Is Orthodoxy Really United?: A Question from a Reader

The Synaxis of the Apostles (From Wikimedia Commons)
The Synaxis of the Apostles
(From Wikimedia Commons)

I recently received the following question from a reader (slightly edited to remove identifying details):

I am aware of one Orthodox church parish leaving one Orthodox group to go to another Orthodox group because of some issue. Doesn’t this kind of dispel the idea of the Orthodox being a unified church organization as it is in the case of the Roman Catholics? This would have been impossible in the RCC. Thank you for any insight.

Since this is a question that comes up every so often, I thought I might share my response (again edited a bit):

For Orthodoxy, the unity of the Church does not lie primarily in external administrative organization, but in a unity of faith and communion. Rome places a much greater emphasis on external organization, to be sure, but a look “underneath the hood” shows some problems, too, such as the fact that, although they are all loyal to the Pope, there are in fact three different Catholic Patriarchs of Antioch (the Maronite, Melkite and Syriac; there used to be a Latin Patriarchate of Antioch, too, which was abolished only in 1964). And there are also numerous Catholic orders of various sorts who do not have to answer to their local bishop. Overlapping territory is actually the norm for Rome.

Despite the fact that we do not define the unity of the Church mainly by administrative organization, overlapping territory is not the norm for Orthodoxy. The situation that a minority of Orthodox find themselves in where territories do overlap is agreed upon by the Orthodox as a historical anomaly — one that we are actually in the process of fixing. The Assembly of Bishops was created for this purpose. There are a number of such assemblies around the world who are all working on the problem locally.

By contrast, Rome does not see overlap as an anomaly and has actually enshrined it. I mentioned the multiple Catholic Patriarchs of Antioch, but there are also multiple, overlapping Catholic bishops in other places, especially wherever they have both Eastern and Latin Catholic churches in the same territory (and sometimes, there may be more than one Eastern Catholic hierarchy in a territory, such as in India, where there are two in addition to the Latins). And it’s a problem that doesn’t just exist across the sea. Where I live, for instance, there are the local Latin parishes who fall under the Bishop of Allentown, but there are also Ukrainian Catholic and Byzantine Catholic parishes who each have their own bishops. And over on the other side of the state, the Latins have their own Catholic Bishop of Pittsburgh, but the Byzantine Catholics have their own Metropolitan Archbishop of Pittsburgh.

So, yes, it is a shame that the parish you mention has the “option” of going to another Orthodox jurisdiction, but it is also not normal or acceptable that this is possible. Such things actually used to happen far more frequently out here in the “wild west” on the geographical fringes of Orthodoxy, but it is now much more rare and generally not tolerated by bishops. Yes, the process of working all these things out has run into some obstacles and not everyone agrees on how it should come about, but it really is being worked on.

And all that said, I don’t know which parish you’re talking about or what the details of their proposed move are. Perhaps they are doing it all with their bishop’s blessing? I doubt that a genuine mutiny would be received well by the bishop they want to switch to.


  1. The problem with this analysis is that you are merely saying,”See, Catholics also don’t strictly follow Eucharistic ecclesiology” but for us, we don’t argue ecclesiology as being strictly Eucharistic so why would that be a knock against us?

    It’s more like this: we have a more coherent ecclesiology (by including inter-bishop universality as a core tenet of ecclesiology) and when we argue for our Church being the one true Church, we do not have to say, “we are fixing a glaringly obvious problem with our own argument that: if ecclesiology is solely eucharistic, then we are not even practicing what we preach!”

    A better argument is that how do Catholics consider the Orthodox as sacramentally valid but also them anathema because this would use our own premise against us, not yours against us.

    1. What you mention about our being “valid” but also anathema (as per Vatican I especially) is of course true, but it wasn’t what was asked about. What was asked also wasn’t about how one can recognize the true Church, but rather how the Orthodox can claim to be united.

      I don’t agree with your summary of my argument, though. I would summarize it this way: Neither Roman Catholics nor Orthodox strictly keep to the “one bishop per city” rule, but Orthodox who do so are violating the rule and acknowledge that, while Roman Catholics have tossed out the rule entirely. And the irony is that Rome places much more emphasis on administration when considering the unity of the Church.

      1. Yes, we are in dispute whether “one Bishop, one city” is Tradition or tradition. If we tossed out the rule (or rather modified because we are merely recognizing that the Eucharistic church is not strictly geographical) we are not breaking our own rules because we have an explanation in our ecclesiology of why we do what we do.

        If the whole catholic church is in the Eucharistic church, then “we are fixing it” seems to mean that there are some things more important to the Orthodox than Eucharistic ecclesiology: the Romanian Orthodox feel it is more important that their authority be respected than to submit to the Russian orthodox/OCA and so on and so forth. The Catholic idea that Eucharistic ecclesiology is not sorely geographical seems to tug at the heart strings of Orthodox bishops or else they would all just say, “alright, there is an autocephalous church here and for the sake of the Eucharist, let’s submit ourselves to that bishop.”

        It’s not that your ecclesiology is wrong per se, but not developed, and the Catholic church’s is more developed but your anti-Catholic strain is to depict any development we do as an “innovation” (although any innovation you do, it is Orthodox) This is evident when you say that Catholics have simply “tossed the rule out” but that’s not true is it? Saying we tossed it out is either willfully misrepresenting Catholicism or misunderstanding it.

        1. It’s not that your ecclesiology is wrong per se, but not developed, and the Catholic church’s is more developed but your anti-Catholic strain is to depict any development we do as an “innovation” (although any innovation you do, it is Orthodox)

          Where did I say anything like that? Indeed, in this very post is mentioned the overlapping jurisdictions on the fringes of Orthodoxy, an innovation which I don’t regard as the least bit Orthodox.

          This is evident when you say that Catholics have simply “tossed the rule out” but that’s not true is it? Saying we tossed it out is either willfully misrepresenting Catholicism or misunderstanding it.

          Whatever language you would prefer to use regarding what’s happened, it’s definitely clear that Rome no longer follows the ancient tradition of the Ecumenical Councils that no territory should have more than one ruling bishop. The tossing out may well have been careful and deliberate, even solemn, but the rule was still discarded. Rome once followed it and now does not, even officially saying that it does not have to by appointing multiple bishops to the same see. Since Rome controls all episcopal appointments, it is fully within Rome’s purview to change the situation, but it does not.

          Orthodoxy, on the whole, still follows the rule but violates it here and there, but we regard such violations as against Orthodox tradition. They are also manifestly the result not of design but from the acts of independent church authorities. In other words, no Orthodox synod is appointing multiple bishops to the same see. When it happens, it is the work of multiple synods.

          1. It is implied that you think our allowance of “throwing out” the ancient tradition is an innovation and my quotes gives the wrong implication (i use them to quote the oft used Orthodox label for any Catholic teaching with which they disagree).

            “it’s definitely clear that Rome no longer follows the ancient tradition of the Ecumenical Councils that no territory should have more than one ruling bishop.”

            Ahh, where we disagree, I think.

            The ancient tradition of having one bishop per territory was at a time when Christianity only expanded one direction, outward. No bishops had tried to compete against one another in any area except for ones that declared the other a heretic – it is not clear that two bishops who are in communion with each other could coexist in one geographic location (unless you have some documentation).

            The Catholic church has interpreted tradition and scripture to allow that very different, but equally valid, traditions have developed in different places and in different times. Those traditions are distinct and particular churches that deserve their own ecclesiastical structure. Within the traditions, we do not allow multiple bishops but to accommodate the reality of apostolic succession and ecclesiastical diversity, it is acceptable to allow coexistence. Even before the schism, there were many disagreements (that the EO consider heresy now but not serious enough to schism at the time like the filioque) that both sides could chalk up to a particularity of tradition.

            Now the heart of the disagreement is this – is a Bishop solely defined by a geographic area? Catholics say no but the Orthodox say yes. If the heart of your ecclesiology is the ancient practice of one bishop per territory, what else more important do you have to deal with? Surely, “we acknowledge the problem” is a poor excuse. Maybe your ecclesiology has become fixed to an errant idea of what is tradition and what is not?

            The history of Christendom is rife with schismatics who always have claimed that “tradition doesn’t allow X” from the Novatians to the Donatists to Old Believers to Sedevacantists, etc. I am earnestly trying to understand the basic points at which we disagree – is a Bishop’s authority solely tied to his geographic area? Does the Eucharist have a geographic component to it that is necessary? Is there a conciliar statement or early father who has expounded on this topic within a global context?

          2. I’m having a hard time seeing what the argument you’re giving is here. Basically, I understand you to be saying, “Rome has determined it’s okay not to follow this rule any more.” But I can’t figure out on what basis you’re saying it’s now okay.

            Chalking it up to a matter of “local tradition” suggests that this was not actually the universal practice of the Church. But history shows pretty clearly that it was. This is not the view of some rigorist, schismatic sect but the official policy of the Ecumenical Councils. And it was Rome’s policy, too, until it decided to change it.

            Surely, “we acknowledge the problem” is a poor excuse. Maybe your ecclesiology has become fixed to an errant idea of what is tradition and what is not?

            Are you basically saying that we ought to change our ecclesiology because some of us are sinning against it? Anyway, I didn’t say that we merely acknowledge the problem. We’re working on solving these canonical anomalies. The solution isn’t to decide that it’s not a problem.

            I am earnestly trying to understand the basic points at which we disagree – is a Bishop’s authority solely tied to his geographic area? Does the Eucharist have a geographic component to it that is necessary?

            And yes, if you read the canons of the Ecumenical Councils, you will see that a bishop who exercises authority outside his geographic diocese without the blessing of the local ruling bishop is to be deposed from the episcopacy. The Eucharist definitely does have a geographic component—it is the sacrament in an actual place, the synaxis of the faithful around their bishop. To deny the particularity of its locality is actually a sort of gnosticism that puts the Incarnation in the back seat in service to a far more ephemeral “authority.”

            So from where I sit, Rome’s ecclesiology isn’t more developed. It’s actually been getting less so in this regard, because in its anti-localism, it is unmooring the spiritual from the physical. If the Eucharistic synaxis is not bounded by geography, why have churches at all? Either the territorial principle is important or it isn’t. Right now, Rome is attempting a hybrid by dividing the faithful in a given place among themselves.

            Is there a conciliar statement or early father who has expounded on this topic within a global context?

            Yes. The Ecumenical Councils are pretty clear on this. And they definitely intended to be legislating for the whole Church.

    2. “We have a more coherent ecclesiology…” Ah, papalist triumphalism. There are some things Rome will just never “develop” out of.

      In the words of young Skywalker, “Your overconfidence is your weakness.”

      1. The Orthodox have taught me more than contemporary Catholics that one should not equivocate about the truth. I stated the truth as I understand it and defended the doctrine as to why I thought it was more coherent; I didn’t simply assert it (that would be triumphalism.) If you have an issue with the argument, then argue against it, to reply “typical triumphalism” is its own meta-triumphalism – it acts as if I can not defend my tradition without being triumphant. Casuistry, sophistry – I’m sure you’re familiar with these terms.

        1. I think Fr. Andrew’s replies thus far are sufficient. Yet it bears mention that if your justification for current Roman practice hinges on a metaphysical commitment to the dialectics of “development” (hence condescending to us that our ecclesiology is not wrong just “underdeveloped”), then what you are engaging in is not a legitimate theological or historical critique but an exercise in question begging. Orthodox ecclesiology has not dogmatized its use of 19th century idealism in order to rule out contrary evidence toward the swelling of the omnivorous and ahistoricist ecclesial leviathan that has become the church of Rome.

          A better question for you to ask, vis a vis responding to Orthodox objections in a way that will be meaningful to us, is how your understanding of Roman practice today satisfies, for example, the canon of St Vincent – a criterion, we must remember, that Newman, the doctor of development, found all but useless as it did not satisfy his a priori metaphysical commitments.

          1. First of all, it is not obviously sufficient when you go on to add things (speaking out of both sides of your mouth much?) How does the practice of confession even satisfy St. Vincent’s canon? There’d be some Novation bishops who would certainly not fit the criteria for “all” in it, would they?

            Not understanding that you have developed things is your own question begging. You may have a taboo against the term, but only because you have your own apophatic reaction to Roman Catholicism, not a true exposition of doctrine from the heart. Usually, the Orthodox anathematize words like innovation or development and then go on to describe things in what any reasonable person would acknowledge as meeting those definitions. “Anything we’ve done has been believed everywhere, anywhere, by all.” Sure, yes. You will definitely convince many people who read Church history even in good faith that broad consensus is clear and simple – continue to accuse me of begging the question!

            Is the bishop of Rome include all in your description of St. Vincent’s canon or when he disagrees, does he become excluded from the mythical group ‘all’? The Orthodox are very good at make infallible teachings out of bits and parts of the Church fathers, whom they also randomly choose to cite – there of course is no canon nor broad consensus on many issues (can you give me a list of who is and who is not a Church father?). Even at Nicea did a couple of legitimately invited bishops still refuse to renounce Arianism. Is that all? What is now your definition of all?

          2. “Anything we’ve done has been believed everywhere, anywhere, by all.”

            Who here has said that? That’s pretty broad.

            Anyway, please keep your responses respectful. And please assume good faith. We have no reason to believe that anyone here is trying to be duplicitous or to do anything but give a true exposition of doctrine from the heart.

            That goes for everyone.

          3. Nick,

            In a way, your reply is a case in point. First of all I am not clear in what manner you see me as “speaking out of both sides of my mouth.” I offered the VC not as a commensurate alternative to papal supremacy but as an example of a certain criterion which exercises a fair amount of explanatory power in the Orthodox mind. My point, which you seem to have overlooked is precisely this: not that nothing in the church can ever change (in a very qualified sense), but rather that the typical Roman Catholic justification for such – yes – innovations as the papal “dogmas” hinge on an a priori metaphysical theory of development (among other things) which Orthodox do not share. It is not even a matter of history or theology – it’s the principled dogmatic differences between Rome and the Orthodox church that are at stake.

            It’s like this: papal supremacy is either part of the apostolic deposit or it is not. Simply playing the “development” card has become a nervous twitch for lazy Roman apologists. It’s one thing to say the church will inevitably shift in terminology or emphasis at different times, or even introduce new terminology for the sake of clarification (lest you be thinking it, the essence/energies doctrine is not a “development” in the Newmanian sense, and this is demonstrably so), but it bears significant demonstration that Rome has not, in a sense, revised its own history and been working off of false assumptions. We Orthodox think Rome made a mistake in that equation somewhere along the way, such that the gulf between us is paradigmatic in nature – that is, Rome is no longer even commensurable with Orthodoxy.

            “Development” is the papal panacea for inconvenient counter-arguments. It’s a technical term which carries its due weight and explanatory force (at least for those who have a psychological need to placate the perceived dissonance between history and dogma) provided its metaphysical underpinnings are compatible with Christian dogma. I think it is not. In any case, throwing the word around in order to patronize your Orthodox critics is counterproductive and, yes, triumphalistic and question-begging because it presupposes a understanding of a distinct concept that typically sits, in conversations such as these, undefined, much less ceded by your opponents.

      2. I’d just call it Papal Supremacy because that’s what is meant by a more developed ecclesiology. Power flows down from Christ’s vicar. To a dyed in the wool Catholic, the Ecumenical Councils have authority and are ecumenical only because the Bishop of Rome declares them to be. At least this is the argument that Catholic friends have given to me. For us Orthodox, our ecclesiology is conciliar by nature. The Bishops in council and the mind of the Church over time have declared the Councils Ecumenical and their findings should be adhered to because they represent the mind of Christ’s Body, the Church, that He promised to lead into all truth through the Apostles and their successors.

        The ecclesiologies are radically different so understanding one another is difficult. Rome is hierarchical while Orthodoxy is conciliar – and not just via the Ecumenical Councils. Canonization and many other things happen through the council for the Church, even if it does not meet to have council. The Mind of the Church becomes clear over time and that, as I understand it, is part of the conciliar nature. There is debate inside the dogmatic lines, but there is no great authority to ask many questions to and get a definitive answer. Yet so much of the Church’s teaching and life has been maintained through this attitude. Great Lent remains Great. Fasting is mostly encouraged throughout the year and the ascetic life is not believed to belong to only monastics. There is no central authority to declare new developments (such as purgatory or the Storehouse of the Saints) and there isn’t any concept of development. Things have been refined. St. Athanasius certainly “got” the Holy Trinity in a way that St. Justin did not, but that was not a development, it was a refinement of our language that allowed the Trinity to be dogmatized properly when the Faith was under threat. Revelation is not continuous through the Church, it was delivered once for all. The Church has grown in her understanding and has developed means to guide us on our walk (Divine Liturgy, the liturgical calendar, etc), but the teaching is largely the same.

        At the core of even this debate over unity is the question of how the Catholics and Orthodox define authority. Both define it very differently, so there’s going to be difficulty in discussion.

  2. There may be good reasons for a parish to switch jurisdictions. Mine, for example, is in one of the ethnic jurisdictions within the OCA (“in but not entirely of”). But our parish is multi-ethnic or American and uses primarily English. It was mooted several years ago that our jurisdiction was considering a proposal to remove itself from the OCA and unite with the patriarchal parishes connected with the “old country,” creating an ethnic metropolitanate where one had not existed before, separate from the OCA, with the specious justification that this step would somehow advance the cause of an American Orthodox Church. Within my parish there was great opposition to the proposal and much discussion about petitioning the bishop for a transfer to the OCA proper. Thankfully, the proposal seems to have died (though we still are wary).

  3. Fr. Andrew, you’re talking about overlapping jurisdictions, etc., that are still in communion with one another, right? That is, a member of one parish could attend divine liturgy at the parish of another of the overlapping jurisdictions and still receive communion, and perhaps clergy from one could concelebrate with those in another. But aren’t there also Orthodox communions that do not commune at all? For example, the Holy Orthodox Church in North America, or the ROCOR remnant, the ROCIA, etc. There is no essential difference in doctrine but there are ferocious disagreements over ecumenism, the calendar, etc., such that they are willing to break communion. How is this different from protestantism?

    1. Regarding those various groups, it is an open question for some as to whether they are Orthodox at all. They are, at the very least, in schism, so we don’t really regard that situation as normal, either.

      How does it differ from Protestantism? Well, if you are speaking of the world of denominationalism/non-denominationalism, it differs in that those Protestant groups all regard one another as legitimately part of the same one Church, despite big differences in dogma and praxis. Nothing like that holds true in Orthodoxy, even among the fringe you mention.

      1. Yes, the various jurisdictional disputes in Orthodoxy are not over points of doctrine, which is precisely the Protestant model, but rather disputes over faithfulness to the traditions of the Church, the two most divisive examples being original vs. revised calendar and participation in the ecumenical dialogue. The fact that these differences have aroused the passions so as to cause loss of unity is regrettable and we should all pray that one day these rifts will be overcome. However, I, as a communicant in an original calendar jurisdiction, under a bishop (who is a monk) with unquestionable ordination status, have the same “right thinking” on matters of faith as my brothers and sisters in different jurisdictions. I do believe one day the “schisms” (a much abused word) will be overcome and the orthodox will be united.

        But the key in all this is that in spite of the regrettable splits and loss of communion amongst some of the faithful, there is no difference in our understanding of the tenets of the faith. None.

        While we acknowledge our lack of unity as regrettable and should strive to end it, the Protestant model, by the logic of its presuppositions, inculcates disunity and earnestly strives to preserve it.

  4. Full disclosure: I am (canonically) a Roman Catholic; I worship with the Melkite Greek Catholics; but I am seeking to become Orthodox.

    As I sit in my office on the East Coast, I am under the territorial jurisdiction of the following Catholic bishops: one Latin Rite bishop, one Melkite bishop, one Personal Ordinariate non-bishop, one Syrian bishop, one Maronite bishop, one Armenian bishop, one Romanian bishop, one Chaldean bishop, and one Syro-Malabarese bishop.

    We all share intercommunion; however, my five children (all under the age of seven) are forbidden to receive Confirmation and Holy Communion at any Catholic parish. Yet, any child (from infancy!) baptized into any of the aforementioned Eastern Catholic Churches may receive Holy Communion at my Latin Rite parish. Those Eastern Catholic children were likewise confirmed/chrismated at baptism; my children are denied access to chrismation (in my diocese) until they’re in the eighth grade, unless I appeal to Rome, in which case they can only receive chrismation at the age of seven.

    Additionally, if an unbaptized child under age seven is brought to a Latin Rite parish for baptism, he is baptized only; he’ll receive the Eucharist around age seven and then have to wait until eighth grade (or whatever age the bishop has set – usually a teenage year) to receive Chrismation/Confirmation. However, if a person seven or older approaches the laver of Baptism, he is then immediately confirmed and receives Holy Communion!

    Are the Catholics juridically or sacramentally united? I don’t think so!

  5. I forgot: I am also under one Ukranian bishop and one Ruthenian bishop!

    Also, considering Wes Callihan’s comment, the Roman Catholic Church has similar problems related to the Society of St. Pius X (SSPX): it’s bishops (consecrated without Rome’s permission in 1988) were excommunicated until that was lifted recently. There are hundreds of their churches and chapels throughout the world. Their canonical status is really unknown; some bishops forbid faithful to attend their chapels, some bishops say that it is okay to attend Mass with them, all say that confessions and marriages under their auspices are invalid. They’re “Catholic,” but not quite.

    The Catholic Church also has to deal with the sedevacantists, those who believe the man currently occupying the See of Rome is a heretical usurper. I guess the only comparable Orthodox situation would be the Old Believers. Sedevacantists have a valid Eucharist but not, according to Catholic theology, valid Confessions or Marriages (if performed by their clergy). Again, they’re “Catholic,” but not quite.

  6. “For Orthodoxy, the unity of the Church does not lie primarily in external administrative organization, but in a unity of faith and communion.”

    That’s the essence of it right there. Anything more is only explication of that basic fact.

  7. The question posed, is concerning someone leaving a parish because of issues or an entire parish moving to different diocese due to an issue? Question was not clear and the answer was even more unclear.
    In all due respect, I see the Orthodox as being very much unified as a faith, but I see the parishioners often need to be reminded that the church is about our faith not about ones ethnicity! Too often the churches define themselves by their cultural background rather than our church doctrine. For example, I converted 30 years ago to Orthodoxy and I attended a very ethnic church…lovely church and my family and I were very active in the church, but there were those who felt it their duty to tell me that I was not a “real orthodox” because I came from a different ethnic background! This continues to happen in the strongly ethnic churches and really should be addressed. The truest of Orthodox were very kind and welcoming but their is a very large number who is not.
    Our faith is unified, our followers need to embrace diversity and tolerance!
    Love in Christ, Susan

    1. The question began this way: I am aware of one Orthodox church parish leaving one Orthodox group to go to another Orthodox group because of some issue.

      It’s about a parish trying to change jurisdictions.

      As for the issue of culture and ethnicity, yes, it is a difficult issue, though not directly related to what this post is about.

  8. Father, I understand your argument, but I believe early historical evidence needs to be laid out as well. If bishops function in the role of Apostles, with an Apostolic Grace and Commission, then how do we explain the Apostles residing together in Jerusalem in Galatians and Acts? How do we explain the multiple Bishops of Rome in the 2nd century, inferred in Hypolitus and the writings of St. Irenaeus? Certainly, later canonical law describes one bishop per city, with later addendum’s to enforce the law noted at Trullo, but this was conveniently disregarded by Constantinople itself when many bishops and even Patriarchs of Antioch and Alexandria resided in the Byzantine court, proclaimed “In Partibus Infidelium”. If we use canonical and historical precedent as an argument, we must not only refer to current anomalies, but to the historical precedents before the canons as well.

    1. Yes, it is true that the notion of canonical territory is not apparently immediately present in the time of the Apostles, but it gets settled out fairly soon and remains steady for many centuries. There are anomalies along the way, of course, but they are not allowed to become permanently codified. What Rome has done on its own is basically just to make the notion of canonical territory largely meaningless except in sub-administrations of their church. So a Latin bishop can’t make an incursion on the territory of another Latin bishop, but he can also pretend that the Ukrainian Catholics who live down the street are basically invisible. (Of course, with things like the Ordinariate, “Latin bishop” has to be qualified, too.)

    2. Although the episcopate has the apostolic succession, bishops are not apostles. The apostles had a particular mission—to preach the Gospel to all nations and be witnesses of the Resurrection of Christ—and thus their jurisdiction is not tied to a particular area. This is why the Orthodox (generally speaking) do not regard St. Peter as the first Bishop of Rome, but rather St. Linus.

Comments are closed.