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Religion Library: Eastern Orthodoxy

Community Organization

Written by: Beth Davies-Stofka

As is the case with all the major denominations of Christianity, Eastern Orthodoxy emphasizes the communal nature of Christian life. The Church is the body of Christ, experiencing an ongoing Pentecost whenever the community gathers in worship and prayer. In addition, Eastern Orthodoxy stresses a conciliar style of community organization. No single bishop or other authority runs the church. Instead, bishops meet in councils, also called synods, to reach binding agreements through consensus.

Eastern Orthodoxy uses an organizational structure in which each of fifteen Orthodox churches are autocephalous, or independent and self-governing. All fifteen are united in common understanding and follow the same canon law, despite differences of language and culture. They are in full communion with each other, meaning that they agree in matters of doctrine and church administration, share the same liturgy, and share in all of the sacraments. In Eastern Orthodox doctrine, this relationship expresses the Trinitarian mystery of unity in diversity.

All bishops are equal, yet the four patriarchates of Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople receive special respect for their status as ancient sees. Orthodoxy continues to use the name Constantinople, even though Constantinople has been Istanbul since 1453. For over a thousand years, Constantinople was the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire and the central focus of the administrative life of the Church. The patriarch of Constantinople, called the ecumenical patriarch, still commands special recognition as the "first among equals," a position of honor, but he does not have jurisdiction or any other authority over the autocephalous churches.

The sister churches of Eastern Orthodoxy roughly correspond to geographical and national centers that are ranked in a traditional order of precedence. The highest-ranking churches are the four ancient patriarchates—Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The heads of these churches are called patriarchs, after a Greek word meaning head of the family. The patriarch of Constantinople has a small congregation in Turkey, but most of his congregation resides in Crete, and the U.S., Australia, and western Europe. The patriarchate of Alexandria presides over the entire African continent, and includes Greek-speaking Christians along with Kenyans, Ugandans, and Tanzanians. The patriarchate of Antioch includes Syria and Lebanon, and its members are Arabs. The patriarchate of Jerusalem's clergy tend to be Greek, while its members are Arabs. The next churches in rank are the autocephalous churches of Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, Czech Lands and Slovakia, and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). The OCA is included here although it is not yet recognized by all the Orthodox churches.

The last churches in rank are not autocephalous. The churches of Sinai, Finland, Estonia, Japan, China, and Ukraine are not yet fully self-governing, and are referred to as autonomous, each of them dependent on an autocephalous church. The Church of Sinai depends on the patriarchate of Jerusalem. The Churches of Finland and Estonia rely on the patriarchate of Constantinople. The Churches of Japan and Ukraine rely on the Moscow patriarchate. The state of the Orthodox Church in China is unknown, but was believed to have 20,000 members before the Cultural Revolution. The Churches of Estonia, Japan, China, and Ukraine are not yet universally recognized by all Eastern Orthodox churches.


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