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One City, One Bishop, One Church -- Part I

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev

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The Principle of Canonical Territory and the Appearance of "Parallel Hierarchies"

The model of church organization that was formed during the first three centuries of Christianity was based on the principle of "one city-one bishop-one Church", which foresaw the assignment of a certain ecclesiastical territory to one concrete bishop. In accordance with this principle, the "Canons of the Apostles" and other canonical decrees of the ancient Church point to the inadmissibility of violating the boundaries of ecclesiastical territories by bishops or clergy. The Canons prescribe that the bishop should not leave his diocese and go over to another without authorization (can. 14); the bishop may not ordain outside the boundaries of his diocese (can. 35); when transferring to another city, excommunicated clergymen or laymen cannot be accepted into communion by another bishop (can. 12); clergymen who go over to another diocese without the consent of their bishop are deprived of the right to serve (can. 15); prohibition of serving or excommunication of a clergyman imosed by one bishop cannot by removed by another bishop (can. 16, 32). Similar decrees were accepted by the Ecumenical and Local Councils of the fourth to eighth centuries and form an integral part of the canon law of the modern Orthodox Church.

In defining the boundaries of ecclesiastical territories, the Fathers of the ancient undivided Church took into account civil territorial divisions established by secular authorities. In the II-III centuries it was common practice that the bishop would head his ecclesiastical territory while serving in the city, with presbyters (chorepiskopoi) appointed by him caring for the church communities in neighbouring towns. However, by the beginning of the fourth century, after Emperor Diocletian (284-305) united the provinces of the Roman Empire into "dioceses", there arose the necessity of a corresponding unification of ecclesiastical territories (eparchies, or dioceses) into larger units: the latter came to be called metropolies. The bishop of the capital of the "diocese" became the first bishop of the metropoly (the metropolitan), with the other bishops placed under his administrative authority. However, they continued to maintain the fullness of ecclesiastical authority within he boundaries of their eparchies, taking counsel with the metropolitan only in questions that exceeded their competence. We should note that the division of the Christian Church into the Eastern and Western also began to take shape in the fourth century, and was also linked to the civil division of the empire into the West and East, when Rome was granted the status of a special administrative district, and Constantinople became the capital of the empire and the "Second Rome".

Although the principle of having ecclesiastical territories correspond to civil ones was accepted as a guiding principle in the ancient Church, it was never absolutized or viewed as having no alternatives. The conflict between St. Basil the Great and Bishop Anthimos of Tiana, well-documented thanks to the detailed description in the works of Gregory Nazianzen, is a case in point. The essence of this conflict was the following. When St. Basil took on the governance of the Church of Cappadocia in the summer of 370, Cappadocia was a single, unified province with its center in Caesarea. In the winter of 371-372, however, emperor Valent divided Cappadocia into two regions-Cappadocia I with Caesarea as its capital, and Cappadocia II centered around Tiana. Bishop Anthimos of Tiana, in accordance with the new civil division, began to act as the metropolitan of Cappadocia II, not recognizing the jurisdiction of Basil the Great over his territory. The latter continued to regard himself s metropolitan of all Cappadocia, according to the former territorial division. In order to consolidate his authority, in spring 372 Basil ordained bishops for cities which de facto had entered the "canonical territory" of Anthimos: he appointed his friend Gregory (the Theologian) for Sasima, and for Nyssa-his brother, also named Gregory. In 374 Amphilochius, cousin of Gregory the Theologian and faithful disciple of Basil, was appointed bishop of Iconium. All of these actions were viewed by Anthimos of Tiana as uncanonical, and he hindered the activities of the bishops ordained by Basil in every possible manner. Later, after Basil's death in 379, the bishops of Cappadocia II recognized Anthimos of Tiana as the metropolitan of this ecclesiastical territory.

On the basis of historical facts, we can speak with sufficient justification of how the principle of "canonical territory" at the level of separate eparchies began to take shape as early as apostolic times and was consolidated by church practice in the second and third centuries. Regarding larger ecclesiastical units (metropolies), they were basically formed in the fourth century. By the end of the fourth century we have three levels of canonical territories: the metropoly, comprising eparchies of several regions; the eparchy, comprising parishes of one region; and the parish, the church community headed by a presbyter as the representative of the bishop. Further development led to the creation of even larger units-patriarchates, which included metropolies, which, in their turn, included eparchies.

The first great schism in world Christendom, which occurred in the middle of the fifth century when a part of the Eastern Christians did not accept the Council of Chalcedon of 451 (the Fourth Ecumenical Council), led to the rise of so-called "parallel hierarchies" in a number of regions of the Eastern Roman empire and beyond. Some of them exist to this very day. By "parallel hierarchy" we understand the presence of two bishops in one city who lay claims to the same canonical territory and often bear the same title. In Egypt and Syria there exist to this very day two Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch-one for Christians of the Orthodox tradition who accept the Council of Chalcedon, and another for the so-called "pre-Chalcedonian" Churches. In Jerusalem and Constantinople, besides the Orthodox "Chalcedonite" patriarch, there are also Armenian "pre-Chalcedonian" patriarchs. This canonical anomaly is explained by the fact that the Chalcedonian and pre-Chalcedonian Churches ae not in Eucharistic communion.

The second great schism in the history of Christendom, which occurred in the eleventh century, did not immediately lead to the rise of parallel hierarchies. After the severing of communion between Constantinople and Rome in 1054, the practice established in the first millennium was maintained over a certain period of time, according to which the canonical territory of the East was divided between four patriarchates (Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem), while Rome remained the main center of church authority in the West: all dioceses were united around the Roman bishop as the metropolitan, or patriarch, of the Western Roman Empire. The jurisdiction of the Roman bishop did not extend to the Orthodox East, while the jurisdiction of each of the Eastern patriarchs did not go beyond the boundaries of their respective patriarchates. Thus, the principle of canonical territory was maintained as it had been before.

This situation changed during the Crusades, when hordes of Latins invaded the traditionally Orthodox territories and founded Latin patriarchates there. Thus, after the crusaders took Antioch in 1097 they drove out its Orthodox patriarch, in whose place they appointed a Latin patriarch. The same history was repeated at the end of 1099 in Jerusalem after the crusaders took it: the Orthodox patriarch was deposed, and his place was taken by a papal delegate elevated to the rank of patriarch. Finally, after the crusaders took Constantinople in 1204 they founded a Latin patriarchate there as well. The Antiochian and Constantinopolitan Latin patriarchates ceased to exist after the crusaders were driven out from the East at the end of the thirteenth century. Regarding the Latin patriarchate of Jerusalem, it was abolished in 1291 but reanimated by the Catholic Church in 1847 and exists until now. Thus, there are three patriarchates in Jerusalem: the Orthodox, Armenian and Latin.

In speaking of the capture of Constantinople by the crusaders, the Catholic church historian E.C.Suttner writes:

After the taking of Constantinople the conquerors placed their people on the imperial and patriarchal thrones, and gradually on many episcopal thrones. The Greek emperor and patriarch were exiled to Nicaea, with many outstanding Greeks following them. Together they languished in expectance of the day when they would be able to return to Constantinople. In the center of the Eastern empire the victorious Latins dealt with the Greeks just as the Normans had done in southern Italy and the crusaders in Antioch and Jerusalem had done in the eleventh century. It is clear that the Latins in the thirteenth century had the same notions of the unity of the Church and schism as the Normans did, for they acted in the same way and were, as the documents of the Fourth Lateran Council (1214) demonstrate, firmly convinced that they had achieved the unity of the Church by appointing Latins t the imperial and patriarchal thrones. For obvious reasons, the Greeks considered the subjugation of one part of the Christian world to another to be a phenomenon unworthy of the Church. From their point of view the Latins' behaviour after the conquest of Constantinople deepened the division of the Church.We must thoroughly re-examine all earlier attempts to achieve unity in order not to repeat the mistakes of the past.

A serious blow to Orthodox-Catholic relations was dealt by the numerous unions which the Roman Catholic Church brought about over the course of several centuries in historically Orthodox lands. Being a blatant violation of the principle of canonical territory, Uniatism was always painfully viewed and continues to be so by the Orthodox. I would like to quote the evaluation of this phenomenon by one of the most active participants in the Orthodox-Catholic dialogue of the twentieth century-Protopresbyter Vitaly Borovoy:

The medieval papacy stubbornly and constantly strove to expand into the Orthodox East in order to subjugate the Orthodox to Roman authority by any means (mostly by the use of force), by forcing upon them all manner of unions which in their essence and final results led to the replacement of the Orthodox faith of the Ancient Eastern Church by the Roman faith of the medieval Western Catholic Church. There were the so-called unions of Lyons (1274), Florence (1439) and many others: Brest (1596), Uzhgorod (1646), Mukachevo (1733), as well as the unions in the Orthodox Near East: the Armenian, Coptic, Syro-Jacobite, Syro-Chaldean etc. Uniates appeared in all Orthodox Churches and became a constant source of troubles and threats to all of Orthodoxy. All of this had dire consequences for the attitude and feelings of the Orthodox people toward Rome and the Catholic Church, which is succinctly expressed in the well-known sayig: 'better the Turkish turban than the Roman tiara'. The psychological and historical tragedy of this desperate saying, which would seem impossible in inter-Christian relations, is the most eloquent and severe indictment of the sin of division and severing of communion between the Western and Eastern Churches.

To be continued.

Read: The Canonical Territories of the Local Orthodox Churches - Part II

Bishop Hilarion (Alfeyev) of Vienna and Austria is the representative of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions.

Read the entire article on the Representation of the Russian Orthodox Church to the European Institutions website (new window will open).

Posted: 27-Jan-06



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