Official Position of the Ecumenical Patriarchate on Autocephaly & Autonomy

This document is the official position paper of the Ecumenical Patriarchate 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.

I. The Essence of the Church and the Principles of her Organization

1. The Church founded by the Lord is one, holy, catholic and apostolic. Being one, she possesses an ontological unity that is manifested, among other things, also in administration.[1]

Moreover, the term “church”—a Greek word—itself means, according to the definition of Saint Cyril of Jerusalem, “the gathering of all in unity.”[2] And the fact that since the beginning, to signify the Christian Church, this term, which is closely related to the terminology of the Old Testament, was used, testifies to the early Church’s consciousness of unity.

This unity is not, however, simply the mark of an absence of divergences: it is the very content of ecclesiastical life. It is the unity of people with God in Christ and the unity of people in Christ with each other according to the words of the Lord, “I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one.”[3]

2. The Church is unity not only in the sense that she is one and unique, but especially because her very essence is included in the reunion of the divided and dismembered human race.

The Church is an existence that is perfect, common, exceptional, and unique in its type on earth, this very “unicum” that in no sense can be separated from the life of the world. The Church is the likeness of the essence of the Holy Trinity, a likeness in which the many become one.[4]

3. This doctrinal reality (this hypostasis) of the Church is precisely also the measure of her organization or rather, such a reality is embodied in the internal and external organization of her earthly history.

This is why the historical forms of ecclesiastical organization, if they change according to external circumstances, nevertheless exclusively and uniquely change in order to embody inalterably, even in these new circumstances, the eternal reality of the Church. Thus in the diversity and singularity of all these forms, there is and remains a fundamental core, a permanent principle the transformation or transgression of which would signify a transformation of the very nature of the Church. This principle is territoriality.

4. The “territoriality” of the Church consists of the following: that in a single place, that is in a single region, there can only exist a single Church, in other words, only a single ecclesiastical organization, expressed in the unity of the hierarchy. “The Church of God which is at Corinth”[5], etc. It is from these ecclesiastical units scattered throughout the world that the history of the Church originates. Even if subsequently this unity and its space evolve from the little Church of a city to the Eparchy, from the Eparchy into a larger space—the Diocese–, and from the Diocese into immense Patriarchates, the same principle nevertheless remains immutable and on the basis of this principle the same inalterable unit will live on: a single bishop, founding a single Church, a single place.

5. It is evident that each Church, united to her bishop in the holy Eucharist and the correct faith, was fully the Church, identified with the entire body of Christ. This is why the term “catholic Church”, during the first three centuries, was used first of all and especially for each of these Churches.

Such a catholicity of each local and episcopal Church does not render her ecclesiologically and historically independent from the other Churches throughout the world. The consciousness, which appeared very early, of the “catholic Church in the ‘Oikumene’”—according to the text of the Martyrdom of Saint Polycarp—signified, although there existed Churches throughout the world, that in reality there was only a single Church.

6. But if the principle of territoriality was the principle and fundamental rule of the Church’s organization, deriving from her very nature, the embodiment of this principle in history was diverse and adapted itself to the changing conditions of the life of the Church.

A first stage of this development was the meeting of the local Churches in larger or smaller peripheries and, parallel to this, the consecration of a hierarchy between the ancient Churches and the new Churches. In the beginning, Christianity established itself in the big cities of the Roman Empire. Thereafter new communities with their bishops came to be added to these first centers. These communities naturally remained tied to the Mother Church from which they were detached and had received hierarchy, “rule of faith” and liturgical tradition. In this way, during the period of persecutions, natural groups of Churches formed, otherwise called Provinces or Eparchies, within which the bishop of the most ancient Church was called Metropolitan.

7. Thus the Metropolitans, in the early ecumenical Church, were those bishops who, without being distinguished from the others by episcopal dignity, prevailed over the others by the rights of their administrative power and by the possibility they had of broadly extending the exercise of this power. On the basis of this enlarged external power, the Metropolitans, who were in charge of their locally larger ecclesiastical province which covered a greater number of episcopal sees, were at the head of the regular bishops, addressing them in every important matter. As a sign of their ecclesiastical submission to the Metropolitan, the provincial bishops mentioned his name in the Divine Liturgy. As for the Metropolitan, as the first in the administration of the Metropolis, he ordained the bishops-elect of his Province, presided twice a year over provincial synods, and stood in judgment in disputes between bishops and when complaints were lodged against them. The primacy of Metropolitans was thus not expression of a simple honor or simply a “presidency” of a democratic or parliamentary type, but rather evolved in such a way as to also express a real power.

8. Metropolitans, along with the provincial synods gathered together under their presidency, were thus the canonical organs and real bearers of ecclesiastical administration, the first form of Autocephaly in the early ecumenical Church which, wisely managing things, recognized a reciprocity of rights and obligations in the relations between the Primate and the Synod and harmoniously allying collegiality with authority in the person of the Primate, prescribed that “the bishops of each nation should recognize the first among them, consider him as their head, and do nothing exceptional without his advice: each should do what concerns his own domain and the regions under his control. But he himself should do nothing without the advice of all. In this way, concord shall reign and that in the Lord, by the Spirit, God will be glorified, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”[6]

9. Remarkable and of particular importance is the fact that the canons which define the rights of Metropolitans (the 4th of the First Ecumenical Council, the 19th of the Council of Antioch and the 8th of the Third Ecumenical Council) especially emphasize the power that Metropolitans have to ordain the bishops of their Province. This act is even characterized as the “core” of ecclesiastical administrative autonomy.

10. Nonetheless, what was criterion on the basis of which the Primate’s see was determined? One observes on this question differences in perspective.

In the West, the criterion of apostolicity prevailed, the importance of which was particularly emphasized insofar as in the West, Rome was the only apostolic see and the principle launch pad for evangelical preaching.

But in the East, where apostolicity was something normal and it could not have the same importance as in the West, inasmuch as there existed Churches who could have claimed for themselves the title of the most authentic apostolicity, duly attested by the New Testament, there predominated the idea of the big city as seat of political administration and center of general ethical and ecclesiastical authority.

11. The criterion of apostolicity, taken separately, thus did not have an absolute validity, since there existed apostolic Churches that depended on Churches that were not directly apostolic, and inversely there existed in the West and North Africa ecclesiastical centers, which today we would call autocephalous, such as Milan, Lyon, Carthage, etc. which had no direct connection with the Apostles and for whom prevailed the criterion of the large city, which was the rule in the East.

12. In the same way, later, Metropolitans gathered around the most ancient sees or the seats of political administration in the capitals (such as Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, etc.) and united with these sees, whose bishops were named at first Exarchs and then Patriarchs: They had the same rights and particular privileges over the metropolitans that the metropolitans had over the bishops.

13. Thus the institution of the Pentarchy progressively formed and the five Patriarchs—of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem—by the decision of Ecumenical Councils acquired primacies of honor, which were situated above all administration and were privileges and rights that the other Metropolitans of the corresponding Dioceses did not have. These primacies of honor made the Patriarchs the five autocephalous administrative heads of the Church. Upon these acquired primacies is founded patriarchal primacy of ecclesiastical right but not of divine right. This is why the latter is of greater authority than the simple administrative primacies. In the canonical institution of the Pentarchy of Patriarchates, the five Patriarchs constitute and express the highest administrative authority of the Church, “the five summits of her power”.

14. In their turn, among the five Patriarchs, the bishops of the Sees of Rome and of New Rome were raised above the other Patriarchs, in accordance with their place and their influence in the affairs of the whole of the Church, down to the last of the three degrees of primacy, as they are known in the history of the Church and in the canonical tradition: a) the primacy of the Metropolitans, b) the primacy of the Patriarchs or of the heads of the autocephalous Churches, and c) the ecumenical primacy of Rome and of New Rome.

It goes without saying that after the schism that separated the East and the West , the Patriarch of Constantinople, in the Orthodox Catholic Church of the East, was proclaimed her first bishop.

II. The 3rd Canon of the Second Ecumenical Council, the 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, and the Patriarchate of Constantinople.

15. This historic evolution of things, which led to the proclamation of the bishop of Constantinople—capital of the Byzantine State—having the quality of bishop possessing concrete administrative privileges over the other Metropolitans and Exarchs, is first institutionalized in the 3rd Canon of the Second Ecumenical Council, which gives the bishop of Rome the place of first bishop of the Christian Church of the time and which places immediately after him, in equality of honor, the bishop of Constantinople, “because Constantinople is herself the New Rome”. It is this order of “primacies of honor” that are later repeated and confirmed, as we know, by the 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon and the 36th Canon of the Quinsext Ecumenical Council “in Trullo”.

16. Thus the “primacy of honor” of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, as it was lived in the practice of the Church, then recognized and institutionalized by the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, cannot be considered, despite the link between New and Old Rome, uniquely as a state or a form of necessity of exigency of political government, whatever it may be, but rather it is an order of honor and a state deriving especially from ecclesiastical necessities and reasons and bearing the seal and the authority of decisions of Ecumenical Councils, in which and by which the Church, at that time, exercised her own legislative power, which she had from the beginning. This is elsewhere equally attested by the fact that the relationship between the Emperor and the Ecumenical Councils was a relationship of exterior order, which gave force of law to the decisions of the Councils in the domain of state and administrative life and was not at all a source of juridical validity of these decisions in the field of ecclesiastical life.

17. With regard to the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, its 28th Canon simply confirmed the power that the bishop of Constantinople had, according to an ancient custom, to ordain the Metropolitans – Exarchs of the Dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace, as well as the right to call these Metropolitans to a Synod, the right of judgment, etc. as the Council affirms in its letter to Leo, the bishop of Rome.

Thus the 3rd Canon of the Second Ecumenical Council had not simply accorded a mere honor to the bishop of Constantinople, inasmuch as from the years that followed the Council, this bishop’s primacy of honor was not limited to mere words, but led to a parallel evolution of his administrative power, an evolution that was not made by force, but in a normal and canonical manner, in accordance with the historical necessities of the times and the pastoral requirements of the Dioceses surrounding the See and of the Christian peoples.

It is thus that all the subsequent efforts and practical applications of the primacy of honor of the bishop of Constantinople should be understood and explained, a primacy that evolved to include wider rights and jurisdiction in force since that time.

It is characteristic in this case that the Fourth Ecumenical Council, before decreeing its 28th canon, demanded, as testify the Acts of the Council, to be informed of the usual jurisdiction of the See of Constantinople over the Dioceses of Pontus, Asia and Thrace and it is only when it was persuaded of this that it institutionalized this usage that was in force.

18. But the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical council, in addition to the three Dioceses, also submitted to the bishop of Constantinople the bishops who were established beyond the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire, outside of these Dioceses, and who did not have their own Metropolitans in the strict sense of the term.

Such an obedience is found to be directly related to what the 2nd canon of the Second Ecumenical Council says when it defines that the Churches of God that are in the barbarian nations should be administered according to the custom that prevailed among the Fathers. It was thus then confirmed by the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which institutionalizes the usage and the practice in force since that time concerning the See of Constantinople, improving them, expanding them, and definitively consecrating them.

19. Apart from the mere fact that the Quinsext Ecumenical Council “in Trullo” repeated almost word-for-word and ratified what the Fourth Council prescribed after the Second, it suffices to remove any doubt about the ecumenical authority of these privileges of the See of Constantinople, not to mention here also longstanding ecclesiastical practice, which is the authentic expression of the consciousness of the Church and the indubitable interpretation of the canonical tradition in question.

III. Autocephaly, organ of the unity of the Church.

20. The evolution, briefly recalled above, of the ecclesiastical administrative organization, had the principal goal of better consolidating the unity of the Church in the true faith and charity. But we know that between the two, that is between the ecclesiastical administrative structures and the unity of the Orthodox Church, there exists a direct functional relation. In this sense the simple definition itself of territorial boundaries in administration acquires an ecclesiastical meaning, inasmuch as the unity of the Church is built up more easily, but also more solidly, by the clear definition of such boundaries, within which the conciliar institution is situated, an institution that is indispensable for facing the chief problems raised by the faith, canonical and ecclesiastical order, and the practice of the Churches throughout the world.

21. Considered and judged from this perspective, the administrative autocephaly of each local Church also serves the unity of the Church, inasmuch as in each of the cases, this autocephaly is manifested in the changing of the boundaries of a given local Church: in the changing of the relations between the partial constitutive elements of the ecclesiastical organ and the structure of the universal Church; in the changing of the hierarchical position of bishops with regard to others, in the creation of new administrative organs; and in the appearance of new legislative factors within the universal Church; but on the fundamental and necessary condition that all these things, which make up the canonical structure of autocephaly in the life of a partial local Church, do not in any case introduce institutional innovations into the body of the entire Church which would be capable of altering the principle of the unity of the Church in its plurality.

22. 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.

IV. The agreement of the judgment of the Orthodox Churches.

23. From what has been said about the organization of the early Church and particularly about the introduction of the metropolitan and patriarchal systems, it appears that in building up and assuring the institutional structures of the administration of the Church, a somewhat large mechanism of decisions and prescriptions was set in motion, especially in the domain of Councils called at every occasion, particularly the Ecumenical councils, whose principal distinctive sign was always the agreement of the judgment of all the local Churches.

If, for example, for the gathering of an Ecumenical Council in order to prescribe, in parallel to what should be believed, certain institutional administrative changes, the personal presence of the Patriarchs of the Pentarchy or of their representative[7] is indispensable, which signifies that the declarations that they made in this case fell within their competence and that of the bishops who accompanied them, who represented and expressed the concurring judgment of the local Churches over which they presided.

Autocephaly calls for the rigorous functioning of this procedure within the Church. Today, mutatis mutandis, it is this same indispensable concurring judgment that is expressed by pan-Orthodox discernment and consent.

24. 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.

25. We have an analogous example of the cooperation of the patriarchal Sees of the East in the suppression of the Patriarchate of Moscow by the tsar Peter the Great who, addressing himself to the Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah III, first asked him to ratify the event, then to inform the other three Patriarchs of the East of it, who like the bishop of Constantinople endorsed the suppression of the Patriarchate and recognized the Holy Synod as head of the Russian Church.

26. The cooperation of the Patriarchs of the East, when it was a matter of taking administrative decisions of general interest, thus took place either by epistolary correspondence or by means of the declarations that they made at the Ecumenical Councils, in the sufficiently important and general local Councils of the Churches submitted to them, or even in the permanent Synod of the Church of Constantinople, which became the most usual form of the conciliar institution, replacing in the ecclesiastical practice of the East the Councils of greater authority and greater representativity. In and by this synod, the Patriarchate of Constantinople acquired, as things prove, a particular character that one does not encounter in the organization of the other Eastern Patriarchates, due to the fact that the canonical order contributed to differentiating this Patriarchate from the others. This is why the Ecumenical Patriarchate presided over every permanent synod, often in the presence of bishops who were staying in the city or even of the other Patriarchs and Hierarchs of the Churches of the East who were invited to Constantinople for the occasion. On many occasions, such a synod thus also expressed the judgment of the patriarchal Sees of the East. It thus itself had, be it by economy, the capacity to proclaim a Church autocephalous, as happened, for example, in the 18th century in the case of the Church of Serbia.

27. From the above, it is apparent that in the consciousness of the Churches the problem of autocephaly was the competency of the Church in her entirety, for tied to the notion of an autocephalous Church is the notion of an independent local Church, such a monad which is recognized to exist by itself within the ecumenical Church, from the moment that it is joined to the other parties of the Church by the unity of the faith and of the canonical principles.

V. The bishop of Constantinople, bearer of the concurring judgment of the sister-Churches.

28. The coordination of the efforts of the sister Orthodox Churches to maintain the unity of the Church belongs, according to the above, to the Church of Constantinople as a canonical right and at the same time as a duty. In the historical life of the Orthodox Church in her entirety, with regard to proclaiming or suppressing the autocephaly of a Church has thus always been tied to the particular responsibility—deriving from the canonical primacy of honor—of the first See of the East.

29. From that time and still today the inauguration of the procedure aiming to proclaim normally the autocephaly of a Church belongs to the Ecumenical Patriarchate who, by the decision of the Ecumenical Councils, has the first place in the canonical order of primacies of honor, whose institution, like the institution of autocephaly, was founded to be in the service of maintaining the unity of the Church in true faith and in love, as has been said above.

Here is surely the place to repeat what was written in 1869 by the bishop Michael of Belgrade to the Ecumenical Patriarch: “The unity of dogmas requires that all the Orthodox bishops be always united to the Great Church. This is to say that it requires keeping the Ecumenical Patriarch at the height of his rank, so that he may keep watch over all the Church according to the canons of the Councils, which have defined the limits of the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople.”

VI. Conditions of the proclamation of autocephaly.

30. This is said about the competent body, capable of proclaiming a Church to be autocephalous today. Nevertheless, so that autocephaly may be accorded and established, it goes without saying that certain objectively valid conditions must be observed, particularly the following:

a) the geographical factor.

31. It is indispensable that a fixed administrative region exist geographically, within which the local Churches are administered as one body. That which the First Ecumenical Council legislated in its 8th canon, prescribing that “there not be two bishops in the same city,” was incontestably the foundation of the principle of the geographical boundaries of each Church. If the existence of a Church without clearly determined geographic limits has become inconceivable, if the name of each bishop very early on and inseparably has come to be tied to the name of a certain geographic region, this was not simply a matter of good organization, but of ecclesiological principle. The local churches are demarcated from a political and not a racial point of view. Otherwise we have phyletism, which was condemned in Council (1872) by pan-Orthodox consciousness.

32. Under the Emperor Justinian II (685-695 and 705-711), the Archbishop of Cyprus John and his flock (“with his people”), for compelling external reasons, settled in the province of Hellespont, which was conceded to them in the ecclesiastical order by the See of Constantinople. From the time, as has just been said, that the requirement of fixed territorial boundaries had been observed, the 39th canon of the Quinsext Ecumenical Council in Trullo confirmed the Archbishop of Cyprus’ rights of autocephaly, which would not have been possible to do if the Cypriots who had emigrated outside their homeland had been dispersed in different parts of the Empire because in that case, in opposition to the canons, two autocephalous jurisdictions would have been exercised on one and the same territory.

33. It is absolutely significant that, things being done in this way, the Metropolitan of Cyzicus and the bishops of the Province of Hellespont, who were under his jurisdiction, submitted to the Archbishop of Cyprus and constituted with him, with the emigrant bishops around him, and with their flock a single and autocephalous ecclesiastical administrative body. This is because 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. When we say that the attribution of autocephaly is made for the benefit of the Church rendered autocephalous, we mean precisely this: this entire Church possesses the requisite conditions and she is mature enough to govern herself as one body.

34. According to this canonical “akribeia”, it is not possible today for there to be flocks and bishops, in whatever place on earth, depending on the autocephalous Churches of the countries from which they emigrated and from which they directly or indirectly originate, but rather all, according to the canonical requirement, we repeat, depend on the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the only one who has jurisdiction outside the boundaries of the autocephalous Churches.

b) the factor of the sovereign state.

35. If fixed administrative and geographic boundaries are an indispensable condition for self-rule, this does not always and necessarily mean that the Church of a region that has such boundaries must ineluctably have the right to self-govern or that the adoption of civil models constitutes in this case an incontestable canonical obligation to elevate this Church to autocephaly.

The principle, attributed to Saint Photius, according to which the structure of the ecclesiastical administration should follow the civil structure, “… it is customary for ecclesiastical right and particularly the right of parishes, to change with the political authorities”[8], does not have an absolute validity, as it depends on the expression “it is customary.”

36. It is true that the 17th canon of the Council of Chalcedon and the 38th canon of the Quinsext Council in Trullo, put forward to substantiate this principle of Photius’, speak of the necessity of making the order of ecclesiastical things go together with political and public models. Nevertheless, this phrase—and this requirement—of the canons is in no way tied to the issues of autocephaly or autonomy which are in question here, nor is it tied to the subdivision of ecclesiastical administrative regions, but rather it is purely and simply about the attribution of honorific titles without a simultaneous consecration of privileges in the domain of the administration of the Church, as is manifestly attested by the 12th canon of the Council of Chalcedon, which prescribes that in the case where a bishopric is promoted to an honorific title by a royal edict, the rights of the former Metropolitan, of the “true” Metropolitan, remain whole and intact.

37. Even if the “modification” of the ecclesiastical order in view of the political order is not absolute, as has been said, nevertheless when 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, ipso facto the parallel expression into law of the corresponding will of the constitutional State and its own officials, submitting to human rights, is also required.

When this factor is lacking, or when it is a non-Christian state, observance of the other procedure is required, according to which the Churches, agreeing directly among themselves, work out what must be observed in this case. The recognition by the Church, and only by her, of the reestablishment of the Patriarchate of Russia more than six decades ago testifies to this. This reestablishment was recognized de facto, following a purely ecclesiastical procedure, by all the sister Orthodox Churches.

c) The factor of ecclesiastical and pastoral needs.

38. When we study the attribution of autocephaly to a local Church, 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. In the case where, for example, the Church has accepted and assumed the civil structures, she has surely not done this without a relationship to ecclesiastical needs, but rather precisely because of them and to serve her members. The history of the Councils teaches us that they, in dealing with the problems of the administration of the Churches, were not simply acting according to the administration itself, but rather aimed for the spiritual good, the progress and the edification of all the faithful and sought to ensure the unity of the Church.

This means that the ecclesiastical needs that are in question here coincide with the pastoral responsibilities of each church, that each Church that desires autocephaly has the obligation to make its own ecclesiastical needs comprehensible and respectable, and that the other sister Churches have the obligation exactly to understand these needs and to judge each case within the framework of the objectively valid canonical tradition and ecclesiastical order.

d) the factor of internal self-rule.

39. The Church of which it is a question as to whether to proclaim her autocephaly should have internal self-rule, both for the application and exercise of the right to ordain and to judge the bishops by its own means (conforming with the spirit of the 4th canon of the First Ecumenical Council, the existence of at least three bishops is required) and for the proper organization of her entire ecclesiastical life. In both cases, the local Churches’ own power and independence are manifested, just as they are manifested in the legislation of each among them and in the maintenance of local customs and local ceremonies that differ according to the places and the Churches, contrary to the unity of the faith and the rather broad convergence in what must be believed and what must be done.

e) the factor of the will of the flock.

40. 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.

This condition responds as much to the ancient sources of the history of the Church as to the different cases of attribution of autocephaly over the course of the past hundred years. Thus, invited by the faithful of the Dioceses of Thrace, Pontus and Asia on the basis of the 2nd canon of the Second Ecumenical Council, Saint John Chrysostom intervened in their ecclesiastical affairs by ordaining new bishops in these Dioceses in place of those who had been deposed. This is confirmed by the 28th canon of the Council of Chalcedon which constitutes an “act” submitted to the Council during its fifteenth session and bears the signatures of the exarchs and a number of the bishops of the three aforementioned Dioceses, who asked to be attached to the See of Constantinople. So when those who presided over the Council interrogated them in order to know “if they had signed of their own accord or under duress,” they responded that they and their flocks freely trusted in the bishop of Constantinople, that they themselves had been ordained by him and that in certain circumstances a number of their predecessors had received ordination from the Archbishop of Constantinople himself, as was the case of the bishops of Amasia, Gangra and Synades. It is necessary to note that the ordinations took place on the basis of decisions taken by the local flocks, in order to request the ratification of the election and ordination of their new bishops.

The change in the jurisdiction and the boundaries of the See of Constantinople, as was confirmed by the 28th canon of the Council of Chalcedon, had already been introduced much earlier and in practice by the faithful people of the Lord who had freely manifested their will in this regard.

f) the factor of the request for local hierarchy.

41. 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.

g) The factor of the consent of the “mother-Church”.

42. To complete the list of conditions that permit the obtaining of autocephaly, we must add 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. As in every case of attribution of autocephaly, the first of the Orthodox Churches, following an inter-Orthodox consultation or on his own, sets in motion the mechanism of the corresponding procedure, likewise the Church considered as the mother-Church is entitled to grant her own consent, which is equivalent to the recognition of well-understood convergent interests, both on the local level for that which is of the party making its way towards autocephaly and on the universal level for that which is of the broader structure of Orthodoxy.

h) The factor of pan-Orthodox recognition.

43. From what has just been said, it is apparent in conclusion that in order for any autocephaly to be accomplished, a certain number of ecclesiastical measures are required and finally, apart from those mentioned above, the expression of the canonical recognition of the new autocephaly by all the Orthodox Churches, either during the procedure of proclamation or subsequently.

Autocephaly has as its source the divine mandates of the episcopate of the ecumenical Church in its entirety, the episcopate to which belongs the supreme power in the administration of the Church. 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.

VII. Final considerations on the manner of proclaiming autocephaly.

44. From what has been presented up to here, it appears that according to the fundamental canonical principle and the concept of the Church, autocephaly is accorded by the canonical authority and power.

Of course, as we know, in the existing ecclesiastical legislation, we do not have specific canons defining exactly what are this canonical power and authority. However, the fundamental principles of this legislation give rise to some general prescriptions corresponding to them, which are diversely represented in the Church’s canonical consciousness and in her lived experience in in a number of related circumstances. These prescriptions have been repeatedly expressed in the practice and history of the Church and they have been clearly formulated in the tomoi that were published on the occasion of the constitution of new local autocephalous Churches, particularly in recent times.

45. From these serious fundamental sources, but also from the very concept of autocephaly as an ecclesiastical practice comprising, as has been said, the changing of fixed ecclesiastical boundaries and the appearance of a new administrative and jurisdictional authority that engenders a situation that is in every way new in the global structure of the Orthodox 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.

46. The Church of Constantinople, with its own administrative organs, always in accord with the letter and the spirit of the holy canons, as has been presented in detail above, and conforming to her long ecclesiastical practice from the period following the Ecumenical Councils until now, not without the agreement and consent of the other sister Orthodox Churches, has exercised the right—and has fulfilled this service—to respond to their needs and to do what was appropriate at every time and in every place, for the good and unity of our one and indivisible holy Orthodox Church, since the time that the convocation of a Council or Councils analogous to those that have been mentioned above has been impossible.

47. The autocephaly of the local Churches, always judged as a question that does not simply fall under the domain of the administrative organization of the Orthodox Church, but also as a subject that is a fundamental sign of Orthodoxy’s unity in multiplicity and which reflects the administrative independence and self-development of all the Orthodox Churches, itself belongs to the first Church in the system of the Orthodox Churches, who has thus exercised this jurisdiction over the centuries in order to arrange things: what she still does now and what she will do in the future, until the convocation of the Great Council of the Orthodox Churches.


48. That which has been observed until now for the attribution of autocephaly, that which has been consecrated by history and the canons, that which has received the accession and the common acceptance of the sister Orthodox Churches constitutes neither an overstepping of rights nor an abuse of jurisdictional powers, nor can it be ignored in the future in the search for eventual new models for proclaiming autocephaly for new cases that could present themselves in the future.

49. Consequently, there is only one materially positive and applicable manner of proclaiming a Church autocephalous: it is the procedure observed until now, which does not remove the ecclesiologically incommutable right that all the Orthodox Churches have together to give their consent and accord, but rather assures the normal course of things in everything touching upon the administrative organization and evolution within the Orthodox Church.

50. It goes without saying that the Church proclaimed autocephalous today according to the above procedure exclusively must on her part, after such a proclamation, always in relation with the judgment of the Council and the declaration of the Church regarding her autocephaly, do what is necessary to establish the bond of peace with all the other sister Orthodox Churches, in canonical unity and communion with them.

Such a bond, which is made through the establishment of appropriate correspondence (firstly the Bishop of Constantinople what has just been done to the heads of the other local Orthodox Churches, secondly the Primate of the Church proclaimed autocephalous requests the fraternal communion from all the sister Orthodox Churches), is an indispensable element for the canonicity and legitimacy of the action.

Establishing this bond constitutes the condition sine qua non for the precise and veritable incorporation of the new autocephalous Church into the one and indivisible body of the Orthodox Church.

51. The absence of this element eliminates any other form of action undertaken by another Church, whichever it may be, to proclaim a Church autocephalous. But so that the bond broken by such an uncanonical act may be reestablished, the party separated from the body of the Church by this initiative must return to her under her previous canonical form in order to once more become an organic member of the entire Orthodox Church.

VIII. Autonomy and its manner of proclamation.

52. Ecclesiastical autonomy is the form of self-administration that comes the closest to full independence (autocephaly).

A Church is ordinarily autonomous when it is located in regions or States in which another religion or heterodoxy is predominant and when her members in these regions or these States constitute a minority. The accorded autonomy in that case, firstly offers the autonomous Church the possibility of no longer appearing dependent on another Church, which in itself could cause misunderstandings, and secondly gives her the possibility of an independent and freer development.

53. The autocephalous Churches, for that which is the source of their spiritual and jurisdictional powers, and for that which pertains to their legislative activity, are independent from the hierarchical influence of any other local Church.

The same is not the case for autonomous Churches. The autonomous Churches, although they have an internal independence, limited to the country in which they are implanted, are nevertheless under a certain concrete form of dependence with regard to another local Church, whose Primate they must mention and from which they must request recognition each time that they elect their own Primate.

54. According to what has been said above about the jurisdictional powers of the first Church in the system of Orthodox Churches, only this Church—that is, the Church of Constantinople—acting in the name of all the Orthodox Churches (in connection with the declaration that will be made by the future Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church and with the blessing of the accomplished work) sets the mechanism in motion respecting the order and doing what is necessary so that a Church may be proclaimed autonomous.

55. The local Church from which a part must become autonomous by detaching from it and which assumes the condition of mother-Church, has nothing of her own except for the right to receive the first requests for emancipation of the ecclesiastical region that is requesting autonomy and to declare if the alleged reasons for it are justified.

56. Certainly in the case of the attribution of autonomy the observance of certain analogous conditions is also required, but of a lesser importance in every way. Among these conditions, the most significant is the consent of the Church from which the party becoming autonomous is breaking off, since this Church is also the one that assumes on departure and arrival the procedure of autonomy.

57. In these conditions the Church that has granted autonomy in the name of all of Orthodoxy judges the autonomous Church. It is she who in the Tomos of the proclamation of autonomy defines the rights and obligations that the Church proclaimed autonomous has in dependence and relation, rights and obligations that cannot go beyond the limits of the powers of habitual jurisdiction in her internal administration and development. To the contrary, the autonomous Church receives her legislation and she adapts it to that of the Church that has given her autonomy. It is on the basis of this legislation that she is administrated.

58. One of the marks of autonomy is the eventuality of its elevation to autocephaly, an eventuality that exists potentially in every analogous case, as soon as the conditions necessary for this elevation are fulfilled.


[1] cf. the teaching of St Cyprian, De Catholica Ecclesiae unitate, 5, “Episcopus unus est, e jus a singuilis in solidum par tenetur”, PL IV, 493-520.

[2] Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures 18, 23-24, PG 33, 1044.

[3] John 17:23

[4] Metropolitan Anthony, Works II, 12, 18. Cf. Alexander Schmemann, “Tserkovi Tserkovnoje Oustrojistvo” in Messager de l’Eglise russe en Europe Occidentale, no. 15, November (1958), 6-11.

[5] I Corinthians 1:2

[6] 34th Apostolic Canon, Rallis-Patlis, Corpus of the Holy Canons, vol. 2, p. 45.

[7] “The one whom the master of the house sends to direct his house, we must receive like the one who sends him.” Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 6, 1, PG 5, 649.

[8] 2nd Epistle of Saint Photius to Pope Nicholas, PG 192, 613 C.

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