Autocephaly (7 of 20)

The answers in this section on autocephaly were provided by a seminary faculty member in a 1970 OCA publication.


How did the present autocephalous churches come into existence?


Every autocephalous church in history came into existence organically. The demands of life and the requirement for the fulfillment of the Gospel produced the necessity for church life in given regions to be organized as autocephalous.

Sometimes it is said that autocephalous churches are “created” by this or that ecclesiastical power, and people argue which power is supreme: the Ecumenical Council, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Mother Church….

On this point, however, we must be very careful. It is not really accurate to say that autocephalous churches are “created.” History proves that no council or church has ever “created” an autocephalous church. And one searches in vain in canon law for rules which spell out how autocephalous churches are “made.”

What has happened is that certain areas developed for various reasons into self-governing churches, groups of bishops into synods or councils with a primate. These self-governing areas were then confirmed in their position by the others and recognized as such. None of them was “decreed” into existence or created “out of nothing” by some special churchly power.

Thus, the original patriarchates existed first, and only then were confirmed by conciliar or imperial decree. And even the Church of Cyprus, one of the best examples in many ways on this question, was certainly not “created” by the Third Ecumenical Council! The Church of Cyprus existed as self-governing. When its status was questioned, the Council confirmed the propriety of its status. But the Council did not “produce” it!

And even in recent times, virtually all of the national churches existed as autocephalous first and were recognized as such only “after the fact.” This is not one of the brightest aspects of Orthodox Church history. Happily, however, none of the churches had to wait the more than 150 years which the Church of Russia waited for recognition by the Church of Constantinople; and certainly the new Orthodox Church in America will not have to wait so long.

Thus, the normal and historical procedure for autocephaly is for the new autocephalous church to be formally recognized as such first by the church of which it was originally a part, and then by all of the other Orthodox Churches in the world, and certainly not necessarily in the official gathering of an Ecumenical Council!