Autonomy Lost and Regained: The Ukrainian Orthodox Metropolia of Kyiv, 1633-2019

Autocephaly and Orthodox Ecclesiastical Structure

Unlike in the Catholic Church, the tradition in the Orthodox world has been one of administrative decentralization. Thus, while there is only one indivisible Orthodox Church, there are many jurisdictions that recognize each other as "canonical" but exercise administrative independence within their respective territories. Many Orthodox jurisdictions are "autocephalous" (pronounced "auto-SEF-a-lus"; from Greek, meaning "self-headed"), which means that their prime hierarch does not report to any other higher-ranking bishop. In some respects, this is similar to the role of "provinces" within the Anglican Communion (e.g. the Episcopal Church in the United States could be thought of as being vaguely "autocephalous").

In the early centuries of Christianity, church affairs were governed by the five major episcopal sees (or Patriarchates) of the Roman Empire: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Since then, numerous additional jurisdictions have been been recognized as having the status of autocephaly (or the somewhat related but more restricted status of "autonomy").

These jurisdictions usually correspond to political boundaries, and autocephaly has been closely linked to national self-determination and political independence. This can cause complications if political boundaries are re-drawn, one political entity is absorbed by another, an empire fragments, or if there is mass migration of Orthodox populations to a country that does not already have a strong Orthodox jurisdiction (as was the case in the United States and Canada). This sometimes uncomfortable interplay between Church and State can manifest itself as the intrusion of geopolitics into the sphere of religion, as can be seen repeatedly in this exhibition.

Even worse, there is no well-defined, systematic procedure by which autocephalous jurisdictions become recognized. There have been many cases of jurisdictions unilaterally claiming autocephaly, but where that self-proclamation was not accepted and the jurisdiction found itself in a state of "schism" with respect to its parent Church. Similarly, a jurisdiction might initially be recognized by only one or a very small number of Patriarchs. This process of recognition can play out over many years or even decades before a consensus is finally reached.


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