A see is the office or jurisdiction of the primate of a church. See comes from the Latin word sedes ("seat"), referring to the throne located in the bishop's cathedral, a symbol of his office.
See can also refer to the jurisdiction of a local bishop, his diocese.
Historically, the local church was a bishop of a city, with the parishes within an area in or near that city. This was the bishop’s see. The bishops were required to meet in a synod, or council of nearby bishops, chaired by the bishop of the most prestigious city. The area, of all the bishops at these synods, became to be known as the see of the bishop of the prestigious city, sometimes called a metropolia. Larger synods were held among bishops of many metropolias, chaired by the bishop of the most prestigious city among them. The area, of all the bishops at these supper synods, patriarchates, became to be known as the see of the bishop of the prestigious city.
The Five Great Sees
The organization of the Church, the five great sees or patriarchates, was recognized by the Ecumenical Councils.
The First Council of Nicea singled out three great centers: Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch (Canon 6). It also laid down that the see of Jerusalem, while remaining subject to the Metropolitan of Caesarea, should be given the next place in honor after these three (Canon 7). (Constantinople naturally was not mentioned, since it was not officially inaugurated as the new capital until five years later; it continued to be subject, as before, to the Metropolitan of Heraclea.).
Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon confirmed Canon 3 of the Council of Constantinople, assigning to Constantinople (New Rome) the place next in honor after Old Rome. The Council of Chalcedon also freed Jerusalem from the jurisdiction of Caesarea and gave it the fifth place among the great sees.
This system is now known among Orthodox as the Pentarchy, whereby the five great sees of the Church were held in honor, and established a particular order of precedence among them:
All five claimed apostolic foundation. The first four were the most important cities in the Roman Empire. The fifth was added because it was the place where Christ had suffered on the Cross and risen from the dead.
The five patriarchates between them divided into spheres of jurisdiction the whole of the known world, apart from Cyprus, which was granted independence by the Council of Ephesus and has remained self-governing ever since.
East and West
The different political situations in East and West made the Church assume different outward forms. People gradually came to think of Church order in conflicting ways. There had been a certain difference of importance between East and West. In the east there were many Churches whose foundation went back to the Apostles; there was a strong sense of the equality of all bishops, of the collegial and conciliar nature of the Church. The East acknowledged the Pope as the first bishop in the Church, but saw him as the first among equals. In the West, on the other hand, there was only one great see claiming Apostolic foundation, Rome, so that Rome came to be regarded as the apostolic see. The West, while it accepted the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, did not play a very active part in the councils themselves. The Church was seen less as a college and more as a monarchy, the monarchy of the Pope.
Moscow the Third Rome or the New Fifth Great See
Some saw Moscow as the Third Rome, and the primate of the Russian Church senior to the Patriarch of Constantinople. But this seniority has never been granted, and Russia has always ranked no higher than fifth among the Orthodox churches, after Jerusalem. The concept of Moscow the Third Rome also encouraged a kind of Muscovite Messianism, and led Russians sometimes to think of themselves as a chosen people who could do no wrong; and if taken in a political as well as religious sense, it could be used to further the ends of Russian secular imperialism. This may have led to the schism of the Old Believers.