Commentary on the Official Position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Autocephaly


In advance of the 1993 Pre-Conciliar Conference, the Ecumenical Patriarchate, along with the other Churches, submitted a paper detailing its official position on the subjects of autocephaly and autonomy. Given current events, this official position is especially relevant and important. It was published at Orthodox Synaxis in full, and this commentary is a further discussion of that position paper.

At the outset, we must observe the consistency between this early-1990s EP position on autocephaly, and the position set forth by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in his 1970 Epistle. In fact, in several places, the EP position paper takes words directly from Patriarch Athenagoras’ epistle. This should not be surprising, because it is proper in the Orthodox Church not to innovate, but rather to faithfully maintain what has been handed down to us by our fathers.

Church Unity Is the Goal of Autocephaly — Not Political Ends.

Early on, in paragraph 22, the EP emphasizes that autocephaly must serve the cause of unity — unity internally, for the church to which autocephaly is granted, and also unity of the other Orthodox Churches. Autocephaly must not serve other ends, such as political ambitions or nationalistic goals.

The proclamation of autocephaly must assure the interior unity of the local Church proclaimed autocephalous and assure it as is not only in this Church, but also with regard to the other autocephalous sister-Churches. Such a proclamation thus builds up the ecumenical unity of the Orthodox Church in its entirety. Serving the relations between the sister-Churches and serving unity is the exclusive goal of autocephaly. Otherwise, claimed for other reasons, for example in the name of nationalist and phyletist tendencies or political ambitions, autocephaly becomes a goal in itself: it is foreign to the purpose of the overall administration of the Church. This is why the consciousness of the Church in all its magnitude considers that such an autocephaly must be rejected. We will cite as an example the autocephaly of the Archbishopric of Justiniana Prima, which was proclaimed unilaterally by the Emperor Justinian I in the year 545, but did not go past the latter’s earthly life.

The Consent of the Other Autocephalous Churches Is Essential.

The EP goes on to emphasize that the other Autocephalous Churches must agree to a proclamation of autocephaly. The example of Russia is cited. This is particularly interesting, because this same historical event — the autocephaly of the Church of Russia — has been mentioned by EP representatives recently, but in a manner inconsistent with the EP’s view in this position paper:

As it happens, the example of the Russian Church is eloquent. The bishop of Constantinople, Jeremiah II, being in Moscow, had elevated this Church to the Patriarchate in 1589, which provoked the protests of the recently-elected Patriarch of Alexandria, Meletios Pigas. The following year, a permanent synod gathered in Constantinople with the participation of the Patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem, who ratified Jeremiah’s gesture and added that the Patriarch of Muscovy would have his own head and would have for first See, like the other Patriarchs, the apostolic See of Constantinople. But the fact that the bishop of Alexandria, Meletios Pigas, was absent from this synod provoked the convocation of a new synod three years later, where the bishop of Constantinople, the bishop of Alexandria, representing the bishop of Antioch, and the bishop of Jerusalem gathered. This synod unanimously endorsed the elevation of the Church of Moscow to the Patriarchate. It is remarkable that the Patriarch Jeremiah, in order to justify his gesture towards the Church of Russia also relied on the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council.

Far from a unilateral action by the EP, the autocephaly of Russia required the agreement of the other Patriarchates. Because the Patriarch of Alexandria objected, the autocephaly could not be confirmed, and Alexandria’s consent was required before Russia could take its place among the autocephalous churches. At paragraph 27, the EP states, “it is apparent that in the consciousness of the Churches the problem of autocephaly was the competency of the Church in her entirety.”

Eight Conditions of the Proclamation of Autocephaly.

At part VI, beginning at paragraph 30, the EP sets forth eight conditions for the proclamation of autocephaly:

  1. Geography
  2. Sovereign State
  3. Ecclesiastical and Pastoral Needs
  4. Internal Self-Rule
  5. Will of the Flock
  6. Request of Local Hierarchy
  7. Consent of the Mother Church
  8. Pan-Orthodox Recognition

We will briefly discuss each of these factors.

Geography. At paragraph 33, the EP states that “an ecclesiastical geographical region that has been proclaimed autocephalous should not be confused with another Church existing in that region, but rather should unite all the Orthodox Christians found within its boundaries.”

Sovereign State. At paragraphs 35-37, the EP points out that, ideally, the “ecclesiastical will for autocephaly coincides with (or at least is not remote from) the will of the sovereign state within whose boundaries the Church that desires to become autocephalous exists and is active.” Where cooperation from secular authorities is not present, “the Churches, agreeing directly among themselves, work out what must be observed in this case.”

Ecclesiastical and Pastoral Needs. At paragraph 38, the EP states that autocephaly should be granted to fulfill heretofore unmet ecclesiastical and pastoral needs: “we are obligated to take especially into consideration not secondary needs, but the essential needs that cannot be met by the canonical administrative organization in existence up to that time.”

Internal Self-Rule. At paragraph 39, the EP states that, for a church to be proclaimed autocephalous, it must first have “internal self-rule,” of which an essential element is “the right to ordain and to judge the bishops by its own means … and for the proper organization of her entire ecclesiastical life.” Autocephaly should not be granted to an immature or not-fully-formed church body, but to a mature local church that has proven its ability to take care of itself.

Will of the Flock. At paragraph 40, the EP asserts, “Another condition for attributing autocephaly to a fixed ecclesiastical region is the manifestation of the free will of its Orthodox people, at whose head it is indispensable that their own clergy be.”

Request of Local Hierarchy. This next factor is especially critical. In addition to the will of the people, at paragraph 41, the EP emphasizes that autocephaly requires the consent of all the bishops in the church to which autocephaly is granted. The EP goes on to explain why this factor is so essential:

No less important are the will for autocephaly and the request for autocephaly that can be expressed by all the bishops of the region that desires to acquire ecclesiastical self-determination. This will and this request are indispensable. They are especially considered as a guarantee that the self-administration is sought for purely ecclesiastical and not strange reasons. As soon as it is otherwise provoked, without the adhesion of the factor of the local Hierarchy, the movement of the lay factor or of the civil factor which represents it can only bring about strokes of force, which approach the very boundary lines of schism.

According to the EP, it is unacceptable for autocephaly to be granted in response to an appeal by a civil government, or a faction of the laity, without the agreement of the entire hierarchy of the Church in that region.

Consent of the Mother Church. At paragraph 42, the EP lists as essential “the consent of the Church from which the local Church on its way to autocephaly is detaching itself. This condition is all the stronger if there exists, for whatever reason that may spark it, the impression that the autocephaly being sought does not coincide with the true interests of the universal Church, but rather to the contrary damages them.”

We must acknowledge here that there seem to be two different ways that people use “Mother Church” today. The other Orthodox Churches seem to use “Mother” in the sense of corporate structure — the “Mother Church” in this sense is the Church that ordains the local Metropolitan and on whose Holy Synod he sits. On the other hand, the EP has recently used the term “Mother Church” in more of an historical sense, claiming that it is the “Mother Church” of Ukraine and of the Balkans, even though it has not had a structural connection to those Churches for a very long time.

In either case, paragraph 42 emphasizes that autocephaly must “coincide with the true interests of the universal Church” and must not damage those interests.

Pan-Orthodox Recognition. The final condition for autocephaly, described at paragraph 43, is “the expression of the canonical recognition of the new autocephaly by all the Orthodox Churches, either during the procedure of proclamation or subsequently.” The EP goes on to explain its understanding of its own role in proclaiming autocephaly:

The organization of every local autocephalous Church requires the recognition of the ecumenical Church so that its autocephalous existence may be definitive and indissoluble. Thus, for example, the Ecumenical Patriarchate granted autocephaly to the Church of Romania on the condition that this conferment be definitively endorsed by all the Orthodox Churches gathered in an Ecumenical Council or Great Council, as was otherwise done, with the agreement of the other Orthodox Churches, for the Churches which, on account of circumstances, it proclaimed autocephalous since the mid-19th century and thereafter: this was the case by virtue of its quality as first of the Orthodox Churches, at the same time as the center of their internal unity and the protector of the local Churches in their needs.

From this, it is clear that the EP does not accept the innovative proposition that it alone can grant autocephaly to a church, for even in a case where it appeared to act on its own — such as Romania — the ultimate stamp of autocephaly was acceptance by all of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches.

Final Considerations.

The EP continues to repeatedly emphasize the necessity of agreement among all the autocephalous churches. At paragraph 45, the EP borrows language from Patriarch Athenagoras’ Epistle, stating that, because autocephaly changes the global structure of the Church, “it becomes clear that the attribution of autocephaly is the domain of the entire Church, who reserves the right to make a final judgment on the accorded autocephaly, especially during an Ecumenical Council or, if this does not gather, during a Great Council or a general Council of the Orthodox Churches, which means that such a judgment is the competence of the General Council representing all the local Orthodox Churches, but in no case the competence of one single local Orthodox Church on its own.”

At paragraph 46, the EP states that it acts in response to the needs of the various Orthodox Churches, but “not without the agreement and consent of the other sister Orthodox Churches.” At paragraph 49, the EP confirms “the ecclesiologically incommutable right that all the Orthodox Churches have together to give their consent and accord.”

It is our deepest hope that the Ecumenical Patriarchate will heed its own words in this official position paper, issued not even three decades ago, and also the words of its most notable modern-day Patriarch, Athenagoras, and return to the hallowed principle of conciliarity, eschewing and rejecting the un-Orthodox concept of unilaterality.


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