By Dennis Menos.*
Every form of human activity whether social, commercial, or governmental has “a leader”- someone who is in charge and responsible for establishing overall policy and ensuring that it is carried out. In an Orthodox parish, this authority rests with its presiding priest; at a university with its President; in a commercial enterprise with its chief operating officer; etc.
The Orthodox Church does not have “a leader” responsible for overseeing the entire Church. Its leadership is shared by the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Primates of the Autocephalous (self-governing) Churches that collectively make up Orthodoxy.
The Ecumenical Patriarch is merely one of the Primates. Though respected by his fellow Primates and honored with the title of “first among equals,” he has no power or authority over any of the Autocephalous Churches other than his own. Each Autocephalous Church is independent of all others, and its Primate is free of any external authority.
Needless to say, the current structure makes it extremely difficult for the Orthodox Church to fulfill its worldwide mission and to offer solutions to the numerous global crises (atheism, poverty, hostility from Radical Islam, etc.) that confront mankind in the modern era. The fragmentation of its structure also constrains the Church from actively promoting the long overdue goal of reconciliation with other Christian Churches and denominations.
It is and would be wrong to attribute this admittedly difficult situation to the concept of Autocephaly alone. Autocephaly may be responsible for causing the fragmentation of the once unified Orthodox Church into a number of self-governing Churches, but there were also many ethnic and cultural factors that contributed to the desire of several Orthodox Churches to be self-governed.
Autocephaly did not make its appearance in the Orthodox Church until the 15th Century. Prior to that time the entire Orthodox East consisted of four Patriarchates (Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem), each with responsibility for a particular geographic area and with decisions affecting all being made at Church-wide Ecumenical Councils.
Over time, however, as Christianity spread into the Middle East, the Balkans, the Ukraine, and the territory that is now Russia, additional Orthodox Churches came into being. Initially, these Churches operated under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. But as the power and influence of Byzantium began to decline, especially after the fall of Constantinople to the Ottomans, the new Churches sought to enhance their own protection by declaring themselves to be self-governing and free of the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate.
Constantinople was opposed to this development, of course, but being powerless to stop it, ultimately agreed. In due time, the other Eastern Patriarchates of Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, likewise agreed.
The Church of Russia was the first to seek autocephaly, after being under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate for well over 400 years. As additional Churches sought and obtained autocephaly in subsequent years, its impact on Orthodoxy was unmistakable. Eastern Orthodoxy ceased to be one unified Church but had become a confederation of fourteen Autocephalous Churches. The structure was probably appropriate for that era, but certainly is not suitable for addressing the problems of the modern world.
The time has come for the Orthodox East to develop the capability for addressing the issues that confront it as one body of Christ (rather than fourteen) and to begin acting as one Church, with a single purpose, and one voice.
Changing the status quo will not be easy, for it will require the cooperation and partnership of the Primates and hierarchy of all Autocephalous Churches, many of whom might still be influenced by parochialism and be opposed to change. But the goal of providing the Church with a mechanism for establishing Pan-Orthodox policy and ensuring that it is carried out is of the utmost importance.
Establishing a Pan-Orthodox Council, a permanent body of Orthodox hierarchs, is the first absolute need. Meeting annually, perhaps on the island of Patmos, the Council should serve as the Church’s senior policy making organization, responsible for resolving issues of Orthodox-wide concern.
At a future date, the Orthodox Church will require also the services of a Pan-Orthodox Patriarch to ensure that the policies recommended by the Pan-Orthodox Council are carried out. Selection of the Pan-Orthodox Patriarch should be from the members of the Pan-Orthodox Council, thus affording an opportunity to any Church Primate or hierarch, regardless of ethnicity, to assume the leadership role of the Orthodox Church. Perhaps as in the case of Pan-Orthodox Council, the Pan-Orthodox Patriarch should maintain his headquarters on the island of Patmos.
The proposals above may be difficult to realize. But, unless the necessary instrumentalities for establishing and sustaining Orthodox unity are placed into effect soon, worldwide Orthodoxy will continue to flounder and be powerless to fulfill its worldwide mission.
Dennis Menos is the author of several books and a writer on Orthodox and Hellenic issues.*