Autonomy (Eastern Christianity)
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Autonomy Eastern Christianity

Autocephaly (; from Greek: , meaning "property of being self-headed") is the status of a hierarchical Christian Church whose head bishop does not report to any higher-ranking bishop (used especially in Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox and Independent Catholic churches).


When an ecumenical council or a high-ranking bishop, such as a patriarch or other primate, releases an ecclesiastical province from the authority of that bishop while the newly independent church remains in full communion with the hierarchy to which it then ceases to belong, the council or primate is granting autocephaly.[] For example, the Cypriot Orthodox Church was granted autocephaly by the Canon VIII Council of Ephesus[1] 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.

The question of who can grant autocephaly is a controversial issue;[2] notably, the Orthodox Church in America was granted autocephaly by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1970, but was not recognized by most patriarchates.[3] On 25 March 1917, following the overthrow of the Russian tsar Nicholas II, the bishops of Georgia[] unilaterally restored the autocephaly of their Georgian Orthodox Church, making it an autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Church.[4] The Georgian Orthodox Church is in full communion with the other churches of Eastern Orthodoxy.[] Its autocephaly is recognized by other Orthodox bodies, including the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, since 1990.[5] The Russian Orthodox Church claims that its own autocephaly allows it the right to grant autocephaly to its constituent parts,[6] whereas Constantinople claims that, "in its capacity as the 'mother church' and 'first among equals'", the right to grant autocephaly belongs solely to an ecumenical council.[7]

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. Kephale () means "head" in Greek, whereas nomos () means "law";[] hence, autocephalous ()[] denotes self-headed,[8] or a head unto itself, and autonomous denotes "self-legislated".

Autocephalous and autonomous churches

Organization of Orthodox Church
Simplified chart of autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox Churches.[]
POC: Pan-Orthodox Council

See also



  1. ^ Schaff & Wace 1900, pp. 234-235.
  2. ^ Jillions, John (7 April 2016). "The Tomos of Autocephaly: Forty-Six Years Later". Orthodox Church in America. Archived from the original on 15 June 2016. Retrieved 2018. 
  3. ^ Hovorun 2017, pp. 82, 126; Sanderson 2005, pp. 130, 144.
  4. ^ Grdzelidze 2010, p. 172.
  5. ^ Grdzelidze 2012, p. 61.
  6. ^ Sanderson 2005, p. 144.
  7. ^ Erickson 1991.
  8. ^ Erickson 1999, p. 132.


Erickson, John H. (1991). The Challenge of Our Past: Studies in Orthodox Canon Law and Church History. Crestwood, New York: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press. ISBN 978-0-88141-086-0. 
 ------  (1999). Orthodox Christians in America: A Short History. New York: Oxford University Press (published 2010). ISBN 978-0-19-995132-1. 
Grdzelidze, Tamara (2010). "The Orthodox Church of Georgia: Challenges under Democracy and Freedom (1990-2009)". International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church. 10 (2-3): 160-175. doi:10.1080/1474225X.2010.487719. ISSN 1747-0234. 
 ------  (2012). "The Georgian Tradition". In Casiday, Augustine. The Orthodox Christian World. Abingdon, England: Routledge. pp. 58-65. ISBN 978-0-415-45516-9. 
Hovorun, Cyril (2017). Scaffolds of the Church: Towards Poststructural Ecclesiology. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf and Stock Publishers. ISBN 978-1-5326-0753-0. 
Sanderson, Charles Wegener (2005). Autocephaly as a Function of Institutional Stability and Organizational Change in the Eastern Orthodox Church (PhD diss.). College Park, Maryland: University of Maryland, College Park. hdl:1903/2340Freely accessible. 
Schaff, Philip; Wace, Henry, eds. (1900). A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Series 2. Volume 14: The Seven Ecumenical Councils. Peabody, Massachusetts: Hendrickson Publishers (published 1995). ISBN 978-1-56563-130-4. 

Further reading

"Autocephaly". OrthodoxWiki. Retrieved 2018. 
Papakonstantinou, Christoporos (1999). "Autocephaly". In Fahlbusch, Erwin; Lochman, Jan Mili?; Mbiti, John; Pelikan, Jaroslav; Vischer, Lukas; Bromiley, Geoffrey W.; Barrett, David B. Encyclopedia of Christianity. 1. Translated by Bromiley, Geoffrey W. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company. p. 173. ISBN 978-0-8028-2413-4. 
Shahan, Thomas J. (1907). "Autocephali". In Herbermann, Charles G.; Pace, Edward A.; Pallen, Condé B.; Shahan, Thomas J.; Wynne, John J. Catholic Encyclopedia. 2. New York: Encyclopedia Press (published 1913). pp. 142-143. 

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