The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Greek: Οἰκουμενικόν Πατριαρχεῖον Κωνσταντινουπόλεως, romanized: Oikoumenikón Patriarkhíon Konstantinoupóleos, Latin: Patriarchatus Oecumenicus Constantinopolitanus; Turkish: Rum Ortodoks Patrikhanesi, “Roman Orthodox Patriarchate”) is the first of the patriarchates and autocephalous churches that together compose the Eastern Orthodox Church. It is headed by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, currently Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople.
Because of its historical location as the capital of the former Eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and its role as the Mother Church of most modern Orthodox churches, Constantinople holds a special place of honor within Orthodoxy and serves as the seat for the Ecumenical Patriarch, who enjoys the status of primus inter pares (first among equals) among the world’s Eastern Orthodox prelates and is regarded as the representative and spiritual leader of Orthodox Christians.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate promotes the expansion of the Christian faith and Orthodox doctrine, and the Ecumenical Patriarchs are involved in ecumenism and interfaith dialogue, charitable work, and the defense of Orthodox Christian traditions. Prominent issues for the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s policy in the 21st century include the safety of the believers in the Middle East, reconciliation of the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Churches, and the reopening of the Theological School of Halki, which was closed down by the Turkish authorities in 1971.
The Apostles were sent by Jesus Christ to preach the Gospel of salvation to all nations. In a very short period of time, and in a miraculous way, they managed to spread Christianity to the entire ecumene, despite the persecutions and the adverse circumstances.
According to trustworthy historical sources, and by the tradition of the Church, Apostle Andrew, the First-Called of the Apostles, preached the Gospel in Asia Minor, the areas around the Black Sea, Thrace, and Achaia; where he was martyred. The fact that Apostle Andrew preached in these areas is the reason that the Churches of Trabzon, Constantinople, and Patras honour him as their founder and patron saint. The Church of Constantinople has established the Feast Day in the memory of this Saint (30 November), as the Feast Day of the Throne, a day that is gloriously celebrated. This celebration, that had ceased during the first years of the Turkish yoke, was re-established during the time of Patriarch Seraphim II, who was Metropolitan of Phillipoupolis before he became Ecumenical Patriarch (1760) and continues since then without interruption. It was the year 356 AD, when the Holy Relics of the Apostle Andrew were brought to Constantinople and were placed in the Church of the Holy Apostles. The Apostle was very much loved by the people of the City. Witnesses to this are the numerous churches that were named in his memory.
The apostolicity of the Throne of Constantinople is also shown from the proven fact that the Apostle and Evangelist John preached in Asia Minor. It was he who addressed his book of the Apocalypse to “the seven churches in Asia”, namely the Churches of Ephesus, Smyrna, Pergamon, Thyatira, Sardis, Philadelphia, and Laodecia, which, since the 4th century belong stably to the jurisdiction of the Church of Constantinople. It was in 861 AD, during the Council in Constantinople, when Patriarch Ignatius called upon the double apostolicity of the Ecumenical Throne, when the Papal Delegation was promoting the apostolicity of the throne of Rome. As it is recorded in the canonical collection of Cardinal Deusdedit (11th cent.), from the Latin translation, St. Ignatius then said, “ And I hold the throne of Apostle John, and of the First-Called Apostle Andrew.”
However, the apostolic recognition of the Church of Constantinople is supported much more from the apostolic function, which she performed in a very remarkable way. It was the establishment of the first, and unique in the entire world Christian city of Byzantium, as well as the spreading of the Gospel, in an apostolic ethos and manner, to multitudes of people, whom she brought to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church. She became, thus, Equal-to-the-Apostles, following the example of the first Christian Emperor, the founder of the new capital of the empire, namely Constantinople, which has been her see since then..
Before Constantine the Great became Emperor, the small town of Byzantium, this ancient colony of the Megareans, was a diocese under the jurisdiction of the Metropolitan of Heracleia in Thrace. The Christians that lived there were experiencing the hard living conditions that were being created with the persecution of all Christians by the Roman Emperors. The first bishop that was placed in that town by Apostle Andrew himself, was Apostle Stachys. Twenty-four more bishops followed Apostle Stachys, with St. Mitrophanis being the last one, until the first important period of the diocese of Byzantium reached its closing. The second glorious period started when Constantine the Great became the new Emperor, which lasted for more than a thousand years, and became known as the period of the Byzantine Empire. During this period the Church of Constantinople became first an Archdiocese, then a Patriarchate, then the Ecumenical Throne, and the Great Church. All these developments were not just a result of world historic changes. They were an essential factor of the grandiose and splendour of the Greco-Roman Christian Empire.
It is a well-known fact that in the very beginning Christianity spread throughout the areas of the vast Roman Empire, where the Hellenistic civilization was prominent and the common language was Greek. This had been the heritage rooted in the Empire that was first established by Alexander the Great, who had brought Hellenism to the East, and was followed by his successors. The Christian ecumene of Constantine the Great was built on the Greek ecumene of Alexander the Great. Christianity had a Greek voice from the beginning, and besides the great Hellenist Apostle Paul who introduced Christianity to the Greek ecumene; there were other Apostles that worked for the spreading of Christianity in Greek and/or Greek-speaking areas. Among those was Apostle Andrew, the founder of the Church of Byzantium, which would become a resplendent ecclesiastical centre that would predominate for centuries over the spiritual life of the entire world. The Greek world of the coasts of the Mediterranean and the Black Sea had been the ground of the missionary work for many of the Apostles. Because of this, the organization of the first Christian Church was based in the large Greek cities, where Christian communities were flourishing.
By spreading Christianity to the Hellenistic world, Apostle Paul fulfilled the first part of his missionary commitment for the spreading of Christianity to both Greeks and barbarians (Rom. 1:14). The second part of his missionary commitment was exemplary fulfilled by the Church of Constantinople. The Church of Constantinople possessed all the favourable conditions for this task because of the transfer of the capital from Ancient Rome, which was closely linked to paganism and idolatry and seemed to be powerless and unfit to lead the Christian world, to Constantinople, the New Rome, which had been built and designed to take upon her the lead of the Christian world.
By the end of the 20th century, historians have undoubtedly accepted the ascertainment that in the western part of the Roman Empire, nowadays Europe, Christianity was spread in sporadic communities. A dense network of Christian communities had been established in the East, especially in the provinces of Asia Minor and Pontus, which together with Thrace will constitute the territory of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Church of Constantinople by the fourth century. The seven Churches of the Apocalypse, which we have mentioned above, already existed by the time of the reign of Emperor Domitian (81-96). It is due to this that within the framework of the institution of the pentarchy of the patriarchates, which by the 5th century constitutes the organizational form of the Church in autocephalous local Churches, only one ecclesiastical centre exists in the West, namely Rome, whereas the other four patriarchates, namely of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, are located in the East.
The political and cultural splendour in which Constantinople found herself in by the 4th century, as the new capital of a now Christian Empire, created notable changes in the organization of the Church. The formation of the high-ranked ecclesiastical position of Constantinople as the spiritual centre of the Christian ecumene took place at a very rapid pace. There is no mention of the Throne of Constantinople during the 1st Ecumenical Synod in 325 AD, although the transfer of the capital had already been decided in 324. The official inauguration of Constantinople as the new capital took place in 330, and it is understandable that it would take some time for Constantinople to acquire the relative prestige and to assert its authority, as it was competing against Ancient Rome with the abiding historical grandiose and glory of the eternal city. Like efforts of the same period to install the emperor in other cities, such as Nicomedia, and Milan, had failed. The famous expert on Canon Law, Theodore Valsamon, in an effort to explain the silencing of Constantinople by the 1st Ecumenical Synod, talks about the prestige and authority of the Ecumenical Throne; about the transfer of the capital according to a divine plan; its transformation from a spiritual unfruitfulness (Ancient Rome), to good and beneficial fruitlessness (New Rome); about the already set institution of the pentarchy of the Patriarchates, which Rome always tried to overthrow since she would not accept local autocephalous Churches, but only the monarchy of the Pope and his jurisdiction over the entire body of the Church. Valsamon writes: “The great Throne of Constantinople, this famous object and name was under the Peirinthian Bishop, (Peirinthos is western Herakleia) for Constantinople was not yet called a big city, but a town and it was called Byzantium. But when the royal sceptres were moved from the Old Rome to Constantinople, in a divine and mystical providence, as from a spiritual unfruitfulness to a spiritual wealth and fruitfulness, the hierarch of the throne of that time St. Mitrophanes was elevated from a Bishop to an Archbishop. This was the reason why the first Holy Ecumenical Synod in the sixth and seventh canons mentioned only the four Patriarchs, beginning with the one of Rome, followed by Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, without referring at all to the Patriarch of Constantinople” (G.A. Rhalles & M. Potles 4, 542).
During the approximate fifty-year period between the 1st and 2nd Ecumenical Synod (325-381 AD), Constantinople evolves into a leading Church. This can be attested by the leading roles of the Bishops of Constantinople during the heresies concerning the Holy Trinity. As a result of their importance, two Archbishops of Constantinople, St. Gregory the Theologian, and after his resignation, St. Nectarios of Constantinople presided over the 2nd Ecumenical Synod, after the death of Meletion of Antioch. This Synod regulated the entrenched in practice, primary position of the Church of Constantinople, designating in its 3rd canon that “the Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome”. In the very successful formulation of Maximus of Sardis in his work on the Ecumenical Patriarchate “the 3rd canon was not a product of arbitrariness, but came as a result of the evolution of the 50 years and is the ripe fruit of the historic consciousness of the churches of the East and of the new conditions of the Empire” (page 109).
This ecclesiastical elevation of Constantinople over the Patriarchates of the East, and becoming second after Rome, contributed in the actualisation of the practice of jurisdiction over the nearby administrations of Pontus, Thrace and Asia, although the Synod did not touch formally upon the status of their independence. Their final subordination to the jurisdiction of Constantinople took place in the 4th Ecumenical Synod in Chalcedon, which by her 28th canon affirmed the entrenched practice of jurisdiction on their administration by Constantinople. It also extended the jurisdiction of Constantinople over the “barbaric nations,” meaning the Christian communities that were in the Diaspora, outside the borders of the Empire and outside the jurisdiction of the autocephalous Churches. The 4th Ecumenical Synod completed the ecclesiastical elevation of Constantinople by supplementing the regulations of the 2nd Ecumenical Synod. The Bishop of Constantinople was no longer second after the Bishop of Rome, as it was decreed by the 2nd Ecumenical Synod, but “equal privileges (isa presbeia) were given to the most holy throne of New Rome”, as to the Throne of Ancient Rome (28th canon). Canons 9 and 17 give to Constantinople the right of “eccliton”, namely the right to judge clergy of the other Patriarchates, in case of an appeal. The expression of the primary position of the Throne of Constantinople can be seen in these two cases of the practice of purviews outside its jurisdictional boundaries, namely the jurisdiction of the Diaspora, and the supreme judicial authority in the institution of appeals. The canons do not allow any other Throne to practice the right of the jurisdiction outside their boundaries.
This privileged position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, that is solely dependant on written canonical stipulations, became in the history of the Orthodox Church besides its legal foundation a natural attribute. The Orthodox civilization cannot be understood if one removes Constantinople, which became the great Centre of Orthodoxy during its entire dynamic historical course. During this period of flourishment and power, the Ecumenical Patriarchate officiated in the enunciation and formation of dogmas; in the convocation of the Ecumenical Synods; in the development of Monasticism; in the infusion of the Christian spirit into the totality of life in the empire, always in harmonious cooperation with political authorities, so that Byzantium would indeed become a unique paradigm of authentic experience of the Gospel of Christ in world history. The Church of Constantinople exercised also, from the time of St. John Chrysostom, very successful missionary work which culminated during the 9th and 10th century, through the missionary expedition to the Slavic world. It imparted to the Slavic peoples the repository of the perdurable historic experience of the Orthodox spirit and through it, instilled ontologically the very depths of the Slavic civilization. One cannot realize and understand the Slavic civilization without referring to its spiritual progenitors. Through this missionary work the Church of Constantinople the Mother Church of all peoples who came through her to the Christian faith. And as the famous expert on Canon Law Nicodemus Milas says; “…it is therefore a natural result that the churches of these peoples turn to the Mother Church for the settlement of their internal ecclesiastical life, asking for guidance for it, as well as for all ecclesiastical matters that are unknown and unclear for them” (Ecclesiastical Law, pages 156-157).
This spiritual motherhood of the Church of Constantinople encompasses all Christians who are in the Church and are nurtured by the teachings of the Fathers and the Synods. According to the very apposite remark of Patriarch Isaiah, in his letter to the Armenians, who were wishing to return to the Orthodox Church; “We speak to you and to all who consider themselves Christians as a mother…And the teachings of the sacred Fathers and the divinely inspired law of the Holy Synods streamed from us, as if from a fountain, to the members of the Church” (Miklosich- Muller 2, 259).
Soon after the loss of the external glory and power due to coincidental occurrences, the Ecumenical Patriarchate assumed, as a loving and caring mother, the responsibility of the protection and care of the enslaved Orthodox peoples. It was with great prudence and wisdom that she was moving along in the new circumstances of those times, preserving the Orthodox faith and the self-consciousness of the Orthodox peoples. The appearance of a vast number of Neomartyrs during this period is a sign of pride and joy for the Orthodox Church. This connects the Church with the ancient Church of the first centuries, which is known for its persecutions and the martyrdoms. One has to bear in mind that islamization was not the only danger that the Orthodox faithful had to face. Proselytization, by which the heterodox were trying to convert the Orthodox who were in a poor and weak condition, was equally grave. The heterodox entered the sheepfold not through the gate, as the good shepherd, but from another way, as thieves and bandits, to kill and destroy (Jn. 10, 1-8). There is much historical evidence on the strong stand of the Ecumenical Patriarchate against the foreign propaganda, which unfortunately resorted to illicit means for the success of its goals. For example, it organized a campaign of slander and defamation against the Ecumenical Patriarchate, using historical and supposedly scientific studies, trying to arouse the national sensitivity of the Orthodox peoples. This was done in such a manner as to weaken the influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate over the Orthodox peoples, and for them to thus become vulnerable prey in the hands of the foreign “missionaries”.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate did not safeguard only the Orthodox faith, but the national conscience of the peoples of the Balkans as well. Orthodoxy does not suppress healthy nationalism, but it integrates it in a harmonious manner within the plethora of other attributes and features that comprise the human side of the human-divine body of the Church. Under the protection and guidance of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the Orthodox peoples cultivated their national languages, developed each their own ecclesiastical literature, and listened to the message of the Gospel “each in their native tongues” (Acts 2,8), just like on the day of Pentecost. The phenomenon of ruthless and rigid Latinization of theology and worship, which was dominant up to the Second Vatican Council and destroyed the national elements of the Roman-Catholic peoples, never took place in Orthodoxy. This can be excellently proven in the case of the Slavic peoples; it was the Church of Constantinople that created their written language. In the Orthodox Church the peoples of the Balkans kept their national and racial characteristics unscathed, so that in the 19th century they were able to assert their national distinctness and independence. It was only when nationalism asserted a dominant position, when it was ranked first among the features and attributes that comprise the Church, thus putting in danger the spiritual supranational character of the Church and unity of the Church, which is based on spiritual features and attributes, that the Ecumenical Patriarchate condemned this tendency of “racial nationalism” as a dangerous innovation.
The creation of independent national countries in the Balkans had as a direct result the creation of autocephalous local Churches. Although the Ecumenical Patriarchate was watching its enormous jurisdiction slowly shrink, it accorded, via Canon law, the autocephalous status to the Churches of the new countries of the Balkans. The Ecumenical Patriarchate reacted only in cases of defiance of the canonical order and the over-exaggeration of the criteria of racial nationalism. This multi-fracture into national Churches was a new phenomenon in the life of the Orthodox Church. The granting of the autocephalous status to the Church of Russia that took place many centuries ago (1589) did not create any tensions in the relations of the Orthodox. This was due to the compliance of the daughter to the Mother Church, and due to the lack of the over-exaggeration of the principle of nationalism, which had constituted the basis of the existence of the new countries. In addition to that, the national claims among these new countries contributed to the distance and coldness of the relations among the autocephalous Churches, especially during the long periods of warfare.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate from the beginning of the 20th century, having watched with pain this lack of unity among the Orthodox peoples, put a lot of effort in strengthening the inter-Orthodox relations, as well as forging and warming bonds of unity among them. This effort, with the grace of Almighty God, has proven extremely successful. There are many examples that prove that the times of estrangement remain only as an old memory; to mention but a few: the numerous inter-Orthodox meetings; the unhampered and fruitful preparations for the convocation of the Holy and Great Synod; the solid unity of the Orthodox peoples in the treatment of new historical challenges that happen in our own times- an example of this is the historical meeting of the leaders of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches in the sacred Centre of Orthodoxy, in March 1992. The historical initiatives of the Church of Constantinople and the eager response of the other autocephalous Churches have created favourable conditions for the continuation of this course of the Orthodox Church.
The accomplishment of the inter-Orthodox unity has facilitated the conciliation with the heterodox, which aims at the unity of all. Indeed, the united Orthodox Church provides the witness of the Orthodox faith that is in dialogue with the heterodox in a spirit of love and truth. Never before have there been so many theological dialogues as there are today. The result of all these dialogues, and generally the participation of the Orthodox in the so-called Ecumenical Movement, as long as this participation is based on the principles of the Orthodox faith and life, is trusted to the grace of God, Who is realized in love, and Who loves in truth.
The Church of Constantinople, the First Throne among the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, having the right and responsibility of the commencement and the coordination of actions of inter-Orthodox importance, according to historical and theological reasons, does not cease being a local Church, whose jurisdiction is confined to a certain geographical area. This is something that, according to the canons, applies to all the Churches and to Rome, except for the privilege of the jurisdiction outside their boundaries of the Churches of the Diaspora, a privilege that was solely given to Constantinople, and the institution of appeal. As it has already been said, the administrations of Pontus, Thrace, and Asia Minor were the first areas of the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Throne. Since the 8th century, the areas that were subject to eastern Illyricum, from the Adriatic Sea to the Nestos River, and from the Danube River and the Mountains of Rodope to the island of Crete, were also added to the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. These areas, which had come under the political jurisdiction of the eastern Roman Empire since the 4th century, and had come under the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of Constantinople since 421 through a decree by Emperor Theodosius II, were an exarchy, or a vicariate of Thessalonica up to 733, under the Church of Rome. The Slavic peoples, who had converted to Christianity through the missionary care of the Church of Constantinople, came also under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Throne. The Church of Russia used to be for five consecutive centuries a metropolis of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, until the 15th century. In the geographical area of the Balkans, three archdioceses were created, of Tyrnovo, of Achris, and of Pekion. However, during the Turkish yoke, they returned under the immediate jurisdiction of Constantinople. The Metropolises of Hungro-vlachia and Moldovlachia that were organized in the 14th century were also under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Throne.
This wide jurisdiction of Constantinople started slowly to decrease through the granting of the autocephalous status to local Churches: to the Church of Russia in 1589, to the Church of Greece in 1850, to the Church of Serbia in 1879, to the Church of Romania in 1885, to the Church of Albania in 1937, and to the Church of Bulgaria in 1945.
Much more serious was the downsizing of the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate that took place due to the flight of the Orthodox populations who had to leave their patrimony homes in Pontus, Thrace and Asia Minor, areas that were for centuries the historical geographical ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This flight began after the Asia Minor war in 1922, and has not ceased. Therefore, from these territories, what is left today in Turkey is the Archdiocese of Constantinople, and the Metropolis of Chalcedon, the Metropolis of Derkon, the Metropolis of Prince’s Islands, and the Metropolis of Imvros and Tenedos.
From the populations that moved to Europe, America and Australia, new Archdioceses and Metropolises have been established, with much energy and dynamism, among other more advanced peoples. It is from this coexistence that the Eastern Orthodox Church awaits many good things. New Metropolises have been established in South East Asia, as well.
Outside the borders of the Turkish State, the Ecumenical Patriarchate has still under its jurisdiction the Metropolises of the Dodecanese, the semi-autonomous Church of Crete, the monastic community of the Holy Mountain, namely Mount Athos, and other Patriarchal Foundations and Centres over the entire Ecumene. Furthermore, under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are also the Metropolises of the “New Lands”, whose administration was given tutelarly in 1928 to the Church of Greece.