A Lebanese bishop yesterday reminded the Synod that Pope John Paul II, in his 1995 encyclical Ut Unum Sint, called for a review of the practice of papal primacy in the light of the ecclesiology of the First Millennium. It was good to recall, said Guy-Paul Noujaim, a Lebanese auxiliary and titular bishop (appropriately) of Caesarea Philippi, that at the Council of Nicea (325) there were three patriarchates: Rome, Alexandra and Antioch; and that in the fifth century the Church was ruled by, in order, the Pope, followed by the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem.
Fostering union and overcoming divisions "presupposes therefore a theology and a juridical organisation of the Church which gives back to the Eastern Patriarchs their privileges from the firsst periods in the Universal Church, next to the Pope, the head of the entire Church", he told the Synod.
Bishop Noujaim recognizes the difficulties with this idea: the fact that new Patriarchates have been founded since the first millennium; the existence of several Catholic patriarchs and one Orthodox patriarch for the same see; and -- he adds, critically -- "a Roman Curia with badly defined prerogatives concerning the relationship with the Patriarchal curia".
His solution: that the Pope appoint a commission of experts "to propose concrete solutions to these problems" and the Church committing "to apply them as soon as possible".
It's unlikely this one will fly. There are many in the Eastern Churches who would not want the Patriarchs' authority increased. And it would necessarily involve the Patriarchs voting in conclaves and other revisions.
But there's a bigger ecumenical picture to keep in mind. This is the kind of proposal that would interest Anglicans, for example. Unity among the Christian Churches, it has often been observed, could only come about by means of a devolution of papal primacy. It could be argued that this should first be modelled by the Churches in communion with Rome. A commission to look at that could open up new possibilities in ecumenical dialogue.
Canterbury as a patriarchate, alongside Jerusalem and Antioch, Venice and Lisbon? Now there's an idea.