Concerning the question of whether the Orthodox Church needs a primus, and especially at the universal level, I will appeal to a personal experience. In 2005, I was given permission to attend the deliberations of the International Joint Commission on the Theological Dialogue between the two churches, which convened, after a hiatus, in Belgrade. I remember how that experience led me to the paradoxical realization that the Orthodox churches cannot unite with Rome as long as they are not united with Rome. What I mean by this paradox is that the very absence of the authority that a primus would have exercised at the pan-Orthodox level hinders the efforts of remedying this institutional lacuna. In other words, the fact that the Orthodox churches today refuse to recognize a Rome-like primacy among themselves becomes the major problem in their dialogue with Rome.
For one of the fundamental presuppositions of any dialogue, especially a theological dialogue, is consistency. The demand for consistency is related, in my opinion, to the question of authority. Who can speak on behalf of the Orthodox Church? Who is entitled to do so? Orthodox faithful today become familiar with a phenomenon that takes alarming dimensions, namely, the rise of a movement within the Orthodox Church consisting of zealots who see themselves as the rightful “guardians of Orthodoxy,” over and against the Church’s institutionalized authority. In their ferocity against the Western other, these “guardians of Orthodoxy” reject any notion of primacy, espousing and promoting an ecclesiology that they misunderstand to be democratic in its structure of equality. Among their mistakes is the conflation of the ideas of conciliarity, sobornost, and episcopal equality. In the view of historian Aristeides Papadakis “all titles of precedence, including that of ‘patriarch,’ were common to the entire episcopate [in the East].” He goes on to cite Nicetas of Ancyra, who wrote that “all bishops are fathers, shepherds and leaders; and it is clear that there are no special canons for metropolitans, distinct from those which apply to archbishops, or bishops. For the laying on of hands is the same for all, and their participation in the divine liturgy is identical and all pronounce the same prayers.”
However, there are canons that expressly differentiate between sees, their ranking, their privileges and prerogatives, and so on. What the argument of episcopal equality fails to understand is that, even though every bishop is sacramentally equal to every other bishop, not every city is administratively equal to every other city; and therefore, the bishop of Rome, for example, even though in terms of priesthood he is equal to the bishop of every other city, he is yet not equal to them insofar as he is the bishop of Rome. Episcopal equality is a sophism, for it compares bishop to bishop without taking into consideration the city over which a bishop presides; yet it is clear that the episcopal office is not absolute, that is, it cannot exist without reference to a particular locality. Every bishop, even titular or auxiliary, is ordained as the bishop of that particular city, and it is the city that determines his ranking among other members of the episcopate. Nicholas of Cusa reminds us here of the response that Pope Leo gave to Anastasius of Thessalonica:
And if ordination is general in all priest, nevertheless, [the same] rank is not shared by all, because even among the most blessed apostles, despite a similarity of honor, there was a certain distinction of power. Although all are equally chosen, nevertheless it is given to one to be preeminent over the others.
It is for this reason, too, that the protestation which one of the most distinguished Orthodox theologians of the twentieth century, Fr. Alexander Schmemann, brought forward at the end of the Second Vatican Council is ecclesiologically unfounded. According to Cardinal Cassidy, one of the objections that Fr. Schmemann raised against the Council’s Unitatis Redintegratio was “the importance that the document gives to patriarchates, since in the Eastern tradition the patriarch does not have jurisdiction over other bishops. He is simply primus inter pares.” On the other hand, Afanassieff and—following closely on his heels—Zizioulas find such episcopal parity unacceptable:
In Orthodox theology, the patriarch is conceived of as being primus inter pares among the bishops. This formula, though generally allowed, is misleading, and it would be difficult to find justification in the history of the Orthodox Church. It is indeed doubtful that the bishops ever thought themselves the equals of the patriarch in every respect, or that he thought himself their equal. Equality is really a difficult claim, when the patriarch possesses rights of which the other bishops are deprived . . . The patriarch as a member of the episcopate of the autocephalous church is not above it but as its leader he is the first in the episcopal body.
Let me examine briefly some of the options purportedly given as the Orthodox answer to the question of authority.
The Ecumenical Council
When I was a seminarian in Athens, I was taught that, unlike the Roman Church, the highest authority in the Orthodox Church—the one authority with absolute power to decide dogmatic and canonical matters—is an interpersonal (and thus impersonal) body: the ecumenical council.
By asserting such a claim, the Orthodox present a not-so-implicit critique against papal primacy, which is often caricatured as a centralized, imperialistic, and therefore totalitarian and oppressive ecclesiology. In opposition to such a structure, the Orthodox take pride in what they consider a more democratic structure. They give, however, little or no thought to the fact that the synod as a manifold body presupposes the office of the One—that is, the one primus who, although inter pares as far as his sacramental faculty is concerned, remains nevertheless unequal in his primacy. Similarly, the patriarch or the metropolitan is also inter pares with the bishops who are administratively under him; yet, as the 34th Apostolic Canon makes clear, the synod cannot do anything without his consent. As the bishop is also inter pares with all baptized Christians, he is one of them every time he officiates—an ecclesiological truth signified by the white sticharion (the equivalent of the alb) that the bishop, like all clerics, wears as the first piece of his liturgical vestments. And yet, despite the fact that he is inter pares with the faithful (cum fidelibus), the local church cannot do anything without him, nor would they even exist as a community.
The balanced dialectic that I have described on the universal, regional, and local levels respectively finds its articulation in the 34th Apostolic Canon mentioned earlier, which reads as follows:
The bishops of every region must acknowledge him who is first among them [protos, primus] 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 eparchy . . . But neither let him [who is the first] do anything without the consent of the many; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.
There is no either/or distinction between conciliarity and primacy. No council is conceivable without a primus. Philosophically speaking, the emphasis on primacy conforms with the idea that the “one” (in this case, the primus) is both logically, ontologically, and “chronologically” prior to the “many” (the synod).
There is another reason why the ecumenical council cannot be considered an institution of authority for the Church—without, of course, meaning to say that ecumenical councils have no authority. The weight of the argument here falls not so much on authority but on the concept of the institution. An institution (θεσμός) implies both permanence and regularity, two basic characteristics lacking from the convocation of an ecumenical council that has more of the character of an event (extraordinary in nature) than that of a standing institution.
Another position that one hears often from the Orthodox is that the Church needs no primus because Christ himself is the head of the Church. But is this true exclusively on the universal level? Indeed, on both the regional and local levels, ecclesial structures presuppose that the bishop is Christ’s living icon. No Orthodox would accept the claim that the bishop is not needed as head of either the diocese or the metropolitanate simply because that role is filled by Christ himself. Furthermore, such a naive assertion ignores the profound theological significance of Christ’s ascension and runs the risk of degenerating into some individualistic, private piety that would dispense with the ecclesial structure altogether. Apart from the Eucharist, Christ is not with us physically; otherwise, the Church’s expectation of his future coming would be absurd. Moreover, saying that Christ is present in the Eucharist points to him who is physically present and who alone has the authority to celebrate the Eucharist in persona Christi—that is, the bishop. Again it is worth citing at length Afanassieff ’s elaboration of this problem:
A single body must be crowned by a single head, showing in his own person the unity of the whole system. If we take the universal theory of the Church, we cannot refute the doctrine of universal primacy just by saying that the Church has Christ as Head; that is an indisputable truth, and supporters of primacy do not themselves oppose it. The real question is: If the Church has an invisible head (Christ), can she, or can she not, also have a visible head? If not, then why can a local church have a single head in the person of its bishop? In other words, why can one part of the Universal Church have a single head, while the entire Universal Church is deprived of one?
The Common Rule of Faith and Ritual
Even less needs to be said about the common rule of faith and ritual as a source of authority in the Church or as agents that could effect and represent the unity of the Church. Both these factors have been proven historically and practically ineffective in preserving the unity of Orthodox churches or Orthodox communities with each other. Furthermore, the multiplicity of rites within the Christian Roman Empire and the recent introduction of Western-rite communities within Orthodox jurisdictions deprive this argument of any validity. A more serious consideration, however, that begins to emerge at this point is whether the office of primacy can be exercised at any level of the Church’s manifestation by something impersonal.
We should remember that in Christian theology the principle of unity is always a person.
Editorial Note: This excerpt is adopted from For the Unity of All: Contributions to the Theological Dialogue between East and West (Eugene, Oregon: Cascade, 2015), 27-32. Reprinted by permission of Cascade Press.