The Prestige of the Ecumenical Patriarchate

Fr. Kyrill Johnson

Editor’s note: Yesterday, I continued my series on the global Orthodox crisis of 1917-25, focusing on 1922. One of the many major events that year was the Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios Metaxakis’ recognition of Anglican holy orders. In the mid-1940s, Fr. Kyrill Johnson, who knew Meletios personally, wrote about this “recognition” and the patriarchate of Meletios in general. Because this article provides valuable (and firsthand) background information, I’m reprinting it in full below. The original article was called “The Prestige of the Oecumenical Patriarchate” and appeared in the Orthodox American in its October 1944-February 1945 issue. Regarding Johnson — he was a convert priest who spent his entire career in the Antiochian Archdiocese. He was also an accomplished historian, archaeologist, and linguist. For more on his life, click here.

One of the pleasant myths in the uninformed Orthodox mind is that which infers that the various statements and pronouncements of certain individual Orthodox Patriarchs in conjunction with their Synods have binding force in the realm of Orthodox faith and morals. Nothing could be further from the facts.

It is true that there was a time in Orthodox history when such documents and pronouncements, although local and racial in origin, did have a certain weight and authority. That period came to an end with the reconstitution of the Greek nation and the consequent subservience of Orthodox faith and institutions to the Greek political ideal among ecclesiastics of Greek blood. Even the most casual student of Orthodox Church history is struck by the fact that all too often men of high ecclesiastical position in Orthodoxy, if they are of Greek blood, have been willing to use their positions to further and advance, not pure Orthodoxy, as such, but Greek political and racial aspirations.

Without doubt the ideal series of documents by which this thesis could be adequately proved is that which proceeded from the various Greek Patriarchates during the crises in Russian Church affairs after the Russian Revolution.

When the late Russian Patriarch Tikhon, of blessed memory, was deposed by a rump Synod of Bishops, the then Patriarch of Constantinople, Meletios, condemned this act as uncanonical. His successor, Gregory VII, reversed this pronouncement, and in his turn Gregory VII was reversed by his own successor, Basil III.

The Greeks who occupied the Patriarchate of Jerusalem reveal an equally unpleasant record of having no mind of their own, or any Orthodox mind at all for that matter, issuing document after document each in conflict with itself and with those, which had come before. Aside from the Russian Patriarchate of Moscow, only the Syrian Patriarch of Antioch seems to have had the ability to make up his own mind for himself and to stick to his decisions.

If one collates this series of pronouncements issued by Greek ecclesiastics with the political events and pressures, which paralleled their appearance, one soon discovers an obvious relation between their interpretation of Orthodox canon law and faith and the political tensions to which they were subjected.

Tempting as it is to explore this field in terms of the Russian question, we prefer at this time to direct attention to a lesser Greek political-ecclesiastical document. We do this because we have collected a considerable body of firsthand and as yet unpublished data relative to this lesser document. We refer to the pronouncement in the year 1922 by Meletios, Patriarch of Constantinople, on Anglican orders.

The facts necessary to understand the problems involved are simple enough. On July 28th, 1922, Meletios issued two documents. The first was in the form of a personal letter, not to the legal head of the Protestant religion established by law in England, the King, but to one of his political appointees, the senior of the two Protestant archbishops functioning in England. The other document was a sort of round robin addressed to “The Presidents of the Particular Eastern Churches.” The subject matter of both documents concerned itself with the much-debated question of the possible validity of Protestant ordinations in the state religion of England.

These two documents were hailed as a seven days’ wonder throughout the Protestant world. With this reaction we are in hearty agreement. Unfortunately their content was so neatly phrased in the subtle niceties of the Greek language that neither the casual nor learned reader could be quite sure what meaning they were intended to convey.

It is not our intent to add another essay in the necessarily dull exegesis of these documents. Obviously they follow the Pauline injunction, so dear to the Greek heart, of being all things to all men.

It is our purpose to throw some historical light on the confused background, which made these documents possible, and to trace the devious actions of the Greek mind when occasion demands of it that it say something without saying anything. It can be safely taken for granted that historical scholarship is fully justified in judging any document, not only in terms of its content, but also in terms of the conditions and the men, which brought it forth.

First let us consider the man over whose signature these two documents saw the light of day. He was one Meletios. By birth he was a Cretan; and if Pauline injunctions mean anything the wary should at once be put on their guard. His ecclesiastical career paralleled that of his fellow Cretan, Venizelos, in the realm of Greek politics. When this statesman was in power in the Greek world, Meletios also held a position of power. When the statesman fell, as he did many times, the ecclesiastic also fell. Let us grant at once that they were both very able men, intensely devoted to the Greek political ideal.

After the First World War Venizelos fell from power. Meletios, who was his Archbishop of Athens, fell with him and came to the United States as an exile. There is sufficient historical evidence to justify the statement that both the politician and the ecclesiastic were creatures whose power and position depended upon British foreign policy and backing. As exile in this country Meletios found favor with only a minority of Greek-Americans. He did receive much support from a section of the Protestant Episcopal Church in this country.

During this period of exile the Throne of Constantinople suddenly became vacant, and with equal suddenness Meletios was elected to the Patriarchate. How the Throne of Constantinople became vacant, and how Meletios was elected, does not concern us here.

In this country the Greeks with consternation received this election. Some were delighted; many refused to accept it as fact. It goes without saying that the Protestant Episcopalians received the news with great rejoicing. How tense the situation was in this country can be gathered from an article in the New York Tribune of Jan. 8th, 1922. The headline stated that this election “shakes the foundations of the Greek Church.” It did not hide the fact that Meletios’ chief support came from Protestant circles.

In Greece itself the Holy Synod of that country refused to accept the election of Meletios as canonical and valid. Meletios journeyed to his Throne by way of England, and it was currently reported that he entered the Golden Horn on a British man-of-war.

Let us now turn to analyze the conditions, which existed during the brief administration of Meletios in Constantinople. An inter-allied military control entered the city. It was made up of representatives of England, France, Italy and the United States. The city itself had been promised by secret treaty to Russia at the beginning of the war. All the nations represented in the city save the United States were playing the age-old game of power politics. As was natural, the religious issues of the centuries merged into the political issues. France and Italy, representing Roman Catholic ambitions, were moving with not too much caution to establish a claim to the Cathedral Church of Orthodoxy, Hagia Sophia. If anything was necessary to throw Meletios even further into the hands of the British, this was more than sufficient.

At the same time the drama of the tragedy of Christian Asia Minor was developing. A mutual and secret agreement by France and Italy on the one hand to support Turkish aspirations, and by England on the other to support Greek aspirations, to the end that a fatal collision of these two minor powers might ensue to the mutual profit of the Great Powers, sealed the doom of the ancient Christian Churches of Asia Minor.

It is quite probable that Meletios at that time knew only the externals of this situation. The hard fact was that he had to sit on his uncomfortable Throne at the Phanar and watch the growing tension between the various members of the Allied military control and to hear each day of new Greek disasters in Asia Minor.

The implications of the situation were obvious to Meletios. Each day the diminished Greek race was being decimated throughout Asia Minor; the Great Idea of a reconstituted Byzantine Empire was dissolving into dust and ashes before his eyes. Meletios, the Greek nationalist, became a desperate man. He had but one last jewel to spend on wooing British Imperialism to stop the decimation of his co-racialists in Asia Minor. The jewel was his Orthodox Faith. He would offer up this precious jewel to international politics in a last desperate gesture. Out of Meletios’ racial agony was born his pronouncement on Anglican ordinations.

A number of years after it was issued we spent a very pleasant afternoon with Meletios in Cairo, Egypt. (British influence had translated him to the Throne of Alexandria.) During our lengthy discussion of Orthodox affairs we introduced the subject of these two documents. Without any hesitation Meletios discussed them quite frankly. He admitted that they had been issued against his better Orthodox judgment. He also pointed out some pertinent facts, which should become part of the record if these documents are to be judged in their proper perspective.

From our notes on this conversation we outline those things, which seem to have some historical import. He prefaced his remarks by saying that as a Greek he could not have been expected to sit quietly and not use everything at his command in an effort to avert the Asia Minor disaster. He made it quite clear that he realized fully that if the Turks won he lost the throne of Constantinople. He did not try to excuse the incongruities contained in the documents. His only disappointment was that he misjudged British opinion (something which Greeks are always prone to do).

He made no attempt to deny that his documents accomplished nothing for the cause of Greece. This he could not quite understand. Like so many other Greek ecclesiastics he had been thrown into contact with only the High Church minority, and he had no clear notions about the staid and respectable Protestantism of the majority of the English church. He was actually convinced that the majority of the clergy and members of the Establishment were smarting under the sting of the pronouncement of Leo XIII declaring English ordinations null and void in form and intent, and would reward handsomely any statement to the contrary.

It was at this point that Meletios sighed and said, “But these English, they just do not have any sense of history.” Piqued by this statement we pursued it further, and Meletios replied fully as to his meaning, and the following is an outline of his convictions as an Orthodox theologian.

In the first place, he pointed out, as Patriarch of Constantinople he had no historical or canonical right to intrude into the ecclesiastical problems of the Christian West. He contended that the bases of the centuries’ old contention between the See of Constantinople and the See of Rome rested upon the thesis that the See of Rome had no canonical jurisdiction in the Christian East. By the same token he had to admit that the See of Constantinople had no canonical right to intrude into the domestic problems of the See of Rome; and certainly the question of Anglican Orders, deriving from Rome, was essentially a problem coming under the jurisdiction of that Patriarchate.

Obviously, he said, England could not by any perversion of logic be considered within the jurisdiction of any Eastern Patriarchate; and to presume to settle any ecclesiastical problem arising among non-Orthodox peoples in that area would destroy once and for all the foundation and corner stone upon which all contentions between the Eastern Patriarchate and Rome had been erected.

In writing his documents, Meletios contended that he made his Greek sufficiently vague and subtle so as not to commit Orthodoxy to any untenable position. When I raised honest doubts, he further pointed out that the most that any person could obtain in the way of satisfaction from his documents was a mere opinion; and that even though an opinion derived from the Patriarch and Synod of Constantinople, it still remained an opinion and nothing more, and opinions never had and probably never would have any binding force in the realm of dogma or upon the Orthodox conscience.

Because I was still unconvinced, he reiterated that if I would re-examine the documents with care I would discover that Constantinople had only reviewed the report of a committee, merely taking note of the things contained therein. He then made a distinction between his encyclical to the Orthodox Churches and his private letter to the Archbishop of Canterbury. The former he held was the document upon which Orthodoxy could pass judgment; the latter was a personal matter. An analysis of the two documents will reveal why Meletios made this distinction. It is interesting to note in this connection that all copies and translations released in England of this letter carry the simple signature of Meletios, not his rank and title. Meletios in our conversation desired me to keep in mind that in his encyclical it was clear that both he and his Synod in accepting the report of the committee accepted it as an opinion and requested further opinion from other Orthodox Patriarchates. If the English had any sense of history, Meletios continued, the English should know that the Orthodox Church can only speak as a whole.

“Opinions,” Meletios said with a twinkle in his eye, “are, after all, just opinions, and the Greeks, as a people, have a considerable reputation for being able to change them very quickly. Remember, my son, there is a world of difference between opinions and conclusions.”

This then is a brief summary of Meletios’ own estimate of his own documents.

There is another angle to this whole involved question of the historical setting of these documents, which merits passing attention. It has to do with the question of who constituted this committee and just what its full report said. When we were in residence in Constantinople, we were unable to locate this report, and so was everyone else. It was just counted as among the number of missing documents. While we are in no position to say with finality that no such report ever existed, until it is produced we will remain of the opinion that it never did exist. This does not mean that it never will be produced. Knowing the ability of the Phanar to produce documents when and where needed, we think it is entirely possible that if pressure were brought the report would come into being in short order.

At least two conclusions are justified by any historian of these particular documents. The first is, that since the reconstituting of the Greek nation to a precarious existence, Greek ecclesiastics are very prone to consider themselves as Greeks in the political sense first and as representatives of the Orthodox Faith afterward. Secondly, our Christian charity demands that we do not judge too harshly the acts of Greek hierarchs, when as men and members of a once great race they use every instrument at their command to stem the tide of the destruction of the Greek people by the Christian powers of the West. As documents these pronouncements, which we have considered, are no more than interesting ecclesiastical curiosa, reflecting the political stresses and strains of the Greeks as political beings. As statements of Orthodox teaching and dogma they are completely meaningless and not worth the paper they were written on.

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