Canonical territory

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A canonical territory is a geographical area seen as belonging to a particular patriarchate or autocephalous Church as its own. The concept is found both in the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches, and is mentioned extensively in the Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches.[a]

Historical background[edit]

Canons of the Apostles[edit]

Bishop Hilarion Alfeyev, of the Russian Orthodox Church, asserts that

[t]he model of church organization that was formed during the first three centuries of Christianity was based on the principle of "one city-one bishop-one Church", which foresaw the assignment of a certain ecclesiastical territory to one concrete bishop." In accordance with this principle, the "Canons of the Apostles" and other canonical decrees of the ancient Church point to the inadmissibility of violating the boundaries of ecclesiastical territories by bishops or clergy.[1]

The Canons [1] prescribe that:

  1. the bishop should not leave his diocese and go over to another without authorization (can. 14);
  2. the bishop may not ordain outside the boundaries of his diocese (can. 35);
  3. when transferring to another city, excommunicated clergymen or laymen cannot be accepted into communion by another bishop (can. 12);
  4. clergymen who go over to another diocese without the consent of their bishop are deprived of the right to serve (can. 15);
  5. prohibition of serving or excommunication of a clergyman imposed by one bishop cannot by removed by another bishop (can. 16, 32).

"In defining the boundaries of ecclesiastical territories, the Fathers of the ancient undivided Church took into account civil territorial divisions established by secular authorities," according to Alfeyev, "[a]lthough the principle of having ecclesiastical territories correspond to civil ones was accepted as a guiding principle in the ancient Church, it was never absolutized or viewed as having no alternatives." Alfeyev cites the conflict between two bishops, Basil of Caesarea and Anthimus of Tyana, as an example.[1]

Council of Ephesus[edit]

The Churches that accepted the teaching of the 431 Council of Ephesus (which condemned the views of Nestorius) classified as heretics those who rejected the Council's teaching. Those who accepted it lived mostly in the Roman Empire and classified themselves as orthodox; they considered the others, who lived mainly under Persian rule, as Nestorian heretics. These had a period of great expansion in Asia. Monuments of their presence still exist in China. Now they are relatively few in numbers and are divided into three Churches, of which the Chaldaean Church, which is in communion with Rome, is the most numerous, while the others have recently split between the Assyrian Church of the East and the Ancient Church of the East.

Council of Chalcedon[edit]

In the middle of the 5th century, a number of Eastern Churches rejected the Council of Chalcedon of 451 thus creating a schism which led to the rise of "parallel hierarchies". Those who accepted the 451 Council of Chalcedon similarly classified those who rejected it as Monophysite heretics. The Churches that refused to accept the Council considered instead that it was they who were orthodox. The six present-day Churches that continue their tradition reject the description Monophysite, preferring instead Miaphysite. They are often called, in English, Oriental Orthodox Churches, to distinguish them from the Eastern Orthodox Churches. These churches are also referred to as pre-Chalcedonian or, now more rarely, as non-Chalcedonian or anti-Chalcedonian.

East–West Schism[edit]

The East–West Schism came about in a context of cultural differences between the Greek-speaking East and the Latin-speaking West and of rivalry between the Churches in Rome, which claimed a primacy not merely of honour but also of authority, and in Constantinople, which claimed parity with that in Rome.[2] The rivalry and lack of comprehension gave rise to controversies, some of which appear already in the acts of the Quinisext Council of 692. At the Council of Florence (1431–1445), these controversies about Western theological elaborations and usages were identified as, chiefly, the insertion of "Filioque" in the Nicene Creed, the use of unleavened bread for the Eucharist, purgatory, and the authority of the Pope.[b] The schism is conventionally dated to 1054, when the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Papal Legate Humbert of Mourmoutiers issued mutual excommunications that have since been revoked. In spite of that event, both Churches continued for many years to maintain friendly relations and seemed to be unaware of any formal or final rupture.[4] However, estrangement continued to grow.


The sack of Constantinople in 1204 by the participants in the Fourth Crusade was seen by the Eastern Orthodox as the West's ultimate outrage. By then, each side considered that the other no longer belonged to the Church that was orthodox and catholic.


Over the course of centuries, the Catholic Church worked to expand into the Orthodox East and to bring the Orthodox under the authority of the Bishop of Rome. The Catholic Church effected a number of unions such as Lyons (1274), Florence (1439), Brest (1596), Uzhgorod (1646), Mukachevo (1733), as well as the unions in the Orthodox Near East: the Armenian, Coptic, Syro-Jacobite, Syro-Chaldean etc.

The Eastern Catholic Churches are autonomous, self-governing (in Latin, sui iuris) particular Churches in full communion with the Bishop of Rome—the pope. They preserve some of the centuries-old liturgical, devotional, and theological traditions of the various Eastern Christian Churches with which they were once associated.

Present situation[edit]

Canonical territories of autocephalous and autonomous Orthodox jurisdictions.

The issue of canonical territory has proven to be a significant point of dispute for the Moscow Patriarchate, which opposes on the one hand the Constantinople Patriarch's influence in Ukraine, and on the other the perceived Roman Catholic influence within Russia itself.[5]

Russian Orthodox Church[edit]

The meaning of canonical territory in the context of the Russian Orthodox Church "is not self-evident, and no detailed explanation of it is given in any official document."[6](p21) The Russian Orthodox Church defines the geographic extent of its canonical territory as including all the territory within China, Japan, and the post-Soviet states excluding Armenia and Georgia.[6](p21)[7][c] It statutes define its sphere of jurisdiction as including "also Orthodox Christians living in other countries" outside of its canonical territory.[7][d] The geographic extent of the canonical territory defined by the Russian Orthodox Church is disputed by other Orthodox Churches.[9][10]

Eastern Catholic Churches[edit]

In the Eastern Catholic Churches that have the rank of patriarchate, the patriarchal synod elects bishops for the patriarchate's canonical territory. Bishops who head eparchies situated outside that territory are appointed by the Pope.[11] Canonical territories of some Eastern Catholic Churches, as in the case of the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church and the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, may overlap geographically, but are distinct with regard to the faithful involved.

Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church[edit]

Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church[edit]


In diaspora countries such as France and the United States, problems with canonical territory have often given rise to the problem of phyletism, which is defined as the principle of nationalities applied in the ecclesiastical domain and the confusion between Church and nation.


  1. ^ Examples of CCEO canons that speak of the canonical territory of an autonomous Church include 57, 78, 86, 102, 132, 133, 138-140, 143, 146-150, ...
  2. ^ "In the third sitting of the Council, Julian, after mutual congratulations, showed that the principal points of dispute between the Greeks and Latins were in the doctrine (a) on the procession of the Holy Ghost, (b) on azymes in the Eucharist, (c) on purgatory, and (d) on the Papal supremacy"[3]
  3. ^ As of 2013 the Russian Orthodox Church statutes list its canonical territory as within the states of Azerbaijan, Belarus, China, Estonia, Japan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Moldova, Russian Federation, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan.[7]
  4. ^ As of 2015 the Russian language typical edition includes the phrase voluntarily joining ("на добровольно входящих в") which the English edition phrase, "also Orthodox Christians living in other countries," does not include.[7][8]


  1. ^ a b c Alfeyev, Hilarion (2006-01-27). "The canonical territories of the local Orthodox churches – part I". Bonita Springs, FL: Johannes Jacobse. Archived from the original on 2007-09-30. Retrieved 2015-10-12.
  2. ^ Theodore Balsamon on the Powers of the Patriarch of Constantinople Archived September 25, 2014, at the Wayback Machine
  3. ^ Barnes, Patrick (ed.). "The Orthodox Response to the Latin Doctrine of Purgatory". Patrick Barnes. One or more of the preceding sentences incorporates text from a work now in the public domain: Ostroumov, Ivan N. (1861). "Opening of the council in Ferrara; private disputes on purgatory". In Neale, John M (ed.). The history of the Council of Florence. Translated by Vasiliĭ Popov. London: J. Masters. p. 47. OCLC 794347635.
  4. ^ Milton V. Anastos, Constantinople and Rome Archived March 3, 2016, at the Wayback Machine
  5. ^ "Russian canonical territory". Saint Ambrose Foundation. Archived from the original on 2013-10-02.  This tertiary source reuses information from other sources but does not name them.
  6. ^ a b Wasmuth, Jennifer (2014). "Russian Orthodoxy between state and nation". In Krawchuk, Andrii; Bremer, Thomas (eds.). Eastern Orthodox encounters of identity and otherness: values, self-reflection, dialogue. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 9781137382849.
  7. ^ a b c d Russian Orthodox Church (2013). "Statute of the Russian Orthodox Church adopted by the Bishops' Council in 2000, amended by the Bishops' Council in 2008 and 2011 and adopted as amended by the Bishops' Council in 2013". Moscow: Russian Orthodox Church. Department for External Church Relations. §I ¶3. Archived from the original on 2015-06-27. Retrieved 2015-10-12.
  8. ^ Русская Православная Церковь (2013). "Устав Русской Православной Церкви принят на Архиерейском Соборе 2000 г. определениями Архиерейских Соборов 2008 и 2011 гг. В текст устава был внесен ряд поправок. Архиерейский Собор 2013 г. Принял исправленную и дополненную редакцию устава". (in Russian). Москва: Русская Православная Церковь. Отдел внешних церковных связей. §I ¶3. Archived from the original on 2015-06-26. Retrieved 2015-10-12.
  9. ^ Kalistchuk, Yurij (2010-09-24). "To the clergy and faithful of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada on the presence of the Holy Relics of Great Knyaz' Volodymyr of Kyiv in Canada" (PDF). Winnipeg: Ukrainian Orthodox Church of Canada. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2015-10-12. Retrieved 2015-10-12.
  10. ^ Buciora, Jaroslaw (2011-04-04). "The Moscow Patriarchate's utopian vision of Russian civilization". Lviv, UA: Religious Information Service of Ukraine. Archived from the original on 2011-08-21. Retrieved 2015-10-12.
  11. ^ Code of Canons of the Eastern Churches, canon 181 Archived March 4, 2016, at the Wayback Machine