Council of the UOC and rethinking the role of dioceses

A diocese ruled by a bishop may become the main subject of intra-church relations. Photo: UOJ

The Council granted dioceses the decision-making right, understood as the right to live according to the old Statute. Will it lead to enhancing independence of dioceses?

This article is not so much about affirmation of some specific theses as
reflections on the canonical structure of the Church and how it may change in the future.

The Council of the UOC in 2022 gave rise to the events ending up with a paradoxical situation – different dioceses of the same Church now live according to different statutes. Some consider this as an anomaly, but we propose to analyze the current situation in Orthodoxy and think – what should be the visible structure of the Church? How should it be managed? What has a sacred, and therefore unchangeable value in all this, and what is transient and dependent on historical conditions?

The Resolution of the Council contains paragraph 7, according to which diocesan bishops have the right to make decisions that were previously made at the level of the Synod or the Council of Bishops. In the aftermath of the Council, some dioceses, located in the Crimea and in the occupied Donbas, declared that they do not accept changes to the Charter of the UOC on the basis of the above paragraph and continue to live according to the old Charter.

Pursuant to paragraph 7 of the decisions of the Council of the UOC, the Synod of the ROC decided to transfer the Crimean dioceses of the UOC to “subordination to the Patriarch”. The Luhansk and Rovenkov dioceses even stopped commemorating Metropolitan Onuphry. Do the actions of the latter fall under the mentioned seventh paragraph? And do they remain part of the UOC? Time will give answers to these questions, but it is already important that, on the one hand, the dioceses show independence, which was hardly the case in the recent past, but on the other hand, the UOC seems to be pushing them towards such independence. That is, there is a clear rethinking of the role of dioceses in the system of governance of the Church.

The Greek and Cypriot Churches are considered not as a single entity, but as a cluster of dioceses with which there can be completely different relations.

Another striking example of the status of dioceses as independent subjects of interchurch relations is the situation with the Greek and Cypriot Churches. In theses places, at the level of the Church, the OCU was recognized, but individual dioceses (metropolises) refused to do so. Accordingly, both the ROC and the UOC ceased Eucharistic communion with the “pro-OCU” bishops and retained communion with those who did not recognize Dumenko. Consequently, the Greek and Cypriot Churches are considered not as a single entity, but as a cluster of dioceses with which there can be completely different relations. In addition, the dioceses that did not recognize the OCU rejected the relevant decisions of the governing bodies of their Churches. By the way, this situation can be edifying to those critics of the Council of the UOC in 2022, who talk about the impossibility for different dioceses of the UOC to live according to different Statutes.

Does status really matter?

The Council in Feofania did not declare the autocephaly of the UOC, but removed all the provisions mentioning the Russian Orthodox Church from the Statute, in particular, about the connection with the Local Orthodox Churches through the ROC. The question of the current status of the UOC also remains unclear: is it an autocephalous Local Church or, as before, autonomy within the ROC? There is an opinion that this is a smart diplomatic move so that those who advocate the autocephaly of the UOC would consider it autocephalous, and those who hold the opposite opinion could consider the UOC a part of the Russian Church.

However, we dare to suggest that in fact this is not a trick at all and not an attempt to please both of the parties. This is the beginning of a change in church consciousness, namely, the realization of the fact that the jurisdictional status, diptychs and even the administrative structure of the Church can change. The main thing is something else, more fundamental, something that has a sacred character and, accordingly, is fixed in Holy Scripture.

We will not find indications of autonomy or autocephaly, statuses and diptychs, patriarchates, metropolises, and so on in the New Testament. But on the other hand, we will find the doctrine of the Church as the one body of Christ, which lives as a single organism. For many, these words are pure abstraction, not applicable in practice. They need a visible and clear system of administrative management with hierarchical subordination of some system elements to others.

But, firstly, the Church of Christ, like Christ himself, is not of this world – the laws of this world are applicable to it only to some small extent. Secondly, if we talk about the administrative structure of the Church, then there is an indication of two elements of this structure in the New Testament:

  • a bishop-led church community (it was understood in ancient times as the Local Church),
  • a council

A reservation must be made in this respect, since the Apostolic Council of 49 was still a Council of the Apostles, rather than representatives of Christian communities. The apostles founded communities, but were not their primates; their ministry in the Church is different from that of bishops.

Diocese as a Local Church

The history of the Church testifies that initially Christian communities arose in cities, first large, then smaller and smaller. Initially, the Christian community in the city was in the singular, it was small in number and was headed by a bishop. This was the local church. This is how the Apostle Paul begins his first letter to the church in Corinth: “Paul, called to be an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and our brother Sosthenes, to the church of God in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus and called to be his holy people, together with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ — their Lord and ours: Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor 1:1-3).

None of these original communities was subordinate to the other. The communities themselves elected their own bishops, who were then ordained by the bishops of neighboring communities. As the number of communities grew, the subordination of some communities to others also arose. The reasons for this subordination were that initially the only community in the city "gave birth" to other communities, the primates of which already became in some kind of subordinate position to the bishops of the original community. In addition, communities in larger and wealthier cities had more authority than communities in smaller, less wealthy ones. With further development, the next level of subordination arose, viz. the communities of large cities were included in the sphere of influence of the largest and most important cities of the Roman Empire: Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and then Constantinople. This is how the Pentarchy (a system of five patriarchates) first arose, and then the modern system, in which there are 14 generally recognized Local Churches. Each Local Church had the concept of canonical territory and the concept of jurisdiction. All that we have now.

Thus, it can be concluded that the initial element of the church organization is a bishop-led congregation. It has its foundation in Holy Scripture, where it is called the Church, and it is with Her that the promises, sacraments, and grace of priesthood and episcopacy are connected. That is, the community has sacred significance unlike the administrative superstructure, which arose over time, changed in different periods of history and most likely will change in the future. But for all these changes, the Church always remains the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, in which we believe.

It is the community that has sacred significance unlike the administrative superstructure, which arose over time, changed in different periods of history and most likely will change in the future.

Today, such a Christian community, a local Church, is a diocese headed by a ruling bishop. By the way, this is how it is defined in the new Statute of the UOC, as amended by the Council of 2022. Clause 6, Section 7 reads: “The diocesan bishop, by inheritance of power from the holy apostles, is the primate of the local Church – the diocese, who canonically governs it with the conciliar assistance of the clergy and laity.”   

The position of a bishop in his diocese, his rights and obligations are sufficiently defined in the Holy Scripture and Tradition of the Church. Episcopal power has a sacred significance, because “where there is no bishop, there is no Church,” as the Hieromartyr Ignatius the God-bearer said almost two thousand years ago. But the power of a metropolitan in a metropolitan district or a patriarch in an autocephalous Church has administrative significance. There was a time when the Church got along well without these institutions. What should be the position of the head of the metropolitan district, the primate of an autonomous or autocephalous Church? Often this position is understood as the position of the head of the bishops subordinate to him. This is fundamentally wrong, but in fact, it happens in many cases.

Primary and secondary

There is an opinion that the history of the Church should end where it began – in the catacombs. This means that in the future, the life and structure of the Church will even more resemble what it was in the first centuries of Christianity. Today, the obsession with the administrative and legal aspects of the life of the Church has overshadowed Her saving mission on earth. Endless picking in the texts of the canonical rules (without understanding their meaning and the conditions in which these rules operated) led to the neglect of the most important thing: love for God and neighbor. Now more than ever it is important to realize that the Church is not of this world, hence unity in faith, morality and the Sacraments is the true unity of the Church.

Today it is becoming more and more clear that the administrative structure of the Church should be based on the Holy Scriptures and the experience of the ancient Church, rather than the model created when Christianity was the state religion of almost all European countries. Therefore, there will presumably be the following three trends in the Church, which took place in its history during the first centuries.

The first trend is strengthening the role of the laity

In difficult times, the Church always relies on Her faithful children. At a time when state authorities, influential people, and sometimes even the episcopate, refuse to support the Church or directly harm Her, it is the laity who turn out to be the momentum that helps the Church survive. This is exactly what happened in Ukraine after the signing of the Union of Brest in 1596, when both the political elite and almost the entire episcopate joined the union and coerced the rest to do the same. The appearance of the Miriane (laity – Trans.) Public Union in today's Ukraine is a case in point.

The strengthening of the role of the laity also leads to the expansion of their participation in the election of bishops. In the ancient Church, it was the laity who played the main role in such an election, although the bishops of neighboring dioceses and the heads of metropolitan districts also took part in it. Many written monuments, including the rules of the Councils, say that bishops can only consecrate a person whose election is approved by the people. This is also evidenced by the 4th Canon of the First Ecumenical Council.

In fairness, it should be noted that the election of bishops by the laity lurks the risks of electing not those who deserve it, but those who will more successfully conduct an “election campaign”. This is also evidenced by church written monuments of the 1st-4th centuries. Therefore, with any changes in church administration, caution and prudence are very important.

The second trend is strengthening of bishops

The second trend, which organically flows from the first, is a consolidated position of bishops, their greater independence and more independent position in relation to the heads of metropolitan districts or primates of autonomous or autocephalous Churches. A bishop who was elected behind the scenes and appointed to a diocese without the knowledge of the clergy and people of that diocese, a priori, enjoys less support from his diocese than a bishop who was elected with the active participation of the clergy and laity. An elected bishop relies on the support of the church people, while an appointed bishop depends on those who appointed him. This is where the actual ecclesiastical power vertical comes from, which does not correspond to the original structure of the Church, but which is taking place today.

However, not only the enhanced participation of the laity in the choice of the ruling bishop strengthens his power, but also the recognition of certain independence for the bishop, as happened at the Council of the UOC in 2022.

As part of this trend, the power of the patriarchs will decrease, and their role will increasingly approach the "first among equals" formula. Moreover, the role of various administrative bodies, conditional consistories or "offices" will decrease even more. And of course, this trend will oppose the “first without equals” theory, which is actively promoted today by the Patriarchate of Constantinople, as well as attempts to give the position of the Patriarch of Constantinople some kind of sacred significance being completely inconsistent with the Orthodox dogmas about the Church.

The third trend is strengthening of the conciliarity principle

Canon 34 of the Holy Apostles says: “The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.”

This Canon quite clearly describes the relationship between the “first” bishop and the rest of the bishops: everything that goes beyond the dioceses is done with the consent of the “first”, who, in his turn, cannot do anything without the Council.

Diminishing the role of conventional church authorities and strengthening the position of diocesan bishops will naturally contribute to the fact that they will gather together and jointly make decisions on issues that go beyond the boundaries of a separate diocese. The role of the Councils will also increase in terms of the judicial function, which corresponds to the experience of the ancient Church, when precisely the Councils had the right to resolve disputes and disagreements. At the same time, the role of patriarchs and heads of metropolises will change in the sense that they will not be the “princes”, but coordinators of Councils of various levels. Accordingly, the frequency of Councils will increase significantly.

It is a bishop-led diocese that will become the main subject of intra-church relations.

Conclusions

In the light of these trends (which, of course, will not lead to rapid changes), it may turn out that the issue of jurisdictions and statuses will no longer have the “importance” attached to it today. It is a bishop-led diocese that will become the main subject of intra-church relations. In the first millennium, there was a point of view that any church community should be under the jurisdiction of one of the five patriarchates. Today, a rule has been established that any community should be under the jurisdiction of one of the 14 Local Churches. However, this opinion may not be the only possible one.

There are many countries in the world where the Church is represented by communities of several Local Churches at the same time (USA, Western Europe), which can be called a canonical anomaly. The already mentioned experience of the Greek and Cypriot Churches shows that Orthodoxy can move along the path of strengthening the autonomy of individual dioceses. Of course, the ruling bishops of such dioceses must have apostolic succession and legitimacy of ordinations. Returning to the situation in the UOC, we can state that the structural layout of the Church can be viewed not only within the framework of the dichotomy of "autocephaly / non-autocephaly", but through the understanding that it is part of the single organism of the Church of Christ, rather than part of the administrative structure.

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