The Ecclesiology of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Over Time

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew

Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew is undoubtedly one of the most consequential figures in modern Orthodox history – not only the longest-tenured Patriarch of Constantinople ever, but also a man whose leadership has proven decisive for Orthodoxy around the world. It is for this reason that, in my article on the political history of the past century of Orthodoxy, I referred to the period from 1991 to the present as consisting of the “First and Second Ages of Bartholomew.” Considering his towering historical importance (not to mention his continued role in the Church today) I thought it might be instructive to examine his ecclesiological statements and, in particular, his assertions about the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, over time. As with any human being – particularly a major church leader with such a lengthy reign – his positions have evolved. In this article, I’ll do my best to document that evolution, while offering as little editorial comment as possible.

I’ll warn you up front: this is not a typical narrative article like I normally write. It’s more of a florilegium of statements from primary sources bearing on this topic. I know that this won’t be very interesting to many of you, and that’s fine – I just thought it would be worthwhile to compile this for posterity, as a record of the evolving ecclesiological thought of the titanic historical figure that is Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew.


In 1997, St Vladimir’s Seminary Press published Conversations with Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, by the great French Orthodox historian Olivier Clément. Chapter 3 of the book is called “Bartholomew I,” and at page 50, a section begins that attempts to summarize Bartholomew’s own statements on the role of the Ecumenical Patriarch from the early years of his tenure. Clément writes:

When Bartholomew reflects on his role, he defines it as follows (I summarize here his writings and his words):

The Ecumenical Patriarch has the task of watching over the universal character of Orthodoxy, to manifest its unity and, when necessary, to provide the necessary impetus in this direction. In the words of St Ignatius of Antioch, the primate must “preside in love,” or rather, “toward love.” It is for this reason that the patriarch has tirelessly visited and consulted with all the Orthodox churches, that he has assembled, and hopes again to assemble, all their primates. The Patriarch of Constantinople is primus inter pares in the episcopate of the Church. He is responsible for coordinating the sister-churches. The great collection of canon law in Greek, the Pedalion – a word meaning “rudder” – has the following definition: “The task of the patriarch is to oversee teaching and, without hesitation, to consider himself the equal of all, both great and small.” At his enthronement as Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew declared that, in truth, “the immense task assumed by the Patriarch of New Rome, as well as the many temptations and opposing tendencies he must combat, require that he be experienced in steering this great ship.” He is the equal of all, or rather, the servant of all. And this is not simply a rhetorical expression, as so many formulas in Christianity have become! As the patriarch recalled in his homily at St Peter’s in Rome, pastors must live in humility and repent of the temptation to power because, as Christ has said, “This type of demon can be cast out only through prayer and fasting.” Primacy is a ministry of service, a ministry of crucifixion: one must seek not to be admired by men, but to please God. If the primate’s words do not bring life, they become mere talk that betrays the Gospel. Orthodoxy must be “orthopraxy”; if it is not, it becomes merely a proud Pharisaism. If we understand something of what the monks say, that is, the ability boldly to take responsibility, we discover that sins, errors, and the sufferings of the brother weigh upon each of us, and that each is responsible for all. Such is the task of the primate, in the double sense of both duty and burden: to be responsible for one’s brother. For one cannot be saved alone; one is saved with all humanity and with the whole universe. Referring to his disciples, Christ said to his Father: “As you have sent me into the world, so I have sent them into the world. And for their sake I consecrate myself, that they also may be consecrated in truth” (Jn 17:18-19). “Yes, he, the Lord who is without sin, said this! How much more must the primate – sinner that he is – purify and consecrate himself in his humble service!” In the Epistle to the Philippians, we read that Christ “did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied [ekenosen] himself…” (2:6-7). This is what theologians call “kenosis.” When he reveals himself, our God does not appear in the fullness of his glory, which would crush us, but as an overture of love in which the “other,” the human person finds his or her vocation and freedom. In this way we too, who are in the image of Christ, are called to act, so that the “other” might be saved, so that the “other” might truly be. Primacy therefore does not consist of power, but of a “kenosis” which seeks only to bring life to others. His predecessor, the gentle Patriarch Dimitrios, says Bartholomew, was a true incarnation of Christ’s humility, that humility which the Church must put on if it wishes to be among men what it is in its eucharistic essence: the community of anawim, the poor people of Christ.

This is why the patriarch must try to consecrate himself to the Lord and to his Altar. He is to serve the Lord and the people who belong to the Lord. The patriarch must be crucified in a crucified Church, so as to be resurrected with all in the resurrected Church. As St John has shown, the Cross and the Glory are one and the same; Holy Friday and Pascha are inseparable. As Jesus says,

“The kings of the Gentiles, exercise lordship over them; and those in authority over them are called benefactors. But it is not so with you; rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For which is the greater, one who sits at table, or one who serves? Is it not the one who sits at table? But I am among you as one who serves!” (Lk 22:25-27)

The primate must ceaselessly earn an authority which consists not of power, but of the capacity, in the original sense of the word “authority” (which comes from the Latin verb augere, to “cause to grow”). He must submit himself to all life, to make it grow to its fullness. The Ecumenical Patriarch always acts in communion, because it is communion that he must promote. He can do nothing without the agreement of all the churches; he cherishes as invaluable the conciliarity through which the Holy Spirit speaks to the Church.

Already in his enthronement speech, Bartholomew declared:

“United by a common faith, around the same chalice and in the love which inspires faith, we face our venerable brother primates and promise to assume a collegial responsibility with them in order to bear witness in the midst of a divided world which aspires to unity and to reconciliation, perhaps as never before in history.”


Bartholomew was elected Ecumenical Patriarch in 1991. Prior to this, he was Metropolitan of Chalcedon, the number two position in the patriarchate, serving, effectively, as the “secretary of state” of the Phanar. In 1993, two years into his patriarchate, the Pan-Orthodox Pre-Conciliar Commission met to discuss the topic of autocephaly and the way in which it is proclaimed. The various autocephalous churches submitted position papers in advance of this meeting. Whether drafted before or after his election as patriarch, it is without doubt that the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s paper represents Bartholomew’s own views. One can also, perhaps, detect the hand of Metropolitan John Zizioulas in this paper. The full text was published on the Orthodox Synaxis website some years ago. 

The paper begins with a discussion of the unity of the Church and the historical development of church structures, with the eventual emergence of patriarchates. You can read the full text at the link above; here, we’ll pick things up at the discussion of the Pentarchy:

  1. Thus the institution of the Pentarchy progressively formed and the five Patriarchs—of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem—by the decision of Ecumenical Councils acquired primacies of honor, which were situated above all administration and were privileges and rights that the other Metropolitans of the corresponding Dioceses did not have. These primacies of honor made the Patriarchs the five autocephalous administrative heads of the Church. Upon these acquired primacies is founded patriarchal primacy of ecclesiastical right but not of divine right. This is why the latter is of greater authority than the simple administrative primacies. In the canonical institution of the Pentarchy of Patriarchates, the five Patriarchs constitute and express the highest administrative authority of the Church, “the five summits of her power”.
  2. In their turn, among the five Patriarchs, the bishops of the Sees of Rome and of New Rome were raised above the other Patriarchs, in accordance with their place and their influence in the affairs of the whole of the Church, down to the last of the three degrees of primacy, as they are known in the history of the Church and in the canonical tradition: a) the primacy of the Metropolitans, b) the primacy of the Patriarchs or of the heads of the autocephalous Churches, and c) the ecumenical primacy of Rome and of New Rome.

It goes without saying that after the schism that separated the East and the West , the Patriarch of Constantinople, in the Orthodox Catholic Church of the East, was proclaimed her first bishop.

  1. This historic evolution of things, which led to the proclamation of the bishop of Constantinople—capital of the Byzantine State—having the quality of bishop possessing concrete administrative privileges over the other Metropolitans and Exarchs, is first institutionalized in the 3rd Canon of the Second Ecumenical Council, which gives the bishop of Rome the place of first bishop of the Christian Church of the time and which places immediately after him, in equality of honor, the bishop of Constantinople, “because Constantinople is herself the New Rome”. It is this order of “primacies of honor” that are later repeated and confirmed, as we know, by the 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon and the 36th Canon of the Quinisext Ecumenical Council “in Trullo”.
  2. Thus the “primacy of honor” of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, as it was lived in the practice of the Church, then recognized and institutionalized by the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, cannot be considered, despite the link between New and Old Rome, uniquely as a state or a form of necessity of exigency of political government, whatever it may be, but rather it is an order of honor and a state deriving especially from ecclesiastical necessities and reasons and bearing the seal and the authority of decisions of Ecumenical Councils, in which and by which the Church, at that time, exercised her own legislative power, which she had from the beginning. This is elsewhere equally attested by the fact that the relationship between the Emperor and the Ecumenical Councils was a relationship of exterior order, which gave force of law to the decisions of the Councils in the domain of state and administrative life and was not at all a source of juridical validity of these decisions in the field of ecclesiastical life.

In paragraphs 17 and 18, the paper discusses Canon 28 of Chalcedon in some detail. It then moves on to its main topic – autocephaly. Beginning at paragraph 23, the paper addresses “The agreement of the judgment of the Orthodox Churches” regarding the granting of autocephaly:

  1. From what has been said about the organization of the early Church and particularly about the introduction of the metropolitan and patriarchal systems, it appears that in building up and assuring the institutional structures of the administration of the Church, a somewhat large mechanism of decisions and prescriptions was set in motion, especially in the domain of Councils called at every occasion, particularly the Ecumenical councils, whose principal distinctive sign was always the agreement of the judgment of all the local Churches.

If, for example, for the gathering of an Ecumenical Council in order to prescribe, in parallel to what should be believed, certain institutional administrative changes, the personal presence of the Patriarchs of the Pentarchy or of their representative is indispensable, which signifies that the declarations that they made in this case fell within their competence and that of the bishops who accompanied them, who represented and expressed the concurring judgment of the local Churches over which they presided.

Autocephaly calls for the rigorous functioning of this procedure within the Church. Today, mutatis mutandis, it is this same indispensable concurring judgment that is expressed by pan-Orthodox discernment and consent.

  1. As it happens, the example of the Russian Church is eloquent. The bishop of Constantinople, Jeremiah II, being in Moscow, had elevated this Church to the Patriarchate in 1589, which provoked the protests of the recently-elected Patriarch of Alexandria, Meletios Pigas. The following year, a permanent synod gathered in Constantinople with the participation of the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem, who ratified Jeremiah’s gesture and added that the Patriarch of Muscovy would have his own head and would have for first See, like the other Patriarchs, the apostolic See of Constantinople. But the fact that the bishop of Alexandria, Meletios Pigas, was absent from this synod provoked the convocation of a new synod three years later, where the bishop of Constantinople, the bishop of Alexandria, representing the bishop of Antioch, and the bishop of Jerusalem gathered. This synod unanimously endorsed the elevation of the Church of Moscow to the Patriarchate. It is remarkable that the Patriarch Jeremiah, in order to justify his gesture towards the Church of Russia also relied on the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council.

The subsequent paragraphs address other examples. The next section is called “The bishop of Constantinople, bearer of the concurring judgment of the sister-Churches.”

  1. The coordination of the efforts of the sister Orthodox Churches to maintain the unity of the Church belongs, according to the above, to the Church of Constantinople as a canonical right and at the same time as a duty. In the historical life of the Orthodox Church in her entirety, with regard to proclaiming or suppressing the autocephaly of a Church has thus always been tied to the particular responsibility—deriving from the canonical primacy of honor—of the first See of the East.
  2. From that time and still today the inauguration of the procedure aiming to proclaim normally the autocephaly of a Church belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate who, by the decision of the Ecumenical Councils, has the first place in the canonical order of primacies of honor, whose institution, like the institution of autocephaly, was founded to be in the service of maintaining the unity of the Church in true faith and in love, as has been said above.

Here is surely the place to repeat what was written in 1869 by the bishop Michael of Belgrade to the Ecumenical Patriarch: “The unity of dogmas requires that all the Orthodox bishops be always united to the Great Church. This is to say that it requires keeping the Ecumenical Patriarch at the height of his rank, so that he may keep watch over all the Church according to the canons of the Councils, which have defined the limits of the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople.”

Then the paper lists, in detail, various “factors” necessary for a church to be considered autocephalous. The last of the factors is “pan-Orthodox recognition.”

  1. From what has just been said, it is apparent in conclusion that in order for any autocephaly to be accomplished, a certain number of ecclesiastical measures are required and finally, apart from those mentioned above, the expression of the canonical recognition of the new autocephaly by all the Orthodox Churches, either during the procedure of proclamation or subsequently.

Autocephaly has as its source the divine mandates of the episcopate of the ecumenical Church in its entirety, the episcopate to which belongs the supreme power in the administration of the Church. The organization of every local autocephalous Church requires the recognition of the ecumenical Church so that its autocephalous existence may be definitive and indissoluble. Thus, for example, the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly to the Church of Romania on the condition that this conferment be definitively endorsed by all the Orthodox Churches gathered in an Ecumenical Council or Great Council, as was otherwise done, with the agreement of the other Orthodox Churches, for the Churches which, on account of circumstances, it proclaimed autocephalous since the mid-19th century and thereafter: this was the case by virtue of its quality as first of the Orthodox Churches, at the same time as the center of their internal unity and the protector of the local Churches in their needs.

Closing the topic of autocephaly, the paper addresses certain “final considerations,” including this:

  1. The Church of Constantinople, with its own administrative organs, always in accord with the letter and the spirit of the holy canons, as has been presented in detail above, and conforming to her long ecclesiastical practice from the period following the Ecumenical Councils until now, not without the agreement and consent of the other sister Orthodox Churches, has exercised the right—and has fulfilled this service—to respond to their needs and to do what was appropriate at every time and in every place, for the good and unity of our one and indivisible holy Orthodox Church, since the time that the convocation of a Council or Councils analogous to those that have been mentioned above has been impossible.


On December 14, 1995, Patriarch Bartholomew delivered an address in Zurich, Switzerland, to the Swiss Bishops’ Conference of the Roman Catholic Church. In this speech, he set forth his vision of Orthodox ecclesiology. We published the full text of the speech, in English and French, back in 2021. Here is the meat of the speech, although the entire thing is worth reading:

It would be unacceptable for the primate of the Church to be considered each time as the only one responsible for the Church’s path through history. Nor does the responsibility of the other members of the Church disappear just because they are acting according to the instructions of the primate or of the body of bishops.

I say this because the idea that the Lord, when He chose the twelve apostles, entrusted one of them with the task of governing the rest of them has no basis in holy Scripture. The Lord’s command to Peter to be the shepherd of His sheep meant a repetition to him of that command that He had given all the apostles and that the latter had transgressed by having renounced Him three times, thus having cut off his contact with the Lord.

Thus this did not mean entrusting him with a pastoral task superior to that of the other disciples. The Lord “gave the name of apostles” (Luke 3:13) to all His disciples equally and without any discrimination; He gave them authority over unclean spirits (Matthew 10:1); and it was to all that He said, “go make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:19; Mark 16:15). It follows that each of us bishops is personally held responsible for facilitating or hindering the path of the barque of the Church, for keeping to that path well or poorly.

In our Eastern Orthodox tradition — which unalterably keeps the conciliar system — this is our common conviction and everyday practice, because ecclesiastical decisions of major significance are taken synodally. That is, several bishops take part and none has a right of veto or a preponderant vote. It nevertheless occurs that one of them, by his personality, inspires the confidence of the others. It is only then that his opinion prevails, not because he has a preponderant voice.

This system of administration of the Church’s affairs, based on the joint responsibility and decentralization that our Orthodox Church applies, fundamentally explains the fact that, as much as is humanly possible, she preserves the ancient tradition intact. Because, in the absence of centralized administration and responsibility, in order to introduce an innovation in teaching or praxis, this must be agreed upon by all the bishops or by a very large number of them, which is difficult. Otherwise, the aberration has no reach beyond the territory of the one who is in error and typically does not outlive him, whereas in a centralized system where there exists the possibility of the preponderant voice, it is enough for the one who enjoys such a voice to accept the innovation and impose it on the others for the entire teaching or ethos of the Church under his jurisdiction to be changed. Moreover, it is much easier for one innovator rather than several to put himself at the head of the Church; it is easier for only one, rather than several, to be mistaken.

Furthermore, it is the Lord Himself who guarantees the judgment of two gathered in His name, having declared that He is in their midst (Matthew 18:20) and that if they agree to ask for anything, it will be granted to them; even more so if their demand is to be preserved in the truth.

There is no similar promise of the Lord that He will be with and collaborate with just one who separates himself from the others and places himself above the others.

According to the experience of the Orthodox Church, the decentralized conciliar system has moreover the advantage of preventing someone from imposing himself upon the Church and arrogating for himself central power which, in any case, does not exist. He must apprehend all the bishops installed in their local bishoprics, a dangerous enterprise. Given that each Church enjoys a complete organization, the eventual abolition of the spiritual center to which she belongs does not influence her functioning.

The apparent inconvenience of the Orthodox Church — that, not having a central administration, she lacks power — proves in the end to be an advantage, as the Orthodox Church does not rely on secular power, which has no reality, but rather on the power of God.


On October 21, 1997, on a visit to the United States, Patriarch Bartholomew received an honorary doctorate at Georgetown University, the oldest Roman Catholic university in America. In his address, the Patriarch spoke bluntly about the relationship between the Orthodox Church and Roman Catholicism. The full text of the speech is published in John Chryssavgis, Speaking the Truth in Love: Theological and Spiritual Exhortations of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew (2011). Here are the most salient parts.

It is a special honor that this distinguished university is conferring the title of honorary doctor on our Modesty. This is an opportunity for us to approach one another and communicate in a spirit of fellowship. Although we proclaim that we worship the one and same Lord Jesus Christ, whose name we bear as Christians, we seek in common the causes of our divergence. In the distant past, great attempts have been made by each side to prove its case, and, motivated by a different spirit, each has judged the other to have diverged from the true faith. This deeply rooted conviction with respect to our divergence has led to a thousand years of our taking separate, independent courses. We confirm not with  unexpected astonishment, but neither with indifference, that indeed the divergence between us continues to grow and the final destination of our courses is quite different. Our heart is opposed to the specter of an everlasting separation. Our heart requires that we once again seek our common foundations and the original starting point that we share. In this way, retrospectively, we can discover the points of our divergence and the reasons that led to our separate courses. We will also be able, by lifting all blame, to proceed along the same road and to the same common goal.

Assuredly, our problem is neither geographical nor one of personal alienation. Neither is it a problem of organizational structure or jurisdictional arrangement. Nor again is it a problem of external submission or absorption of individuals and groups. It is something deeper and more substantive. The manner in which we exist has become ontologically different. Unless our ontological transformation toward one common model of life is achieved, not only in form but also in substance, then the realization of unity becomes impossible.

No one ignores that the model for all of us is the person of the theanthropos (God-Man), Jesus Christ. But which model? No one ignores that incorporation into Christ is achieved within His body, the Church. But whose Church? As a result of the diverse responses to these basic questions, we have marched along divergent ways. This is easily understood and perhaps historically inevitable. For whether we comprehend it or not, our existence is ontologically shaped in harmony with our inner self. According to the description of our Lord (see Matt. 15.11), it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person but what comes out of the mouth. This means that our essence is in continuous transformation (see Rom. 12.2, 2 Cor. 3.18) ‘‘by the renewing of our mind’’ and in the reflected glory of the Lord.

He then speaks of the glory of God and the transformation wrought by the reflection of that divine glory in a human person. He goes on,

This change, bestowed on us by the right hand of the Most High, remains hidden, secret, and mystical to many. And so our life, directed toward Him, is called mystical. What lead us to divine grace are the divine mysteries. The entire transformation of language and intellect that ensues is beyond comprehension; when directed by God, it leads to unspeakable mysteries. However, the change of our essence, theosis by grace, is at the same time a tangible fact for all Orthodox faithful. Grace is obtained not only through the transformed relics of the saints, which is totally inexplicable without acceptance of the divine. Grace also radiates from living saints, who are truly in the likeness of the Lord (see Luke 8.46). This change is also obtained through holy baptism, which through grace transforms the neophyte. The transformation may be discerned and grasped by the senses only those baptized, who are receptive to it without any external persuasion. According to the trustworthy testimony of devout Christians, divine grace infuses even the inanimate. This, too, is realized only by those who are sensitive and pure in heart. Grace can be obtained also through the presence of the saints, who have influenced and sanctified, and to a degree transformed, even natural objects and places.

And so the Orthodox Christian lives in a place not of high theoretical speculation and debate but rather of authentic life and reality, essential and empirical, as confirmed by grace in the heart (see Heb. 13.9). This grace cannot be affected by questions or doubts based on logic, science, and argumentation. Our conception of Holy Tradition also moves along the same track. For Orthodox Christians, Holy Tradition is not just some collection of teachings, certain texts outside the holy scriptures and based on oral tradition within the Church. It is this, too, but it is much more than this. First and foremost, it is a living and essential imparting of life and grace—an essential and tangible reality, propagated from generation to generation within the Orthodox Church. This transmission of faith, like the circulation of living sap from the tree to a branch, from the body to a member, from the Church to a believer, presumes that one is grafted to the fruitful olive tree (see Rom. 11.23–25) and the embodiment of the members in the body (see Rom. 12.5, 1 Cor. 10.16–17, 12.12–27).

Membership in the Church is not an act of cataloging a person as a member of a group. Rather, it is the true rebirth of this person in a new reality, the world of grace. From that moment onward, he or she is nourished and grows a new body, which is of a different substance to the body of the flesh and is joined with the body of Christ through baptism. The relevant scriptural verse (Gal. 3.27) and baptismal hymn—‘‘Whoever is baptized in Christ has been clothed in Christ’’—is not mere symbolism or poetic allegory. It points to a real fact that brings change in the substance of the human being. Those baptized as infants, whose Orthodox parents grafted them into the body of the Church, are unable to express in words the change that occurred; but they know and feel it. However, those present at the moment of baptism, who are endowed with purity of heart, can also see the grace that surrounds the newly baptized. Those baptized at a mature age and with depth of faith are able to express and describe the liberating feeling of renouncing the devil and joining Christ.

This ontological view of the life in Christ constitutes a substantial part of the experience of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The glow of its light illumines all facets of ecclesiastical and personal life in the Church, disposing of the need for pointless inquiries. The Master Himself knocks on the door and desires that we open to Him the door of our heart so that He may enter and break bread with us. This is the foundational issue and posture for the Orthodox Christian. Understanding this opens the door for communication and makes dialogue possible.

This ontological position of the Orthodox Church brings us to the difficult issues before us. Let us look at some of these. Regarding dogma, the Orthodox Church maintains an apparently contradictory position. On the one hand, Orthodoxy has never initiated a dogmatic dialogue. On the other hand, the Church has never neglected one. Let us explain what we mean by this. As we have noted, the Orthodox faithful awaits and desires to become the reflection of the glory of God; through the grace of the Holy Spirit, he or she becomes an image of our Lord Jesus Christ. Orthodox Christians, in other words, desire to have direct knowledge of one person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ, and through Him alone of the remaining two divine persons—the unapproachable (except to the Son) person of the Father, and the person of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Christian strives toward purity of heart for the visitation of grace; and, having been fulfilled, the Orthodox Christian is able to behold the glory of God. Thus transformed from glory to glory, the Orthodox Christian approaches God.

In this respect, in the spiritual journey, a dogmatic description of the manifestation of the Lord and His Body, the Church, is unnecessary, because our experienced guide at every moment protects us from all deception and allows us to accept the glory of the Lord in whatever appearance it takes. And so experiencing the dogma of the Church is not something taught through intellectual instruction; instead, it is learned through the example of Him who, through incarnation, was joined to us. For dogma is life; and life is the expression of dogma. Mere theoretical discussion on the meaning of life and dogma is superfluous. However, the evil opponent of humanity tries to interject his own distorted filter—a foreign doctrine, a false glory, a deceptive teaching—between the faithful and the divine glory. In this case, the Church, like a good shepherd, hurries to guide the faithful toward the right glory. The entire body of the Church rises and vigorously warns that the enemy’s doctrine is erroneous and that, by embracing it, we are separated from the true glory of God, and, thus led off track, we miss our goal. In order to protect the faithful from ‘‘missing the mark,’’ the Church battles the distortions, which are continuously planted by cunning spirits, regarding the glory of God. However, this difference in dogmatic theory does not lend itself to systematic analysis. For a systematic exposure of this dogmatic teaching could be understood only spiritually. If the faithful voluntarily accepted any distortions of it, the purity of their pure vision would be harmed. This truth is captured in the recognition that, for those who have an immediate personal knowledge of the Lord, every rational description of Him is needless. For those still on the road to knowing Him, an accurate presentation of the basic elements of His glory is nevertheless useful, as it helps them avoid false beliefs.

Concerning those who have freely chosen to shun the correct glory of God, the Orthodox Church follows the recommendation of the Apostle Paul: ‘‘A man that is a heretic after the first and second admonition, reject’’ (Titus 3.10). The same, of course, does not hold true for those who, with meekness and fear, ask you for a reason for the hope that is in you (see 1 Peter 3.15). Therefore, the Orthodox Church is always open to every dialogue in good faith, but it refrains from participating in planted squabbles, since the danger of being misunderstood always lurks there. 

If time and your kindness permit, let us examine one such case, so that you may better appreciate our position. The nature of the Church, viewed in light of the Orthodox faith, is a reality recognized spiritually and not descriptively. Each of us knows the members of his own body not because we have been taught about them or because they have been described in detail by anyone. ‘‘We know’’ them in a unique way because of the direct and living bond that we share with them, even if we do not have a scientific understanding of them. In similar manner, the Church is our body. Since its head, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, exists before creation, the Church coexists with Him before all time. The Church is not an imaginary or legal entity, a mere gathering of faithful, or a worldly establishment. The Church is Christ, and those whom He chooses, in one body with Him for all eternity. The full comprehension of this presumes living this reality in full. That is to say, concerning the Word of Life, we must experience what our hands have handled (1 John 1.1), without exception—we must experience a sense of the union of all things in Christ, in whom all things exist, not in a pantheistic but in a Christological sense.

All this leads to the conclusion that the organization, goals, functions, and generally the whole life of the Church are not determined by human judgment but rather by the real and unchanging nature of the Church. And so the steadfastness of the Orthodox Church on ecclesiastical assumptions of every type is the result not of a narrow view but rather of a living ecclesiastical experience.We speak not of an object subjected to free manipulation but of an existence independent of our desires and directed by Him who governs all things and who bestowed on us limited responsibility, or ministry. The starting point of the occasionally misunderstood position of the Orthodox Church regarding ecclesiological matters is rediscovered in the essence of this ministry, within this real body that is directed by its head, the Lord Jesus Christ. 

In these few words, your judgment is expected regarding my thoughts about our hope—a hope that starts from a living experience rather than from an intellectual concept. We thank you for your patience and attention. Our love for you is sincere and warm. Let not the simplicity of our words cloud your judgment regarding their truth. For you are able to understand the words of the divine Logos through the uttering of human words. Let us always hear the words of the divine Logos so that His grace may be with us. Indeed, this is our wish for you.


In 2008, Patriarch Bartholomew published a book with the major U.S. publisher Doubleday, called Encountering the Mystery: Understanding Orthodox Christianity Today. The first chapter includes a section on “The Role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate,” which opens with this:

The Ecumenical Patriarchate is regarded as the highest See and holiest center of the Orthodox Christian Church throughout the world. It is an institution with a history spanning seventeen centuries, during which it retained its administrative offices in Constantinople. It constitutes the spiritual center of all local or independent Orthodox churches, exercising its leadership among these not by administration but rather by virtue of its primacy in the ministry of Pan-Orthodox unity and the coordination of the activities within Orthodoxy as a whole. Raised in this atmosphere of openness and dialogue, particularly during the tenure of Patriarch Athenagoras, I learned from a tender age to breathe the air of oikoumene, to recognize the breadth of theological discourse, and to embrace the universe of ecclesiastical reconciliation.

He goes on to say,

The function of the Ecumenical Patriarchate as center par excellence of the life of the entire Orthodox world emanates from its centuries-old ministry in the witness, protection, and outreach of the Orthodox faith. This is precisely why the Ecumenical Patriarchate possesses a supranational and supra-regional character. From this lofty consciousness and responsibility for the people of Christ, regardless of race and language, were born the new regional churches of the East, from the Caspian to the Baltics, and from the Balkans to Central Europe. The breadth of this jurisdiction today extends to the Far East, to America, and to Australia.

Patriarch Bartholomew then articulates the “barbarian lands” theory (without directly referencing Canon 28 of Chalcedon), asserting Constantinople’s jurisdiction over “Orthodox Christians on all continents that do not fall under the jurisdiction of the autocephalous (independent) or autonomous (semi-independent) churches.” He then lists the autocephalous and autonomous churches and then the various jurisdictions that make up the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself. With this, his description of “The Role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate” closes.


For the better part of a decade, from the late 1990s until the latter part of the aughts, I cannot really find any notable ecclesiological statements from Patriarch Bartholomew. It is certainly possible that I am missing something obvious – if you know of anything, please tell me. The next significant ecclesiological item I have found is from 2008.

On October 10, 2008, Patriarch Bartholomew addressed the Synaxis of the Heads of the Orthodox Churches, held at the Phanar in Istanbul. The full text of his speech is available on the website of the Archons. In terms of ecclesiology, the key section of the speech is labeled as part 8, which includes the following:

And now, beloved brothers in the Lord, let us turn our thought to the internal affairs of our Orthodox Church, whose leadership the Lord’s mercy has entrusted to us. We have been deigned by our Lord to belong to the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, whose faithful continuation and expression in History is our Holy Orthodox Church. We have received and preserve the true faith, as the holy Fathers have transmitted it to us through the Ecumenical Councils of the one undivided Church. We commune of the same Body and Blood of our Lord in the Divine Eucharist, and we participate in the same Sacred Mysteries. We basically keep the same liturgical typikon and are governed by the same Sacred Canons. All these safeguard our unity, granting us fundamental presuppositions for witness in the modern world.

Despite this, we must admit in all honesty that sometimes we present an image of incomplete unity, as if we were not one Church, but rather a confederation or a federation of churches. This is largely a result of the institution of autocephaly, which characterizes the structure of the Orthodox Church. As is known, this institution dates back to the early Church, when the so-called “Pentarchy” of the ancient Apostolic Sees and Churches — namely, of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem — was still valid. The communion or “symphony” of these Sees expressed the unity of the universal Church in the oikoumene. This Pentarchy was severed after the tragic schism of 1054 AD between Rome and Constantinople originally, and afterward between Rome and the other Patriarchates. To the four Orthodox Patriarchates that remained after the Schism, from the middle of the second millennium to this day, other autocephalous Churches were added until we have the prevailing organization of the Orthodox Church throughout the world today.

Yet, while the original system of Pentarchy emanated from respect for the apostolicity and particularity of the traditions of these ancient Patriarchates, the autocephaly of later Churches grew out of respect for the cultural identity of nations. Moreover, the overall system of autocephaly was encroached in recent years, through secular influences, by the spirit of ethnophyletism or, still worse, of state nationalism, to the degree that the basis for autocephaly now became the local secular nation, whose boundaries, as we all know, do not remain stable but depend on historical circumstance. So we have reached the perception that Orthodoxy comprises a federation of national Churches, frequently attributing priority to national interests in their relationship with one another. In light of this image, which somewhat recalls the situation in Corinth when the first letter to the Corinthians was written, the Apostle Paul would ask: has Orthodoxy been divided? This question is also posed by many observers of Orthodox affairs in our times.

Of course, the response commonly proffered to this question is that, despite administrational division, Orthodoxy remains united in faith, the Sacraments, etc. But is this sufficient? When before non-Orthodox we sometimes appear divided in theological dialogues and elsewhere; when we are unable to proceed to the realization of the long-heralded Holy and Great Council of the Orthodox Church; when we lack a unified voice on contemporary issues and, instead, convoke bilateral dialogues with non-Orthodox on these issues; when we fail to constitute a single Orthodox Church in the so-called Diaspora in accordance with the ecclesiological and canonical principles of our Church; how can we avoid the image of division in Orthodoxy, especially on the basis of non-theological, secular criteria?

We need, then, greater unity in order to appear to those outside not as a federation of Churches but as one unified Church. Through the centuries, and especially after the Schism, when the Church of Rome ceased to be in communion with the Orthodox, this Throne was called — according to canonical order — to serve the unity of the Orthodox Church as its first Throne. And it fulfilled this responsibility through the ages by convoking an entire series of Panorthodox Councils on crucial ecclesiastical matters, always prepared, whenever duly approached, to render its assistance and support to troubled Orthodox Churches. In this way, a canonical order was created and, accordingly, the coordinating role of this Patriarchate guaranteed the unity of the Orthodox Church, without in the least damaging or diminishing the independence of the local autocephalous Churches by any interference in their internal affairs. This, in any case, is the healthy significance of the institution of autocephaly: while it assures the self-governance of each Church with regard to its internal life and organization, on matters affecting the entire Orthodox Church and its relations with those outside, each autocephalous Church does not act alone but in coordination with the rest of the Orthodox Churches. If this coordination either disappears or diminishes, then autocephaly becomes “autocephalism” (or radical independence), namely a factor of division rather than unity for the Orthodox Church.

Therefore, dearly beloved brothers in the Lord, we are called to contribute in every possible way to the unity of the Orthodox Church, transcending every temptation of regionalism or nationalism so that we may act as a unified Church, as one canonically structured body. We do not, as during Byzantine times, have at our disposal a state factor that guaranteed — and sometimes even imposed — our unity. Nor does our ecclesiology permit any centralized authority that is able to impose unity from above. Our unity depends on our conscience. The sense of need and duty that we constitute a single canonical structure and body, one Church, is sufficient to guarantee our unity, without any external intervention.


On July 5, 2009, the newly-elected Patriarch Kirill of Moscow made his first official visit to the Phanar in Istanbul. In his homily at the Divine Liturgy, Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of, among other things, “The Primacy of Unity.” The entire text was reproduced in Chryssavgis’s collection of Bartholomew’s addresses, titled Speaking the Truth in Love. Here is the key language regarding ecclesiology:

Indeed, Your Beatitude and Holy Brother, everyone has their eyes focused on us, expecting us to lead them by word, but especially by our example, in the way of reconciliation and love, which is so imperative today. This is why it is crucial that we demonstrate an unswerving readiness above all to promote in every way our pan-Orthodox unity. We already share the same faith, articulated and proclaimed by the holy synods. We enjoy the same worship, as this was formulated in this city and then transplanted to the other Orthodox churches. We have the same canonical order, unalterably defined by the order and regulations of the holy ecumenical councils. Our unity is based on these foundations. The structure of our Church into patriarchates and autocephalous Churches in no way implies that we constitute churches and not a Church.

Of course, the Orthodox Church does not have at its disposal a primacy of authority; however, it also does not lack a coordinating body, which, instead of imposing, rather expresses the unanimity of our local churches. This ministry is realized humbly—out of a long and sacred tradition—by this sacrificial throne in absolute faithfulness to the prescriptions of Orthodox ecclesiology.


Two years later, on October 1, 2010, Patriarch Bartholomew gave an address on “Councils and Conciliarity” at a conference in Istanbul organized by the UNESCO Chair on Religious Pluralism and Peace. The speech was published on the website, which was set up to commemorate the 2014 meeting of Pope Francis and Patriarch Bartholomew in Jerusalem. Section (ii) of the speech is entitled “The Conciliar Nature of the Eastern Church” and says the following:

It is on the teaching about the Holy Trinity, and not on any worldly concept of authority and power, that the entire conciliar and hierarchical structure of the Orthodox Church rests. For the Orthodox Church does not have a centralized authority or leadership, instead comprising a constellation of independent and equal sister churches, among which the Ecumenical Patriarchate possesses historically and traditionally the first rank.

In this regard, the Ecumenical Patriarchate bears a primacy of honor and service within Orthodox Christianity throughout the world. Its authority does not lie in administration, but rather in coordination. This is not a sign of weakness, but precisely of conciliarity. For the Church of Constantinople serves as primary focal point of unity, fostering consensus among the various Orthodox Churches.

Therefore, the appearance of the acts of the ancient councils is an invaluable contribution to the understanding of the mind of the early Church. It is our fervent prayer and hope that this publication will take into consideration the distinction among the various councils, some of which dealt with critical issues of theological doctrine, while others resolved matters of canonical order and yet others included decisions concerning more confessional, administrative, liturgical, and pastoral matters. The Ecumenical Patriarchate would gladly assist toward this purpose by providing guidance with regard to the Councils of the Orthodox Church, particularly of the second millennium.


On the ecclesiastical new year, September 1, 2018, Patriarch Bartholomew addressed the Synaxis of Hierarchs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Istanbul. Most of this speech has been published on the website of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA. Understandably, given the timing, Patriarch Bartholomew devotes a lot of attention to the ecclesiastical situation in Ukraine, which was nearing an inflection point. The speech also contains several significant ecclesiological statements. First, the patriarch tells the assembled bishops,

… The Ecumenical Patriarchate is, for Orthodoxy, a leaven “which leavens the whole lump” (cf. Gal. 5.9) of the Church and of history. Here, at the Great Church, we are not merely educated but become experienced in matters holy. We did not come to know the Sacred Canons by reading them in books, but by humbly serving the Mother Church, which disposes and defends the canons of Orthodoxy. We do not study theology only in theory, but live it out in practice, becoming initiated – peacefully and mystically – in how to know the unknown, see the unseen, and hear in silence the word of God that speaks in our hearts. As time unfolds, we become conscious of the fact that something magnificent is taking place, something that can only be reckoned a divine gift since our very existence is grafted onto the culture of the Mother Church, while all things are transformed and conceived as strange; the heavens are opened, new life emerges, and our existence welcomes the good change of the right hand of the Almighty.

Near the conclusion, he offers additional biblical imagery:

In times of greater or lesser historical challenge, our Patriarchate – faithful to its vocation and ministry – neither says nor does anything unrelated to the incarnate Word. Its mission is not comprised of imposing some new ecclesiological principles but preserving truths of faith, precious traditions and inspired patristic teachings established many centuries ago. The Mother Church does not create or shape its own church management; nor does it complete the Gospel, like the Grand Inquisitor of the renowned Russian author Fyodor Dostoevsky. As the First Throne of Orthodoxy, the Ecumenical Patriarchate exercises a prophetic ministry, extending the mystery of the Catholic Church in Christ Jesus throughout the world in each era.

At times, we confront trials and temptations precisely because some people falsely believe that they can love the Orthodox Church, but not the Ecumenical Patriarchate, forgetting that it incarnates the authentic ecclesiastical ethos of Orthodoxy. “In the beginning was the Word . . . in him was life, and the life was the light of men.” (John 1.1,4) The beginning of the Orthodox Church is the Ecumenical Patriarchate; “in this is life, and the life is the light of the Churches.” The late Metropolitan Kyrillos of Gortyna and Arcadia, a beloved Hierarch of the Mother Church and personal friend, was right to underline that “Orthodoxy cannot exist without the Ecumenical Patriarchate.”

During the first millennium, our blessed forefathers confronted the temptation of heresy. The great temptation of the second millennium, which was also bequeathed to the millennium we have now entered, is the status of jurisdictions. The source of this problem is ethnophyletism, the propensity to expansionism and the disregard of the boundaries defined by the Patriarchal and Synodal Tomes. The Ecumenical Patriarchate bears the responsibility of setting matters in ecclesiastical and canonical order because it alone has the canonical privilege as well as the prayer and blessing of the Church and the Ecumenical Councils to carry out this supreme and exceptional duty as a nurturing Mother and birth-giver of Churches. If the Ecumenical Patriarchate denies its responsibility and removes itself from the inter-Orthodox scene, then the local Churches will proceed “as sheep without a shepherd” (Matt. 9.36), expending their energy in ecclesiastical initiatives that conflate the humility of faith and the arrogance of power.

All the grandeur of our Patriarchate is exhausted in the service to the mystery of the Church. Its uniqueness does not lie in the possession of some superhuman secular power, but in the humble and selfless desire to subject the temptation of power to grace, while transforming the insecurity and fear of possessing and dominating to freedom and grace. It is here that we experience the final glory of the spirit identified with the ultimate humility, the power “fulfilled in weakness.” (2 Cor. 12.9)

In this sacramental task, brother Hierarchs, you too contribute to an enormous degree and level so that, at this sacred moment, we feel an ardent need to address you with the words of Christ: “You are my friends.” (John 15.14) “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me.” (John 15.4) The Ecumenical Patriarchate is an eruption “like the rush of a mighty wind” (Acts 2.2), which dissolved and disperses all that is false and fabricated, distorted and perverted. Consequently, all of us should be more closely connected to the First among us in order to drink from the fountain that springs abundantly from the sacred source of our pious Nation and blameless Faith.


In another ecclesiastical new year address, this one on September 1, 2023, Patriarch Bartholomew spoke of the ongoing dispute with the Russian Orthodox Church over Ukraine. (See this Orthodox Times article.) He concluded his speech by speaking against what he termed “the new ecclesiology.”

We, for our part, do what we believe is right. We are provoked and invited by various sister Churches for the Ecumenical Patriarchate to convene again a Pan-Orthodox Conference or a Synaxis of Orthodox Primates to deal with the Ukrainian ecclesiastical issue, and our Patriarchate rejects these proposals because it is not willing to put under the judgment of the other Churches a Canonical Act, which it carried out itself.

And I say Canonical Act, because the granting of Autocephaly to the Church of Ukraine, with its 44 million faithful, was within the framework of the rights and diaconal responsibilities of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

If we exclude the Ancient Patriarchates of the East, all the newer Orthodox Churches, starting with the Church of Russia, received the Autocephaly from Constantinople. Why shouldn’t Ukraine get it too?. That’s the point, very simple and very clear. Well, we will not convene a Pan-Orthodox Council, nor a Synaxis of Primates, because we have no intention of placing the decisions and initiatives of the Ecumenical Patriarchate under the judgment of the new ecclesiology.


Most recently, on the feast of St Nicholas on December 6, 2023, Patriarch Bartholomew again spoke of the role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the Orthodox Church. This text was published by the Orthodox Times website on December 11. (The Greek original is available here.) 

[W]hat we consider as the East, which is the magnificent work of the Holy Apostles Peter and Paul, Andrew the First-Called, John the Theologian, is actually the historical way and place of education in the time of the Church.

The East is not just the birthplace of great saints but also the cradle of the Church in its present form. Our theology and ecclesiology originated in these sacred lands, within the canonical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It was here that the Ecumenical Synods convened, shaping the ecclesiastical conscience rooted in the ministry of the Lord, transcending national or other distinctions. The wisdom of the Holy Fathers established the pentarchy and its hierarchical order, defining boundaries, principles, and values with profound insight, considering the history and sanctity of each region.

Hence, from Asia Minor, we proclaim in every direction that the genuine and only Mother Church is the Great Church of Constantinople. It exclusively bears the legacy of Jesus’s sacrifice on the Cross for all humanity [alternate translation: the genuine and only Mother Church, exclusively bearing the privilege (προνόμιον) from the crucifixional sacrifice, which is for all], giving birth to numerous Churches from Bulgaria to Ukraine. This declaration isn’t a modern invention in ecclesiology but an experiential truth and legacy inherited from the Fathers of the Ecumenical and Local Synods.

It is not just a theoretical assertion but a continuous, blessed act of the Church that bestows upon Constantinople the privilege of the Crucifixion’s sacrifice, the path of sacrifice, and the position as the Head of all Churches. It consistently bears the crown of thorns symbolizing the Despotic Passion.

As the humble successors, by the grace of God, to these traditions, we vow to safeguard this sacred trust. We refuse to relinquish the sacred duty and responsibility entrusted to us.

We do not relinquish the mantle of the Mother of the Great Church, a role passed down to us in blood, and we are committed to passing it on unscathed and unaltered. For 32 years, and into the future, we embrace this task joyously, in service to the Most Holy Theotokos.

We do not step down from the Cross to which the Church of Constantinople has devoted itself. We remain dedicated to our calling, honoring our history and the wisdom of the Fathers.

We’ve learned how to lead all peoples, races, and languages to the Resurrection through the Cross. We are willing to endure crucifixion and unite with Christ until the end of time, for the world’s sake. Thus, we stand firm, all of us, in reverent awe before the judgment seat of God!

6 Replies to “The Ecclesiology of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew Over Time”

  1. Thank you so much for these great insights into a great E.P. He stands with the giants of the faith and has always and exclusively had the best interests of the entire Orthodox Church at heart. It shows when those promoting and preserving their petty fiefdoms (and their fans) bare their fangs. He s following Christ’s command to spread the News to the four corners of the world. Pretty sure Jesus was talking about the world, not fiefdoms.

  2. From the early stages of Patriarch Bartholomew its was a positive and we can say joyful moment.
    Currently according to ecumenical synods and the Holy Fathers of the one Holy catholic Apostolic Church he has taken un orthodox stance and more of a western stand.
    The so called synod of Crete 2016 which has fallen way far from the orthodox Dogoma.
    The uncanonical so called church under the metropolitan Epyfanios of Kiev
    With his worldly approach and actions from patriarch of Constantinopole we have now the great pope of the east.

  3. Lord, have mercy.
    Most Holy Theotokos save us!
    Thanks for collecting these references, documents and quotations into an online post.

  4. The reality is that the EP is irrelevant to most Orthodox who are not Greek (and to many who are), and he should be irrelevant in our ecclesiology.

    1. And Kirill, and other Patriarchs who befriend war criminals like Putin and Assad are relevant? I have photos. Lord Have Mercy!

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