Who Selects Your Bishop? Anyone you know?
by Dean Calvert
As the glow fades on the Episcopal Assembly, and the real work of Orthodox unity in America begins, we are already being treated to sermons (via Ancient Faith Radio and OCN) talking about the multiple ways that Orthodox unity can take place on this continent. One commentator admonished us not to be married to any one path.
In that same interview, we were treated to terms that many Americans find foreign – “autocephalous”, “autonomous” and even “semi-autonomous”…all presumably being equally appropriate and acceptable methods of unifying the Church in America.
We decided to reach back into our archives, and use the current charter, constitutions and statutes to help explain to readers what the current ecclesiastical setup on this continent is. The thinking is – before one can enter into an intelligent debate, we should at least attempt to understand what the current situation is.
We have focused, for the sake of simplicity, on the three largest jurisdictions – the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA), the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese (AOCA) and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA). Each of the other jurisdictions can be defined on the same spectrum created by these three. In the U.S. today, the largest 3 jurisdictions, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese (GOA), the Antiochian Archdiocese (AOCA), and the Orthodox Church in America (OCA) represent the entire spectrum of possibilities in Orthodox governance models, with the GOA representing the least independent structure (an eparchial province of a Mother Church) and the OCA representing the most independent structure (an autocephalous church). The AOCA falls in the middle of the two extremes.
For the sake of laity who have elected not to seek a Ph.D. in Orthodox ecclesiology – let us just offer this simple distinction – an autocephalous (self headed) church elects it’s own leader (patriarch, archbishop or metropolitan) as well as it’s own bishops. In an autonomous church, the leader (archbishop/metropolitan) is elected at the Holy Synod of the Mother Church, while the bishops are generally elected locally. Finally, in an eparchial province, both bishops and archbishops are selected by the Holy Synod of the Mother Church, although there may be input from the Eparchy.
GOA – According to the current charter, the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is an eparchy of the Ecumenical Patriarchate. According to Wikipedia, “Originally eparchy (ἐπαρχίᾱ, eparchia) was the Greek equivalent of the Latin term provincia, one of the districts of the Roman Empire at the third echelon. As such it was used, chiefly in the eastern parts of the Empire, to designate the Roman provinces.” It continues, “Later in Eastern Christendom…the use of the word was gradually modified and came to refer to the diocese of a bishop.”
According to the GOA charter, both bishops and archbishops are elected in Constantinople (modern Istanbul) by the Holy Synod. The charter states very clearly that, “The election of the Archbishop is the exclusive privilege and the canonical right of the Holy Synod.” (Article 13 a.) Later, describing the election of metropolitans, the charter states, “The list of three nominees thus established is submitted to the Ecumenical Patriarchate. According to the existing practice, the Holy and Sacred Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate elects one of the three as the new Metropolitan.” (Article 14 c.). In sum, while the local synod has some input into the process (presentation of an “opinion” in the case of archbishop, selection of the three names in the case of a metropolitan) – it can accurately be said that no “election” of any sort occurs in this country in the GOA. Elections are held in Turkey
Interestingly, the current charter reflects a dramatic change from the election procedures outlined in the original 1922 GOA charter. In that charter, bishops were elected as follows (Articles 16 through 18), “…the Ecclesiastical Assembly of Chicago at the call of the Archbishop and presided over by him, for the purpose of nominating 3 candidates for this diocese, selected from a list of clergy of the entire diocese, who possess a diploma from a recognized Orthodox Theological School, of blameless life and ecclesiastical experience, pre-approved by the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Holy Synod. Of these three nominees the Synod shall elect the Bishop by canonical vote.”
As such, it can be accurately stated that the GOA was originally organized as an autonomous church, i.e. local election of bishops was allowed. Under the most recent charter, local elections are no longer the case. The GOA is now essentially a diocese of the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
To read the Charter of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in it’s entirety, see
Charter of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese
AOCA – We should note that there remains some incongruence between the Constitution of the Patriarchate of Antioch and the Constitution of the Antiochian Archdiocese of North America. According to the latter, which describes the Archdiocese with a greater degree of autonomy, archbishops are selected from the list of three candidates (triprosopon) forwarded by the Archdiocese to the Holy Synod in Damascus. Bishops, on the other hand are nominated by a Special Convention, with the local synod having the final vote. According to the Constitution, “Where one Diocesan bishop is to be elected, the Archdiocesan Synod and the electing body shall elect, by a majority vote, from the three candidates receiving the highest number of votes of the Convention. With respect to the election of additional Diocesan bishops at the same time, the Archdiocesan Synod, and the electing body, may elect, by a majority vote, from the entire list of nominees. Such election(s) shall occur within 40 days thereafter. The Metropolitan Archbishop of this Archdiocese shall set the time and place for the electoral assembly and shall preside over it.” (Article 1 Section 6, d.)
This local election of bishops is the hallmark of an autonomous church.
Interestingly, although the method of election differs between the metropolitan and diocesan bishops, the consecration in both cases is specifically provided to occur at the patriarchal cathedral in Damascus (Article 1, Section 7). Enthronement occurs at the local cathedrals of each.
To read the Constitution of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese and related documents, see
Charter of the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese
OCA – The OCA operates as an autocephalous church. Let’s set aside the question of ‘recognition’ - for the purposes of this discussion, that question is irrelevant. In an autocephalous church, both the bishops and the metropolitan are elected locally – no “permission” or blessing from a Mother Church is required. In the OCA, the election of a new metropolitan occurs at an All American Convention, according to the following procedure (OCA Statute, Article 4):
“a. The Council nominates candidates by secret ballot without previous discussion of names. A blank paper ballot shall be distributed to each member of the Council before the vote.
b. On the first vote, one single name may be written on each ballot. If the name of a candidate is written on a number of ballots equal to at least two-thirds of the total number of members in attendance at the Council, his name shall be submitted to the Holy Synod for approval by majority vote; in case of rejection, the Holy Synod shall formally state the reasons which motivated the rejection.
c. If no candidate receives a number of ballots equal to at least two-thirds of the total membership in attendance, or if the person receiving that number of ballots fails to receive the approval of the Holy Synod, a second vote shall be taken.
d. In the second vote, two names shall be written on each ballot; the tellers shall not count any ballot on which fewer or more than two names are written. The names of the two candidates who receive the highest number of ballots on the second vote shall be submitted to the Holy Synod for their choice by majority vote.
e. Upon his election, and before the dismissal of the All-American Council, the new Metropolitan will be enthroned according to the established ritual.”
Diocesan bishops are similarly nominated and elected at local diocesan conventions, with one name forwarded to the Holy Synod for confirmation (Article 6, section 10).
To read the Statute of the Orthodox Church in America, see
Statute of the Orthodox Church in America
So as you can see, one of the issues confronting future Episcopal Assemblies will be, “Which model best suits America?” As that discussion is held, we, the laity, need to understand categorically 1.) What the choices are and 2.) What are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
A good starting point is – where are we right now? Who actually selected the bishop of my diocese? Was it me? Was it anyone I know?
If we, as the royal priesthood, and as partners in synergy with the clergy and hierarchs, are to fulfill our traditional responsibility, it behooves each of us to be knowledgeable about the traditional forms of Orthodox governance. Reading the original documents, and asking questions is a great place to start.