Primacy in the Church- a model

I have also seen the difference in thinking about primacy in Rome especially that seems to go right back to at least the third century. This appears to be different to modern Orthodox opinions on the matter. Is this the beginning of a development of thought that would eventually lead to the schism and was a wrong opinion in western thinking that was not yet developed to a heretical level, or was it something “Orthodox” that has been a little lost in the East because of the consequences of the Roman development of the doctrine?

I think that there is an importance of primacy in Orthodox(Catholic) thought. This primacy is properly referred to as Petrine Primacy and Rome is certainly a centre of this primacy. I also believe that the structures of the Church as regulated in the Canons are not merely practical implementations but reflect and maintain important theological understandings of the Church.

This is that there is one Bishop, who is Christ. All Bishops are in a Mystery the concrete presence of Christ in the Church in His capacity as “high priest”, “teacher” and “master”. There is no Christ of Christ and rightly no Bishop of Bishops. The Roman Catholic system gives the impression, whether or not it is formally taught, that the Pope has an exclusive, or greater, manifestation of Christ compared to the other Bishops; he is set apart as “The” Vicar of Christ and somehow a “Christ of Christs” or Bishop of Bishops.

Having said the above, it may be asked how do we have a multitude of Bishops if there is only one Bishop? The answer, I believe, comes from primacy. All Bishops are the same being from the same Christ. However, Christ gives Peter the keys to the Kingdom alone (initially but later to all the Apostles) to show that gift is one and given wholly to one. It is not given in parts to a team of Apostles but it is given whole to one. This signifies that there is one Bishopric not many different Bishoprics. However, it would be impractical for one man to physically oversee the whole Church in the world so there are appointed many Bishops to do this, all sharing the whole gift as did Peter and succeeding him in holding the keys.

To ensure that the oneness of the Bishopric is maintained Bishops are organised into groups with a definite head so that they speak and act as one. The head gives this focus, although he is not above the others and acts not alone but with their unanimous consent (majority voting is a system of economy for the weaknesses of man but not the true modus operandi of the group, which is to act all as one). These groups are then structured to one which is at the head of the world, i.e. the Bishop of Rome as the centre and voice of Church unity. He is located where the whole world looks, the capital of the Empire, (although this wasn’t practically true; it carried this sense for the Roman people and the symbolism of the position is what is important) and he reflects to the world the Bishopric of Christ. When the Empire gains another capital the Church follows this and appoints another centre of Church unity equal to Rome, although Rome is respected in age. Constantinople does not replace Alexandria as second but rather shares first place with Rome as the New Rome. It shares the same place as Rome but reflects the unity of the Church to the Eastern Empire as Rome does to the West. This models Peter and Paul. Paul who joins the Apostles later shares the place with Peter as the chief Apostles the centre of unity of the Apostles. Peter displays this to the Jews and Paul to the Gentiles. Both share the same headship although Peter maintains the honour of time and the Primacy is named from him. This division into two does not negate the primacy of one but helps to remind us that the unity is Christ and not the human establishment in itself.

This primacy is not about internal jurisdiction within Dioceses but about the witness and action of the Church beyond these boundaries. It is right for Rome and Constantinople to supervise missions outside the territories defined for other Bishops, regions, or Patriarchates. Their jurisdiction is universal but only as a point of appeal and supervision of matters pertaining to the witness of the Church in general when the Church needs to speak as with one voice and mouth. It does not mean jurisdiction within the jurisdiction of other Bishops, groups or Patriarchates but only on matters of world wide concern with the consent of all other Bishops (through the tiered structure).

It is natural for other churches to model themselves on these universal witnesses of the Church. This witness is of the whole See and not only the Bishop. The primacy is found in the See and not the Bishop himself, although the Bishop being the head of his See is the focus of the witness. So, other churches soon model their liturgies and church practices on these central Sees. The Liturgy becomes uniform as do forms of music and art. Uniformity is not necessary in these matters but the oneness of the Church tends to bring this about and part of the maturity of the Church. (I believe it is wrong to diversify what is now uniform in the Church because there was variety in the early Church; variety is not wrong but I believe that it is not the mature way of the Church.)

Although, the political reasons of the granting of Primacy have gone the structure, decided by the Fathers under inspiration of the Spirit to structure the Church as Christ would have it, remains until the return of Christ who is the same yesterday, today and forever and who doesn’t change His mind ordering one thing and then another, although He allows for concessions due to human weaknesses. Free-will is always paramount and Bishops and even entire Sees can fall into heresy, so there is no guarantee that one of the Sees of Primacy will always be in the Church, although I think there is some special grace in this and somehow one or the other of the Sees of Rome or New Rome has remained faithful to Christ most of the time.

So, each Bishop contains the fullness of Christ in the Mystery of the Bishop and yet one Bishop is shown forth to the world to demonstrate that the Church is one with one Bishopric. This Bishop does so because he is a Bishop just like the others but because he is (was) at the centre of the world (Empire) and he carries the primacy demonstrating the oneness of the Bishopric and the Church. The Church is not an amalgamation of many parts neither is it reduced to one concrete See but it is one and the same throughout the world. This means that all local churches are equal but also that one can be chosen from the rest and shown to the world as the “ideal and complete” church, truly representative of all the churches and of the Church.

Well, this is my opinion on the matter of primacy. I am not sure if the ideas are fully coherent but it is a solution that I have been working on to understand and incorporate all the Fathers western and eastern without having to discard any of the opinions. The system has been abuse over the centuries and misunderstood for the sake of power etc but I believe it remains, at least in the books, as a testimony of the true nature of the Church which is One and yet manifested in many.


3 Responses to Primacy in the Church- a model

  1. I fiind your comments on Primacy in the Church terribly incoherent and false to the Aposltolic Tradition of the Primacy of the Roman See of Peter as being of divine institution, something that was never claimed by the patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch which were “sees of Pete” only in an honorific sense and whose jurisdictions over other Eastern sees were participations in the unviversal jurisdiction of the Roman See “head of all the Churches of God”. Never were these other patriarchates considered “head of all the Churches of God”, and for many years were in heresy and schism (just as the patriarchate of Constantinople was!)
    The idea that Constantinople holds the Primacy of Peter in the East with its pretensions to be the Pope of the East has been soundly repudiated in a recent address by Bishop Hilarian of the Russian Orthodox Ch,urch.
    Vatican I and Vatican II present the proper perspective on the hierarchical stucture on the Church, and place the Primacy of the Pope and the Colletgiality (or Conciliarity) of Bishops in correct balance.
    James LIkoudis

  2. Thle exposition of the great Russian philosopher Vladimir Soloviev on the Roman Primacy (inb his “Russia and the Universal Chruch”) needs to be seriously considered by all those interested in the long-hoped for Reunion of the Churches. Just as the Catholic Church needs the Pan-Orthodox Churches for an accentuation of the Eastern Tradition in its life, so do the Orthodox
    churches need the Catholic Churdh for that Unity and Catholicity with which Christ endowed His “one and only Church”.

  3. Hieromonk Ambrose says:

    Dear James,

    You wrote: “I fiind your comments on Primacy in the Church terribly incoherent and false to the Aposltolic Tradition of the Primacy of the Roman See of Peter as being of divine institution, something that was never claimed by the patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch which were “sees of Pete” only in an honorific sense and whose jurisdictions over other Eastern sees were participations in the unviversal jurisdiction of the Roman See “head of all the Churches of God”. ”

    Hear now the voice of the sublime Pope Saint Gregory the Great who stands in contradiction to yourmwords above and affirms the equality of Rome and Alexandria and Antioch – which formed the ancient Triptarchy before the Pentarchy came into existence.

    The Pope, our holy father, writes to Pope Saint Eulogius of Alexandria:

    “Though there are many Apostles, pre- eminence of authority belongs permanently to none other than the Chair of the Prince of the Apostles, which Chair though established in three places remains nevertheless that of one and the same [Apostle].

    “He lifted it to the highest dignity in the place [Rome] where he deigned to fix his residence and end his life. He honoured it in the city [Alexandria] to which he sent his disciple, the Evangelist Mark. He strengthened it in the city [Antioch] where, though destined to depart, he sat for seven years.

    “Since therefore the Chair in which now by divine authority three bishops preside is the identical chair of the self-same [Peter], I take myself whatever good I hear concerning you.”

    “Quum multi sint Apostoli, pro ipso autem principatu sola Apostolorum principis sedes in auctoritate convaluit, quæ in tribus locis unius est. Ipse enim sublimavit sedem, in quâ etiam quiescere et præsertim vitam finire dignatus est. Ipse decoravit sedem, in quâ Evangelistam Marcum discipulum misit. Ipse firmavit sedem, in quâ septem annis, quamvis discessurus, sedit. Quum ergo unius atque una sit sedes, cui ex auctoritate divinâ tres nunc episcopi præsident, quidquid ego de vobis boni audio, hoc mihi imputo.”

    P.L., LXXVII, 899

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