Don’t Confuse Autocephaly with Theology

By George Demacopoulos

(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.)

For our entire history, secular geographies have dictated the boundaries of episcopal sees and autocephalous churches. The decisions of ecumenical councils, which occasionally affirmed these jurisdictions, were pragmatic efforts to align—and often realign—the ecclesiastical map according to shifting political realities.  In short, there is nothing theologically significant about ecclesial borders.

In the late-Roman and Byzantine periods, the boundaries of a bishop’s diocese were precisely those of the imperial map.  If the borders of a Roman province shifted, diocesan borders shifted as well.  When the emperor Justinian affirmed the concept of autocephalous churches and promoted the Pentarchy, the ecclesial map reflected the organizational structure of the empire—Jerusalem’s autonomy, of course, was the exception that proved the rule.  And, it is worth noting that Justinian and his successors did more than shift borders, they also increased and decreased the number of autocephalous regions.  For example, prior to the emperor’s death, the church granted autocephaly on par with the Pentarchy to the Balkan See of Justinian’s hometown—not only does this city no longer exist, we are not even sure where it was.

The relationship between ecclesial borders and secular politics in post-Ottoman Eastern Europe is largely comparable—as Greece, Romania, Bulgaria, and Serbia forged independent nation-states on Westphalian models, so too did the churches in those regions gain autonomy.

While there is no genuine theological significance to these historical shifts, I submit that there are two differences in our contemporary setting that fundamentally diminish the ability of the Church to engage the theological questions of our age.

First, with the demise of the Byzantine empire, we lost the mechanism the Church historically employed to reach consensus on difficult questions.  It was the state, not the episcopal assembly, which forced bishops to the table at each of the ecumenical councils.

Please don’t misunderstand me.  I am not lamenting the loss of the empire. But we have to acknowledge that the political setting of modernity has serious implications for the Church.  Not only do we lack a political superstructure to force theological conversation but every one of our canons that speaks to jurisdictional issues presumes the existence of an empire that no longer exists and isn’t coming back.

These canons must be reevaluated in light of the political present, with the knowledge that it was always their purpose to align with the political present, not a nostalgic past.  Put simply, we need to craft a ecclesial structure that can function without empire.

The second and far more challenging difference is that the borders that separate autocephalous churches now largely reflect national borders.  This is a uniquely modern phenomenon that corresponds to the invention of nation-states.  I contend that the insidious myths that undergird nationalist ideology have deeply infected Orthodox sentimentality.

I do not think we can overstate just how destructive the rise of national churches has been for the cause of Christian unity.  With the lone exception of the Ecumenical Patriarch, I do not see a single autocephalous leader in the modern Orthodox world who is willing to denounce nationalism as a sin. If the Orthodox Church is to actualize the claim of universal truth, and if it is to do so within an ecclesial structure that values autocephalous churches, it must reject, without exception, any nationalist ideology that obstructs the cause of Christian unity.

George Demacopoulos is the Fr. John Meyendorff and Patterson Family Chair of Orthodox Christian Studies and Co-Director of the Orthodox Christian Studies Center at Fordham University.