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On the Title ‘Ecumenical’ and the Order of the Diptychs

From the year 587 on, the use of the title ‘Ecumenical’ by the holy Patriarch John the Faster of Constantinople occasioned the most important anti-papist writings of any Orthodox bishop. Ironically, these were composed by the then Pope of Rome, St Gregory the Dialogist (known locally in the West as St Gregory the Great). He called anyone using the title ‘Universal’ ‘a forerunner of Antichrist’ (1).

In his letters concerning the title, Pope Gregory objected and in a strong and thoroughly Orthodox manner that no bishop could be called ‘Universal’. His personal opinion was that only Rome, Alexandria and Antioch had any sort of primacy or precedence, but not supremacy, over other sees and that even this was most certainly not universal. In his view, this was because Alexandria had been founded by St Mark, the disciple (and possibly scribe) of the Apostle Peter, and Antioch had been founded by the Apostle Peter, who had then gone on to be martyred in Rome.. His letters of protest were steadfastly ignored both by his friend Pope Eulogius of Alexandria (2) and Patriarch Anastasius of Antioch. They could see no reason at all why he should object to a mere title (3).

Of course, we can also object to St Gregory’s personal opinion, just as we may well object to other opinions and local customs of the Church of Rome of the first millennium (4). For example, if we follow this narrowly Petrine logic, then Antioch should have a primacy of honour, since it had been founded first, and Alexandria should also precede Rome, since it had been founded by a disciple of the Apostle Peter, whereas Rome had been founded by the Apostle Paul. (Why else did the Apostle Paul, and not Peter, write a letter to the Romans?).

In reality, there were - and are - two criteria for primacy. Only the first was apostolic foundation - which means foundation by any apostle, not simply by the Apostle Peter. The second, purely secular criterion concerned the political and cultural importance and size of the city concerned. This, in reality, was why Rome, Alexandria and Antioch all obtained primacy and not, say, Jerusalem, which, although the place of the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Christ, had become a small and insignificant town after its destruction in AD 70.

Quite simply, the apostles had gone to preach in the largest cities of the Roman Empire. If Constantinople had existed in the first century, they would most certainly have gone there and founded a Church there also (5). Some, like St Gregory the Dialogist, would have said that Rome, Alexandria and Antioch had been chosen as Patriarchal centres or the most important sees because of their connections with the apostles. However, in reality the apostles had only gone to those cities because of their political and cultural importance and size. If it had been a question only of apostolic foundation, then cities like Corinth, Ephesus and Thessaloniki would also have been chosen as having precedence over other sees. This was not the case. We should not confuse cause and result.

Thus, in the first decades of the fourth century when St Constantine had deserted pagan Old Rome and built Christian New Rome, later named after him as Constantinople, the primacy should have been transferred to New Rome. It could be argued that the essential mistake was here and not in the sixth century, with the title of Ecumenical Patriarch. In rejecting the title ‘Ecumenical’ and even refusing to allow his clergy in Constantinople to concelebrate with the Patriarch personally (ironically, something to which the present Non-Orthodox Popes of Rome would not seem to object), Pope Gregory did the whole Church a providential service. He denounced in advance all the papist pretensions of the Roman Popes from the later eleventh century on, in particular those of the notorious Hildebrand (Gregory VII). After all, even the very word ‘papacy’ was invented only under Pope Clement II in 1047. This was only slightly before the Dictatus papae document, with its list of papal pretensions and claims of infallibility, appeared at the court of Leo IX, the Pope responsible for the Western Schism of 1054.

However, with his lack of knowledge of Greek, Pope Gregory did labour under a misunderstanding. The Greek word ‘Ecumenical’, as in its use in the term ‘Ecumenical Council’, had been translated into Latin as ‘Universal’. In reality, in the context in which it was being used, it did not mean ‘Universal’. In fact, it referred to the ‘Ecumene’, not meaning literally the inhabited world, i.e. the Universe, but only the Roman Empire. In this sense, since Constantinople or New Rome was the capital of the Empire, it was indeed ‘Ecumenical’. The Romans perfectly well knew that there were others who lived outside their Empire, for example in Persia, in India, in China (from where they obtained silk) in Arabia and in Ethiopia. With such knowledge, how could they call the bishop of their capital ‘Universal’? In reality, what they meant by the term ‘Ecumenical’ was ‘of the Imperial Capital’, or more simply ‘Imperial’.

Indeed, although Pope Gregory must have been ignorant of the fact, there was in reality nothing new in the title ‘Ecumenical’ itself, for it had already appeared at the Council of Ephesus in 431. Then the title of ‘Ecumenical’ had been given as a title of honour to Patriarchs in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. In the fifth century all these ‘Ecumenical Archbishops’, including the imperious Pope St Leo the Great himself, had used the term.

As we have said, given that the title ‘Ecumenical’ only means ‘Imperial’, it should have been transferred to New Rome in the early fourth century. Then, after the Western betrayal and fall of Constantinople in 1453, it should have been transferred to Moscow. The fact that it was not shows how irrelevant the title was. However, even there it would have been lost with the abolition of the Russian Patriarchate by the heavily-Protestantised erastian ruler Peter I, let alone with the apostasy of 1917. The fact is that the time for the title ‘Ecumenical’ was over long before even the fifteenth century.

Today, given that there is no longer a Roman Emperor, an Orthodox Tsar, there is perhaps only one Patriarchate which today should have the title of ‘Ecumenical’. And that is the least of the five ancient Patriarchates - Jerusalem. Not because Jerusalem is a great city, but purely because it is where Christ was crucified and rose from the dead for all the Universe and for all Time. Spiritually, Jerusalem will always be the centre of the Universe. Jerusalem is what remained and remains after the Empire had fallen. Thus the last becomes the first (Matt. 19, 30).

The above considerations also throw light on the current debate surrounding the Diptychs, or order of precedence of the Patriarchates and Local Orthodox Churches. Logically, these should be classed by size and importance, as in ancient times. Thus, Rome, which a thousand years ago defected from the Church is out anyway. Constantinople with a flock of perhaps 3,000,000 (and this only thanks to the Greek Diaspora) (6), Alexandria and Antioch, both with flocks of scarcely one million, and Jerusalem, with an ever-dwindling flock of little more than 150,000 would not count and do not count today (7). Only this solution of real size today would be realistic, until that in turn changes. However, since, we are taking about a primacy of honour – and not papist supremacy - it is hardly a question of great importance. The Church of God runs on apostolic, catholic, conciliar, collegial principles, not on those of the world, which lords it over others (Matt 20, 25-27).

Archpriest Andrew Phillips

4/17 June 2010 St Metrophanes, Patriarch of Constantinople


1.Book VII, Letter XXXIII. It is notable that only three generations after Pope Gregory at the Sixth Ecumenical Council, the Pope of Rome was addressed as the ‘Ecumenical Pope’ and the Roman delegates signed the Acts as being authorised by the ‘Ecumenical Pope’.

2.However, in Book VIII, Letter XXX, there is a reply to a letter from Pope Eulogius. In this he ironically calls Pope Gregory ‘Universal Pope’, as if to explain indirectly to Pope Gregory that the title was no more than a title.

3.See especially Book V, Letters XVIII, XIX, XX, XXI, XXIX, XXXIX and XLIII; Book VI, Letters XXXIV, XL and LX; Book VII Letters IV, XXVII, XXXI and XL; Book VIII, Letter XXX; Book IX, Letter LXVIII; Book XIII, Letter XL.

4.For example, the Universal Church has never accepted the strictures on compulsory clerical celibacy (subdeacons, deacons and priest not marrying) which were local to the Roman Church and were already expressed in the writings of St Leo the Great in the fifth century. Rather, the teaching of the Universal Church is reflected in the teachings of St Ambrose in Milan, for whom clerical celibacy was voluntary, not compulsory. Similarly, we may object to the old Roman rejection of Canon III of the Second Ecumenical Council that Constantinople should have second and not fifth rank among the five ancient Patriarchates. This rejection seems to have been motivated by jealousy rather than anything else, as was the Roman rejection of Canon XXVIII of Chalcedon, also concerning the honour given to New Rome. The fact is that Constantinople’s second rank was accepted by Rome at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215 – when Constantinople was occupied by its barbarian Latin looters.

5.This is not to deny that the Apostle Andrew may at some point have visited the pagan port of Byzantium and perhaps even converted and baptised there. Like the other apostles, he travelled widely and converted and baptised in many places.

6.We are reliably assured that the number of baptised Greek Orthodox in Istanbul today is fewer than 1,000. The number of Russian Orthodox permanently resident in Turkey stands at about 15,000.


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