The Marks of Autocephaly

By James C. Skedros

(This essay was originally delivered as a public talk at the June 2015 Fordham/OTSA conference on the upcoming Great and Holy Council of the Orthodox Church. It was part of a panel on Autocephaly and Diaspora.)

The canonical situation in the United States is recognized by nearly all Orthodox theologians and ecclesiastical leaders as anomalous and contrary to the organizational principle of the early church of one bishop presiding over one eucharistic community.  The canons of Nicaea I (325) and especially Canon 2 of the Council of Constantinople I (381) enshrine and expand this principle by further delineating the fundamental unit of ecclesiastical organization to be one presiding bishop within a defined geographical area.  In the context of late Roman civil administration these organizational units were either the smaller provinces or larger dioceses.  In the US and elsewhere, the existence of multiple jurisdictions with presiding bishops in the same geographical area contradicts this fundamental principle.

To complicate matters further, the historical trajectories of Orthodox Christianity in 18th and 19th century North America reflect a diverse expression of organizational realities, missionary activities, and immigration within a nexus of Mother Church relationships that were and still are connected to the politics of individual nation states.  The autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in America granted by the Patriarchate of Moscow in 1970 further confuses the situation.  Thus, any solution to the question of autocephaly in the diaspora must not only consider the ecclesiastical and canonical tradition but the entrenched historical realities that are connected with corresponding jurisdictional agendas.

Rather than focus solely on the diverse canonical and historical record, it would be beneficial to remind ourselves of the four attributes of the church defined in the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which when applied to the organizational principle already noted redirect our focus away from issues of power, authority and primacy as the Church attempts to resolve the jurisdictional anomalies found in the United States.  As the only dogmatic definition concerning ecclesiology coming out of an ecumenical council, the adjectives “one”, “holy”, “catholic” and “apostolic” deserve as much attention as the canonical legislation or historical vicissitudes.

To focus on these four markers of ecclesiological authenticity should not be seen as a cover for the argument of maturity: that is, autocephaly is granted only when a local community reaches a particular level of maturity and is thus capable of self-governance.  Such an understanding of autocephaly has an inherent connection with longevity; that is, a certain amount of time must “pass” before a local church is able to govern itself.  The church is not a bottle of wine, it is a human-divine organization which expresses itself in terms of fullness and authenticity.  A church is autocephalous when it can express the oneness of the church universal through its internal unity as well as its unity with all other autocephalous churches.  A church is autocephalous, not by its ability to canonize or have one of its members be canonized, but by providing the soil from which holiness can sprout.  A church is autocephalous when it speaks “the truth in love” not just for its own local members but as a witness to the world.  A church is autocephalous when its bishops are canonical and it preaches the apostolic kerygma of Christ incarnate, crucified, resurrected and ascended.

Autocephaly is organic and local, yet not disconnected from the universal church.  For a church to be a church it must be one, holy, catholic and apostolic.  Autocephaly does not validate these four ecclesiological markers but rather is an expression of their existence and vitality.  The question of autocephaly is not limited to self-governance, although, unfortunately this is how the discussion is usually framed.  Rather, it is an expression of the authenticity of a regional church that is able to express the oneness, sanctity, catholicity and apostolicity of the Church.  Autocephaly is not earned; it is experienced; it is an expression of the legitimacy of a community that is capable of guaranteeing that the members of its body, though disparate, are as a whole an expression of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic kerygma of Jesus Christ.

James Skedros is Dean and Michael G. and Anastasia Cantonis Professor of Byzantine Studies and Professor of Early Christianity at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology.