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Vol. 2 No. 4 - Holy Cross 2007

Papal Hopes & Orthodox Popes:
Did the Turks Get Something Right?

In what was perhaps the biggest non-news of the Orthodox Church this year, a Turkish court ruled in June that the Patriarch of Constantinople enjoys the legal status of bishop of the Orthodox faithful in his city, but does not enjoy the legal status as head of the Orthodox Church around the world. Turkey has long held the view that the Istanbul-based patriarch is only the head of the city's tiny Greek community, and not the spiritual leader of the world's Orthodox Christians.

As perennial rivals of Greeks at home and abroad, the Turkish authorities have long been suspicious of the Patriarchate's cultural and religious ties with Greece. The Turkish authorities argued that their government was in no position to grant special status to the Patriarchate as a minority group within their ostensibly secular country, a move which brought criticism of the Turks from Greek sources worldwide.

Not surprisingly, certain Greek officials dismissed the Turkish decision as politically motivated at worst, irrelevant at best. Greek Foreign Ministry spokesman George Koumoutsakos summed up the Greek position, noting, "above all, recognition of the Ecumenical Patriarch as a spiritual leader is - and has been for centuries - deeply rooted in the conscience of hundreds of millions of Christians, Orthodox or not, worldwide."

But what does this actually mean? The Orthodox have long seen the Patriarch of Constantinople as the highest court of appeal in the Church, since the See of Rome was left vacant in the eleventh century with the departure of the Roman Catholic west from the Church. Yet with the exception of certain nationalists, Orthodox worldwide have never viewed the Patriarch as "head" of the Orthodox Church - a position belonging solely to Jesus Christ. Such a claim is absurd from an Orthodox point of view, and smacks of the same ambition that led to the Latin departure from the Orthodox fold a millennium ago.

So what does this mean? In a strict sense, it means that the Turkish court is absolutely correct. The concept that Turks could be correct about anything is of course entirely foreign to the Greek nationalist mind, yet in this case, the ostensibly secular, vaguely Islamic court at Ankara articulated the true Orthodox position: the Patriarch is a local bishop, albeit the most highly honoured one, and has no ecclesiastical jurisdiction over Orthodox Christians outside his see.

Today, through various historical hiccups, the see of Constantinople extends to various isolated islands around the globe: Greeks in North America are within his jurisdiction, while the actual Church of Greece is not. Ukrainians in the west fall under Constantinople, while those living in Ukraine do not. A handful of liberal intelligentsia in Western Europe, eager to escape traditional Orthodox life and practice in their region, have come under Constantinople over the years. Yet ninety percent of Orthodox Christians worldwide, while honouring the historical significance of the Patriarchate, are not under its jurisdiction.

Those who would like to see the extension of the power base of Constantinople along Roman Catholic lines are keenly aware of this demographic inconvenience. Although it smarts them to admit or to discuss it, their press releases still read as if the Byzantine Empire is still alive and kicking. A still greater thorn in the side of those supporting a papal-style Patriarchate is the reality that the first Patriarch to claim universal rights was the controversial Meletios Metaxakis in the 1920s, the mastermind of radical changes within the Greek speaking churches - not an ancient historical precedent, to be sure.

For Orthodox living in North America, all this news and history comes as a proverbial blip on the radar screen. With the decline in immigration to the west among those jurisdictions under Constantinople, combined with a declining birthrate and an evangelical spirit which has almost entirely been ceded to Russian-based jurisdictions, the future influence of the Patriarchate at Istanbul does not look promising for those under her. God is not left without witnesses - whether they are the growing Orthodox diaspora outside Constantinople's jurisdiction, or the numerical decline within her.

As the Patriarch from Istanbul continues his dialogue with Benedict the XVI of Rome, the Turkish court decision only serves to underscore the increasing irrelevance of the dialogue. Those who find themselves concerned about a union between the two should take heart: should such apostasy take place, much of the Orthodox world might not even notice.

And on this issue, the Turks actually got it right.

Father Geoffrey Korz, (Holy Cross, 2007)

© All Saints of North America Orthodox Church
Orthodox Church in America, 2007.