Autocephaly (literally "self-headed") is the status of a church within the Orthodox Church whose primatial bishop does not report to any higher-ranking bishop. 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. Historically, however, autocephaly is not always obtained in such a manner.
Autocephaly refers to those churches which are not, in any way, dependent upon any other church, or churches, for their life and mission. On the other hand, each and every Orthodox church, regardless of its particular status, is responsible for the faith and life of the others. Therefore any action of any church is subject to the review of the others in reference to its doctrine, morality, sacramental practices, and canonical order. This is just as each and every Orthodox Christian is responsible for each other.
Autocephaly is a developed practical concept in the Church. That is, it is not part of the original organization of the Church but developed over time for practical reasons. Though many arguments are put forth regarding how autocephaly is properly obtained, the historical and canonical record shows a good deal of variation. But the something that is in common is that history shows that no council or church has ever created an autocephalous church.
Certain areas developed for various reasons into self-governing churches, groups of bishops into synods or councils with a primate. These self-governing areas were then confirmed in their position by the others and recognized as such. None of them were decreed into existence or created out of nothing by some special churchly power.
Some were simply recognized according to tradition (i.e., "small T" tradition), by which is largely meant that those sees were recognized as primatial in their regions by virtue of the tradition of honor accorded to them:
In some cases, autocephaly was simply declared by the church in question and then eventually recognized:
- The Church of Russia declared independence from the Church of Constantinople in 1448 and then in 1589 styled its primate as patriarch.
- The Church of Greece declared autocephaly in 1833 but was not granted a tomos for it by Constantinople until 1850.
- The Church of Romania declared its autocephaly in 1865 with strong protests from Constantinople, who eventually recognized the autocephaly in 1885.
- The Church of Albania claimed its autocephaly in 1922, which was recognized by Constantinople in 1937.
- The Church of Georgia's autocephaly (originally granted in the fifth century by Antioch) was abolished by the Russian authorities in 1811 (after Georgia had been annexed by Tsarist Russia) and then later restored de facto in 1917. This restoration wasn't recognized by the Church of Russia until 1943 or by the Church of Constantinople until 1989.
Other churches became autocephalous largely from governmental declaration, eventually recognized by other portions of the Church:
- The Church of Serbia was de facto autocephalous in 1832, but not recognized by the Church of Constantinople until 1879. Some claim that Serbia's autocephaly goes back to 1219.
- The Church of Bulgaria was declared independent by the decree of the Sultan, creating a canonical mess condemned at a council in Jerusalem in 1872 (by way of condemning phyletism), eventually sorted out and reconciled by 1945.
In other cases, it was granted by an Ecumenical Council:
- The autocephaly of the Church of Cyprus was recognized at the Third Ecumenical Council (431).
- The Church of Jerusalem was declared a patriarchate with primacy in its area (over the claims of the bishop of Caesarea) at the Quinisext Council (the council "in Trullo" 692), which established the canons of the Sixth Ecumenical Council .
In still others, it was granted by one mother church to a daughter church:
- In 466, the Church of Antioch elevated the bishop of Mtskheta to the rank of Catholicos of Kartli, thus rendering the Church of Georgia autocephalous.
- The Orthodox Church in America received autocephaly from the Church of Russia in 1970 (though that action is still not formally recognized by many of the other autocephalous churches).
New autocephalous churches
Reguardless of how a church becomes autocephalous, the normal and historical procedure for a new autocephalous church, is to be to be formally recognized as autocephalous by the church of which it was originally a part. And then be formally recognized by all of the other Orthodox Churches in the world. This does not require the blessing of any single particular bishop and certainly not an official gathering of an Ecumenical Council.
- Unity and Autocephaly: Mutually Exclusive?, by Dr. Lewis J. Patsavos, a canonist at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (Brookline, Massachusetts)
- The Origins and Authority of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of the Orthodox Church, by Demetrios J. Constantelos
- A Letter To The Ecumenical Patriarch Concerning The Situation Of The Diaspora, by Patr. Alexei II (Ridiger) of Moscow
- Questions and Answers on Autocephaly, an apologia for the OCA's autocephaly by Fr. Thomas Hopko (1971)
- The Path to Autocephaly and Beyond: "Miles to go before we sleep", a reflection on the OCA's autocephaly by Metropolitan Theodosius (Lazor) of Washington, its former primate (1995)
- Agreement on the Autocephaly for the Orthodox Church in America, Agreement made by Russian Orthodox Church, Moscow Patriarchate, and the Russian Orthodox Greek Catholic Church of America
- The Role Of The Protos Or Primate In The Church Of Greece, a presentation given by Metropolitan Christodoulos of Demetrias (later Archbishop of Athens) to the VIII International Congress of the Society ïn Canon Law of the Eastern Churches.