American Orthodox Institute - September 12, 2009
The Role of Metropolitan
and Its Relationship within the
By George C. Michalopulos
ABSTRACT: Starting in the closing days
of the Byzantine Empire, the office of the Metropolitan underwent
significant changes that affect the Church even today. Metropolitans
traditionally wielded great influence and authority, especially during
the first Christian millennium. They were elected by other bishops and
presided in a conciliar model of governance. They were primates of
ecclesiastical provinces that corresponded to political provinces and/or
capitals. In our day, almost all the Orthodox churches around the world
roughly follow this model except for the churches of the Ecumenical
Patriarch and the Church of Greece. It is the contention of this writer
that much of the administrative disunity in North America can be traced
to the corruption of the early model by the Ecumenical Patriarch and the
Church of Greece, and that the continuing misuse of the office and
title derails further attempts at unity in the United States.
The Orthodox Church in the United States is in considerable disarray.
Unlike other Orthodox nations, disunity in America is the normal order
of things as evidenced by the existence of at least twenty different
Orthodox jurisdictions, most of them based on ethnicity and foreign
Why the disunity continues to exist can be reduced to three main
causes: 1) extreme parochialism; 2) nationalism and attendant
xenophobia; and 3) willful ignorance of proper ecclesiastical order.1
This essay is primarily concerned with the third point, especially how
the title of Metropolitan has been shorn from its traditional
understanding and led to considerable confusion in the American Orthodox
The confusion is most apparent in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of
America (GOA). In the late 1990s, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew
elevated all of the bishops of the former Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of
North and South America to the status of metropolitan. At the time, the
explanation was offered that the GOA had matured to the point where the
Church was ready to elevate bishops to metropolitans. What was unclear
to all but a few observers at the time was that the elevations did in
fact establish the bishops as archbishops, that is, accountable no
longer to the Archbishop in New York but to the Ecumenical Patriarch in
Along with the elevation, Canada, Central America, and South America
were established as separate metropolises and no longer under the
purview of the Archbishop of the United States. Elevating the former
bishops of these areas to metropolitans follows sound logic: the bishops
were now archbishops of newly minted episcopal sees. Less clear
however, is why the bishops of American cities such as Chicago, Boston,
etc., should enjoy this same privilege, especially since they were not
different political entities or ecclesiastical provinces.
This result is almost comical. The new metropolitans, who were
previous known by the cities that they served ("the Bishop of Boston,"
The Bishop of Chicago," etc.), were now titled the Metropolitan of this
or that defunct episcopal see. For good measure, the curious phrase
"presiding hierarch"2 was added, perhaps to address the
puzzled looks that resulted.
How did we get to this impasse? Why are the GOA Metropolitans named
for non-existent sees when in fact serving metropolises in America? To
answer this question, we must examine the history of the title and the
nature of the episcopacy of earlier times.
The Title of Metropolitan: Etymology, Origins, and
its Role in the Early Church
Historical Background of the Episcopal Office
We can tell from the earliest Church documents,3 that by
the time the sub-apostolic age commenced (ca AD 66), all of the
churches that had been founded by Apostles were led by "overseers"
(Greek: episkopos). By process of transliteration, this word
became vescovo (Latin), bischoff (German), busceop
(Saxon), and then finally bishop in our own language.
In the early days of Christianity, each church had its own bishop who
functioned as the presiding officer. They performed many of the same
tasks we attribute to presbyters (priests) today as well as the
responsibilities and authority bishops held today. Thus, in addition to
presiding at the Eucharist, they had the authority (charism) to
ordain other ecclesiastical officers and bore the final responsibility
to teach, preach, administer alms, and resolve disputes. They received
their office by consecration from other bishops,4 who in turn
received it from earlier bishops, and so on going back to the Apostles.
In the late first and second centuries, most cities had only one
church, hence the axiomatic formula of "one church, one bishop." Even
churches that had more than one apostolic tradition (such as Rome)
strictly followed this principle. As the Church grew however, it became
apparent that more than one house of worship was necessary especially in
the larger cities. Not wanting to introduce more than one bishop in any
one city, the formula was modified to "one city, one bishop."
In most lands the ancient Christian practice of "one city, one
bishop," still applies. There is only one bishop of Corinth, one
archbishop of Milan, and one patriarch of Venice, and so forth. The
breakdown occurs in pluralistic countries that have more than one
Christian confession. Take the title "Archbishop of Boston," for
example. Does it mean the Roman Catholic cardinal, the Orthodox
metropolitan, or the Episcopal bishop?
Sometimes efforts are made to make the distinctions more
comprehensible. Take London, for example. The Anglican Archbishop is the
"Archbishop of Canterbury," the Roman Catholic Archbishop is
the "Archbishop of Westminster," and the head of the Greek
Orthodox Archdiocese is the "Archbishop of Thyateria." In this
way the canonical boundaries are at least nominally honored. The letter
of the law is followed if not the actual spirit.5
Rise of Metropolises
During the first Christian millennium, the need for distinct diocesan
boundaries necessarily fostered collegiality between bishops. More than
one bishop was required to consecrate new ones. Certainly the rite
itself was an occasion for discussion and confraternity. If nothing
else, they simply had to know each other in order to have valid
These meetings could have been called together for any number of
reasons, including settling property and boundary disputes, trying moral
transgressions, and resolving doctrinal questions. Although the
consecration of a bishop required other bishops to travel and meet, it
made no sense for normal episcopal councils to take place in small,
out-of-the-way burgs. It made more sense for regional bishops to travel
to a more centrally located, larger city. In Greek, these regional hubs
were known as metropolises.
The term metropolis comes from two Greek words meter
and polis, or "mother-city." The bishop of the mother city
became known as a metropolites arkhiepiskopos or "metropolitan
[arch]bishop." Because he ruled over an established, populous, and no
doubt more materially viable church, his status was enhanced in relation
to the other bishops, many of whom represented rural areas.
In time, as the right of direct, popular election became attenuated,
it became normal in many regions of the empire for the metropolitans to
be chosen from the ranks of regional bishops who were part of the
greater metropolitan area. In due course the definition of metropolitan
also came to mean an archbishop who was elected by suffragan7
In almost all cases the term "metropolitan" refers to "the primate of
an ecclesiastical province."8 Since the Great Schism of
1054, the different Christian traditions have stuck to this definition
consistently. In England during the early Middle Ages, both the
Archbishops of Westminster and York were metropolitans; between them
they had jurisdiction over at least twenty-five bishops. Upon
unification under William the Conqueror, both retained their status as
archbishops (albeit with the Archbishop of Canterbury enjoying primatial
status). With the expansion of Anglicanism outside the border of
England, the primates of the various provinces were each given
In the Roman Catholic tradition this tradition has been somewhat
relaxed; a metropolitan is simply an archbishop who has authority over
one or more suffragan sees. The practice in the Orthodox Church is
roughly parallel to what is found in Anglicanism, that is, the
metropolitan is the primate of an ecclesiastical province (at least in
the ideal). In all of the cases above, the distinctions are rather too
fine to make any significant difference.
Once Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313, the administrative
functions of the metropolitan archbishops became more established. For
example, the Bishop of Jerusalem, arguably the most senior of all
bishops (at least chronologically speaking) answered administratively to
the metropolitan of Caeserea. The reasons for this were apparent to
anybody living in the Roman world at that time: Caeserea was a bustling
port on the Mediterranean whereas Jerusalem was little more than an
out-of-the-way hamlet that had been devastated by the Roman legions as a
result of the first and second Jewish wars (AD 66/135).
Likewise the Bishop of Byzantium in its earliest days was a suffragan
of the Metropolitan of Heraclea, which was a much more substantial city
in Thrace9 and so on. Socio-political considerations were
central in deciding which diocese would become the metropolis of any
given ecclesiastical province, and usually the largest city in any given
area was the logical choice.
Other factors came into play as well. The more settled Mediterranean
littoral had many larger cities while in the largely pagan non-Roman
world, the newly established metropolitans sees, such as Kiev,
Canterbury, Paris, York, were not necessarily the largest cities but the
capitals of kings and/or tribal chieftains who had converted to
Christianity. Paradoxically, because of their pagan surroundings, the
metropolitans of these archdioceses enjoyed a prestige that was not
available to the plentiful metropolitans of the Roman world.10
Even after the unification of England in 1066 for instance, the title
and functions of the metropolitans of York and Canterbury remained
meaning that there were only two archbishops in that one country.
Likewise with the rise of Moscow as the center of pre-Romanov Russia:
the metropolitan of Kiev remained the premier ecclesiarch of the Russian
lands even when he was removed to the city of Vladimir in 1316 (and
later to Moscow). During the conquest of the New World by Spain, the
bishops of Lima and Mexico City were given metropolitan status, with all
subsequently formed dioceses reporting to them.
Bishops as Court Functionaries: Titular Bishops and Ecclesiastical Bureaucrats
Why then in the Byzantine Empire do we find the opposite? Why do
seventy-seven metropolitans exist in modern Greece, for example?
Many reasons can be offered but geographical considerations top the
list. The Balkan Peninsula possesses some of the roughest terrain in the
world making communication difficult. The hundreds of islands of the
Aegean archipelago are isolated from their nearest neighbors. An island
such as Crete, which has dozens of cities and many bishops, could easily
accommodate a senior archbishop. Travel to Athens or Rome11
could be difficult and dangerous.
Political considerations also come into play. Athens and Thessalonica
were capitals of separate Roman and later, Byzantine provinces. In
addition, the despots of Trebizond, Epirus, and Nicaea, who ruled the
remnants of Byzantium following the sack of Constantinople during the
Fourth Crusade in 1204, viewed themselves as autonomous
emperors-in-exile and believed the churches in their territories should
be autonomous as well. It made no sense for the churches within their
mini-empires to be headed by archbishops who answered to the Latin
patriarchs of Constantinople (who were neither Greek nor Orthodox).
We must remember that in the Christian world of the first millennium
there was one united Roman Empire. Although its capital was now in the
East, its people considered themselves as Romans whether they spoke
Latin or not. Hence, the idea of a "pentarchy" – rule by five patriarchs
– must be reconsidered without the biases of the intense nationalism we
find in some quarters of modern Orthodoxy today.
A better analogy would be if the United States today had five
different patriarchs within its contiguous borders. That is to say a
patriarch in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Boston. To
modern ears this sounds incongruous but this was exactly the situation
in the fifth and sixth centuries. Even after the loss of the West in the
seventh century, the fiction that Rome was still part of the empire
remained. (When Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans in AD 800
by the pope, great care was taken to assure the Byzantines that
Charlemagne was only claiming sovereignty of the empire in the West and
not over the entire empire.)
Regardless, if there had been any reticence about the idea of more
than one patriarch in one nation, the issue became moot with the loss of
Jerusalem and then Antioch to the Muslim caliphate. Alexandria fell in
due time as well. The precedent had been set, at least in the abstract:
one nation (Rome) at one time had had five patriarchs.12
In this light, it is easy to see how the Byzantines at least could
countenance the existence of numerous metropolitan archbishops within
their midst. The experience of the Greek-speaking peoples in this regard
was significantly different than that of the newly baptized non-Romans
who lived outside of the frontiers of the old empire.
Moreover, Constantinople had its obvious attractions for
well-educated bishops and as early as the fourth century many felt its
pull. Many were employed in a "resident synod" (endemousa synodos)
presided by the Ecumenical Patriarch with membership open to any and
all bishops visiting the city. Its purview was the ecclesiastical
affairs of the city itself but given its ecumenical makeup, it
necessarily took up the affairs of dioceses outside of Constantinople.
Its members even had say over the election and deposition of patriarchs.
The administration of the home dioceses of the resident bishops was
often left in charge of deputies (called exarches). This enabled the
bishops to both justify their absence their flock while representing
them in the imperial court. If there was need, they would return to
their sees to take up weightier matters that deserved their immediate
Resident synods became common. The sees of Rome, Alexandria and
Antioch held them as well and travel took place frequently between them.
The same bishop could sit in more than one synod; the only
qualification was that he must at least have a deputy in attendance. One
of the benefits of the synods was that it allowed problems to be
addressed in a pro-active manner. Much of the preliminary groundwork for
subsequent ecumenical councils took place in these synods.
The Rise of Titular Bishops
Titular bishops (a bishop who possesses the title but no real
diocese) arose with the gradual dissolution of the Byzantine Empire
particularly after the Great Schism of 1054. In earlier resident synods,
the bishops took their diocesan duties seriously (albeit through a
deputy) but the gradual disintegration of the empire often meant the
permanent loss of a diocese. Thus, the preoccupation of the
bishop-in-residence at the imperial court was redirected towards the
court itself rather than the diocese. This happened for example in North
Africa, which was lost to the Roman Empire and Christendom after the
rise of Islam.
Before passing too hasty of a judgment on this phenomenon, it must be
remembered that the time in question (roughly the 8th
through the 11th centuries) was one of unremitting warfare.
Norman conquests in the West, Bulgar and Russian invasions from the
North, and Islamic incursions from the East and South took their toll on
the Byzantine state. Bishops often went into exile. The removal of a
bishop under such circumstances as well as the loss of the entire
diocesan structure could be catastrophic in the life of a diocese and
sometimes stop it altogether. Without pastors and other functionaries,
Christian life and worship oftentimes atrophied.
The emergence of titular bishops, although understandable, proved to
be disastrous to the ecclesiology of the Church. John Zizioulis, one of
the harshest critics of the system of titular bishops argued that the
bishop’s very "…existence, makes no sense apart from his role as the one
through whom all divisions…are transcended. His primary function is to
make the catholicity of the Church reveal itself in a certain place.
For this, he must be existentially related to the community. There is
no ministry in the catholic Church that can exist in absoluto13"
(emphasis in original). One cannot be a priest without a parish, or a
bishop without a diocese.
To the Christian world at the time, the division between Rome and
Constantinople was a gradual process not readily discerned. Even when
serious doctrinal questions such as the filioque occupied the
Church, the idea of a formal and irrevocable schism was never
realistically considered. Numerous controversies had happened in the
past and the Church had managed to heal. Thus, the accession of
Charlemagne did not occasion the mass exodus of Orthodox bishops to
Constantinople even though his reforms were viewed with a suspicious
eye.14 Even the loss of England to the Latinizing Normans was
not viewed in catastrophic terms because most Christians did not forsee
a lasting schism taking place.
On the other hand, the loss of Antioch and Jerusalem to the Moslems
was considered a stinging defeat, especially when it became obvious that
the Romans would not return. The loss was keenly felt throughout the
Christian world, not just in Constantinople.15
The growing and permanent presence of foreign bishops residing in
Constantinople brought out the worst in the Byzantines. Always a haughty
people, the diminishing the Byzantine Empire intensified these
regrettable traits. The exaggerated self-importance of the emperors have
been catalogued elsewhere,16 and the patriarchs were not far
Ironically, while the empire was losing land, the same could not be
said for the Orthodox Church. The loss of the Anatolian plain to the
Seljuk Turks in the late thirteenth century, though devastating to the
Byzantine state, did not adversely affect the Church. This was because
the Muslim Seljuks respected the prerogatives of their Christian
subjects. Christians and Jews were subject to higher taxation (the jizzya,),
so it was in the Muslim interest to leave the "peoples of the Book"
unmolested (at least in the ideal).17
While the Christian prerogatives were respected however, secular
power waned to where the Byzantine emperors became outright vassals to
the sultans. At one time the situation became so dire that the emperor
had to pawn the crown jewels to the Venetians in order to pay tribute.
Metropolitans as Bureaucrats
Although the Byzantine Empire did not fully expire until the Fall of
Constantinople, the patriarchs began to fill the political vacuum that
resulted from the diminution of the emperor’s prestige. In order to run
such a vast church, the normal administrative duties that had been the
purview of the imperial court (and usually performed by archdeacons),
were brought under patriarchal control.
Beginning with the reign of Patriarch Michael Cerullarius (ca. 1054),
five offices – the Grand Economus, Grand Sacellarius, Grand
Skevophylax, Grand Chartophylax, and Prefect of the Sacellion – were
filled by patriarchal nomination. By the 13thcentury, when
the loss of imperial prestige was more acute, the holders of these
offices were accorded honors higher than even metropolitans.18
Despite the honorifics however, the officials function as titular
bishops, that is, bureaucrats possessing little more than an empty
During this period of imperial decline (and perhaps because of it),
the sense of an imperial patriarchate grew among the Patriarchs of
Constantinople. Although there was nothing controversial about the
efforts to maintain the properties, treasures, and monasteries of the
Ecumenical Patriarchate, using archbishops for these for tasks that were
ordinarily performed by deacons and laymen set an unfortunate
For the first time in the history of the Eastern Church,
metropolitans were reduced to bureaucrats. And unlike the bishops of the
earlier resident synods, who were truly independent and could come and
go as they pleased, patriarchal metropolitans could be promoted and
demoted upon the whim of the patriarch.
Canonical Irregularities and Chaos:The Model Inherited Today
The Rise of the Imperial Patriarchate
After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the conqueror Mehmed II
found himself in an interesting quandary. The 21-year-old ruler fancied
himself a new Alexander the Great. Although his reputation as the
"Terrible Turk" had spread throughout Europe, he was no savage in the
model of Attila. He saw himself as a worthy successor to the Caesars and
intended to make the city of Constantine his resplendent capital.19
He thus made an accommodation with the Orthodox Church, even going so
far as to view consider himself as her protector. So serious was he
about maintaining the Roman trappings of power, that he struck a gold
coin with his image and the legend imperator mundi on it (in
Latin script no less!). There were even rumors that he considered
converting to Christianity.
In the end Mehmed did not convert. The Church however, was handsomely
rewarded. The new patriarch, the renowned scholar George Scholarius,
was given much of the imperial regalia. As Patriarch Gennadius II, he
was made ruler of the Rum millet (Roman nation), that is, the
Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire.
Patriarch Gennadius took decisive, although in many cases
inconclusive, action. Independent churches that had broken away from
Constantinople such as Wallachia and Georgia, were forcibly returned to
Byzantine control. Bulgaria and Serbia retained their autonomy even
though the patriarchate refused to recognize this fact. Russia, because
of its distance from the Sublime Porte became autonomous in both deed
and in law.20 Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, never had
their autocephaly officially rescinded and became dependencies of
Constantinople. (To this day, Jerusalem and Alexandria remain so.)
Despite the great catastrophe that had befallen the Christian world
with the loss of the legendary city, these were heady days for the
Orthodox hierarchy. Not only were its bishops and clergy now part of a
much-expanded patriarchate, they were temporal potentates as well,
something which had rarely (if ever) happened in the first Christian
Further, unlike the Byzantine emperors of old, the Turkish sultans
never concerned themselves with the finer points of Christian theology.
As long as the hierarchy kept the native Christians under control, they
could count on long and lucrative careers. This new milieu led the
formalization of top-down rankings of patriarch – metropolitan – bishop.
Bishops and metropolitans were no longer viewed as independent diocesan
supervisors in their own right, but part of a strict chain of command
that fostered bribery and other malfeasance.
Thus, if a priest wanted to become a bishop, he had to raise money
from his parishioners; if a bishop wanted to refurbish a church, he had
to pressure his priests for fund, and so forth. Sometimes the corruption
ran so deep that the sacraments themselves were sold, one of the most
egregious of ecclesiastical crimes.22
Today the former collaborations are repudiated. Even modern Orthodox
bishops within the Patriarchate of Constantinople admit the
accommodation between state and ecclesiastical authority corrupted the
Church.23 At the time however, many bishops justified their
collaboration as a necessary evil.
First, for all the brutality of the Turks, they did not force
conversion to Islam. Second, as subjects of the Sublime Porte,
Christians of the Balkans were protected from missionary activity from
the West,24 something that was not afforded to Orthodox
Christians in Russia who suffered under the depredations of the Teutonic
Knights during the Baltic Crusades.
These benefits however, were but a thin, silver lining to an
exceedingly dark cloud. From the standpoint of resolute Christianity –
one that had stood up to the Caesars even when it meant certain death –
the Patriarchal decline represented severe internal weakness. Much of
the activity, particularly simony and other malfeasance, is hard to
justify even if their situation was dire.
The Rise of the Phanariotes
The Patriarchal Court, possessing no real power other than what the
Turks gave them and completely disinterested in evangelism, quickly fell
into petty internal intrigues and squabbling. Adding the to the
confusion was the stranglehold the phanariotes, the elite
Constantinopolitan families, had over the Patriarchate.
These families resided in the Phanar ("lighthouse") district of
Constantinople and argued the patriarchate’s interests before the
sultan, paid off many of the patriarchate’s incessant debts, and more
than once ransomed a clergyman from prison (or worse). Over time
however, the relationship between the Patriarch and the Phanariotes
soured and they began to view themselves as the patriarch’s puppeteers
rather than his loyal servants.
It was an unsavory turn of events made all the more apparent when,
despite their solicitude to the Church, the Phanariotes never encouraged
their own sons to enter the ranks of the priesthood. As far as they
were concerned, these offices were to be filled by the sons of peasants.
Hopefully the lower orders could produce enough intelligent boys to
fill these positions.25
The patriarchs and bishops were not stupid men and understood
perfectly how the game was played. As a sop to their bruised egos and
perhaps as a check on the untrammeled power of their elite patrons, they
retreated into obscurantism – often the last refuge of theological
scoundrels. Arcane debates about the finer points of canon law and
liturgical minutia became an all-consuming pastime. Evangelism was a
dead letter. To be sure, the Ottomans forbade evangelism among Muslims,
but as far as heterodox Christians were concerned, the sultans cared not
This was the period when the West was rediscovering the theological
wealth of the East and often sincere overtures from the West went
unheeded. Two well known attempt concerned the Lutheran Reformers of
Germany and the Non-Jurors in England in the 18th century. In
stunning displays of bad faith, the patriarchal court did everything
they could to downplay requests for dialogue.
They even played childish games such as pretending not to have
received a letter from prominent Lutherans such as Philip Melanchthon,
who requested clarification on the finer points of Eastern theology.
Sadly, this particular ruse lasted for many years.26
Implications for Today
A patriarchal court has always been necessary, even today. The
earlier model of resident sees filled a useful role in administering
ecclesiastical affairs since the bishops were still responsible for
geographically concrete sees. When the office was elevated to a titular
level and the bishops were no longer responsible for actual sees
however, corruptions set in that made the Church insular and subject to
petty intrigues that darkened its salvific mission in the world.
Historical circumstances certainly played a huge role in this
decline. As historical circumstances changes however, it appears that
the corrupted models of church governance did not change with them.
Nowhere is this more evident than in North America where the Orthodox
Church is held hostage to the outdated and non-canonical administrative
infrastructures of the Old World patriarchates and the political
intrigues they fostered.
This is especially apparent in the Greek Orthodox Church of America.
Eight dioceses have been renamed as metropolises each with a ruling
metropolitan.27 When Patriarch Bartholomew elevated the
Bishops to the status of metropolitans (widely believed to buy the
silence of the Bishops during the tumultuous tenure of Archbishop
Spyridon Papageorge from 1996 to 1999), he effectively "balkanized" the
GOA by establishing each metropolis as a separate eparchy accountable
only to Constantinople, rather than as dioceses accountable to an
The creation of eight metropolises in the United States (and one
archdiocesan district) would be reasonable if America were a largely
Orthodox nation and if each of these metropolitans had suffragan bishops
presiding over their dioceses. Unfortunately they do not. Further, the
elevations removed the metropolitan’s accountability to his flock (the
Patriarch is the only court of appeal) and fosters increasingly
arbitrary decisions, including the mistreatment of priests. The result
is greater instability in the Church.
Finally, their elevation could be viewed as a broadside to the other
ethnic churches, each of which is supervised by one metropolitan
according the canonical norm, the primate of an ecclesiastical province
(overlooking the overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions in one nation for
the moment). This may well be part of the ancient intrigue to dominate
American Orthodoxy altogether. In any event, The Ecumenical
Patriarchate’s dependence on old models has certainly complicated the
chances of an administratively unified American Orthodox Church.
What Can the Orthodox Do?
The question Orthodox Christians in America must ask is what can be
done to rectify our non-canonical situation?
Orthodoxy in America has promising beginnings. A native missionary
church was established in North America over two hundred years ago in
what was once a Russian colony. When Alaska was made a territory of the
United States in 1867, foreign patriarchs recognized the mission as
legitimate. Certainly none of the other Old World churches had the
means to evangelize North America, yet the canonical norms were upheld
and a precedent set. By the time Metropolitan
Platon was appointed in the early days of the twentieth century,
all Orthodox Americans belonged to a semi-autonomous ecclesiastical
province known at that time as North America headed by one metropolitan
archbishop just as the canons prescribe.
What happened subsequently has been chronicled elsewhere and lies
beyond the scope of this discussion. The road back to canonical
restoration however, has been arduous. Only fifteen years ago,
twenty-nine American bishops meeting at Ligonier,
Pennsylvania surveyed the chaos and were appalled at what they saw.
It wasn’t the first time. In his first and only visit to the United
States in 1990, Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople also concluded
that the American situation needed to be rectified.
So how do we go about unifying the American Church? What do we do
with the excessive number of metropolitans in the United States? Does
our present situation allow for a restoration of the canonical norms?
Yes. One idea is that the eight metropolitan districts set up by the
Ecumenical Patriarch in 1998 could serve as ecclesiastical provinces of
the American Orthodox Church (the archdiocese of Washington, DC could be
a ninth ecclesiastical province). The districts could be subdivided
into dioceses, where an existing bishop elected by diocesan clergy and
laity heads each diocese. An archdiocesan council of clergy and laity
would elect the metropolitans. We already have enough active bishops in
the United States to make this happen.
For example the southern United States has three bishops: the
Archbishop of Dallas, the Metropolitan of Atlanta, and the Bishop of
Miami (OCA, GOAA, and AOAA respectively). Between them distinct
geopolitical boundaries can be drawn:
- Southern states west of the Mississippi River (Louisiana, Arkansas,
Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico) would fall under the Archdiocese of Texas;
- Florida would be part of the Diocese of Miami;
- North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia would fall under the
Archdiocese of Atlanta;
- An extra bishop could be elected in Nashville who would have purview
over Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky.
Under this scenario, the metropolitan of Atlanta would be considered
the metropolitan of the South. This model could be duplicated
throughout the other regions of the United States.
No doubt other models could be offered. Nevertheless, unification of
Orthodox Christianity in America will not occur until the good and
faithful Orthodox Christians demand it from our leaders. Gone are the
days of the diaspora. We are Americans. We have to learn how to
live our Orthodox Christians lives in a country that is increasingly
hostile to Christian faith, and longings for days long gone or trying to
impose ecclesiastical structures that are either corrupt or irrelevant,
does not meet the challenges what we face.
The process will be difficult. Egos will be bruised. Old World
bishops will be alarmed and attempt to undermine the efforts. Schism may
even result for a time. But Orthodoxy will not grow in America until
concrete steps are taken to eradicate our tribalism and ensure that a
church will exist for our children and grandchildren.
- Once not too long ago, Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita was asked why
there were multiple Orthodox jurisdictions in America. His responded
with one word: "pride."
- The ridiculousness of this is apparent to those who translated the
Greek title — ho proedros tou Boston — literally: "The
President of Boston."
- Ignatius of Antioch (d. AD 115) for example wrote that "Where the
bishop is, there is the Church" (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8).
- Bishops themselves were usually chosen by the people, either by
direct election or by popular acclamation. Once a bishop was chosen, it
was the duty of neighboring bishops to consecrate him, which was done
by cheirotoneia or the laying on of hands.
- In light of this, how much more regrettable is the situation in the
United States when such competition exists between Orthodox bishops?
(For example, the five Orthodox bishops of Chicago, or the two of
Pittsburgh, three in Detroit, four in New York, and so forth?)
- Diptychs were small, hinged tablets usually made of wood but
sometimes of metal, containing two leaves. On one leaf were the names
of the living and on the other the names of the dead. They were used by
bishops in liturgies for intercessory prayer given on behalf of brother
- A suffragan bishop is a diocesan bishop subordinate to a
metropolitan. The word comes from the Latin suffragium, which
means "support or prayer" and is the root for suffrage which is
political support and in our day, voting.
- Merriam’s New World Collegiate Dictionary (1980 ed.), p.
- According to Demetrius Kymenas, Thriskeftiki kai Ethiki
Enkyklopaeidia (Athens 1962-8). Byzantium in its earliest days was
ruled by a violent pagan named Xeuxikus who violently tormented
Christians. The first bishops had to reside in a nearby town called
Argyroupolis where they established the Byzantine church in exile.
According to one source, Eugenius I (237-42) was known as the "second
bishop of Byzantium," meaning he was the second bishop after his
predecessor St Castinus (d. 237), to actually live in the city itself (www.fordham. edu/halsall/byantium/texts/byzpatc.html).
- Russians and other former pagans often regarded it as a mark of
great pride that their lands had never been evangelized by an actual
Apostle, thereby making their own Christianization all the more
- In the first millennium, most of what is now modern Greece was under
the see of Rome.
- Sir Stephen Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity, p 23.
- John D Ziziioulis, Being as Communion, pp 165-66
- The accession of Charlemagne to the imperial throne in AD 800 was
viewed with horror by the Byzantines who considered it a great
sacrilege, "…just as there was only one God in heaven, so there could be
but one supreme ruler on earth." John Julius Norwich, A Short
History of Byzantium (London: Penguin, 1997), p 120
- Ultimately, the loss of the Christian Near East to the Muslims
instigated the Crusades.
- One of the titles of the Byzantine emperor during this time was kosmokrator
(ruler of the world).
- The Seljuks had learned their lesson from their earlier misadventure
when they conquered Palestine, and persecuted the Christians, thereby
precipitating the First Crusade. Thomas F Madden, The New Concise
History of the Crusades (Rowan Littlefield: Lanham, 2008), p 5.
- Runciman, Op cit,, p 30.
- This idea is not as outlandish as it sounds. The Turkish state that
had been established in the Anatolian heartland was known as the
"Sultanate of Rum." It was a separate Islamic state distinct from the
Fatimid Caliphate (which ruled Egypt) and the Abbassid Caliphate (which
was based in Baghdad).
- Runciman, Op cit., pp 24-25.
- In the ante-Nicene period, bishops were often called upon to
adjudicate court cases, even those involving non-Christian litigants.
The reason being that many of these men were of such exemplary character
that they were viewed as honest brokers by all the concerned parties.
- The term simony comes from a sorcerer named Simon Magus, who tried
to bribe the Apostles into selling him their power (Acts 8:18-20).
- Isaiah Chronopoulos, "The concept of ethnarch, which was an Ottoman
invention, provided physical and material security, to a limited extend,
in the lives of the Christians. However, from a theological and
ecclesiological perspective, it went contrary to the Scriptural teaching
that the Church is in the world, but She is not of [it]….the leader of
the Church appeared to have allowed himself to be identified with the
world, a theocracy on earth, if you will. This, of course, is
untenable…[and]…unthinkable from any pure, Christian point of view. For
the Church believes that only Christ…will establish the eternal
theocracy." (Writings of His Eminence Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver, The
Influence of Islam on Orthodox Christianity, 2005; may be accessed
- This was not the first time that an Islamic state had unwittingly
safeguarded the interests of Orthodoxy. During the council of
Ferrara-Florence (1449), all of the Constantinopolitan bishops had been
coerced into signing the Act of Union with the West. The only holdout
was St Mark Eugenicus, the metropolitan of Ephesus, who because his
diocese was under Turkish control, was free of imperial coercion.
- Runciman, Op cit. p 362.
- In Runciman’s elegant words, "The Patriarch and his advisers took
refuge in the favorite device of oriental diplomacy. They behaved as if
they had never received the communication, which they carefully
mislaid." In the interim, Melanchthon, who was well-disposed towards
the Greek East and had initiated the first contact, had died. See also H
W Langford, The Non-Jurors and the Eastern Orthodox, a paper
read at the Fellowship of St Alban and Sergius, Durham, England (Jun
- The Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Denver for example, has perhaps
5,000 congregants spread out over 14 states, whereas the Archdiocesan
District (New York) has over 100,000 members. All other ethnic
jurisdictions have only one metropolitan.
George Michalopulos is a layman in the Orthodox Church in
America. He is married to the former Margaret Verges of Houston, Texas,
and the father of two boys, Constantine and Michael. Together with
Deacon Ezra Ham, he is the author of The American Orthodox Church: A History of Its
Beginnings (Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press,
2003), as well as several articles and essays published on the Orthodox Christian Laity
website. He has served as parish council president of Holy Trinity
Greek Orthodox Church in Tulsa, OK, and twice was a lay delegate to the
Clergy-Laity Congress of 1998 and 2002. He helped found Holy Apostles
Orthodox Christian Mission, a parish of the OCA in 2003 and
continues to be active in pan-Orthodox events in the greater Tulsa area.
[ American Orthodox Institute
September 12, 2009 ]