Responses to OCA autocephaly

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The Byzantine response to the autocephaly of the OCA consisted primarily in a number of letters and statements made in the early 1970s by the ancient autocephalous patriarchates of the Orthodox Church—the Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem—along with the Church of Greece. Like most autocephalous Orthodox churches worldwide, the Byzantine churches rejected the grant of autocephaly by the Church of Russia to the American Metropolia (the former name of the OCA), and with the leadership of Patriarch Athenagoras I (Spyrou) of Constantinople, issued various responses detailing canonical, historical and practical arguments against the grant.

The primary documents detailing these churches' response were published initially in the Orthodox Observer, the official publication of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, and published in 1972 in book form as Russian Autocephaly and Orthodoxy in America: An Appraisal with Decisions and Formal Opinions. The book also includes an introductory essay by Archbishop Iakovos (Coucouzis) of America, a Prolegomena Fr. Nicon D. Patrinacos, and an appendix by Metropolitan Emilianos, permanent representative of the Ecumenical Patriarchate at the World Council of Churches. The authors of the responses of the Churches of Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Greece are Pope Nikolaos, Patr. Elias IV, Patr. Benedictos and Abp. Ieronymos, respectively, the primates of their respective churches.

Most of the arguments detailed below are shared in the responses of all the churches and of the other essays included in the volume, but the Churches of Constantinople and Greece give the most detailed comments.

Arguments in favor of OCA autocephaly

The Russian-American arguments (also based on canonical, historical and practical grounds) being refuted by the Byzantine Orthodox world may essentially be summed up as follows:

  • Each autocephalous church has the right to grant autocephaly to its ecclesiastical daughter communities.
  • The grant of autocephaly served to regularize relations between the Church of Russia and the Metropolia and gave the latter much-needed self-governance.
  • The Church of Russia had sole canonical jurisdiction in North America prior to 1970 because:
    • Russians were the first Orthodox Christians in America.
    • It was the first to establish a diocese in America.
    • Other Orthodox in America recognized Russia's jurisdiction until the Revolution.
  • Recognition of autocephaly normally takes time but eventually always comes.
  • The OCA's autocephaly promotes Orthodox unity in America.

Arguments against OCA autocephaly

Canonical arguments

  • Decisions regarding autocephaly belong to "a Synod representing more generally the entirety of the local Autocephalous Orthodox Churches, and especially to an Ecumenical Synod" (p. 38).
    • This is especially so because a new autocephaly changes the canonical order of the whole Church.
  • "Specific canons exactly characterizing autocephaly are not to be found in ecclesiastical legislation" (p. 36).
  • Establishing missions in what was then part of the Russian Empire (Alaska), a few churches in major industrial centers, and then wooing numerous ex-Uniates to its fold did not canonically give the Church of Russia sole ecclesiastical jurisdiction over an entire continent.
  • The Moscow Patriarchate kept dozens of parishes on North American soil even after the proclamation, thus not truly recognizing the OCA's territorial claim.

Historical arguments

  • Autocephaly normally proceeds along secular boundaries only because Orthodoxy has been the established Church in those nations.
  • Autocephaly has been proclaimed multiple times, but always failed without the assent of the whole Church.
  • The period of Russian Orthodox expansion out of Alaska is also the same period during which other Orthodox jurisdictions were established on American soil.
  • The various Orthodox communities in North America did not always recognize Russian jurisdiction; they were often quite isolated and had no real contact with the Russian hierarchy. Thus, they saw themselves as beholden to their mother churches, not to Moscow.

Practical arguments

  • The Metropolia was already self-governing and had been for decades.
  • The grant creates an overthrow and upheaval of ecclesiastical order.
  • Obsessive focus on jurisdictional issues obscures the true work of the Church, especially regarding its youth.
  • Russian Orthodoxy remains disunified on American soil, remaining under three jurisdictions; the OCA's autocephaly failed to produce unity even for the Russians.


  • Russian Autocephaly and Orthodoxy in America: An Appraisal with Decisions and Formal Opinions. New York: The Orthodox Observer Press, 1972.