November 19, 2014 Length: 1:00:34
Well-known theologian, composer, and author Metropolitan Hilarion Alfeyev, Chairman of the Department of External Relations for the Moscow Patriarchate, delivered an academic address at St. Vlad's on November 8, 2014, on the topic of primacy in preparation for the 2016 Great and Holy Council. He was also given an honorary Doctor of Divinity Degree.
[Choir sings the Troparion of the Cross: O Lord, save thy people and bless thine inheritance. Grant victories to the Orthodox Christians over their adversaries; and by virtue of thy Cross, preserve thy habitation.
[Choir sings: O Heavenly King, the Comforter, the Spirit of Truth, who art everywhere and fillest all things, Treasury of blessings and the Giver of life, come and abide in us, and cleanse us from every impurity and save our souls, O Good One.
[Choir sings: Eis polla eti, Despota.]
Fr. Chad Hatfield: This convocation of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary is declared open, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. [Amen.]
Very Reverend Fr. John Behr: Your Beatitude, Your Eminence, Your Graces, reverend fathers, brothers and sisters, it’s my great pleasure to welcome everyone to St. Vladimir’s Seminary this evening for this academic convocation. Our honored speaker this evening really needs no introduction: His Eminence Hilarion, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk. He is the chairman of the Department of External Church Relations of the Holy Synod of the Patriarchate of Moscow. He is director and the founder of the Ss. Cyril and Methodius Institute of Post-graduate Theological Studies in Moscow. He is a member of the board of trustees of our own school. He’s taught at many schools around the world, lectured countless times on numerous topics in a multitude of places and contexts.
He’s the author of over 700 pieces, appearing in languages from Russian and English to Hungarian and Japanese, among which are monographs on St. Symeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory the Theologian, and St. Isaac of Syria; studies on dogmatic topics such as the name-glorifying controversy; and a series of books on the history and theology of the Orthodox Church, which we are pleased here at St. Vladimir’s Seminary to be translating into English, and of which the most recent volume has just appeared, and you’ll be able to buy it afterwards. And so far I’ve only mentioned his work in theology and theological education. And this is the reason for which we are honoring him this evening.
After finishing his studies at the Moscow Theological Academy in 1991, he taught homiletics and dogmatics, New Testamentan Greek, at the Academy and then also at St. Tikhon’s Theological Institute in St. John the Theologian Orthodox University. Then in 1993 to ‘96, he undertook and completed doctoral work at the University of Oxford, working under Metropolitan Kallistos and writing on St. Symeon the New Theologian. After completing his doctoral work in Oxford, His Eminence delivered a breath-taking and astounding programmatic statement for the need for theological renewal in theological education in Russia, though it was not for many, many years that he was able to begin this work in earnest in this field.
In 2002, he was consecrated as bishop by Patriarch Alexei, and then served for a number of years in various places in a number of places throughout Europe, being appointed in 2009 as a vicar to the patriarchate of Moscow and chairman of the Department of External Affairs. Now it was at this point that the Holy Synod of the Church of Russia decided to establish the Ss. Cyril and Methodius School of Post-graduate and Doctoral Studies, with Metropolitan Hilarion as its rector. This school really continued the work of Archbishop Nikodim, later Metropolitan of Leningrad, which he had begun in 1963, organizing post-graduate theological education of the Moscow Theological Academy, under the auspices of the Department of External Church Relations. And now in 2009, it was fully entrusted to this department.
This School has chairs in all areas of theological scholarship and has worked really hard over the last few years to build collaborative relations with theological faculties in Western Europe and the United States so that its work in theological education and research is carried out in dialogue and at the highest level with the broad academic world. It’s built up relations and established concords of relation with the universities of Oxford and Cambridge, Freiburg and Louvain, Amsterdam, Vienna, Thessaloniki, Heidelberg, Yale, Duke, Nashotah House, and many, many others, so that, through the guidance provided in this way, a whole new generation of Church scholars will be cultivated and nurtured. And we are very proud that last year we at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary entered into a similar relationship with the Post-graduate School, and we’re looking forward very much to developing this cooperative work and all the projects that we aim to do together. Keep your ears open.
The Post-graduate Theological School organizes frequent academic conferences and seminars on all sorts of matters. Fr. Chad and I had the opportunity to participate in a conference on St. Isaac of Syria this time last year, which was held for the first time and momentously in the halls of Moscow State University. And I have the great fortune to return in a few weeks’ time to the conference this year, which will be on St. Symeon the New Theologian.
So with all of this work, then, in theological research and scholarship, and in more recent years, promoting theological education in Russia at the highest level, it’s not surprising that Metr. Hilarion has received a number of honors: honorary awards and honorary positions. So it’s our great pleasure this evening to be able to award His Eminence with the doctorate of divinity, honoris causa, and he will address us with his lecture this evening on the topic of “The Primacy and Synodality from an Orthodox Perspective,” but before we hear that and before we actually invest him with a hood and with a cross, I’d like to call upon our Associate Dean for Academic Affairs to read the formal citation. Professor Barnet.
Professor John Barnet: Theologian and teacher, scholar and interpreter, leader in theological education, you have devoted your life and God-given talents to embodying the Orthodox Tradition in the field of theological scholarship and teaching. Through your writings, you have made the Orthodox faith known to many around the world, bringing countless people to the Orthodox Church. Through your scholarship, you have illuminated many facets and treasures of the Orthodox Tradition, and presented a comprehensive vision of the faith, bringing many to a deeper engagement with their Church. Through your tireless work in promoting theological education, you have brought the fruits of your own formation, which began in Russia and was completed in the West, back to your mother Church, to establish a new institute where future generations of Church leaders can be inspired and formed by the highest caliber of discerning scholarship, to promote growth in the Orthodox faith.
And in all, you have brought out and exemplified the vision of faith and theological learning to which we at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary aspire: to present the Orthodox faith, not as a relic in a museum, but as a vibrant and inspiring tradition to be incarnate at all times and in all places. Therefore, we are pleased to affirm that by virtue of the power vested in the board of trustees and the faculty of St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary, by the Board of Regents of the University of the State of New York, the degree of doctor of divinity, honoris causa, is bestowed upon His Eminence, the Most Reverend Hilarion, Metropolitan of Volokolamsk. [Applause]
His Eminence Metropolitan Hilarion of Volokolamsk: Please be seated.
Your Beatitude, Your Eminences and Graces, dear fathers, brothers, and sisters, distinguished participants, first of all, I would like to express my profound gratitude to St. Vladimir’s Theological Seminary for awarding me the honorary degree of doctor of divinity. It has been a great privilege for me to have been a friend of the seminary for many years, to have known its deans and chancellors, beginning with Fr. John Meyendorff of blessed memory, to having had my books published by the seminary press, and to have served on the seminary’s board. At a time when relations between Russia and America are once again strained, I find it particularly important to develop strong relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and American Orthodoxy. I believe that St. Vladimir’s Seminary, with its broad inter-Orthodox outreach, may play a crucial role in the restoration of trust between different parts of the globe.
Today I would like to speak on the issue of synodality and primacy. This topic has acquired particular importance in recent years owing to the work of the International Joint Commission on the Dialogue Between the Roman Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church. This matter is also relevant to inter-Orthodox relations, especially in the context of preparations for the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. More particularly, it is relevant because of the way that primacy is exercised currently in the Orthodox Church at the universal level, whereby hierarchs and theologians from the Orthodox Church in America participate neither in the Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue nor in the preparations for a pan-Orthodox Council.
Let me begin with clarifying the meaning of the terms. The term “synodality” or “conciliarity” is a translation of the Russian “sobornost,” itself coined by 19th-century Slavophiles such as Kireyevsky and Khomyakov, to designate the communion of all believers throughout the globe within the bosom of one Church. This communion included both the living and the dead. According to Kireyevsky, the sum total of all Christians of all ages, past and present, comprise one indivisible, eternal, living assembly of the faithful, held together just as much as by the unity of consciousness as through the communion of prayer.
In a more narrow sense, the term “synodality” or “conciliarity,” coming from the word “council”—”synodos” in Greek; “concilium” in Latin—designates a gathering of bishops exercising a particular responsibility. This is how the controversial Ravenna Statement of the Joint Commission on the Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue interprets the term. The document claims that the conciliar dimension of the Church’s life belongs to its deep-seated nature and that this dimension
is to be found at the three levels of ecclesial communion, the local, the regional, and the universal:t the local level of the diocese entrusted to the bishop; at the regional level of a group of local Churches with their bishops who “recognize who is the first amongst themselves” [Apostolic Canon 34]; and at the universal level, where those who are first (protoi) in the various regions together with all the bishops, cooperate in that which concerns the totality of the Church. At this level also, the protoi must recognize who is the first amongst themselves.
The term “primacy” in this context points to the leadership of one person who has a hierarchical rank at each of the three levels mentioned above. The Ravenna Statement claims that primacy and conciliarity are mutually interdependent. According to the document:
In the history of the East and of the West, at least until the ninth century, a series of prerogatives was recognized, always in the context of conciliarity, according to the conditions of the times, for the protos or kephale at each of the established ecclesiastical levels: locally, for the bishop as [protos] of his diocese with regard to his presbyters and people; regionally, for the protos of each metropolis with regard to the bishops of his province, and for the protos of each of the five patriarchates, with regard to the metropolitans of each circumscription; and universally, for the bishop of Rome as protos among the patriarchs.
The Ravenna document makes no mention of any differences in ecclesiology between the Orthodox and the Catholics. In this way, it is misleading. Having spoken about the way the Church is administratively organized in the Western and in the Eastern traditions, the document nowhere mentions that we are dealing with two very different models of Church administration, one centralized and based on the perception of papal universal jurisdiction, the other de-centralized and based on the notion of the communion of autocephalous local churches. There is an attempt in the Ravenna document to present the ecclesial structures of both traditions as almost identical at all three levels.
While there is a great deal of similarity with regards to the local, diocesan level, there is an enormous difference between East and West on how ecclesial structures are formed on regional and universal levels. In the Orthodox tradition, at the regional level, or rather at the level of an autocephalous church, there is a synod and a primate with clear prerogatives. In the Catholic Church, there is no primacy at the regional level. Who, for example, is the primate of the Catholic Church in Poland? Is it the metropolitan of Gniezno, who has an honorary title of “primate” but exercises no primacy at all, or is it the president of the bishops’ conference, who changes by rotation every four years, or is it one of the senior cardinals? Indeed, Catholic episcopal conferences that have convened recently can only very loosely be compared with the synods of the local Orthodox churches.
There is, in fact, only one primacy in the Catholic Church: that of the pope. This primacy is believed to be instituted iura divino, and to proceed directly from the primacy of St. Peter in the college of the apostles. It is the pope who confirms the decisions of councils, both regional and universal, who gives agreement to each episcopal appointment, and who embodies the fullness of ecclesial power. No such primacy has ever existed in the Orthodox tradition, even though there is an established taxis (order) whereby one of the primates enjoys first place.
None of these obvious differences is mentioned in the Ravenna Statement, which was adopted in 2007 without consensus and in the absence of the delegation of the Russian Orthodox Church. The document ignored criticism voiced by the representatives of the Moscow Patriarchate in the Dialogue during the drafting process. After Ravenna, the Joint Commission for the Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue continued to explore the subject of primacy and synodality. At its plenary meetings in Vienna in 2010 and in Amman, Jordan, in 2014, as well as at several meetings of coordinating and drafting committees between 2008 and 2013. Having worked on the matter for seven years, the Commission still has not been able to produce any document that satisfies all members.
The Commission attempted to approach the issue of primacy from both historical and theological perspectives. In particular, an attempt was made to put the issue of primacy in the context of trinitarian theology. It was argued that the Holy Trinity is an image of both primacy and conciliarity, since there is in it the monarchy of God the Father but also the communion of the three divine Persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Some theologians went so far as to insist that there is hierarchy among the three Persons, having found support in passages from St. Basil the Great, who speaks of a taxis (order) of the Holy Trinity. It was claimed that this ordering or hierarchy should be reflected in the administrative structure of the Church at the three levels: local, regional, and universal.
With respect to the local level, a reference to St. Ignatius of Antioch was made which ostensibly confirms these ideas. It was the famous passage: “See that you all follow the bishop, even as Jesus Christ does the Father; and the presbytery as you would the apostles, and reverence the deacons as being the institution of God.” Here the diocesan bishop is compared with God the Father, and the faithful are called to be obedient to him in the same way as Jesus was obedient to his Father. The argument of St. Ignatius, however, was clearly not from the realm of theological speculation, nor did Ignatius attempt to project a trinitarian model on Church administration at the diocesan level. There is, for example, no mention of the Holy Spirit here. He was, rather, concerned about the issue of ecclesiastical order, insisting on the central place of the bishop in the whole constituency of the local church.
The trinitarian comparison is even less convincing when we move from the diocesan level to what the Ravenna Statement calls the regional level, a grouping of the dioceses and their one metropolitan or patriarch. The interaction between the metropolitan or patriarch and his fellow bishops is described in the Apostolic Canon 34:
The bishops of each province must recognize the one who is first amongst them and consider him to be their head, and not do anything important without his consent. Each bishop may only do what concerns his own diocese and its dependent territories, but the first cannot do anything without the consent of all, for in this way concord will prevail and God will be praised through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.
Some argued, on the basis of this trinitarian glorification, that the administrative structure of the Church on the regional level also reflects, or should reflect, the communion between the divine Persons of the Trinity. The text of the canon, however, permit such a comparison; rather, it is the consent or harmony that reigns between the three hypostases of the Trinity which is cited here as an example which the bishops on the regional level should follow. With regards to the trinitarian glorification itself, it is similar to many such glorifications that conclude canonical, dogmatic, and liturgical texts, and was certainly not meant to draw any direct comparison between the hypostases of the Holy Trinity and the ranks in Church order.
In the 15th century, the great monastic refer, St. Sergius of Radonezh, dedicated his monastery to the Holy Trinity, using the communion of the three divine hypostases as a model of unity and concord for his monastic brotherhood. One of Sergius’ disciples, St. Andrew Rublev, painted the famous icon which became a classic example of the iconographic incarnation of an important moral and theological notion. Unlike most others, this one does not refer to any liturgical commemoration. It follows the traditional pattern known from early antiquity, according to which the three strangers that appeared to Abraham symbolized the Holy Trinity. The strangers are presented in the form of angels, of whom one is always in the middle.
In earlier iconography, the angel sitting in the middle was usually identified with God the Son, while the other two persons on the icon were interpreted as angels who accompany him. In Rublev’s icon, the central figure is also most likely to be identified with God the Son, but the other two figures seem to represent the other two Persons of the Trinity. Contemporary scholarship differs in its interpretation of the middle figure. Some tend to identify it with the Father, on the assumption that the first Person of the Trinity should occupy [the] central place in the composition. It seems to me that St. Andrew was deliberately unclear about who represents whom and which figure should be identified with which Person of the Trinity. His icon, in a most astounding way, describes the mystery of tri-unity without going into further details. It is the concord of the Persons of the Holy Trinity that is portrayed in this beautiful icon, rather than the structure of the Triune God who undeniably has no structure or subdivisions within himself, being simple and undivided.
The synodality or conciliarity that exists in the Church and has its particular expression in the institution of synods or councils may indeed be compared with the harmony and concord reigning among the Persons of the Trinity. One should not, however, go any further than that by attempting to compare human ecclesial structures with the divine trinitarian communion. Neither is it appropriate to interpret interrelationships between primacy and synodality in the Church by using trinitarian analogies, and thereby to refer to the primacy of the Father with regards to the Son and to the Holy Spirit.
The Ravenna Statement speaks about the three levels of Church administration, somewhat implying that what is true about one level can automatically be transferred to another level. This, however, is highly disputable. It was precisely the confusion between the three levels of Church administration in the Ravenna paper and an attempt to transfer arguments relative to one level onto another that prompted the synodal, biblical, and theological mission of the Moscow patriarchate to undertake a thorough study of the subject of primacy in the universal Church. As a result of this study, a document was produced and adopted by the Holy Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church in December 2013.
At the outset, the document indicates that primacy at each of the three levels of the Church has different sources. The source of primacy of a bishop in his diocese is the apostolic succession, handed down through episcopal consecration. The source of primacy on the level of the regional groupings of dioceses is the election of the pre-eminent bishop by a council or a synod that enjoys the fullness of ecclesiastical power. At the universal level, there is a primacy of honor, which is based on the sacred diptychs, i.e., the official order of churches established by ecumenical councils.
Secondly, the Moscow document indicates that at the three levels of the Church, primacy is of a different nature. The primacy of the diocesan bishop is clearly based on fundamental theological principles, such as the one famously emphasized by St. Cyprian: the bishop is in the Church and the Church is in the bishop, and that if somebody is not with the bishop, he is not in the Church. Primacy at the regional level, a matter of canonical convenience, is based on Church canons, notably on the 34th apostolic canon cited above. As for universal primacy, there is neither canon nor patristic statement that would describe such a primacy, other than the canons that establish a taxis (order) for the five major patriarchates. This taxis implies that one would be first, but gives no indication of his prerogatives over and above the remaining four patriarchs.
It is on the basis of these considerations that the Moscow document insists on the functions of the primates on various levels are not identical and cannot be transferred from one level to another. The document explains that to transfer the functions of the ministry of primacy from the level of an eparchy to the universal level means to recognize a special form of ministry, notably that of a universal hierarch possessing the magisterial and administrative power in the whole universal Church. By eliminating the sacramental equality of bishops, such recognition leads to the emergence of the jurisdiction of a universal first hierarch never mentioned either in holy canons or in patristic tradition.
The document further states that the order in diptychs has been changing in history. In the first millennium in Church history, the primacy of honor once belonged to the see of Rome. After Eucharistic communion between Rome and Constantinople was broken in [the] mid-11th century, primacy in the Orthodox Church went to the next see in the diptychs, namely, that of Constantinople. Henceforth, the primacy of honor in the Orthodox Church at the universal level has belonged to the patriarch of Constantinople, as the first among equal primates of local Orthodox churches.
This statement, of the biblical and theological commission of the Moscow patriarchate, has been contested by some Orthodox theologians who refer to the fact that the 28th canon of Chalcedon, on which the primacy of the patriarch of Constantinople has been based, does not speak about him as second after the bishop of Rome; rather, it acknowledges him as equal to the latter. Was there, then, some kind of double primacy in the universal Church in the first millennium, with one pope for the West and one for the East? Byzantine sources speak rather of a pentarchy, a concept officially endorsed by Emperor Justinian and according to which the whole oikoumene, universe, is divided into five patriarchates, whose rights and privileges are equivalent. This equality was expressed at the ecumenical councils in various ways: how discussions were held, how decisions were taken, how decrees were signed.
It has been somewhat taken for granted by some that synodality is sol linked with primacy that there can be no synod without a primate. But in the light of procedures in the first millennium, this fully applies only at the regional level. Indeed, at this level it was the metropolitan who presided at the council, and no council could take place without his presidency—unless the council was convoked to depose him, in which case one of the senior bishops would preside. As for the diocesan level, there were no councils or synods at this level, because all councils in the ancient Church were in fact gatherings of bishops, and there was only a single bishop in any one diocese.
So what about the universal level? How was primacy and synodality exercised at ecumenical councils? These were convoked by the emperor, before whom only certain sessions of some councils took place. Now, is it primacy that can be explained in ecclesial terms, or rather, was it the emperor facilitating discussions in order to make sure that order was properly preserved by the participants? Indeed, protocols of ecumenical councils indicate that discussions were at times heated and aggressive, and that some sort of mediation between the parties was at times highly appropriate.
Some maintain that it was the patriarch of Constantinople who presided over the ecumenical councils. If this were true about some, it was certainly not true about all ecumenical councils. For example, at the Second Ecumenical Council, presidency—or, rather, chairmanship—shifted from Meletius of Antioch to Gregory of Constantinople and finally to Nectarius of Constantinople. At the Third Ecumenical Council, it was St. Cyril of Alexandria who played a leading role once Nestorius of Constantinople had been deposed. At the four subsequent councils, the patriarchs of Constantinople indeed exercised leadership, but was this not because these councils actually took place in Constantinople or in cities within the jurisdiction of the patriarch of Constantinople, such as Chalcedon or Nicaea? Was it not because Constantinople was the capital of the empire and the emperor, who convoked the councils, resided there? Who would have presided over an ecumenical council had it taken place in Rome or in Alexandria or elsewhere?
To assert that only patriarchs of Constantinople were presiders over ecumenical councils from the fourth century onwards, because they were second in taxis after the bishop of Rome, it would follow logically that, had he been present, the bishop of Rome would have presided over such councils. A number of theologians insist that this would indeed have been the case, regardless of whether such a council would have taken place in Constantinople or Rome. There was, however, one case where a pope had been physically present in Constantinople during an ecumenical council. Pope Vigilius was summoned to the Byzantine capital by the Emperor Justinian, but instead of presiding over the Fifth Ecumenical Council, he spent his time under house arrest. [Laughter]
At its session in Amman, Jordan, in September 2014, the Joint Theological Commission on the Catholic-Orthodox Dialogue deliberated on the prerogatives of the bishop of Rome as primus inter pares in the first millennium in order to establish what might be his prerogatives if, hypothetically, there were a restoration of full communion between East and West. Some argued that in such a situation, the bishop of Rome should be given the right to convoke ecumenical councils and preside at them. In addition, he would also preside over the Eucharistic celebration when the primates of the autocephalous churches gathered for it. To some members of the Commission, it seemed to be obvious that such prerogatives follow from primacy of honor at the universal level. Yet early Church history offers no grounds for such claims. As we have seen, there has not been a single case of a pope presiding over an ecumenical council, nor has there been any case when a pope would have concelebrated with Eastern patriarchs and presided over such concelebrations.
The issue of primacy in the universal Church divided Orthodox and Catholics throughout the second millennium. It became a commonplace for the Orthodox, in their polemics with the Catholics, to insist that, in the universal Church, there can be no visible head, because Christ himself is the head of the body of the Church. I will not quote from the relevant abundant writings since they are well known.
Throughout the 20th century, however, this way of thinking was contested by some Orthodox theologians. The late dean of this seminary, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, believed that:
If the Church is a universal organism, she must have at her head a universal bishop as the focus of her unity and the organ of supreme power. The idea popular in Orthodox apologetics, that the Church can have no visible head because Christ is her visible head, is theological nonsense.
Current opinion in the Orthodox-Catholic Dialogue, however, clearly indicates that most Orthodox representatives concur with the millennium-old polemics against papacy rather than with the view expressed by Fr. Alexander. The notion that a supreme hierarch for the universal Church is a necessity has been approached from different angles over the last 50 years, but invariably the consensus among the Orthodox is that primacy as expressed in the Western tradition was and remains alien to the East. In other words, the Orthodox are not prepared to have a pope, even though different voices call for the adoption of a more centralized structure.
What kind of universal primacy is, then, acceptable for the Orthodox, and how, in the absence of the bishop of Rome, is this primacy exercised in the Orthodox Church? The official position of the Moscow patriarchate is rather concise on this point.
Primacy in the universal Orthodox Church, which is the primacy of honor by its very nature, rather than that of power, is very important for the Orthodox witness in the modern world. The patriarchal chair of Constantinople enjoys the primacy of honor on the basis of the sacred diptychs recognized by all the local Orthodox churches. The content of this primacy is defined by a consensus of all local Orthodox churches, expressed in particular at pan-Orthodox conferences for a preparation of a Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church. In exercising his primacy in this way, the primate of the Church of Constantinople can offer initiatives of general Christian scale and address the external world on behalf of the Orthodox plenitude, provided he has been empowered to do so by all the local Orthodox churches.
This statement, once circulated, provoked an emotional reaction on the part of certain Orthodox hierarchs. In particular, Metropolitan Elpidophoros of Bursa wrote an article entitled, “Primus sine paribus” (First without equals). Therein he criticized the Moscow document for allegedly transforming primacy “into something external and therefore alien to the person of the first hierarch.” Instead of this, he suggested that we consider any ecclesiastical institution as “always hypostasized into a person” and that the source of primacy at all three levels of Church organization is the first hierarch himself.
For the first time has an Orthodox hierarch bluntly asserted that the Ecumenical Patriarch is not primus inter pares, but primus sine paribus, that is, like the pope in the West, he is elevated above all other primates of the local Orthodox churches. This surely rings of an attempt to implant Roman Catholic ecclesiology on Orthodox soil.
The Moscow document’s comments with respect to the Ecumenical Patriarch are not meant to be theological declarations, nor are they an exhaustive description of the primus inter pares in the Orthodox tradition. Rather, they are modest attempts in describing the current situation in universal Orthodoxy. Crucial in the document is the word “consensus.” It indicates agreement by all Orthodox churches on certain prerogatives bestowed on the patriarch of Constantinople, as first among primates. These prerogatives are not of a theological nature; neither are they attached, so to speak, automatically, to the patriarchal throne of New Rome. Rather, they proceed from an accord of the Orthodox churches, based specifically on the decisions of pan-Orthodox conferences convened from the 1960s to the 1980s in preparation for the Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church.
As we all know, planning for this Council has proceeded for over a half-century, and it was only in March 2014 that the primates of the Orthodox churches decided to speed up the process in order for the Council to take place in 2016, so long as no unexpected obstacles should arise. It has been agreed that the Ecumenical Patriarch will occupy [the] central place in the presidium of the Council. Seated around him from right to the left will be his fellow primates, in accordance with the diptychs. The visible image of the Council will express Orthodox ecclesiology, and will contrast with the image of a Roman Catholic council, where the pope is seated on a special throne, separated from the other bishops.
It is of crucial importance that the decisions of the pan-Orthodox Council will be taken by consensus, not by vote, and that they will be approved by the entire assembly of bishops, not by a universal primate. This, again, points to a crucial difference between the Orthodox and the Catholic understandings of synodality and primacy. Catholic ecclesiology deems primacy, on its universal level, to be higher than synodality, because it is the pope who confirms the decisions of the council; without his decree, no decision of the council can be valid. For the Orthodox, synodality is higher than primacy, since the primate is subordinate to the council. At the regional level, it is one primate who is both subordinate and accountable to the regional synod, even though he convenes and presides over it. At the universal level, it is a college of primates that is accountable to the rest of the bishops. The first hierarch of this college convenes the council and presides over it, but together with other primates equal to him.
The way primacy on the universal level is exercised in the East continues to be a matter of consideration among the Orthodox. The pre-conciliar process has revealed certain differences among the autocephalous churches in their understanding on what this primacy should entail. One of the concerns of the pre-conciliar agenda is that of autocephaly. Who has the right of granting autocephaly? History reveals diverse examples of how autocephaly has been achieved. In most cases, it was proclaimed by a particular church and only later, sometimes after a long delay, was it recognized by Constantinople and other local Orthodox churches.
For instance, the Russian Church became de facto autocephalous in 1448, when the metropolitan of Moscow was elected without the consent of the patriarch of Constantinople, who at that time was in union with Rome. Yet it was only during the period between 1589 and 1593 that the Eastern patriarchs recognized its autocephaly. This was done by means of two letters, signed not by the Ecumenical Patriarch alone, but also by other patriarchs of the East. In these letters, the patriarchal rank of the primate of the Russian Church was recognized, and the patriarch of Moscow was placed fifth after the four patriarchs of the East.
The delay between a proclaimed autocephaly and its recognition by Constantinople has varied from fewer than 20 to more than 70 years. The Church of Greece, for example, proclaimed autocephaly in 1833, but was not recognized as such by Constantinople until 1850. The Church of Serbia restored its autocephaly in 1832, but was recognized in 1879. The Church of Romania declared it in 1865, but was recognized in 1885. The Church of Bulgaria proclaimed autocephaly in 1872, but it was only in 1945 that the patriarch of Constantinople recognized it by issuing a Tomos.
The Church of Georgia is a special case. It was apparently granted autocephaly in 466 from the patriarch of Antioch, but its autocephaly was abolished by the Russian tsar in 1811, only to be restored in 1918. It was recognized by the patriarch of Moscow in 1945, whereas the patriarch of Constantinople officially recognized it as late as 1989, when a Tomos of autocephaly was granted by the Ecumenical Patriarch to the Catholicos-Patriarch of Georgia.
In all aforementioned instances, the churches date their autocephaly from the time it was first obtained or proclaimed. According to Constantinople, however, it should be dated from the time when a Tomos of autocephaly had been granted by the Ecumenical Throne. Until recently, the patriarchate of Constantinople insisted on his exclusive right to proclaim autocephaly. This understanding was expressed by Metr. Elpidophoros in his article, which I cited above, who claimed that:
In the case of the archbishop of Constantinople, we observe the unique concomitance of all three levels of primacy, namely, the local, as archbishop of Constantinople (New Rome); the regional, as patriarch; and the universal or world-wide, as Ecumenical Patriarch. This threefold primacy translates into specific privileges, such as the right of appeal and the right to grant or remove autocephaly.
During discussions of this question in the pre-conciliar setting, it was agreed that in future the granting of autocephaly will be a pan-Orthodox process, in which all autocephalous churches will participate. The Tomos of autocephaly will therefore be signed by all primates. In what order the signatures of the primates will appear in subsequent Tomoi remains to be agreed upon, but there seems to be a consensus about the necessity for all churches to participate in this decision-making. Needless to say, the removal of autocephaly cannot now be imposed without the consent of all Orthodox churches.
This consensus will perhaps pave the way towards solving the painful issue of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America. Its autocephaly, granted by the Moscow patriarchate in 1970, is recognized only by some Orthodox churches, though the canonical status of its bishops has never been questioned by any church. This matter, together with other similar pending issues, such as the canonical status of the current primate of the Orthodox Church of [the] Czech Lands and Slovakia, should be solved by the entire Orthodox Church. In order to solve these problems, we need not only primacy but also synodality to be properly exercised at the universal level. Let us hope that the long-awaited pan-Orthodox Council will be an event at which synodality will be fully implemented, and primacy will be strictly exercised within the framework of consensual decision-making.
I would like to conclude this address by quoting the final paragraph of the Moscow patriarchate’s Position on the Primacy in the Universal Church.
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. 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 the whole body, [...] according to the effectual working in the measure of every part, maketh increase of the body into the edifying of itself in love.
May I thank you for your attention. [Applause]
Fr. John: Vladyka Hilarion, those of us who know you well know that you are not afraid to wade in where angels fear to tread. [Laughter] And tonight you have waded in in a very complex issue of primacy, and you have given us some insight into the preparations for this much-anticipated and long-awaited Great and Holy Council in 2016. So, again, we thank you for your wisdom and for your sharing with us tonight. [Applause]
Fr. Chad: His Eminence, as Fr. John said, is the author of a series, Orthodox Christianity, which we publish in English here through SVS Press that sort of hot off the press that’s really burning my hand as I hold it here. As you’re making the exit after the academic convocation, there’s a table where you’ll be able to purchase this one, and if you don’t have the second one and the first one, you can purchase those, too, and other books authored by Metr. Hilarion. He’ll be happy to sign them, and I would encourage you—he’s so generous as a member of our board of trustees to sign them—if you could leave a donation for the seminary on the other table, that would also be greatly appreciated. [Laughter]
We’re working actually—just to give you a little insight to where we’re going with this series, because it’s so incredibly significant to us—on having it translated into Spanish. We’ve had some press to get this thing translated from Metr. Silouan in Argentina, and for the nuns in Guatemala, and I think we’re right on the edge of having someone who’d like to underwrite the translation of this work into Spanish, so you’ll now be able to list Spanish amongst those lists of other languages to which your works have been translated.
For those of you, after you’ve bought your book, you’re all invited to a reception on the lower level of this building, where His Eminence will be joining us after he has completed the book-signing in the upper level. So again, thank you for coming and thank you for your support of St. Vladimir’s. So if you’ll stand, we’ll sing, “We give thanks…”
[Choir sings: It is truly meet to bless you, O Theotokos, ever-blessed and most pure and the mother of our God. More honorable than the cherubim and more glorious beyond compare than the seraphim, without defilement, you gave birth to God the Word. True Theotokos, we magnify you. Eis polla eti, Despota.]