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 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.
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 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 Church of Ethiopia received autocephaly from the Coptic Orthodox Church in 1950.
- The Orthodox Church in America received autocephaly from the Church of Russia in 1970 (though that action is still not recognized by many of the older autocephalous churches).
The notion that the Church of Constantinople has the sole authority to grant autocephaly is largely based on an interpretation of Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon (451) stating that the Ecumenical Patriarch has authority in "barbarian lands." However, that is argued by many to refer only to certain areas on the borderlands of the ancient Roman Empire and having nothing whatsoever to do with the modern world some 1500 years later. Historically (see above), many of today's autocephalous churches were originally under the authority of Constantinople by virtue of geographical proximity or a tradition of Constantinopolitan missionary activity. So what may seem like a clear pattern of ecclesiastical order to some is argued by others to be merely coincidental and not ecclesiological.
Further, even the idea that any mother church can grant a daughter church autocephaly is not supported by history or the canons as they now stand. The modern conception of autocephaly postdates the primary formation of the Orthodox canonical tradition by some centuries, and so the canons don't currently directly address the question of how one obtains autocephaly in the 21st century.
The truth is that, historically and canonically, there is no one way to attain autocephaly. Why? It is because there is no "theology of autocephaly" to be found in the Fathers or the Holy Scripture. Indeed, the very idea of autocephaly probably would have seemed a little odd to the apostles. That doesn't mean that it is wrong, but autocephalous and autonomous churches are not essential to the nature of the Church. That is, they are not inherently ecclesiological matters. They are a practical, administrative development, and they continue to develop.
The one pattern which does seem to prevail is that autocephaly is an expression of the whole community of Orthodox churches and that the voice of that community is most often found in the leadership of the first among them, the Church of Constantinople. Where autocephaly is proclaimed without Constantinople's assent, it tends to find itself on difficult ground.
- Unity and Autocephaly: Mutually Exclusive?, by Dr. Lewis J. Patsavos, a canonist at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology (Brookline, Massachusetts)
- 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)