Volume III - Church History

Twentieth Century

The Ecumenical Patriarchate

Patriarch Athenagoras

From 1948 to 1972 the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople was led by the imposing figure of Patriarch Athenagoras (1886–1972). This world famous hierarch was concerned primarily with the survival of his patriarchate in Turkey, and with ecumenical activity. In January of 1964, in Jerusalem, the patriarch met with Pope Paul VI of the Roman Catholic Church. This was the first meeting between the primates of the Orthodox and Roman Churches since 1439 at the Council of Florence. In December of 1965, they issued statements nullifying the anathemas of 1054 (see Eleventh Century), thus signaling an era of friendship between the Churches in the mutual quest for complete unity in truth and love. The two prelates met again in 1967 in Constantinople and in Rome. Patriarch Athenagoras also met personally with leaders of the Church of England and the World Council of Churches.

For his bold words and deeds directed toward Christian unity—particularly in his relations with the Roman Church—Patriarch Athenagoras was both admired and attacked. While being virtually identified with the whole of Orthodoxy in the minds of most non-Orthodox people, the patriarch was severely criticized by some members of the Orthodox Church for acting independently and irresponsibly, without proper consultation with the leaders of all the Orthodox Churches. Others in the Church, primarily in the Church of Greece, on Mount Athos, and in America, criticized not merely the manner of the Patriarch’s actions, but also the actions themselves, as betraying the Orthodox Faith.

The Proposed Great Council

In 1961, Patriarch Athenagoras called the first conference of representatives of all the autocephalous Orthodox Churches to discuss the common problems facing the Orthodox, and to begin serious preparations for the calling of a Great Council of the Orthodox Church—a proposed council which had been discussed for decades. This conference was held on the island of Rhodes in the Aegean Sea.

In 1967, the Ecumenical Patriarchate refused to place the problem of the Orthodox jurisdictions in America on the agenda of the pan-Orthodox conference held that year in Switzerland. The request was made by the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (see SCOBA, above).

Since then, there have been four specifically designated Pre-­Conciliar Conferences—at Chambésy, a suburb of Geneva, Switzerland, in 1976; at Rhodes in 1982; at Chambésy in 1986; and again at Chambésy in 2009. It was at this last conference that the plan was first proposed for the meeting of assemblies of bishops of all canonical jurisdictions in regions not traditionally Orthodox.

Various Troubles

The Ecumenical Patriarchate continued to have trouble with the Turkish government. The hasty election of Patriarch Demetrios (Papadopoulos) (r. 1972–1991), to succeed Athenagoras in 1972, showed the continuing power of the Turkish authorities over the affairs of the Orthodox Church within its territory. The patriarchal seminary on the Island of Halki was closed in 1971 because of new Turkish regulations.

The Ecumenical Patriarchate also was engaged in controversy with the Church of Greece over the jurisdiction of dioceses in the “new lands” of northern Greece. And many of the monks on Mount Athos continued to express their discontent with the Constantinopolitan leadership because of its ecumenical policies and activities. (From about 6500 at the beginning of the century, the number of monks on Mount Athos dwindled to about 1500 by 1960. Since then, there has been a steady revival in numbers and spiritual life on the Holy Mountain, thanks to an infusion of young monks from around the world.)

Patriarch Bartholomew

Patriarch Demetrios was succeeded by Patriarch Bartholomew (Archontonis) (b. 1940) in 1991. Patriarch Bartholomew has been so involved with ecological concerns that he has been nicknamed “the Green Patriarch.” At his initiative, the Chambésy conference of 2009 proposed the formation of episcopal assemblies in each of 12 regions not traditionally Orthodox, as mentioned above. These assemblies first met during 2010, and continued to have annual assemblies into 2013.