Once again, I direct your attention to the writings of Richard Hooker, and his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity:
"The matters wherein Church polity is conversant are the public religious duties of the Church, as the administration of the word and sacraments, prayers, spiritual censures, and the like. To these the Church standeth always bound. Laws of polity, are laws which appoint in what manner these duties shall be performed." BOOK III. Ch. xi. 20
Books III and IV of Hooker's Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity present a defense of Anglicanism against the charges of Calvinists, Book IV defending the continuation of practices that the Calvinists deemed overly- "Romish." Hooker, along with the men who were working to clarify and produce for public use the Articles and other formularies, walked a tightrope trying to balance truth against the very real influences of Calvinists, Lutherans, Rome and the Anabaptists, all of which contradicted the straightforward Catholic-Protestantism (or Protestant-Catholicism) of the Church of England. In so doing his writings produced a system that is often misunderstood. The system requires that we give heed above all to Scripture, that we use Right Reason, and that we obediently receive the teaching of the Church (the latter called simply, Tradition). Unfortunately, this is described wrongly all too often as "the three legged stool," and is misused by revisionists to rule out the authority of both the Scriptures and the Tradition, as if these three things can be weighed against each other instead of taken together. About this error I have written before on this blog.
Nonetheless, what Hooker did give to us provides a hierarchy of authority within the reach of every informed Christian mind. Above all, because the voice of God is heard there loud and clear, we heed the inspired word of God, that is, the Scriptures. Our understanding of the Scriptures must be taught by the Tradition in which they were received. Finally, in areas where the Scriptures do not direct us one way or the other concerning how we carry out the things that God has commanded, we make use of Right Reason. Hooker saw this Right Reason as one and the same with the decrees of wisdom, the same wisdom to which the Scriptures give witness, especially in the Book of Proverbs. To some degree the resulting polity and rules of Right Reason carry the authority of the Church (Tradition), and are subject to change only if this is demanded by Right Reason to meet the needs of the Church in a given time and place, since history is not stagnant. Never does Right Reason lead to a change in the commandments of God, or in the teaching of the Church. It is limited only to matters in which the finite human mind may make rules for order, indeed, must make rules for order. An obvious example is rubrics, and other particular matters of liturgy as well, where we must use wisdom to find the most reasonable and useful way to obey such basic commands as "Do this in remembrance of me."
So too, certain matters of Church polity may require change in accordance with the fluidity of history to meet the needs of churches in various times and places. However, at no time is the Church allowed to meddle with the essential order that God has established. By "essential order" we mean those things that are bon esse- of the essence. For example, learned Anglicans know that the three orders of ministry are of the essence of the Church, and that this includes the unbroken Apostolic Succession of bishops. Indeed, Hooker himself, along with the men who defended the Church of England against "Calvin's Geneva Discipline" (at one point called "crazed" by Hooker), as well as other attempts to reinvent the ecclesiastical wheel, used barrels of ink and mountains of paper, and eventually some shed their blood, to preserve this essential order. The reason is simple: It was established by God with Apostolic witness, and as Hooker noted, nothing else had ever been established by God or practiced in the Church. The Canon Law of the Church of England has always preserved this order, except during the very brief "Protectorate" of Oliver Cromwell, which had no lasting effect whatsoever (having not had time) on the Church of England, but that of making Calvinism completely odious to the people.
Although most of what Hooker had to say in Books III and IV defended Anglicanism against Calvinism, the teaching about Right Reason and polity that we find there guides us in a Catholic evaluation of structures that do not have the witness of Scripture, were not established by the Apostles, but instead grew out of necessity and a proper use of Right Reason to meet the needs of the times. However, these have become confused as essential to the Church simply because of their relative antiquity. The question that Anglicans may ask is whether or not the entire structure of the Patriarchates is truly essential. Is it necessary? Is it permanent? Did we reach a point in history when this structure outlived its usefulness? Did we reach a point in history in which this one-time useful polity may have produced more harm than good, adding to the division rather than to the unity of the Church?
This is not to ask whether or not the Councils of Constantinople (I), Ephesus and Chalcedon were right in establishing an order among the Patriarchates. Rather, is that structure essential, or is the polity of it still demanded by Right Reason? Or, has the fluidity of history brought us to one of two possibilities? 1) If the Patriarchate structure no longer helps, but instead hinders the mission of the Church and our part in that mission, may we freely disregard it until it is truly and properly restored to the ideal condition? 2) Or, is this old structure and polity simply not essential at all, and in fact now a hindrance both to unity and to the mission of the Church; and, therefore, is a loss of the Patriarchates, as a structure, no real loss?
To some degree the Patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, Rome and Alexandria had recognition in the era before Constantine and the Toleration. Nonetheless, they took on new power after the persecution was over, and much of their significance was imperial (so too, the later additions of Constantinople, and much later of Moscow). Clearly, the division among the Patriarchs, especially as it continued to develop after 1054, negates the idea that this polity is useful for promoting the unity of the Church. The exile of the original Patriarchate of Alexandria also makes the entire structure appear to be less than rock-solid and completely necessary; as does the freehand that Rome has taken in establishing "Patriarchates," such as the Latin Patriarch of Jerusalem.
Whether or not the Patriarchates will all become unified once again, and take on some permanent place in an ideally restored Church is a question of the future, perhaps of eschatology. Apart from Divine promises we have no knowledge of the future, just as surely as the future teaches no lessons from which we may learn. Whether or not there is such a Divine promise we may only surmise, basing our various answers on the interpretation we have of Scripture. We do not know if they hold a permanent significance that cannot be seen from our side of history.
But, we can answer the other question in the negative: This structure is not essential. The Patriarchates are not "from the beginning" of the Church, and were not established by the Apostles. Their limited importance is recognized by Rome and Constantinople, at least in their new relations with Oriental churches. Anglicans have always been forced to live without a Patriarch, but this need not hinder us at all. We have the fullness of Catholic doctrine, the charismatic reality of the sacraments, and the clear sound of the Gospel. With all due respect to the Patriarchates, but with appreciation for the certainty that on their own each has erred at some time, we have no reason to end our mission and halt the life of our churches.