centuries before; the belief that one Patriarchate can adjust the canonical status of those outside its territories, without conciliar consensus or even involvement. All of these we have seen, directly implemented, over the past weeks.

The canonical travesty currently unfolding in Ukraine is a sorrowful, painful witness to the truth that when proper Orthodox theology and ecclesiology is distorted or abandoned, pastoral disasters follow. And yet it will, by God’s mercy, also ultimately prove to be an example of the fact that, when any one body so abandons proper ecclesiological and canonical principles, actual primatial authority — which is, and always will be, that of authority inter pares — will respond with a rejection of this error and an addressing of the pastoral concerns in accord with the Truth the Church is called ever to maintain.

Bishop Irenei of Richmond and Western Europe,
Synodal Secretary of Inter-Orthodox Relations of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia


1 This article is now being published in October 2018, following the declaration of the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Constantinople of the 11th of the same month, which has created a profound rift between itself and other Local Orthodox Churches.

2 And the extraordinary remarks of the Patriarch of Constantinople on 23rd October 2018 effectively remove any ambiguity over this position. In those remarks it was claimed that ‘Whether our Russian brothers like it or not, sooner or later they will follow the decisions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, because they have no other choice.’ And similarly: ‘Our Slavic brothers cannot tolerate the primacy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and our nation in Orthodoxy.’ A more precise identification of ‘our nation’ was not made in the remarks, but the ethnic-nationalist sentiment is directly asserted.

3 A body hereafter referred to as the ‘Joint Commission’. Since its establishment in 1979 by Patriarch Demetrios I of Constantinople and Pope John Paul II, plenary sessions have been held in 1980, 1982, 1984, 1987, 1988, 1990 and 1993; then after a seven-year hiatus again in 2000, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2010, 2014, with its most recent plenary in Chieti in 2016. Its meetings remain ongoing.

4 The Ravenna Statement is available on the Vatican’s web site at

5 By minute no. 26 of the Holy Synod’s meeting of 27th March 2007.

6 Participation of the Moscow delegation had been curtailed as part of a then-current dispute over the canonical situation of the Church in Estonia; the fact that the Joint Commission proceeded to produce a formal document with one of its major constituent groups in absentia is regarded by most as irregular.

7 ‘ПОЗИЦИЯ МОСКОВСКОГО ПАТРИАРХАТА ПО ВОПРОСУ О ПЕРВЕНСТВЕ ВО ВСЕЛЕНСКОЙ ЦЕРКВИ’, presented at the 25th-26th December 2013 session of the Holy Synod of the Moscow Patriarchate (minute no. 157). This document will hereafter be cited as ‘Patriarchal Position’.

8 For example, in following the threefold structure of actualised primacy in the Church as existing at the local, regional and universal levels — a distinction found in the Ravenna document. It was perhaps one of the most notable accomplishments of the 2016 plenary in Chieti that much of the problematic structure of the Ravenna document was done away with, together with elements of its flawed ‘Trinitarian ecclesiology’.

9 This is only to be expected, and such discussion was carried forward in subsequent meetings of the Joint Commission in 2008, 2010, 2013, 2014 and 2016.

10 Published in 2013 [?] and hereafter cited as ‘Lambriniadis’. The document is available on the official web site of the Patriarchate of Constantinople at

11 Published under his non-monastic name, John Panteleimon Manoussakis, in Orthodox Constructions of the West, ed. G.E. Demacopoulos and A. Papanikolau (New York: Fordham University Press, 2013), pp. 229-239. Hereafter cited as ‘Manoussakis’.

12 The italicised emphasis in this and subsequent Scriptural quotations is my own.

13 I emphasise the Bishop here, as the question in dispute relates chiefly to primacy at the episcopal level; but the same theology of participation applies equally to the iconic ministry of the Priest and the Deacon.

14 Patriarchal Position, 1.para.1.

15 Manoussakis, p. 234.

16 From the prayers of the Anaphora, Liturgy of St John Chrysostom.

17 We might note that it is for precisely this reason that the Orthodox Church considers ordination, whether as Deacon, Priest or Bishop, as a mystery, a sacrament, rather than merely an administrative or pastoral appointment.

18 And so we might reference here the passage from the Moscow statement: ‘Accordingly, various forms of primacy in the Church in her historical journey in this world are secondary versus the eternal primacy of Christ as Head of the Church by whom God the Father reconciles all things unto himself, whether they be things in earth, or things in heaven (Col 1.20)’ (Patriarchal Position, 1.para.4).

19 Cf. St Ignatius of Antioch, To the Philadelphians 4.1: ‘…there is one flesh of our Lord Jesus Christ and one cup unto union in His blood; there is one altar, as there is one bishop, together with the presbytery and the deacons my fellow-servants….’

20 Patriarchal Position, 2.(1).para.1. The footnote in the document indicates that this ‘includes election, consecration and reception by the Church.’

21 ibid., 2.(1).para.5.

22 Cf. ibid., 2.(2).para.1. This primacy, the document states, is based on ‘solid canonical foundations tracing back to the era of Ecumenical Councils.’

23 So ibid., 2.(3).para.1: ‘This tradition can be traced back to the canons of Ecumenical Councils (Canon 3 of the Second Ecumenical Council, Canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council and Canon 36 of the Sixth Ecumenical Council) and has been reconfirmed throughout church history in the actions of Councils of individual Local Churches and in the practice of liturgical commemoration whereby the Primate of each Autocephalous Church mentions the names of those of other Local Churches in the order prescribed by the sacred diptychs.’

24 ibid., 2.(3).para.3. The footnote (no. 6) provided in the document at this point reads: ‘There are Canons used in polemical literature to give a canonical justification to the judicial powers of the first chair of Rome. These are Canons 4 and 5 of the Council of Sardica (343). These Canons, however, do not state that the rights of the chair of Rome to accept appeals are extended to the whole Universal Church. It is known from the canonical codex that these rights were not limitless even in the West. Thus, already the 256 Council of Carthage chaired by St Cyprian responded to the claims of Rome to primacy expressed the following opinion about relations between bishops: “neither does any one of us set himself up as a bishop of bishops, nor by tyrannical terror does any compel his colleague to the necessity of obedience; since every bishop, according to the allowance of his liberty and power, has his own proper right of judgment, and can no more be judged by another than he himself can judge another. But let all of us wait for the judgment of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is the only one that has the power both of preferring us in the government of His Church, and of judging us in our conduct there” (Sententiae episcoporum, PL 3, 1085C; 1053A-1054A). The same is stated in the Letter of the Council of Africa to Celestine, the pope of Rome (424), which is included in all the authoritative editions of the code of Canons, particularly […] as a Canon of the Council of Carthage. In this letter the Council rejects the right of the pope of Rome to accept appeals against judgements made by the Council of African Bishops: “We earnestly conjure you, that for the future you do not readily admit to a hearing persons coming hence, nor choose to receive to your communion those who have been excommunicated by us….” Canon 118 of the Council of Carthage forbids to make appeals to Churches in overseas countries – which is anyway implied by Rome as well: Clerics who have been condemned, “if they take exception to the judgment, shall not appeal beyond seas, but to the neighbouring bishops, and to their own; if they do otherwise let them be excommunicated in Africa.”’

25 Lambriniadis, 1.para.1. It is noteworthy that this forms the opening paragraph of a section of His Eminence’s paper which he entitles, ‘Separation between ecclesiological and theological primacy.’

26 ibid., 1.para.2. The quotation from Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) of Pergamon is from ‘The Synodal Institution: Historical, Ecclesiological and Canonical Issues’, in Theologia 80 (2009), pp. 5, 6 (in Greek).

27 ibid., 2.para.1.

28 Thus ibid., 2.para.2: ‘As the Synodal decision claims, not only do these three primacies differ, but even their sources are different: the primacy of the local bishop stems from the apostolic succession (2:1), the primacy of the head of an autocephalous Church from his election by the synod (2:2), and the primacy of the head of the universal church from the rank attributed to him by the diptychs (3:3). Thus, as the text of the Moscow Patriarchate concludes, these three levels and their corresponding primacies cannot be compared among themselves, as done by the text of Ravenna on the basis of the 34th Apostolic canon.’

29 See Synodal Position, 2.(2).paras.1, 3.

30 See ibid., 2.(2).para.3: ‘The powers of the Primate of an autocephalous Local Church are defined by a Council (Synod) and fixed in a statute. The Primate of an autocephalous Local Church acts as chairman of her Council (or Synod). Thus, the Primate does not have one-man power in an autocephalous Local Church but governs her in council, that is, in cooperation with other bishops.’ The included footnote (no. 4) goes on to state that ‘The autocephalous Local Church can include complex church entities. For instance, in the Russian Orthodox Church, there are autonomous and self-governed Churches, metropolitan regions, exarchates and metropolises. Each of them has its own form of primacy defined by a Local Council and reflected in the church statute.’

31 So Lambriniadis, 2.para.3: ‘We can never encounter an impersonal institution, as the primacy might be perceived without a first-hierarch.’

32 Manoussakis, p. 235.

33 See our reference above to his comment in 2.para.3.

34 Manoussakis, pp. 233, 4.

35 I am in fundamental agreement with Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk that these attempts to critique a non-personalised conception of administrative primacy through calls upon Trinitarian dogmatics are fundamentally flawed (see Alfeyev, op. cit, paras. 10-12); yet they are pervasive enough in printed texts that I have elected to spend some space here refuting them.

36 Lambriniadis 2.(i).para.3.

37 Manoussakis, p. 235.

38 Manoussakis, p. 233.

39 Lambriniadis, 2.(ii).para.3.

Symeon11/2/2018 6:35 pm
Glory to God that He has raised up a defender of the truth in the person of Bishop Irinei, who seems to so clearly and level-headedly get at the root of the issue, laying bare and completely destroying the false, putrid and outrageous claims of those who are severely harming the Church with their diseased ideas and pseudo-Orthodox (i.e. anti-Orthodox and heretical) philosophies.

May God grant Vladyka Irinei continued strength, wisdom, and many, many years!
Anthony10/31/2018 9:48 pm
''The very term, ‘primacy’, is distasteful to some; yet this Scriptural principle of due order and unity has always been a part of the ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church.'' Odd statement. I don't believe primacy is scriptural. He who wishes to be first must be last. The whole problem with primacy is that it plays on the worst human passion of pride. Those who have had the misfortune of dealing with bishops in general will know this well. The arrogance, rudeness and general unpleasantness from those who are supposed to be the Humble Crucified One's representatives on His earth is quite shocking. Our one's in Cyprus whizz around our island in expensive cars with personalised plates! Whoosh!
Afanassy10/31/2018 9:08 pm
As I mentioned on this website before (twice), "First Among Equals" could way too easily be distorted into "First Without Equals", as this article astutely points out, --- which easily became "First Above Equals", --- which then even more easily became "First in Charge of Lesser Equals". Human sin and ego would see to that. Rome suffered from the same thing even more resplendently.

To be somewhat repetitious, we need to drop that term altogether.
The Primate of the largest, most influential jurisdiction, who can organize Councils, should simply be "Honorable Representative" or something similar, --- to make clear that he is their servant, not the inverse.

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