Patriarch Athenagoras Clearly States How Autocephaly Must Be Granted

Editor’s note: On Friday, Orthodox History published a 1970 letter by Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras in response to the Moscow Patriarchate’s decision to grant autocephaly to the “Orthodox Church in America.” After posting the letter, we received the following article by “Petrus Antiochenus.”


Today, the Ecumenical Patriarchate is on the verge of creating an autocephalous Church in Ukraine. The Patriarchate of Moscow has responded by threatening to break communion. This situation has led global Orthodoxy to the brink of schism, and the implications extend far beyond the borders of Ukraine, or even beyond simply the relationship between the Patriarchates of Constantinople and Moscow. Given this precarious situation, the publication of Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras’ June 24, 1970 letter was most welcome. Whatever you think of him, it cannot be disputed that Patriarch Athenagoras was one of the most important Orthodox individuals of the 20th century, and his words on the topic of autocephaly carry much weight. For obvious reasons, they should be especially important to his own Church, the Ecumenical Patriarchate. This letter answers the crucial question, What does Patriarch Athenagoras have to tell us about how autocephaly is to be granted?

Background Information

First, a word of background on the letter. For many decades in the 20th century, the former North American archdiocese of the Moscow Patriarchate functioned as basically an independent archdiocese. It rejected the authority of Moscow, which was under Soviet influence, but it also was not under the jurisdiction of any other Autocephalous Church. Eventually, relations between Moscow and this archdiocese improved, enough so that Moscow made the decision to grant autocephaly to the North American archdiocese — thereby creating the “Autocephalous Orthodox Church in America.” This was a remarkable action for a variety of reasons, most especially because the Moscow Patriarchate did not seek the agreement of the rest of the Orthodox Churches — it simply declared that, as Mother Church of the archdiocese, it had the authority to essentially “spin off” its “daughter” into a new Autocephalous Church. Also, Moscow’s claim to jurisdiction in North America in the first place was very thin, and by 1970, many other Autocephalous Churches had established a presence in North America.

So Patriarch Athenagoras’ letter was a protest to Moscow’s unilateral action. In fact, it was part of a series of letters exchanged between the Moscow church leadership and the Ecumenical Patriarch. In this article, I will examine precisely what Patriarch Athenagoras said about how autocephaly is to be granted. My focus is on the general principles pertaining to autocephaly, which apply in all cases. In doing this, I will quote directly from Patriarch Athenagoras’ letter.

The Principle of Autocephaly According to Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras

In part 5 of the letter, the Ecumenical Patriarch writes,

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.

Here, Patriarch Athenagoras speaks clearly: “autocephaly is a right belonging to the Church as a whole.” Why? He explains: autocephaly is an “ecclesiastical act” that “bring(s) about a new order in the Orthodox Church as a whole.” Because all of the Churches are affected by this, it is necessary that they act as one, with a unified voice. Nowhere does Patriarch Athenagoras qualify his statement by claiming some kind of special powers for the Ecumenical Patriarchate which would put this Church above the other Churches and allow it to force a “new order” on the whole Orthodox Church.

Autocephaly Requires the Consent of All the Churches, Led by Constantinople

Patriarch Athenagoras goes on to describe the ultimate authority of the Ecumenical Councils of the Church in regard to the question of autocephalies. In part 7 of his letter, he points out that “Autocephalous Churches which did not obtain ecumenical validation and assurance… lost their autocephaly with the passage of time.” In contrast, Churches whose autocephaly had blessing of the whole Church in an Ecumenical Council have survived, even despite great trials. The Ecumenical Patriarch concludes part 7,

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.

Patriarch Athenagoras immediately elaborates on this in parts 8 and 9:

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.

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.

Here, the words of the Ecumenical Patriarch bear witness to multiple important points.

Firstly, he asserts that autocephalies granted after the Ecumenical Councils ultimately still need the “stamp of validity” by a future Ecumenical Council. This should not be read as an invalidation of those autocephalies, but it is a statement that the great seal of autocephaly is the blessing of the entire Church gathered in Council. In part 9 he is very clear, saying, “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.”

Secondly, consider the Ecumenical Patriarch’s words about those Churches which received autocephaly from Constantinople: “… the Churches to which the Holy Apostolic and Patriarchal Ecumenical Throne gave the stamp of autocephaly with the approval of the other Orthodox Churches.” The great Church of Constantinople, the unquestioned leader of the Orthodox Churches, does not act alone, any more so than Saint Peter, the leader of the Apostles, would have dared to act alone and impose his will upon his fellow Apostles.

Thirdly, he states that the reason why the Ecumenical Patriarchate could give “the stamp of autocephaly with the approval of the other Orthodox Churches” because (a) it is “First Among Equals” among the Churches and (b) it is “at the center of the internal unity of the entire Orthodox Church” as the one that helps the other Churches, because of its “presiding and excelling position within the family of the Orthodox Churches.” Some, in recent years, have begun to claim that “First Among Equals” is not really a valid designation for the Ecumenical Patriarch, and some have even gone so far as to claim that the Ecumenical Patriarch is actually “First Without Equals.” But the words of Patriarch Athenagoras are sufficient to discredit these claims.

Conditions Necessary for Autocephaly

In part 10, Patriarch Athenagoras sets forth the conditions necessary for autocephaly. He explicitly states that the proclamation of autocephaly should not take into account “the principle that has taken on a quasi-canonical form to the effect that ‘ecclesiastical affairs should change in accordance with political events.'” He elaborates on this:

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.

Here, we see that the standard for autocephaly is extremely high. The “entire hierarchy of the local Church” must concur with the request for autocephaly, and both the Mother Church and then the entire Church must consent to it. Everywhere, the Ecumenical Patriarch wisely emphasizes the principle of unanimity, in contrast with unilateral action or decisions made by only one part of the Orthodox Church.

Hasty Autocephaly for a Minority Faction Previously Deemed Uncanonical

Most of the remainder of Patriarch Athenagoras’ letter is focused on facts specific to the situation involving Moscow’s actions with respect to America. However, one particular point he makes seems to apply beyond that specific case. He writes, in part 18:

[W]e 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.

From this, one might reasonably derive a broader rule: a Church should not, with haste, proclaim as autocephalous a church body that is (a) only a minority of the Orthodox population in the territory, and (b) one that was not even recognized by that Church as canonical until recently.


In 1970, in an important and official communique, the Ecumenical Patriarch clearly set forth the principles for how autocephaly is to be granted. Patriarch Athenagoras constantly emphasizes the importance of unanimity — that the consent of all of the Orthodox Churches is absolutely essential to the granting of autocephaly. The role of the Ecumenical Patriarchate itself is central, in that only the Ecumenical Patriarchate may issue a Tomos of Autocephaly. But that prerogative is not unilateral: the Ecumenical Patriarchate issues such a Tomos only after all of the other Autocephalous Churches consent to this change in the order of the Church. Without the agreement of all of the Autocephalous Churches, any Church may be forced to conclude that it, like the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1970, “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.” May all of our Orthodox bishops heed the words of Patriarch Athenagoras and proceed in the spirit of conciliarity that he so wisely set forth in this letter.

3 Replies to “Patriarch Athenagoras Clearly States How Autocephaly Must Be Granted”

  1. How things have changed! I think it’s due to the principle of lex orandi, lex credendi; the EP has prayed with and commemorated the Pope so much that he has become like him in faith. Add in Met. John Zizioulas’ personalist theology about the Primus. This theology holds that it’s heretical to affirm that all authority resides in an impersonal Council rather than in a single Primate.

    Arch. John Manoussakis, the EPs theological advisor, explains:

    Let me add that the refusal to recognize primacy within the Orthodox Church, a primacy that necessarily cannot but be embodied by a primus (that is by a bishop who has the prerogative of being the first among his fellow bishops) constitutes nothing less than heresy. It cannot be accepted, as often it is said, that unity among the Orthodox Churches is safeguarded either by a common norm of faith and worship or by the Ecumenical Council as an institution. Both of these factors are impersonal while in our Orthodox theology the principle of unity is always a person. Indeed, in the level of the Holy Trinity the principle of unity is not the divine essence but the Person of the Father (“ Monarchy” of the Father), at the ecclesiological level of the local Church the principle of unity is not the presbyterium or the common worship of the Christians but the person of the Bishop, so too in the Pan-Orthodox level the principle of unity cannot be an idea or an institution but it needs to be, if we are to be consistent with our theology, a person. (For the Unity of All Contributions to the Theological Dialogue between East and West, location 887 kindle version)

    Pat. Bartholomew claims to be that person. His speech at the recent Synod demonstrates that he claims to be the Fount of Orthodoxy analogous to Father being the Fount of Divinity. Pat. Bart wrote the Foreword to Manoussakis’ work and he “welcomed and recommended it with great joy”.

  2. Ecumenical Patriarch Meletios IV Metaxakes

    The chief cause, which Brought about the schism between East and West, was derived primarily from views on the Church’s manner of government and resolution of issues within her.

    Both receive the Church with the property of infallibility, but the Church of Rome views this infallibility as concentrated in one bishop, which it raised above the others and surrounded with extraordinary powers, while the Eastern churches remain in the faith of the ancient undivided Church, according to which the property of the infallibility of the Church is found in the entire body of the Church’s episcopacy, the successors of the Apostles, when gathered in the same place in a council consistent with Apostolic example. Consequently, we have two systems of Church government contrary to one another, which according to a comparison to worldly systems of government are presented as an Absolute Monarchy and as a Constitutional Federation. (1923 Pan-Orthodox Congress, Session II)

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