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Map of the canonical territories of autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox jurisdictions. Click image to magnify.
The European section of the above map, in closer detail. Click image to magnify.

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. Autocephaly is granted when an ecumenical council or a high-ranking bishop, such as a patriarch or other primate, releases an ecclesiastical province from all obligations to any higher authority within the Orthodox Church, while remaining in full communion with the bishops of that province. Historically, autocephaly was obtained in a variety of ways. There are controversies regarding which historical methods of obtaining autocephaly represent a normative precedent to be followed in the future and which methods represent special exceptions.

Church usage

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:

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:

In still others, it was granted by one mother church to a daughter church:

New autocephalous churches

Regardless of how a church becomes autocephalous, the normal and historical procedure for a new autocephalous church is to be formally recognized as autocephalous by the church of which it was originally a part. Following that, it is to 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.

See also

External links