Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh

Primacy and primacies in the Church

'Constantinople Lecture'
29 of November 1982

The problems posed by ‘primacy’ in the Church have been with us from the beginning: the earliest attempt at a solution can be seen in the ‘Apostolic Council’ described in Acts 15 and the question still remains the central area of disagreement between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. On 29 November 1982 Metropolitan Anthony devoted his ‘Constantinople Lecture’ to this subject, in a series established to commemorate the Second Ecumenical Council of 381 AD. We give here a slightly edited text of his talk as taken down by tape recorder. In it he speaks critically of the notion of primacy as it has developed in both East and West.


I have chosen this subject because Canon 3 of the First Council of Constantinople deals with this very subject. It defines the position of two sees in Christendom, that of Rome and that of Constantinople, and declares that Rome is to occupy the first place in rank of honour because it is the city of the Emperor, while Constantinople is to occupy the second place because it is the second capital of the empire. This definition is of great importance, because it underlines very clearly that there was no theological basis for establishing such an order of precedence. It was only expediency — both political and practical — that defined their positions.

But it is not specifically about this canon that I want to speak. I want to attract your attention to the wider problem of ‘primacy and primacies’ in the Church at large. In the middle thirties Vladimir Lossky, in his first lecture on the history of the Church, indicated that there are three themes that run through the whole of the Church’s history: a groping for and a proclamation of the truth; the structuring of the Church so that it corresponds as closely as possible to its nature; and thirdly, the directives given on the spiritual life of the Church. These three elements are essential if we want to understand what the Church is and how it should be built, structured and find its expression in history.

We have, however, several problems that confront us. First of all, in the course of the early centuries, the Church defined the essentials of the Christian faith: the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, the relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and so on. But we still have no conciliar definition of the Church as such, one which can be used by all Christians. In the course of centuries the Church was aware of its nature, of its life, of its dynamic. It proclaimed the Gospel and lived by it, and yet the Church remains to a very great extent mysterious, not just when we try to speak of its deepest nature, but also when we try to define its limits and indicate where it is and where it is not. There is no one denomination in Christendom that has, in the course of the whole of the Church’s history of its practically 2000 years, given such a definition of the Church that would allow us no only to define what the Church is in essence, but also its limits. Perhaps this is not accidental, for it may well be that we must live a long time before we can perceive and understand sufficiently the nature of the Church as to combine in such a definition a theological vision that reflects both the Church in God, in its essence, and its historical situation.

We are to a very great extent, as far as the Church is concerned, prisoners of history. In many ways we are also prisoners of certain theological presuppositions that have gradually been accepted without sufficient consideration. We are prisoners of history in that somehow what has happened seems gradually to have become what should be. We have this canon of Constantinople concerning ‘primacy and primacies’ which arose in a historical situation which itself was rooted in a political situation and in practical expediency. And yet gradually, because in the course of centuries we have become accustomed to the status quo, it has become, in the eyes of many, a mark of the Church. It seems to many that this is how things should be.

Yet the situation has changed, history has moved on, and the relative importance of these cities has become infinitely different from what it was. Yet the formulation stands, and illusions are very often based on it. One could even say that this use of history has forced upon the Church a view which was not born of theology but of accident: the Roman Catholic view of the papacy. The primacy of Peter — not so much of Peter, but of the successors of Peter — has resulted in a gradual evolution, which we Orthodox consider to be both unfortunate and destructive for the Church. The Pope becomes not only a sign of unity, but also a ruler seen at certain moments in a light which would probably make many a Roman Catholic shudder today. In a very interesting book produced recently by a Roman Catholic historian and theologian, for five years a member of the Vatican Secretariat for Christian Unity, there are quotations showing how, having begun with considerations of expediency, one particular local church reached the most incredible conclusions.

In the times of Pius IX it was stated very clearly that the Pope was God’s representative on earth. This is what August Bernhard Hasler writes in a book called How the Pope Became Infallible and prefaced by Hans Kung. One enthusiast called the Pope ‘vice-God of humanity’. An official journal of the Vatican says, in the words of one of the bishops, that ‘when the Pope meditates, it is God who thinks in him’. Bishop Berteaud of Tulle in France describes the Pope as ‘the word of God made flesh, living in our midst’. The suffragan bishop of Geneva, Gaspare Mermillod, ‘did not hesitate’, says the author, ‘to speak of a threefold incarnation of the Son of God: in the Virgin’s womb, in the Eucharist, and in the old man of the Vatican’.

I know that today such expressions would be rejected, that most Roman Catholics — although probably not all — would never accept such a position. But it is quite clear that these expressions were gradually born of a basic attitude that falsified a root relationship between the Church and its bishops, between the Church and the primatial sees that have gradually emerged from history, but not from the Gospel.

Here we find ourselves at a point of tension which belongs to the very nature of the Church. The Church is an eschatological body, a mysterious body — I shall say a few words about this in a moment — and at the same time a body which evolves, acts, grows and goes through tragedy and glory in history.

In its essential nature the Church is something far more mysterious than what we can find described in a catechism. It is not simply a body of believers knitted together by a common faith, by the same sacraments, by one hierarchy, by one spirituality — it is much more than this. All this corresponds perhaps to what we might say of a building in order for someone to be able to recognise it from the outside. Yet none of this will disclose to the person who hears the description, or even sees the object, what happens inside it, what is the mystery of this place.

The mystery of the Church consists in the fact that it is a body, a living organism which is simultaneously and equally both human and divine. The ‘firstborn from the dead’, our Lord Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the living God, the Son of God become the Son of Man. And in him — through him — God is present in the Church from the first moment of the Incarnation. The Church is no longer separable from the divine, because Christ is God.

Then, after his Resurrection, on two different occasions and in two different manners, the first described in John 20 and the second in the Book of Acts, Christ gave to his Church the Holy Spirit. He gave the Holy Spirit, as described in John, to the total body so that it is held by the community and is possessed as a property by no one. And in the Book of Acts we see that, because the whole body is possessed, is filled, is sanctified, is transformed and transfigured by the presence of the Holy Spirit, individual members can receive him and be fulfilled — each of them in a unique, unrepeatable and wonderful way.

So again, in the Spirit God is present in the Church and our life is ‘hid with Christ in God’, possessed of the Holy Spirit — or, rather, possessed by the Holy Spirit as the Body of Christ, as an extension of his Body through the mysteries of baptism and communion, an extension through participation of his incarnate presence throughout the ages and throughout all lands. The Church is related to the Father in a way which is not metaphorical or allegorical, but which is substantial and real. St Irenaeus of Lyons, speaking of his vision of the future, of what will happen when all things are fulfilled, says to us that the day will come when we, the Body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit, pervaded by the one and at one with the other, will ‘in the only begotten Son become the only begotten Son of God’.

This is the vision and this is the incipient reality. It has begun, it is in motion, it is in progress. And this is the divine aspect of the Church, which makes it holy, which makes it catholic — not in the sense of an extension through space or even through time, but in the sense of the Greek word which means both ‘in all’ and ‘through all’. In each of us to the extent to which we are members, living members of Christ and temples of the Holy Spirit, to the extent to which we are becoming what we already are. In the Church somehow there is a fullness of relationship, there is incipiently what Christ was to the fullness. But there is also I believe a human aspect, there is a sinful aspect, as in our unfaithfulness, our disloyalty, our sinfulness. Yet each of us through faith, through love of God, through the loyalty which we do have, however weak, frail, hesitant and even intermittent, is already sharing in the mystery of the Church in its fullness.

In the Church there is the Lord Jesus Christ, truly the Son of God — but also the Son of Man, he who is true man, both true in the sense of being one of us in every single respect except sin, and true because he is the only true man, because he is a partaker of the divine nature which is the vocation of man according to the words of 2 Peter 1.4. He is what each of us is called to be. As God-Man, he is God by nature and man by nature. We are human by nature and must become divine, transfigured and united to the divine nature by participation. In the Church, he is a revelation to us of what man is called to become. If this is what the Church is, then there is no common measure between it and any kind of ‘structure’, however wise, however elaborate, however true within its limits and its nature. Because the Church is as vast as God, as big as God, as holy and creatively dynamic as the living God at work within us and in our midst.

Whatever history has offered us in the way of structures, the ‘working situations’, as it were, in which human beings have had to achieve their vocations, none of these working situations, each of which a scientist would call a ‘model’, can be accepted as the model of the Church. The only true model of the Church, in the words of the Russian philosopher Nicolai Federov, is the Holy Trinity. The Church must be a drawing near to trinitarian life, the Church must be a revelation on earth of those relationships of oneness in multiplicity which we find in God in his oneness in the Trinity.

That brings me to another point. We have been, and still are, under the sway of a ‘eucharistic’ theology of the Church which is, I believe, true within limits — though within very narrow limits — but which falsifies our vision if we imagine that it is fully adequate. A eucharistic theology of the Church basically affirms that the Church is the Eucharist and that the Eucharist is the Church, and that those structures which are necessary, which are essential in the eucharistic celebration, are a vision of what constitutes the Church. This means that there must be a presiding minister, and a Church that is structured around him. We are indebted for this profound vision of the Church to the Russian theologian, Father Nicolai Afanassieff, but I do not believe that this is all there is to be said about the Church.

The Church is greater than the Eucharist, the Church is vaster than the Eucharist, the Church contains the Eucharist, but the Eucharist does not sum up all that there is to the Church. I think we must realise this. Even in eucharistic terms we are easily led astray by what we see. We see a celebrant — be it patriarch, bishop or priest — celebrating, and we watch him until he becomes so central that we may even forget the true event because it is too centred around him. We forget, for instance, that when the priest — whatever his rank may be — has prepared the holy bread, and the holy wine, when he is vested and when all the ministers that will take part in the celebration are ready to start, the deacon then addresses himself to the chief celebrant with the words: ‘Now it is time for the Lord to act’.

You have done all that is humanly possible; you have prayed and prepared yourself as best as you can to stand face to face with the living God, to come to the place which is like the burning bush, a space which you cannot tread without being cleansed by divine fire; you have vested yourself in vestments that blot out your human personality as far as the celebration is concerned; you have prepared bread and wine and have made the action that follows possible; but what is the essence of the events is beyond your power, for no one through apostolic succession or functional grace can make a human being capable of turning bread into the Body of Christ, or wine into the Blood of Christ. No human being has the power to force God into any situation, and the only true celebrant of the Eucharist — the only celebrant indeed of any sacrament, that is, of those mighty acts of God which transfigure, and transform the world — is God himself.

The Lord Jesus Christ, because he died and rose again, because he has conquered and sits on the right hand of glory, is the high priest of creation. He is the only celebrant of every sacrament, while it is the Holy Spirit whom we call upon to come and sanctify the gifts with the certainty that a response of compassion, of love is waiting for us, a response that can transform what is earthly into what is divine. No human being, no earthly being, can make divine what belongs to the earth, and to imagine that the eucharistic structure is an image of the total Church can make us forget that the true celebrant is not the one whom we see before us, but he who is enthroned on the Holy Table, which we call in Orthodox terms, the Throne of God.

So in this sense, the Church is vaster than the Eucharist. Indeed, this is made absolutely clear in the Eucharist itself, after the communion of the people, when the priest in a secret prayer says: ‘And grant us, O Lord, to partake more perfectly of thee in the never ending day of thy Kingdom’. There is greater than this, even than this — and I do not wish to minimize the sacredness, the holiness, the greatness, the importance of the Eucharist. But the Eucharist is not yet the Church revealed in its fullness even on earth.

A eucharistic theology tends to lead us inevitably to the idea of a pyramid of primacies. A priest celebrates the Eucharist and becomes the primus of the given congregation; the bishop stands at the head of the clerical body — not the ecclesiastical body, but the clerical one; and then a greater unity is formed with someone always standing at the head of the pyramid.

Well, this is not true. Only the Lord Jesus Christ — and no one else — stands at the head of the pyramid, whether in a small parish, in a cathedral church, or in the Church universal. Whenever we place a human being there, we do something which — I am sorry, I will use words which may be offensive to Roman Catholics, but which express exactly what I think of this imagery — whenever we say that someone is the ‘Vicar’ of Christ, we say that Christ is absent and that someone is needed to stand in for him. It is as simple as that. Of course, this is untrue; but our absurd approach to things makes this kind of vocabulary possible. In Orthodoxy as well there is the same temptation to build a pyramid with someone standing at the top. There was a time when it was Rome, then it became Constantinople; but it could be anyone. And it would be as false, because there is no one save the Lord Jesus Christ who stands there, who has a right to stand there and who is actually standing here.

So when we speak of ‘primacy’ and ‘primacies’ we must realise that we are at a point of tension between history and theology. This becomes clear when we consider a remarkable statement contained in what we call the 34th Apostolic Canon. I say ‘what we call’ because, quite definitely, it was not coined by the Apostles. It is called ‘apostolic’ because the Church’s consciousness has recognised in it something rooted in the apostolic approach and way of doing things.

This Apostolic Canon states that ‘it behoves the bishops of every nation to know the one among them who is their chief, and to recognise him as their head, and to refrain from doing anything beyond their own territory or function without his advice and approval; but, instead, each of them should do only whatever is needed by his own parish or territory; but let not even such a one [i.e. their chief] do anything without the advice and consent and approval of all. For thus there will be concord, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit, Father, Son and Holy Spirit’.

This is an extremely interesting canon, because its conclusion is that it is in the harmony of parts and the totality of multiplicity and oneness that God is glorified. And here we must remember that ‘to glorify’ in Greek does not mean what we understand so often — to praise or applaud; it means that his splendour, his unutterable beauty is revealed. The root of Canon 34 is this: our purpose in history, despite our frailty and our simpleness, is to reveal something of the unity of God in three persons. It can be revealed by concord, by unanimity, by the fact that the many in God’s own name can become one in a perfect harmony of will and action. To demonstrate this — and this is the point at which theology becomes history, when vision becomes action — there must be units in which this unity in multiplicity is demonstrated by the fact that one will act as a father and the other as a son, that the son will turn to the father with confidence, with love, with respect, but that never will the father act with power, or in an arbitrary way, but in unanimity and concord with the other.

Here, perhaps, it is worth remarking on the difference there is between authority and power. Power consists in the ability of a given person, or group of persons, to enforce its will and its decisions upon others. Authority is something quite different. In a sense authority has no power; it is the persuasiveness of truth that is authority.

I would like to quote here a paragraph from the introduction which Hans Kung had written about the Councils. He says:


The first Ecumenical Council of Nicea (325) got along without any claim to infallibility. Recent historical research has pointed out the way in which the leader of this Council, Athanasius, along with many Greek Fathers of the Church and Augustine as well, explained the true but in no sense infallible authority of a council. A council speaks the truth not because it is convoked in a juridical and unobjectionable manner, not because the majority of bishops in the world were in attendance, not because it was confirmed by any sort of human authority, not, in a word, because it was, from the start, incapable of being deceived; but because, in spite of new words it says nothing new, because it hands on the old tradition in a new language, because it bears witness to the original message, because it breathes the air of Scripture, because it has the Gospel behind it.


This is, I would think, the difference between authority and power. Power means — as Vatican I had proclaimed, despite the number of bishops who walked out of it and said no to infallibility — that a certain thing is so and that one has either to accept it or be rejected. But what we see in the first Ecumenical Council is no act of power. And all that we have received throughout history from the Ecumenical Councils has been a voice sounding from the depth of the scriptures, indeed, God’s own voice, the voice of the Holy Spirit proclaiming what is true, what can be recognised as truth by the Church. It has been recognised as true by the Church because of the perfect harmony which was perceived between the original, primeval word of God and what resounded from these Councils, between the word of the Spirit and the words of men. It was the beauty of this harmony which was the convincing power of their proclamation of the Truth.

We are now in a situation in which the 34th Apostolic Canon can have new meaning for us. The historical primacies, those great conglomerations which history has created, are breaking down and gradually falling to pieces — thanks be to God. We are gradually losing the forms which were built as images of the political states of Rome, Byzantium and other countries. The Russian Church is a sad example in this respect because our Patriarchate is so vast, so monolithic and so monarchical in the way in which it acts that it is very difficult to recapture the spirit of the early Church. And yet this vision of the Church as God the Holy Trinity mirrored — and, indeed more than mirrored: alive, dynamic, living — in the Church is not something that can be seen. It must be demonstrated. And it can be demonstrated, but only in a small unit where everyone knows everyone, where people know and respect each other, in small dioceses where everyone is known to the bishop and the bishop is known to the priests. (And this will not always be an advantage for him, because he will be known not only as the bishop, but as the miserable creature he may be on occasion.). The Church must exist in units that are small enough to be visible and not so vast that they cannot either be comprehended or seen. This is what I believe primacy and primacies are to become in the whole Church. In a way it is achieved much better by a Methodist Superintendent who is responsible for a small circle of people than by an immense Patriachate in which the Patriarch is just perhaps a photograph seen in a calendar and nothing else; a name proclaimed and an illusion that somehow he is ‘the boss’.

I would prefer not to end on such a sad note, but I do think we must pray that this theological vision of the Church should find a real, concrete, intense expression in the concord that exists within units where concord makes sense. There is no possible concord between a parishioner in Irkutsk and the Patriarch of Moscow except on the assumption that whenever the Patriarch says is right — or an underlying feeling that he is probably wrong, but nothing can be done against him. We must recapture this theological vision and turn it into a demonstration of the truth. One can, for administrative or practical reasons, have something more vast, but it is not this that will correspond to the 34th Apostolic Canon. It is not this that will eventually correct, first in the consciousness of the people and then in the practice of the Church, the terrible results of the misinterpretation of Canon 3 of Constantinople concerning the two ‘primacies’, results that have gradually spread like weeds to other areas of the Church.

Finally, I would like to say that in order to achieve this we must become more Christian than we are, must be more in Christ and in the Spirit. And we must also recapture a theology of primacy which is true, because one cannot on false premises build a vision of the true Church.

Published: Sourozh, 1986, N. 25, p. 6-15

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