By Dimitris Keramidas*
Last Saturday, October 24, during the ordination of Bishop of Arsinoe, Archbishop Chrysostomos of Cyprus made a historic —and rather unexpected— move as he commemorated the Primate of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU), Epifaniy. It was an “unexpected” move because the commemoration had not been announced in advance nor was it an application of the mandate of the Holy Synod of Church of Cyprus, which had decided in favor of a line of “neutrality” regarding the Ukrainian autocephaly issue at its meeting. In any case, with this move, the Church of Cyprus became the fourth church (after the Ecumenical Patriarchate) whose primate is in full communion with his counterpart in the newly established autocephalous Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
The action of Archbishop Chrysostomos immediately provoked reactions, in some cases a great opposition. Four Cypriot Metropolitans (Kykkos, Limassol, Tamassos and Amathus) in a joint statement directly accused Archbishop Chrysostomos of “blatant violation of the synodal, collective and democratic polity of our Orthodox” considering that “the so-called ‘primate’ of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine has never been ordained canonically because he was part of the schismatics of the Ukrainian Church.” They also mentioned: “The move of Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew to grant ‘autocephaly’ to the schismatic structures of the Ukrainian Church is arbitrary, non-canonical and anti-church.” Likewise, the President of the Theological School of the University of Nicosia, Christos Oikonomou, commented that the move of the Archbishop of Cyprus “was contrary to the Statutory Charter, non-canonical, arbitrary and, therefore, non-existent since there is a binding decision of 9 September that did not give him the permission for this commemoration, which took place during the ordination of the new Bishop of Arsinoe, in the absence and without the knowledge of the members of the Synod.”.
The question that arises, then, is whether the Archbishop of Cyprus should have convened the local Holy Synod to discuss this issue and asked for its approval for the recognition of Ukrainian autocephaly, or was he right to commemorate Metropolitan Epifaniy without a synodal decision. This is a matter of canonical nature which, due to limited space, we can only touch briefly. One needs to refer to the Statutory Charter of the Church of Cyprus, the Rules governing the administration of a local Church, how the Church of Cyprus reacted to the previous autocephaly granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
It is true that the 34th Apostolic Canon remains entirely valid for the operation of an eparchial Church , which provides that the head of each ecclesiastical eparchy can do nothing without the “opinion” of the other bishops (and vice versa). The above provision is considered by the Orthodox as the “golden rule” of the synodality and is even presented as the pre-eminent criterion of the Church’s administration not only at the eparchial level (Patriarchates, Autocephalous Churches) but also at the world level, the (the so-called “global”) Church. In fact, this canon is often referred to in bilateral texts with the Roman Catholic Church as an example of interdependence between the first and the many, between the Bishop of Rome and the other Churches. So, as long as the validity of the canon remains in force, then the Orthodox must apply it primarily in their own church administrations before requesting its observance by the Churches of different denomination.
On this basis and given that there was no decision to revise or modify the position of the Holy Synod of the Church of Cyprus on “neutrality,” it seems that the reactions of the four Metropolitans and those theologians who questioned the canonical integrity of Archbishop Chrysostomos are justified. The primate of the Church of Cyprus should not have taken any initiative without the opinion of the other members of the Holy Synod, and wrongly commemorated the Metropolitan of Kyiv.
There are, of course, those who claim that the Archbishop talked privately with the Cypriot Hierarchs and found that the majority of them, even through a discreet silence, would not be opposed to the recognition of Metropolitan Epifaniy. This view is probably confirmed at the moment, as, apart from the “four,” no other voices of dissent have been heard. Based on the same reasoning, the synodal procedures were applied on the substance, that is, the primate listened to the “opinion” of the others, although not “formally” (the Holy Synod was not convened). In a letter sent to the Ecumenical Patriarch on October 20 , 2020, Archbishop Chrysostomos himself stressed that “neutrality” was his own proposal in order to carry out the mission requested by the Ecumenical Patriarch, that is, to meet the other Orthodox Primates. He points out that he can no longer take mediation reconciliation initiatives both because of the COVID-19 pandemic and his disease. Therefore, the attitude of “neutrality” must be interpreted as a peace-building position of “good will” in order for the Church of Cyprus, a small one but with apostolic prestige, to move more easily in favor of the unity of the Orthodox, without this meaning that it rejected the canonicality of the actions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (the Holy Synod of the Church of Cyprus never expressed a negative opinion on them).
The above approach is likely to be correct —in any case, Patriarch Theodore of Alexandria acted in a similar way within the framework of his own Church. However, it is an interpretation that is not measurable as it remains at the level of hypothesis or even information. This hypothesis can be confirmed (or refuted) only if the other Hierarchs openly express their position or if the Holy Synod of the Church of Cyprus expresses its opinion in favor of or against Ukrainian autocephaly at its next meeting.
In anticipation of any further developments, what we would like to point out is the following: in order to understand ecclesiologically and not procedurally the commemoration of the Metropolitan of Kyiv by Archbishop Chrysostomos, one must take into account that the Church of Cyprus is in full communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. This communion means that the Church of Cyprus recognizes the privileges of the Ecumenical Patriarchate deriving from the Fourth Ecumenical Council (451) and especially from its 28th Canon. As Archbishop Chrysostomos explained in a letter, “the other local Orthodox Churches [editor’s note: except for the Church of Cyprus] were granted the Tomos of Autocephaly by the Holy Ecumenical Patriarchate after the 15th century delimitating their borders.
The question, therefore, is not whether a local Synod can be expressed as they see fit in favor of or against the granting of autocephaly by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to a Church, but whether a local Church (especially that of Cyprus which was already autocephaly and recognized the force of the Canons of the Council of Chalcedon in 451) has the authority to put the rights of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in process of additional approval. In other words, can a local Council recognize the scope of the provisions of the Ecumenical Councils? Does a local Church have the authority to interpret the decisions of the Ecumenical Patriarchate? The answer can only be no because a local Synod is not superior to an Ecumenical Council, the administrative provisions of which are amended only by another Ecumenical Council.
Therefore, one could say that the canonical communion among the Orthodox Churches means that everyone recognizes the canonical and jurisdictional rights, obligations and restrictions of the others. A local Synod cannot make an anachronistic interpretation of regulations: it must either recognize them in their entirety or break free from the orthodox canonical tradition and severe communion ties with the other Churches. The status of the Autocephalous Churches could possibly be reconsidered (and updated), that is, who has the right to grant this status. Unfortunately, any pre-synodal preparation never took place in Crete and the whole discussion remained unresolved. When the Orthodox are mature enough to take a stand on the issue, then —and only then— will the local Orthodox Churches be able to express their opinion on the revision of the right of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the degree of cooperation of the other Churches.
* Professor at the Pontifical University of Saint Thomas Aquinas (PUST), Hellenic Open University, School of Humanities, Adjunct