Autocephaly, America and an Acceptable Time

When will the autocephalous Orthodox Churches embrace the Orthodox Church in America as a sister autocephalous church?

Some have said, “never.”  But the “Mother Church” of the OCA does recognize the OCA’s autocephaly.  So do several of the other autocephalous Orthodox Churches. So part of the Orthodox world already accepts the reality.  Those that have not recognized the autocephaly, still have for the most part granted a de facto recognition by accepting the clergy and faithful of the OCA in Communion.

As Alexander Bogolepov notes in his book, TOWARD AN AMERICAN ORTHODOX CHURCH: THE ESTABLISHMENT OF AN AUTOCEPHALOUS ORTHODOX CHURCH   (written in 1963, 7 years before the OCA officially received its autocephaly from the Moscow Patrachate): 

“Although not recognized de jure, a new Church may enjoy de facto recognition by other autocephalous Local Churches.”  (p 50)

In fact Bogolepov notes that there have often been lags in time (some quite long) between when a local Church saw itself as autocephalous, and when the rest of the Orthodox world also accepted its status:

 “The Patriarchate of Constantinople, for example, had to recognize the self-proclaimed independence of the following Churches in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries:  the Church of Greece in 1850, 17 after it had proclaimed itself autocephalous; the Romanian Church in 1885, 20 years after; the Albanian Church in 1937, 15 years after; the Bulgarian Church in 1945, 72 years after.  In the fourteenth century the Serbian Church was recognized by the Patriarch of Constantinople 30 years after it had proclaimed itself independent (1346, 1375), and  in the sixteenth century the Russian Church–  140 years after (1448-1589).  In the twentieth century the Patriarch of Moscow recognized the Finnish Church 35 years after it had been granted autonomy by the Ecumenical Patriarchate (1923-1958).”  (pp 47-48)

Bogolepov notes there are many exact parallels between why the Russian Church declared itself autocephalous from Constantinople and the OCA’s own situation in the mid-20th Century.  He writes that even though Constantinople refused to recognize the autocephalous status of Moscow for 140 years after Moscow deemed itself autocephalous,  when in 1948, the Russian Church celebrated its 500th Anniversary of its autocephaly, the Ecumenical Patriarch joined the celebration and congratulated them on their 500th Anniversary.  Constantinople not only accepted Moscow’s autocephaly but also Moscow’s timeline and self-understanding for when this happened.

A major difference for Moscow and the OCA is that Moscow was able to assert its own authority over a certain imperial territory and was not just one jurisdiction competing among many for ecclesiastical recognition in Russia.  The OCA remains one jurisdiction among many working in the Americas, and while the other jurisdictions show varying degrees of interest in having all Orthodox under their ecclesial authority; in fact some Orthodox jurisdictions in the America are not interested in competing at all for authority over all Orthodox in America and are content to be one limited jurisdiction among many limited jurisdictions.

The history of how autocephaly is ultimately recognized in the family of Orthodox Churches shows that it takes time.  Moscow waited 140 years, the OCA has so far waited 40 years.   While the OCA has recognized Orthodox unity in America as a priority, its best course of action is to take the current time to establish a viable jurisdiction, and then at an acceptable time it will be recognized by the family of Orthodox sister autocephalous churches.

6 thoughts on “Autocephaly, America and an Acceptable Time

  1. Dean Calvert

    Great Article Fr. Ted.

    The history of the church shows that autocephaly is not some neat maturation, nor a matriculation process as some would pretend.

    It is a simple process by which ecclesial boundaries follow secular ones. And the adjudicator of autocephaly is generally the local church itself….it is NOT a process of asking permission of the Mother Churches, or others. 90% of the Orthodox Churches on the planet today, including the Churches of Greece and Moscow, experienced a period during which they were considered schismatic by the world Orthodox community.

    So friends, settle in and go about during the Lord’s work. Forget about when Constantinople, or anyone else will recognize us – do not give it a moment’s thought.

    In fact, worrying about that might be the greatest sign of immaturity of all.

    Best Regards,
    Dean Calvert

    PS And don’t forget that there are only about 190 parishes in the Czech Republic…yet THEY are autocephalous!

    1. Fr. Ted

      Canon 17 of the Council of Chalcedon says, “Let the order of the ecclesiastical parishes follow the political and municipal pattern.”

      Canon 38 of Trullo states, “let the order of things ecclesiastical follow the civil and public models.”

      I think this is why ultimately the Orthodox were comfortable with the rising influence of Constantinople over Rome – they were simply following political fortune and then the emperor lived in Constantinople, not Rome. But at some point the Orthodox have wanted to freeze their thinking, pretending the Byzantine Empire still exists.
      Political fortunes have changed, and if we follow the apparent spirit of the canons as well as how the Orthodox traditionally interpreted them, we can conclude that the rise of autocephalous churches in Eurpoe were simply following the the line of reasoning of political fortune, and so too is an autocephalous church in the Americas, Asia, Australia, and all other places in the world that political fotunes have caused the appearance of Orthodox Churches which have at least 3 bishops.

  2. Gregory

    Canon 17 of the Council of Chalcedon and Canon 38 of the Trullo Council are actually the already-existing solution to the non-existent problem of “the diaspora” that dogs Orthodox Christian ecclesiology in the modern world. Simply let the Church organize herself into autocephalous, self-managing churches (always better equipped to gauge and respond to local conditions than some body far away) along the framework provided by today’s state and political borders around the world, wherever Orthodox Christians and enough of their bishops to perpetuate apostolic succession reside. Stop trying to keep the dry and dusty skeletons of bygone empires and obsolescent city names alive through church organization. And focus on nothing else other than being Christ Jesus in and for the world. Alas and alack, the desire for political clout and control of real estate and wealth gets in the way of that vision which Orthodox Christian tradition has already laid out for us…

  3. Yianni

    According to Wikipedia: “Autocephaly has been proclaimed multiple times, but always failed without the assent of the whole Church: The Churches of Carthage, Mediolana (Milan), the First Justiniana, Ochrid, Trnovo, Ipek, and Iberia…”

    So instead of proclaiming “and then at an acceptable time it will be recognized by the family of Orthodox sister autocephalous churches,” it would be more prudent to say, “God willing, the family of Orthodox sister autocephalous churches may someday recognize ‘it’.”

  4. Dean Calvert

    Dear Yanni,

    If you read a little further than wikipedia, ok a LOT further, you will find that there have been numerous “autocephalies” which occurred (following the dictum of eccelsial boundaries following secular ones) which then disappeared once the secular boundaries once again changed. One of the most interesting to me is the Empire of Trebizond, which was actually declared autonomous (along with Ravenna) after the Fourth Crusade.

    In your examples, Ochrid, Trnovo and Pec, disappeared NOT because the entire church did not accept them, but rather because the fortunes of those countries reversed…both the Bulgarians and the Serbs, having existed as independent states during the Middle Ages, found themselves once again within the confines of the Ottoman Empire, and were subsumed, or forcibly re-integrated back into the ecumenical patriarchate. BTW – the resentment of those peoples at their treatment by the ecumenical patriarchate, and the policies of “hellenism” pursued by the same, was so bad…that neither Serbia nor Bulgaria supported Greece when 1821 came along.

    The establishment of autocephalous churches during the Middle Ages, followed by their disappearance (again, as secular boundaries changed) is, in my opinion, one of the best examples of the Church adapting to the modern reality. In other words, we were never intended to remain trapped in the 10th century.

    The Church is a living organism. It adapts constantly…and that was the intention of the Church Fathers. As new countries arise (Eretria, Macedonia, Ukraine, Estonia, Belarus AND America) it was ALWAYS the intention that the Church would organize itself in those new countries, and progress. To be honest, it was the Turks that wanted to keep the church in the deep freeze of history…as a way of killing it. By the way…the practice of all of these mythical Sees…Troas, Philadelphia (in Asia Minor) etc….this is part of that same problem.

    The Church needs to be alive…not in deep freeze. The Byzantines would regularly re-district the dioceses within the Orthodox Oecumene, to adapt to the constantly fluctuating boundaries of the Empire. Should all of that stop?

    The bottom line is that our Church Fathers were geniuses. If we would only follow the practices of the “Church of the First 15 centuries” most of the problems we have today would simply disappear. However, that requires courage and faith…which many of our hierarchs, as well as too many laity, lack.

    Best Regards,

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