Return to Home Page

Positive Movement on Autocephaly and Autonomy

As readers may know, preparations are under way for a possible Pan-Orthodox Council in the coming years, if necessary. It was reported on 18 December 2009 that a meeting of the Inter-Orthodox Preparatory Commission for the Council had come to a decision on one of the issues involved, Autonomy and Autocephaly. The Commission has unanimously approved proposals for procedures for granting Autonomy (self-governing status) and Autocephaly (full independence) to new Local Orthodox Churches. The Russian Orthodox Church was represented on the Commission by Archbishop Mark of Berlin, Germany and Great Britain (ROCOR), Archbishop Hilarion of Volokalamsk and Archpriest Nikolai Balashov.


As regards procedures for the granting of Autonomy, members of the Commission unanimously adopted a position which agrees with the view of the now reunited Russian Orthodox Church. This position is that the granting of Autonomy to any constituent part of a Local Church is an internal matter for each Church. In other words, the procedure for granting Autonomy begins and ends within the Local Church involved, which then notifies all the other Local Churches of its decision. This decision seems fully in accordance with Orthodoxy.


The unanimous agreement by delegates as regards procedures for granting Autocephaly imposes two conditions:

Firstly, a decision must be reached by the Mother Church which intends to give a Decree (‘Tomos’) of Autocephaly to a new Local Church. Any such decision must involve obtaining Inter-Orthodox agreement in the form of Conciliar or Synodal decisions of the various Local Churches.

Secondly, any Decree of Autocephaly must be signed by the Patriarch of Constantinople and the heads of all the other Local Churches or their delegated representatives. This action shows that this is an Inter-Orthodox agreement.

Thus, the proposed procedure for granting Autocephaly recognises two key factors: the initial approval of the Mother Church and the initial and final acquisition of Inter-Orthodox consensus. This balanced decision also seems fully in accordance with Orthodoxy.


The need for agreement on granting Autocephaly was recognised by several events which took place in the last century. These concerned the Finnish, Polish, Bulgarian, Georgian, Czechoslovak, Chinese, Japanese and American Churches. In particular, three cases caused lasting problems.

Firstly, in 1924 the Patriarchate of Constantinople unilaterally granted Autocephaly to the Polish Church. This was not recognised by the Russian Mother Church, which gave its own Decree of Autocephaly to the Church of Poland in 1948. Secondly, at that time, the Autocephaly granted by the then Soviet-controlled Patriarchate of Moscow to the Czechoslovak Church (now, the Orthodox Church in the Czech Lands and Slovakia) was not recognised by the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Only later did it give its own Decree of Autocephaly to the same Church. However, thirdly, the Decree of Autocephaly granted in 1970 by the still Soviet-controlled Patriarchate of Moscow to Slav parishes in North America, thus founding the Orthodox Church of America (OCA), remains unrecognised by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and several other Local Churches. Unlike the Polish and Czechoslovak cases, the granting of Autocephaly here has been much more controversial, since it was made to a group living in a territory shared by Orthodox belonging to other Local Churches. It seems that this is what is in question here.


The above decisions open the way for the Russian Orthodox Church to have the Autonomy it gave to the Chinese and Japanese Orthodox Churches universally recognised. It also opens the way for grants of Autonomy to other national groups within the Russian Orthodox family in the future, if necessary. For example, these could include future Russian Orthodox Metropolias in Europe, the Americas and Australasia.

On the other hand, if these proposals are approved by the Local Churches, the Autocephaly given to the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) will have to be reviewed. Granted during the Cold War in 1970, it will presumably have to be revoked by the now reunited Russian Orthodox Church. This would explain why Metropolitan Jonah of the OCA was in Moscow in recent days.

These inter-Orthodox decisions also apply to the situation in the Ukraine and that in Estonia, where some have tried to interfere in the canonical territory of the Russian Orthodox Church. They will now have to cease their interference and withdraw recent vague promises of Autocephaly offered to the dissident groups there. In this way serious sources of contention and division can be removed from the whole Orthodox Church.

As regards temporary nationalist groupings, like the various self-proclaimed Ukrainian groups, the Belarussian group in exile and the Macedonian and Montenegrin groups, these can sooner or later be consigned to history. However, this still leaves the internal political problem of the Bulgarian schism, as well as those of the various old calendarist groupings in Greece, Bulgaria and Romania, not to mention various tiny Russian sects, without a solution.

  to top of page