Shoes of the Fishermen

The royal welcome that Patriarch Bartholomeos of Constantinople received during his recent visit to the United States was carefully prepared by the savvy publicists of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. However, the effusive praise from many of the political leaders of our society surpassed all expectations.

Hillary Rodham Clinton called the Ecumenical Patriarch “a great world leader who can inspire every American.” Vice President Gore opined, with his typical self-deprecating humor, “As someone who has been called the ‘ozone-man,’ I’m thrilled to welcome the ‘green’ patriarch.” The U.S. House of Representatives bestowed on Bartholomeos its gold medal, distinguishing him as the first religious figure, and only the fifth person, to receive this honor.

The major media and the local media in the cities he visited during his month long tour reported on Bartholomeos’ daily activities almost as religiously as they have Pope John Paul II. The comparison between pope and patriarch actually became standard background material in much of this reportage.

Thus I winced when I read that Voice of America, in a pre-visit short-wave broadcast on September 30, described the Ecumenical Patriarchs as “the Orthodox equivalents of the Catholic Popes.”

But I must confess my irritation—and extreme disappointment—at hearing several clergy and lay leaders of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America refer to Patriarch Bartholomeos as the “supreme head” or, less gratingly, “the spiritual leader” of the Orthodox Church and its 300 million souls—as if his jurisdiction extends throughout the world!

In a letter to northern California’s public and private schools late in September, Bishop Anthony of San Francisco even had the temerity to claim that the Ecumenical Patriarch is “held in as high esteem and importance to Orthodox Christians as the Pope of Rome to Roman Catholics.”

If any of these ecclesial claims were true, then what (apart from the vexing theological issue of the filioque) was the Great Schism of 1054 all about? Why should the world’s Orthodox Christians settle for a pseudopope, when we can still have the real thing in Rome?

Why persist in a delusion that the decrepit ghetto in Istanbul to which a hostile Turkish government has confined the Ecumenical Patriarchate is the same proud Constantinople that served as capital of the Orthodox Byzantine Empire? Or that the bishop who presides in that ghetto is as temporally powerful and significant as the current bishop who rules the Vatican city-state, a man whose force of personality and spiritual strength enable him to command more divisions than Josef Stalin could have ever imagined?

We Orthodox cannot go toe to toe with Rome when it comes to the exercise of power and influence in the world, nor should we try. Our ecclesiology and our distinctive mission would eschew such aspirations of centralized authority in favor of a more collegial spiritual leadership.

The papal ties to St. Peter are well known to every Christian, including Eastern Orthodox and Protestants who reject some of the unique claims that Rome derives from that apostolic connection. There is, however, a psychological affinity between the papacy and the chief spokesman of the Twelve Apostles that cannot be denied. St. Peter’s personality is the most sharply drawn in the New Testament: impetuous, headstrong, super-confident, so sure of his loyalty. He is, it seems, always first: first to proclaim Jesus the Christ, first to refuse to have the Lord wash his feet, first to arrive on shore to greet the risen Lord in Galilee.

But St. Peter had a younger brother. Although the biblical testimony about St. Andrew is scant, we do know that he was a fisherman like his older brother, a disciple initially of St. John the Baptizer, and curious about the end times (according to Mark 13). If St. Peter was always trying to be the first among the Apostles, St Andrew was the first called by the Lord to become an Apostle. In John 1:41-42, we learn that the younger brother actually led the older to the Lord in the first place.

For centuries St Andrew has been claimed as heavenly patron of Kyiv and the Ukrainians, of Scotland (oddly enough), and, most important for the life of the whole Church, of ancient Byzantium, later known as Constantinople. It is precisely this association with prominent cities in ancient Christendom that makes the legacy of the two brother fishermen-apostles so important.

When we, Orthodox and Catholics alike, think of St. Peter, we can’t help but think of Rome (and Antioch, too, where he dwelt for some time). When we think of St. Andrew, we Orthodox in particular can’t help but think of Constantinople. St. Peter, the older brother, symbolizes Old Rome, while St. Andrew, the younger brother, symbolizes New Rome. Together they reflect the unity and diversity within the ancient Roman imperium, and within the undivided Church of the first millennium.

Like the “two lungs” of the undivided Church—a favorite expression of both Pope John Paul II and Patriarch Bartholomeos—the two brothers breathed in the Holy Spirit and breathed out his inspired teaching, equally, each in his own right and dignity as an Apostle, and collegially, with neither lording it over the other like the Gentiles.

Some contemporary Orthodox theologians—most notably my own mentor, Bishop Maximos (Aghiourgoussis) of Pittsburgh—are prepared to concede full local autocephaly (“self-governance”) to each patriarchate and national church. Thus the Pope of Rome, as Patriarch of the West, could govern his particular Latin rite church as he saw fit, and as his faithful were willing to allow. If that entailed a universal jurisdiction over all the other Roman bishops and even ex cathedra infallibility on matters of faith and morals within his own patriarchate, then so be it—just as long as the Patriarch of Rome refrained from imposing his monarchy on the four other ancient patriarchates, and the other autocephalous Churches.

Such a proposal could be the beginning of St. Andrew’s successors leading St. Peter’s successors back to the ancient ways of the apostolic Church. But it would behoove the current occupants of both of these apostolic sees to remember that the “shoes of the fisherman”—to use the felicitous phrase of Morris West’s prescient 1959 novel by the same title—fit more than one pair of apostolic feet.

Rev. Alexander Webster


Father Alexander F.C. Webster, an archpriest in the Orthodox Church in America, retired in June 2010 as an Army Reserve chaplain at the rank of colonel after more than 24 years of military service. He is the author or co-author of four books on topics of social ethics.