I have just finished reading a very important and immensely depressing book about the autocephaly of the OCA entitled, The Time Has Come: Debates over the OCA Autocephaly Reflected in St. Vladimir’s Quarterly. It is an important book because it offers so many insights about the OCA’s autocephaly and church history in general (not surprisingly, given the high quality of the contributors). It is depressing because it documents a long history of bishops quarreling over power.
The many and complicated arguments over autocephaly essential resolve themselves into the single question, “Which autocephalous church/ power bloc is entitled to grant autocephaly and create another autocephalous church/ power bloc?” At the risk of over-simplification, the Russian answer is: “Each autocephalous church/ power bloc has the right to grant autocephaly and independence to a portion of its own territory.” The Greek answer is: only the Patriarch of Constantinople has the right to grant autocephaly and independence to any territory seeking it.”
Common to both answers is the vision of the entire Orthodox Church being composed of a number of independent power blocs called “autocephalous churches”, each one with complete power over its own territory and dependencies. Each of these power blocs are further comprised of a number of usually large areas called “dioceses”, each headed by a bishop, who has power of all the cities and villages in his diocese. The supreme governing power in each autocephalous church is the gathered synod of bishops meeting around their head bishop/ patriarch. This synod makes all the decisions pertaining to life within its power bloc and how the power bloc relates to other power blocs/ autocephalous churches. When another autocephalous church intrudes on its turf, this is considered uncanonical and not allowed, and results in a protest from the offended autocephalous church in the form of communique from the patriarch and his synod.
Scholars (such as the ones featured in The Time Has Come) point out that the very concept of autocephaly as we currently understand it was unknown in the early church, and that there is no method for resolving such quarrels over autocephaly that can claim apostolic provenance. To my mind, this is an important clue that something has gone seriously wrong.
The other clue is our use of the term “the local church”, which to bishops and canonists means either an autocephalous church or perhaps a diocese, which (let us remember) consists of many different cities, towns, and villages, each with its own pastor—and sometimes with many pastors serving different churches in the same city.
My own area and diocese may serve as an example of the current use of the term “the local church”. The diocese, ruled over by my dear bishop, consists of the entire country of Canada, from sea to sea to sea, stretching over 5000 kilometers from east to west. The “lower Vancouver mainland” where I live has at least 5 different OCA parishes in it, if you don’t count the 2 parishes just across the Strait of Georgia on Vancouver Island, each parish having its own head pastor. By anybody’s figuring, this is hardly “local”. Admittedly Canada is a big place and our diocese unusually sizable, but pretty much all dioceses consist of a territory containing a lot of different parishes, often at quite a distance from each other.
This means that the diocese is hardly local for anyone, if by “local” you mean “easily accessible” as the local library is accessible. And an autocephalous church is even less local. It would be more accurate to describe an autocephalous church as “national”, not “local”.
Here it is instructive to see how the church was structured in the days of the apostles and in the early church—i.e. in the days when the mass of the canons everyone quotes and throws around were produced. In those days, the local church really was local. The bishop was the liturgical head of a community which gathered in the same place every Sunday. Gathering with him (and sitting on either side of him during the Liturgy) were his fellow-presbyters, with the deacons standing alongside. The bishop was the head pastor for everyone in that church community: he communed them on Sundays, baptized new candidates on Pascha, excommunicated those needing it and restoring them to communion if they repented. It didn’t matter how big or small the city or hamlet was—each had its own bishop and collection of presbyters. In big places like Rome where all the Christians in the city couldn’t fit into one room, there might be other houses where the overflow met, presided over by one of the bishop’s presbyters. But all the Christians in the city were under the same bishop and had a personal pastoral relationship with him.
The bishop was elected by all the people of the city, town, or hamlet, and he was there for life. When it came time for a new bishop to be ordained after the death (or martyrdom) of the old one, all the bishops from the surrounding cities would come to lay hands on the new candidate. Three ordaining bishops were the minimum, but the idea was that all the bishops would gather to ordain him in the city over which he was to rule. All the bishops of a given area looked to one of their own local bishops to coordinate things (such as making sure that new candidates for bishop were suitable). This senior bishop was the first among the local equals. But each bishop, once ordained and installed as bishop, was pretty much on his own and ruled his church as he and his presbyters wanted. If he fell into heresy, the other bishops would rebuke him, and ostracize him. But if his people stood behind him, there was not much that anyone could do to replace him.
This is how “the local church” functioned in those pre-Constantinian days and even after. The canons all assume that each bishop ruled over a single city, village, or hamlet. A bishop could not be bishop over two cities, and there could not be two bishops/ pastors in one city. Setting yourself up as rival bishop in a town where there was already a bishop was regarded as a heinous act of schism, since it divided the Christians of the city, all of which were supposed to gather around their one pastor. Schism was therefore a sin against unity and love.
When one compares this system to our current one, one can easily see the main difference: the episcopate has morphed from being primarily a local pastoral office to being primarily one of power and coordination. This of course, let me emphasize, does not mean that bishops as individuals are not pastoral, humble, kind, and wonderful. It does mean that the structure in which they function has changed practically out of all recognition.
The question of how the trans-local power bloc (or autocephalous church) governed itself and how it related to other autocephalous power blocs did not arise in the early days, largely because there were no such trans-local power blocs as we know them today. The local bishop looked for coordination, guidance, support, and help to his local senior bishop who functioned as primus inter pares. But the life of the church was truly local. That is, it was primarily about manifesting the life of Christ in those who gathered together in a single community around the same altar, not about power.
That, I believe, is the reason by the apostolic tradition contains nothing that would help us resolve the question of competing power blocs. The whole notion of church-as-power-bloc is unapostolic therefore leads to dead ends. The Lord was emphatic that His people should focus upon humble service as the basis of greatness, and that power as the world knew and practised it was wrong (Mark 10:42-45), but we seem to have fallen into such worldly structures anyway. That is why representatives of these power blocs so often fight over who is to have first place at the table (compare Luke 22:24-27)—or (in current parlance) over the diptychs.
I suggest that the first step toward dealing with questions of autocephaly is to frankly acknowledge that the very nature of the episcopate has morphed into one of power, and that this is the source of at least some of our problems. It cannot be solved by all the bishops suddenly becoming amazingly humble. The problem is not with the bishops themselves, but with the nature of the episcopate. Until the local church is more local, power blocs will remain. And it is inevitable that those with power will do all they can to keep their power and possibly to expand it. This explains much of the fighting over autocephaly. If the church structures are based on power and trans-local jurisdiction, the questions of autocephaly will remain insoluble.