ABSTRACT: In previous essays posted on this forum, the present author analyzed the formation of autocephalous churches, the role of the metropolitan and its role within the episcopate, the canonical claims of existing patriarchates regarding primacy within the so-called Diaspora, and the current jurisdictional crisis within North America. As to the idea of a “diaspora,” certain issues need to be more fully developed. Specifically, which autocephalous church has the authority to evangelize within such an area? How is autocephaly to be proclaimed? Are parallel dioceses and/or multiple episcopal seats in one city evidence of schism? And can fidelity to the Gospel trump the claims of an already existing diocese? Parts 1 through 5 are primarily historical whereas the last two sections contain analysis and commentary based on recent events.
One of the problems vexing Orthodoxy in North America has been a basic misunderstanding of the nature of the bishop. In all too many jurisdictions in North America, this ecclesial officer has been viewed as a subordinate to a national primate and/or a foreign holy synod. This same phenomenon is replicated in other lands whose Orthodox churches are the results of immigration. Rarely, if ever have episcopal appointments in these areas followed the authentic Christian practice of election or even popular acclamation. Worse, major ecclesiastical decisions involving dioceses, bishops, and even entire eparchies have been handed down by fiat, with almost no consideration for the subjects at hand or canonical protocols for that matter. Until very recently, diocesan seats themselves have been provisional in most jurisdictions.
What accounts for such arbitrary attitudes? Some would argue that such capriciousness is due to the minuscule number of Orthodox Christians in any given area; certainly financial upheaval in the Old World as well as the lack of qualified candidates play a part as well. Regardless, the net result has been that most of these bishops have been viewed as ecclesiastical bureaucrats with no fixed address and little loyalty to an admittedly fluid, diocesan structure.
Truth be told, the seeds for the bishop-as-bureaucrat were laid in the later stages of the Byzantine Empire. The authentic Christian attitude on the other hand, was the bishop as a locally elected presbyter, accountable to his flock and only his brother bishops in the regional synod. This structure began to attenuate during the so-called Pentarchy (ca. AD 500-1100), a time during which some regional churches began to lose the right of election of their metropolitans. In the West, the augmentation of the papacy of Rome was due in part to the ability of that city’s bishops to exercise the authority to consecrate the suburbicarians, bishops who presided over dioceses adjacent to Rome.
In the East, the metropolitans of three regions adjacent to Constantinople (Pontus, Thrace, and Asia) became subject to Constantinopolitan consecration thanks to the 28th canon of Chalcedon (AD 451). In neither case however, was the right of election taken from the people for their bishops. Still, this was a gradual process, so gradual in fact that during the latter part of the Middle Ages, Russian bishops could demand greater autonomy for their eparchy from Constantinople by hearkening back to the primitive practice of popular election and episcopal consecration of the metropolitans,2 which were still “on the books” canonically speaking. Indeed, the Russian bishops successfully petitioned the ecumenical patriarchate for greater autonomy in the selection of the Kievan metropolitans.
When all was said and done, the popular election of the bishop, the regional election of the metropolitan, and the institution of new dioceses and independent churches was clearly the ideal. That these processes exist today only in attenuated circumstances, does not mitigate against their authenticity but instead points to practices that the Orthodox Church today should willingly embrace. Moreover, in doing so, the Church would avoid needless controversies and more effectively spread the Gospel.
The present scenario (that of bishop as assigned bureaucrat or administrator) was not envisioned when this office was created in the sub-apostolic age. In The Didache, an ancient Christian manual of discipline from the first century, we are told that one of the functions of the office of bishop is to manifest unity within a particular locality, unity of course being a hallmark of love (John 15:9).3 This is epitomized in its essence by the consecration of the gifts of the people into the Eucharist by the bishop of the locality.
This understanding of the episcopal office has been termed (understandably) “eucharistic ecclesiology.” The revival of this concept has been widespread. In addition to Orthodox eminences such as Georges Florovsky, Alexander Schmemann and John Zizioulis, who championed this concept in the latter half of the twentieth century, Roman Catholic and Evangelical theologians of great repute have come to similar conclusions as well.4 Indeed, in the Roman church, one of its prime advocates is Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, presently Pope Benedict XVI.5 Benedict in fact has made it a prime focus of his pontificate, especially in his dialogues with the Orthodox Church. He has chosen to view the papal office as the primary teaching office of the Christian Church, one that presides in love as opposed to that of a supreme hierarch who enjoys a special archiepiscopal charism that allows him to serve as the administrative head of a vast bureaucracy. (This in fact can be considered to be the Orthodox view of the papacy as described by Bishop Kallistos Ware in his book, The Orthodox Church.6) As to the equality of the episcopate, this is in fact the normative view of the Orthodox Church. That it has been largely forgotten by many of the laity does it not negate its reality.
The eucharistic understanding of the role of the bishop has tremendous implications for the Church today, up-ending centuries of a strict top-down hierarchy, not only in the West, but in the East as well.7 The emphasis on the Eucharist has even more bearing on the present reality. Among other things, it solidifies the liturgical participation of the laity in the life of the Church. It is no coincidence that laymen who partake frequently of the mysteries of the Church tend also to be involved in the life of the parish. This includes not only frequent confession, but in leadership roles as well. It is not too much to say that such laymen feel an organic connection to the universal Church as well as their own particular congregation.
But what does it mean to say, that the bishop’s primary role is “eucharistic”? Does this imply merely a liturgical role? What about his evangelistic mission? Is that secondary? The peremptory answer would be an emphatic negative. The ritual acts of the bishop and his deputies (the presbyters) were in fact kerygmatic. The kerygma was in its essence, the proclamation of the Gospel, which was not only a recitation of historical events or merely a code of ethics, but the proclamation that the Kingdom of Heaven was “at hand” (Matt 3:2, 4:17, 10:7). Part of this proclamation was that the Church’s worship was eschatological, and in the Eucharist, we find that the eschatological notions of the Church were already realized to a very great extent. When Christians gather together to worship, they are entering into a mode of existence that is beyond time and space; indeed, partaking of a heavenly worship that is ongoing within the heavenly realm (Rev 14).8 In other words, the corporate worship of the Church in its locality, under the presidency of its bishop, “is the Church in all its fullness, not just a part of the Church...it is the basic unit on which all subsequent speculation must be based, the primary experience underlying all effort at definition.”9
When we consider the sub-apostolic age, we see that none of the above is controversial. According to Ignatius, we find that the bishop personified the unity of the local church.10 To stress this point, Ignatius said that the bishop “stood in the place of God.”11 According to modern commentators such as Zizioulis, this is to be understood to mean that the catholicity of the Church is manifested in its entirety within the diocese. This phenomenon is best explained in this way:
One church may be established by Peter, another by Paul, another by a missionary hundreds of years later. Yet all are equally and fully apostolic, just as they are one, holy and catholic. For the structure of the local church –the bishop surrounded by the college of presbyters, the deacons, and all the faithful—has a direct iconic relationship to the kingdom of where Christ stands surrounded by the apostles.12
This icon of the local Church as the “Catholic Church” leads inexorably to the conclusion that all bishops are equal. According to another Church Father, St Cyprian of Carthage, each bishop occupies the cathedra Petri or the seat of Peter, not just those bishops whose specific churches (such as Rome or Antioch) that were founded by this Apostle. Though Cyprian’s view of the episcopate was less theocentric than Ignatius’, the essential equality of all bishops was upheld. It was for this reason that a plurality of bishops was required to consecrate a new bishop. This was historically manifested in the concatenation of dioceses into a local, or regional synod, which operated under the principle of collegiality as explicated in the 34th Apostolic canon.13
Having said that, how did these bishops differentiate themselves? Was there a hierarchy among them? How could there be if all the bishops were equal? After all, we do know that there existed the office of metropolitan, usually the bishop of the largest or most important of the diocese within a regional church. Again, we need to turn to Ignatius who wrote in the “Prologue” to his Epistle to the Romans, that some bishops may “preside in love.” Erickson, takes this to mean that the presidency of the regional church was predicated on the belief that these bishops “more completely and perfectly share all that they are with the others.”14 The charisms were the same in each diocese, but the ability and willingness to share the Gospel were the deciding factor as to which bishop would preside within a given episcopal college. And quite apropos of the present discussion, these regional councils were autocephalous churches.15 The metropolitan was the president of the diocesan bishops when it met in council, nothing more. As stated in canon 34, he was to be informed of all major decisions by the bishops, and he in turn was required to inform all the bishops of any significant actions on his part.
The concept of episcopal independence transferred rather easily to the patriarchal level as well. As late as the ninth century, Patriarch Photius of Constantinople reacted vehemently to the activities of German missionaries in Bulgaria. Although his concern was specifically related to their insertion of the Filioque clause into the Nicene Creed (which at this time was still rejected by Rome itself), we can tell that Photius considered Bulgaria to be within the ecclesiastical purview of Constantinople.16 What gives this opposition special urgency was that Photius himself recognized the primacy of Rome within the Church and in other contexts submitted to Roman approval. Nor was this a prerogative of venerable patriarchates alone: the first patriarch of Bulgaria, Theophylact, prevented incursion from the Church of Constantinople into the new Bulgarian church, even though he himself was a Byzantine and owed his elevation to the Bulgarian throne because of the Byzantine mother church. The principle of diocesan autonomy legitimized Theophylact’s abruptness.
In reading the writings of several Church Fathers, one gets the decided impression that teaching was paramount. The vast canon from the ante-Nicene Fathers overwhelmingly concerns doctrine, not liturgy or even the Church calendar for that matter. Why is this so? After all, the written Gospels certainly existed by this time and the New Testament was well on its way to being closed. But what did the Gospel mean? What does it mean (for example) when Jesus says that the eucharistic elements were really His “body and blood,” or that the Kingdom of Heaven “suffereth violence”? Could any man exposit on it?
This is reflected in the many doctrinal controversies that rocked the Church from its inception. For example, in Acts 15, we find that an apostolic council was convened in order to resolve the issue of gentiles within the Church and to what degree they had to accept the Mosaic Law. Also in Acts, we find the curious career of Simon Magus, a sorcerer who sought to purchase the gifts of the Holy Spirit from the Apostles (Acts 8:18-24). These were profound doctrinal controversies, of the kind that would later consume the careers of Ss Irenaeus, Ignatius, Cyprian, Polycarp, and a host of others.
The celebration of the Eucharist is merely accepted as a given in comparison. Even the great gnostic heresiarchs such as Marcion and Basilides celebrated this central rite of the Church, the only difference being the principle underlying the meaning of the rite, whether it was really the body and blood of Christ or merely a “remembrance” In other words, the great polemicists of the Church were dealing with doctrinal differences rather than liturgical ones. We can see therefore the paramount importance of doctrine; adjustments to it could lead to liturgical differences (or at least differences in interpretation of liturgical practices), but it was the teaching behind any given liturgical rite that concerned the Apostles and their successors. It is for this reason that throughout the history of the Church, there existed a very real fear that even subtle differences in doctrine can result in dire implications, including the breaking of Communion –that is to say, schism.
How then does a bishop fulfill his role as a teacher? Is he the sole preacher within his church as well as the sole celebrant of the divine mysteries? The answer is an emphatic negative. Again, in turning to the Acts of the Apostles, we find how the Apostles were already stretched thin when the problem of almsgiving reached a breaking point. For this reason, they decided to delegate this authority to a new class of ordinands, men whom they called diakonoi (“servers,” also “ministers”). These men were charged with serving the needs of the impoverished Hellenistic Jews living in Jerusalem. In Timothy, we find another class of ordinands, men called presbyteroi or “elders,” who were tasked with authority over individual congregations. It is unclear whether these men constituted a separate class from the episkopoi (“overseers”) but we can surmise that as heads of congregations, it was they who presided over the Eucharist.
By the end of the first century, it is clear that there are men called “overseers” (such as Ignatius) who was most definitely a special kind of elder. What made men like Ignatius stand out? No doubt their evangelistic fervor and theological acumen played a significant role. At any rate, sometime in the later second century, the final cleavage between the office of presbyter and bishop seems to have occurred, no doubt probably because of the proliferation of house-churches within a given city. Therefore the concept of one bishop per church had to be relaxed. In time, other orders came into being, including lectors (readers) and deaconesses.
There was precedence for this. In Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, he describes several of the offices then in existence. Among them are “prophets, evangelists, exorcists, those who speak in tongues,” etc. All of these existed within the first generation of the Church. Careful boundaries existed between them as we can tell by Paul’s exhortation that not “all were called” to be such. Perhaps it would be too hasty to say that a type of licensure existed in order to proclaim to the Church their respective competence, but the implication that they were ordained by the Apostles based on spiritual discernment cannot be denied. For our purposes, it is clear that boundaries existed between these offices.
The above foray into the inner life of the early Church is based on the consideration at hand; that is whether the bishop is the lone initiate into the mysteries of the Church. Clearly he is not. The above-mentioned charisms of the Holy Spirit were open to all believers but Paul’s emphasis was on “order” and how it proceeded within strictly defined parameters. Their existence leads us to more questions: who possessed these gifts and how were they transmitted? Could there be more than one evangelist within a congregation? Could one be both a prophet and a healer? These questions vexed the early Church as we can tell by Paul’s admonitory words. At present, answers to these questions remain unknown (at least to this writer). For our purposes it is merely enough to know that the ultimate enforcer of order within the local congregation was clearly the bishop. It was he who was its presiding officer and he alone who could ordain other officers within it. As for his own office, as already noted above, he received it from a multiplicity of other bishops, who in turn received it from earlier bishops in a chain going back all the way to the Apostles. (It goes without saying that all charisms come from the Holy Spirit.)
Therefore, in order to go about his duties, no bishop was handicapped. The concept of delegation of authority was well established. No doubt, the environs of his church kept him busy. In addition to presiding over the Eucharist, he was responsible for adjudicating torts, disbursing alms, maintaining order, and of course preaching the Gospel. (In some cities, the rectitude of Christian bishops was so pronounced that they were often called to act as judges in civil actions between non-Christian parties!) This presents us with a dilemma: if the bishop was responsible only for his locality, then how was the Gospel spread? For clearly the Church did not remain confined to its birthplace in Jerusalem. Even during the time of the persecutions of the Church, it is clear that it grew exponentially throughout the Greco-Roman world.
For the Christian, the growth of the Church is nothing less than a miracle. The number of the original Apostles was relatively small –Scripture tells us of the original eleven disciples and another seventy, men who are also confusingly called disciples and apostles. The names are familiar to even the most casual observers –Timothy, Silas, Barnabas, Luke, and Mark, for example. Most of these men (and a few women such as Thekla) traveled in small groups for mutual support and protection. In some cities, they found that the message of Jesus had already preceded them. In others, they founded local churches where there was already a sizable Jewish population; in fact, it was often from factions within these local synagogues that they drew their first converts. This of course explains the foundation of churches such as those in Rome, Corinth, Antioch and Ephesus, and appears to have been the template while the Apostles were still alive. Even Paul, a notorious “Hellenizer,” made much of the fact that he “went to the Jews first, then the Greeks” (Acts 14:1). After the death of the last Apostle (John ca AD 105), church planting did not stop. Thanks to the Council of Javneh (ca AD 85), which legitimized anti-Hellenistic attitudes among the Rabbinate, dialogue between Church and Synagogue came to an abrupt halt. It would be hard therefore to imagine that Christian evangelists could rely on the continued hospitality of the local Jewish congregations for either material support or converts.
And yet, the Church grew. This time, its acceleration within the non-Jewish world became more apparent, to the point where it became almost completely a non-Jewish phenomenon with only a few Jewish remnants. The fact that the Roman government recognized the claims of Judaism over and above those of Christianity certainly did not help matters any. Despite the destruction of the Second Temple, Judaism was allowed to spread and receive converts. This was denied to the Church, which remained a superstitio illicito; where it was allowed to exist, it remained largely conditionally and underground. Yet evangelism was taking place. The question is how? How were bishops who were consigned to one city able to take the message of the Gospel to a neighboring city? After all, there were perhaps less than a dozen cities whose churches could reasonably point to an apostolic founder, yet there were thousands of cities throughout the Roman –and even outside it—that had vibrant local churches.
Because of the scarcity of documents from this period, the question must remain rhetorical. What we do know is that it became a given that bishops of towns that were adjacent to unevangelized areas were responsible for all missionary activity throughout the immediate area. Such missionary activity took place even during the period of persecutions. It seems to have accelerated after the Edict of Toleration in AD 313. Once Christianity became a licit religion, the question of diocesan formation became acute. By the time of the Council of Carthage (AD 419), a canon was promulgated which stated that it was the duty of the nearest bishop to spread the Gospel to that area nearest him.17 From what we can tell, this was consistent with the prevailing attitude of episcopal autonomy. This was also in keeping with the Council of Sardica (AD 341), which circumscribed the Roman pope’s universal appellate authority to the calling of ad hoc regional councils for purposes of final adjudication. This cannot be stressed enough: within the local church, one bishop presided. He was responsible to only those bishops who were adjacent to him and the regional metropolitan. Within his diocese, he had a college of ecclesiastics over which he presided and who assisted him with his tasks, but ultimately it was his diocese and no other bishop, including the regional metropolitan, could exercise authority over it.
In a previous essay, this writer explicated on the present supremacist claims of the ecumenical patriarchate regarding its supposed jurisdiction over lands not presently belonging to any of the Orthodox churches.18 This claim is supposedly mandated by canon 28 of Chalcedon, which surreptitiously gave the archbishops of Constantinople the right to consecrate the metropolitans of Thrace, Pontus, and Asia. This fabulous claim has been dealt with elsewhere and shown to be utterly without merit.19
As such, some in Constantinople’s camp have brought forth another, equally fantastic claim to buttress its supremacist claims, namely, that the Byzantine church’s founder was none other than St Andrew, the elder brother of Peter. This legendary founding has no historical foundation and was first promulgated centuries after Byzantium’s founding.20 Ironically, no recourse is made to the actual legitimate claims of Constantinople which were propagated by that church’s proponents during its heyday. In their eyes, a church’s legitimacy did not rest on its apostolic foundation (or lack thereof) but on its fidelity to the Gospel.21
That Andrew engaged in an evangelistic mission is not in dispute. His execution in Patras ca. AD 65 is based on a firm oral tradition. His legend and cultus among the Scythians in and around the Black Sea region is also well attested. It was so pronounced and ancient in fact, that the Scottish nobility –- who fancied themselves as descendents of these same Scythians — made an unambiguous appeal to his authority as the founder of their nation’s church to the pope in Rome. In their Declaration of Arbroath, Andrew is stated to be the preeminent member of the Apostolic college,22 second only to Peter. They also made the claim that the Scots were among the first nations to be evangelized; hence, their demand for independence from England was for them a matter of theological necessity.
In any event, the bishops of Constantinople never claimed him as that city’s first bishop or founder even during Byzantium’s agogee. Indeed, there was no need for such a special pleading. Constantinople’s preeminence was political and statutory. This was not controversial. Because of its cultural importance, it became the hub of Christianity and an intellectual beacon for Christians everywhere. Although its elevation to patriarchal status was not met with Alexandria’s approval, the statutory principle was well ingrained by then. After all, Alexandria’s precedence over Antioch was based on its own cultural superiority, not because of the merits of their respective apostolic founders –- after all, Antioch was founded by St Peter, whereas Alexandria’s first bishop was St Mark, a disciple of Peter. And of course Jerusalem’s elevation to patriarchal status came centuries after its own founding. (In fact previous to the Second Ecumenical Council, Jerusalem’s bishops were suffragans of the metropolitan of Caeserea.)
It is here that we get to the crux of the argument: Despite its past flirtation with Arianism (of which more below), Constantinople’s partisans claimed that its prominence now rested upon its doctrinal orthodoxy. One Byzantine proponent disdained the very idea of apostolic foundation as the sole, or best criterion for a church’s primacy. In this, he was correct. As already noted, it was the Gospel which trumped foundational claims of antiquity.23 After all, all bishops were equal, the charisms were the same in each diocese, but the ability and willingness to share the Gospel was the deciding factor as to which bishop would preside within a given episcopal college. In this respect, material resources and location certainly played a role, in addition to a church’s apostolic foundation, martyriology, and antiquity. Yet all of the above were secondary considerations. Of utmost importance was whether its presiding bishop “more fully” shared the Gospel; it was this characteristic which allowed him to “preside in love” over other bishops as Ignatius stated in his Epistle to the Romans. Kerygma and the willingness to uphold it was the trump, not the number of relics.
To be sure, such a strict adherence to doctrinal principles as opposed to apostolic foundation was a two-edged sword. One of Alexandria’s briefs against the elevation of Constantinople’s archbishop to patriarchal status was that for the better part of a century, that city’s bishops remained firm in their adherence to the doctrines of Arius. In this, the bishops of Constantinople were unfortunately following the lead of the Flavian descendants of Constantine, who were likewise committed to Arianism, this despite the fact that the First Ecumenical Council had anathematized Arius and his teachings. No matter, for the partisans of Alexandria, the line of Arian bishops of Constantinople had cast a decided pall over that see and no matter how prominent that city had become, it was not enough to purge it of its Arian past.24 Constantinople of course saw things differently. It could not reasonably be held to account for past transgressions; after all, Alexandria’s hands were not exactly clean either in this matter: Arius was a bishop from that city and St Athanasius, who was the champion of Nicaea, suffered exile at the hands of the Alexandrians on several occasions.
The Church of course grew in spite of the various heresies that roiled it. Its diocesan structure came to be ordered within the confines of the so-called Pentarchy, an arrangement of five venerable patriarchal sees that took on the presidencies of some of the independent metropolitan regions by consecrating their metropolitans. It should be remembered however that this phenomenon occurred within the boundaries of one nation –- the Roman Empire. The Orthodox concept of the national church was not yet in evidence. The first such church was that of Bulgaria which in a relatively short time, acquired autocephaly and its own patriarchate in AD 918. Serbia would follow this pattern some three centuries later. In both cases however, the idea that membership in the local church was only open to the members of a certain ethnicity was not in evidence. Both of the Bulgarian empires and the Serbian kingdom were multi-ethnic states and its patriarchs were the spiritual overlords of all Christian peoples residing within them.
Nevertheless, as the Middle Ages waned, the rise of the nation-state began to subvert the concept of Christian unity. Even in the West, where by this time the universal jurisdiction of the popes was a given and the concept of autonomous patriarchates was unknown, the French kingdom began to view its church as a semi-autonomous “Gallican” church sometime in the fourteenth century. The concept of the national church came to its full fruition in England during the reign of Henry VIII (d. 1547), who fancied himself the “supreme governor” of the “Anglican” church, that is to say, the Roman Catholic Church in England. When the full effects of the Protestant Reformation had subsided, all of the German and Scandinavian states had state churches whose territories were rigidly defined by the borders of their respective nations. Unfortunately, their independence was lost and their churches became wholly dependent bureaucracies. It was this regrettable model that Peter the Great of Russia found so appealing in his travels to the West and which he mandated for the Russian Empire. In Obolensky’s opinion, the subjugation of the Church to the state –wherever this occurred (in the West as well as in the East)—planted the seeds of totalitarianism in most all modern state, not merely in the former Soviet Union.25
With the ascendancy of the Ottoman Empire, both the Bulgarian and Serbian churches lost their autocephaly to Constantinople (1763). Regrettably, this was done by the armies of the Turkish sultan acting at the behest of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. It was thus understandable that with the decay of Turkey and the subsequent independence of their Christian subjects in the Balkans, the newly independent Christian kingdoms would look to the past as one of comparative glory. This made inevitable the quest of these nations for autocephaly from the Church of Constantinople, which was increasingly controlled by a chauvinistic faction of wealthy Greeks called Phanariotes. Ironically enough, it was the newly liberated Greeks who first demanded emancipation from the ecumenical patriarchate in 1830. In short order the Serbs and Bulgars would reclaim their autocephaly.
These new Balkan states however were not multi-ethnic empires but decidedly mono-cultural states with miniscule populations of Jews, Muslims, and Catholics. For all intents and purposes, they came to identify membership in the national church as the sole criterion for citizenship. The Church became the guarantor of the nation’s boundaries so to speak. Or put another way, it was membership in the local church that decided whether one was a “true” Greek (or Serb, or Bulgar). The Church and state became one and the former became decidedly dependent upon the latter for material support, not unlike the Lutheran churches of the Germanic lands.
As regrettable as this came to be, the idea of the local church being defined by the boundaries of the polity is not a novel one. Indeed, it was the accepted practice in the first millennium as Apostolic canon 34 makes this clear. The difference of course is that in the Roman Empire, the various political regions were not mono-cultural (for the most part). Rome as noted many before, was a multi-ethnic, multi-racial empire. Even in its diocesan subdivisions, the menagerie of races and ethnicities was apparent. That the Church understood this can be gleaned from Canon 28 of Chalcedon, which makes mention on several occasions of “barbarians” living in and near the three provinces in question. Thus, it would be wrong to view the modern Orthodox phenomenon of intensely nationalistic churches as inevitable.
Regardless, the question of nationalism came to a head in the city of Constantinople when Bulgarians living there demanded a bishop of their ethnicity in the latter part of the nineteenth century. The ecumenical patriarchate convened a council in 1872 which ruled against the concept of “phyletism,” calling it an abject heresy.26 Some of course would state that the Phanar was being self-serving, that by doing so, it was solidifying its power over Orthodox immigrants. Appearances to the contrary, this was not the case as Patriarch Joachim III readily granted a tomos of autocephaly to the church of the newly independent Serbian kingdom in 1873. Indeed, Joachim’s own words to this effect bear scrutiny. In an earlier essay, this writer quoted Alexander Bogolepov, one of the first proponents of American autocephaly. This particular passage bears repeating. According to Bogolopev, Joachim III granted autocephaly to Serbia when he came to the realization that local churches may be established:
...not in conformity with the historical importance of the cities and countries in Christianity, but also according to political conditions of the life of the people and nations.” Referring then to Canon 28 of Chalcedon and other canons he reaffirmed: “The ecclesiastical rights, especially those of parishes, usually conform to the structure of the state authority and its provinces.27
Clearly, the idea of territoriality was not lost. Nations could order their churches according to “political conditions,” a principle which reinforces ancient canons, especially those canons which mandated that diocesan boundaries should follow “the municipal model.” Does Joachim’s assessment however leave open the possibilities of migratory incursions of different ethnic groups being granted a special waver? For example, a displaced population of refugees, should its needs not be met vis-à-vis a bishop of their own nation? After all, these things happen in the ordinary course of the lives of nations. Even in a situation such as this, where pastoral concerns must be taken into consideration, the danger of phyletism is so pronounced that an exception would ultimately be hurtful. Regardless, Joachim’s tomos was granted just one year after this particular issue came to a head in the city of Constantinople itself, when Bulgarian émigrés demanded a bishop of their own nation. What Constantinople found objectionable was the concept of tribal churches that catered to ethnic dispersions; not to churches of nations.
The present dilemma of course has to do with the lands of the “diaspora.” To their credit, the primates of the autocephalous churches which met in Istanbul in October, 2008, qualified this term by calling it the “so-called Diaspora.”28 Perhaps they realized how theologically untenable such a term is for a universal religion like Christianity, or at the very least how abrasive this term sounds to those Orthodox who are natives of the lands in question.
The primates at Constantinople appeared to understand the tenuousness of Orthodoxy in traditionally non-Orthodox lands; the issue of the creation of new autocephalous churches was to be the primary agenda items of the much anticipated “Great and Holy Council.” Nevertheless, they told the various bishops from these lands that they would not be welcomed during the pre-conciliar deliberations to be held the following June in Cyprus. The irony was astonishing: even though it was agreed that the issue of the normalization of the churches of the “diaspora” was going to be settled once and for all at this upcoming council, the concerns of native bishops could not be vocalized by the very bishops in question. Rumors abounded that the patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow were engaging in behind-the-scenes gamesmanship related to autonomous churches that the primates of these churches found problematic.29
Be that as it may, the conference was relocated to Chambesy, Switzerland and was presided over by Metropolitan John Zizioulis of Pergamum. Interestingly enough, this is the same Zizioulis — who as a recognized theologian of the first order — had a profound appreciation for the eucharistic role of the bishop and his equality among his brother bishops. Further ironies abounded: Zizioulis was now the titular bishop of a defunct diocese himself, despite the fact that he had earlier written about the absurdity of such a concept.30 As noted, none of the bishops from the so-called diaspora were invited to this conference, thereby casting a cloud over its very legitimacy in the eyes of many. Bickering in fact preceded it and in its aftermath, the Russian church threw cold water over some of it findings,31 thus raising the question as to whether anything of substance transpired.
This of course is unfortunate, because even with the above disqualifiers, the signatories at Chambesy stressed the correct nature of the episcopal office as it was understood in ancient times. Zizioulis for his part remained true to his earlier principles of episcopal equality and autonomy. Given its moribund nature in many non-Orthodox lands, some could reasonably say that the original meaning of the episcopate had in fact been revived. Moreover, the previous fantastic claims of the canon 28 enthusiasts were not even entertained. Instead, a process for convening episcopal assemblies in the disputed lands was formulated which objectively speaking, was non-controversial. It was decided that in any given area where there were bishops representing different ethnic migrations, the presidency of such a council was to follow a precedence based on the diptychs. In other words, the representative of the patriarchate of Constantinople was to preside as its interim chairman. Should no Constantinopolitan exarch exist, then a bishop from the see of Antioch would preside. Absent an Antiochian bishop, then chairmanship would devolve to a bishop from the Russian Orthodox Church, and so on (at present, there are no exarchates of the sees of Antioch or Jerusalem in the lands in question, hence, no provision is made for any émigré bishops from these churches).
Equally important, it was decided that these erstwhile episcopal councils were to meet regularly and “normalize” church life within these lands as expeditiously as possible. The purpose (and hope) of such councils was to create a framework from which an autocephalous church could be created. This hoped for result seemingly put to rest claims of critics of Istanbul, most of whom castigated that see as wanting to aggrandize its own power over these lands in perpetuity.32 As such, Chambesy was viewed as a remarkable come-down from the supremacist claims of the Phanar that had been propagated some three months earlier by its Chief Secretary in a ill-received speech delivered at Holy Cross in Brookline, Massachusetts.33 Despite the fact that no local churches of the “Diaspora” were invited, the framework of Chambesy could be viewed as providing something for everybody; after all, although it was agreed that the chairmanship of these councils were dependent upon the order of the diptychs, there was no guarantee that once a local church achieved autocephaly, that this same bishop would necessarily be its metropolitan.
Others however, were not as sanguine about the workability of the Chambesy formula. For one thing, the Orthodox Church had been down this road before. In a recently republished essay on the subject of Orthodox unity, it was pointed out that our collective memory was very short indeed. According to the author, the recent meeting in Chambesy — in almost all its particulars — was a mere repetition of earlier meetings that had transpired there almost twenty years ago. Then, as now, the ecumenical patriarchate had been the driving force in another pre-conciliar conference. Just as in 2009,
as part of the preparation for the great and holy synod, convened an inter-Orthodox preparatory commission to take up the last and most difficult question on the synod’s agenda: the “diaspora.” Two meetings were held at the ecumenical patriarchate’s center at Chambesy, Switzerland, in 1990 and then in 1993. At those meeting, a plan was developed for organizing the “diaspora” very much like the present SCOBA, with the addition of an assembly of bishops that would meet regularly and for practical purposes function like a single holy synod. There was a timeline intimated for establishes the “diaspora” churches as first autonomous and then autocephalous.34
To quote Yogi Berra, the recently concluded pre-conciliar meeting at Chambesy was “déjà vu all over again.” This of courses raises several questions, the most significant of which is, why should this most recent meeting be taken any more seriously than the two previous “inter-Orthodox preparatory commissions”? Nor should it be forgotten that the Ligonier confreres took their cues for setting up such an American episcopal assembly not only from these two meetings in Chambesy, but from Patriarch Bartholomew himself, who was “the architect of these commission meetings.” Bartholomew’s intentions in this regard require special attention:
the real reason for optimism was Metropolitan Bartholomew of Chalcedon, now the newly elected Patriarch of Constantinople. Metropolitan Bartholomew was largely responsible for the very successful visit of Patriarch Demetrios to the United States in 1990, including the visit to the Washington Cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America, where [Demetrios] spoke of the scandal of Orthodox disunity in the “diaspora.” In July 1994, just months before the Ligonier meeting, Patriarch Bartholomew sent Metropolitan Spyridon of Italy as his personal representative to the clergy-laity congress of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese [Chicago]. In his address to the Congress, he spoke to the “diaspora” question by saying that the Patriarch has focused his attention on bringing some resolution to the problem.”35
In fact, Spyridon received thunderous applause from the assembled delegates (most of whom were Greek-American) when he condemned the existence of “ethnic ghettos” in the United States. It was in this context of optimism that the overwhelming majority of American bishops convened in Ligonier, just three months after Spyridon’s speech in Chicago. Unfortunately — and inexplicably — Bartholomew vehemently rescinded his earlier sentiments. The new patriarch condemned the meeting in no uncertain terms and summoned the GOA bishops to Istanbul, where in a “rather medieval fashion” they were “forced to ‘repudiate’ their signatures to the Ligonier documents.”36 In light of the above, honest critics cannot be faulted for looking askance at the protocols derived in Switzerland earlier this year; whether the Ecumenical Patriarchate is in fact serious about the problem of church formation and autocephaly in the first place.
Other problems loomed over the horizon: the present Chambesy protocols allowed the various ethnic jurisdictions to continue in existence and to “rely” upon their mother churches. It was feared that the various eparchies could continue to vote en bloc. Russia for its part made explicit claims regarding existing jurisdictions (presumably its own) not becoming subject to Istanbul. North America presented its own unique set of problems. For example, no mention was made as to how to eradicate parallel dioceses or the scandalous multiplicity of episcopal seats in certain American cities (such as in Chicago, Detroit, New York City, or Los Angeles). More importantly, North America presented another problem which none of the other regions have; namely that it already possesses a local church, whose independence is recognized by five other autocephalous churches (including the largest Orthodox church in the world.) The encroachment of yet another layer of bishops onto its territory is thus problematic to say the least. Indeed, according to one well-respected monastic in the Patriarchate of Antioch, Fr Touma Bitar, the OCA is “the only canonical church in North America.”37
In any event, it is not at all clear that any of the ethnic jurisdictions presently want to meet in a continental assembly — the bishops of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese included. According to Fr Mark Arey, the general secretary of the Standing Council of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA), there are roughly “55 to 60 bishops in North America,” a relatively large number, that would make such a continental assembly one that is fraught with peril — at least for those exarchates who have no intention of breaking with their mother churches. More to the point, though Chambesy created a formula which ratified the primacy of the Greek archbishop in America (at least as its interim chairman), there is no guarantee that once situated, the overwhelming numbers of other bishops would accede to this jurisdiction’s perpetual presidency. The reason is because unlike other areas of the world, the bishops of the Greek-American jurisdiction would be outnumbered by at least five-to-one.
Moreover, this fear is justified in North America because of the experience of SCOBA. This organization, which began in the mid-1960s, was intended to draw together the primates of the existing ethnic jurisdictions, with the goal of eventual administrative unity. Instead, SCOBA has proven to be an inept organization with no canonical standing and precious little moral authority. Its fecklessness became apparent soon after its founding. According to one critic within the GOA, “frustrations with SCOBA [were] legendary,” the fault lying in the primates themselves, who “have consistently refused to take those decisions that would the church here closer, making themselves accountable to one another and to the whole.”38 Part of this problem was structural: its chairmen were to serve on a rotating basis based on jurisdiction. Although this rotating chairmanship mitigated against Greek triumphalism, it anticipated Chambesy (even going back to the first meeting in 1991) in many particulars. Especially in the insistence that the respective jurisdictions could still operate independently of one another and that the broader episcopal body could not impose its authority over them.
In any event, SCOBA’s official structure became ossified with the GOA archbishop serving as its de facto permanent chairman. As long as Archbishop Iakovos Coucouzis was alive, there was no problem with this as he had generated much goodwill towards him personally. Things started to deteriorate however with his forced resignation. At present, there is talk behind the scenes of SCOBA disbanding as its meetings are often desultory in nature. Though its ministries continue to gain in number and scope, the fact remains that they are by and large the ideas of laymen from the various jurisdictions. It is they who staff them, finance them, and provide most of the manpower needed for their operation.
The belief that the best days of SCOBA are behind it was on full display recently in Crestwood, where a historic symposium on American autocephaly took place. Two of the major speakers there — one an archbishop, the other a layman— were quite dismissive about its continued relevance, and said so on more than one occasion to Fr. Arey, who gamely tried to put the best face forward. What made such criticism stand out is that the layman in question (Charles Ajalat) has been one of the stalwarts of SCOBA for at least twenty years and is in fact the driving force behind the most recent SCOBA ministry (FOCUS).39
Other considerations mitigate against the longevity of SCOBA or the inception of a true continental episcopal assembly. For one, the widespread belief that the Ecumenical Patriarchate has absolutely no intention of emancipating its American exarchate (whether true or not) has deflated the hopes of many who seek administrative unity. To prevent the occurrence of such an event, Metropolitan Jonah welcomed the selection of Archbishop Demetrios of the GOA as its interim chairman — provided of course that once the episcopal assembly was convened, the election of a president should proceed forthwith.40 The implication is that should a free and open election not be held, then the worst fears of many will have been realized: the new episcopal council for North America would be nothing more than an expanded SCOBA, and like it would be nothing more than another bureaucracy created for the express purpose of permanently frustrating American autocephaly, appearances to the contrary. It would in fact be a continuous repeat of the previous episcopal assembly which convened in 2006 in which any talk of administrative unity was blocked by SCOBA itself. (Among other things, the purpose of the earlier assembly was to “coordinate” the creation of new missions so that they would not be placed near existing ethnic parishes.)
Be that as it may, even propagandists for SCOBA cannot gainsay when the first such episcopal assembly will take place or more importantly, when the putative Great and Holy Council which will supposedly recognize the autocephaly of the various episcopal councils throughout the “Diaspora” will transpire.41 In a recent interview, Arey himself admitted that he did not even know if “assistant” or auxiliary bishops will be invited to participate in such an assembly. The best he could say was that he was led to understand that only bishops with “pastoral authority” would be invited to join. Thus to put the eggs of administrative unity and American autocephaly in the basket of an “interim” episcopal council would be foolhardy indeed.
Perhaps this assessment is unfair, especially since Jonah spoke glowingly about Demetrios and his apparent goodwill, yet such a perception among almost everybody else has resulted in the retrenchment into the ethnic cores of many of the jurisdictions. Examples include the healing of the schism between the two Serbian jurisdictions and talk of union between the two Romanian exarchates into a “maximally autonomous” Romanian metropolitanate. Another indicator of growing ethnic chauvinism was the recent debacle in the Antiochian jurisdiction, a series of missteps and scandals that culminated in a contentious national church convention where the fissures between the native and convert contingents became exposed. At this event, Metropolitan Philip made it plain that he would come down on the side of unity at all costs rather than entertain a union with the OCA, which many in the Arab contingent refused to countenance. And rounding out this picture is the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself, which exacerbated this entire morass when it sent a high-level functionary to pour salt into the open wounds of American Orthodoxy in the aforementioned speech at Holy Cross.42
The question therefore remains. Despite the absence of bishops from the “diaspora,” the ability of foreign patriarchates to order church life in traditionally non-Orthodox lands remains an open question. Some hold out hope that the upcoming “Great and Holy Council” will resolve this issue once and for all, especially since that is its stated agenda. A few of these critics have even gone so far as to say that the bishops of North America should make all haste to accept the Chambesy formula for unity lest a more onerous one be imposed on this continent by this council whenever it meets.43
However, this strategy quite possibly presupposes more than is warranted. For one thing, the Christian Church has had in place a method of evangelizing non-Christian lands from its inception. This method became codified in the Council of Carthage, when it was decided that this by rights belonged to the bishop nearest the city or region in question. In no way can it be understood that Canon 28 — which was confined to three metropolitan sees contiguous to Byzantium — trumped this protocol. At any rate, there is no yet firm date for a meeting for this council. Nor for that matter has a venue has been chosen. This is not an idle point: the pre-conciliar meeting that took place at Chambesy was originally scheduled for the island of Cyprus. No reason was given as to why it was changed almost at the last minute. Some may ask what guarantees are there that such a sudden shift will not happen again? Left unsaid is whether it can be considered Christian to “impose” a settlement in the first place.
Equally as important, the question of who can convene this council has not been resolved. In previous ages, it was the secular power which called the ecumenical councils. With the loss of the Roman imperium, all subsequent councils have been local ones; though guided by the Holy Spirit, they do not have universal application. Other churches may cite their proceedings for consideration but they are not beholden to them, unlike the seven ecumenical councils. Finally, it cannot be forgotten that in the ancient Church, all metropolitan regions were autocephalous and that it was the right of the constituent dioceses to elect and consecrate their metropolitan (and it was the right of the people to elect their local bishops). It was only through a gradual piecemeal process that this procedure fell into abeyance. In retrospect, it is hard to vouchsafe the present system of rigidly centralized national churches that incessantly interfere into the territories of other churches. Or churches that consider the Gospel secondary to national identity for that matter.
Most problematic of all is the concept of national churches. This phenomenon did not exist during the time of the ancient councils. This presents another unanticipated problem: during the first Christian millennium, there was only one nation whose churches for all intents and purposes were represented — Rome. The bishops who attended these conclaves were citizens of that nation and they represented the hundreds of dioceses throughout this vast unified state. Though it was a multi-racial, multi-ethnic empire, the concept of the emperor as the vice-regent of God and the only legitimate secular authority was fully ingrained in the consciousness of the people.
Indeed, as late as the fourteenth century, Patriarch Antony IV of Constantinople admonished Grand Duke Basil I of Moscow for removing the name of the Byzantine emperor from the litanies of the Russian church. “My son,” Antony gently rebuked him, “it is not possible for Christians to have the Church and not to have the Empire. For Church and Empire have a great unity and community; nor is it possible to be separated one from the another.” Although Antony did not believe that Byzantium enjoyed political sovereignty over the Russian lands, he justified this fantastic claim in theological terms: “The holy emperor is not as other rulers and governors of other regions are he is anointed with the great chrism, and is elected baslieus and autokrator of the Romans — to wit, of all Christians.”44 With the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453, such lofty sentiments were transferred to the Grand Duke of Moscow by Patriarch Jeremiah II of Constantinople, who lauded this potentate with these words: “thou alone under heaven art now called Christian Emperor for all Christians in the whole world.”45
Admittedly, Byzantine bureaucrats were known for their excessive flattery. Yet even so, the sentiments behind these excessive words betrayed a theological reality in the collective mind of the Orthodox Church. Specifically, that only Orthodox emperors could “rule” over the Oecumene, that is, the Christian world. As such, only these emperors had the legitimate authority to convene ecumenical councils. It stands to reason that the 1200-year absence of an ecumenical council is therefore not as deleterious as some would have us believe. (In fact, given the monarchical mindset of the Orthodox Church, it may not even be possible to convoke such an assembly.) At any rate, no burning doctrinal heresies loom on the horizon either. This is no small consolation as there is a great dread among some Orthodox pietists that the erstwhile “Great and Holy Council” runs the very real risk descending into apostasy.46
Be that as it may, the new “local churches” are now national churches, each embodying the hopes and dreams of their respective nations (one could almost say races). Some of these nations — such as Serbia — are in peril. Like most Western European nations, the traditionally Orthodox nations are themselves in demographic collapse. Any recourse by the Ecumenical Patriarchate to mitigate this reality by invoking the 1872 council of Constantinople’s declaration against the heresy of tribalism could very possibly be met with skepticism if not outright scorn. After all, Constantinople ignored its own protocols when it set up Greek jurisdictions in the various lands of the “diaspora,” most famously in North America, which already possessed a local church. Such an action, coming as it did on the heels of the grant of Serbian autonomy, raised more than a few eyebrows. Perhaps the Ecumenical Patriarchate when faced with a fait accompli vis-à-vis the Serbs decided to put the best face on the situation, but when it came to émigré communities it decided to dig in its heels? This admittedly is speculative but it does comport with the reality at least on a superficial basis. Moreover, the Ecumenical Patriarchate continues to segregate Greeks, Ukrainians, Carpatho-Russians, and now Palestinian Arabs into separate ethnic eparchies on this continent.
Old habits indeed die hard: In Great Britain, Istanbul has set up another ethnic eparchy among Russian immigrants who are in schism from Moscow and even welcomed Bishop Basil Osborne (who was previously under Moscow) into its fold. Both actions were vehemently protested by Alexeii II, the previous Russian patriarch.47 In both England and Hungary, fights over church property between Constantinople and Moscow have been turned over to secular courts and in both instances, the Constantinopolitan exarchate lost.
Indeed, in his controversial speech at Holy Cross, Istanbul’s Chief Secretary continued to promulgate the view that the ethnic eparchies could continue to exist in North America provided that they “first submit to the first throne of Orthodoxy.” This was taken to mean that only a Greek metropolitan who was subordinate to the ecumenical patriarchate would be allowed as the national primate. Furthermore, any talk of granting this erstwhile “united” American church independence was quashed by this same speaker. This stunning declaration of bad faith only roiled the waters further and marshaled the forces of those already hostile to Istanbul in preparation of Chambesy. As already noted, it only added to the suspicion that whatever else it may do in Western Europe or Oceania, the Ecumenical Patriarchate had no intention of giving up its eparchies in the Western Hemisphere but instead was actively seeking to aggrandize its power even more. To be fair, Istanbul is not the only transgressor in this regard as most of the other Old World patriarchates have absolutely no intention of giving up their North American eparchies. Be that as it may, it is in fact most ironic that all of the Old World patriarchates now exercise a near-papalist “universal authority,” in that they feel it is their right to set up dioceses and exarchates wherever their émigrés choose to settle.
The future of course is unknowable. The Great and Holy Council may in fact take place. It may operate unimpeded and its deliberations may be robust, open, and in good faith. It may invite all canonical bishops to its assemblies and deliberations, including those from the lands of the so-called diaspora. Therefore any fears of a Chambesy-like embargo of these same bishops may be overblown. If on the other hand Chambesy proves to be the model, or — worse yet — only certain national primates are invited, then it will be difficult to see how it can be termed a “Great and Holy Council” let alone an “ecumenical” one. More importantly, it will be impossible to see how any such council would have the statutory authority to order the lives of local churches without their representation. In the final analysis, the temptation to adhere to a slightly augmented Chambesy model may prove to be too strong, since some of the patriarchates have problems with certain autonomous churches (as already mentioned).
What then is to be done? Given all of the above, the need to order the life of the North American church should proceed on its own merits and in conjunction with the direction of the already established Orthodox Church in America (albeit without its present ethnic exarchates which present the same canonical problems that the major ethnic exarchates represent). To give heed to those who counsel caution, that acceptance of the protocols established at Chambesy as the lesser of two evils, would therefore be unwise. In this writer’s opinion, such timorousness would only continue the present problems, one of which is an adherence to the heresy of phyletism; the other being the creation of episcopal assemblies which will never be allowed to congeal into true holy synods –all protestations to the contrary.
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