Autocephalous Church

From New World Encyclopedia

An Autocephalous Church (literally, "self-headed") refers to a church whose patriarch is independent and does not report to any higher human authority, yet usually remains in communion with other affiliated churches. Autocephalous churches are particularly prominent within the Eastern Orthodoxy and Oriental Orthodoxy. Oriental Orthodoxy should not be confused with Eastern Orthodoxy. Oriental Orthodoxy separated from Chalcedonian Christianity in the fifth century, and is therefore separate from both the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic churches.

The Cypriot Orthodox Church was granted autocephaly by the Council of Ephesus and is ruled by the Archbishop of Cyprus, who is not subject to any higher ecclesiastical authority, although his church remains in full communion with the other Eastern Orthodox churches. Similarly, the Tewahedo Church of Ethiopia was granted autocephaly by the Coptic pope in 1950, and the Orthodox Church in America was granted autocephaly by the Patriarch of Moscow in 1970. (The Greek Orthodox Church in North America is not autocephalous, but is subject to the Patriarch of Constantinople.)

One step short of autocephaly is autonomy. A church that is autonomous has its highest-ranking bishop, such as an archbishop or metropolitan, appointed by the patriarch of the mother church, but is self-governing in all other respects.


Autocephalous literally means "self-headed," which is commonly understood to mean self-governing. Kephalos means "head" in Greek. Hence, autocephalous denotes self-headed, or a head unto itself, while autonomous literally means "self-legislated," or a law unto itself. Nomos is the Greek for "law."

Eastern Orthodoxy

The Eastern Orthodox Church is a communion comprising fourteen (or fifteen; there is a political disagreement over the autocephaly of one of the churches—the Orthodox Church in America) separate autocephalous hierarchical churches that recognize each other as "canonical" Orthodox Christian churches.

There is no single earthly head of all the Orthodox Churches comparable to the Pope of Rome. The highest-ranking bishop of the communion is the Patriarch of Constantinople, who is also primate of one of the autocephalous churches. These organizations are in full communion with each other, so any priest of any of those churches may lawfully minister to any member of any of them, and no member of any is excluded from any form of worship in any of the others, including reception of the Eucharist. Each local or national Orthodox Church is a portion of the Orthodox Church as a whole.

In the early Middle Ages, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church was ruled by five patriarchs: The bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem; these were collectively referred to as the Pentarchy. Each patriarch had jurisdiction over bishops in a specified geographic region. This continued until 927 C.E., when the autonomous Bulgarian Archbishopric became the first newly-promoted patriarchate to join the additional five.

The patriarch of Rome was "first in place of honor" among the five patriarchs. Disagreement about the limits of his authority was one of the causes of the Great Schism, conventionally dated to the year 1054 C.E., which split the church into the Roman Catholic Church in the West, headed by the Bishop of Rome, and the Eastern Orthodox Church, led by the four eastern patriarchs. After the schism, this honorary primacy shifted to the Patriarch of Constantinople, who had previously been accorded the second-place rank at the First Council of Constantinople.


Autocephalous churches (Ranked in order of seniority)

  1. Church of Constantinople, under the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople
  2. Church of Alexandria
  3. Church of Antioch
  4. Church of Jerusalem
  5. Church of Russia (est. 1589)
  6. Church of Serbia (est. 1219)
  7. Church of Romania (est. 1925)
  8. Church of Bulgaria (est. 927)
  9. Church of Georgia (est. 466)
  10. Church of Cyprus (est. 434)
  11. Church of Greece (est. 1850)
  12. Church of Poland (est. 1924)
  13. Church of Albania (est. 1937)
  14. Church of Czech and Slovak lands (est. 1951)
  15. Orthodox Church in America (est. 1972. Autocephaly not universally recognized)

The four ancient patriarchates are most senior, followed by the five younger patriarchates. Autocephalous churches whose leaders are archbishops follow the patriarchates in seniority, with the Church of Cyprus being the only ancient one (434 C.E.). There would have been five ancient patriarchates had the Church of Rome not broken off during the great schism in the 1054 C.E.

Autonomous churches

  • Under the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople
    • Finnish Orthodox Church
    • Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church
  • Under the Patriarch of Jerusalem
    • Orthodox Church of Mount Sinai
  • Under the Patriarch of Moscow
    • Latvian Orthodox Church
    • Moldovan Orthodox Church
    • Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate)|Ukrainian Orthodox Church]]
    • Metropolis of Western Europe
    • Japanese Orthodox Church
    • Chinese Orthodox Church
  • Under the Patriarchate of Romania
    • Metropolitan Church of Bessarabia
  • Under the Patriarchate of Peć (Church of Serbia)
    • Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric

Autonomy not universally recognized

Churches without autonomy

Under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople

  • Italian Orthodox Church
  • Korean Orthodox Church
  • Philippine Orthodox Church
Diasporan churches

These churches in Diaspora broke with their forbearers over politics, but have remained canonical and reunited with the larger Orthodox community through Constantinople.

  • Albanian Orthodox Diocese of America
  • American Carpatho-Russian Orthodox Diocese
  • Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada
  • Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the USA
  • Patriarchal Exarchate for Orthodox Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe
  • Episcopal Vicariate of Great Britain and Ireland

Under the Patriarchate of Antioch

  • Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America

Churches "in resistance"

Due to what these churches perceive as the errors of Modernism and Ecumenism in mainstream Orthodoxy, they refrain from concelebration of the "Divine Liturgy" with them while they remain fully within the canonical boundaries of the Church: For example, professing Orthodox belief, retaining legitimate episcopal succession, and existing in communities with historical continuity. With the exception of the Orthodox Church of Greece (also termed "Holy Synod in Resistance"), they will commune the faithful from all the canonical jurisdictions and are recognized by, and in communion with, the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia.

Due in part to the re-establishment of official ties between the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and the Moscow Patriarchate, the Orthodox Church of Greece (also termed "Holy Synod in Resistance") has broken ecclesial communion with ROCOR, but the converse has not happened. Where the Old Calendar Romanian and Bulgarian churches stand on the matter is as yet unclear.

Churches that have voluntarily "walled themselves off"

These Churches do not practice Communion with any other Orthodox jurisdictions nor do they tend to recognize each other.

  • Church of the Genuine Orthodox Christians of Greece
  • Russian True Orthodox Church
  • Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
  • Autonomous Ukrainian Orthodox Church in America
  • Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church
  • Old Believers

Churches that are unrecognized by others

The following Churches recognize all other mainstream Orthodox Churches, but are not recognized by any of them due to various disputes:

  • Macedonian Orthodox Church
  • Ukrainian Orthodox Church—Kiev Patriarchate

Churches self-styled as Orthodox, unrecognized as such

  • Bulgarian Alternative Synod
  • Croatian Orthodox Church
  • Orthodox Church in Italy
  • Montenegrin Orthodox Church
  • Karamanli Turkish Orthodox Church

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Baum, Wilhelm. The Church of the East: A Concise History. RoutledgeCurzon, 2003. ISBN 978-0415297707
  • Fortescue, Adrian. The Orthodox Eastern Church. Kessinger Publishing, LLC, 2004. ISBN 978-1417910601
  • Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church: New Edition. Penguin (Non-Classics), 1993. ISBN 978-0140146561

External links

All links retrieved August 22, 2023.


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