An Orthodox Perspective on the Primacy of the Pope of Rome

The issue of papal primacy is not one that can be simply swept under the carpet. Orthodoxy is an hierarchical community and the practical aspects of primacy are visible at many levels. The one that is most familiar is that of the primacy of a Metropolitan bishop over the metropolia which has been committed to his care. The Metropolitan bishop is essentially a bishop, equal in his episcopate with all the other bishops in his jurisdiction, and indeed equal with all other bishops around the world.

The bishop has a definite pastoral authority over the congregations in his care. We will remember the instruction of St Ignatius of Antioch…

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. Let no man do anything connected with the Church without the bishop.

There is certainly a hierarchy here in the local Church, but the primacy of the bishop over his own church is not the same as the primacy of a Metropolitan bishop over his Synod. The first ecumenical council at Nicaea in 325 AD refers to the issue of the primacy of one bishop over others who are equal in their possession of the episcopate.

Canon IV says…

It is by all means proper that a bishop should be appointed by all the bishops in the province; but should this be difficult, either on account of urgent necessity or because of distance, three at least should meet together, and the suffrages of the absent [bishops] also being given and communicated in writing, then the ordination should take place.  But in every province the ratification of what is done should be left to the Metropolitan.

We see in this canon that the bishops of each province are to act together, and especially when appointing a new member of the college of bishops. But we can also see that the Metropolitan has a more than honorary privilege, and his primacy is manifested in that the appointment of any bishop is to be subject to the ratification of the Metropolitan. He does not act without the college of bishops in imposing his own will, but neither may the college of bishops act without the definite approval of their primate.

The Metropolitan is not simply an honorary primate with a primacy which consists only in sitting at the head of the Synod. He has a real authority which is exercised with the college of bishops of which he is the head, and not apart from them.

Canon VI says…

Let the ancient customs in Egypt, Libya and Pentapolis prevail, that the Bishop of Alexandria have jurisdiction in all these, since the like is customary for the Bishop of Rome also.  Likewise in Antioch and the other provinces, let the Churches retain their privileges.  And this is to be universally understood, that if anyone be made bishop without the consent of the Metropolitan, the great Synod has declared that such a man ought not to be a bishop.

 It is clear from this canon that the Bishop of Alexandria, already in 325 AD had a Metropolitan jurisdiction over not only Egypt, but Libya and Pentapolis. And it seems that it was recognised, almost as soon as the Church was organised across the Imperial world, that Rome also had such a wide jurisdiction, and likewise Antioch. We see here again, that it is to be universally accepted that the primacy of such Metropolitans was not without real authority, but extended as far as the summary rejection of the consecration of any man as bishop if the Metropolitan did not give his consent to such an action.

At the second ecumenical council we see that in the famous third canon there is a primacy which is recognised in Rome, and had clearly been recognised in Rome long before this. It says…

The Bishop of Constantinople, however, shall have the prerogative of honour after the Bishop of Rome; because Constantinople is New Rome.

Now just as the honour due to a Metropolitan is not merely a ceremonial one, but one with some degree of practical authority, it would seem reasonable to conclude that this primacy of honour which belongs to Rome is not simply only a ceremonial one, or it would be of no great importance at all.

Canon III of the council of Sardica perhaps gives some indication of one aspect of this honour. It says…

Bishop Hosius said:  This also it is necessary to add,—that no bishop pass from his own province to another province in which there are bishops, unless indeed he be called by his brethren, that we seem not to close the gates of charity.

And this case likewise is to be provided for, that if in any province a bishop has some matter against his brother and fellow-bishop, neither of the two should call in as arbiters bishops from another province.

But if perchance sentence be given against a bishop in any matter and he supposes his case to be not unsound but good, in order that the question may be reopened, let us, if it seem good to your charity, honour the memory of Peter the Apostle, and let those who gave judgment write to Julius, the bishop of Rome, so that, if necessary, the case may be retried by the bishops of the neighbouring provinces and let him appoint arbiters; but if it cannot be shown that his case is of such a sort as to need a new trial, let the judgment once given not be annulled, but stand good as before.

Here we see that Rome is considered to be a court of last resort, when there is some controversy that cannot easily be resolved between the bishops of a local Church. But what we see here is not an immediate jurisdiction, as if the bishop of Rome had any right to intrude whenever he wished in the affairs of others. Rather he is an arbiter that other bishops may resort to if they consider it would be useful. Indeed we see that the bishop of Rome is called upon to appoint mutually acceptable arbitration from among the bishops of the neighbouring provinces. He is not the universal judge, but may have a ministry of facilitating justice.

We can see that even in this canon there is a clear sense of the local Church, under its own Metropolitan, acting entirely without restraint and without any need to seek the consent of any higher authority. It is the Metropolitan whose consent must be sought, not the bishop of Rome. But in those cases where it seems that some further consideration is required we do see that the Churches consider it possible that the bishop of Rome might have some role in organising such a review of difficult cases. This is perhaps one aspect of primacy, a real primacy, which was acceptable to Orthodox in the past.

There is therefore, perhaps, some aspect of primacy which would be accepted by Orthodox in a ministry of brotherly interest in the life and service of the various local Churches, without this implying an authority or jurisdiction.

The 34th Apostolic Canon says…

The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it.  But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.

This has as its primary object the description of the relation between the bishops of a local Orthodox Church and their primate or Metropolitan. But there is some sense I would suggest in which a mutual communication of the Metropolitans and Primates of the local Churches with the bishop of Rome would also serve this ecclesiological pattern. We see that the local bishops are entirely able to conduct their own local affairs without always resorting to their Metropolitan. But when something significant is proposed then they must act with their Metropolitan and his consent.

It might be a similar case with the primacy of the bishop of Rome. That in all those local activities proper to the local jurisdiction of the Church, the bishops with their Metropolitan conduct themselves without any resort to the bishop of Rome. But in those things which are significant, and it would need to be considered what that might mean, it does seem that within Orthodox ecclesiology there is scope for the primatial ministry of the bishop of Rome in a manner that does not deform the ecclesiology of the Church.

Orthodox ecclesiology cannot accept a bishop of Rome who has an ordinary jurisdiction throughout the Church. In such a case there is essentially only one bishop. Nor can it accept a primacy that interferes with the proper episcopal ministry of the bishop, and the Metropolitan authority of each local Orthodox Church. But it could accept the ministry in primacy of the bishop of Rome as facilitator of peace in controversial circumstances, and as the elder brother among bishops who is aware of those significant  matters occupying the attention of the Churches, and perhaps is permitted to offer his advice without imposing his will.

A primacy without any practical authority is not what the Church seems to envision, and is not what it experiences in each local Church. But a primacy that supports and strengthens the service of each local Church, helping to resolve division and disagreement, offering advice in regard to significant circumstances. This is perhaps a primacy of the bishop of Rome which can be accepted and is consistent with our Orthodox ecclesiology, were the Bishop of Rome to be able to return to communion with the wider Orthodox Church.

One Response to "An Orthodox Perspective on the Primacy of the Pope of Rome"

  1. Edward Patch, Sr.   13th May 2020 at 1:55 am

    A very good analysis and explanation concerning the Primacy of the Pope.


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