1970 Letter from Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras on Autocephaly

Editor’s note: In 1970, the Patriarchate of Moscow issued a Tomos of Autocephaly to its former archdiocese in North America, which was commonly known as the “Russian Metropolia” and is now the “Orthodox Church in America.” Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras protested against this act in multiple letters to the leaders of the Moscow Patriarchate. The correspondence between the EP and Moscow was published in 1971 in a small book called Autocephaly, by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press. In a letter from Patriarch Athenagoras dated June 24, 1970, he sets forth the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s position regarding how autocephaly is to be granted. Please note that the headers in the letter appear to have been added by St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press.

Letter of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras to Metropolitan Pimen, June 24, 1970.

Protocol Number 583

Most Reverend Metropolitan Pimen,

Beloved brother in the Holy Spirit, Locum Tenens of the Patriarchal Throne of Moscow, and co-celebrant with my humble self:

May the Grace and Peace of God be with Your Eminence:

1. We received and read with all required attention in a meeting of our Holy  Synod the letter of March 16, 1970 in which His Beatitude Alexis, the Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia, lately deceased and now blessed memory, sent us in answer to our brotherly letter to him of January 7, 1970 with Protocol Number 7. In his letter, His Beatitude of blessed memory analyzed his reasoning and point of view, as well as that of the Holy Synod of the Sister Orthodox Russian Church on what lately happened, though it should not have; that is, the matter of the granting of autocephaly, by the Patriarchate of Moscow, to the Russian Orthodox Metropolia of New York, thereby naming it “The Autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.”

Letter Properly Sent

2. We were greatly surprised to be informed by the letter of the late Patriarch of blessed memory that our letter to him of January 7, 1970, Protocol Number 7, did not reach his hands, and that he gained knowledge of its contents through a copy that was sent to him by someone else. Our perplexity, which bordered on anxiety, becomes all the more understandable since our letter was sent registered with a receipt of its arrival requested; and indeed, in accordance with the international practice, the mailed receipt was returned to us, bearing the arrival date (in Moscow) of January 16, 1970, as well as the signature of the receiver. In order that you may be exactly informed concerning this, we enclose herewith a photostatic copy of this receipt. We deemed this explanation essential so that your appropriate office can, insofar as it is possible, clarify this situation, which can result in serious misunderstandings. We therefore kindly request Your Eminence to inform us in due course concerning the results of the investigation that will be undertaken to clear up a matter that has also occasioned us reasonable wonder.

Disagreement Stressed

3. Coming now to the answering letter of March 16, 1970, the Patriarch of late memory noted that the contents of our letter to him made him experience feelings of surprise and puzzlement. We cannot understand why this should be so; but we must confess that it was precisely his answer to our letter, and the manner in which its contents were phrased, that occasioned us and our Holy Synod the deepest sorrow.

In our letter of January 7, 1970, Protocol Number 7, we had addressed a warm brotherly recommendation that the Holy Russian Church refrain from any further activities that might disturb ecclesiastical peace and harmony and bring about a condition that might overturn the established canonical order and cause a more general agitation and confusion at the expense of the unity and accord that came to pass in our Holy Orthodox Church through so many efforts and sacrifices.

Though we were hoping to find on your part understanding and a positive response to this brotherly request of ours, we must now conclude, in spite of our every hope and expectation, that the Russian Orthodox Church, unfortunately, persists in her incorrect stand, continuing further with her plans for the realization of this autocephaly — even to the point of proclaiming it.

And though your Church calls in support of her activities the need to neutralize the irregularities existing in the relations between the Church and her communities, and among the communities themselves, as well as her supposed right to grant the autocephaly in question — yet these explanations and arguments which are brought forth are not at all convincing regarding the canonical regularity of the undertaken venture.

Other Unspecified Action Supported

4. First of all, in reference to the irregularities which you claim exist between the relations of the Russian communities and the Russian Church, and among those communities themselves, there is no reason at all, and no need whatsoever, to have the neutralization of such a situation pursued with another, even greater anomaly, which seriously shakes the governing system of the entire Orthodox Church — especially since there exist other forms of administrative action that the Sister Holy Russian Church could turn to. As for her alleged right, as well as that of any other Autocephalous Orthodox Church, to grant the status of autocephaly to another Church — such a right does not correspond either to canonical requirements or to existing practices within the Church.

Grant of Autocephaly Reserved to Entire Church

5. Certainly and incontrovertibly, and in accordance with the canonical conception of the Church, the concept behind the granting of autocephaly belongs to the domain of canonical authority. However, what is the legal principle underlying the granting of autocephaly? What are its required conditions and presuppositions?

Specific canons exactly characterizing autocephaly are not to be found in ecclesiastical legislation. However, certain general guidelines and provisions, relative to autocephaly, may be gathered from the basic principles of such legislation. These, moreover, are to be found clearly stamped in the canonical conscience of the Church and in its history, and have been repeatedly expressed, and are distinctly printed in the Tomes that were published on the occasions of the founding of the newer local Autocephalous Churches.

From these basic and valid sources, and also from the very meaning of autocephaly itself as an ecclesiastical act, from which certain changes result relative to ecclesiastical boundaries and to the rise of new jurisdictional and administrative powers that bring about a new order in the Orthodox Church as a whole — it may be concluded that the granting of autocephaly is a right belonging to the Church as a whole, and cannot at all be considered a right of “each Autocephalous Church,” as is stated in the letter of Patriarch Alexis of blessed memory.

Ecumenical Councils Define Independence of Churches

6. Thus the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea put the stamp of approval on the old custom of considering as Churches the Regional Provinces, thereby validating the existence of the Churches of Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. (Canons 6 and 7.) The Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople determined the independence of the Exarchs of the dioceses of Asia, Pontus and Thrace. (Canon 2.) The Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus ruled definitively on the differences that existed between the Bishops of the Churches of Antioch and of Cyprus, and in so doing made secure the autocephaly of the Church of Cyprus. (Canon 8.) The Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon regulated anew the status of the Dioceses of Asia, Pontus and Thrace, referred to above and made them dependent on the Throne of Constantinople (Canon 28): at this Fourth Council also were finally resolved the differences between Antioch and Jerusalem concerning their boundaries. The Fifth-Sixth Ecumenical Council (the Troullos or Dome Council) also occupied itself with boundary jurisdictions, which constitutes another proof that the Ecumenical Councils considered that judgment concerning autocephaly was within their jurisdiction and did not lie outside their competence.

Unconfirmed Autocephalies Disappeared

7. And the necessity of a common decision concerning autocephaly is supported by History which reveals that Autocephalous Churches which did not obtain ecumenical validation and assurance — like the Church of Carthage, the Church of Mediolana (Milan), the Church of Lyons, the Church of First Justiniana, the Church of Ochrid, the Church of Trnovo, the Church of Ipek, and the Church of Iberia, as well as some others in this category — lost their autocephaly with the passage of time. On the other hand, those Churches which did have ecumenical recognition of their autocephaly, even though they underwent many trials, and almost came to the point of dissolution, remained as Autocephalous Churches and obtained a new lease on life, as did the Churches of Cyprus, Jerusalem, Antioch, and Alexandria. This same stamp of validity by an Ecumenical Synod is needed also, for their definitive and continuing autocephalous existence, by the newer autocephalous Churches because of the unfavorable circumstances in which they may at times find themselves. These include the Churches to which the Holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Ecumenical Throne gave the stamp of autocephaly with the approval of the other Orthodox Churches.

Primacy of Constantinople

8. The Ecumenical Patriarchate could do this because of its attribute as the Mother Church and its status as the “First Among Equals” in reference to the other autocephalous Orthodox Churches, and because it is at the center of the internal unity of the entire Orthodox Church, helping the other Churches in their needs — a duty that derives from its presiding and excelling position within the family of the Orthodox Churches.

Rights of Local Churches Limited

9. According to the above, therefore, the final and definitive decision concerning autocephaly belong to a Synod representing more generally the entirety of the local Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, and especially to an Ecumenical Synod. Such decisions cannot be made by each local Autocephalous Church or by a local Synod of a Church from which a Diocese is requesting autocephaly. Such a local Synod has the right only to receive the first petitions for autocephaly and to form an opinion as to whether or not the reasons proffered for autocephaly are justified in accordance with the spirit of the 34th Apostolic Canon.

So much for the principles underlying the right to grant autocephaly.

Condition for Autocephaly

10. We come now to the conditions required for the good and proper proclamation of autocephaly. We may surmise from history and from the well imprinted conscience of the Church that the announcement of autocephaly, which aims towards the fulfillment of clearly ecclesiastical needs, basically took into account neither the apostolicity of the See, nor exclusively the prestige of the nation involved, nor the principle that has taken on a quasi-canonical form to the effect that “ecclesiastical affairs should change in accordance with political events.” Such contentions, at least in part, were the basis for the proclamation of the autocephaly of the newer Orthodox Churches in areas that gained national independence, and were largely inhabited by Orthodox peoples. The expressed opinion of the Christian faithful, of both the clergy and the laity, has always been decisively imposed on ecclesiastical matters. But such expressed opinion has been considered first and foremost as foundational and essential to the factors of autocephaly as it is imprinted in an official Synodical act, containing the petition and the stated reasons for the desired independence, concurred in by the entire hierarchy of the local Church, without which any move on the part of the laity, or by whoever represents the governing body of the Church, would constitute an attempt at usurpation. That is why both the judgment of the Mother Church, and, finally, the definitive decision of the entire Church, are essential, in accordance with the above, for the canonical establishing of autocephaly, as would be the case with any other ecclesiastical act of the same type and nature.

Churches Not to Act Outside of their Limits

11. If, according to the above, it is uncanonical for a local Autocephalous Church to declare autocephalous a branch Church detached from its ecclesiastical realm, not only not comprising a component part of it, but also not having had a canonical relation to it or dependence on it — then how much more uncanonical would be such a declaration of autocephaly in reference to a Church completely outside of your boundaries. Such an effort and act would entirely exceed your jurisdiction, as it is clearly ordered in the divine and sacred Canons. That is why the Holy Apostles and Fathers of the Church took great care to bring about a condition whereby irenic relations would prevail among the various Churches. The Apostles ordered that “no Bishop be permitted to pass over into the Province of another” (Apostolic Canons 14 and 34); while the Holy Fathers assembled at the First Ecumenical Council of Nicaea legislated that “the old customs be kept” and that “each throne rule over the Provinces belonging to it.” (Canons 6 and 7.) Finally, according to Zonaras, the Holy Fathers who convened at the Second Ecumenical Council of Constantinople ruled that a Bishop should not invade the Province of another Bishop by exceeding his jurisdiction, that is, going beyond the province belonging to him, and entering into territories of Churches beyond his own boundaries, which are outside of the defined limits.

Russian Church Oversteps Its Rights

12. These are the divine and sacred canons on which from the beginning the status of the Church has been based, and by which the ruling system of the Church has been strengthened; and the canonical rights of the Churches secured, and scandals dispersed. But the Holy Russian Church, not considering these things at all, unfortunately proceeded beyond her jurisdiction with a series of acts and moves that are characteristic of what she was bold enough to do in these last years in Poland and Czechoslovakia, and of what she is now doing in America.

The Case of Poland

13. Having ignored the previous formation of an Autocephalous Orthodox Church in the State of Poland through the Patriarchal and Synodical Tome of November 13, 1924, issued under the late Ecumenical Patriarch Gregory VII of blessed memory — a decision based on an appropriately supporting Tomos — and having ignored also the spirit of love and brotherly communal unity expressed to the entire Church by all other Autocephalous Churches which willingly and unhesitatingly recognized what had been done by the Ecumenical Patriarchate — the Russian Orthodox Church, by an act of her own Holy Synod of June 22, 1948, granted to the Church of Poland a new autocephaly. And this act of the Russian Orthodox Church was done by exceeding her territorial rights, since after the end of World War II, the territories of Ukraine and Byelorussia, which previously belonged to the Church of Poland, were detached from this Church; and the areas included in these detached Churches reaching westward as far as the Baltic Sea, and being from times past outside the boundaries of the Patriarchate of Moscow, are under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchal Throne.

The Case of Czechoslovakia

14. Unsupportedly and unjustifiably and with transgression of jurisdiction the Russian Orthodox likewise interfered in the ecclesiastical affairs of the Orthodox Church in Czechoslovakia, the territory of which canonically and historically has belonged to the Ecumenical Patriarchate, and was organized by the Throne of Constantinople. From the beginning, the Russian Orthodox Church brought pressure to bear on the late Archbishop Sebbatios of Prague and All Czechoslovakia, arbitrarily sending to that Archdiocese an Exarch, and continuing to the point of finally granting it an autocephaly which was uncanonical and unfounded — and this, again, was done in order to overturn the status of autonomy given to the Czechoslovakian Church by the Ecumenical Throne from the year 1923, a status recognized as canonical by the local Sister Orthodox Autocephalous Churches.

Russian Usurpation in America

15. Today, the Russian Orthodox Church, proceeding on its uncanonical course, is interfering in American ecclesiastical affairs, and invoking her so-called maternal bond with the Orthodox in America deriving from the mission she once sent to the Aleutian Islands and to Alaska, considers herself as the only legal authority for the “Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America” as she terms the Russian Metropolia which is under the Most Reverend Metropolitan Ireney. And, indeed, she considers herself as being the only legal authority “for All Orthodoxy in America,” on the basis of which she feels justified in administering American ecclesiastical matters according to her judgment, deeming the analogous activities of every other Autocephalous Church in America as a trespass against the basic canonical principles. And in so doing she ignores the unshakeable rights of each Autocephalous Church by usurping an authority not belonging to her, which is an act condemned by the holy canons.

No Exclusive Rights on Orthodox Diaspora in America

16. But the fact that the original foreign mission in the Aleutian Islands and in the most westward Alaskan corner of the Western Hemisphere comprised a branch of the Russian Empire at that time and until 1867, when these territories were sold to the United States for a monetary sum; as well as the fact that in later years the Russian Church was engaged in propagandistic and proselytizing activities primarily directed towards the Slavic Uniates who had emigrated to America from Galicia and Hungary — obviously in no way gives to the Russian Orthodox Church the right, which she claims, of having an exclusive jurisdiction in America. From the beginning of the second half of the past 19th Century, when the Russian Orthodox began moving southward from the northernmost places towards the industrial centers of the Continental United States, and especially from the first decades of the present 20th Century, when large masses of Orthodox faithful from all the countries where they lived emigrated to the New World — from then on were formed the now existing Orthodox jurisdictions in America.

Irregularly Overlapping Jurisdiction

17. This constitutes a new phenomenon in this history of the Orthodox Church in America, and a new form of the “diaspora,” making for an extraordinary and irregular situation, allowing the co-existence of many hierarchs with the same rank who exercise ecclesiastical jurisdiction over their own people, contrary to explicit canonical orders such as that of the 21st Canon of the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon specifying that “two metropolitans not be in the same province.”

Waiting for the Great Synod

18. Even though this situation is contrary to the fundamental dogmatic principle of Orthodox ecclesiology, which is the basis of the ecclesiastical organization that underlies the unity of all the faithful who live in the same place in one ecclesiastical organism under the leadership of one Bishop, thus manifesting the unity of those new people of God, according to which “there is neither Greek nor Jew… but Christ is all and in all” (Col. III, II); and even though this situation offends the government and the sacred legislation of the Church– it is nevertheless deemed and confronted by this Holy, Apostolic and Patriarchal Throne as constituting and extraordinary phenomenon, self-peculiar and temporary. We therefore face this situation mindful that it is one brought about by extreme necessity (“economia”); and we face it also with condescension and toleration, in order to serve the securing and the promotion of peace and unity among the Sister Orthodox Churches until such a time as this subject be appropriately examined and definitely solved by the future Holy and Great Synod of the Orthodox Churches, to which it has already been referred for a Pan-Orthodox decision. For this reason we are at a loss to explain the haste shown by the Russian Orthodox Church in announcing as Autocephalous a relatively small section of the Russian Orthodox Diaspora in America, and conferring on this church a title disproportionate with reality, after having only recently recognized her jurisdiction.

Primacy of Constantinople over Russia since 1591

19. Therefore, we think it opportune and essential, for the fulfillment of our debt and responsibility towards the entire Orthodox Church, to urge once again the Holy Russian Orthodox Church, in a brotherly way, to refrain from any further action in this matter, reminding her that her boundaries are defined, as is also the scope of her jurisdiction, and cannot be extended beyond what was allotted to her by the Golden Seal Certificate of Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II in the year 1591. The Russian Orthodox Church owes her independent existence to this document, as well as to the Newer Tome of February, 1593 issued by this same Ecumenical Patriarch Jeremiah II. This Newer Tome announces to the Russians the decisions, relative to the recently established Patriarchate of Moscow, that were made at the Great Local Synod of Constantinople which was participated in by Patriarch Meletios of Alexandria, who also represented the absent Patriarch Joachim of Antioch, and also by Patriarch Sophronios of Jerusalem and 76 other hierarchs. Concerning the Patriarch of Moscow, it was ordered that “he be counted among the other Patriarchs and his order in the Patriarchal ranks and the commemoration of his name in the services come after that of the Patriarch of Jerusalem; and that he be obliged to commemorate the name of the Ecumenical Patriarch, as well as the names of the other Patriarchs, but always considering as his Head and First in rank, as do the other Patriarchs, the Apostolic Throne of Constantinople.” The original of this Newer Tome bears the signature and the waxen imprints of the Seals of the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria and Jerusalem, and up to the end of the last century it was kept in the collection of manuscripts of the Moscow Synodal Library.

No Decision Valid before Great Council

20. We sincerely hope that the Sister Russian Orthodox Church, retaining the canonical order and having in mind and desiring the peace of the Church, will not only proceed no further in this matter now under judgment, but will also make every effort to dispel the confusion it has caused in reference to canonicity.

If, however, in spite of our hope, the Russian Orthodox Church will want to persist in her views and act in a way that would oppose a Pan-Orthodox determination of this question by a future Great and Holy Synod of the Eastern Orthodox Church, we hereby declare that this Apostolic and Patriarchal Ecumenical Throne will of necessity find itself obligated, for the good and interest of the entire Church, to consider any action taken in this matter as not having been done. We so declare since we consider as valid only a Pan-Orthodox decision concerning the solution of the entire subject of the Orthodox in the “diaspora.”

We thus reply, with fraternal duty, to the letters of March 17, 1970 which we received from the Most Holy Russian Church, and with humbleness of heart we entreat God the Father of Peace to direct her desires on this question towards activities worthy of her glorious past and her honorable traditions, for the safeguarding of the canonical order and the sacred legislation of our Fathers.

We pray that our Lord may grant peace to His Holy Church, and that the years He bestows on Your Eminence may be many, healthful and salutary.

With brotherly and the highest esteem,

Athenagoras of Constantinople

June 24, 1970

9 Replies to “1970 Letter from Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras on Autocephaly”

  1. Means absolutely nothing today. The Phanar will remain UNimpressed. They take and filfill orders … none of this “canonical” business means anything to them.

    1. Forgive me, but how do you presume to know their hearts? I’m a fervent pro-Russian Church person, but I’m not going to dehumanize or generalize the other side. Why can’t we assume for a moment that there are people acting in good faith on both sides?
      I can’t believe this amazing letter is from the same Ecumenical Patriarch that told Paul VI that he commemorated his “high priesthood” from the altar! People really are so much deeper than the caricatures we can make of them in our imagainations.

  2. This letter is astonishing for both its irenic tone and its well-defended position about the role of the general councils in granting autocephaly. Patriarch Athenagoras demolishes the idea that autocephaly can be granted by any single local church, even by the First Throne itself. Very instructive. In spite of his actions with Pope Paul VI, he now has three positive points in my book: this letter, his complete concurrence with the moral teaching of Humanae Vitae (which is the patristic teaching), and his glorification of St Nikodemos the Athonite.

    1. Humanae Vitae is not the patristic teaching. Its advocacy of “natural family planning” definitively puts it outside the patristic opposition to any non-procreative marital act.

      1. I don’t think the comments beneath this letter are the right setting for a debate on this particular point. Please feel free to email me, Brother, and to argue for this position. My email is my name at gmail. The fathers seem critical of NFP to a point but the great Augustine also said that being open to conception justified the marital act even if it was not its primary purpose. Glad to discuss with you over email

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