Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics

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F. The Local and universally-spread Church. The synodic institution

We cannot have a “Catholic” (overall) Church in the universal sense. So, what will we have?  Shall we have local Churches that are independent of each other, without any organic association between them whatsoever? This is the big question for Orthodox Ecclesiology, as regards the general structure and organization of the Church.

The answer is that it would be a big mistake - equal to that which regards the Church a universal organization - if we were to regard local Churches as independent and not connected to each other.  Thus, a way must be found to attain the unity of the local Churches, avoiding, however, a universal organization of the Church. This is realized, through what we call the “synodicity” of the Church.  Synodicity is the expression of unity between the local Churches, in one only Church throughout the world, in such a way that does not presuppose a universal organization. And that is why synodicity is such a delicate and profound subject, and is not that easy to describe.  In one of my studies on the synodic institution in the volume of the memorable Metropolitan Barnabas of Kitrus, I struggled with this problem, trying to provide an answer which is briefly as follows: Synodicity should in no way lead to the institution of the Synod, as though it were some sort of structure that hovers above the local Churches, because then, clearly, we would inevitably end up with a universal organization. We do not need a Pope to reach that point.  By having a Synod in the place of a Pope, we can again have in this case an Ecclesiology of universal proportions. This is what had occurred with the so-called conciliarismus.

In the previous century with the 1st Vatican Synod but also earlier, there had appeared a theory in the West, where the supreme authority of the Church is expressed by means of Synods, which is why in the 1st Vatican Synod, today’s “Old Catholics” had declared their opposition to the Pope’s infallibility and had leaned more towards synodicity in order to reduce and to restrict Papal authority. There are also many Orthodox, who, if asked how we differ from the Roman Catholics, will probably reply that “we differ in that they have the Pope on a worldwide scale as the supreme authority, whereas we have Synods.”  Things are not at all like that.  A synod is not a principality that rises above the local churches. Proof of this – from the point of view of Church organization – is that no Synod is allowed to intervene in the internal issues of a local Church, and woe betide, if something like this ever happened.  An ignorance of Ecclesiology is the cause of many anomalies.  I am pointing this out to you, because tomorrow you will be clergymen, bishops or theologian professors; you will have a voice and an opinion on all these subjects that constantly crop up in the life of the Orthodox Church.  There is quite often the tendency – and it will continue of course to exist in the future – for a Synod to want to intervene in issues of a local Church.  This has no grounds, from the viewpoint of Orthodox Ecclesiology, because it would mean that we have a universal authority and principality over the local Church.  Saint Cyprian in the 3rd century had placed -rather provocatively, one could say- a principle whereby every bishop is free to regulate the issues of his bishopric, reporting only to God. And this independence of the local bishop has continued to apply in many cases, such as –for example- his freedom to ordain those who he prefers in the Church, and not having to ask anyone about it, etc.

There are certain things within the life of the Church, which cannot be confined to the limits of the local Church. Thus, the problem arises:  How can a bishop, from within his Church, decide on something that will affect the life of another local Church?  If his decision doesn’t affect it, he is free to do it and no-one should interfere. But, if it does affect the life of another Church, then the need arises for an intervention by a Synod, so that the Synod can then express not only that local Church, but also all the other local Churches that are affected by whatever is happening in that one local Church.  It was this precise problem that gave birth to the institution of Synods in History, and the characteristic cause that led to the need of synodicity, was precisely the Divine Eucharist.  Naturally, every Bishop has the right to ordain someone; this doesn’t affect other Churches. But then, take the case of excommunication of a member of a local Church from Holy Communion. This issue had already appeared during the 4th century; hence we have the 5th Canon of the 1st Ecumenical Synod which clearly speaks of a synod that was convened for a similar incident.  So, what was going on?  Well, many people were barred from Holy Communion by their own Church, but they would go to another Church and receive Holy Communion there. The other Church could not have something to say about this. Complaints were expressed, that very often, excommunications were imposed by the bishop for reasons that were not so clear, thus, it was decided that the territorial bishops (who were affected by such a decision or decisions) should convene twice a year, in Autumn and during the period of Lent in Spring, to examine such cases of exclusion from Holy Communion. In this way, the right to exclude someone from Holy Communion was transposed, from the local Church to a Synod; to the other local Churches. This cannot be viewed as an intervention of the Synod, because, I repeat, the local Church affects the life of the other local Churches in this matter. In other words, whenever the issues are common and the consequences on all the other Churches are common, then that is when the need and the authority of the institution of Synods is called upon. And the limits of synodic authority are found at that precise point. A Synod cannot impose anything more on a local Church, beyond the cases where a decision or an act by a local Church affects the life of other Churches. That, therefore, is a golden rule of synodicity.

One other basic rule that maintains the balance between a local church and the one Church all over the world (without leading to a universal Church) is that the Synods that decide on all these subjects of common interest, “of common union” as Eusebius calls them, are comprised of bishops, and that all bishops participate rightfully in these Synods.  If bishops are excluded from a Synod, then automatically the Synod is transformed into an authority above the local Church.  A local Church -for example- that is excluded from a Synod (because its bishop has been excluded) is obliged to accept the decisions of that Synod, imposed “from the outside” and “from above”.  However, when its bishop participates in that Synod, the decisions reached are not “from the outside”, or “from above”.  They pass through the very local Church itself, via its bishop. This was the way that the church managed to maintain that balance: by never rendering the Synod an authority above the local Churches, but merely making it an instrument for expressing the consent of local Churches; a point of coincidence that all involved can center on. As Saint Ignatius says elsewhere, bishops “throughout the breadth of the inhabited earth are in the opinion of Christ”; in other words, all of them coincide in their opinions with Christ; they have the same outlook as Christ, and this is expressed by means of a Synod.  A Synod, therefore, is not an institution that lies above the local Church; it is an institution that expresses the unity, the coincidence, the consent and the reciprocation of local Churches.  Something like this is secured – by way of structure and organization – by the rightful participation in Synods by all of the bishops.

Consequently, the decisions reached by Synods are not foreign to the life of the local Churches.  This is why – from an ecclesiological aspect – every kind of Synod that excludes the presence of bishops (unless there is an unavoidable historical necessity) from participating in a Synod, is considered a serious deviation.  There have been – and there still are – such ecclesiologically unjustified deviations; these are seen as deviating trends towards the direction that I have called “the reinforcement of the institution of the universal Church”.  If it is not historically possible, (for example, in the Ecumenical Patriarchate, because of historical necessities, the Synod cannot consist of all bishops), then there is nothing that anyone can do.  But when a Synod can be comprised of all participants, and yet certain participants among them are chosen and are rendered masters over the remaining bishops – an act that corrodes very dangerously the foundations of Ecclesiology and creates anomalies and digressions. Of course the problem continues to exist, as to whether everyone can participate in a synod, even though they do not have any problems involving external necessities, which is why the solution of alternating participation in synodic assemblies by bishops was established. The alternating participation of bishops (in order of seniority in ordination) in some way ensures the possibility for participation by all bishops in the Synodic institution.  Naturally, the ideal situation is the assembling of all bishops; this is why, whenever the Church was able –and it was judged as necessary- She would convene a so-called Ecumenical Synod (or Council), which, for this reason also acquired an authority and prestige greater than that of any local Synod. But, I repeat, the essence of a Synod – be it also an ecumenical one – is not to establish an instrument by which the consent and the union of the local Churches can be expressed.  That is how we should regard the Synod.

So much for the locality”, the universality and the catholicity of the Church.


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Transcript: Anna Navrozidou and Nick Zarkantzas

Proof-reading: Stavros Yiagazoglou

Typing: N. P.

Webpage format: N. M.

Translation by A. N.


Article published in English on: 9-2-2007.

Last update: 16-2-2007.