Adrian Fortescue once opined that the true culprit with regards to ecclesiastical imperialism was the patriarchate of Constantinople, not Rome. Centuries before Jesuits would anger Ethiopians by attempting to impose the Roman Rite in Ge’ez, or Portuguese missionaries would destroy the ancient Malabar Rite, or John Ireland and his colleagues in the US would relegate Ruthenian Catholics to second-class status, the imperial see had already caused the Melkite patriarchates to take up its own rite over their more ancient ones. Backed begrudgingly by the Turk, the Phanariote Patriachate became the main Orthodox bishopric of all lands under the Muslim dominion.
It is no wonder, then, that as the Balkan nations threw off the weight of the Ottoman Empire they moved quickly to establish autonomous national churches that would be free of the Turkish influence. In Athens, Sofia, Belgrade, and Bucharest the new countries erected their own patriachates that were initially resisted by the Phanar but backed by Moscow until the former imperial see conceded.
What is forgotten is that in two of these cases the move was not the creation of a newfangled patriachate but the restoration of an older one, both of which had been dissolved by the “Ecumenical” Patriarchate with the backing of the Turkish authorities.
For some thoughts on patriarchates in general, see this article.
The Patriarchate of Serbia (1346-1766)
Slavic migration into the frontiers of both the Byzantine and German “Roman Empires” resulted in new fertile ground for the missionaries of the Christian Church. Sts Cyril and Methodius were the first to preach to the Slavs and their work would ultimately culminate into all Eastern Europe except Lithuania converting to Christianity through the Greek or the Latin Church.
The Serbs of the Balkans originally encountered Christianity in the 7th century through Roman missionaries and remained in the Western sphere until Pope Leo III transferred the region to the authority of the Greek church. The region changed hands between Greeks and Bulgarians until the rise of the Serbian Kingdom.
From one of the oldest extant churches of Serbia.
The creation of the Serbian Kingdom and the independence of the Serbian church were closely intertwined, both being orchestrated by St. Sava. The Archbishopric of Pec became the center of the church as the Kingdom gained power at the expense of the Byzantines. In 1346, the Archbishop Joanikije was crowned “Patriarch of the Serbs and Greeks” with the blessing of the Bulgarian Patriarch. In doing so, he claimed jurisdiction over all the Greek archbishoprics and over Mt. Athos itself (which had sent many elders to the ceremony in support). A feeble excommunication came from the declining Constantinople in 1350, and it appears to have been ignored.
The Church survived under the yoke of Islam, though the patriarchate remained vacant from 1463-1557 and put under Constantinople on the millet system. The patriarchate became a catalyst in the sixteenth and seventeenth century around which the Serbs could rally. The Turks continued to abolish the patriarchate only to reappear. Jovan II would even be one of the key figures in an uprising against the Turks in 1596, seeking aid from Pope Clement VIII (assuring him of his loyalty and obedience to Rome) and the Austrians that never came.
Finally, Arsenije III led a mass migration of his people from Turkish lands to the Austrian Empire. The Serbs continued to fight the Turks while protecting their traditions from the fanatically Anti-Byzantine Cardinal Leopold Kolonić. The actions of certain Austrian prelates brought to an end the over hundred-year long warmness of relations between the Serbs and the Western church. The patriarchate would finally be abolished in 1766 when a Greek was appointed to it with the sole intention of resigning and disbanding it. The Phanariotes had won.
There was a brief re-establishment by the Austrians of a Byzantine Serbian patriarchate, but Franz Joseph’s antagonism towards its adherents and blatant caesaropapism discredited the hierarchy and was one of many factors that drove the people into extreme ultra-nationalist groups. The miserable relations between Serb and Hapsburg would climax in the unsolved murder of the patriarch Lukijan Bogdanovic in 1913 (attributed to either the Hungarians or the Serb extremists) and the tragedy of 1914, a tragedy for which millions would pay the price.