Let me begin with the simple fact that this is a long and complicated process that from the outside looks very simple. I grew up in the Roman Church with her top down approach to all things church and that is simply not the case in the Orthodox Church. The ecclesiology of the Orthodox Church is very different but at the same time similar to that of the Church of Rome.
To try and keep things simple the Orthodox Church does not have a single head as does the Church of Rome. The Patriarch of Constantinople is considered the Spiritual Head of the Orthodox Church but in the spirit of collegiality he is Primus inter pares or first among equals. The Ecumenical Patriarch is not a Pope in the same sense as the Pope of Rome. From a very practical point of view the EP only has jurisdiction over the churches that come under his authority. Okay a circular argument I know. Where things get a little dicey is here in the US and Western Europe but that is for another day.
In the ancient of days there were four original patriarchates that were called autocephalous. They are Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. We must add Rome to that list and actually Rome would take the first place in line. After those come the other churches in order of precedence: Russia Serbia Romania Bulgaria Georgia Cyprus Greece Poland Albania Czech Lands and Slovakia Orthodox Church if America. The OCA has a disputed Autocephaly and again that is another topic. An Autocephalous church is simply a church whose leader does not report if you will to someone above them. The Patriarchate of Romanian for example is an autocephalous church. Patriarch Daniel is the head of the Orthodox Church in Romania and if there was to be an organizational chart of the Christian Church in the world he would be on the same level as the Pope of Rome. The present holder of the office is His Beatitude Daniel, is the Archbishop of Bucharest, Metropolitan of Muntenia and Dobrodgea, locum tenens of the throne of Caesarea of Cappadocia, Patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church. With me so far?
The big question that needs to be answered is who gets to grant the status of Autocephaly? Is it left to the EP alone or can the Mother church grant it to her daughters? This is where things get confusing if they have not already done so.
Here in the United States we have 10 canonical Orthodox Churches each with their own structure and leadership. We also have what is called overlapping jurisdictions. For example in Boston there are two bishops with the title Bishop of Boston and that does not include the Catholic Archbishop of Boston. Now there also exists, and if you do a simple google search of the term Orthodox you will find several thousand so called “orthodox” churches in the US and other places. We are dealing with the canonical ones here.
A conference of all the patriarchates in the world was called at Chambésy Switzerland in June and some action was taken to resolve issues in what is being called the Diaspora or churches outside of the common Orthodox Lands. The document is short and can be read on the web page of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and other places. The main thrust of this document is the calling of an Episcopal Assembly. At present there is an organization of ruling bishops in the US called the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA). The Membership of SCOBA at the present time is made up of the 10 ruling bishops from the 10 canonical jurisdictions. This new assembly will increase the membership to all of the Canonical Bishops in the USA and Canada. I am unsure of how many that will be. The idea is to start to work on administrative unity. There is a call for an Autocephalous American Orthodox Church and that may be a reality one day but for now we just need to work together. The interesting thing about this assembly is that each jurisdiction will have one vote. Each bishop will not vote but they will vote as a block. So am Archdiocese such as mine with two bishops will have the same vote as the OCA with man more than that. The assembly has been called for sometime in May of 2010.
In the next article I will focus a little more on this concept of Autocephaly and also on the canonical vs non canonical churches.