Autocephaly and the Episcopate

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.



  1. Thank you!

    I’ve wondered for too long when someone would address that elephant.

    And let me add that I’m very much in agreement. As are more than a few members of my parish. Many of us are converts wondering how this can remain. We also wonder what bishops will set the example. We are watching and waiting.

  2. Clearly the Apostles and Fathers could not address every future permutation to arise in church governance. Could impasses like this perhaps be resolved with something like the notion of “doctrinal development” in the West, but to a lesser degree? Of course any solution would require significant conciliar conversation by the current Patriarchs.

    1. As Hamlet might say: “Here’s the rub”–the current patriarchs have had significant conversation, which is what led to the current impasse. All Orthodox agree that a solution, to be truly Orthodox, must be based on the Tradition and the canons, and yet that Tradition and those canons have nothing to say which could break the impasse. That is because the Tradition and the canons all presuppose a situation which no longer obtains.

  3. Now we have one Patriarch claiming to be first WITHOUT Equal with the right to intervene in any dispute anywhere. As Constantinople has done in Ukraine, establishing a semi -autonomous Local Church under its jurisdiction
    Moscow has retaliated by establishing its own exarchate in Africa. We are on the verge of canonical anarchy.

    1. Thank you Frs. Oleksa and Farley. The present situation rings true to our Lord’s words to the religious leaders of his day: “You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times (Matthew 16:3).” In an age where we are witnessing an aggressive resurgence of globalist neomarxism, and where Christians who haven’t given way to moral corrosion stand only increments from outright persecution, this “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church” can’t seem to get out of its own way. I fear we will all pay dearly if our shepherds can’t get their act together. Most Holy Theotokos, pray for us.

  4. The Antiochian Church seems to have been set up to have world wide administrations. Are these discussed anywhere where the ordinary church member can access and understand these matters. ( Antiochian Diocese of Australia New Zealand and Oceania.) ?
    Russian based, Greek and varied Eastern European Churches are also located in these countries. Many people flit from one to another to the bemused observation of converts to Orthodoxy.

    1. Perhaps on the website of the Antiochian church in Damascus? The multi-jurisdictional chaos seems to be worldwide.

  5. Thanks for this, Father. Two questions:

    1. While Christianity began as a rural sectarian movement within Judaism (in Galilee, etc.), it quickly transitioned to an urban evangelistic movement in the Gentile world — thus the emphasis on bishops being centred in cities, etc. (and thus the tendency to use words like “pagan” and “heathen”, i.e. “country-dweller”, when speaking of non-Christians). Cities, with their larger populations, arguably have an easier time supporting new religious communities than villages do. So would not bishops have had some jurisdiction outside of cities, too, to cover the believers who did *not* live in the cities? And would not that difference in power or status (between city and village) have led to bishops assuming a role *outside* of the cities that they were tethered to?

    2. As you describe it here, it sounds like bishops were originally more or less equal across the board. But at what point did the concept of *archbishops*, or what you might call bishops who rank above other bishops, come about? (Your post mentions the current “patriarchs” — which I assume is an even later/higher evolution of rank — but not “archbishops”.) And how was the concept of higher-ranking bishops balanced with the notion of bishops not interfering in the lives of other bishops’ communities?

    1. 1. The cities/ villages tended to include the farm land around them. Some places tried an experiment with “country bishops”–i.e. bishops having pastoral care of those country places but under the authority of the urban bishop. After a while the experiment was quietly shelved.
      2. Bishops always recognized their senior coordinating bishop, which in time developed into the notion of the “pentarchy”. Their primatial roles were defined and limited by custom.
      For more details see The Time Has Come or my own book The Empty Throne at:

  6. A sobering essay, Fr Farley. The current canonical situation really hurts the Orthodox church’s claim to be *the* apostolic and catholic church of Jesus Christ. :/

    1. Couldn’t agree more. For many protestants the one major area lacking in their spiritual life is a coherent ecclesiology. Can’t imagine the current fiasco within Eastern Orthodoxy amounts to much of a draw for people like this.

  7. The problem with the bishops does not lie exclusively with them. Rather more important is the piety, or lack thereof, of the people including myself. We do not have enough real candidates for bishops to fill the positions we have. My own diocesan bishop is bishop over an area roughly the size of the Louisiana Purchase here in the United Sates. He is not as spry as he once was. He would like to retire, but there is almost no one to replace him. The situation is worse in more ethnic jurisdictions.
    Complaining about the bishops is an Orthodox blood sport.

    If we want better bishops, we need to repent and practice our faith with greater diligence and faith. Holy Bishops do not spring from an unholy people. Shoot the two Antiochian parishes in my own town hardly get along with each other. Still Lebanese family squabbles going on from centuries ago among other things and our bishop is right here in town.

    Mt 4:17 comes to mind: “Repent for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”

    I know my own heart is hard and cold except for God’s grace and I keep diligently trying to avoid His mercy
    despite its ever presence.

    It is from a mustard seed that faith grows. Not full blown from a giant “tree of bishops”. So, until I can, by the Grace of God, heal myself and the people closest to me, I am not going to worry about the bishops.

    Forgive my impertinence.

    1. Parish clergy whose life and work are entirely dependent upon the bishops do not have the luxury of not worrying about them.

      1. Indeed, Father forgive me. A bad bishop will make your life a living martyrdom, at best. I am very fortunate in that I have an excellent bishop whom I have known my entire Orthodox life. My brother is an Orthodox priest who has an exceptional bishop.
        Yet that does not invalidate my central point that only through repentance, starting with mine, can we hope to have better ones.
        We also need to do our best to truly support our faithful priests.
        I have suffered the effects of a bad bishop as well. The priest who baptized me and my family was a basket case from day one. He traumatized all of us and the entire parish especially my wife and son.
        The decision to ordain him was reckless and without any real foundation. Personally I think it was made simply to punish the parish because the bishop did not like them.
        Those that opposed the bishop paid a heavy price.
        So, I hope I hope I am not naive.
        One of the beefs of the Protestant Reformation was bad bishops. Their solution did not work.
        How do we call them to account when then stray rather than just complaining?

        1. Part of the problem is that the entire office has changed almost beyond recognition. A part of this change involved the effective lack of any accountability on the part of the bishops. Accountability was built in in the past because the decision-making was done by the bishop as part of a team of presbyters and not by the bishop alone. A good first step would be to recognize the existence of a problem with the structure itself and re-vivify a true council of diocesan presbyters.

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