How Are Orthodox Patriarchs Chosen?

Patriarch Porfirije of Serbia

Last week, the Serbian Orthodox Church elected a new Patriarch, Porfirije. This was the result of a fairly complex process — three rounds of nominations, followed by the finalists’ names being placed in a Gospel, with one name drawn out by a monk, leaving the final choice to the Holy Spirit. The Serbian Church is the only Autocephalous Church that uses this particular method to select its primate. I was curious about how primatial elections work in the other Churches, so I looked into each of the fourteen universally-recognized Autocephalous Churches, along with the Orthodox Church in America, whose autocephaly is recognized by only a minority of the world’s Orthodox Churches.

Ecumenical Patriarchate

Most of the time, the highest authority in the Ecumenical Patriarchate is its 12-member Holy Synod. Six of the members are Metropolitans in Turkey, and six are EP bishops with sees outside of Turkey. Each member serves a 1-year term, and half of the Synod turns over every six months. The Patriarch himself has the ultimate say over who sits on the Synod.

When the time comes to elect a new Patriarch, the decision is made by a synod of the Metropolitans of the Throne, all of whom must be Turkish citizens. Until a few years ago, the Turkish government limited Turkish citizenship to only those Metropolitans who actually had sees in Turkey. However, in recent years, Turkish citizenship was granted to basically any Metropolitan of the Ecumenical Patriarchate who wanted it, including those living abroad. This electoral synod is presided over by the senior Metropolitan in the EP — currently Metropolitan Emmanuel of Chalcedon.

The electoral synod nominates three candidates, whose names are then submitted to the Vali (Governor) of Istanbul, who has the right to remove any candidate he wishes. This has led to issues in the past; for example, in 1972, the Turkish authorities nixed the nominations of front-runners Meliton of Chalcedon and Iakovos of America, which ultimately led to the election of a dark-horse candidate, Dimitrios. Once the slate of three nominees is finalized, the Holy Synod elects one of the three as Patriarch.

The full assembly of all EP bishops, known as the “Synaxis,” meets every other year and does not have any administrative or canonical authority. The Ecumenical Patriarchate appears to be the only Autocephalous Church in which not all ruling bishops have a role in selecting their Church’s primate.

[note: In an earlier version of this article I erroneously stated that the Holy Synod elects the Ecumenical Patriarch. My thanks to Fr Alex Karloutsos and Menios Papadimitriou for correcting me on this point. Also, I reported that the Turkish Mayor of Istanbul had the right to remove candidates for Patriarch, but Stefanos Roulakis has informed me that this right actually belongs to the Vali (Governor) of Istanbul, not the Mayor. Stefanos also shared this article, which describes the 1991 election of Patriarch Bartholomew and discusses the procedures used in other elections.]

Patriarchate of Alexandria

The highest authority in the Patriarchate of Alexandria is the Holy Synod, which consists of all ruling bishops of the Patriarchate. I think that a new Patriarch of Alexandria is elected by a mixed council of bishops, clergy, and laity. At least, that’s the way it was in the 20th century. When Meletios Metaxakis was Patriarch back in the 1920s and ’30s, he tried to strip the laity of their role in Patriarchal elections, but after his death the Alexandrian hierarchy nullified his actions. In 1997, when the ever-memorable Patriarch Petros was elected, the decision still included both clergy and laity; in a 2004 speech, Bishop George of Niloupolis recalled how Petros, “by the vote of clergy and laity, was elected Patriarch of Alexandria and All Africa.”

The current Patriarch, Theodoros, was elected in 2004. English-language reports about his election are hard to track down. The most detailed report I’ve found, from Greek News Online, described his election in this way:

The voting procedure started at 10 am in the Patriarchal Monastery of Agios Savvas in Alexandria, when the 27 electors of the Holy Synod of the Patriarchy, with secret ballot, were called to choose the three they though suitable for the Patriarchal Throne. In the first voting session the new Patriarch received 22 votes, the Metropolitan Bishop of Axomi, Petros, 15 and the Metropolitan Bishop of Leontoupolis 10 votes.

The Holy Synod, which is assembled by 13 Hierarchy members, during a new session, unanimously elected the new Patriarch, whose enthronement will take place on 24 October.

From that, it seems that three candidates are nominated by 27 electors, which might include clergy and laity. (Then again, it might not — a couple years later, in 2006, Alexandria had 25 bishops, and it’s possible that all 27 electors back in 2004 were bishops.)

After that nominating round, the ultimate decision seems to have been made by a 13-member Holy Synod, which elected Theodoros unanimously. I know that the makeup of the Patriarchate has changed a lot in the intervening 17 years, with the Holy Synod now greatly expanded, and I am not sure what the process will be when the time comes to elect a new Patriarch of Alexandria.

Patriarchate of Antioch

The highest authority in the Patriarchate of Antioch is the Holy Synod, which consists of the Patriarch, all ruling Metropolitans (currently 21 in total), and the Secretary, who is an auxiliary bishop. No other auxiliary bishops participate in the Holy Synod. A new Patriarch of Antioch is elected by a vote of the Holy Synod. The Antiochian process is one of the simplest of all the Autocephalous Churches.

The last time this happened, back in December 2012, Metropolitan John Yazigi (who was ultimately elected) was not technically eligible, as he fell short of the required five years of experience as a Metropolitan. But the Holy Synod — the highest authority in the Church of Antioch — decided to change the eligibility rules and elected Metropolitan John as Patriarch.

Patriarchate of Jerusalem

The highest authority in the Patriarchate of Jerusalem is the Holy Synod, whose members are appointed by the Patriarch and include both bishops and archimandrites. Significantly, members of the Holy Synod must be members of the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, which is an all-Greek monastic brotherhood that controls the Patriarchate, despite the fact that its flock consists almost entirely of Arabic-speaking Palestinians.

The process of electing a new Patriarch of Jerusalem is a bit complex. There are three key church bodies involved. The process begins with a combination of (1) the Holy Synod, and (2) a mixed council of clergy and lay representatives. Together, these two bodies draw up a list of nominees for Patriarch, which is then sent to the Israeli government for approval. Then, a “general council” of the Holy Synod and other high-level clergymen select three finalists from among the Israeli-approved candidates. The Holy Synod then elects one of the three finalists as Patriarch.

Patriarchate of Moscow

The highest authority in the Patriarchate of Moscow in most matters is the Bishops’ Council, which consists of all the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church. It meets infrequently — the Patriarchal Statute requires it to meet at least once every four years. In between meetings of the Bishops’ Council, the Patriarchate is led by the Holy Synod, which is chaired by the Patriarch and has 14 other bishops (nine ex-officio “permanent” members and five members who rotate on and off).

A new Patriarch of Moscow is elected by a vote of a body called the Local Council, which is a mixed council of bishops, clergy, and lay delegates from the various dioceses of the Patriarchate. The Local Council is convened by the Bishops’ Council, but, in a sense, it is an even higher authority than the Bishops’ Council itself. The Moscow Patriarchal Statute describes it as holding “supreme power in the Russian Orthodox Church pertaining to the election of the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia and his retirement, the granting of autocephaly, autonomy or self-governance to parts of the Russian Orthodox Church…”

The 1917 All-Russian Sobor was a similar type of mixed council, but instead of a simple vote, the council chose three nominees, whose names were placed into a chalice, and a respected monk drew out the name of the winner — St Tikhon. Although the Russian Church today uses a mixed council, it no longer employs the “apostolic” method.

Patriarchate of Georgia

The highest authority in the Patriarchate of Georgia is the Holy Synod, which includes all of the bishops of the Church of Georgia. I don’t know how the Patriarch (also called “Catholicos”) is elected — the current primate, Patriarch Ilia, was elected way back in 1977, and I can’t find any of the Patriarchate’s statute or other rules online. If anyone out there knows the current procedure for Georgian Patriarchal elections, please let me know.

Patriarchate of Serbia

The highest authority in the Patriarchate of Serbia is the Holy Assembly, which consists of all of the bishops in the Serbian Church. There is also a sort of executive committee, known as the Holy Synod, made up of the Patriarch and five other bishops who are elected by the Holy Assembly. The Holy Synod doesn’t have a decision-making role in selecting the next Patriarch. The Holy Assembly elects three nominees via three rounds of voting. The three names are then written on separate pieces of paper and placed in a Gospel book, and a respected monk selects one, leaving the ultimate decision to the Holy Spirit.

While this “apostolic” method is very ancient, it was only adopted by the Serbian Church in 1990. The Serbian Church is the only Church that uses this method today.

Patriarchate of Romania

The highest authority in the Patriarchate of Romania is the Holy Synod, which consists of all of the bishops of the Romanian Church (both ruling and auxiliary). A subset of these bishops make up the Standing Synod, which acts as an executive committee.

According to the Romanian Orthodox Church Statutes, candidates for Patriarch of Romania are nominated in two ways: first, three diocesan bishops are nominated by a vote of the Holy Synod. Lower clergy and laity also have a small role in the process: a “consultation” involving the Standing Synod and a mixed council of clergy and lay representatives nominates two additional candidates. The candidates are then voted upon by the full Holy Synod. If one man receives at least two-thirds of the votes, he is elected Patriarch. If no one reaches the two-thirds threshold, a runoff election is held involving the top two vote-getters. If nobody gets two-thirds in that election, there’s another runoff involving the same two men, and this continues until someone gets enough votes to win.

The degree of lay involvement in Romanian Patriarchal elections is fairly limited, then — laity have a role in the election process, but for the most part this is still a hierarchy-driven election.

Patriarchate of Bulgaria

The highest authority in the Patriarchate of Bulgaria is the Holy Synod, which consists of the Patriarch and all ruling metropolitans. (The Patriarchate also has a larger Council of Bishops that includes all bishops (not only metropolitans), that body is not actually above the Holy Synod.)

Under the Patriarchal Statute, when a new Patriarch is to be elected, the Holy Synod nominates three candidates, each of which must receive nominating votes from at least two-thirds of the Synod. In the last Patriarchal election in 2013, the Holy Synod ran into a stalemate in the nomination process: with 14 voting Holy Synod members, the two-thirds threshold (9 and 1/3) was rounded up to 10, as is normal. But only one candidate received 10 votes in the nominating elections, so the Holy Synod voted to round the threshold down to 9, which allowed the full slate of three candidates to be nominated.

Once the slate of three nominees is set, the actual decision is made by vote of a mixed council called specifically for that purpose (it’s literally named the “Patriarchal Electoral Church Council”). The mixed council includes all bishops of the Patriarchate, monastic representatives, and clergy and lay delegates from each diocese. To win, a candidate must receive two-thirds of the vote. If none of the three candidates reaches the two-thirds threshold, a runoff election is held between the top two vote-getters.

Church of Cyprus

The highest authority in the Church of Cyprus is the Holy Synod, which consists of all the bishops in Cyprus. The primate holds the title Archbishop, and under the current Charter of the Church of Cyprus, he’s elected in a two-phased process. First, three candidates are nominated via popular vote — that is, all Orthodox Christians in Cyprus ages 18 and up are eligible to vote in the nominating round. The three names are then sent to the Holy Synod, which votes to determine the winner. Any Holy Synod member who is a nominee is not eligible to vote.

More laypeople are involved in the Cypriot process than in any other Church’s primatial election. But actually, lay involvement in the Cypriot election was even greater in the past. The most recent election took place in 2006, and at the time, there were not two rounds but three. In the first round, the entire adult Orthodox population of Cyprus voted for 1,400 electors from the various parishes and eparchies of the Church. In the next round, these electors voted for 100 “special representatives.” Up to this point, nobody was officially voting for one candidate or another, although in practice the various electors were publicly associated with their favored candidate.

Then, in the third round, the 100 special representatives, plus 31 ex-officio voters (bishops and senior clergy) voted for the winner. This final round could have sub-rounds within it: if a candidate received a majority of both the lay and ex-officio votes, he would win outright, but if, after two votes, no one achieved a dual majority, there would be a runoff election between the top two candidates, with only a simple majority of all voters required to win. Prof. Victor Roudometof describes the process in detail in a paper about that 2006 election.

As it turned out, the 2006 election was a complete mess. It would take a whole article by itself to tell that story, and fortunately, Roudometof does a good job of it in that linked paper, so I won’t attempt to summarize it here, except to say that the ultimate winner in 2006 was Archbishop Chrysostomos, who actually finished a distant third place in the voting, and only won the election thanks to forming a coalition with the second-place finisher. In the wake of that chaotic and controversial election, the Church of Cyprus revised its charter, greatly simplifying the process and reducing the role of the laity to what it is now, with the laity only nominating the top three candidates and leaving the ultimate decision to the bishops of the Holy Synod.

Church of Greece

The highest authority in the Church of Greece is the Permanent Holy Synod, which consists of all ruling Metropolitans. The primate holds the title Archbishop of Athens, and he presides over a 12-member Standing Synod, which functions as a kind of executive committee. As best I can tell, the Standing Synod does not have a decision-making role in the election of a new Archbishop.

A new Archbishop is elected by a secret-ballot vote of the Permanent Holy Synod. Any member of the Holy Synod is eligible to nominate himself for election as Archbishop. If any candidate receives a majority of the votes after the first round, he wins the election. If no one gets a majority, up to two additional rounds of voting are held. If nobody has a majority after that, the Archbishop is chosen by drawing lots. The election results are then communicated to the Ministry of Education and Religions of the Hellenic Republic (i.e., the Greek state).

Ahead of the most recent Archepiscopal elections in 2008, the U.S. Embassy to Greece prepared a helpful memo summarizing the process. While it wasn’t meant to be public, this memo was part of a data dump on Wikileaks, so you can read it by clicking here.

Church of Albania

The Church of Albania was effectively destroyed by Communist persecution and was revived after the fall of Communism in the early 1990s, thanks largely to the efforts of the current primate, Archbishop Anastasios. Initially, then-Metropolitan Anastasios was sent to Albania in January 1991 as Exarch of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, on a mission to basically re-start the Albanian Church. A year and a half later, he was elected Archbishop of Albania by the Holy Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

Now that the Albanian Church has been reconstituted, it is governed by a Holy Synod led by the Archbishop and including all the active metropolitans and bishops of Albania. Under the Albanian Church charter, the Archbishop (and, in fact, every Albanian bishop) is nominated by a mixed council of clergy and laity. The final decision is based on election by the Holy Synod.

Church of Poland

The highest authority in the Orthodox Church of Poland is the Holy Synod, which is led by the primate (titled Metropolitan) and includes all the bishops of the Polish Church. The current primate, Metropolitan Sawa, was elected in 1998 by a unanimous vote of the Holy Synod. I’m not sure if there have been any changes to the process in the intervening 23 years.

Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia

The tiny Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia is governed by its Holy Synod, consisting of the primate (titled Metropolitan) and the other bishops of the Church (currently four). There is also a mixed council (the “Assembly”) that includes bishops, clergy, and laity, and it is this mixed council that elects a new Metropolitan. There is no nomination process; the Czech-Slovak Church Constitution hard-wires the nominees as being the Archbishop of Prague and the Archbishop of Prešov. One of the two must receive two-thirds of the vote to win. If neither receives two-thirds, the election is repeated; if neither reaches the threshold on the second election, the winner is decided by drawing lots (similar, in this respect, to the Church of Greece).

Orthodox Church in America

As I said above, the OCA’s claim to autocephaly is not recognized by most of the world’s Orthodox Churches. That said, everyone accepts the OCA as being canonical (even if not “autocephalous”), and it is, in fact, an independent Church, selecting its own primate without any involvement from another Church. So its process is of interest in this exercise.

Under the OCA Statute, the highest authority in the OCA is the Holy Synod, which includes the primate (titled Metropolitan) and the other ruling bishops. The OCA primate is nominated by a mixed council called the All-American Council. The council holds up to two rounds of votes. On the first round, the delegates list one name, and if this man receives at least two-thirds of the votes, he is the council’s sole nominee. If no candidate achieves two-thirds on the first round of voting, a second round is held, with delegates now listing two names. The two highest vote-getters are both nominated. The Holy Synod then elects one of the two men to be the Metropolitan.


There’s a remarkable amount of diversity in how the various Autocephalous Churches choose their primate. Of the 15 Churches discussed in this article, at least eight include the laity to some extent. That involvement ranges from simply having a voice in the nomination process to having a vote in the election itself. At least five of the Churches have no lay involvement at all, with only bishops electing the primate. One of those five, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, puts the decision into the hands of only a portion of its ruling bishops, while another, Serbia, uses the “apostolic” method to determine which nominee becomes its Patriarch. For both the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the approval of a non-Orthodox government is also required.

To make things even more complicated, it’s fairly common for the Churches to modify their election processes. If I were to revisit this article in a decade, it’s likely that some of it would be out of date. Heck, I’m sure there is outdated information in here as it is. If anyone out there has corrections or can fill in some of the blanks, please shoot me an email at mfnamee at gmail dot com.

5 Replies to “How Are Orthodox Patriarchs Chosen?”

  1. Hello Matthew. I am a convert to Orthodoxy and also an old-time journalist, retired. I just want to let you know that I appreciate your reporting on several levels. As an Orthodox convert, I learn a great deal about Orthodox history. As a journalist I appreciate your objectivity in reporting on the subject. Too many journalists today, and some Orthodox followers, want to impress people with their superior knowledge. In short I like your style. You have the good sense to say when you have a factual doubt and to invite correction, Keep up the good work.

  2. There is a self contradiction in this page. First you say “the Holy Synod elects one of the three as Patriarch”, but then you say “In an earlier version of this article I erroneously stated that the Holy Synod elects the Ecumenical Patriarch.” So which is it? Does it elect the Patriarch or not?

    1. Thanks for catching this. I failed to fix that line in the article. The Holy Synod does NOT elect the EP. The Metropolitans of the Throne are the ones who elect.

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