Organization of the Eastern Orthodox Church

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The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, is a communion comprising the seventeen separate autocephalous (self-governing) hierarchical churches that recognise each other as canonical (regular) Eastern Orthodox Christian churches.[1][2][3][4]

Each constituent church is self-governing;[2] its highest-ranking bishop called the primate (a patriarch, a metropolitan or an archbishop) reports to no higher earthly authority. Each regional church is composed of constituent eparchies (or dioceses) ruled by bishops. Some autocephalous churches have given an eparchy or group of eparchies varying degrees of autonomy (limited self-government). Such autonomous churches maintain varying levels of dependence on their mother church, usually defined in a tomos or other document of autonomy. In many cases, autonomous churches are almost completely self-governing, with the mother church retaining only the right to appoint the highest-ranking bishop (often an archbishop or metropolitan) of the autonomous church.[5]

Normal governance is enacted through a synod of bishops within each church.[6]

Church governance[edit]

The Eastern Orthodox Church is decentralised, having no central authority, earthly head or a single bishop in a leadership role. Thus, the Eastern Orthodox use a synodical system canonically, which is significantly different from the hierarchical organisation of the Catholic Church that follows the doctrine of papal supremacy.[6] References to the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople as a sole authoritative leader are an erroneous interpretation of his title “first among equals".[7][8] His title is of honor rather than authority and in fact the Ecumenical Patriarch has no real authority over churches other than the Constantinopolitan.[9] His unique role often sees the Ecumenical Patriarch referred to as the "spiritual leader" of the Eastern Orthodox Church in some sources.[10][11]

The autocephalous churches are normally in full communion with each other, so any priest of any of those churches may lawfully minister to any member of any of them, and no member of any is excluded from any form of worship in any of the others, including reception of the Eucharist. However, there have been varying instances in the history of the Eastern Orthodox Church where communion has been broken between member churches, particularly over autocephaly issues and ecumenism with the Roman Catholic Church.[12][13][14][15]

In the early Middle Ages, the early Christian church was ruled by five patriarchs as the state church of Rome: the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, collectively referred to as the Pentarchy. Each patriarch had jurisdiction over bishops in a specified geographic region. This continued until 927, when the Bulgarian Patriarchate became the first newly promoted patriarchate to join the original five.[16]

The Patriarch of Rome was "first in place of honor" among the five patriarchs. Disagreement about the limits of his authority was one of the causes of the Great Schism, conventionally dated to the year 1054, which split the state-recognised Church into the Catholic Church in the West, headed by the Bishop of Rome, and the Orthodox Church, led by the four eastern patriarchs (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch and Alexandria). After the schism, this honorary primacy shifted to the Patriarch of Constantinople, who had previously been accorded second-place rank at the First Council of Constantinople.

In the 5th century, Oriental Orthodoxy separated from Chalcedonian Christianity (and is therefore separate from both the Eastern Orthodox and Catholic Church), well before the 11th century Great Schism. It should not be confused with Eastern Orthodoxy.


Canonical territories of the main autocephalous and autonomous Eastern Orthodox jurisdictions as of 2020

Autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches[edit]

Timeline showing the history of the main autocephalous Eastern Orthodox Churches, from an Eastern Orthodox point of view, up to 2021

Ranked in order of seniority, with the year of independence (autocephaly) given in parentheses, where applicable.[17][18] There are a total of 17 autocephalous Eastern Orthodox churches which are recognised at varying levels among the communion of the Eastern Orthodox Church.

Four ancient patriarchates[edit]

  1. Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (independence in 330 AD, elevated to the rank of autocephalous Patriarchate in 381)
  2. Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria
  3. Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch
  4. Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem (independence in 451 AD, elevated to the rank of autocephalous Patriarchate in 451)

Those four ancient Eastern Orthodox Patriarchates are of the five episcopal sees forming the historical Pentarchy, the fifth one being the See of Rome. Those four Eastern Orthodox patriarchates remained in communion with each other after the 1054 schism with Rome. Of note, the title of "Patriarch" was created in 531 by Justinian.[19]

Junior patriarchates[edit]

  1. Bulgarian Orthodox Church (870, Patriarchate since 918/919, recognised by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in 927)[20]
  2. Georgian Orthodox Church (Patriarchate since 1010)
  3. Serbian Orthodox Church (1219, Patriarchate since 1346)
  4. Russian Orthodox Church (1448, recognised in 1589)[21][a]
  5. Romanian Orthodox Church (1872, recognised in 1885, Patriarchate since 1925)

Autocephalous archbishoprics[edit]


  1. Church of Cyprus (recognised in 431)
  2. Church of Greece (1833, recognised in 1850)[22]
  3. Albanian Orthodox Church (1922, recognised in 1937)
  4. Macedonian Orthodox Church (1967, recognised in 2022)

Autocephalous metropolises[edit]


  1. Polish Orthodox Church (1924)[c]
  2. Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia (1951)[d]
  3. Orthodox Church in America (1970, not recognised by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, but recognised by the Russian Orthodox Church and 5 other churches)[e]
  4. Orthodox Church of Ukraine (autocephaly from 15 December 2018, recognised by the Ecumenical Patriarchate on 5 January 2019 and 3 other churches)[f]

The four ancient patriarchates are the most senior, followed by the five junior patriarchates. Autocephalous archbishoprics follow the patriarchates in seniority, with the Church of Cyprus being the only ancient one (AD 431). In the diptychs of the Russian Orthodox Church and some of its daughter churches (e.g., the Orthodox Church in America), the ranking of the five junior patriarchal churches is different. Following the Russian Church in rank is Georgian, followed by Serbian, Romanian, and then Bulgarian Church. The ranking of the archbishoprics is the same.

Autonomous Eastern Orthodox churches[edit]

Organization of Orthodox Church
Diagram with the organization of the Eastern Orthodox Church as of 2020
under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
under the Greek Orthodox Church of Antioch
under the Greek Orthodox Church of Jerusalem
under the Russian Orthodox Church
under the Romanian Orthodox Church

Semi-autonomous churches[edit]

under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
under the Russian Orthodox Church

Limited self-government (not autonomy)[edit]

under the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
under the Russian Orthodox Church
under the Romanian Orthodox Church

Unrecognised churches[edit]

Timeline of the main unrecognised and True Orthodox churches which have come out of the Serbian Orthodox Church, until 2021
Timeline of the main unrecognised and True Orthodox churches which have come out of the Russian Orthodox Church, until 2021

True Orthodox[edit]

True Orthodox Christians are groups of traditionalist Eastern Orthodox churches which have severed communion since the 1920s with the mainstream Eastern Orthodox churches for various reasons, such as calendar reform, the involvement of mainstream Eastern Orthodox in ecumenism, or the refusal to submit to the authority of mainstream Eastern Orthodox Church. The True Orthodox Church in the Soviet Union was also called the Catacomb Church; the True Orthodox in Romania, Bulgaria, Greece and Cyprus are also called Old Calendarists.[24]

These groups refrain from concelebration of the Divine Liturgy with the mainstream Eastern Orthodox, while maintaining that they remain fully within the canonical boundaries of the Church: i.e., professing Eastern Orthodox belief, retaining legitimate apostolic succession, and existing in communities with historical continuity.

The churches which follow True Orthodoxy are:

Old Believers[edit]

Old Believers are divided into various churches which do not recognize each others, nor the mainstream Eastern Orthodox Church.

Churches that are not recognised despite wanting to[edit]

The following churches recognize all other mainstream Eastern Orthodox churches, but are not recognised by any of them due to various disputes:

Churches that are neither recognised nor fully Eastern Orthodox[edit]

The following churches use the term "Orthodox" in their name and carries belief or the traditions of Eastern Orthodox church, but blend beliefs and traditions from other denominations outside of Eastern Orthodoxy:

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Autonomy not universally recognised.
  1. ^ Due to the 2018 Moscow–Constantinople schism, the Russian Orthodox Church has cut ties with the Ecumenical Patriarchate along with several primates of other Churches on this list. The nature of their current relationship is uncertain
  2. ^ a b In the E. Orthodox Churches of Greek tradition, the ranks are, from the lowest to the highest, as follows: bishop, metropolitan, archbishop, patriarch. In contrast, in the other E. Orthodox Churches, the ranks are, from the lowest to the highest, as follows: bishop, archbishop, metropolitan, patriarch. Thus, an archbishop from an E. Orthodox Church of Greek tradition is equivalent to a metropolitan in the other E. Orthodox Churches.
  3. ^ The primate of the Polish Orthodox Church is referred to as Archbishop of Warsaw and Metropolitan of All Poland, but the Polish Orthodox Church is officially a Metropolis[23]
  4. ^ The primate of the Czech and Slovak Orthodox Church is referred to as Archbishop of Prešov and Slovakia, Metropolitan of the Czech Lands and Slovakia, but the Czech and Slovak Orthodox Church is officially a Metropolis
  5. ^ See Orthodox Church in America#Recognition of autocephaly
  6. ^ See Orthodox Church of Ukraine#Reactions from Eastern Orthodox churches
  7. ^ As of 27 May 2022, the UOC-MP has formally declared its full autonomy and independence from the Russian Orthodox Church, but remains in full communion with the Moscow Patriarchate, as well as the Churches of Antioch, Jerusalem, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Georgia, Albania, Poland, Czech Lands and Slovakia, and the OCA
  8. ^ Was previously an Oriental Orthodox archdiocese by the Indian Orthodox Church and later an independent Oriental Orthodox Church; the Church is currently an autonomous True Orthodox Church under the Avlona Synod since 2016
  9. ^ The UOC-KP merged into the Orthodox Church of Ukraine. However, the UOC-KP was re-established after a conflict between Patriarch Filaret and the primate of the OCU Metropolitan Epiphanius


  1. ^ "Explainer: The 'Holy And Great Council' Of Orthodox Churches". RadioFreeEurope/RadioLiberty. Retrieved 2022-02-28. It is -- or should be -- a synod of bishops of all the 14 recognized autocephalous churches of Eastern Orthodox Christianity. Unlike the Catholic Church, which has a single, undisputed leader in the pope, the Orthodox Christians are divided into self-governing provinces, each with its own leadership. The council was meant to be the first meeting of all Orthodox leaders since 787, when the last of the seven ecumenical councils recognized by the heads of both the Eastern and Western Christian church was held in Nicaea (present-day Iznik in northwestern Turkey).
  2. ^ a b "Why church conflict in Ukraine reflects historic Russian-Ukrainian tensions". Religion News Service. 2022-02-09. Retrieved 2022-02-28. Unlike the Catholic Church, which has a single supreme spiritual leader in the pope, the worldwide Orthodox Church is divided into 14 universally recognized, independent, autocephalous or self-headed churches. Each autocephalous church has its own head, or kephale in Greek. Every autocephalous church holds to the same faith as its sister churches. Most autocephalies are national churches, such as the Russian, Romanian and Greek Orthodox churches. Now, the Orthodox Church of Ukraine is claiming its place among the other autocephalous churches.
  3. ^ "BBC - Religions - Christianity: Eastern Orthodox Church". BBC. Retrieved 2022-02-28. The nominal head of the Eastern Orthodox Churches is the Patriarch of Constantinople. However, he is only first among equals and has no real authority over Churches other than his own. There are 15 'autocephalous Churches', listed in order of precedence.
  4. ^ "Patriarchates and Autocephalous Churches". Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  5. ^ "Autocephalous / Autonomous - Questions & Answers". Orthodox Church in America. Retrieved 2022-02-28. An “autocephalous” Church is completely self-governing. It elects its own primate and has the right to consecrate its own Holy Chrism, among other prerogatives unique to autocephalous Churches. [The term “autocephalous” literally means “self-heading.”] An “autonomous” Church is self-governing to a certain degree in its internal matters, but its head is appointed or confirmed by the autocephalous Church which nurtures it. An autonomous Church also receives its Holy Chrism from its “Mother Church.”
  6. ^ a b "The Synodal Structure of the Orthodox Church". Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  7. ^ Clark, Katherine (2009). Orthodox Church - Simple Guides (v3.1 ed.). London: Bravo Ltd. ISBN 978-1-85733-640-5. Retrieved 1 August 2015.
  8. ^ "Autocephaly (6 of 20) - Questions & Answers". Orthodox Church in America. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  9. ^ "Eastern Orthodoxy". Britannica. Retrieved 26 July 2015.
  10. ^ "His All-Holiness Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew". Office of the President. Retrieved 2022-02-28. Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew, the spiritual leader of 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, was elected the 270th archbishop of Constantinople and ecumenical patriarch in October 1991. His tenure has been highlighted by ecumenical and interreligious dialogue — including formal visits with Roman Catholic, Orthodox, other Christian, Jewish and Muslim leaders — as well as efforts to promote religious freedom, human rights and protection of the environment.
  11. ^ Lourgos, Angie Leventis. "'This made my life complete.' Hundreds greet Orthodox Christian patriarch at South Bend church, part of the spiritual leader's historic visit to the US". Chicago Tribune. Retrieved 2022-02-28. Bartholomew — the spiritual leader of some 300 million Eastern Orthodox Christians internationally — presided over a service at St. Andrew Greek Orthodox Church in South Bend, Indiana, on Thursday, one of the quieter and more intimate moments during the patriarch’s historic 12-day visit to the United States.
  12. ^ "The Orthodox Schism in the Shadow of Empire". Center for Strategic and International Studies. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  13. ^ "Ecumenical Council of Florence (1438-1445)". EWTN Global Catholic Television Network. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  14. ^ "Moscow patriarchate against the union of Rome and Constantinople". Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  15. ^ Burton, Tara Isabella (2018-10-17). "The Eastern Orthodox Churches may split. It's the biggest crisis for these churches in centuries". Vox. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  16. ^ "The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria". CNEWA. Retrieved 2022-02-28. In 927 Constantinople recognized the king as Emperor of the Bulgarians and the Archbishop of Preslav as their Patriarch.
  17. ^ Serbian Orthodox Church official site: Помесне Православне Цркве (Autocephalous Orthodox churches)
  18. ^ "Orthodox World Churches". Orthodox Church in America. Retrieved 2022-02-28.
  19. ^ "L'idea di pentarchia nella cristianità".
  20. ^ Kiminas, Demetrius (2009-03-01). The Ecumenical Patriarchate. Wildside Press LLC. p. 15. ISBN 978-1-4344-5876-6.
  21. ^ Kiminas, Demetrius (2009-03-01). The Ecumenical Patriarchate. Wildside Press LLC. p. 19. ISBN 978-1-4344-5876-6.
  22. ^ "Church of Greece". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2021-03-27.
  23. ^ "ORTHODOX | METROPOLIA". Retrieved 2019-01-05.
  24. ^ Parry, Ken; Melling, David J.; Brady, Dimitri; Griffith, Sidney H.; Healey, John F., eds. (2017-09-01) [1999]. The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity. Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd. pp. 170, 498–9. doi:10.1002/9781405166584. ISBN 978-1-4051-6658-4.

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