What’s a Patriarch?

The election just announced (“Новым Патриархом стал митрополит Кирилл” — with an icon streaming myrrh right there in the church in Moscow! More here and here temporarily. Good short biography here.) of a new Patriarch for around half of the world’s quarter-billion or more Eastern Orthodox Christians (after the repose last month of His Holiness Patriarch ALEXEI II of Moscow, All Rus, “and the Far North” as it was classically described at least once) — Metropolitan KYRILL of Smolensk and Kaliningrad, Russia, widely considered the “frontrunner” (God grant you Many Years, Your Holiness!) — might raise the question of what an Orthodox Patriarch actually is.

And myself coming from a Latin background and living in the West, addressing mostly others living in the West, in English, very familiar with the Pope of Rome — if you’ll permit me, I’ll start off by saying that an Orthodox Patriarch is not normally a “little Pope” whose word is law among those whose Patriarch he is.  Although like all Orthodox Bishops he is officially a leading teacher of Orthodoxy, he does not “develop doctrine,” alone or with anybody else, but merely teaches together with his brother Bishops “that which was handed down from the Apostles,” ie, Holy Tradition (traditio, handing down), including Holy Scripture.

The Orthodox Church is organized into clusters of dioceses, a Tradition established after the First Ecumenical Synod aka the Council of Nicea in AD 325.  No Orthodox Bishop in communion with The Orthodox Church stands alone, but with his brother Bishops, normally on a geographic basis.  (The best comparison for our purposes might be the Anglican Communion’s normative structure, with separate Church Provinces in different countries or regions, each led by its bishops collectively as equals, based on this tradition.)  Such a cluster might be called an ecclesiastical province, a catholicosate (historically), a patriarchate, or other terms such as National Church, Local Church (with a big-L and a big-C), jurisdiction, or simply Church.  And some of these may be ‘clusters of clusters.’

Normally the Ruling Hierarch of the political capital, largest city, or leading diocese, serves as ex officio chairman of the Bishops of that cluster of dioceses — First Among Equals — as well as overseeing its central administrative offices and functionaries, providing stability and focus for the whole Church in that cluster.  Traditionally his diocese was called that cluster’s metropolis, and he, its Metropolitan, or Metropolitan Archbishop.  Today some are instead called Archbishop, primate, or Patriarch.*  In a cluster of clusters, still one of the primates is traditionally ex officio presiding bishop of the whole, with seniority over fellow Bishops of equal rank … although often in such a case the chief bishop is titled Patriarch, so it’s clear.  Orthodox have never recognized any Bishop with greater seniority than a patriarch, and maintain the ancient dictum, “A patriarch never submits to another patriarch,” but takes his turn in the traditional established order of seniority even among patriarchs, as an equal.

(This, naturally, is the [big-T] Traditional problem — ecclesiopolitically if you will — with the claim of the Patriarch of Rome to jurisdiction over other Patriarchs, even back when he was First Among Equal Patriarchs.  “Pope” was never recognized as a rank higher than Patriarch outside the Western Patriarchate; in fact, Christendom’s other Pope, he of Alexandria, Egypt — no unimportant city in the Roman Empire or the later Church — has never aspired to what Orthodox have come to call papalism, that universal, immediate, ordinary, supreme, full jurisdiction over every Christian, asserted by Rome.  Nevermind all the other problems with Rome’s claims, which are not the topic of this post!  BTW, Orthodox Bishops have differing titles, “ranks,” and seniority, only for purposes of order, honor to the dioceses they lead, and varying responsibilities.  That is to say, at every meeting of them their speaking order and chairmanship is predetermined, with the aim of making things run smoother than otherwise; also who presides at a Liturgy with more than one Bishop present.  And a Bishop’s basic responsibilities may be as an auxiliary bishop, or else a Ruling Hierarch, which latter may along with that serve as provincial primate, or primate of a cluster of provinces.)

Today 9  of Orthodoxy’s local primates are Patriarchs, those of Constantinople (Istanbul), Alexandria, Antioch (resident in Damascus), Jerusalem, Moscow, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Georgia (this last titled Catholicos-Patriarch).  Each is the lead Bishop for Orthodox in the area around his city or country, and some also elsewhere because of 20th-century expansion in Orthodox evangelization and mass migration.  As such, a Patriarch’s (or other primate’s) exact responsibilities vary from place to place.  Besides administering his own diocese, chairing local meetings of synods and councils of Bishops and other churchmen and -women, and overseeing central Church administration and institutions, he often visits throughout his Local Church and other Local Orthodox Churches to maintain ties of fellowship / communion (Greek koinonia) in person, serves high-profile Liturgies, preaches, writes, advocates for public wellbeing and improvement and traditional, Orthodox-influenced culture(s), meets with governmental and non-Orthodox religious leaders, provides overall leadership in his Church, leads in the Church teaching and formation of young people and future churchpeople, and overall tries to help his people be saved….  In short, it’s the work of any Orthodox Bishop, ‘writ large’ if you will.  But normally in a far more collaborative spirit than many Westerners might expect considering Orthodoxy’s ‘oldness’ and ‘conservatism,’ “long beards, robes, and services,” headscarves (often), lack of “praise bands,” dearth of agitation, exhortations to piety and humility, ‘cloistered’ or semi-cloistered monasticism….

It’s a commonplace in the field of  Church History that a Bishop’s “job one” was to ensure the unity of his local flock, protecting it from the divisions of heresy and schism.  A Patriarch’s (or other primate’s), then, is to also ensure the unity of his Patriarchate or Province.  This is similar to the role of ruling bishops and primates in other Churches similarly structured, such as Anglicanism, Catholicism (Western and Eastern, papal and “independent”), the Oriental Churches (ie, Coptic, Ethiopian, Syriac, Armenian, Asian Indian, etc.), and the Assyrian Church.  In this way, it’s not unique to Orthodoxy.  Even the title of Patriarch is used by other “Eastern” Churches besides us.

And why the title Patriarch?  Really, Patriarch is ‘just’ a primate and Local Church granted more honor and seniority by the Church, for whatever reasons.  It’s not strictly theological or ‘necessary.’  All Orthodox Churches are equal.  Another irony is that Pope Benedict XVI of Rome the other year dropped the one of his many historic titles — Patriarch of the West — that o/Orthodox Tradition can theoretically deal with!

Also, a Patriarch (or Primate, or any Bishop ideally) is revered by Orthodox Tradition as a sacrament, symbol, sacred embodiment of his Church, hence their vestments and their hand-kissing by laity.  He is in a sense the father of his Church; episcopal consecration is part of the “Mystery” of Holy Orders, after all.  The ultimate ‘icon’ of a Church is its primate presiding over Divine Liturgy alongside his clergy, surrounded by the faithful.  After all, it’s not just about pushing pencils!

(*–BTW, an Orthodox Patriarchate is not in the first place what feminist theorists refer to as a patriarchal structure.  In Orthodox usage the word patriarch derives not from Greek words for father-ruler, but country-ruler [in broad and religious senses] … patria as fatherland or motherland, meaning simply a sizeable territory.)

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