Ecumenical Patriarch denied appeal of Bishop Dionisije

Well, this is interesting. Lately, I’ve been looking at the Supreme Court case Serbian Diocese v. Milivojevich, which pitted the representatives of the Serbian Church against the incumbent American bishop, Dionisije, who had been defrocked by the Serbian Holy Assembly. The big question, which the Court answered in the negative, was whether civil courts in America could review the decisions of a church tribunal.

What none of the justices’ opinions mentioned is the fact that Bishop Dionisije actually did appeal the Holy Assembly decision to another judicial authority — the Patriarch of Constantinople. On June 6, 1964, the Chicago Tribune reported that Patriarch Athenagoras I responded with a letter rejecting the appeal and recognizing Dionisije’s defrocking as valid. The Ecumenical Patriarch also declared Dionisije’s consecration of Bishop Irinej Kovacevich to be “uncanonical and worthless.” (Just before this, SCOBA also rejected Dionisije, announcing that they would not recognize him or his jurisdiction.)

What exactly is the extent of the Ecumenical Patriarch’s right to hear appeals? The key texts are Canons 9 and 17 of Chalcedon. Here is the relevant portion of Canon 9: “And if a bishop or clergyman should have a difference with the metropolitan of the province, let him have recourse to the Exarch of the Diocese, or to the throne of the Imperial City of Constantinople, and there let it be tried.” Similarly, Canon 17 prescribes, “And if any one be wronged by his metropolitan, let the matter be decided by the exarch of the diocese or by the throne of Constantinople, as aforesaid.”

According to Fr. John Erickson in “Chalcedon Canon 28: Its Continuing Significance For Discussion of Primacy in the Church,” these canons provide two paths for a party seeking appeal: he may go to Constantinople, or to his own exarch. This appeal would have applied to the whole Eastern Roman Empire. Early evidence shows appeals to Constantinople from the diocese of the Orient, “whose ‘exarch’ would ultimately bear the title of patriarch of Antioch.” Erickson writes that in Constantinople, “thanks to the continual flow of visiting bishops from all parts of the empire, a convenient court of appeal, in the form of the synodos endemousa, could easily be convoked by the capital’s archbishop.”

Erickson goes on to note that Rome, too, had been given wide-ranging rights of appeal, in its case by the Council of Sardica. He distinguishes these appellate prerogatives from ordination rights, which were much more limited.

If you go to the Orthodox Wiki article on the prerogatives of Constantinople, you’ll see a different view. The authors of that article quote St. Nikodemos of the Holy Mountain (d. 1809), who argued that Constantinople’s right to hear appeals was limited to its own jurisdiction. According to St. Nikodemos, in this regard, the Ecumenical Patriarch was no different than any other exarch. I asked Fr. John Erickson about this, and he replied, “The system of the imperial church in the fifth century was significantly different from that of more recent times – and with ‘more recent times’ I must include St Nikodemos.”

I’m not a canonist, so why am I venturing into these (at times controversial) waters? My interest, here, is in the potential legal implications of a Constantinopolitan right of appeal. It’s possible, of course, that there are no legal implications. But, at this early stage of my research, I’m not sure, and I want to at least explore the possibility.

Let’s assume, for now, that such a right of appeal exists. This means that the decisions of a given Holy Assembly, Holy Synod, or Patriarch are not necessarily final. If the Ecumenical Patriarch could have heard Dionisije’s appeal and ruled in his favor, doesn’t that mean that the Serbian Holy Assembly is not the highest judicial authority in the Serbian Church (at least, from the standpoint of the American legal system)?

This raises another interesting question: if American courts can’t overrule the decisions of the highest judicial authority in a church, can they still overrule the decisions of lower judicial authorities? For instance: Assume that an American Orthodox jurisdiction has a local or eparchial synod, and that this synod has the authority to make certain decisions. Assume further that members of this jurisdiction can appeal the local/eparchial synod’s decisions to the Holy Synod of their Church. What, then, happens if church members appeal one of these local decisions, not to the Holy Synod, but to a secular US court? I think this wouldn’t matter, because a court applying deference to church decisions would probably tell the church members that they must make use of the appellate process in their own church, rather than bypassing that process and running to a secular court. But… well, I don’t know enough to say for sure.

The more pertienent issue, I think, has to do with Justice Rehnquist’s hypothetical scenario of a pseudo-Holy Assembly purporting to defrock a bishop, but not complying with its own quorum rules (and thus, by its own rules, not constituting an actual Holy Assembly). Justice Rehnquist uses this scenario to argue that secular courts must be able to adjudicate the case, but if a right of appeal to Constantinople exists, I it’s possible that this appeal might have to be made before US courts could get involved. Again, you probably can’t just bypass the church-appointed process in favor of civil litigation.

This seems to be consistent with the spirit of Canon 9. I quoted part of Canon 9 earlier, but here is the beginning of the canon: “If any Clergyman have a matter against another clergyman, he shall not forsake his bishop and run to secular courts; but let him first lay open the matter before his own Bishop, or let the matter be submitted to any person whom each of the parties may, with the Bishop’s consent, select. And if any one shall contravene these decrees, let him be subjected to canonical penalties…”

A clergyman can’t first run to the secular courts, but he could make use of those courts if the church courts gave him an unsatisfactory judgment. As a practical matter, according to Erickson, this wouldn’t have been a commonly-used option in the Eastern Roman Empire (unless the clergyman in question was particularly well-connected). In any case, the idea seems to be that we should try to resolve matters internally, but if that fails, we could then go to a secular judge. Of course, these canons were composed in a totally different era in church history, when the Church and the Roman state were becoming increasingly intertwined, and when Constantinople was (to many) the center of the world. Does the right of appeal to the Ecumenical Patriarch really apply today, when Constantinople is no longer a cosmopolitan center for Orthodoxy and the Ecumenical Patriarchate is oppressed by the Turkish government? I don’t know.

But if the right to appeal does exist, what are its implications on American courts? I’d be very interested to hear what the lawyers reading this think.

Anyway, in the case of Bishop Dionisije, he did appeal to Constantinople, and his appeal was denied. The Ecumenical Patriarch in essence affirmed the decision of the Serbian Holy Assembly, and SCOBA followed suit. Bishop Dionisije was thus isolated from much of mainstream Orthodoxy, more than a decade before the Supreme Court heard his case.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.

2 thoughts on “Ecumenical Patriarch denied appeal of Bishop Dionisije

  1. Weren’t appeals made to the EP regarding the previous Patriarch of Jerusalem that resulted in his removal from office? I think within the Greek Patriarchates the EP is still very much viewed as a court of appeal, but this could be argued it was due to the continuing political influence of the EP under the Ottomans (i.e., the argument for raising Constantinople to #2 due to the presence of the Emperor, Senate, etc.) The exception might be Antioch. Perhaps the Serbs still had at least the habit of mind that the EP was still a major political leader in what was still land only recently free from Ottoman control.

    • I wish there was a good online source for stuff like this — ecclesiastical court cases, appeals to the EP, etc. Of course, there’s not even a single place you can go to see a list of, say, bishops who have served in America, so it’s not surprising. I’d love to know just how all this works, in a practical way.

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