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February 19, 2021

The Orthodox: Arrival and Dialogue (Fr. John Romanides) - Part 3 of 5

In the ancient Church each Eucharistic assembly was headed by a bishop. Very early these bishops organized themselves into synods whose jurisdiction was determined by the provincial divisions of the Roman Empire. The provincial synods gathered together at the ordinations of the bishops and at regular intervals at the provincial capitals. Since the bishop of the provincial capital was usually the host at the gatherings of the bishops, he was recognized as the presiding bishop of the provincial synod and became known as the Metropolitan. The bishops decided upon questions by vote in synod and not by the arbitrary rule of any one bishop. The Metropolitan was primus inter pares.

When the Roman provinces were later reorganized and grouped into dioceses, the bishops of the diocesan capitals were recognized as having a primacy of honor (primus inter pares) above that of the provincial Metropolitans. Then there was a higher scale of primacy of honor for those bishops of imperial capitals. Rome was given the first place (primus inter pares), Alexandria, the capital of the Ptolemies, was accorded second place, and Antioch, the capital of the Seleucid Empire, third place.

This regrouping of the provinces into dioceses gave rise to the distinction between autonomous and autocephalous groupings of bishops. Generally, the Roman dioceses became the basis of modifying, in most cases, the older autocephalous provincial synods which remained autonomous. For all practical purposes autocephalicity and autonomy meant the same thing, since in both instances self-government was carefully preserved. All bishops within each diocesan and provincial synodical grouping were elected and ordained without any interference from other provincial or diocesan synods. However, there came into existence a difference between the manner of ordaining the presiding bishop of an autocephalous synod and the presiding bishop of an autonomous synod.  The head of an autocephalous synod was elected by the clergy and people of his own city and then ordained by the bishops of his own provincial or diocesan grouping. The head of an autonomous synod was also elected by the clergy and people of his own city, but his ordination was presided over by the head bishop of the autocephalous synod under whose surveillance his autonomous synod was assigned. This is clearly indicated by the 28th canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council (451) which determined the three Roman dioceses (Thrace, Asiana, and Pontus) whose Metropolitans were to continue to be elected in the traditional way, but ordained by the bishop of New Rome (Constantinople). In contrast to this arrangement, Palestine and Cyprus remained autocephalous even though they were within the diocese of the East, presided over by the bishop of Antioch.

It is very important to bear in mind that most of the autocephalous and autonomous synods of ancient Christianity existed within one united Roman Empire. In other words, Christendom within the Roman Empire never understood Christian unity in terms of administrative, centralized organizational union common to Roman Catholicism and Protestant Denominationalism.

The adaption of the ancient Church's synodical administration to Roman political institutions has always remained a principle in the history of Orthodox Christianity. The first serious challenge to this principle came with the development of the papacy in two stages.

The first stage of papal development was in reaction against the third canon of the Second Ecumenical Council (381), which declared that because New Rome (Constantinople) is the new capital of the Empire her bishop has an equal primacy of honor with the bishop of Old Rome. Since by this time Milan had taken the place of Old Rome as the seat of imperial administration over the Western provinces, the bishop of Rome was threatened by such reasoning with the loss of his primacy in Italy. His defense at a council of Rome in 382 was the claim that the primacies of Old Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch were based on their being founded by St. Peter (Rome and Antioch) or St. Mark (Alexandria), a disciple of St. Peter, and not on their own capital cities. No explanation was given as to why Antioch, founded by St. Peter himself, should be after and not before Alexandria, founded by St. Peter's disciple, and why other Churches founded by St. Peter and St. Mark should not also share in these primacies.

Very significant for the understanding of Orthodox administrative principles is the fact that the bishop of Jerusalem was for three centuries only a member of the provincial synod of Palestine presided over by the Metropolitan of the capital city of Caesarea. Since Palestine had been incorporated as one of the provinces of the Roman diocese of the East, the ordination (but not the election) of the Metropolitan of Caesarea (and of the Archbishop of Cyprus) should have been presided over by the Patriarch of Antioch. However, Jerusalem was finally made the capital city of the province of Palestine, which ecclesiastically was recognized as autocephalous. The Fourth Ecumenical Council (451) recognized the the bishop of Palestine as the fifth Patriarch of the Empire having the fifth place of honor after the Patriarchs of Old Rome, New Rome (Constantinople), Alexandria and Antioch. The Third Ecumenical Council (431) recognized the Churches of the Island of Cyprus as having been autocephalous since apostolic times and thus turned down Antioch's claim to preside over the ordination of the Archbishop of Cyprus based on the fact that the island was politically governed from the diocesan capital of Antioch.

The second stage of Old Rome's challenge to the administrative principles built into the canon law of the ancient Ecumenical Councils unfolded with the tremendous impact which feudal political theories had on the evolution of the papacy. The appointment of bishops to be vassal lords over the domains of the Holy Roman Empire of the Germans by the Frankish and German Emperors led to the control and corruption of the Church by the State. The reform movements which resulted based their hopes of cleaning house on the transference of episcopal appointments and vassalages from the kings of Europe to the Pope. Thus, a relationship of vassal Lords to the suzerain developed between the bishops of the West and the Pope. One can perhaps admire the struggle for the freedom of the Church underlying the strict clericalism and centralization which developed out of the struggles between Church and State in the West. But to pass all this off as the work of the Holy Spirit for the whole Church is for the Orthodox, whose many autocephalous and autonomous synods existed since very ancient times and who were never affected by the problems of a feudal society, incomprehensible. When the papacy attempted to impose ecclesiastical feudalism on the many autocephalous and autonomous Churches of the East, so often by the use of force during the crusades and later by the pressure of Polish and Austro-Hungarian power, a dogmatic and psychological rupture took place which will not be healed until the papacy recognizes the ecclesiastical principles of the undivided Church of the ancient Ecumenical Councils.

What is especially disturbing to the Orthodox theologians engaged in ecumenical conversations concerning Christian unity is the fact that so many Protestants think of union in Roman Catholic terms of centralization by way of mergers and the setting up of world denominational alliances. The Orthodox are especially perturbed when they see their own administrative principles of autocephaly and autonomy described in terms of disunity.