The Pope and the Patriarch
The Pope's recent visit with the Patriarch of Constantinople has caused some confusion in the media, not only about his alleged "concelebration," but also about it being a "meeting of equals." Friends have told me, "You Orthodox have a Pope, too; you just call him a 'Patriarch.'" In light of this, I was happy for this clarification written by Fr. James Deschene of Christminster Monastery (a Benedictine Western Rite monastery under ROCOR) in a letter a few years ago:
For more on the Orthodox Church's ecclesiology, see this essay by Bp. HILARION of Vienna (Moscow Patriarchate), though not all Orthodox would agree with all he has to say. (The same could be said of any theologoumenon in any essay by anyone.)
[The media] perpetuate the widespread but erroneous notion that Patriarch Bartholomew is to the world of Orthodox Christianity what the pope of Rome is to Roman Catholicism. To call the patriarch the spiritual leader of all Orthodox Christians is about as accurate - and as meaningful - as calling the American president the moral leader of the free world. The label has a symbolic meaning, and the position has even some influence. But in neither case does the man have any legal power or authority outside his own jurisdiction. Another nation may freely affirm support for some policy of the American president. But the American president is not otherwise entitled to speak for other nations or to determine their policies apart from their conceding to him their agreement, which they are always and rightly free to withhold.
This is almost exactly parallel to the situation of the ecumenical patriarch. He may express his own mind and policy, but this is of no legal authority or effect in any Orthodox church outside his own (i.e., of Constantinople) unless and until those Orthodox churches freely affirm that policy and support it. He does not, in any legal or official sense of the term, speak for the Orthodox world, any more than George Bush legally speaks for the free world...
Westerners, influenced by the sovereign and monarchical nature of the Roman papacy, are too ready to assume an equivalent authority and power to be vested in one Orthodox figure - i.e., the ecumenical patriarch. But Orthodoxy, unlike Roman Catholicism, believes in the sovereignty and authority of each independent Orthodox church (such as the Greek, Russian, Serbian, Antiochian, etc.) and its college or congress of bishops.
Thus, while the Roman pope is, by the law and constitution of his own church, empowered to act in a sovereign and absolute manner over all of Roman Catholicism, no one figure in the Orthodox world possesses such authority or power. Hence, while the pope, if he wished, could unilaterally decree that he considers the schism with the Orthodox world to be ended, there is no one person on the Orthodox side who could unilaterally do the same, or even accept in the name of all Orthodoxy the pope's decision.
Admittedly, this makes certain decisions and policies hard to arrive at since the Orthodox must achieve a consensus of the whole Orthodox body. But it has also protected the treasury of Orthodox belief and worship from the kind of tampering and dilution one has seen in the western churches over the last few generations. Orthodoxy, in the words of the psalmist, does not put its trust in princes - even spiritual princes - but in the Lord who, being himself the Truth ("I am the way, the truth, and the life") guards his people from error and falsehood.