Hierarchical, Congregational, and the problems of the “parish”

In 1993, the Appeals Court of Massachusetts rendered its decision in (brace yourself) Primate and Bishops’ Synod of Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia v. Russian Orthodox Church of Holy Resurrection, Inc. We’ll just call it Primate from here on out.

This case involved a Massachusetts ROCOR parish that left ROCOR and joined HOCNA in 1987. At a parish meeting, members voted to amend their articles of organization and bylaws, removing all references to ROCOR in the bylaws. The parish then switched jurisdictions. The ROCOR Holy Synod sued, arguing that (1) the parish vote was illegal and (2) parish property is subject to the dominion and control of ROCOR (“the Church”).

At trial, the judge ruled that the parish “was hierarchical in terms of internal administration, discipline, and matters of faith,” but “congregational as far as the control and use of its property.” The appellate court agreed. Applying a neutral principles of law approach, the court identified the key question as being where “the church members, prior to the schism, have placed the ultimate authority over the use of church property.”

Churches can be hierarchical or congregational, but the two concepts aren’t mutually exclusive. The court explains that a church may be “hierarchical in some matters and congregational in others.” At first blush, this doesn’t seem to be the case with a ROCOR parish. ROCOR’s official documents recognized Synodal jurisdiction over “[m]atters concerning church property in dioceses [and] parishes.” Citing Apostolic Canon 41 (“We command that the Bishop have authority over the property of the Church”), ROCOR’s regulations emphasized that the bishop has authority over all “church property” in his diocese. The local parish bylaws presented a similar picture. When the parish was organized, it adopted the standard ROCOR parish bylaws, which called for Synod approval of major decisions regarding “church real estate.”

So this should be a win for ROCOR, right? It all seems pretty cut and dried, but that’s not how the court saw things. At trial, witness testimony revealed that the parish was always a separate legal entity, “not a subdivision of any other entity.” Parish property was paid for by parish funds, and legal title was in the name of the parish. The trial judge found that the parish property was never “diocesan, monastic or Church property.”

The court tried to educate itself on Orthodox history and ecclesiology. It noted that the apostolic canons (including the canon cited above) were adopted more than 1500 years ago, and that in the Russian Church, property ownership didn’t always follow a single pattern. “While the only person who could appoint a priest was the bishop, property and indeed churches belonged to various groups, including tradesmen, nobles, and the Tsars.” Orthodoxy, the court observed, has both hierarchical and congregational elements, and thus can’t be analogized to the modern day Roman Catholic Church. In a footnote, the court commented:

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, there was evidence that in the Russian Orthodox Church authority was vested in the whole body of the laity as well as with the hierarchy; it was described as “an organic, as opposed to a juridical notion of authority.” There was also testimony that there were congregational aspects in the orthodox faith; in theory the bishop is elected by the people as well as the clergy, and that even in appointing the priest, the bishops would not impose someone upon the parish that the parish did not want.

Furthermore, the parish in question was just one of about twenty that left ROCOR at the same time, but ROCOR only demanded the property of two of the parishes. In the history of ROCOR, said the court, “[t]here has been much voluntary movement of parishes in and out of the Church, as well as in and out of the other orthodox umbrella organizations [jurisdictions].” In many of those cases, the moving parishes kept their property. Thus, said the appellate court, the trial judge wasn’t unreasonable in concluding that the parish in question was congregational as to its property.

This case presents two challenging themes: the idea that parish property isn’t necessarily “Church” property, and the concept of dual hierarchical and congregational forms of church governance, coexisting within Orthodoxy. Both themes emphasize the distinctiveness and separateness of the parish. It is, in this interpetation, an independent legal entity. It is affiliated with the diocese or Church to a certain degree, in doctrinal and even pastoral matters (e.g. the appointment of a priest), but it is not legally bound by the Church when it comes to property decisions.

All of this is paradoxical — a separation of the sacred from the profane which is foreign to Orthodox thought. And yet I’m not entirely certain that the court got it wrong. To be honest, I’m undecided about what courts should do, but this court’s logic has some merit, at least from a legal standpoint. How could we create a rule based on Primate, and applicable in nearly all Orthodox parish property cases? We could, I suppose, employ a rebuttable presumption that the parish is a legally independent entity with respect to property. We could then further employ a rebuttable presumption that the parish is congregational with respect to its internal governance. The diocese would retain control over doctrine, liturgy, and clergy appointments, but it would have to rebut the presumptions of independence and congregationalism to assert control over property. And any parish could, if it wished, explicity surrender its property independence and/or recognize an exclusively hierarchical form of government.

But… well, there are problems. Recognizing congregationalism within the parish means that a court would have to decide who qualifies as a “member.” This is a tricky issue. Qualifications for “membership” vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and parish to parish, and can include the payment of dues, reception of communion, and regular confession, among other things. I didn’t mention this above, but in Primate, one of ROCOR’s arguments was that the vote at the parish meeting was invalid because it was two members short of a two-thirds majority. The two missing “members,” the court found, hadn’t paid dues for a full year, and thus weren’t technically members at all. Thus ROCOR’s argument failed.

I’m beginning to see what the problem is in these parish property disputes. In Orthodoxy, the diocese — not the parish — is the basic ecclesiastical unit. The concept of “parish” has evolved over time, and even now it isn’t entirely clear-cut. Yet it is within parishes that most property disputes arise. Until we have a coherent understanding of what it means to be a “parish” and a “parishioner” (rather than just a diocese and an Orthodox Christian), we will continue to struggle with this problem.

The only real solution that I can think of is to break down the wall between parish and diocese. If all the Orthodox in America were united, and every major city had an Orthodox bishop, the dioceses would be rather small. All Orthodox property within the diocese — so, within the city and the outlying area — would be property of the diocese. Rather than being parishioners, the faithful would be members of the diocese — the Orthodox Church of __________ (Chicago, Seattle, Wichita, etc.). And the Orthodox Church of __________ would own all the formerly “parish” property in its territory. By abandoning our present jurisdictional structure and embracing a more ancient model of the Church, with smaller and more unified dioceses, we may be able to avoid cases like Primate, and the well-meaning but ultimately un-Orthodox logic that they express.

This article was written by Matthew Namee.

UPDATE: Originally, I said that the parish in question left ROCOR for the OCA. I have since been informed that the parish was one of a number of parishes that joined HOCNA, not the OCA. I have corrected the article above.

2 Replies to “Hierarchical, Congregational, and the problems of the “parish””

  1. An appealing idea, but what if we in North America face something similar to the Florentine Union? It’s sad when parishes leave the unity of the Church, but should we ever face what conservative Episcopalians have been facing, then diocesan control of property could become a rather tragic thing.

    1. You make a good point. Honestly, I don’t think there’s any one approach that will work every time. MAYBE we can recommend several approaches depending on the circumstances. But I have a feeling there’s no magic bullet when it comes to Orthodoxy and the secular courts.

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