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a short history of the ecumenical patriarchate of constantinople

First among equals in the eastern orthodox church

Dino Geanakoplos
Professor of Byzantine History and Orthodox Church History,
Yale University


The Five Great Christian Sees: The PENTARCHY

The Five-Phase History of the Patriarchate

First Phase: The Formative Period

Second Phase: Photios, the Greatest Patriarch


Third Phase: The Last Byzantine Centuries

Fourth Phase: "The Tourkokratia"

Fifth Phase: The Modern Period

About the author

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five great christian sees: the pentarchy

By the fifth century the great Christian sees of the Roman (that is the Byzantine) Empire came to number five: one Latin-speaking (Rome) in the West, and four Greek-speaking in the East: Constantinople, Alexandria (founded by St. Mark the Evangelist), Antioch (founded by Peter even before foundation of the see of Rome), and Jerusalem, whose sanctity needs no demonstration since Christ Himself lived and died there. The great importance in this early period of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem was, however, soon to be diminished by their permanent conquest by the Islamic Arabs in the seventh century. Henceforth, though Orthodox patriarchs continued to exist there (and still do today), ecclesiastical primacy over the Orthodox East inevitably passed to the capital city, Constantinople. But the patriarchs of these "lost" Eastern centers continued in the Byzantine period to be represented at Constantinople by legates (or in person) and sat with the Synodos Endemousa (standing or permanent synod). The latter was actually a patriarchal council which could be assembled at a moment's notice in order to adjudicate any ecclesiastical questions that might arise.

According to the Roman Catholic concept of the Church, the pope, himself one of the five patriarchs (the word "pope" means simply in Greek, "father" or "papas") holds not only titular primacy as primus inter pares (first among equals) over all the patriarchs (a claim always recognized, incidentally, by Byzantine Constantinople), but, from the view of authority and jurisdiction, the right even to intervene and to act as supreme judge in the internal affairs of all other churches. Opposed to this latter theory is the Eastern concept of the "Pentarchy." That is, instead of a papal "monarchy" governing the entire Church, there exists a supreme body of five heads, the patriarchs above named, each of whom exercises jurisdiction over his own ecclesiastical area and who meets together with the other patriarchs in ecumenical councils to regulate matters of dogma and church discipline. This pentarchic theory was firmly established by the time of the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in the mid-sixth century, as is clearly reflected in his nomocanones (combined civil-ecclesiastical law codes).

In these earlier centuries of the Byzantine Empire, the problem of ecclesiastical polity (government of the church) was rather complex. Complicating matters was the fact that the Pope of Rome was subordinate politically to the Byzantine Emperor, who sat in Constantinople. Up until the eighth century (as is usually not noted) the pope was in fact even appointed by the Emperor or, more directly, through his civil governor in Italy. But at the time of the Iconoclast struggle in the eighth century the Pope declared himself politically independent of the Emperor and set himself up as possessing, in effect, not only ecclesiastical but temporal power over the West. This claim was actually to be implemented in the later medieval period.

In the Byzantine East basic in the history of the Patriarchate was the fact that the Emperor was always resident in the same city. For centuries the West, the papacy in particular, has claimed that Byzantine imperial authority was "Caesaro-papistic," a pejorative term signifying that the emperor held in his hands both complete temporal and ecclesiastical authority. The fact is, however, that though the emperor, if he so desired, could almost invariably work his will in matters of church administration, he could never in the end dictate to the patriarch of Constantinople in matters of dogma. Nor did the emperor possess the indelible mark of the priesthood, the power to administer the sacraments of the Church. True, the emperor alone of all laymen could cross before the iconostasis, cense and preach to the congregation, summon ecumenical councils and even administer Holy Communion to himself But noteworthily the Communion had first to be consecrated by a priest. Moreover, however successful some emperors seemed temporarily to be (in the Iconoclastic struggle, for example), they could never unilaterally pronounce on dogma without the sanction of an ecumenical council at which all five patriarchs had to be present. Hence, the Emperor, despite his possession of these remarkable "liturgical" privileges, cannot be said to have been a true "king-priest." In the later centuries of the Byzantine Empire (1261-1453), when the Emperor seemed willing to pay the papal price (religious union of the Greek Church with Rome) in order to secure military assistance against the Turkish threat, the Byzantine populace, led especially by the monks, lower clergy and of course, the Patriarch, refused to dilute the purity of their faith to secure such aid. For they believed that the wrath of God would descend upon them if the holy pronouncements of the "Seven Sacred Ecumenical Councils," handed down to them from the forefathers (patroparadoton), were altered by so much as an iota. In all the various struggles waged for the preservation of the purity of the Orthodox faith, whether Orthodoxy was threatened from without by external enemies or from within by heretics, the Patriarchs by their stance stood in the vanguard of the defenders of the Orthodox faith.

Next -- Five Phase History of the Patriarchate

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