Church of Greece on Autocephaly & Autonomy

[This document is the official position paper of the Church of Greece on autocephaly and autonomy submitted in advance of the October 1993 meeting of the Pre-Conciliar Commission, which ultimately adopted the text entitled, “Autocephaly and the way in which it is to be proclaimed.” This unofficial translation was made from the official French translation of the Greek original.]

Autocephaly and Autonomy in the Church

by Vlassios Phidas

1. It proves impossible to attribute to the terms “autocephalous” and “autonomous” a single and immutable meaning. This is first of all because they refer to multiple forms of ecclesiastical administration and, second of all, because their meaning evolved in terms of the systems of ecclesiastical administration that successively prevailed within the Orthodox Church. These two canonical terms are of course inextricably tied to the introduction of a system of administration in the general organization of the Church, but they have their source in the totality of ecclesiological teaching regarding the local Church. This ecclesiological foundation of the administrative identity of each local Church, manifested in particular by the canonical principle of “autocephaly”, is more easily understood if one compares it to the inability of the Roman Catholic Church to organically incorporate the principle of “autocephaly” into its ecclesiology and administration, insofar as she refuses to see in the the local Church the realization, in space and in time, of the one, holy catholic and apostolic Church.

Orthodox theology, which remains faithful to patristic and apostolic tradition, as well as to the consciousness and and practice of the early Church, has preserved in its entirety the teaching about the plenitude of each local Church’s experience of Christ; because of the certain apostolic succession of the bishops and the true sacrament of the eucharist, each local Church represents  an authentic manifestation in space and time of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic Church.

2. During the first three centuries of our era, all the local churches were endowed with administrative autonomy, while nevertheless not possessing administrative autocephaly. Each local Church, as the holder of the true sacrament of the eucharist in unity with her bishop, achieved through the holy eucharist the fulfillment of the single body of Christ within herself, but the visible “head” of this body, who assured the integrity of the single body of the local Church– that is, the bishop– was not distinguished by an “autonomous” operation of the ecclesiastical body. A local Church was not by herself able to award herself a leader, since the collaboration of the bishops of neighboring local Churches was necessary in order to procede to the ordination of the candidate that she had chosen; likewise, the unity of the priesthood, manifested by the ordination of the bishops, became a stable canonical criterion with the aim of confirming the common experience lived in Christ at every holy eucharist. Through the unity and communion of the body of bishops, profound unity and communion was manifested in the holy eucharist; this is why the local Churches of the first three centuries– that is, before the introduction of an administrative system within the Church– were certainly autonomous but not autocephalous churches, to the degree that they could not choose for themselves, by internal, autonomous procedures, the visible head of their ecclesiastical body.

3. The First Ecumenical Council (325) introduced for the first time, in canons 4, 5 and 6, the system of ecclesastical administration called “metropolitan”. The Second Ecumenical Council (381) proposed in canons 2 and 6 the system called “exarchal” and the Fourth Ecumenical Council (451) consecrated with its canonical decisions the patriarchal system to complete the metropolitan system in ecclesiastical administration, which resulted in the canonical institution of the Pentarchy of Patriarchs. These systems, which succeded each other in the evolution of ecclesiastical administration during the period from the First to the Fourth Ecumenical Council (325-451) consecrated the canonical framework necessary for the expression of unity, in true faith and love, of all the local Churches of a particular geographical or administrative region. That is, of a province, a diocese or a more extended territory of patriarchal administrative jurisdiction (Vl. Phidas, The Institution of the Pentarchy of Patriarchs, 2 vols. Athens, 1969-70).

4. The meaning of ecclesiastical administration has always been inextricably tied first of all to the absolute criterion of the clearly delimited territoriality of administrative jurisdiction and secondly to the canonical regulation of apportionment of the right of ordination (jus ordinandi), which also include the right of judgment (jus jurandi) of bishops, since in ecclesiastical administration “what is more important is the ordination of bishops” (Rhalli-Potli, Syntagma, II, 129). The apportionment of the right of ordination and of judgment of bishops according to clearly-defined and delimited territorial regions serves to fashion the single administrative body of the Church, within which is expressed the regional conciliar consciousness of the Church (regional, major and patriarchal council), and serves to build up hierarchically concrete conciliar bodies with a concrete administrative head (metropolitan, exarch or archbishop, patriarch) and concrete members. That is, respectively, all the bishops or the metropolitans of the concrete administrative regions.

5. The first form of administrative autocephaly of the Church is inextricably tied to to the metropolitan system because of the fact that the council of the province chose, ordained and judged the metropolitan and the bishops of the province (canons 4, 5 and 6 of the First Ecumenical Council; 13, 14, 15, 19 and 20 of the Council of Antioch, etc.). This is also why the holy canons forbid any ordination that goes beyond the borders of a province: “No bishop may dare go outside of his province to another and there ordain…” (canon 13 of the Council of Antioch, etc.). This form characteristic of the Church’s administrative autocephaly, in force in each province, is above all based on the absolute canonical right recognized for the synod of the province to choose and ordain the administrative head of the province. That is, the metropolitan bishop.

This is what rightly causes the Patriarch of Antioch Theodore Balsamon to observe in his commentary on the second canon of the Second Ecumenical Council, “Note that it is apparent from the present canon that previously all the metropolitans of the dioceses were autocephalous and that they were ordained by their own synods” (Rhalli-Potli, Syntagma, II, 171). This canonical principle of the adminstrative autocephaly of the metropoles, based on canons 4, 5 and 6 of the First Ecumenical Council and not weakened by the imprecise regulations of canons 2 and 6 of the Second Ecumenical Council (Vl. Phidas, The Institution of the Pentarchy of Patriarchs, I, 135-167; idem., Autocephaly and Autonomy in the Orthodox Church, Jerusalem, 1979, 9ff.) was confirmed by the discussions on this topic at the Third Ecumenical Council (431) and by the vote of canon 8 of the same council (Vl. Phidas, The Institution of the Pentarchy of Patriarchs, I, 205-219).

According to this canon, “Wherefore, since injuries affecting all require the more attention, as they cause the greater damage, and particularly when they are transgressions of an ancient custom… the Rulers of the holy churches in Cyprus shall enjoy, without dispute or injury, according to the Canons of the blessed Fathers and ancient custom, the right of performing for themselves the ordination of their excellent Bishops” (Rhalli-Potli, Syntagma, II, 203-204). The principle content of autocephaly, then, was related  to the right of ordination “without dispute or injury” in a certain administrative region; thus, to the election and ordination not only of bishops, but also of the administrative head of the ecclesiastical region.

6. As the fundamental criterion for proclaiming or assuring the autocephaly of a church, canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical Council first of all defines the canonical tradition and then inviolable ancient custom (“the canons of the holy and venerable fathers… ancient custom”). That is, the “ancient custom” wrought by long ecclesiastical practice. In the contrary case– that is, in the case of an uncontested intervention from the outside in the right of ordination, particularly that of the administrative leader– the incomplete consciousness of internal self-sufficiency of a particular local Church and weakening in the practice of her autocephaly are made manifest, since the canonical right is neutralized by the contrary canonical principle of “ancient custom.”

7. The formation, on the basis of “ancient custom”, of the suprametropolitan authority of the sees of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, which are invested with a canonical primacy of honor (canons 6 and 7 of the First Ecumenical Council; 9, 17 and 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon) profoundly influenced the reshaping and redistribution of the right of ordination and of judgment of bishops within the Church. The introduction of the patriarchal system in ecclesiastical administration had the following consequences:

a) The administrative autocephaly of the metropoles was removed without affecting their internal autonomy; this is because while the ordination of metropolitans of dioceses within a given patriarchal jurisdiction, who were previously elected by the synod of the province, reverted to the patriarchal see in question, the choice and the election of the bishops of the province remained the absolute canonical right of the synod of the province.

b) The patriarch was instituted as the new autocephalous authority of administration of a major regional circumference; this is because while he directly exercised his right of ordination of metropolitans and indirectia, through them, the bishops, he himself was chosen by the patriarchal synod itself.

c) A new absolute form of autocephaly was introduced by the canonical combination of of the supraregional primacies of honor and the suprametropolitan administrative jurisdiction of the five patriarchal sees (The Institution of the Pentarchy of Patriarchs). The new autocephaly of the patriarchal Pentarchy relativizes every other form of historical administrative autocephaly of the local Churches of a particular state or of an administrative region. In effect, no autocephalous Church, in whatever capacity, ever acquired all the privileges of a patriarchal see nor was judged “equal in honor” to the patriarchal sees previously invested with the honorific rights of seniority of a canonical character; this is why until recently, none was inscribed for canonical “commemoration” in the canonical Diptychs of the ancient patriarchal sees.

8. The combination, in a recent era, of the patriarchal and exarchal systems in the current administrative rearticulation of the Orthodox Church kept unchanged the inviolable canonical basis but, in conformity with canons 2 and 6 of the Second Ecumenical Council it also applied the principle of statism during the canonical procedure of the proclamation of the autocephaly of certain local Churches within nation-states. One understands that patriarchal dignity and honor arising from the combination of canonical and supralocal primacies of honor, as well as the suprametropolitan administrative jurisdiction of the ancient patriarchal sees, was abuseively attributed to the new autocephalous Churches of nation-states which have not been honored with primacies of honor.

9. The proclamation of the autocephaly of a local Church presupposes the following, in accordance with tradition and canonical practice:

a) the precise description of the limits of the territorial circumference from which the local Churches can form a unified administrative body;

b) clearly-established proof that the Church will be self-sufficient to exercise on the basis of its own forces and in a canonical manner the right of ordination and judgement of bishops without provoking internal conflicts or quarrels;

c) objective presentation and canonical justification for the reasons that render necessary the administrative autocephaly of the local Church in question;

d) during the request for and proclamation of autocephaly, the application of all the Orthodox tradition and canonical practices;

e) the taking charge through the proclamation of autocephaly of certain fundamental pastoral needs proper to the local Church in question;

f) the demonstration through the proclamation of autocephaly not only of the internal unity of the local Church in question, but also of the bond of unity that unites her to all the autocephalous local Orthodox churches;

10. The proclamation of “autocephaly” of a local Church should take place on the basis of the entire canonical tradition and in particular of the criteria consecrated by the Ecumenical Councils, as well as of long-consecrated practice, as it is only at this price that the proclamation will be canonical. These criteria are the following:

a) It is the entirety of the Orthodox Church, according to her canonical administrative articulation, that proclaims the autocephaly of a local Church, because the unilateral proclamation of autocephaly, whether it is arbitrary, fruit of the proper initiative of a Church or of a group of autocephalous Churches, in no way serves the unity of the Orthodox Church, clashes with her canonical tradition and is in fact anti-canonical.

b) The canonically-competent organ for proclaiming “autocephaly” is the Ecumenical Council and consequently, for the Orthodox Church, the Pan-Orthodox Council which, applying the canonical tradition and in particular the canonical criteria mentioned above, proceeds to the proclamation according to a precise canonical procedure.

c) The canonical procedure is set in motion, according to the canonical tradition of the Orthodox Church, by the Ecumenical See, which holds the right and primacy of honor and which regulates the entire canonical implementation of the question on a pan-Orthodox basis.

d) In exceptional cases, it is possible in principle to proclaim the autocephaly of a Church if all the autocephalous Orthodox Churches express themselves in this way, but such a proclamation, by the application of ecclesiastical economy, is only fulfilled by a decision of the Pan-Orthodox Council.

11. The proclamation of the “autonomy” of a local Church presupposes, in an analogous manner, only to a lesser degree, the canonical criteria that are valid for the proclamation of autocephaly (§ 9). However, the procedure of proclaiming the autonomy of a local Church differs on account of the fact that she remains inextricably tied to the Mother-Church on which she depends on account of the ordination or recognition of her administrative “head”. Thus:

a) Setting in motion the procedure for proclaiming the autonomy of a local Church presupposes, first of all, a sufficiently and canonically justified request on the part of the local Church in question and, secondly, the sufficiently and canonically justified consent of the Mother-Church from which the Church in question is separating, as well as the expression of the terms according to which this consent is granted.

b) The act of proclaiming autonomy enters into force through the patriarchal and synodal tomos issued by the Ecumenical See, by which, because this see holds the right of the primacy of honor within the Orthodox Church, are arranged and assured her unity in true faith and love and arbitrary and unilateral excesses of the local Orthodox Churches.

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