The Structure of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: Considerations Regarding Canonical Structure, Primacy, and Prerogatives - A New Charter for the Second Centennial


The Structure of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America: Considerations Regarding Canonical Structure, Primacy, and Prerogatives

Canonical Structure of the GOA: The First and the Many

Understanding administrative structures as they developed in the history of the Church and according to our canonical tradition is essential in reflecting productively on the present structure of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA) from a canonical perspective. At the heart of the present question is whether the structure of the Archdiocese reflects the canonical tradition of the Church and, if it does not, can we consider this canonical deviation advisable or even acceptable according to the principle of oikonomia?

The basis of our understanding of canonical administrative structures stems principally from the canons of the Holy Apostles wherein we are given the image of the one and the many and their relationship to one another.[1] The canons of the Holy Apostles, though not being written by the Holy Apostles, were promulgated in the 4th century and nevertheless express the tradition of the Church.  Namely, Canon 34 of the Apostolic canons typified the relationship between he who is first and the many (in a synodal sense) insofar as the many should acknowledge he is who first among them and they should do nothing without him. Likewise, he who is first should do nothing of consequence without the consultation of the many. This expression of primacy and synodality is consistent with the organic administrative development of the Church and its ecclesiology which is steeped in the principle of the relationship between the members of the Holy Trinity (ἡ μοναρχία τοῦ Πατρός). Already before the 1st Ecumenical Council at Nicaea the concept and practice of bishops (Metropolitans) heading larger Metropolis cities within a given province and having suffragan bishops administering their own dioceses was normal. The suffragan bishops, though administering the affairs of their diocese, nevertheless subjected themselves to the bishop of this larger Metropolis, a practice that would organically prevail in the 3rd century even though it had in no way been codified legislatively.[2] In fact, Canon 6 of the 1st Ecumenical Council which describes the relationship of the bishops to the Metropolitans states “Τὰ ἀρχαῖα ἔθη κρατείτω…” (“Let the ancient custom prevail…”)[3] thus indicating this practice of suffragans recognizing a primus was already well established by the year 325 and was even considered an “ancient custom.” This decision was likewise reaffirmed by Canon 2 of the 2nd Ecumenical Council.

The introduction of the Patriarchal model of governance at the 4th Ecumenical Council in 451, far from it abolishing the principles of the Metropolitan model of governance, amplifies it as it presents an additional level of Church authority based on the prevailing circumstances and organic development of the Church’s administrative structure. Thus,  Metropolises under the auspices of a given Patriarchate, constituted an eparchy of said Patriarchate. At that point in ecclesiastical history, these Metropolis eparchies had suffragan bishops in dioceses who, in turn, were subject to the Metropolitan, consistent with the canonical principles of Canon 34 of the Holy Apostles. It must be underscored that the nature of the Metropolitan and Patriarchal systems of governance changed over time since the concept of suffragan bishops subject to a Metropolitan would, in our more contemporary era, disappear and the title Metropolitan would begin to lose the same meaning it once had since the Metropolitan would become the head of an eparchy no longer having any suffragan bishops. Nevertheless, the title has remained in history and, without historical context as to what a Metropolitan is in light of suffragan diocesan bishops, can cause confusion to one unfamiliar with ecclesiastical history or Orthodox canonical tradition.

In the context of the present governance of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, the structure of the Archdiocese initially appears to follow this ancient form of governance insofar as there is a primus in the person of the Archbishop of America and eight other ecclesiastical districts. Each of these districts has their own hierarch who governs the affairs of their district. The manner in which this was expressed in the 2003 Charter, however, causes confusion since the terminology that was chosen for the eight districts was the word “Metropolis.” Thus, the hierarch bearing the title Metropolitan implies that he possesses certain rights and responsibilities by virtue of his office. It is this disconnect between the canonical norm and the terminology employed in the 2003 Charter which has caused this confusion. For example, the elevation of the dioceses to Metropolises in December of 2002 led to the question, are the Metropolises individual eparchies of the Ecumenical Patriarchate? If so, then we have an uncanonical structure wherein we have an eparchy of the Ecumenical Throne (the Metropolis) within an eparchy of the Ecumenical Throne (the Archdiocese). Were this to be the case, then there is no such thing as one unified Archdiocese. On the other hand, if these Metropolises are not their own eparchies, then it stands to reason that they are subject to the Archdiocese.

Synodal Participation of Hierarchs

The existing Charter of the Archdiocese attempted to elevate the diocesan bishops to the rank of Metropolitan while having limited effects on their function. But this is unrealistic for a number of reasons, not the least is how one understands the functionality of the Eparchial Synod. The present organization of the Archdiocese presents a canonical conundrum insofar as it relates to synodal participation. The existence of a Synod of Bishops is not new to the Archdiocese since during most of the Archdiocese’s history there has been a Synod in some form, but with varying responsibilities. The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America presently has an Eparchial Synod which is responsible to the Holy and Sacred Synod in Constantinople. Prior to the 2003 Charter the Eparchial Synod consisted of the ruling hierarchs throughout the Archdiocese with the Archbishop serving as its President. The President could, theoretically, be called to represent his eparchy at the Holy and Sacred Synod, however, this was not possible for the other hierarchs due to canonical norms. After the 2003 Charter, however, not only the Archbishop as the protos of the eparchy, by also the Metropolitans were permitted to sit as members on the Holy and Sacred Synod. Canonically, a hierarch who is not the protos cannot sit on two synods, but is limited to the synod of the eparchy (in this case the Eparchial Synod). Thus, with the elevation of the bishops to Metropolitans, there was a canonically abnormal precedent set wherein Metropolitans already sitting on one Synod were then permitted to sit on a greater Synod.

Title of “Archbishop” in Commemorations

The commemoration of one’s hierarch, as practiced in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese, causes practical confusion as each Metropolitan is commemorated as “Archbishop.” Especially since the faithful are not familiar with the nuances of ecclesiastical titles, this can and does generate confusion regarding who the Archbishop is and what the role of the Metropolitan is. Nevertheless, the Byzantine liturgical tradition in presbyteral liturgies is for the deacon or the priest to commemorate the local hierarch. With this in mind and considering the above analysis regarding the role of the Metropolitans, it would be preferable that Metropolitans are not commemorated as “Archbishop.” This matter, however, deserves much more examination to ensure that liturgical actions mirror our ecclesiological reality.

 Additionally, though commemorating multiple hierarchs pyramidally is not a part of the our Byzantine tradition, it would not be contrary to canonical norms to include the name of the Ecumenical Patriarch in a separate petition much like we pray for those in other petitions. In this case, it would not be a canonical commemoration, but a regular petition praying for the health and well-being of the Ecumenical Patriarch.

Recommendations Based on the Above

There are presently some aspects of the organizational structure of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America which are not consistent with the canonical tradition. As such, some recommendations which could assert a more canonically correct administrative system are included here as follows:

  1. The 2003 Charter inadvertently created a canonically anomalous situation in the Archdiocese which would be most appropriately rectified with the return to an organization more akin to the 1977 Charter. Knowing this to be difficult, there is also the option of transforming the Metropolises into Archdiocesan Districts in which certain aspects of the already existing administrative structure stays the same, but the canonical norm of the hierarchs recognizing the protos among them (the Archbishop) in accordance with Canon 34 of the Holy Apostles be upheld (the details of this must be studied in depth to determine exactly how this would be canonically and practically understood).
    In this case, the already existing Metropolitans would retain their title by “oikonomia,” however, future hierarchs should not be granted such a title. As such, there would be a period of time when the canonical situation, while not being perfect, would be improving over time.  
  2. Ensure that synodal participation is consistent with canonical norms.  
  3. Based on the administrative and canonical structure of number 1 above, deacons, priests, and hierarchs commemorate the Archbishop. Moreover, a separate supplicatory petition can be proclaimed for the Ecumenical Patriarch. For example, to commemorate His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, it would be inconsistent with our canonical tradition to commemorate him in the same context as the Archbishop, but the Ecumenical Patriarch’s name could perhaps be inserted elsewhere. For instance, “For the Holy Great Church of Christ, our Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, this Sacred Archdiocese, this parish and city…”

[1] Though principally focusing on Canon 34 of the Holy Apostles, it is important to note that there are a number of canons from which one can draw evidence of what constitutes canonical structures and the responsibilities of the hierarchs shepherding their respective communities. Another canon in the same vein as Canon 34 of the Holy Apostles is Canon 9 of Antioch. Likewise, the responsibilities of hierarchs especially as it pertains to the goods and property of the Church are delineated in a number of canons including, but not limited to, Canons 12 of the 4th Ecumenical Council, 38 of the Holy Apostles, and Canon 26 of Chalcedon.

[2] This lack of codification is for two main reasons. First, Christian communities prior to the Edict of Milan in 313 were not in a position to focus on the codification of customs from different regions. Secondly, the concept of a larger council or synod to discuss such matters had not yet been envisioned and would not come to pass until 325.

[3] Canon 6 of the 1st Ecumenical Council speaks to the specific case of Alexandria, which was recognized as having authority over Egypt, Lydia, and Pentapolis, and the case of Antioch the seniority of which was to be preserved in its region. It was also understood in this canon that Rome was to have seniority in its own region as well. Combined with Canons 7 of the 1st Ecumenical Council (which gave the seniority of the Capital of Palestine to Jerusalem in its own region) and Canon 3 of the 2nd Ecumenical Council (which gave seniority to Constantinople after that of Rome), we have the Pentarchy of senior Archdioceses which, in time, would be recognized as Patriarchates after the 4th Ecumenical Council.