The Holy Synod of the Church of Greece, held on August 16-28, reviewed the recommendations of the Synodal committees for the dogmatic and canonical issues, as well as Orthodox and inter-Christian relations and recognized the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s right to grant autocephalies to various Churches including the Orthodox Church of Ukraine (OCU).
Unfortunately, both the committees’ conclusions and the bases which they were made on remain concealed from the public. On the one hand, the faithful cannot have in-depth knowledge of Canons and Church history, and their business is to take care of personal salvation, not of the developments between the Local Churches.
At the same time, within years of Religious studies at education institutions, which was opposed by Tsipras’ government, there appeared many generations of faithful who take interest in the history of Ecumenical Councils and Church as these issues matter for personal salvation (which is impossible without the Church and participating in its life and Sacraments). Moreover, those who believe not only because of a national tradition believe the Church is a consolidated universal organism and cannot be indifferent to the challenges that Local Churches are facing.
So, what do we know about granting autocephalies? What the committees’ conclusion could be based on? This question can be answered by Metropolitan Hierothos of Nafpaktos and St. Vlasios.
Common rules of receiving an autocephalous status
The Church Pentarchy was introduced by Ecumenical Councils (II, IV and Trullo), and the primacy in the dyptychs of Old Rome, New Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem.
The autocephaly of the Church of Cyprus was granted by the III Ecumenical Council.
As it’s known, all the contemporary Patriarchates received autocephalies and patriarchal statuses from the Protothronos Church of New Rome – Constantinople (the Ecumenical Patriarchate) through oikonomia: “using the good principle of oikonomia”, after their political authorities pleaded for it (it was always inherent to the process of granting the autocephalous status but not that common when the patriarchal status was bestowed).
This is relevant to the Patriarchates of Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Autocephalous Churches of Greece, Poland, Albania, the Czech Lands and Slovakia. The same can be said about the Autocephalous Churches of Finland and Estonia.
The tomes through which autocephalies and patriarchal statuses were bestowed to various Churches read that an Ecumenical Council must be convened so that all Autocephalous Churches completely recognize their autocephalies.
Hence, there exists a Canonical rule, as mentioned in the Canons of Ecumenical Councils, which recognize the Pentarchy of Thrones, and the Church of New Rome – Constantinople has equal privileges with the See of Old Rome. After it fell, New Rome became the Protothronos Church with special preferences and competence.
There is also the law of custom (it is mentioned by canonist Anastasios Vavouskos) which was established in the 16th century and which pertains to the newer Patriarchates and autocephalies that were granted by the decision (ἀπεφηνά – μεθα – “decide” – “determine”) of the Ecumenical Patriarchate and its Synod since new states appeared, i.e. for nationalistic reasons.
The procedure of granting autocephaly and signing the tomos
The autocephaly of the Church of Greece was granted by the Protothronos Church of New Rome and was signed by the Ecumenical Patriarch (“decided”) and by five former Patriarchs of Constantinople (“jointly decided”), Patriarch of Jerusalem (“jointly decided”) and other archbishops of the Holy See (without the “jointly decided” wording).
In the 20th century, in an attempt to resolve the issue of granting autocephaly on the eve of the Holy and Great Council, a Pan-Orthodox discussion on granting an autocephaly to this or that Church. At the First Pre-Conciliar Conference held in Geneva in November, 1976, there were presented papers on “Autocephaly and Ways of Declaring It” that stress that a Church wishing to become autocephalous addresses its Mother Church, which then, if it agrees, hands this plea to the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
If the other Local Churches agree, the Ecumenical Patriarchate declares the autocephalous status of a Church by issuing the patriarchal tomos signed by the Ecumenical Patriarch, who is preferably joined by the Primates of all Autocephalous Churches, while the signature of the Primate of the Mother Church is necessary.
Thus, there is a request from a Church, the consent of the Mother Church and all other Churches, and the declaration of the Ecumenical Patriarchate in the patriarchal tomos.
Unfortunately, however, because of the Church of Russia and some other Churches supporting it, no agreement was reached regarding this text as, according to them, the tomos should be signed (with the “decided” wording) not only by the Ecumenical Patriarch, but also by Church Primates (without the “jointly decided” wording). That is why the text wasn’t reviewed at the Holy and Great Council convened in 2016 at Kolymbari in Crete.
As a result, the issue of granting autocephaly according to Canonical exactness wasn’t resolved but per oikonomia, as it happened before, the autocephaly is granted by the Ecumenical Patriarchate with its customary right. That is the autocephalies bestowed to other Churches only by the Ecumenical Patriarchate weren’t recognized according to Canonical exactness, though they desired it.
Doubts concerning the “episcopacy” of hierarchs
As for the issue of how the Ecumenical Patriarchate recognized the “episcopacy” of bishops “ordained” by defrocked , schismatic or “self-ordained” bishops, a Church must ask the Ecumenical Patriarchate how it reinstated those “bishops” before making any decision. This is envisaged in the Synodical and Patriarchal Tomos of 1850, through which the Church of Greece received its autocephaly.
It reads: “In the Ecclesiastical issues which arise and require consultation and cooperation for better oikonomia and support of the Orthodox Church, it is pleasing that the Holy Synod in Greece refer to the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Holy Synod about them. The Ecumenical Patriarch, along with his Holy and Sacred Synod, will gladly grant its cooperation, announcing the things that must be to the Holy Synod of the Church of Greece.”
Therefore, for example, the Ukrainian issue requires collaboration and cooperation with the Ecumenical Patriarchate especially since the Autocephalous Church of Greece “temporarily” administers the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s dioceses in Greece. If this doesn’t happen, the Synodical and Patriarchal Tomos of the Church of Greece will be undermined.
Aegis of the Church of Greece and its Council of Hierarchy
It is a basic Canonical principle that a church should not intervene in the decisions that are under the aegis of other churches, and much more in the decisions of the Protothronos Church of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. Since it has additional responsibilities in the leadership and the proper functioning of all the Orthodox Churches. A church should not judge another church’s decisions prior to an Ecumenical Council, to which the decisions are referred for completion.
Therefore, the Church of Greece cannot refuse to accept the decision of the Ecumenical Patriarchate regarding the patriarchal tomos of autocephaly granted to the Church in Ukraine. Rather, for the time being, it must accept this decision, and wait to express its opinion and judgment when the Ecumenical Council is convened. There, the way in which autocephaly was granted, not only for Ukraine, but also for the other churches, will be judged. Not accepting the way in which the patriarchal tomos for the autocephaly of Ukraine was granted would call into question the autocephalies of the eight other autocephalous churches, including the autocephaly of the Church of Greece, as these autocephalies were granted only by the Ecumenical Patriarchate per oikonomia.
Moreover, this issue, which concerns the granting of autocephaly to Ukraine, cannot be put to a vote by the hierarchy because in such a case we will interfere in the affairs of another Church, and in this case, the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself, which retains “the highest canonical right” in the dioceses of the “Most Holy, Apostolic, and Patriarchal Throne” in Greece, and in the so-called New Lands.
*Tamar Lomidze is a journalist covers some events of the Orthodox life and Church-State relations.