Usually we post a photo of a church, from our companion blog, Churches of the West. Every now and then, however, we do something a little different, and this is one of those times.
It occurs to us that yesterday here we used the word "autocephalous" and, while we gave a little bit of an explanation, we assumed a lot in giving it. Indeed, so much so that the overwhelming number of readers who are likely to stop by here are going to have no idea whatsoever what we were posting about in that context.
So today, we try explain that. What is "autocephalous". Well, it's the English translation of the word αὐτοκεφαλία.
Okay, there we go.
Well, that doesn't help at all, does it?
Autocephalous means, let "self headed". So, when we used it in context it means a Self Headed Church within the Eastern Orthodox Communion.
But what does that mean?
By this point in this article, Eastern Orthodox Christians, well schooled Catholics and some others know what I mean, but most others will not. And even a few who are vaguely familiar with what is meant by this don't really understand what it is. And frankly, because discussing this area, and particularly discussing the branches of Orthodoxy by a person who is not Orthodox, is tricky, this is dangerous ground where I'm likely to stumble a bit. So this will be the Kindergarten level explanation of autocephaly.
This is a concept that exists in the Eastern Orthodox churches for a variety of historical reasons, most of which I won't touch upon. But to even grasp any of that, you have to start with the Apostolic churches. Those are the churches that can trace their establishment back to the Apostles.
St Peter and St. Paul Orthodox Church, Salt Lake City Utah. This is an Antiochian Orthodox Church. Located quite near downtown, the church features the quote, above the front door; "It was in Antioch that they were first called Christians.". The Antiochian Orthodox Church is the branch of the Orthodox Church associated with Orthodox Arabs, one of several Apostolic churches with strong Middle Eastern roots and a retained Middle Eastern presence, although they are much threatened there today. Salt Lake, which of course is associated with the Mormon faith, has at least three Orthodox churches as it also has a Greek Orthodox cathedral and a Russian Orthodox church. All of these churches are Eastern Orthodox and are therefore in full communion with one another.
All of the recognized Orthodox Churches and the Catholic Church are Apostolic churches. While people like to imagine that they're fighting tooth and nail all the time (which is grossly exaggerated, quite frankly) this is a historical fact, not a matter of theological debate. Indeed their principal, but not sole, item of debate is what that means between themselves as the Catholic Church takes the position that St. Peter had primacy amongst the Apostles in a true jurisdictional sense, while the Orthodox have taken the position from some point a thousand or so years ago, and probably back a bit further than that, that St. Peter had primacy as "the first amongst equals". This is a significant matter in that Peter was the Bishop of Rome and therefore, in the Catholic view, the successor of St. Peter as the Bishop of Rome is the head of the Christian Church, where as the Orthodox take the view that the Bishop of Rome is the first amongst equals. As there are a variety of Eastern Orthodox churches there is some variance in how this would be said, but that's basically it. That's not, it should be noted, the sole topic at issue in the debate between them, but it's a significant issue.
St. Peter holding the keys to the kingdom. To the Orthodox, Peter is the first of the apostles, but equal to the rest. To Catholics, he had primacy.
There exists a schism between the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic Church that has existed for some time, more or less since some point in the 11th Century although it was healed briefly in the 15th Century and came back into existence also in the 15th Century. I'm not going into that here but I'm noting it only to note that there are other schisms that play into this overall story. For example, there exists a Polish National Church and the Old Catholic Church, both of which are also Apostolic, tracing the lineage of their Bishops through the Catholic Church. The Eastern Orthodox also have at least one schism I'm aware of, that being the Old Believers. And there are at least two Protestant Churches that claim to be Apostolic Churches as well but which are not recognized by the Catholic Church as such (and I don't think they are by any main branch of the Eastern Orthodox, although in some quarters there was a little flirting with this at one time). These churches are those in the Anglican Communion and the Lutheran churches. This is a bit muddied in the case of the Lutheran churches, actually, and there's some differing view within that community. The Methodist church also claims apostolic succession in a complicated fashion which we'll only barely touch on. A few other groups do as well, but for the most part those get increasingly complicated and strained.
While this post is not intended to serve as a theology lesson, the Catholic Churches and all of the Orthodox churches, including those Orthodox Churches such as the Coptic Church which are not Eastern Orthodox but rather Oriental Orthodox, all hold that ordination must be done by a validly consecrated Bishop and in the proper form and they always have, going back to Apostolic times. Again, as I am not a theologian I'm not going to get into it, and it is complicated to a degree, I'm not going to try to set this out in any advanced form. But the gist of it is that in the view of the Apostolic Churches in order to have valid Holy Orders and Sacraments you need a Bishop who confers Holy Orders in the proper form. So, that's why the Orthodox of all types and the Catholic Church recognize each others sacraments as valid even though there is a schism between them, and that's why the Catholic Church recognizes the same as to a church like the Polish National Church. Practices within the church differ as to how this should be done, but the churches recognize each others Communion and Confession, for examples, as perfectly valid.
It's interesting to note in this context, and it serves, I hope, to demonstrate the point, that both the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic churches recognize the validity of the Holy Orders and sacraments of the Oriental Orthodox, who are quite different in some ways, and quite similar others, to both of them. Due to historical developments, these churches were only able to send representatives to the first three ecumenical councils; the First Council of Nicaea in 325, the First Council of Constantinople in 381 and the Council of Ephesus in 431. History conspired to prevent their attendance at later councils. Most Americans are completely unfamiliar with these churches but, in some larger cities in some parts of the country, you can find examples of them, usually the Coptic Church of Alexandria or the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church.
Saint Mary's Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church in Denver Colorado. The Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church is a non-Chalcedonian (Oriental Orthodox) church. This church is located in north eastern Denver. Parishioners always wear white on Sunday's in this denomination, in recollection of their Baptismal garments.
Before we go further, lest we create confusion and anger, all of these churches recognize the usual form of Protestant baptism as valid (but not some that are outside of the usual form) and at least the first marriage of any type, including marriages that have no religious ceremony at all, or are non Christian, except in the cases where their own members marry outside of the church without a dispensation. As this isn't a treatise on these topics I'll stop there lest I create more confusion than I already have. But, it's interesting to note that all of these faith would never "re Baptize" a baptized Christian that was baptized in the usual form (there are exceptions in some faiths that use different forms, IE., not really the standard Christian baptism).
Whew. . . that's a long winded introduction to autocephalous.
Okay, back to that.
In the Eastern Orthodox world, and in the Orthodox world in general, history has meant that the various Bishop's seats became very spread out early on and there were very real difficulties in their communicating with each other. In the Catholic world, at the same time, this was much less the case. In Eastern Orthodoxy, therefore, there came to be a day during which the Patriarch of the Church found that it would best serve the Orthodox in some areas if their churches became self governing. So, for example, the Russian Orthodox Church was made autocephalous. It had its own Bishops, etc., and it was made autocephalous by the Patriarch of Constantinople so that it could govern itself.
Holy Transfiguration of Christ Cathedral in North Denver. This Cathedral is a Cathedral of the Orthodox Church in America, a church which traces its origin to the Russian Orthodox Church after the Russian Revolution. Russian Orthodoxy in the United States has a bit of a complicated history on the topic of autocephaly post 1917. There are two bodies that descend from the Russian Orthodox Church in the US today, and I frankly don't quite understand the relationship between the two, but this Cathedral in Denver reflects part of Denver's Russian Orthodox community. The church dates to 1898.
Now, as this can get really confusing, it should also be noted that various Oriental Orthodox Churches are also self governing and as that would lengthen this thread out infinitely, I'm not going into that. As noted above there are more than one Oriental Orthodox churches, they are all in communion with one another, and they are all self governing. They all have relationships with the Eastern Orthodox and the Catholic church in modern times and they are all fairly close given the history cited above.
I should further note that while the rift between the Catholic Church and the Orthodox Church has not been fully healed (while I'd also note, as noted above, that rift is less of a rift than others suppose) the Eastern Orthodox are all Eastern Orthodox. So just because the Russian Orthodox Church has a different head than the Greek Orthodox Church does not mean that they are not in full communion with each other. Indeed, I'd note that at least members of the Ukrainian Catholic Church in the Ukraine simply refer to the Russian Orthodox Church as "the Greek Church".
Holy Transfiguration of Our Lord Church in Ninilchik Alaska. This community has had a Russian Orthodox Church since 1846, but this structure dates to 1901. It is a regular Russian Orthodox Church in the Orthodox Church of America's Diocese of Anchorage, subject to the jurisdiction of the Orthodox Church in America, which is one of two bodies that formed in the U.S. to govern Russian Orthodox Churches following the Russian Revolution. The Orthodox Church in America is an autocephalous Eastern Orthodox church that started to govern its affairs separately when Patriarch Tikhon of Moscow directed all Russian Orthodox churches outside of Russia and was originally the Russian Greek Orthodox Church in America. It was granted autocephaly by the Russian Orthodox Church in Russia in 1970 and changed its name at that time, although the validity of that action is disputed by some.
Got it? Well good to go.
So, um. . . aren't you going to complete the pictures for the other churches referenced above.
Well. . . I will, but only with great trepidation.
Is there autocephaly in the Catholic Church? Well, the Catholic Church doesn't use that term, and the answer would be, I think basically no, in the sense of the term as used above. That's because autocephalous in the Orthodox sense means those churches basically report to no one, although they are in communion with each other. I.e., all Eastern Orthodox are in communion with one another (save for schisms, such as that of the Old Believers) and all Oriental Orthodox are in communion with one another (keeping in mind that this doesn't mean that they believe that only their own Holy Orders and sacraments are valid, it doesn't mean that, as the Orthodox and the Catholic churches all recognize that in regards to each other). But the Catholic Church does have several Rites and those Rites are in fact mostly self governing.
Holy Rosary Catholic Church in Lander Wyoming. This church was unique in Wyoming (and might still be) at the time I took this photograph as the Priest there was "bi ritual", which meant that he could offer the Divine Liturgy in the Latin Rite and an Eastern Rite, and the church did in fact conduct services at different times in different Rites. Things like this are not terribly uncommon in some localities. Additionally, it is not terribly uncommon in some localities for Catholic churches to host an Orthodox parish community if they lack their own church.
This is confusing for people who aren't familiar with the Catholic Church and indeed many people use the term Roman Catholic Church and the Catholic Church interchangeably. In fact, Catholics don't use the term "Roman Catholic" officially at all, although its become so common that many Latin Rite Catholics have fully adopted the term. The Latin Rite of the Catholic Church is the largest Christian denomination in the world and so the confusion is natural enough, but there are also twenty three non Latin Rite Catholic churches.
Yes, twenty three. That means that are twenty four churches within the Catholic church.
Each one of these churches has its own primate, i.e. a cleric who is its head. For example, the relatively well known Maronite church has Patriarch Moran Mor Bechara Boutros al-Rahi ( بشارة بطرس الراعي the 77th Maronite Patriarch of Antioch. He's also a Cardinal.
What, the are non Latin Rite Cardinals in the Catholic Church?
Yes, there are. And of course, there would be.
All of this is noted as the various twenty four churches in the Catholic Church are in fact mostly self governing. They all have a primate who is at the head of their church, just like the autocephalous Orthodox churches do. They differ, however, in that the Pope is the overall had of the Church, and the Pope is also head of the Latin Rite as he's the Bishop of Rome.
Now, just to keep the complication level up, recall that the Orthodox also recognize the Bishop of Rome as the first of the Bishops. They regard him as the first among equals.
So, there isn't autocephaly in the Catholic Church, but there is quite a bit of independence between the various Rites.
Well then, (straying into dangerous territory) what about the Protestant churches you mentioned. Aren't they basically autocephalous churches in schism?
Well, I suppose that would depend on your views but neither they nor the Catholic church regard them that way. And part of that, from the Catholic point of view, has to do with Apostolic succession.
Let's start with the Anglican Communion, which is the group of Protestant churches (although they do not all view themselves that way, for which Apostolic succession is most frequently claimed. This is enormously complicated by the fact that the Anglican Communion itself is a collection of churches with widely varying views on almost every topic. Some in the Anglican Communion, and usually those who view their church as a type of Catholic church not in communion with Rome, hold Apostolic succession to be both real and necessary. For example, John Newman, while an Anglican cleric and a prime mover in the Oxford movement, wrote "We must necessarily consider none to be really ordained who has not been thus ordained". Newman, of course, later came to the conclusion that Anglican orders were not valid and he converted to Catholicism, becoming a Cardinal. Many conservatives in the Anglican Communion continue to hold this opinion and regard their church as a separated one with valid Apostolic succession dating back to the schism that took place under King Henry VIII. Of note, most of the bishops, but not all of the priests by any means, went with Henry when he separated the English church from Rome.
Church of the Holly Family Anglican Catholic Church in Casper, Wyoming. This church would nto be recognized as Catholic by the Catholic Church, but it is part of the conservative branch of the Anglican Communion that regards the Anglican Communion as a separated Catholic church.
This topic became serious enough in the Anglican world that it ended up being a topic addressed by Pope Leo XIII who found that Anglican claims to Apostolic succession were "absolutely null and utterly void". This was due to the changes that were made to the very Protestant and radical King Edward VI. It is for this reason that Anglican clergymen entering the Catholic church as Priests, which has not been uncommon in recent years, are ordained as Catholic Priests. And this points out the difficulty in this topic as Apostolic succession is not necessarily regarded as important by all Anglicans. The Anglican Communion has a wide variety of views on matters, ranging from liberal to conservative, and one of the things they vary on is the nature of Apostolic succession. To complicate maters even further some Anglican conservatives regards some of Anglican Priests as validly consecrated and others as not being, including Bishops, but as this isn't a treatise on that topic, I'll not go into it. I'll conclude, however, by noting that Pope Leo's proclamation was troubling to certain branches of the Anglican Communion who have attempted to rectify it by having ordinations done by Old Catholics, which the Catholic Church regards as schismatic. Old Catholic holy orders are valid, in Catholic eyes.
Anglican Church of the Holy Trinity in Toronto, Ontario. Sort of reflecting the history of Canada and Toronto, this very traditional church is apparently a liberal Anglican Church. Toronto was once a bastion of English conservatism in Canada, which it certainly is not today.
Something similar sort of oddly may, or may not have, happened early in the history of the Methodist Church, but it's not really known for sure. The Methodist movement was started by John Wesley but it wasn't originally a separate church, but a movement within the Anglican Church. Wesley instructed his followers to receive the sacraments from Anglican Priests, and stated; "We believe it would not be right for us to administer either Baptism or the Lord's Supper unless we had a commission so to do from those Bishops whom we apprehend to be in a succession from the Apostles." So he clearly viewed Apostolic succession as necessary. At some point his views may have modified, as the Methodist started to ordain their own ministers. However, some also claim that Wesley was secretly ordained by a visiting Greek Orthodox Bishop, so he had, they claim, Apostolic succession. The formal split of the Methodist from the Anglican church came in 1805, and as I know little about it, I'll stop there.
Holy Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, Denver Colorado., built in 1887. It's difficult to photograph, as it's nearly always in perpetual shade as very tall buildings have been built up around it. This is, unfortunately, compounded here as these photographs were taken on a very dreary day. Of note, the church declares that it is the Holy Trinity Methodist Episcopal Church, but in modern terms it's usually called the Holy Trinity Methodist Church or the Holy Trinity United Methodist Church. Separation from the Anglican Church came in 1805, but the name of the Methodist Church continued to reflect its origin for many years thereafter.
Anyhow, I don't think anyone would regard it as autocephalous in the way we've been discussing it, although its history is interesting in regard to the view of its founder on Apostolic succession.
Terrible photograph of the unusual St. Philip's Catholic Church & ELCA Peace Lutheran Fellowship, Basin Wyoming. In spite of the very real separation between the Catholic Church and the Lutheran Church, they shared the same church structure in Basin. I believe that right now (or at least recently) the Catholic Church was not using this church as another is available in a nearby community.
I guess that leaves us with the Lutheran Church. Interestingly there is a split of views, sort of like that in the Anglican Communion, but perhaps more pronounced.
The Lutheran Church really took hold in Scandinavia, and there the church very much takes the position that it has preserved Apostolic succession. Indeed, in the Scandinavian countries the Lutheran churches take the position that they did not create a new church at all, but rather that the Lutheran movement in their countries simply improved the existing church. This position is taken to a lessor degree, however, in Germany, whose Lutheran churches were merged by order of the government with the Calvinist churches in 1817. Still, the conservative elements in Germany, and some in Scandinavia, have taken the step of receiving ordinations in their communions from schismatic Catholic bishops of the types discussed above to attempt to make certain that their Holy Orders and sacraments are valid. Other Lutheran groups, however are indifferent to the question, in part reflecting early church governance under Luther. An aspect of this, additionally, is that in Germany the sitting Catholic bishops did not go along with Luther, not one, so there were no ordinations thereafter that could have been regarded as valid, from a Catholic prospective. In Scandinavia, however, the sitting Catholic Bishops retained their positions, which is somewhat ironically due to the conversion of the countries being forced by the crown, which had promised not to do it, but there were changes (apparently) to form, although I can't comment on them as I do not know what they were. It's clear that the Catholic Church does not regard the Lutheran Church as schismatic but completely separated, just as the Anglican Communion is regarded, so no autocephaly here.
Church of St. Nicholas, Old Believers Russian Orthodox, Nikolaevsk Alaska. The church is an Old Believers Russian Orthodox Church in an Old Believers community.
As a complete side note, its interesting that when faced with the same dilemma that the German Lutherans were faced with early on, and maybe the Methodist were, that being no Bishops who would ordain Priests for them, the Russian Old Believers made a completely different choice. They took Apostolic succession so seriously that they simply lacked any clergy at all as their ordained Priests died. The pain of this was deeply felt and in recent years they have obtained ordained Priests from Orthodox Bishops that are willing to ordain Priest for them and with whom they are theologically comfortable, but for many years this ultra conservative group, fully supportive of Apostolic succession and fully aware of the need of valid sacraments, went without as no Bishop would support the. The Russian Orthodox Church as tried to bring them back in, and has even apologized to them for acts during the separation, but they aren't having that, so far.