The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson

The Patriarchate of Constantinople (The Ecumenical Patriarchate)

In New Testament times, Greek culture was predominant in the eastern regions of the Roman Empire. The early growth of the Church, beginning with the missionary activity of St. Paul, eventually led to the Christianization of this Greek civilization.

The Emperor Constantine began a process that led to the adoption of Christianity as the imperial state religion by Emperor Theodosius in the late 4th century. Constantine also moved the empire’s capital from Rome to the small Greek city of Byzantium in 330 and renamed it Constantinople, or New Rome.

Because of Constantinople’s new status as capital of the empire, its church grew in importance. Canon 3 of the First Council of Constantinople (381) stated that the bishop of that city “shall have primacy of honor after the Bishop of Rome because Constantinople is the New Rome.” Thus it assumed a position higher than the more ancient Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch. In its disputed 28th Canon, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 recognized an expansion of the boundaries of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and of its authority over bishops of dioceses “among the barbarians,” which has been variously interpreted as referring either to areas outside the Byzantine Empire or to non-Greeks. In any case, for almost a thousand years the Patriarch of Constantinople presided over the church in the eastern Roman (Byzantine) Empire and its missionary activity that brought the Christian faith in its Byzantine form to many peoples north of the imperial borders. The enormous cathedral church of Constantinople, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom), was the center of religious life in the eastern Christian world.

In view of its pre-eminent position in the Christian east, Patriarchs of Constantinople began to use the term “Ecumenical” in their title in the 5th century. In this context, the term refers not to relations among different Christian denominations (“ecumenism”) but to the ministry of the Constantinopolitan patriarch beyond his own church.

The schism between Rome and Constantinople developed slowly over a long period, and is often described in older books as culminating in 1054 with the mutual excommunications between Patriarch Michael Cerularius and Cardinal Humbert, the papal legate. But for the common people in the Empire, the rift took on real meaning only after the 1204 sacking of Constantinople by the Latins during the Fourth Crusade. As communion with Rome was breaking down, Constantinople began to assume the first position among the churches of the Byzantine tradition.

Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. While they placed many restrictions on Christians, in some ways the Turks enhanced the Patriarch’s authority by making him the civil leader of the multi-ethnic Orthodox community within the Empire, and he retained his position as the first of the Orthodox Patriarchs. This gave him a certain authority over the Greek Patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, which were also within Ottoman territory. But the assumption of civil authority carried a heavy price: when the Greeks rebelled against Turkish rule in 1821, the Ottoman sultan held Patriarch Gregory V responsible and had him hanged at the gates of the patriarchal compound. Two metropolitans and 12 bishops followed him to the gallows.

In 1832 an independent Greek state was established, and a separate autocephalous Church of Greece was set up in 1833. After World War I, there was a major exchange of populations between Greece and Turkey. Anti-Greek riots in Istanbul (the new Turkish name for Constantinople) in the 1950s precipitated another exodus of Greeks from Turkey. Now very few remain.

Today the Patriarchate of Constantinople includes the 4,000 to 5,000 Greeks who remain in Turkey, as well as some sections of Greece (Mount Athos, the semi-autonomous Church of Crete, and the Dodecanese Islands). There was an important theological school on the island of Halki, near Istanbul, until it was closed by the government in 1971. Securing the re-opening of the school is a major priority of the current Patriarch. The Patriarchate administers certain theological academic institutions in Greece, including a school at the monastery of John the Theologian on the island of Patmos, the Patriarchal Institute for Patristic Studies in Thessalonika, and the Orthodox Academy of Crete. In addition, in 1993 the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate designated the Patriarch Athenagoras Orthodox Institute at the Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, as an official patriarchal institute. The Patriarchate also maintains an Orthodox Center at Chambésy, Switzerland, near Geneva. A new Institute of Orthodox Theology opened its doors at Chambésy in late 1997.

The monastic republic of Mount Athos, although located in Greece, is under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. The Greek constitution recognizes the administrative autonomy of the monasteries, and the civil governor of the peninsula, appointed by the Greek government, is not to interfere in their internal life. The fortunes of Mount Athos have varied in recent years. While there were 6,345 monks on the peninsula in 1913, the number had fallen to 1,191 in 1980. But a recent influx of young monks to the Holy Mountain raised the total number to about 1,500 by 2006. According to a census taken in 2011, that number had risen to 1,811. In the mid-1960s a decisive movement away from the idiorhythmic and towards the cenobitic style of life began in the monasteries. At that time there were 11 cenobitic and nine idiorhythmic communities. But as of 1992, when Pantocrator monastery officially adopted the cenobitic style, no idiorhythmic communities remained. Mount Athos has long had a multi-ethnic character, with many monks coming from the Slavic, Romanian and Georgian churches as well as the Greek. The fall of the communist regimes in Eastern Europe made it possible for monks to come to Athos from those countries once again.

In December 1989 the Patriarchate inaugurated a new administrative headquarters at the Phanar (a section of Istanbul), replacing the original 17th-century building that had been destroyed in a fire in 1941. It was only in 1987 that the Turkish government had granted permission to rebuild the edifice. Making use of this facility and the otherwise unused complex of the Halki theological school, the Patriarchate has been able to resume sponsoring important church-related events.

Patriarch Bartholomew has brought new vigor to his church’s role within Orthodoxy and beyond. He has called together all the bishops of the Patriarchate, and on other occasions the heads of all the autocephalous Orthodox Churches, for consultations. He has visited most of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches and the headquarters of the other major Christian communions, including the Vatican, the World Council of Churches and the Archbishop of Canterbury. In November 2006 he received Pope Benedict XVI at the Patriarchate in Istanbul, and he received Pope Francis there in November 2014. In January 1994 the Patriarch was able, in conjunction with the Patriarchal Institute in Thessalonika, to revive the patriarchal review Όρθοδοξία, which had appeared regularly from 1926 to 1963. At the Patriarch’s initiative, an Orthodox office was opened at the headquarters of the European Community in Brussels on January 10, 1995. Bartholomew, often known as “The Green Patriarch,” has also become a strong advocate of measures to protect the environment.

However, the situation of the Greek community in Turkey remains precarious. In the 1990s there were several incidents including the profanation of a Greek cemetery in Istanbul, the burning of a Greek school, and several bombings, one of which caused extensive damage in the patriarchal compound. A number of fundamental issues with the Turkish government are still unresolved in what Archbishop Demetrios of America called, in a 2005 speech, “very heavy and oppressive political conditions.” The Archbishop’s concern focused on four issues: 1) The rejection of the title “Ecumenical” by the Turkish government, which denies the Patriarchate any role apart from the leadership of the small ethnic Greek community within Turkey. 2) The refusal of the Turkish government to recognize the Ecumenical Patriarchate as a legal personality. 3) Restrictions of the Patriarchate’s property rights, which has resulted in the confiscation of hundreds of its properties in recent years. 4) Denial of the right to educate and train new clergy, which centers on the government’s refusal to allow the re-opening of the Halki seminary.

Even in these circumstances, Patriarch Bartholomew has rejected proposals that the Patriarchate move to another city such as Thessalonika in Greece. He recalls that aside from a brief interruption in the 13th century, the Patriarchate has always been located in ancient Constantinople. Moreover, while transferring to Thessalonika would be to identify with Greece, remaining in Istanbul, at the crossroads of many civilizations and languages, allows the Patriarchate to stand above nationalistic rivalries. Indeed, the Patriarch has vigorously condemned excessive nationalism as detrimental to Orthodoxy and peace in the world. For these reasons the Patriarch believes that the Patriarchate’s location in a secular state with a Muslim majority is advantageous for the Orthodox Church.

Patriarch Bartholomew is also a strong advocate of Turkey’s efforts to join the European Union, stating that “the incorporation of Turkey into the European Union may well provide a powerful symbol of mutually beneficial cooperation between the Western and Islamic worlds and put an end to the talk of a clash of civilizations.”

On July 10, 2020, Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan announced that the Basilica of Hagia Sophia would be transformed into a mosque. It had served as the cathedral church of Constantinople for 900 years; it was converted into a mosque when the city fell to the Turks in 1453, and into a museum in 1934. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew deplored this decision because he believed it would jeopardize Hagia Sophia’s status as neutral ground “in which East and West embrace each other.” He feared that the conversion would “push millions of Christians around the world against Islam.” Nevertheless, Islamic services resumed in the building on July 24.

The Patriarchate is governed by the Permanent Holy Synod, over which the Patriarch presides. Since 1920 it had been made up of twelve active metropolitan bishops whose dioceses were within Turkey. But in February 2004 Patriarch Bartholomew directed that it would henceforth be composed of six metropolitans from Turkey and six from outside the country. There has been no direct lay participation in the administration of the Patriarchate since a mixed council was abolished in 1923.

Greek Orthodox faithful in areas outside the territory of the individual Orthodox churches are included in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, as well as a number of other jurisdictions of various ethnic backgrounds that are described in the section “Churches Under Constantinople.” Archbishop Nikitas of Thyateira and Great Britain (born 1955, elected 2019) has offices at Thyateira House, 5 Craven Hill, London W2 3EN. There are 107 worshiping communities in the United Kingdom and one parish in Dublin, Ireland, all served by the archbishop, two assistant bishops, and 100 priests. The double monastery of Saint John the Baptist in Essex, with about 40 monks and nuns, is directly dependent on the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Archbishop Makarios (born 1973, elected 2019) presides over Greek Orthodox faithful in Australia (242 Cleveland Street, Redfern, Sydney, NSW 2016). The Australian Archdiocese, which includes 121 parishes and eight monastic communities, opened St. Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological School in Sydney in 1986. The Archdiocese is divided into five districts, four of which are headed by assistant bishops responsible to the Archbishop in Sydney. The Archdiocese of New Zealand and Exarchate of Oceania (365 Broadway, Miramar, Wellington, N.Z.) was separated from Australia in 1970. It is led by Metropolitan Myron (born 1969, elected 2018) and includes nine parishes and one monastery in New Zealand along with four parishes and one monastery in Fiji.

A Metropolis of Hong Kong and Southeast Asia (704 Universal Trade Center, 3 Arbuthnot Road, Central Hong Kong) was established in 1996 and now has jurisdiction over Greek Orthodox communities in the rest of China, Taiwan, and the Philippines. It is headed by Metropolitan Nektarios (born 1969, elected 2008). In 2008 the Ecumenical Patriarchate created a separate Metropolis of Singapore and South Asia (896 Dunearn Road, 04-08 Sime Darby Centre, Singapore 589472) from territory that formerly belonged to the Metropolis of Hong Kong. It encompasses a vast area including Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Timor, Maldives islands, Bangladesh, Nepal, India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan, and is under the pastoral supervision of Metropolitan Konstantinos (born 1973, elected 2011).

In 1996 the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate divided the former Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America into four separate Metropolises: (1) America (United States), (2) Toronto and All Canada (3) Buenos Aires and South America, and (4) Panama and Central America. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (10 East 79th Street, New York, New York 10021) is led by Archbishop Elpidophoros (born 1967, elected 2019). Within the USA there is an Archdiocesan district and eight Metropolises, based in New Jersey, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Boston and Denver, with a total of 560 parishes served by 800 priests. There are also 21 monastic communities in the Archdiocese. The Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Canada (86 Overlea Boulevard, East York, Ontario M4H 1C6) has 75 parishes and two monasteries under the guidance of Metropolitan Sotirios (born 1936, elected 1996). The Archdiocese of America administers Hellenic College/Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, Massachusetts, and the Canadian Metropolis opened the Toronto Orthodox Theological Academy (affiliated with St. Paul’s University in Ottawa) in September 1998.

Location: Turkey, Greece, the Americas, Western Europe, Australia
Head: Patriarch Bartholomew I (born 1940, elected 1991)
Title: Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch
Residence: Istanbul (Constantinople), Turkey
Membership: 3,500,000

Last Modified: 17 January 2021

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