Autocephaly, Autonomy and Self-governance in the Eastern Orthodox Churches


Autocephaly is the status of the Church that allows it to govern itself (from the Greek autos – self, and kephalē – head). Autocephalous Churches have equal standing, and the most ancient among them are accorded unofficial respect as “first among equals”. The Autocephalous Churches constitute the Ecumenical Orthodox Church.

The authority of the Autocephalous Churches

Each Autocephalous Church is independent in matters of governance, which includes the exclusive authority to convene the local council, run an independent church court, adopt a Statute, consecrate myrrh, glorify saints, and add new rites and hymnography.

Autocephaly, however, does not give absolute freedom. No decision of an autocephalous Church may contradict the Holy Scripture and Tradition, or the teachings, dogmas and canons of the Ecumenical Church. If a local Church deviates from these tenets, it will no longer be considered Orthodox and a part of the Ecumenical Church, as it happened to the Roman Church, once treated by all the others as “first among equals”.

Church autonomy and self-governance

An independently governed, or autocephalous church is fully independent of the other local Orthodox Churches. An autocephalous church does not report to any other churches but may have churches under its authority. A church with subordinate churches is referred to as the mother church.

Exarchates within an autocephalous church are ecclesiastical jurisdictions outside the state in which the bishop of the Mother Church resides. For example, the Belarusian Orthodox Church is an exarchate of the Moscow Patriarchate. The Synod of an Exarchate reports to the authority of the Synod of the Russian Church. Substantive decisions of an Exarchate require the approval of the Mother Church.

The authority of an autonomous church is broader than that of an exarchate or diocese, but narrower than that of an autocephalous church. Here are some examples. The primate of an autonomous church is selected and approved by the primate of the mother church before ordination. The Statute of an autonomous church is agreed in the same way. An autonomous church does not make its Myrrh but acquires it from the Mother Church. An autonomous church runs its ecclesiastical court, but its Primate is only subject to the judicial authority of the Mother Church. The Primate of an autonomous Church is commemorated in divine offices after the primate of the Mother Church.

The following autonomous Orthodox are active as of today: Orthodox Church of Mount Sinai (under Jerusalem), Orthodox Church of Finland (under Constantinople), Orthodox Apostolic Church of Estonia (under Constantinople, not recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church), Church of Japan (under Russia), and Church of China (under Russia).

Diptych, or the list of recognized autocephalous Churches

The recognised autocephalous churches are named in the diptych, a commemoration list of the bishops of the local Churches. The number of names in the diptych may differ from one local church to another. Let us consider the diptychs used in Constantinople and Russian churches.

The Churches in the Diptych are arranged in the canonical order. From 2018, the Diptych of the Russian Orthodox Church excludes the Churches Constantinople, Alexandria, Cyprus and Hellas that recognised the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, formed from two non-canonical churches and opposed the canonical Church. The excluded churches will likely be returned to the Diptych once the differences over recognition have been resolved.

Becoming an autocephalous church

The wishes of the faithful are a prerequisite for any church to become autocephalous. At the same time, the autocephaly of a church must strengthen the unity of the churches, not diminish from it.    

There are several canonical ways for a church to become autocephalous:

– When an Ecumenical Council grants it autocephaly. However, the Great Schism of 1054 has ruled out the possibility of holding Ecumenical Councils

– A pan-Orthodox Council may grant autocephaly to a church. By oikonomia, autocephaly can be proclaimed with the consent of all the local Churches but needs to be confirmed by the pan-Orthodox Council.

The Greek and Russian tradition have different practices in this matter.

– For the Greek Churches (Constantinople, Alexandria, Jerusalem, Hellas, etc.), the Ecumenical Patriarchate (of Constantinople) may initiate the process of granting autocephaly. The Ecumenical Patriarchate may also grant autocephaly to churches outside its canonical territory.

– The Churches of the Russian tradition (Russian, Romanian, Bulgarian, Polish, etc.) do not recognise the latter authority of Constantinople. Rather, they hold the position that autocephaly may be granted by a local church to its constituent part.

The self-proclaimed autocephalous churches

There are also non-canonical routes to autocephaly. An autonomous church or a constituent part of a local church may proclaim itself to be autonomous unilaterally. Other churches rarely recognise such self-proclaimed autocephalous churches immediately. More often, they fall out of communion with Ecumenical Orthodoxy for many decades, if not permanently. Here are some examples.

The Bulgarian Orthodox Church was an autonomous church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Its Local Council in Preslav in 919 proclaimed autocephaly. It took the mother church eight years to recognise the autocephaly. 

Bishop Melchisedek (Payevsky) proclaimed the autonomy of the Belarusian Church from the Moscow Patriarchate at a council in Minsk in 1923 and proclaimed himself as its metropolitan. The autonomy was not recognised by any church. Melchisedek repented to the Patriarch in 1926 and returned to the rank of bishop. No canonical decisions were made at that time on the autonomy of the Belorussian Church. No party disputed the illegality of its proclamation, and the incident was eventually forgotten.

The Macedonian Orthodox Church (Archbishopric of Ohrid), an autonomous part of the Serbian Orthodox Church, proclaimed autocephaly unilaterally in 1967. It was out of communion with the Ecumenical Council until it was recognised by the Constantinople Patriarchate, and then by the Serbian Church.

However, most self-proclaimed churches remain small non-canonical groups. For example, in Ukraine, apart from the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, at least 18 other religious groups claim the status of autocephalous churches. Symptomatically, there are more clergy in some of them than there are parishioners.

The autocephaly of the Russian Orthodox Church

It is widely accepted that the Russian Church proclaimed its autocephaly in 1448. Previously it had been under Constantinople. The Florence Council of 1439 established a union between the Orthodox and the Catholics. The Russian Church disagreed, and broke off its communion with Constantinople.

In its epistle to Constantinople, the Moscow Council of 1441 condemned the acceptance of the Union by the Greeks and demanded of Constantinople to delegate the authority to elect and appoint the bishops of the Russian Church to Moscow, taking it away from the Greeks.

The papal legate dispatched to Moscow to take the throne of the Metropolitan of the Russian Orthodox Church was arrested on arrival and expelled. The throne remained vacant for many years until the Great Prince asked Archpriest Iona from Ryazan to come to Moscow in 1446, where he was elected the Metropolitan in 1448 by the local church council. On an official level, the rift between the Russian and Constantinople churches widened, but unofficially, the close relationship between the Russian and Greek Orthodox survived.

The Greeks renewed official communion in the mid-15th century out of necessity. In the Ottoman Empire, the Church of Constantinople lost the financial support of the State. From 1518 Greek Orthodox Church dispatched missions to Moscow to ask for alms. In 1589 the Greeks supported the autocephaly of the Russian Church and even the institution of the Patriarchy.

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