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The institution of Autocephaly in the Orthodox Church

by His Eminence, +Hierotheos, Metropolitan of Nafpaktos

Translated from the Greek by Fr Patrick B. O'Grady

Ναυπάκτου κ. Ἱερόθεος: ''Ὁ θεσμός τῆς Αὐτοκεφαλίας στήν Ὀρθόδοξη Ἐκκλησία''
Appeared on 17 October 2018 here, in the original Greek,


With the occasion of the process for granting ecclesiastical autocephaly in the Ukraine by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, a vigorous discussion is now taking place and various points of view are being expressed.

The central issue is this: what exactly is autocephaly, who grants it and how does the autocephalous Church function within the system of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church? This has nothing to do with a division from ecclesiastical unity, but rather with the manner of Her synodical [1] functioning under the responsibility of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which is the First-throne Church in the ecclesiastical synodical system of administration and operation.

Many on each side set forth various elements on this subject which has arisen, but before we examine all this, the point must be emphasized that autocephaly is not placed in a relationship of independence, but rather within an interdependent relationship. I think autocephaly is the most basic issue which preoccupies our Church these days. I have also expressed these views in my previous studies.

1. the term, “Autocephalous Church”

According to Professor Ioannis Karmiris and other scholars, from Her beginning, the Church was organized “in an hierarchical and synodical manner”; that is to say, ecclesiastical life developed with episcopal, metropolitan, patriarchal and then synodical functions, up to the level of the Ecumenical Synod. Thus, the Orthodox ecclesiastical form of government is synodical and hierarchical. The synodical element does not abolish the hierarchical, nor does the hierarchical abolish the synodical. Thus, the ecclesiastical form of government is “synodical in an hierarchical way” or “hierarchical in a synodical way,” according to Alexander Schmemann.

But in contrast, in the West, the institution of the Papacy assumed the feudal system of administration and so there was introduced an “absolutist-monarchical-centralized form of government.” Later on, the Protestants who split off from Roman Catholicism introduced the system of confederation without there being any center.

This means that in the Orthodox Church papal primacy is not valid, nor is Protestant confederation, but rather the synodical and hierarchical form of government functions with the presidency of the Ecumenical Throne, which has a coordinating role and takes up initiatives for the good functioning of the Church.

The ecclesiastical form of government is an extension of the divine Eucharist, in which there is the presiding head and those who function according to their rank. Thus, both Papism as well as Protestantism are avoided.

Within this perspective, autocephaly (“self-headed”) must be treated as well, not as an independent “head,” but as a head of a Local Church which fits in with, and functions, within the synodical and hierarchical government of the Church. Thus, neither is the synodical element disregarded, nor is the hierarchical undermined.

After these general comments, it should be pointed out that we know from various studies that the term “autocephalous” originally appeared in connection with the title of the archbishop, who surely as “archbishop” did not at that time have the meaning of leader of a Local Church but rather he was the bishop who had a dependent and referential relation (on, and) to the patriarch and not to the metropolitan of the eparchy. Thus, the “autocephalous archbishop” was dependent on the patriarch, from whom he received ordination and of course he commemorated him in the holy services.

From the 9th century onwards, as Professor Ioannis Tarnanidis points out, the significance of autocephaly underwent changes when, surely, ecclesiastical independence was placed in the political and ethnic ambitions of the Slavs.

However, in this case of upgrading of the definition and the role of the autocephalous archbishop, the Ecumenical Patriarchate could at any moment intervene in the church’s internal affairs, extend his jurisdiction into the area of its ecclesiastical administration and ordain the archbishop. All this surely is bound together with the obligation on the part of the archbishop to commemorate the Patriarch of Constantinople.

Subsequently, the term, “autocephalous church,” was introduced with the passage of time, not in the sense that it constitutes an independent church, but rather in the sense that it constitutes a single ecclesiastical administration which determines the election, ordination and trial of the bishops, and regulates all ecclesiastical issues of the Local Church, but in any case it has a fellow-bond with the whole Church, especially with the First-throne Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate.

We are not dealing with an autonomous and independent head, who separates himself from the one and single head of the Church, but with an administrative freedom within the single Body of Christ.

Even the words, “autocephalous church,” must be interpreted in an Orthodox and ecclesiological way, from the point of view that the term is not strictly accurate; i.e., it is used only for self-administration and the administrative structure of churches and does not indicate a sundering of the unity of the Church, whose Head is Christ.

On the issue of ecclesiastical unity, what is said at the fraction of the bread in the divine Eucharist holds force, according to the words of the liturgist: “Apportioned and distributed is the lamb of God, who is apportioned and not divided, who is ever eaten and never consumed.” Those who commune do not receive a part of the Body of Christ, but the entirety of Christ.

The same happens also with the Orthodox autocephalous churches, provided that there is Orthodox faith, canonical good order and unity among the churches.

As I have been studying the canons of the Church, I have not encountered the term, “autocephalous church.” But I have noticed that, although the term is found in the interpretations of the exegetes of the canons, it has only gained official status in later Patriarchal Praxes (Acts).

For example, the 8th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod, referring to the Church of Cyprus, runs:
“The superiors of the holy churches in Cyprus shall be free from influence and uncoerced according to the canons of the venerable Fathers and ancient custom as they perform, on their own, ordinations of most pious bishops. The same also in other administrations and eparchies anywhere shall be observed.” The terms, “free from influence” and “uncoerced,” are described without referring to the term, “autocephalous.” Balsamon, interpreting the 39th Canon of the Sixth Ecumenical Synod in Trullo, which refers to the same issue, calls the region of Cyprus “autocephalous”: “the Church of Cyprus is determined to be autocephalous.”

It should still be underscored that the Ecumenical Synods have given self-government to the Churches according to terms laid down by the preceding sacred Canons. The 2nd Canon of the Second Ecumenical Synod is characteristic: “the aforesaid canon concerning dioceses being observed, it is quite clear that the synod of every province will administer the affairs of that particular province.” The following Canons are similar: the 8th of the Third Ecumenical, the 28th of the Fourth Ecumenical and the 39th of the Sixth Ecumenical. So also in the issue of commemoration of the “Protos,” the 14th and 15th Canons of the First-second Synod are characteristic. These canons clearly refer back to and presume the 34th Canon of the holy Apostles and presuppose a metropolitan or patriarchal system of administration of a church.

Maximus, the Metropolitan of Sardis, invoking the testimony of Alexander Schmemann, writes that the concept of “autocephaly” does not belong to the “ontology” of the Church, but rather to its historical “hypostasis.” This distinction between the ontological and the hierarchical order of the ecumenical Church is useful for us to avoid both the danger of Papism and the temptation of Protestantism. Consequently, we do not deny the ontological unity of the Church as the Body of Christ, nor do we deny hierarchical structure among the local Churches.

Further, the same metropolitan observes: “The history and long-standing tradition of the Church have created and safeguarded the practice of the “hierarchy of honor.” Denial of this in the name of a badly conceived “equality of honor” is a premeditated and counterfeit substitute for genuine catholicity on the basis of a kind of “democratic” equality.

For this reason, the term, “autocephalous archbishop” over the duration of all these centuries did not have the sense of absolute ecclesiastical independence.

2. Autocephaly and the unity of the Church

Professor Panayotis Trempelas, in his article entitled “The terms and factors of the declaration of autocephaly” and subtitled “autocephaly and the sacred canons,” analyzes in detail on the basis of sacred canons and church history how the autocephalous churches have functioned, and he also examines in detail the terms and factors which go into forming an autocephalous church.

From this article I take note that the autocephaly of the churches has a relationship with the synodical structure of the Church in general and the preservation of the unity of the churches under the supervision and guardianship of the "Protos,” who is the Ecumenical Patriarch. In no account can autocephaly serve schismatic efforts and tendencies and accept “fiefdoms” within the Church. On this point, Trempelas observes:

“In the end, it must on no account be forgotten that such a mutual contact of the bishops under the one Protos aims at the strengthening of unity in Christ. Quite clearly, therefore, by no account is it allowed to bring into creation a form of fiefdoms or ecclesiastical states foreign to each other, but rather we must aim toward a more effective communication between all the bishops everywhere through their central figures or archbishops. Henceforth as earlier on, as we have seen, a tendency is manifesting itself to widen the boundaries of ecclesiastical regions through the submission of various metropolitans or protoi under the eparchs or patriarchs, whose number is ultimately limited to just five.”

Analyzing the factors that contributed to the autocephaly of churches, which autocephaly has functioned as a self-administration without the relationship of the Local Church with the Ecumenical Patriarch being at all interrupted, Professor Trempelas observes that the principle of “self-determination of the people” played an important role by means of autocephaly, and “the expressed opinion of the full staff is seriously taken into consideration”; i.e., the people. The same applies also to the removal of autocephaly, as took place in the case of the Archbishop of Ochrid.

Certainly, also in this case “the longings of the full ecclesiastical staff [the people] became indisputably acceptable only if they did not contravene well-considered ecclesiastical interests. Hence, the synodical factor appears as equivalent or even superior to the popular factor. Without the consent of this synodical factor, the movement of the popular factor, or the governing factor which expresses it, can only produce violent overthrow, impinging on or even invading the very boundaries of schism. The synodical factor, for this reason, has always presented itself as determining, regulating and approving the movements of the popular factor.”

It becomes clear that autocephaly is not given for the independence of a Local Church, but for the preservation of the unity of all the Local Churches under the presidency of the Ecumenical Patriarch. Moreover, despite the self-administration of certain churches, there is no division of this church from the Ecumenical Patriarch.

In particular, it is related from the Minutes of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod that the bishops from the dioceses of Asia and Pontus declared their dependency upon the Ecumenical Patriarch. For example, Romanos, the Bishop of Myra, said: “I have not been forced; I am glad to be under the throne of Constantinople, since he himself has honored me and he ordained me.” This means that there was an interdependence between the self-governed dioceses and the Ecumenical Patriarch.

The conclusion of these analyses is that self-administration or autocephaly is given, chiefly and above all, for the unity of the churches and not for the function of “fiefdoms,” because the factors for concession of autocephaly are in the first place the Synod around the "Protos", chiefly the Ecumenical Patriarchate and consequently the Ecumenical Synod, given that it judges in the meantime the maturity of the autocephalous church. There is also a case for removing autocephaly until its recognition by an Ecumenical Synod.

Panayiotis Trempelas points this out:
“Through such judgment of the Ecumenical Synods, autocephaly, about which these synods pronounced, was securely confirmed as is indicated from the fact that autocephalous churches not possessing ratification and confirmation were nullified over time and were abolished (Carthage, Lugdunum (Lyons), Mediolanum (Milan), Justiniana Prima, Ochrid, Trnovo, Peć, etc.), while conversely, autocephalies possessing this recognition, although such churches, having fallen into dire circumstances or passed their prime, continued to exist and little by little began to revive: the flight abroad of the Cypriots (to the Hellespont: Nova Justiniana) and, according to the 39th canon of Penthektē (Quinisext), the submission of Cyzicus and the eparchy of Hellespont under the president of the island of Cyprus; also the Patriarchates of Antioch, of Alexandria, and of Jerusalem.

3. The contemporary Autocephalous Churches

The first Ecumenical Synods established the canonical institution of the Pentarchy of Patriarchs; namely, Old Rome, New Rome-Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. We are dealing with a canonical institution, according to which the five Patriarchs constitute the authority for the administration of the Church. The Third Ecumenical Synod granted the self-administration of the Church of Cyprus, but the institution of the five Elder Patriarchs directed the Church, or rather the Holy Spirit preserved the unity of the Church through this institution.

St Theodore the Studite believed that the five Patriarchs comprised “the five-headed dominion of the Church” or “the five-headed body of the Church” or the “five-headed ecclesiastical body.” Theodore Balsamon draws a parallel between the existence of the Pentarchy and the five senses in the body of Christ. Nevertheless, each ecclesiastical diocese had self-administration and possessed “the right of ordination” and the “right of judgments,” according to Professor Vlassios Pheidas.

When Old Rome distanced itself from the Church, the Patriarchate of New Rome-Constantinople became the First-throne Church which presides and has a coordinating role. Then in the 16th century A.D. the Patriarchate of Moscow assumed the fifth place. All this took place by Ecumenical and Great Synods.

With the passage of time, other autocephalous Churches were also recognized, without surely an Ecumenical Synod being called. Counted among these is the Church of Greece, which was declared autocephalous with the Synodical and Patriarchal Tomos of 1850. Other Churches also received this patriarchal dignity and honor.

Professor Spyros Troianos, taking into consideration the canons through which the autocephalous churches have been recognized, asserts that the competent authority for recognizing a church as autocephalous is undoubtedly the Ecumenical Synod. This Synod determines all the issues relating to the autocephaly of the churches, such as their proclamation, their rank (taxis), the boundaries of their jurisdiction, etc. However, when from the 9th century and thereafter the Ecumenical Synods have not been summoned, then the Standing Synod (endēmousa synodos) in Constantinople assumed their position.

Indeed, the professor, referring to the cases of the Patriarchates of Serbia, Romania and Bulgaria, writes that the Ecumenical Patriarch did not give his consent, but as it is said in the texts of the Tomoi, the declaration will be “in an Ecumenical or other great Synod at the first opportunity.” For this reason, Troianos concludes: “Consequently, the process of elevating the Churches of Serbia, Romania, and Bulgaria to Patriarchates, from a strictly legal point of view, has not yet been completed.”

It becomes clear that the autocephalies which were given in the 19th and 20th centuries by the Ecumenical Patriarchate also function as patriarchates under review toward their sanction by the Ecumenical, Pan-Orthodox Synod that is going to convene. Likewise, the manner of the function of this review will have to be decided, so as to contribute to the unity of the Church as the Body of Christ and not to division of the Church, not to autonomy from the Ecumenical Patriarch, and not to a Protestant mentality of a democratic assembly of churches.

In any case, the government of the Church does not work according to the principles of a civic democracy, but it is hierarchical in the sense of the hierarchy of ministries for the edification of the Body of Christ and for the glory of God the Father.

Professor Ioannis Tarnanidis, a research specialist who studied the autocephaly of the Slavic churches, after an in-depth analysis of the sources and bibliography relevant to the subject of autocephaly, reached conclusions which are very important.

These conclusions are set forth here, because they make it easier for us to focus in on the subject of autocephaly in a scientific and sober fashion. He writes:

“With a general and diachronic assessment of this reality, we could summarize the policy of Constantinople as follows:

1. The emperor possessed the initiative in all cases of a promotion of a given Slavic Church. We also had cases of promotion only by the emperor and without even the formal participation of the patriarch (Patriarch Drestras, Archbishopric of Ochrid).

2. The advice of the patriarch in these cases possessed a ritualistic character, as he restricted himself to ecclesiastical confirmation with a synodical document (Tomos), which documents the “imperial senate” or the “emperor” had previously proclaimed.

3. The Patriarchate took initiatives in cases of excommunication, after some high-handedness on the Slavic side, or in cases of restoration of normal relations after the resolution of misunderstanding.

4. While there have been cases in which the Patriarchate was ignored on the part of the emperor and it did not take part in the promotion of a given church, this was in no case taken over by another Patriarchate. The promotion of all the Slavic churches and the whole spectrum of their development has been exclusively a privilege of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

5. The promotion of the Slavic churches was not dictated by, nor did it obey, certain canons. It has always been put in motion by the secular leadership of the Slavs and, for this reason, it has been viewed on the side of Constantinople as a product of the “anomaly of the times.”

6. As a product of pressure and conciliation, autocephaly had also various forms as the intensity of pressure brought to bear; the strength of resistance against this pressure and the importance of the goal pursued according to the conciliation—greater pressure or greater seriousness of the objectives pursued—these had, as a consequence, the granting of more privileges, loftier titles and a wider recognition of the specific promotion. The opposite happened when the pressure was small and the possibility of a wider exploitation of the event was insignificant.

7. Constantinople always had the facility, when its power and the times allowed it, to return and re-examine its relationship with the daughter-churches by circumscribing their privileges, by censuring their behavior or, even in some cases, by completely abolishing their autonomy.

8. In general terms, the policy of the Ecumenical Throne toward the new Slavic churches formed a copy of the policy of the imperial throne toward the neighboring peoples who laid claim to exalted titles, privileges and independence. Just as then the emperor took care to grant the rulers titles and epithets of the smallest importance, always aiming at retaining the highest title for himself and behaving as the head of the other leaders, so also the Patriarch kept for himself not only the title of “Ecumenical,” but also in practice all the privileges of the ruler of the Eastern Church, which flowed from the power and authority of the Empire.”

From all of the above, it is clear that “autocephaly,” self-administration from the beginning of its appearance, always had a form of dependence on the First-throne Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate. But also when a Local Church later on received self-administration, because of political intervention, the Ecumenical Patriarchate maintained basic privileges, jurisdictions, and oftentimes it exercised essential interventions. For this reason, the autocephalous church cannot exist with a form of independence from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but with a form of interdependence with it.

4. Autocephaly and Autocephalarchy

In order to make this point of view more understandable and that it may be pointed out that autocephaly does not disrupt ecclesiastical unity, as also that an autocephalous church must not function in a disruptive way, I would like to point out the distinction between autocephaly and autocephalarchy.

I encountered this distinction in Olivier Clément, who links autocephaly very tightly with interdependence and autocephalarchy with independence. That is, it seems that in the ancient Church, as it was organized in the Roman Empire, autocephaly functioned in an interdependence with the First-throne Church, as we also see the same thing in the so-called Pentarchy, given that the Five Elder Patriarchates functioned as five senses in one and the same organism. And as no one sense in the human body may place itself as independent of the others, so exactly does this occur also with ecclesiastical administrations. But autocephalarchy functions more as an independent church, which undermines the synodical system of the Church.

It appears that in the ancient tradition the so-called autocephalous church had a relationship of interdependence with the Mother Church, the Church of New Rome-Constantinople, as the present-day autonomous churches or the semi-autonomous Church of Crete. That is, the Church of Crete cannot be considered an independent church, but it is placed in an interdependence with the Church of New Rome-Constantinople.

But affairs began to change from the division of the Roman Empire and the development of national differences. Each nation wanted to possess its own “national church,” in which case, problems were created and thus autocephalarchy developed to the detriment of autocephaly; or rather, autocephaly was viewed more in the sense of autocephalarchy; i.e., of an independent church and not of an interdependent church.

Clément notes that in the 19th century the weakening of the Ottoman Empire and the development of the nationalities “led to the proliferation of national states in south-eastern Europe.”

He writes characteristically:
“Every nation claims and establishes its self-ruled ecclesiastical independence, except for Serbia which previously obtained the consent of Constantinople. Politics and nationalism upset the traditional value-system: the nation is no longer protected and supported by the Church, but the Church is the one which turns out to be at odds with the nation. The point is that one belongs to a nation, and so the Church ought consequently to serve the state.

“Thus, traditional autocephaly tends to be transformed into absolute and completely uniform autocephalarchy: no longer interdependence, but rather independence. The function of the ecclesiastical administration copies the corresponding state authority, and the bishops become as it were public officials.

“Autocephalarchy by stages forms its theory; it says that the foundation of ecclesiology is not the Eucharistic principle, but the racial and national principle. Hereafter, the “local” Church means the “national” Church, while applying the Trinitarian analogy, as “primacy of honor” becomes “equality of honor.”

This is seen chiefly in the Balkan region. At first, the Ecumenical Patriarchate “preserved the supra-national universality of the Church,” according to Clément. After the passage of time, as the borders of the Byzantine Empire were contracting and the missionary outreach proceeded to the north, a particular structure of administration was developed, the so-called ‘structure of the commonwealth’; i.e., new, politically independent nations developed around “the imposing collapse from within the empire itself. But when the heads of the flexibly autonomous Churches sanctioned them, even still they were bound by the Ecumenical Patriarch: a fact which assured them of a genuine independence from the local monarchs. It was precisely within this atmosphere in the Balkans that the first ‘autocephalies’ appeared without hostility or the isolation of each one into itself, interdependencies rather than independencies.”

However, the declaration of autocephaly, forcefully as a coup, by the Church of Greece with the assistance and inspiration of foreign powers, as well as the imitation of this form of autocephaly by the other Balkan countries according to the Lutheran pattern, “autocephaly was no longer understood as interdependence, but as a complete independence. The temptation proceeded toward an absolute autocephalarchy.”

So then, the political conditions led the Church from autocephaly as interdependence with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, ‘to the structure of the commonwealth,’ resulting in the form of autocephalarchy; that is, complete independence, in the sense that the nation determines the Church. The Church from Local, on the basis of the sacred canons, becomes the National Church, the Church of a particular nation-state.

I must point out that I perceive the distinction which Clément makes between autocephaly and autocephalarchy in the sense that autocephaly is understood as self-administration in a system of interdependence of the churches through their unity with the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and autocephalarchy is understood as a tendency not only toward self-administration, but also as the act of establishing independence from the First-throne Church and indeed their Mother Church. And from what we know, such a tendency was cultivated by pan-Slavism with a clear intention of reducing the status of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but the same also was pursued by various other expressions of nationalism. It is clear from this that I accept the term, autocephaly, within ecclesiological practice as an interdependence and not as completely independence.

In my next article I shall present the essence and the basis of the problem of the process of granting autocephaly which has provoked the current events. Consequently, what has been written in this present article serves as an introduction to the subject which, at this time, occupies the Orthodox Church.


[1] συνοδικός / σύνοδος. In English, we use the words, “conciliar” and “council,” respectively. However, we tend to restrict the noun, “council,” to the most important synods, held ecumenically or historically important local synods. In the translation, I have kept consistency by using only the English transliteration for both the adjective and the noun, “synodical” and “synod,” for all cases, in order to preserve consistency.

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