Well, most of us in the Ortho-sphere have noticed a lot of arguing about primacy in the Orthodox Church. I think there is a profound misunderstanding, at least here in the English-speaking hemisphere, about what ‘primacy’ means in an Orthodox context versus what it means in our modern Anglophonic expectation of the concept.
For example, when we hear about ‘primacy,’ we Americans (perhaps others, but I am addressing an American audience) tend to think of ‘leadership’ in the terms of get out in front and direct things. In the Orthodox world, primacy usually means something more like ‘final say’ or ‘end of the line.’ It is not so much of a trail-blazing position, but more like an anchor.
Here’s an example: numerous writers have discussed how Constantinople is variously involved or tasked with granting autocephaly. Now, let’s look at the dates of those churches formed after the period of the Ecumenical Councils-
The Church of Russia is declared autocephalous in 1448, recognized by Constantinople in 1589.
The Church of Serbia is declared autocephalous in 1832, recognized by Constantinople in 1879.
The Church of Greece is declared autocephalous in 1833, recognized by Constantinople in 1850.
The Church of Romania is declared autocephalous in 1865, recognized by Constantinople in 1885.
The Church of Bulgaria is declared autocephalous in 1872, recognized by Constantinople in 1945.
The Church of Georgia is declared autocephalous (lost in 1811 due to Russian Imperial edict) in 1917, recognized by Constantinople in 1989.
The Church of Albania is declared autocephalous in 1922, recognized by Constantinople in 1937.
The Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia is declared autocephalous in 1951, recognized by Constantinople in 1998.
The Orthodox Church in America is declared autocephalous in 1971, and is still waiting.
Historically speaking, the OCA is right on schedule. They probably should be a little concerned in about 100 years, given the wait other churches have had.
Constantinople, in none of these cases, was ‘out in front’ of the autocephaly movement. We really do not see a pattern of Constantinopolitan bishops sitting down with a group of non-Greek bishops and saying, “Boys, you need to move out of the basement apartment and start living your own lives.”
I suppose we could chalk this up to Eastern culture. Most Easterners require their children to live at home well into adulthood. These days, more and more Americans are doing this, but not willingly… independence is expensive. However, we Americans are far more open to the idea of independence than Easterners are (think about our history and all that it involved). In fact, they distrust it.
So, it is not a surprise that we see so much ‘clinginess’ among the Eastern churches. They don’t want to let go even when they really don’t have all that much in common anymore with the communities they are holding onto. For them, it is unimaginable that anyone would want anything more than a room in one’s own parents’ home.
So, when it comes to Constantinople and the issue of autocephaly, their practical exercise of ‘primacy’ is largely about being the last holdout. When Constantinople finally caves, everyone will know that there simply is no denying the reality of a local church’s autocephaly.
The same can be said of Constantinople hearing appeals. They are the ‘last stop’ for those having problems with the Synod of another local church. Primacy does not mean that Constantinople would, or ever has, ratified what local churches are deciding when there is no larger conflict. They only hear cases that are brought to them when a local agreement seems impossible.
Even then, Constantinople’s primacy still requires cooperation from the other local churches. When Constantinople broke communion with the Church of Greece in 2004 over the election of bishops in territories claimed by the former, the incident hardly had any effect on the world-wide Orthodox scene.
That’s because Constantinople can’t afford to alienate the entire community by demanding the world recognize all of its decisions when others simply don’t care. It has no army or drones or weapons of mass destruction. If it wants anything to happen, or its decisions to be recognized, it has to build consensus and get voluntary compliance.
However, given the fact that consensus-building and last-stop primacy are at opposite poles of the leadership-behavioral spectrum, we can see that Constantinople can accrue all kinds of wild titles and claims of supremacy without actually doing much of anything or having many responsibilities aside from when they are invited.
Even in territories that the Patriarchate of Constantinople claims direct authority over, we can see a rather lackadaisical attitude towards ‘leadership’ in the sense of the bishops coming out and guiding the people in a new direction. In America, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is largely broken down into a number of long-extant, self-defining ethnic jurisdictions with only minimal interest in the outside world. Missionary work? Social programs? Well, if you are talking about food festivals, the GOA indeed rules.
The GOA and its Patriarchal Mother don’t have a plan for the larger community. Of course, this can be said of all the jurisdictions in the Americas, which are largely confined to ‘our people’ with the occasional acquisition of an ‘outsider’ to convince the kids that inevitable intermarriage does not meet total exclusion. “We have converts… even convert bishops!” is hardly a plan.
We are abysmally parochial. It is just a fact of life: other people are weird. If we are all about trying to preserve our own weirdness, then other peoples’ weirdnesses will not be tolerated.
So, the local churches presently calling Constantinople the ‘Mother Church’ find that they have a nice, warm cocoon to keep their particular practices without any danger from the outside world and other influences. That is, unwanted influences. There are plenty of influences which are un- or sub-conscious. After all, the average GOA parish is run nothing like its counterpart in the hills of Sparta or the coast of Chios.
That’s not to say that Orthodox laypeople are not doing absolutely wonderful things… they certainly are. There are a whole host of local and national ministries that are serving not only the American community, but the entire world. I want to emphasize that these ministries are largely the work of the people, even when they get their token bishop to show up for board meetings and add his name to the effort like a sponsor sticker on the side of a racecar.
With us clergy, no matter the size of the headgear, we usually only make a splash when it comes to self-promotion. Mea culpa.
So, Constantinopolitan primacy is certainly not, if present patterns hold, about trying to manage local affairs and effecting big changes on the local level, because this type of ‘leadership’ is utterly foreign to Constantinople’s thinking. They just don’t lead in that way. They don’t even want to.
Another example of this ‘primacy’ can be seen in the recent start and apparent disintegration of the ‘Chambesy Assemblies’ (which looks much more impressive when you write Chambesy as ‘Chambésy’… and sounds even more inspiring when try say it with a French accent that sounds more like Gérard Depardieu than Inspector Clouseau) that have fallen apart with Antiochian withdrawal over Constantinople’s inability to settle a dispute between Antioch and Jerusalem. The face-to-face negotiations between the two churches were hosted by… the Greek Foreign Ministry. This should tell us a lot about how confident Constantinople is in its abilities to either lead or broker deals.
Constantinople called for the assemblies, got everyone into meeting rooms, formed a bunch of committees, and still can’t articulate a clear goal beyond something ‘better’ (insert you choice of wild hand gestures here). Perhaps that is wise if you want to get everyone together at once, but now the problem is that everyone has brought their own meaning to the purpose.
To Bishop Basil (Essey) of Wichita, the purpose is the creation of an autocephalous American church. Metropolitan Savvas (Zembillas) then says the exact opposite… autocephaly is off the table. ROCOR agrees that it has giving nothing up, not to be outdone by the Bulgarians who have said much the same. Confusion ensues. Ambiguity can sometimes be the best marketing strategy one can have to get a sale, but it stinks when it comes to ‘buyer’s remorse.’
Everyone agrees to be agreeable, while agreeing to nothing else.
So, what does this mean? It means that whatever claims Constantinople makes, there is not much it can do without the cooperation of all. It also means that if a local community wants something, then it should not wait around for ‘guiding leadership’ from Constantinople because it does not act in that manner.
I could summarize the whole methodology in this way: a back-seat driver. Sometimes it is helpful to get advice from the back seat, but that does not mean the person in the back seat is actually driving. The person in the front seat is. We can opt to listen or to ignore, but no matter what, it is the driver that must face the consequences.
In this analogy, the local community is the driver. We can choose to listen to or ignore advice, but there is no stick to beat us with, nor is there really much of a carrot. What we should do is watch the other cars on the road, because that is where the accidents happen. The carrot-and-stick is really overall success or failure rather than primatial proclamation or censure.
We must hold all the other churches in equal esteem, because they are collectively the Church. The whole enumeration of primacy only makes sense if there are other numbers, which is why there must be a first… and a second… and a third. But, whatever cries there may be about the Patriarchate of Constantinople emanating honor like radiation from a lump of uranium, that only works if someone cares about whatever it is that is being radiated.
In 2004, the Greeks ignored Constantinople, and somehow didn’t die of radiation poisoning. They lost none of their ‘honor.’
Primacy has no ontological reality, because local churches have existed without recognition for years and years, yet no one would question the validity of the Sacraments performed during those times without recognition. When Greece and Constantinople broke ties, nobody demanded that all the babies be rebaptized from that period. It is a nice rhetorical flourish, but the reality is all around us right now.
Antioch and Jerusalem right now need, at the very least, a willing and interested mediator. If we magnify the meaning of primacy to imply that Constantinople has the power and ability to call churches to obedience, or impose a ‘binding arbitration’ scheme, then the withdrawal of Antioch from the Chambesy process cries out for Constantinople to call Antioch to obedience, just as Constantinople could also instruct Jerusalem to remove its bishop from Qatar. Instead, we see Constantinople doing neither, and so Antioch walks from the meetings, and Constantinople can only seem to wring its hands. Yet, Constantinople has not relinquished any of its claims to primacy.
Constantinople is not acting either because it does not care about the conflict or really has no power to do anything even with ‘primacy.’ Orthodox primacy does not give Constantinople any type of real leverage in the matter. An excommunication of either side may very well be ignored, as in 2004. Nobody wants to excommunicate Jerusalem and complicate matters of pilgrimage and access to holy sites. Nobody wants to excommunicate Antioch while it struggles against open persecution.
This conflict, I believe, could not have come at a better time to teach us what primacy is in an Orthodox context. In practical terms, it only works when all the rest of the churches say that it does, and to the extent they will grant it. This is the ‘conciliar’ nature of Christian leadership.
No one would envy Constantinople’s position if it really tried to arbitrate this conflict. It has all the makings of a really big conflict between two churches that have not been on the best of terms for a while. Staying out may be the wisest move even if Constantinople wanted to help the situation. I’m not saying that it doesn’t. I am saying that it really does not have the ‘right stuff’ to make it happen, even with primacy.
We have nothing to fear from Constantinople and all the hubbub about ‘primacy.’ I do not believe that we ought to be shouting epithets at one another or plotting a schism, because the problem of primacy is far less important than other, bigger issues: evangelizing new peoples, healing the sick, saving the lost… the things our Lord called us to do.
What we should be concerned about is our own inertia in these matters. But, that is a topic for another time when I feeling like dealing with more hate mail than what I will get for posting this.