In the last 3 years or so the Ecumenical Patriarchate has made increasingly bold claims about itself, perhaps none bolder than the Metropolitan of Bursa’s claim that the Ecumenical Patriarch, as Ecumenical Patriarch, is First without equals. While the Metropolitan of Bursa makes his case in the form of a lengthy and detailed argument, more often the claim appears to be made without any argument at all, in the form of scriptural citations or startling, but brief, statements. For instance, the introduction to the Tomos of autocephaly given to the newly created Church of Ukraine, begins by quoting Hebrews 12:22-23: ““You have come to Mount Zion . . . and to the Church of the first-born…” Is this intended to be a statement about the Ecumenical Patriarchate? It is hard to make sense of it otherwise. Similarly, in a speech to the synaxis of the hierarchs of the Ecumenical Throne at the end of August, posted on the website of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA, Patriarch Bartholomew asserted that the Ecumenical Patriarchate possesses a unique and potent spiritual experience which confers a unique authority:
… The Ecumenical Patriarchate is, for Orthodoxy, a leaven “which leavens the whole lump” (cf. Gal. 5.9) of the Church and of history. Here, at the Great Church, we are not merely educated but become experienced in matters holy. We did not come to know the Sacred Canons by reading them in books, but by humbly serving the Mother Church, which disposes and defends the canons of Orthodoxy. We do not study theology only in theory, but live it out in practice, becoming initiated – peacefully and mystically – in how to know the unknown, see the unseen, and hear in silence the word of God that speaks in our hearts…This is why the Mother Church assumes a leadership role in disseminating sacred scholarship and theological learning…[and why the Ecumenical Patriarchate] enjoys canonical jurisdiction and all apostolic privileges in its responsibility for safeguarding the unity and communion of the local Churches but also for the overall journey of Orthodoxy in the contemporary world and history.
The claim to unique spiritual experience (an experience that confers the authority of leadership) and the claim to be responsible for the journey of Orthodoxy as a whole throughout history are remarkably bold. The question arises, upon what are these claims grounded? Theology? History? Custom? Canon law? While the Ecumenical Patriarchate has appealed to history, custom, and canon law many times in defense of its self understanding it is difficult to see how the claims made above are not also theological claims. After all, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is not “Zion” or “Mother of the Churches” in a historical sense, and the authority conferred by the potent spiritual experience His All Holiness mentions does not belong to canon law or custom. Is it not, in fact, a claim to primacy rooted in the will of God?
It remains to be seen whether any definitive and clear exposition of the EP’s self understanding is forthcoming. But the questions swirling around these claims raise, for me, one further question. What does this imply for the prospect of reunion with the Roman Catholic Church? No local Church in world Orthodoxy has been more motivated or active in seeking reunion with Rome than the Church of Constantinople. But if the claims the EP is making about itself are intended in the fullest possible sense, as claims to primacy rooted in history and theology, doesn’t this make any hypothetical reunion impossible, at least improbable? In the theological understanding of both Rome and Constantinople there can only be one primus and one primacy. In the event of reunion which party will abandon their claims, thereby admitting an error of historical proportions, and submit to the primacy of the other? Does the increasingly lordly rhetoric of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, imitating as it seems to the contours of the theology of the Papacy, not cast up additional barriers to the hoped for reunion with Rome? At the very least it is hard to imagine that such claims can be tolerated with more than wincing condescension by the theologians and diplomats of the RCC. Then again, perhaps it will not bother them, knowing as they must, that if reunion ever does occur they will not be the ones eating crow.