WHAT IS THE LOCAL CHURCH?

Written by Vladimir Moss

WHAT IS THE LOCAL CHURCH?

 

     The Russian church writer Lev Regelson has recently pointed out: “The concept of the ‘Local’ [pomestnoj] Church has long ago lost its literal sense. Nobody is surprised any longer by the existence of communities of the Russian Church in Africa, consisting of local aborigines. So that now it would be more correct to speak about the Autocephalous Russian Churchas the historical successor of the Orthodox Church of the Russian Empire, which has gone beyond the bounds of the territorial, state or national principle.”[1]In fact, not only has the concept of the Local Church been lost: the administration of the Orthodox Church as a whole has been in a state of increasing anarchy since the fall and break-up of the Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires in 1917-18. The resultant enormous political changes, combined with the creation of large Orthodox minorities of various nationalities in the non-Orthodox countries of the West, have created huge problems of administration that have stretched the concept of the Local Church almost to breaking point. If these problems have afflicted the heretical, but more-or-less well-organized Churches of “World Orthodoxy”, they threaten completely to tear apart the right-believing, but divided True Orthodox Churches. This article is an attempt to introduce some clarity into the debate by going back to basic principles, on the one hand, and the witness of Church history, on the other.

 

1. Basic Principles

 

     The first principle of Church organization, according to canon law and the early patristic sources (such as St. Ignatius of Antioch), is that the primary unit of the Local Church is the bishop and the Christians of the territory he administers. There can be only one bishop for any one given territorial unit. All the Christians living within that territory, whatever their nationality, must submit to the bishop of the territory. It is forbidden to create sub-units within the territorial unit on the basis of race, class or any other criterion unless they are blessed by the bishop and under his overall control. It is forbidden to divide the territorial unit into smaller sub-units, each with his own bishop, without the agreement of the bishop of that territory.

 

     Although the power of the bishop is largely autocratic within his diocese so long as he rightly divides the word of truth, he is obliged to join with other bishops of neighbouring territories to form synods presided over by the senior of the bishops - the metropolitan or archbishop. This rank does not constitute a fourth level of the priesthood above bishops, priests and deacons, and a metropolitans or archbishop cannot impose his will on the other members of his synods. At the same time, the bishops of a synod cannot make any decisions in synod without the agreement of the metropolitan or archbishop.

 

     Synods of bishops have the right to investigate complaints against the behaviour of an individual bishop within his diocese and to discipline, or even to defrock, him if he is found to have transgressed the dogmas or canons of the Church. Moreover, they, and they alone, have the right to ordain the successors of bishops who have been defrocked or who have died, and to create new dioceses. It is this collective, collegial character of the episcopate, as expressed in the meetings and decision-making of synods of bishops, that both ensures apostolic succession within individual dioceses and the organizational unity of the Orthodox Church as a whole.

 

     In essence, these two levels of Church organization – that of the individual diocese, and that of the metropolitan or archiepiscopal district – are the only levels of Church organization that are required in order that the Church should carry out all her essential functions…

 

2. The Patriarchal System

 

     The third level of Church organization with which we are familiar today - that of the patriarchate – did not come into being formally speaking until the fourth century, although there are signs of it already in the second. It was immediately accepted by the Church, and therefore undoubtedly constituted a natural development. It consisted in bringing the main centres of Church life and authority into correspondence with the five main centres of political power and cultural life in the Roman Empire – Rome, Antioch and Alexandria, in the first place, joined later by Constantinople and Jerusalem (Jerusalem was not important politically, but it was important spiritually and historically as being “the Mother of the Churches”). This was a natural development because, on the one hand, these centres contained larger numbers of Christians living in the midst of more, and more varied, temptations, who therefore needed more, and more experienced and educated clergy to serve them, and on the other, there was an obvious need for Christians to establish good relations with the political authorities and, if possible, convert them to the faith. And so the metropolitans of these large urban centres acquired great prestige, becoming “super-metropolitans”, or patriarchs, exercising authority over a wider area and a larger number of bishops.

 

     However, problems began to arise when the Empire began to lose territory in some directions, and acquire it in others. Thus from the seventh century three of the five patriarchates – Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem – found themselves outside the bounds of the Roman Empire under Muslim rule and administering a much smaller proportion of the local population than before (for most had become heretics or Muslims). Inevitably, this led to a decline in their de facto importance (even if they retained de jure their titles and places in the pentarchical order), and a corresponding increase in the importance of the new “duarchy”, Rome and Constantinople.

 

     But Rome and Constantinople had problems caused by their very success in converting the barbarians. The Roman pope, although technically still a subject of the Eastern Roman Emperor until the mid-eighth century, had to deal with several newly converted kings over whom the Emperor had no real suzerainty, and whose power could have been used to create national Churches independent of Rome. Some of the remoter Western Churches, such as the Irish, were essentially autocephalous; but Rome was remarkably successful, partly through her own skilful and energetic diplomacy, and partly because of the genuine reverence of the Germanic peoples for Roma Aeterna, in containing the threat of “ecclesiastical nationalization” until the late eleventh century, when theological differences with the Eastern Church, on the one hand, and the secession, first of England, and then of the German “Holy Roman Empire”, on the other, precipitated the transformation of the patriarchate into a semi-ecclesiastical, semi-political institution with strongly militaristic tendencies – the heretical papacy of Roman Catholicism.

 

     Now the Latins effectively deny the concept of the Local Church. For them, there is only one Church, the Roman, which is not local, but universal. All local churches around the world are simply parts of the Roman Church. The idea of a Local Church standing alone in the world, without the symbiotic link to Rome, is unthinkable – Rome is the Church, and no Church cannot exist outside or independently of the Church that is in Rome. For the Orthodox, on the other hand, a Local Church contains within itself the fullness of God’s grace, and if all the other Local Churches in the world fell away from the truth, it could continue to exist on its own. So the idea of an “ecumenical” or “universal” patriarchate is incompatible with the Orthodox concept of the Universal Church as a family of Local Churches whose only Head is Christ. Moreover, as St. Gregory the Dialogist, Pope of Rome, pointed out to St. Eulogius, Patriarch of Alexandria, when refusing the latter’s offer of the title “ecumenical”, if there is an ecumenical or universal patriarchate, when that Church falls, the whole Church falls with it...

 

     Unfortunately, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, while not falling into the heresy of Papism, did accept the title “ecumenical” and began to act in some ways like an eastern papacy. The concept of the Local Church was not denied, as in Romanism, but the Local Churches increasingly came to be seen as satellites of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (EP) whose independent status could be ignored as and when necessary. Within the bounds of the Orthodox Empire, in which the EP was also the Church of the Orthodox Emperor, a certain degree of ecclesiastical centralization was perhaps natural and even beneficial. Thus a small, Greek-speaking Local Church such as Cyprus would naturally look for support to the Orthodox Emperor, and therefore come within the orbit of the Imperial Church, too. But what about Local Churches that were outside the Empire and not Greek-speaking?

 

     A critical test-case came with the conversion of the Bulgarians to Orthodoxy. The Bulgarian Tsar Peter wanted an autocephalous Church for his independent kingdom. This, at first, the Greeks were prepared to give – especially since Pope Nicholas I would offer it if they did not. However, the Bulgarians later overplayed their hand, demanding not onlyan autocephalous Church, but even that their khan should be in the place of the Roman Emperor. But since the threat here was as much political as ecclesiastical, it elicited a politico-military response: the Byzantine emperors, especially Emperor Basil “the Bulgar-killer”, invaded Bulgaria, made the country again a part of the Empire, and removed the autonomous status of the Bulgarian Church. The patriarchate undoubtedly agreed with the emperors in this action, but its symphonic relationship with the Empire delivered it from the necessity, unlike Rome in relation to England or Germany, of dirtying its hands by direct political action in order to bring her insubordinate daughter to heel.

 

     However, the threat posed by Bulgarian (and, in the fourteenth century, Serbian) claims to ecclesiastical autonomy, raised a question that the Byzantines were never really able to answer satisfactorily: what was to be the status of the Churches in newly converted territories beyond the bounds of the Roman Empire? The original web of Local Churches, Metropolias and Patriarchates had grown up within the cocoon of the Empire, and was held together, not only by unity of faith, but also by the Roman Emperor, who convened Councils and enforced discipline when necessary. There had been bishoprics and even Local Churches outside the Empire from an early date (in Ireland, Armenia, Georgia, Ethiopia), but they lived in lands that were not a threat to the Empire politically and therefore could be treated as honorary confederates of the Empire. However, by the eleventh century at the latest it was evident that the idea of a Universal Church coterminous with a Universal Empire was a myth that had outlived its usefulness. Large numbers of Orthodox Christians lived in independent States that were either friendly (Russia, Georgia) or only intermittently friendly (Bulgaria, Serbia) or openly hostile to the Empire (the Arab Caliphate, the “Holy Roman Empire”). And yet the Byzantines continued to cling on to the idea of a pentarchy of autocephalous Churches, all obliged to pay formal allegiance to the Emperor in Constantinople, in spite of the fact that his Empire was becoming steadily smaller and less powerful. The idea of expanding the pentarchy to admit new Local Churches, or patriarchates, that did not owe civil allegiance to the Emperor was accepted only with great difficulty. But the irony is that when the Empire did eventually fall, in 1453, the Balkan Orthodox peoples were not freed to form their own autocephalous Churches, but came under a new uniting power: the Ottoman Sultan, who appointed the Ecumenical Patriarch as “ethnarch”, or ruler, of the “millet”, or race-as-defined-by-religion, of all Orthodox Christians of all nationalities. Evidently, it was not pleasing to Divine Providence that the centrifugal forces of ecclesiastical nationalism should be given free rein just yet…

 

3. Nationalism and the Church

 

     This situation began to change in the late eighteenth, and especially in the early nineteenth century, when the Greek and Serbian revolutions set off a long-running revolution against Ottoman rule throughout the Balkans, with the result that by the end of the century the Greeks, Serbs, Bulgars and Romanians had all acquired independent States and Churches. However, this essentially political achievement came at a heavy spiritual price: a schism between the newly-autocephalous Church of Greece and the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which remained under Ottoman rule, and another schism between the Ecumenical Patriarchate and the Bulgarian Church. Moreover, independence did not bring with it any obvious spiritual fruit: on the contrary, monasticism declined sharply throughout the liberated regions, while the essentially western-inspired doctrine of nationalism brought with it, as Constantine Leontiev noted, other western diseases, such as liberalism, ecumenism and modernism. The Russians, while sympathetic to the desire of the Balkan Orthodox to be liberated from Ottoman rule (it was Russian armies that liberated Bulgaria in 1877-78), were worried that their success in liberating themselves would encourage separatist movements in their own empire. Some of the Russian Tsars, such as Nicholas I, as well as some of the Greek elders, such as Athanasios Parios, even doubted whether the Balkan Orthodox had the right to rebel against the Sultan; for “all authorities are of God”, including the Sultan, and it would have been better for them to remain in obedience to him until they were liberated from outside.

 

     The new State Churches of Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria and Romania came to be universally recognized (although in the case of the Bulgarian Church, not until 1945). However, problems relating to the legitimacy of self-proclaimed autocephaly remained. Thus:- On what basis can a group of Orthodox bishops break free from their ecclesiastical head and form a new, autocephalous Church? Is it sufficient simply that political conditions should change, placing the group in a different State from its former head? But surely nothing is done in the Church without obedience and the blessing of higher authorities? Surely their previous head should bless it? And perhaps even that is not enough, perhaps the approval of all the autocephalous Churches has to be obtained in an Ecumenical Council? What if the bishops and flocks involved do not represent more than a small minority of the population of the State they live in? Could not this lead to evident absurdities, such as autocephalous Turkish and Albanian Orthodox Churches (both of which “absurdities” actually came into existence in the early twentieth century)?

 

     In 1872 the Ecumenical Patriarchate condemned the Bulgarian Church’s attempt to claim that all Bulgarians living in Turkey, that is, on the territory of the patriarchate, belonged to her jurisdiction. This was a clear violation of the principle of territoriality, and was condemned as the heresy of “phyletism”.

 

     Unfortunately, however, it was not difficult to accuse the Greeks of the same heresy they had just condemned. For centuries during the Turkish yoke, the Phanar had appointed Greek bishops serving only in Greek over Serbian, Bulgarian and Romanian congregations. The “phyletism” of the Bulgarians, though wrong, had been elicited to a large degree by the nationalism of the Greeks of the Phanar…

 

     In 1906 an important conference took place in St. Petersburg to discuss the issue of Georgian Church autocephaly. In 1783, at the Treaty of Georgievsk, the Georgian king had given control of the foreign policy of the kingdom to Russia in exchange for the preservation of its territorial integrity and royal dynasty. However, in 1800 the Russians violated the treaty, annexing the country and abolishing its royal dynasty and ecclesiastical autocephaly. Now the Georgians were agitating for restoration of ecclesiastical autocephaly, if not for political independence.

 

     The Georgians’ case for autocephaly was strong, since nobody denied that the Georgian Church had been autocephalous since the fourth century, and that autocephaly had been abolished without their consent. However, most delegates at the conference argued that in one state there should be only one Church administration, so that the Georgian Church, as existing on the territory of the Russian Empire, should remain part of the Russian Church. Moreover, to encourage a division of Church administrations would encourage political separatism, would undermine the unity of the Empire, and therefore work against the interests of all the Orthodox of the Empire (and beyond it). This view prevailed. The delegates accepted a project put forward by Protopriest John Vostorgov (the future hieromartyr) giving the Georgian Church greater independence in the sphere of the use of the Georgian liturgical language, of the appointment of national Georgian clergy, etc., but the project for Georgian autocephaly was rejected.[2]

 

     A minority view was put forward by the Georgian Bishop Kirion, who after the revolution became leader of the Georgian Autocephalous Church. In his report, “The National Principle in the Church”, he argued, as Pavlenko writes, that “Georgia‘has the right to the independent existence of her national Church on the basis of the principle of nationality in the Church proclaimed at the beginning of the Christian faith.’ What does principle consist of, and when was it proclaimed? ‘It is sufficient to remember,’ writes Bishop Kirion, ‘the descent of the Holy Spirit on the apostles, who immediately began to glorify God in various languages and then preached the Gospel to the pagans, each in their native language.’ But in our [Pavlenko’s] view, references to the preaching of the apostles in connection with the affirmation of the national principle in the Church have no firm foundation. The preaching of the apostles in various languages was necessary in order to unite the peoples in the Truth of Christ, and not in order to disunite them in accordance with the national principle. That is, the principle of nationality is precisely that which Christianity has to overcome, and not that on which the Church must be founded. Since the Bulgarian schism phyletistic argumentation has characteristically sought support in references to the 34th Apostolic canon. ‘The basic canonical rule,’ writes Bishop Kirion, ‘by which the significance of nationality in relation to Church administration is recognised, is the 34th Apostolic canon which is so well known to canonists… According to the direct meaning of this canon in the Orthodox Church, every nationality must have its first hierarch.’ But the 34th Apostolic canon… has in view ‘bishops of every territory’ and not ‘bishops of every people’. The word ethnos, which is employed in this canon in the ancient language and in the language of Christian antiquity, is translated in the dictionary of Liddell and Scott first of all as ‘a number of people accustomed to live together’, and only then as ‘a nation’. It is precisely the first sense indicated here that points to the territorial meaning of the Apostolic canon. So references to its national meaning are groundless.”[3]

 

     Bishop Kirion also argued that dividing the administration of the Church along national, racial lines had the advantage of preserving the idiosyncracy of each nation. And in support of his argument he cited the 39th Canon of the Council in Trullo in 692, which allowed Archbishop John of Cyprus to retain all his rights as the head of the autocephalous Church of Cyprus while living, not in Cyprus, but in the Hellespont, to which he had been exiled because of barbarian invasions. Bishop Kirion argued that this canon prescribed the preservation of Cypriot idiosyncracy, and so “acquires a very important significance from the point of view of Church freedom”.

 

     However, as Pavlenko points out, in this canon “not a word is said about ‘national religious-everyday and individual particularities’ and the like, but there is mention of the rights of first-hierarchs over bishops and their appointment. ‘Let the customs of each [autocephalous] Church be observed,’ it says in this canon, ‘so that the bishop of each district should be subject to his president, and that he, in his turn, should be appointed from his bishops, according to the ancient custom.’ The émigré Church of Cyprus, of which mention is made in this canon, did not become the national Church of the Cypriots, but took into herself all the peoples of the Hellespont district where they emigrated [the bishop of Cyzicus, who was under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, was temporarily placed in subjection to the Archbishop of Cyprus]. Where is mention made here of a conciliar sanction for the preservation of ‘local ecclesiastical traditions’ with the aid of administrative isolation?”[4]

 

4. The Global Jurisdictions

 

     The example of the Cypriot Church paradoxically once again demonstrates the priority of the territorial principle over the racial principle. For the Cypriots living in the Hellespont were not allowed to form a second Church administration on the territory of the Hellespont in addition to that of the Bishop of Cyzicus. Rather, the two “races” were placed under a single Church administration – only, perhaps unexpectedly, it was not the Cypriots who were subordinated to the Cyzican bishop, but the other way round…

 

     However, there is at least one clear example in Church history when the territorial principle yielded to the racial principle with, it would seem, the blessing of God. The Russian Church Abroad (ROCOR) began its autonomous existence in 1920, when a number of South Russian bishops together with their flocks fled to Constantinople, and from there to Serbia. The Serbian Church, grateful to the Russians for their defence of Serbia in the First World War, not only offered the émigrés hospitality, but allowed them to form an essentially autonomous administration on Serbian territory. Although this situation is sometimes compared to that of the Cypriot Church discussed above, it in fact differs from it in one very important aspect; the Russian hierarchs were not placed in subjection to, or integrated into, the Serbian Church hierarchy. So here we have a clear violation of the territorial principle: two Church administrations occupying the same territory. Moreover, the Russian Church Abroad established similarly autonomous dioceses in many other parts of the world, making it a truly global Church – but the global Church (outside Russia) of a single nation.

 

     There were powerful reasons, besides gratitude, for making this exception to the rule. First, Russian hierarchs were clearly better able to look after the spiritual needs of their Russian émigré flock than Greek or Serbian or Bulgarian or Arab hierarchs; and the trauma of revolution and persecution in the Homeland combined with poverty and homelessness abroad made the pastoral needs of the Russian émigré flock paramount. Secondly, the reputation of the Russian Church, and in particular of the leader of the Church Abroad, Metropolitan Anthony (Khrapovitsky) of Kiev, was very high throughout the Balkans and the Middle East. Metropolitan Anthony was an internationalist in the best sense of the word, enjoying close relations from well before the revolution with the leading hierarchs of the non-Russian Churches; and if anyone could have maintained peaceful relations with the non-Russian hierarchies, it was he. Thirdly, it was in the interests of all the Orthodox that the terrible threat posed to them all by Soviet communism should have a powerful rebuker in the form of an autonomous Russian Church Abroad, which witness would be lost if the Russians merged into the various jurisdictions of the Local Orthodox Churches.

 

     If the violation of the territorial principle could be justified in the case of the Russian Church Abroad on the basis of pastoral considerations and for the sake of the Orthodox faith, the same could not be said of the “ecclesiastical imperialism” indulged in after the First World War by the EP. The patriarchate did sometimes bow to force majeure, as when it recognized the annexation to the Serbian Church of all areas within the boundaries of Yugoslavia in 1922, and agreed to the inclusion within the State Church of Greece of a number of dioceses in the Greek State, and recognized the autocephaly of the Albanian Church in 1937. However, where it saw political weakness it pounced like a bird of prey. Thus as the Russian Empire disintegrated Patriarch Meletius Metaxakis and his successors carved out autonomous jurisdictions around its edges in Finland, Estonia, Latvia, Poland, Czechoslovakia and Hungary – and later even penetrated closer to the heart of the empire in the Ukraine. And in America, where before the revolution all the bishops of all nationalities had been subject to a Russian archbishop (the future Patriarch Tikhon), it formed a purely Greek “archdiocese of North and South America”, thereby encouraging the formation of other racially defined Churches on American territory. All this was justified on the basis of a perverse interpretation of the 28th Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council, which supposedly transferred all the “barbarian territories” into the jurisdiction of Constantinople. And yet the irony was that on the Ecumenical Patriarch’s own canonical territory of Turkey Orthodoxy was declining very sharply while his own power was severely limited by the secular authorities.

 

     The example provided by the EP encouraged other Local Churches to carve out overseas empires for themselves. Thus, as pointed out by Lev Regelson at the beginning of this article, the Moscow Patriarchate now has “colonies” in Africa and all around the world; and the same applies to the Serbian, Bulgarian, Romanian, Antiochian, Alexandrine and even Albanian Churches. The only Local Churches which still apply the territorial principle in anything like its original meaning are the State Church of Greece and, to a lesser extent, the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which do not allow any other jurisdictions on their canonical territories and are severely restricted (by the Ecumenical Patriarchate) in having “colonies” overseas.

 

     The absurdity of the situation is illustrated by the names of the bishops. Take, for example, Britain, where the bishops of Thyateira, Diokleia, Telmessus, Sourozh and Sergievo all have flocks - but none in their titular dioceses, which have been defunct for centuries (except for Sergievo)! Only the ROCOR bishop was (until the 1980s) more realistically called “of Richmond and Great Britain”. By their titles these bishops evidently wanted to indicate their submission to their imperial heads in Moscow or Constantinople rather than the real identities of their flocks. Only the ROCOR bishop, being a “rebel”, could preserve the territorial principle in his title.

 

     After the fall of communism in 1991, some of the global jurisdictions began to falter. The most dramatic collapse was that of ROCOR, which (apart from substantial “rebel” groups) entered into communion with the MP in 2007. This demonstrates both the importance of having a territorial base (which the MP had but ROCOR did not) and the continuing pull of ethnic ties in World Orthodoxy. And by “ethnic ties” we mean old, Orthodox ethnic ties (Greek, Russian, etc.); for Local Churches based on more recent ethnic groups seem to be less successful. Thus the “Orthodox Church of America” attracts only a minority of the American Orthodox, and has no global empire…

 

5. The Restoration of Local Churches

 

     As for the True Orthodox, they, too, tend to have global jurisdictions (the TOCs of Greece, Russia, etc., several for each country). The difference is that quarrels about the faith are more important for the True Orthodox, so that they are divided both from the World Orthodox (because of the heresies of ecumenism and sergianism) and among themselves (usually because of canonical differences, but also partly because of race). The canonical differences among the True Orthodox often come down to the question: where or what is the Local Church (of Greece, Russia, etc.)?

 

     Now if the hierarchy of a Local Church has fallen into heresy and therefore out of the Orthodox Church, it is reasonable to assume that that minority of hierarchs, priests and laity who remain faithful to the truth now constitute the Local Church. For, as St. Sophronius of Jerusalem writes: “If any should separate themselves from someone, not on the pretext of a [moral] offence, but on account of a heresy that has been condemned by a Synod or by the Holy Fathers, they are worthy of honour and approbation, for they are the Orthodox.”[5]And, as St. Nicephorus of Constantinoplewrites: “You know, even if very few remain in Orthodox and piety, then it is precisely these that are the Church, and the authority and leadership (concerning) the ecclesiastical institutions remains with them.”[6]

 

     However, two problems tend to arise at this stage. The first is that the True Orthodox are divided among themselves – about, for example, the degree of the fall of the official Local Church, whether it still has grace or not. In this case, it is not obvious how to decide which of the two or more groups constitutes the true Local Church, or whether several or all of them do. The former mechanism for settling ecclesiastical disputes – appeal to the decision of the Synod of the official Local Church – no longer exists. Sometimes appeal can be made to another Local TOC to mediate, as when the “Matthewite” TOC of Greece appealed to ROCOR in 1971. But it is not clear whether any of the groups is obliged to accept the decision of this “foreign” TOC…

 

     A second problem relates to the size of the TOC, and whether it has bishops or not. It may be that the TOC in question has no bishops, and is obliged to turn for help to other TOCs. The question then arises: is the very small TOC now truly autocephalous, or does it form part of the larger TOC to which it has turned for help?

 

     The example of the TOC of Greece is important here. In 1924 the official Church of Greece fell into schism by introducing the new, Grigorian calendar. Those who refused to follow the official Church into schism formed the movement of the True Orthodox Christians of Greece. At first, the TOC consisted almost exclusively of laypeople with a very few priests (although more priests came to their help from the autonomous monastic republic of Mount Athos). By the early 1930s the movement had swelled to some hundreds of thousands of people – in spite of the fact that they had no bishops. In 1935 three bishops joined them from the official Church. In 1955 they again found themselves without bishops, but in 1971 ROCOR officially restored their hierarchy. Throughout the period from 1924 to the present day the True Orthodox Christians of Greece have considered themselves to be the Local Church of Greece – and there is no good reason to deny them this title. Nor did ROCOR attempt to subsume them into their own Church or in any way restrict their independence, as befitted a true Local Church. In supplying the Greeks with bishops the ROCOR bishops saw themselves as helping a sister Church to re-establish herself – no more.

 

     A similar example is provided by the True Orthodox Christians of Cyprus. This Church was in communion with the “Matthewite” True Orthodox Christians of Greece, and received her first bishop from them in 1948. Although small and at no time with more than one bishop, this Church’s autocephaly was recognized by the TOC of Greece.[7]

 

     A third example is provided by the True Orthodox Christians of Romania. After the calendar change in 1924, the True Orthodox Christians of Romania had no bishop and only one priest. In spite of this, and fierce persecutions from the State Church, they received their first bishop in 1955 and now have a large Church with a full complement of bishops.

 

     From these examples it follows that neither smallness of size nor paucity of clergy can deny the right of those few Orthodox Christians who have resisted a dominant heresy on the territory of a Local Church to call themselves the true successors of the Local Church. We have quoted the words of St. Nicephorus: “Even if very few remain in Orthodox and piety, then it is precisely these that are the Church, and the authority and leadership (concerning) the ecclesiastical institutions remains with them”. This must be accepted in principle, whatever the practical difficulties that these “very few” may encounter in maintaining an independent ecclesiastical existence...

 

     Against this thesis it may be objected that to call a group of Christians without a bishop a Local Church is to contradict our first basic principle: “the primary unit of the Local Church is the bishop and the Christians of the territory he administers”. Moreover, if the mark of a Local Church is its autocephaly (or, at any rate, autonomy), how can it be autocephalous (that is, with its own head) if it is in fact “acephalous” (without a head)? Is not any other view a form of Protestantism?

 

     Of course, if a group of Christians finds itself deprived of true bishops in their own Local Church, they should seek to find one in another Local Church; for there is no doubt that without a bishop they will be severely hampered in their activity and cannot survive in this condition for long. However, this does not mean that they are necessarily “acephalous” if they do not have an earthly bishop. If they are baptized and confess the true faith, and are not voluntarily without a bishop, then they remain members of the Church, whose Head is Christ. “For it is better to be led by no one,” says St. John Chrysostom, “than to be led by one who is evil. For the former indeed are often saved, and often in peril, but the latter will be altogether in peril, being led into the pit of perdition”.[8]Even if they are without a bishop on earth, they are still under the omophorion of the Bishop of bishops, the Lord Jesus Christ. For “where two or three are gathered together in My Name, I am there in the midst of them” (Matthew 18.20), said the Lord. And again the Apostle Peter says: “You were like sheep going astray, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Bishop of your souls” (I Peter 2.25). It is not Protestantism to consider such Christians within the Church: rather, it is Romanism to consider that a Christian without an earthly bishop is necessarily outside the Church. So a Local Church that has been deprived of its Local Head is not dead so long as there are members of the Church that still retain their bond with the Head of the Universal Church, the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

     Moreover, even if the members of this Local Church acquire another Local Head from another Local Church, this must be considered only a temporary “transplant”, as it were, until the Local Church can acquire a bishop of its own again. Let us take as an example the Church of Serbia, which fell into the heresy of ecumenism in the 1960s. In the 1990s, a revival of Orthodoxy took place there when some Serbian monks from Mount Athos returned the True Faith to their Homeland. Since then, the Serbs have been served by a bishop from the TOC of Greece – but without ceasing to call themselves, and being in fact, the TOC of Serbia. Now the desire of all those who love Serbian Orthodoxy must be that the TOC of Serbia will become strong enough to cease to need a “transplant” from her sister Church, and will acquire a bishop or bishops of her own in order to demonstrate to the world, and especially to the apostate ecumenists in Serbia itself, that the Local Church – the true Local Church - of Serbia is alive and well.

 

     For if a Local Church has only recently fallen into heresy, it must be desirable to attempt to restore this Church by giving her her own bishops as soon as possible, rather than destroying her as an independent unit and subsuming her indefinitely under some other Local Church. And this for two major reasons: it will strengthen those who have remained faithful to Orthodoxy, and it will facilitate the conversion of those who have fallen away. For historical experience has demonstrated without a doubt that faith is strengthened in a people if the faith can be shown to be native, that is, already linked to the land by deep bonds of language, race, tradition and statehood; so that in converting to Orthodoxy the people feel that they are returning to their own native Church rather than joining a foreign one.

 

     It is a different matter, of course, if the Local Church has been dead for many centuries, or if the land is pagan. In this case, the land must be considered to be missionary territory, and remain under the tutelage of a “Mother Church” in another country until Orthodoxy is firmly implanted in it. Even then, however, as is proved by the practice of the best missionaries, such as St. Innocent in Alaska or St. Nicholas in Japan, the aim must be to create the conditions for Local, autonomous or autocephalous Churches, with their own native clergy and with services in the native language, as soon as possible…

 

Conclusions

 

I.                    The Orthodox Church, unlike the Roman Catholic Church, is composed of Local Churches governed on the territorial principle by Synods of Bishops.

II.                 The boundaries of Local Churches have fluctuated greatly depending on political changes, the movements of peoples, and the rise and fall of Orthodoxy in different parts of the world.

III.               Over the centuries the territorial principle has been distorted by political pressures and heterodox ideologies, such as phyletism and global imperialism, until now it is hardly to be found.

IV.              The restoration of the Local Church must go hand-in-hand with the restoration of the territorial principle. Where possible, the pre-revolutionary Local Churches should be restored with bishops and priests living on the territory of the Local Church.

V.                It is impossible to predict the future map of the Local Orthodox Churches. Much will depend on whether an Orthodox empire will arise to regulate the relations of the Churches. In any case, it is hoped that the distortions of the past will be eliminated, and the principle of territoriality reasserted.

 

Vladimir Moss.

March 28 / April 10, 2008.



[1]Regelson, “O kanonicheskikh osnovaniakh Katakombnoj Tserkvi”, report delivered on January 28, 2008; www.portal-credo.ru/site/print.php?act=lib&id=2073(in Russian).

[2] Eugene Pavlenko, “The Heresy of Phyletism: History and the Present”, Vertograd-Inform, September, 1999.

[3] Pavlenko, op. cit.

[4]Pavlenko, op. cit.

[5] P.G. 87, 3369D-3372A.

[6] Apologeticus Minor, 8, P.G. 100, 844 D.

[7]Personal communication of Archbishop Andreas of Athens to the present writer, 1978.

[8]St. John Chrysostom, Homily 34 on Hebrews, 1.

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