The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Greek: Οικουμενικό Πατριαρχείο Κωνσταντινουπόλεως Oikoumenikó Patriarkheío Kōnstantinoupóleōs, Turkish: Rum Ortodoks Patrikhanesi — "Greek Orthodox Patriarchate", unofficially also known as Fener Rum Patrikhanesi — "Greek Patriarchate of the Phanar") is one of the fourteen or fifteen autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches. It is headed by the Ecumenical Patriarch, who has the status of "first among equals" among the world's Orthodox bishops. According to tradition, it has its roots in the preaching of the Apostle Andrew in Constantinople (then Byzantium) in AD 38. Its current leader is Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I.
Prior to the moving of the imperial capital, the bishop of Byzantium had been under the authority of the metropolitan of Ephesus, but beginning in the 4th century, he grew to become independent in his own right and even to exercise authority throughout what is now modern-day Greece, Asia Minor, Pontus, and Thrace. With the development of the hierarchical structure of the Church, the bishop of Constantinople came to be styled as exarch (a position superior to metropolitan), and then later as patriarch (the position into which the title of exarch developed), having administrative jurisdiction over all the bishops within his patriarchate.
In turn, the affairs of the Constantinopolitan church were overseen not just by the patriarch, but also by synods held including visiting bishops. This pan-Orthodox synod came to be referred to as the ενδημουσα συνοδος (endimousa synodos, "resident synod"). The resident synod not only governed the business of the patriarchate but also examined questions pertinent to the whole Church.
The patriarch thus came to have the title of Ecumenical, which referenced not a universal episcopacy over other bishops, but rather the position of the patriarch as at the center of the oikoumeni, the "household" of the empire.
The Ecumenical Patriarchate came to be called "the Great Church of Christ," and it was the touchstone and reference point for ecclesiastical affairs in the East, whether in terms of church government, relations with the state, or liturgical matters. The patriarchate came to have in canon law "equal prerogatives [presveia] to Old Rome" (Canon 3 of Constantinople I, Canon 28 of Chalcedon, and Canon 36 of Trullo).
Because the patriarchate's position, it came to have jurisdiction over missionary activity throughout the empire in the East, which expanded its territory considerably. Eventually, this missionary jurisdiction came to be legislated in canon law as a jurisdiction over the "barbarian lands" (Canon 28 of Chalcedon). (The precise scope of this jurisdiction is debated in the modern era.) Through this missionary work, Constantinople brought the Orthodox faith to what is now Russia, Serbia, Ukraine, Bulgaria, Finland, Estonia, Romania, the Czech and Slovak Republics, Poland, and elsewhere.
As a result of this dispute, Rome and Constantinople came to go their separate ways, finalized in 1204 with the Sack of Constantinople when Crusaders from the West stormed Constantinople, terrorizing its people, looting it and desecrating churches. The Eastern churches came to follow the lead of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and the schism between East and West has not yet been healed.
After Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453, the patriarchate came to care more directly for all the Orthodox living in the Ottoman Empire. Mehmed II appointed Gennadios II Scholarios as the Patriarch in 1454 and designated him as the spiritual leader as well as the ethnarch or milletbasi of all the Orthodox Christians in the Empire, not just those of Hellenic origin. During this period Bulgarians, Serbs, Albanians of southern Albania, and Greeks of northern Greece came under the spiritual, administrative, fiscal, cultural and legal jurisdiction of the Patriarchate. Some of the other patriarchs came at various points to live permanently in Constantinople and function as part of the local church government.
The Russian Orthodox Church, which for centuries had been a diocese of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, declared its independence in 1448, shortly before Constantinople fell, owing to its protest over the Council of Florence, in which representatives of the patriarchate had signed onto union with Rome, trading doctrinal concessions for military aid against the encroaching Ottomans. The military aid never came, and those concessions were subsequently repudiated by the patriarchate, but from 1448, the Russian church came to function independently. 141 years later, in 1589, Constantinople came to recognize Russia's independence and led the Orthodox Church in declaring Russia also to be a patriarchate, numbering Moscow's bishop as fifth in rank behind the ancient patriarchates.
As Ottoman rule eventually weakened, various parts of the Orthodox Church that had been under the direct influence of the Ecumenical Patriarchate came to be independent. These churches at first usually declared their independence without universal approval, which came after Constantinople gave its blessing. The rate at which these new autocephalous ("self-headed") churches came into being increased in the 19th century, particularly with the independence of Greece.
In 1833, the Church of Greece declared its autocephaly, which was subsequently recognized by the patriarchate in 1850. In 1865, the Romanian Orthodox Church, against the protests of Constantinople, declared its independence, which was acknowledged in 1885. A year before Greece's autocephaly was self-proclaimed, the Serbian Orthodox Church was named autocephalous by the local secular government, and Constantinople refused recognition until 1879. In 1870 the Bulgarians seceded from the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Bulgarian church was politically recognized under the name Bulgarian Exarchate, it reobtained its official rank of Patriarchate only in 1945. In 1922, the Albanian Orthodox Church declared its autocephaly, being granted recognition of it in 1937.
In addition to these churches, whose territory had been agreed upon by all as within Constantinople's jurisdiction, several other disputed areas' Orthodox churches have had recognition by the Ecumenical Patriarchate as either autocephalous or autonomous, including the Finnish Orthodox Church and Estonian Orthodox Church in 1923, the Polish Orthodox Church in 1924, the Czech and Slovak Orthodox Church in 1998. The majority of these disputes are a result of the expansion of the Russian Empire, which often included a subjugation of the churches in conquered lands to the Moscow Patriarchate.
Since 1586 the Ecumenical Patriarchate has its headquarters in the relatively modest Church of St George in the Phanar district of Istanbul. The current territory of the Patriarchate is significantly reduced from what it was at its height. Its canonical territory currently includes most of modern Turkey, northern Greece and Mount Athos, the Dodecanese and Crete. By its interpretation of Canon 28 of Chalcedon, Constantinople also claims jurisdiction over all areas outside the canonically defined territories of other Orthodox churches, which includes the entire Western hemisphere, Australia, the United Kingdom, Western Europe, Southeast Asia, and elsewhere. This claim is disputed by other autocephalous churches with diocese in those areas, as well as the Turkish government.
The Orthodox presence in Turkey itself is small, however the majority of Orthodox in North America (about 2/3) are under the Ecumenical Patriarchate, in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The Patriarchate also enjoys an even greater majority in the United Kingdom. Furthermore, the Albanian, Carpatho-Russian and Ukrainian jurisdictions in America are also part of the Patriarchate.
Most of the Patriarchate's funding does not come directly from its member churches but rather from the Archons of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, usually important laymen who make large donations for the upkeep of the Patriarchate. In turn, they are granted honorary titles which once belonged to members of the Patriarchal staff in centuries past.
The Patriarchate acts in the capacity of being an intermediary and facilitator between the Orthodox churches and also in relations with other Christians and religions. This role sometimes brings the Patriarchate into conflict with other Orthodox churches, as its role in the Church is debated. The question centers around whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate is simply the most honored among the Orthodox churches or whether it has any real authority or prerogatives (presveia) which differ from the other autocephalous churches. This dispute is often between Constantinople and Moscow, the largest Orthodox church in terms of population, especially as expressed in the Third Rome theory which places Moscow in the place of Constantinople as the center of world Orthodoxy. Such disputes sometimes result in temporary breaks in full communion, though usually not for very long.
The relationship between Constantinople and the Ottoman Empire was frequently bitter, due in no small part to the privilege given to Islam. In the secular Republic of Turkey, tensions are still constant. Turkey requires by law that the Patriarch be a Turkish citizen, all of whom have been ethnic Greeks since 1923. The state's expropriation of church property and the closing of the Orthodox Theological School of Halki are also difficulties faced by the Patriarchate.
Besides the patriarch, the current (2008) members of the synod are the following metropolitans:
Notable hierarchs of the Ecumenical Patriarchate are the popular writer Kallistos (Timothy) Ware, an assistant-bishop in the Archdiocese of Thyateira, and author of The Orthodox Church, the best-known introduction to the Orthodox Church in English and John Zizioulas Metropolitan of Pergamon, a well-known professor of Systematic Theology.
The right of non- Turkish members of the synod (from Northern Greece, the Dodecanese, America and Western Europe) to convene appears to be threatened by a recent declaration from the Istanbul Governor reported in the Freiburg archdiocesan magazine (Konradsblatte, 7 September 2008).