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Primacy and Collegiality

Much is happening in the Orthodox world today that is raising serious questions in the Church on the nature and function of primacy and collegiality. No longer is this only a thorny question for Roman Catholic – Orthodox relations but now unfortunately is putting strain on intra - Orthodox relations as well. Put very simply, some would claim that being first amongst the Orthodox Churches, gives the Ecumenical Patriarchate, who is "first amongst equals" (primus inter pares) the nomo-canonical right to interfere in the affairs of other local Orthodox Churches whilst others vehemently oppose such an imposition regarding it as ecclesiologically unsound. From this concrete problem we can see that the question of primacy and collegiality is not a purely abstract one nor is it the most important question on the ecumenical scene in general but also more importantly between Orthodox Churches themselves. In attempting to critically reflect on this issue we need to raise some fundamental questions as to the nature of the Church.

Church as an image or icon of the Holy Trinity

Since we assert that the Church is "the Church of God" its quintessential nature must fundamentally reflect God after whose image it is. Orthodox theology would claim that the Church is an image or icon of the Holy Trinity. Put quite simply the Church must reflect or express wholly the immutable truth of God. The very being of God is a communion of three hypostases relating to one another in love and inter-penetrating one another. God has revealed Himself as three Persons, that is, three absolutely unique and distinct modes of existence yet united, and each possessing the fullness of the Divinity. These three unique and distinct Persons of the Holy Trinity continually embrace one another in an interpenetrating communion of love (ajllhlopericwvrhsi"). Each of the Persons is completely open to the other, totally transparent and receptive. This transparency and receptivity is expressed by the notion of perichoresis (pericwvrhsi"). Archbishop Stylianos beautifully captured the essence of this notion of perichoresis when he characterised it as "an ineffable and captivating reciprocal embrace of infinite love." (1) The three Persons of the Holy Trinity dwell in one another through a movement of reciprocating love yet without losing their distinctive personal attributes.

The 'one' and the 'many'

Now, having noted earlier that the Church must express this reality, we would have to point out, from the above that just as God is simultaneously 'one' and 'many' (i.e. Trinitarian yet one God) where the 'many' is constitutive of the 'one' since God is not firstly one 'substance' and only then three Persons, so too the Church which is a reflection of God, cannot in any way give priority to the Church universal at the expense of upholding the truth of its fullness founded in its concrete, local manifestations headed by the local bishop. Any tendency, both in the West and unfortunately now also in the East which tries to reverse this traditionally Biblical and Patristic vision of the Church can only lead to deviations of the Truth entrusted to the Church as a whole by Christ. According to this vision, the Church's integrity or "catholicity" (i.e. fullness) refer unambiguously to both the local and universal Church. We could go so far as to say that just as Christ (the term Christ literally means the Annointed One by the Spirit) is inconceivable without the Spirit, so too the universal Church is unthinkable without the integrity of the local Church. The very being of the Church understood as communion highlights the interdependence and not independence of local Churches to one another.

We can see from the above brief analysis that it is the principle of simultaneity or of communion that must be upheld at all times with the life of the Church. This becomes extremely important when examining the ministry of the bishop for two reasons. Firstly, this means that no bishop can meddle in the affairs of another bishop's eparchy since this would destroy the integrity or catholicity of the local Church and therefore wrongly reduce the idea of the Church's catholicity to a primarily 'universal' meaning of which the Church is not. And without the synodal structure the Church runs the danger of ecclesial universalism. While it is true that it only through the primus that the many local Churches can speak with one voice, nevertheless the primus cannot be self defined but only exercising his authority within a truly communal context.

Universal Church

Secondly, while it is true that a bishop is ordained for a particular diocese and in this way safeguards the integrity and identity of the local Church, he is nevertheless a bishop of the universal Church and therefore not only must he have a voice in the synod but is obliged to do so, so that his people may be represented. It would have been inconceivable in the Church to deprive a bishop of his rights to have an equal voice in a regional or universal synod, something of which, unfortunately today, for example, bishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are deprived. A proper functioning of the synodal system in the Church is a sine qua non for the integrity and identity of the Church since it is this structure that protects and guarantees the catholicity of each local Church.

Local Church

Each local Church is an organic and catholic unity of life, a "catholic" body which has its bishop "in the type and place of Christ" and therefore must be given a voice. Clearly the inclusion of the experience of one local Church cannot be included in a synodal representation at the exclusion of another. For it is not possible for any bishop to speak on behalf of the experience of another bishop of whose body he is not and to which he does not hold the "place" of Christ. When any bishop is deprived of being an active participant in a synod then we could go so far as to say that the foundational presuppositions for the proper functioning of a synod are quashed, since in that the synod is not truly representative of all its members.


From the above we would also have to conclude that no council has the canonical authority to interfere in the internal affairs of any Episcopal diocese since any problems encountered can only be resolved within a conciliar context in which all bishops are members. From this we see that synods cannot act above the local Churches but only through them in communion since each bishop must be a member. If this were altered then the catholicity of each local Church would be in danger of being destroyed by an authority existing over and above the local Church; yet we have seen that primacy can only be understood in terms of simultaneity and communion. From all the above, we see that each local Church made up of its bishop and all the laity need to witness this truth strongly so that their integrity may not be put into question.

Philip Kariatlis
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew''s Greek Orthodox Theological College

1 Sto Periqwvrio tou'' Dialovgou, Athens: Domos, 1991, p.116

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