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The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

by Michael J.L. La Civita

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This concludes ONE magazine’s series on the Eastern churches, which began with a profile of the Orthodox Church of Eritrea in January 2005. Of the 47 articles, all but one were authored by Mr. La Civita.

The Patriarchal Church of Constantinople — the Ecumenical Patriarchate — ranks as primus inter pares, “first among equals,” in the worldwide Orthodox communion of churches. The present incumbent, Bartholomew I, Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome and Ecumenical Patriarch, exercises no authority over other Orthodox churches or patriarchs. Yet his prerogatives include second in honor after Rome among the ancient sees of the church; the right to hear appeals between clergy if invited; and the right to ordain bishops outside defined canonical boundaries.

Not all accept this status. Some canonists (particularly those associated with the powerful Orthodox Patriarchate of Moscow) challenge the ecumenical patriarch’s leadership. They assert the medieval claim “Two Romes have fallen. A third — Moscow — yet stands. A fourth there shall not be.” The Turkish government rejects any global role of the ecumenical patriarch, citing only his leadership for the few thousand Orthodox Christians who remain in Turkey; most live in what is today called Istanbul.

Bartholomew I, nevertheless, enjoys international stature. He exercises varying degrees of authority over some 3.5 million Orthodox Christians in Turkey, northern Greece and those scattered beyond the traditional canonical boundaries of the ancient patriarchates, including the Americas, Oceania and Western Europe. And environmentalists have nicknamed him the “Green Pope” for his advocacy of and commitment to environmental conservation. Tradition attributes the apostle Andrew as the founder of the church of Constantinople. But its link to Caesar would catapult it to prominence within Christendom, rivaling even Rome.

Favor. Recognizing the ascendance of his empire’s eastern provinces, the Roman emperor Constantine I moved his capital from Rome to Byzantion, a Greek port straddling Europe and Asia. On 11 May 330, the emperor solemnly christened his “new Rome” as a Christian capital and ordered the elite of old pagan Rome to move there.

In addition to the usual civic structures and monuments, Constantine built elaborate churches, including a cathedral dedicated to Christ as Hagia Sophia, “the Wisdom of God,” that served as his personal chapel; and Hagioi Apostoloi, the church of the Holy Apostles, where he was later buried. These sanctuaries took on immense significance for the development of the church in late antiquity.

This development coincided within the confluence of cultures in the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. As Christianity grew and embraced converts from the Greek, Jewish, Persian, Roman and Syriac cultures, debate raged regarding the nature of Jesus, his relationship to the Father and how to preach and practice the Gospel. Competing schools of theology and philosophy evolved.

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