Unity and Autocephaly: Mutually Exclusive?

I. The Concept of Unity

The starting point of any study regarding unity and autocephaly must be the study of the nature of the Church in general. That is to say that ecclesiastical practice must reflect the doctrine of ecclesiology.

The ecclesiological principle of unity constitutes the basis of church polity. According to this principle, the Church is one because her Head is one the Lord Jesus Christ. This fact constitutes a basic tenet of our faith and refers to the spiritual unity which permeates the Church. Although the Church is one, she is made up of numerous local churches whose boundaries usually coincide with those of the lands in which they exist. These same churches are furthermore administered independently of one another.

Despite the existence of numerous local churches administered independently, the essential unity of the Church still remains intact. St. Paul speaks of this fact when referring to the Church as the Body of Christ. In so doing, he likens the indissoluble bond existing among the members of the Church to each other and the Lord Jesus Christ, to the relationship existing among the members of a living body to each other and its head.[1]

As reflected in the writings of the New Testament, the multiplicity of local churches can be traced to the very beginnings of the Christian era. Instructed by our Lord to teach all nations,[2] the Apostles founded churches in which they instituted pastors to continue the work which they had begun. These pastors were at the same time invested with the necessary authority to regulate the affairs of their churches in accordance with local needs, variations in non-essential matters not with standing.

The existence of numerous local churches administered independently applies only to the external organization of the Church. It does not hinder her inner spiritual unity. The inner spiritual unity which permeates the Church finds expression in the following:

  1. a common confession of faith by the entire body of the Church,
  2. participation in the same sacraments; and
  3. submission to the same canons and ecclesiastical decrees.

The teachings of the church fathers, as well as ecclesiastical practice, support the above. In one of his many epistles, St. Cyprian writes:

"Christ established one Church, even though it is divided throughout the entire world into many parts. It is the same with the unity of the bishops, who, although many, constitute a unity due to the identity of their conviction".[3]

Elsewhere, he expresses a similar opinion:

"The Catholic Church is one, inseparable and indivisible, and for this cause must be united into a whole through the mutual spiritual bond of the bishops".[4]

According to St. Irenaeus:

"The overseers of the Church, to whom all the world is entrusted, vigilantly guard apostolic tradition, witnessing to us that all keep one and the same faith, that all profess the same Father, that all accept the same purpose of the incarnate economy, the same spiritual gifts; they make use of the same laws in the administration of the Church and in the execution of other ecclesiastical ministries."[5]

Finally, in his epistle to all bishops, St. Athanasios remarks:

"The Catholic Church is one body, in compliance with the commandment in holy scripture to preserve a bond of concord and peace..."[6]

It is in this spirit, i.e., in the acceptance of Christ as Head of the Church and in the unity of all the bishops, that the unity of the Church is retained by the "overseers" of the local churches through the means which each particular church has determined. This is achieved mainly by the relations of the local churches among themselves. The purpose of these relations is not so much mutual accord on local issues, but rather a general consensus on issues concerning the entire Church.

Relations among the local churches are especially important whenever issues of faith are raised. It is then that the unity of the Church is truly evident. When there is need for the mind of the entire Church to be heard, the local church may take the initiative in raising consciousness of this need. As a result, the response of all the hierarchy to the issue at hand is considered a decision of the entire Church. This is the practical way in which the unity of the Church is maintained.

Another practical way in which the unity of the Church is maintained is through the mutual recognition of one another's acts, be they sacramental or legal. Consequently, one who is baptized in a local church is at the same time a member of all local churches and of the Church universal. On the other hand, one who has been excommunicated from a local church, is at the same time in a state of excommunication from all the churches.[7]

Furthermore, the local churches must preserve intact legislation adopted by the entire Church, as well as customs and traditions emanating from the apostolic era. Such preservation refers not only to issues of faith and morality, but also to issues of ecclesiastical discipline, order and worship.[8] It is only in this way that the unity of the Church can be upheld although there are many local churches. In the practical sphere the Church universal recognizes the right of the local churches to exist independently of each other while they in turn preserve the unity of the Church according to mutually accepted principles.

Such is the ecclesiological principle of unity and such is the canonical tradition of the Church. Corresponding to this principle and tradition is the territorial principle of the Church's organization according to which there is one Church and one bishop in one place. Stated in another way, the principle of hierarchical unity and the unity of local jurisdiction affirm the belief that all members of the Body of Christ - the Church, wherever they may be, constitute one church body, headed by one bishop, through whom they are integrally united with the Church universal.

Canon 12 of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod speaks directly to this point. It expressly forbids the establishment of two metropolitans within the same province by recourse to secular authorities. Canon 16 of the First Ecumenical Synod, too, prohibits two bishops in the same church. Similarly, an entire series of canons, including canon 2 of the Second Ecumenical Synod, Apostolic Canon 35 and canon 13 of Antioch are all directed against bishops who perform extraterritorial ordinations. They in this way affirm the right of only one provincial bishop to perform sacramental acts within his own province. Hence, the canonical tradition of one bishop in one place reflects the ecclesiological principle of one Church headed by the Lord Jesus Christ.

II. The Principle of Autocephaly

It remains to be seen if the unity of the Church is preserved by the principle of autocephaly. The principle of autocephaly, by which the affairs of a local church are administered independently of any other authority, is reflected in early synodal legislation. Although not bearing the name by which it was later known, this principle was eventually ratified by canons of ecumenical synods. What had been observed as custom since the apostolic era was later invested with the force and prestige of the highest ecclesiastical authority.[9]

The canons promulgated by these synods allow for the independent administration of local churches by means of the following:

  1. the independent status of the hierarchy of each individual church;[10]
  2. the hierarchical rights and privileges enjoyed by certain churches;[11]
  3. the right of the church regionally to have local legislation.[12]

The principle of autocephaly is found in embryonic form in Apostolic Canon 34 and in canons 17 of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod and 38 of the Penthekti (Quinisext) Ecumenical Synod. The first of these canons speaks of:

"... bishops of every nation[13] who must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent ... "

Coincident with this canon is canon 9 of Antioch, which calls upon:

"the bishops in every province to acknowledge the bishop who presides in the metropolis and who has to take thought for the whole province ... that he have precedence in rank, and that the other bishops do nothing extraordinary without him... "

The remaining two canons (17 of the Fourth and 38 of the Penthekti Ecum. Synods) stress the importance of correspondence between an independent ecclesiastical jurisdiction and the political division of the region in which it exists. In the words of canon 38 (Penthekti), which reiterates what had already been set forth in canon 17 (Fourth):

"Let the order of things ecclesiastical follow the civil and public models".

Accordingly, the determination of ecclesiastical boundaries followed those of the state. This was the case from the time of the Church's institution up to the age of Constantine the Great. From then on, what had previously existed in primitive form began to take on substance. The Church had only to conform to the newly introduced divisions of the Roman Empire in ascertaining her own jurisdictions. This development had practical consequences. A bishop's hierarchical distinction, as well as a particular church's authority, depended upon two factors: the political significance of the city in which the church was established and the church's direct or indirect apostolic origin.

Mention of churches bearing the name of entire territories is first made in the New Testament, e.g., the churches of Asia.[14] Names of provinces (the Macedonian Church)[15] or of the political metropolis of the province (the church at Thessaloniki,[16] at Ephesus, etc.) to designate a particular local church bear witness to the fact that the principle involved is of apostolic origin. Upon leaving the churches of Asia, St. Paul entrusts their care to the elders of Ephesus,[17] as it was the most important city of that entire area. He does the same with regard to the churches of Achaia when he addresses the Christians at Corinth, which was the metropolis of the province.[18] The integrity thereby granted to particular churches to be administered independently was supported by the canons, which stress their individual rights and prerogatives as has already been shown.[19]

In addition to those canons already mentioned, several other canons of ecumenical synods certify the practice of recognizing the independent status of individual churches. Canons 6 and 7 of the First Ecumenical Synod stand out in their recognition of the Churches of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical Synod follows, setting precedent in its declaration of the independence of the Church of Cyprus from the Bishop of Antioch. This decision was reached after a petition had been presented by the bishops of Cyprus to the synod contrary to the unjustified claims of the Bishop of Antioch to ordain the bishops of the Church of Cyprus. This canon can be cited as the classic and ideal example for the recognition of the independent status of an individual church by an ecumenical synod. It does not grant independent status to the Church of Cyprus; it recognized this status as her legitimate prerogative.[20] Finally, the authority of another ecumenical synod, the Fourth of Chalcedon, reinforces the prestigious status already granted to the Church of Constantinople by the Second Ecumenical Synod (canon 3). Through canon 28 of Chalcedon, the heretofore independent ecclesiastical jurisdictions of Thrace, Asia Minor and Pontus were made subject to the Bishop of Constantinople. The synod was thereby applying the prerogative by which all transitions effecting the canonical status of another church rely on the exercise of its authority.

From what has been said thus far concerning recognition of the independent status of another church by the holy canons, the characteristic features of such a church are the following:

  1. it has the right to settle all internal matters without the intervention of any other ecclesiastical jurisdiction;
  2. it has the right to appoint its own bishops. In order to attain these rights, however, certain essential conditions must be met. Accordingly:
  • there must be a sufficient number of bishops to appoint (at least 3 according to canon 4 of the First Ecum. Synod) and ordain (2 or 3 according to Apostolic Canon 1) other bishops;
  • the independent ecclesiastical jurisdiction must coincide with an independent state or political division;[21]
  • the independent ecclesiastical jurisdiction must emanate from a canonical ecclesiastical source.

At the time of the ancient Church of the ecumenical synods, the state also participated together with the church in granting independent status to a new ecclesiastical jurisdiction. True to this principle, canon 12 of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod prohibits the recourse of bishops to secular authorities in order to achieve this goal.

Due to well-known historic causes (Arab conquest of the East, and several centuries later, the fall of the Byzantine Empire), the Church of Constantinople filled the gap created by the political anomalies of a turbuleat era in history and especially by the absence of subsequent ecumenical synods. The exalted position of the Church of Constantinople a: reflected in canons 3 of the Second Ecumenical Synod, 28 of the Fourth, and 36 of the Penthekti was a reality accepted by the other churches of the East. There are indeed numerous examples in history which confirm this fact.

Consequently, it seems unnecessary to base claims asserting the prerogatives of the Church of Constantinople in declaring the independent status of another church upon canon 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Synod exclusively when they exist de facto. The phrase which is cited to justify this claim reads:

"... so that, in the Pontic, the Asian, and the Thracian dioceses, the metropolitans only and such bishops also of the dioceses aforesaid as are amog the barbarians, should be ordained by the aforesaid most holy throne of the most holy Church of Constantinople ... "

As is evident from a close investigation of this canon and from it's interpretation by the illustrious commentators of the 12th century, the "bishops among the barbarians" referred to belong to the "aforementioned dioceses", i.e., Pontus, Asia and Thrace. Any attempt at interpreting this phrase to mean any bishop of the "diaspora" in all subsequent ages will undoubtedly meet with resistance. The question to be raised with regard to this canon concerns the original intention of the synod fathers. Was it meant to be confined in time and place to a particular era, or to be applicable always as a general principle? It would be more in keeping with the true nature of things to assert the justified claims of the Church of Constantinople by basing them upon the indisputable facts of history.

One has but to investigate the historic events leading to the autocephaly of the Churches of Bulgaria, Serbia, Romania, Russia and Poland. As daughter Churches of the Church of Constantinople, they looked to the Bishop of "New Rome" for the recognition of their independent status. Such recognition was not always immediately forthcoming, as in the case of the Russian Church. It must be borne in mind, however, that not until this recognition on the part of the Church of Constantinople was achieved, did the new autocephalous church consider herself equal to the existing autocephalous churches.

The question of autocephaly is as timely today as it was centuries ago. Its inclusion among the ten agenda items of the forthcoming Great and Holy Synod is an indication of this. It is to be hoped that an acceptable formula for granting autocephaly today based. on earlier practice can be achieved. Such a formula will further the cause of unity among the local Orthodox Churches.

The purpose of this brief study was to affirm that the principle of autocephaly in no way hinders the concept of unity when based upon earlier practice. It is the prayer of this writer that the affirmation made may assist those entrusted with providing a response to the new realities of ecclesiastical administration.


[1] Rom.12:4-5, 1 Cor. 12:27, Eph. 1:22-23, 5:23, Col. 1:18, 2:19.

[2] Matt. 28:19.

[3] Ep. 52 ad Antonium.

[4] Ep. 65 ad Rogatianum.

[5]Contra Haereses, Bk. 5, Ch. 20, n. 1.

[6] Socrates, Eccl. Hist. 1, 6.

[7] See Apostolic Canons 12, 13, 16 and 32; also, canon 5 of the First Ecumenical Synod, among others.

[8] Apostolic Canon 64; canons 12 and 13 of the First Ecumenical Synod; canon 56 of the Penthekti Ecumenical Synod.

[9] Cf. canon 6 of the First Ecumenical Synod.

[10] Canon 8 of the Third Ecumenical Synod.

[11] Canons 7 of the First and 28 of the Fourth Ecumenical Synods.

[12] Apostolic Canon 37 and canon 2 of the Second Ecumenical Synod.

[13] Concerning the interpretation of this word there is great divergence of opinion.

[14] 1 Cor. 16:19.

[15] 2 Cor. 8:1.

[16] 1 Th. 1:1,17; Rev. 2:1.

[17] Acts 20:17,35.

[18] 2 Cor. 1:1.

[19] Apostolic Canons 14, 15, 34 and 35.

[20] J. Erickson, "Autocephaly in Orthodox canonical literature to the thirteenth century," Autocephaly - The Orthodox Church in America (St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1971), p. 31.

[21] Canons 17 of the Fourth and 38 of the Penthekti Ecumenical Synod.