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The Role of Metropolitan and Its Relationship within the Episcopate: A Reappraisal

George C. Michalopulos

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ABSTRACT: Starting in the closing days of the Byzantine Empire, the office of the Metropolitan underwent significant changes that affect the Church even today. Metropolitans traditionally wielded great influence and authority, especially during the first Christian millennium. They were elected by other bishops and presided in a conciliar model of governance. They were primates of ecclesiastical provinces that corresponded to political provinces and/or capitals. In our day, almost all the Orthodox churches around the world roughly follow this model except for the churches of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Church of Greece. It is the contention of this writer that much of the administrative disunity in North America can be traced to the corruption of the early model by the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Church of Greece, and that the continuing misuse of the office and title derails further attempts at unity in the United States.


The Orthodox Church in the United States is in considerable disarray. Unlike other Orthodox nations, disunity in America is the normal order of things as evidenced by the existence of at least twenty different Orthodox jurisdictions, most of them based on ethnicity and foreign immigration patterns.

Why the disunity continues to exist can be reduced to three main causes: 1) extreme parochialism; 2) nationalism and attendant xenophobia; and 3) willful ignorance of proper ecclesiastical order.1 This essay is primarily concerned with the third point, especially how the title of Metropolitan has been shorn from its traditional understanding and led to considerable confusion in the American Orthodox experience.

The confusion is most apparent in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA). In the late 1990s, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew elevated all of the bishops of the former Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America to the status of metropolitan. At the time, the explanation was offered that the GOA had matured to the point where the Church was ready to elevate bishops to metropolitans. What was unclear to all but a few observers at the time was that the elevations did in fact establish the bishops as archbishops, that is, accountable no longer to the Archbishop in New York but to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople.

Along with the elevation, Canada, Central America, and South America were established as separate metropolises and no longer under the purview of the Archbishop of the United States. Elevating the former bishops of these areas to metropolitans follows sound logic: the bishops were now archbishops of newly minted episcopal sees. Less clear however, is why the bishops of American cities such as Chicago, Boston, etc., should enjoy this same privilege, especially since they were not different political entities or ecclesiastical provinces.

This result is almost comical. The new metropolitans, who were previous known by the cities that they served ("the Bishop of Boston," The Bishop of Chicago," etc.), were now titled the Metropolitan of this or that defunct episcopal see. For good measure, the curious phrase "presiding hierarch"2 was added, perhaps to address the puzzled looks that resulted.

How did we get to this impasse? Why are the GOA Metropolitans named for non-existent sees when in fact serving metropolises in America? To answer this question, we must examine the history of the title and the nature of the episcopacy of earlier times.

Read the entire article on the American Orthodox Institute website.

Posted: 13-Jan-2009

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