The Synod of Lvov, and the dangers of Episcopal Conferences

The Synod of Lvov, and the dangers of Episcopal Conferences

[Hat-tip to PewSitter: “Is it not, arguably, the duty of the Episcopal Order to take some action in the event of dysfunctions in the exercise of the Petrine Ministry?”]

Posted by Fr John Hunwicke at
8 March 2016


Eighty years to the day since the so-called synod which claimed to “reunite” the Ukrainian Church with the Patriarchate of Moskow. I’ve no idea what the word Balamand is supposed to mean, but I gather it is the mantra with which one dismisses the idea of “Unia”. “Unia” is the politically-correct term for an act in which a Particular Church (i.e. a Bishop, his presbyterium, his diakonia, and his laos) corporately restore their canonical bonds with the Petrine See of Rome. At the Synod of Brest, 1596, a number of such Churches in the Ukraine, referred to popularly and collectively as “the Ukrainian Church”, did precisely that. It seems to me an exemplary course of action to take. I believe this because I am a Catholic with a Catholic ecclesiology.

But whatever problems “Baalamand”, whoever he may have been, discovered in this process, they must surely pale into insignificance compared with the horrors of 1946, when the Ukrainian Church was decapitated and, in the absence of its incarcerated Bishops, was declared to have become part of an alien ecclesial structure; and dissentients were cruelly persecuted.


One can only rejoice in the resurrection of the Ukrainian Church. One can fully understand its conviction that it has now matured to a point at which its Major Archbishop is rightly termed a Patriarch, not least because of his diaspora. But perhaps the term Patriarch itself needs some discernment.

Anciently, there were but two Patriarchates: Alexandria and Antioch. In subsequent eras, secular political considerations led to Constantinople and Moskow acquiring the title. Venice and Lisbon, as centres of extensive dominions throughout the world, assumed the dignity … one rather suspects, out of a desire to assert status vis-a-vis other ‘patriarchates’. Recently, some autocephalous Byzantine churches (Romanian; Bulgarian) have adopted the style, perhaps moved by motives not a million miles from phyletism, while others, such as Greece and Cyprus, have felt no need to do so. Quite late in the first millennium, the idea grew up that the Pope was “Patriarch of the West”, a thoroughly silly title rightly dumped by Benedict XVI. (Does anybody know of a pope earlier than Theodore I, 642-9, perhaps significantly a Greek, to use the title?)

I am convinced that we should extend a supportive understanding and every possible Christian solidarity to Churches to whom the title is precious. Long live Patriarch Sviatoslav! Eis polla ete, Despota!! What splendid pictures they were over on NLM on March 3 and March 6, showing Patriarch Sviatoslav celebrating a Patriarchal Liturgy in the the Roman Basilica of Great S Mary’s! … although they would have been even finer if the Roman Pontiff had deigned to grace the occasion with his Merciful presence. Sviatoslav is certainly every bit as much a Patriarch as are the occupants of the more recently asserted Patriarchal sees among the Separated Byzantines! And he is a very fine example of a Catholic bishop, who has not been afraid to speak straight and frankly to his Venerable Brother the Bishop of Rome after the latter was betrayed into an imprudence.


But, showing myself to be a mere Latin, I believe we should never forget that, according to Catholic ecclesiology, there are two complementary and nodal realities by Divine Institution: the Local, Particular Church, gathered in unity around its bishop; the Universal Church Militant, in unity with the Petrine and Roman Church. Nothing ‘in between’ these two is of Divine Institution; however venerable, however useful, it may be.

The history of the Church demonstrates that ‘Patriarchates’, Autonomous Provincial Synods, and ‘Episcopal Conferences’ can constitute gatherings of churches which offer a threat to the unity and orthodoxy of the Church Militant. Vatican II rightly stated that such organisations can have pragmatic uses, but we are on a facilis descensus Averni if we take them too seriously. Most of all, if they are ever regarded as having doctrinal competences. This would be contrary to the Magisterial teaching of Benedict XVI: let us never forget, despite the determination of many in Rome to make us do so, that Benedict XVI was truly a Pope.

There is comparatively little risk of this particular disorder (the idea that regional episcopates might establish dogma) arising among contemporary Byzantines. But in the West, Anglicanism, Gallicanism, and Germanism (is that how we should characterise poor Cardinal Marx’s disorder?) demonstrate very clear dangers.


So there are worrying threats upon the Horizon. The worst scenario would be if the requirement for unanimity, before Episcopal Conferences could act doctrinally, were to be removed. Then we really would be at the mercy of what Benedict XVI called the Wolves. If liturgical competences were allowed to Conferences, there might even be dangers of liturgical persecutions, just like the ones we had back in the Church of England.

We in the Ordinariates are experts in these problems. We fought against National Autonomy for generations in the Anglican Communion. My most anxious prayer is that the wiles of the Enemy will not force us to have to refight these battles against the same nasty old errors, now that we are in the Catholic Church. We did not make the move so as to do that. Perhaps naively, we thought that being in Full Communion with the See of S Peter would give us some rest from endless battles against heterodoxy and heteropraxy. If God has decided otherwise, then there indeed lies His call to us. But it would be His call and not our selected programme.

I continue to hope that there may be better and more joyful things to occupy the energies of Christian people than revisiting such dry and dreary polemics.

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