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Malankara's Mythical Minefields

Myth 2: Autocephaly is an exclusively Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) concept and is alien to the Oriental Orthodox

We continue with our review of some of the myths coming in the way of a meeting of minds in Malankara. This series is intended not to score points, but to clarify misunderstandings and to reach out:

Fact: by Georgy S. Thomas, Bangalore:

After Chalcedon (451 CE), the first church to be granted autocephalous status was the Georgian Orthodox Church. This was done by Patriarch Peter the Fuller (468-488) of Antioch. Since then, the heads of this church have taken the title Catholicos. Under the influence of the Armenian Orthodox Church, this church followed the monophysite tradition (i.e. what is now known as the Oriental Orthodox faith), until it reunited with the Greek Orthodox Church in the 7th Century. (source: Britannica Encyclopaedia entries on Georgian and Armenian Orthodox Churches). In other words, from the fifth to the seventh century CE, there existed an autocephalous church within the OO communion.

Within the Armenian Orthodox Church, as a result of the vicissitudes of history, the Catholicate at Cilicia (since 1293; autocephalous), and the Patriarchates of Constantinople (autonomous, since 1461) and Jerusalem (autonomous, since the 13th century) are all entities with temporal control and separate synod having spiritual association with the mother see of Ejmiadzin. The Catholicate at Cilicia, it should be noted, enjoys all the rights and privileges of Ejmiadzin and confers only spiritual primacy to the latter.

In modern times, both the Ethiopian Orthodox Church (since 1959) and the Eritrean Orthodox Church (since 1994) are examples of autocephalous churches within the Oriental Orthodox commune. I am deliberately refraining from citing the Persian Church formerly based in Tikrit* as an example because it's a contentious subject for our Jacobite brothers.

Conclusion:The concept of autocephalous churches in spiritual association with the mother sees of antiquity (Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, Constantinople, Ejmiadzin**) is traditionally associated with the Byzantine Church. But the Georgian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Eritrean examples, even without mentioning the case of the Persian Catholicate, are enough evidence to prove that the Oriental Orthodox too are comfortable with this concept. Our Jacobite brothers should be willing to give autocephaly a chance before making up their minds. We can create a system that would allow us to be at peace with ourselves, even as we maintain a harmonious and close relationship with the Syriac Church.


* Remember Saddam Hussein al-Tikriti?
**Ejmiadzin can be considered a mother see only in the OO tradition.

Response by Very Rev. Kuriakose Moolayil, CorEpiscopa:

The Myth of Autocephaly in OO Churches

Georgy in his second posting is trying to explain that Autocephaly is also the trait of the OO churches not only that of the EO churches as is often thought of. He first explains the example of the Georgian Church becoming autocephalous and then goes on to the Cilician Catholicate of the Armenian Church. Let us see the details.

The Georgian Church's example of autocephaly is comparatively a very new argument and I have never before read anything about such an incident. I searched the Britannica article as well as other related articles by Google search. The reference to the Patriarch Peter Fuller in this connection is seen in one article. All others say about the 'Patriarch of Antioch' and the Byzantine Emperors. So also they vehemently hold that they upheld the faith of the 'Nicene and Chalcedonean' synods. This is very affirmative to their Christological stand point. The allegiance they held with Antioch might have been with the Chalcedonean Patriarch of Antioch. Those period in History was also not very congenial to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch. To me, it needs more reading and references to conclude that it was the Orthodox Patriarch that gave autocephaly to the Georgian Church. I have also read reference in their official sites that the Georgian Church got autocephaly from the Byzantine Church itself. The dates given there are all post chalcedonean era and the support from the Emperor itself shows it was not from the Orthodox lineage. Absence of reference to this church during the vicissitudes the Syrian (Orthodox Church) church faced during the times of Jacob Burdono is also another indicator to this church's Christological position. Anyhow this incident lost all its historical value and precedence when this Church undoubtedly embraced all the traits of a Byzantine church in its Christology and ecclesiology. Even if Patriarch Peter Fuller had any role here he is sure to have given a Catholicate like that was established in the East. But with the imperial support and Byzantine ecclesiology they switched into an autocephalous Church in the model of Constantinople and Jerusalem Chalcedonean Patriarchates.

The Armenian Cilician issue also proves otherwise. It was an establishment at a time of severe vicissitude and unapproachability to the mother see that led to an establishment of a Catholicate in Cilicia. It was never considered a rival establishment nor a 'national, ethnic, autocephalous' post with claims of freedom and independence. There had been issues only after the restoration of freedom in Armenia. Then the Ejmiadzin leadership was against this Catholicate continuing in Cilicia. They wanted to abolish this Catholicate and wanted all the Armenians to be under Ejmiadzin. They were not even willing to co operate in the installation of a new Catholicose in Cilicia in 1950s. Then they had only two bishops to lead the installation in Cilicia. It was then the Syrian Bishop of Beirut (later H.H.Yacoob 111) who co operated with them. If I remember rightly it was with this Ejmiadzin leadership that the MOC sided with. That means the MOC was against this establishment of a Cilician Catholicate. Now all the scenes changed and the two Catholicosates are in union and they never claim autocephaly. They consider each other as part and parcel.

The Honorary post at Jerusalem is nothing other a post like that of the Jerusalem Patriarch in the SOC. The Metropolitan of Jerusalem had an honorary title as Patriarch. Like this the Armenian bishop of Jerusalem had this honor. They are nothing connected with autocephaly and independence. There is no 'national, ethnic, cultural or antique' relevance that justifies to a claim that Georgie raises for Malankara Church.

I have discussed the Ethiopian model earlier. It was nothing other than the imperial influence of Hailee Salasee that led to the separation of them from the Coptic Church. It was the 'imperial' spirit more than the 'national' spirit. I have discussed the aftermath of the Eritrean independence upon the Churches there too. This incident proves otherwise to the justification of independent churches based on nationalities. The geographical boundaries will vary in course of time. But the boundless state of church should encompass all territorial and other limits.

The autonomy of dioceses and synodal entities in the Armenian church and the SOC are all equal. Just as Georgie points out the autonomy of the synodal churches in Cilicia and autonomy of Jerusalem Metropolitanate is very well practiced in SOC. But Georgie considers it as 'divide and rule'. The Catholicate in the SOC is a synodal entity and it at all times enjoyed the above type of autonomy. At least the 1964-70 period is known to all the leaders of IOC. We also are for limited autonomy of the Metropolitanate. It is also allowed with juridical constitutional autonomy to certain dioceses like Knanaya and Honovar Mission. Here the problem is not with the system but with the perspectives. When a system is seen in another sister church it will become a model, but when the same system is seen in a 'rival' church it is seen as a system that 'divides'!

My plea to Georgie and his supporters are to carry these ideals of this autonomy down to the parish churches.

Next: Myth 3: The demand for co-equal status between the Catholicos and the Patriarch cannot be entertained because it is an exclusively Byzantine concept.

Previous: Myth 1: The church is universal. Therefore, to stress on one's national heritage is unchristian

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