Patriarch Benedictos of Jerusalem: 1971 Letter on Autocephaly

In the Holy City of Jerusalem, March 17, 1971

All-Holy Archbishop of Constantinople, New Rome, and Ecumenical Patriarch; our beloved brother in Christ our Lord and our concelebrant, venerable Athenagoras; brotherly embracing Your All-Holiness in the Lord we take great pleasure in addressing You:

We have received the Letters of Your All-Holiness sent to us in relation to the activities and actions that were dared by the sister holy Church of Russia regarding the Russian Orthodox Metropolia in America under the Most Rev. Ireney, as also the correspondence that took place between the Patriarchate of Moscow and the holy, Apostolic, Patriarchal and Ecumenical Throne.

Having exhaustively studied these in private and in council together with our Holy Synod, we were saddened and pained for these anti-canonical and arbitrary activities of the sister holy Church of Russia that could disturb the peace and break the unity of the Orthodox governmental system and result in confusion among the Holy Orthodox Churches.

The anti-canonically proclaimed autocephalous status, under whatever form, by the sister holy Church of Russia of the Orthodox Metropolia of North America or the autocephalous of the Orthodox Church of America more in general, was unfortunately impudently entered upon not only in violation of the order that is in force for centuries now, according to which the granting of the autocephalous is the prerogative of the whole Church, but in disregard of the normally accorded courtesy to the rest of the Autocephalous Orthodox Churches all over the world to which it (the Patriarchate of Moscow) should make known the circumstances which allegedly dictated the granting of this autocephalous.

According to the Canons, the holy Ecumenical Synods so enacted as to be applicable for ever, one among other indispensable prerequisites for proclaiming the autocephalous has been singled out, especially by the 4th Ecumenical Council, that is, the freely expressed will of the Christian congregation under the leadership of their duly appointed at that ecclesiastical jurisdiction clergy.

The sister holy Church of Russia is obviously of the belief that for a Church to be proclaimed autocephalous only a sufficient number of bishops for ordaining other bishops and a sufficient number of faithful members for providing for her material needs are required.

This principal and deciding role of the people of the Lord would have been properly evaluated if the Most Rev. Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal throne of Moscow had in mind what the late Patriarch of Moscow Tychon said in his protestation against the Archbishop of Georgia on December 29, 1917, reminding him that the autocephalous is granted on the application of the political and ecclesiastical authorities of the country desiring the autocephalous but such application should genuinely represent “the universal and fully agreed upon wish of the people.”

The opinion of the Most. Rev. Metropolitan would further be changed if he were aware of certain actions and decisions of the 4th Ecumenical Synod. The 2nd Ecumenical Synod granted by its 3rd Canon only an honorary primacy to the Archbishop of Constantinople preserving at the same time uncurtailed the rights of the Exarchs of the Provinces of Thrace, Pontus, and Asia, by its 2nd Canon. Only two decades later, St. John Chrysostom as Patriarch of Constantinople interfered in the above jurisdictions by demoting Exarchs and by ordaining others in their places. These demotions and ordinations would possess neither canonical nor legal validity, they would not have been offered, if the Orthodox congregations had not called upon St. John Chrysostom to correct the wrongs there. Almost half a century later, this interference was validated by the 28th Canon of the 4th Ecumenical Synod. This Canon comprises, according to the 16th act of this holy Synod, a Tomos, submitted to the assembly and bearing the signatures of the Exarchs and of a great number of bishops of the jurisdictions of Thrace, Pontus, and Asia, requesting to be placed under the jurisdiction of the Throne of Constantinople. And when they were asked by the Authorities “whether they signed on their own free will or were compelled to do so,” they stated their own free accord testifying also to the fact that they had been ordained by the Throne of Constantinople, and some of them, as Seleucos of Amasia and Marianos of Synadon, stated that even before them three of their predecessors had also been ordained by this Throne. But all of these ordinations were performed on the signed application of the respective congregations by which the ratification of the elections and the ordinations were requested. Thus, the change in boundaries and jurisdiction of the Throne of Constantinople which was validated by the 28th Canon of the 4th Ecumenical Synod was in reality effected a long time prior to this Canon as a result of the unanimous wish of the people of the Lord who actually have the final say.

Obviously, this principal prerequisite for the proclamation of the autocephalous was disregardedly forced and invalidated, not to use a stronger epithet for it, by the activities of the sister holy Church of Russia since the opinion of the most numerous Orthodox congregation in America, that is, the opinion of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, was neither sought nor heard, as it ought to be.

Negotiations were conducted and decisions were taken by a minority congregation, barely one-third of the Orthodox congregation in America, who still remain outside the autocephalous either ignoring it or having already denounced it.

Furthermore, the Tomos decrees this paradox and unheard of in the Orthodox chronicles, that the recently appointed Vicar General of the Patriarchate of Moscow, formerly bishop of Umanski Makarios, continues to have under his jurisdiction all the parishes of the former Exarchate of the Patriarchate of Moscow in America. Consequently, 43 of the parishes of the Exarchate of the United States, among them the Cathedral of St. Nicholas in New York City with its entire estate, as also all the parishes in Canada remain under the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Moscow.

This way, the Tomos becomes more of a commercial agreement, contrary to any kind of ecclesiastical order, and the Holy Synod of Moscow badly contradict themselves by it. Thus, by granting with the one hand the Autocephalous to the Russian Metropolia in America and by preserving with the other their own authority and jurisdiction on parishes within the very same ecclesiastical area — this contrary to fundamental canonical regulations — they disclaim and invalidate the very Autocephalous they previously granted.

Our intention by stating the above is to assure Your All-Holiness that our Holy Church being in complete accord with the views contained in Your valued Letters, utterly denounces the anti-canonical, novel, and self-invalidating Autocephalous of the Russia Metropolia in America and considers it non-existent and never proclaimed, and the Tomos as never have been issued.

We accept and recognize the previously in force canonical situation in America until the time, and according to Pan-Orthodox custom, the entire question of the Orthodox Diaspora, and specifically that of America, are examined and decided upon with finality by the Holy and Great Synod of our Eastern Orthodox Church now in preparation.

In addressing this Letter to Your All-Holiness in deep brotherly love and by decision of our Holy Synod, we earnestly and unceasingly pray to the Lord from His very Holy Sepulcher that by His boundless mercy His Holy Church, which He obtained with His blood, may be spared of this threatening danger, and also that He may unite all and guide their minds and hearts to a realization of the dangers inherent in this unilateral and anti-canonical Autocephalous and to a complete restoration of the peace between sister Churches for their good and for the glory of their heavenly Grantor.

Whereupon, embracing Your All-Holiness in the Lord, we pray for Your years to be many, peaceful, and saving, and we remain,

of Your All-Holiness brother in Christ and very earnestly

+ Benedictos

Patriarch of Jerusalem


Published in Russian Autocephaly and Orthodoxy in America: An Appraisal with Decisions and Formal Opinions (The Orthodox Observer Press, 1972), pages 48-52.

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