“It behoves the Bishops of every nation to know the one among them who is the first or chief, and to recognize him as their head, and to refrain from doing anything superfluous without his advice and approval: but, instead, each of them should do only what is necessitated by his own parish and by the territories under him. But let not even such a one [the primate] do anything without the advice and consent and approval of all. For this will there be concord, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit, the Father, and the Son and the Holy Spirit.”
These are the words of Canon XXXIV of the Holy Apostles. This canon is frequently quoted in the discussion of primacy and conciliarity in the Church; it is an early witness to the need to balance both of these functions in order for the Church to function well. I offer it to us here, quite frankly, in the hope that this early patristic text will provide both the Orthodox and the Catholics some food for thought.
It is no secret that I believe that the positions of the East and West are complimentary, and can be reconciled without either a facile “compromise” or a surrender of one side to the other. I am also convinced that authentic ecumenism does not have as its goal the mutual ratification of each other’s abuses. Nor does a worth-while ecumenical process lie in contrasting the highest ideals of one side with the most deplorable practices of the other side.
The Apostolic Canon clearly excludes two extremes. The primate is not and cannot be “above” the Church, nor “above” the episcopate. He is not to act without obtaining the consent of his brothers. The episcopate is not and cannot be “independent” of the primate; the remaining bishops shall not act without obtaining the primate’s advice and approval. Thus the primate is not to be a dictator or tyrant, but neither is he a mere figurehead. The history of the past two-thousand years provides more than sufficient examples of what can happen when either extreme is pressed too far. But before I come to examples, let me address an objection sometimes voiced.
The Apostolic Canon speaks clearly of “the bishops of every nation”, and therefore appears to be discussing local primacies: in Italy, in Gaul, in Egypt, in Ireland, or wherever. Is it, then, proper to refer to this canon in the context of a discussion of the universal primacy?
Surely it must be proper. The Orthodox insist, correctly, that there is not and cannot be any radical, essential difference between one diocesan bishop and another. Whether the Pope of Rome offers the Holy Eucharist in Saint John Lateran, or the Bishop of Scopelos serves the Divine Liturgy in some small village church in the western United States, the Eucharistic Sacrifice is identical. Whether the Ecumenical Patriarch ordains a priest in Saint George’s Cathedral in Constantinople, or the Bishop of Peoria ordains a priest in a small church in Illinois, the divine grace of the Priesthood does not differ in the least.
Thus the relationship of the primate to the rest of the bishops, be this on the “universal” level or within a given “nation,” must in either case be the relationship of the first among brothers with the remaining brothers. The primate does not stand as Jesus Christ stands among the Apostles; the primate does not stand as each bishop stands among his presbyters. The primate and the remaining bishops are brothers: the primate is not the father, and the rest are not his sons.
The Apostolic Canon does not mention it, but there is another matter arising directly from the comparison of the local level with the universal level of primacy: traditionally, the Church links primacy among the bishops, whether locally or universally, to the city of which a given hierarch is the bishop. The authentic tradition does not know of a “shifting primacy,” which can be moved from place to place almost without notice. One is the primate of Egypt and Africa because one is the Bishop of Alexandria, not because all the bishops of Egypt and Africa happen to prefer that for this particular term of years bishop so-and-so should be their president. This link between the primacy and the Local Church in which the primacy is situated is an important element in the stability of the Church.
To be continued …