Written by Vladimir Moss



     The recent quarrel between the patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow over Constantinople’s proclamation of an autocephalous Ukrainian Church raises once again the problem of ecclesiastical autocephaly that has so plagued the Orthodox Church over the course of the last millennium. 

     Let us first offer a definition of ecclesiastical autocephaly. Following the canonist Sergei Troitsky (1878-1972) in his article “Church Autocephaly” (Journal of the Moscow Patriarchate, 1948), we may define a Church as autocephalous if it is “self-headed”, having its own supreme or sovereign power independent of that of any other autocephalous Church, whose bishops elect their first bishop and the rest of the hierarchy, and are able to judge their own hierarchs, including the first hierarch, independently of any other church hierarchy. In addition, an autocephalous Church “enjoys full freedom in producing holy myrrh for itself, canonizing its own saints, composing new hymns, determining the time of the liturgy, etc.” However, an autocephalous Church is not independent in its dogmatic and canonical definitions, which have to conform to the decisions of the Ecumenical Councils, and is also subject to the decisions of all truly Orthodox Ecumenical and Pan-Orthodox Councils.

     If we exclude the five patriarchates that came into existence in the first Christian centuries – Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – autocephalous Churches have come into existence in the following three ways:-

1.     By the Decision of an Ecumenical Council.In this way were born the autocephalies of the Churches of Georgia, Cyprus and Sinai. In later ages, for their protection in the face of overwhelming external pressure, the Church of Georgia was absorbed into the Church of Russia, and the Church of Cyprus into the Church of Constantinople. But these absorptions, or annulments of autocephaly, were recognized as temporary, and therefore did not significantly hinder the reassertion of autocephaly in later ages.

2.     By the Grant of a Mother or “kyriarchal” Church. In this way were born the autocephalies of the Churches of Bulgaria and Serbia in medieval times, and of many other Churches in the twentieth century. In most cases the Mother Church has been the patriarchate of Constantinople; in a few cases it has been the patriarchate of Moscow. One characteristic of this method of autocephaly-creation has been its instability: the Church that grants the autocephaly feels itself entitled to take back this grant for one or another reason. Thus in 1766-67 the Patriarchate of Constantinople abolished the autocephalies of the Churches of Bulgaria and Serbia. Another characteristic is that a grant of autocephaly by one Church is often contested by another. For example, the patriarchate of Constantinople has always contested Moscow’s granting of autocephaly to the Orthodox Church of America, regarding it as a metropolitanate of the Russian Church. Again, Moscow contested Constantinople’s grant of autocephaly to the Church of Poland until it had confirmed it with its own grant, and similarly contests Constantinople’s grant of autocephaly to a Ukrainian Church in 2018. Sometimes this leads to the creation of two autocephalous Churches on one territory, as when two autocephalous Churches of Estonia were created, one by Constantinople and the other by Moscow.

3.     By a Unilateral declaration of Autocephaly. Usually such a declaration is rejected as invalid or schismatic by the Church which considers itself “kyriarchal” (usually Constantinople), but is then recognized some years later ex post facto. For example, after the proclamation of the kingdom of Romania in 1881, the Romanian Synod itself consecrated the holy chrism in 1882. This aroused the stern opposition of Patriarch Joachim III, but his successor Joachim IV bowed to the reality: Constantinople officially recognized the autocephaly by the Tomos of 25 April 1885, and in 1924 also recognized the Romanian patriarchate.

     From the above, it is obvious that the only stable method of creating autocephalous Churches, without the threat of schism or uncanonicity, is by means of an Ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox Council whose decisions are accepted by all the Local Autocephalous Churches. For the creation of a new Church, whether or not it takes place on the territory of an existing Church or not, is a matter affecting the life of all the existing Churches and should therefore be authorized and confirmed by all the Churches sitting in council together. Thus the de facto autocephaly of the Russian Church since 1448 was recognized and confirmed de jure by the Pan-Orthodox Councils of 1589, 1590 and 1593.

     However, this approach to the problem has proved difficult to implement for three reasons:-

1.     Political Interference.When wars or national revolutions or the influx of large numbers of immigrants of a certain race into a certain territory create changes in state boundaries, or a change in the dominant race on a certain territory, the need for the creation of a new Church to accommodate such changes becomes obvious and not unreasonable. More problematic is the situation when an imperial or totalitarian power seeks to exploit inter-church relations and rivalries for its own political ends. The Orthodox Church of its nature has always striven to be independent of political interference, but in some cases this becomes difficult if not impossible. For example, when the Ottomans conquered the whole of Eastern Europe and Anatolia, and placed the patriarch of Constantinople as ethnarch of all the Orthodox Christians in the region, the weakening of the autocephaly of the non-Greek Churches became inevitable. From this there arose the attitude (evident even before the Ottoman conquest) of Constantinople seeing herself as “ecumenical” in a way that was incompatible with the full autocephaly of the other Local Churches. And unfortunately this attitude has persisted even after the fall of the Ottoman empire; in fact, in some ways it appears to have increased as Constantinople seeks to make up for the power it lost under the Ottomans. Similarly, the Soviet conquest of Eastern Europe at the end of the Second World War gave the Moscow Patriarchate, as a tool of Soviet political power, dominion over all the autocephalous Churches of Eastern and Central Europe – a dominion that it has not been willing fully to relinquish since the fall of Soviet power. And where new states have arisen within the former Soviet Union (as in the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine), the Moscow Patriarchate, following the bidding of its political master, has acted as if these new boundaries did not exist, and all Russians everywhere, being all parts of one “Russian world”, should all belong to one Russian Church. 

2.     The Orthodox Diaspora. Large numbers of Orthodox Christians whose racial and cultural roots lie in Eastern Europe now live in the countries of the West, where a multiplicity of separate and parallel ethnic jurisdictions have sprung up, violating the territorial principle of Orthodox ecclesiastical organization, whereby there should be only one bishop in one defined territory. This problem has been on the agenda of a future Pan-Orthodox Council for decades, but neither the Council that met in Crete in 2016 nor any other inter-Church consultations have succeeded in solving it. Here again, political interference has played its part…

3.     The Heresy of Ecumenism. Since the 1920s in the Greek Churches, and since the 1960s in the Russian and East European Churches, the ecumenist heresy has played havoc with the spiritual lives of all the Local Orthodox Churches, making a truly spiritual and canonical resolution of their problems impossible. Ecumenism divides the Churches within and between themselves. While the leaders of the patriarchates of Moscow and Constantinople vie with each other in trying to be the closest satraps of the Pope of Rome, the lower clergy and people begin to have doubts whether their leaders are Orthodox at all, and look towards the True Orthodox Churches that have remained undefiled by the pollution of ecumenism.

     In conclusion, there is an urgent need for an Ecumenical or Pan-Orthodox Council that will sort out the problems of the organization of the Orthodox Church and in particular the criteria for the lawful creation of new Autocephalous Churches. However, such a Council cannot be convened until a new leadership is in place that is free of the pollution of heresy and all association with anti-Orthodox political interference. Only then can the One True Church make its unity manifest to the rest of the world that lies in darkness.


September 4/17, 2019.

Holy Prophet and God-Seer Moses.


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