The Role of Metropolitan and Its Relationship within the Episcopate: A Reappraisal

By: George C. Michalopulos

Originally published on the American Orthodox Institute website.

September 12, 2009

ABSTRACT: Starting in the closing days of the Byzantine Empire, the office of the Metropolitan underwent significant changes that affect the Church even today. Metropolitans traditionally wielded great influence and authority, especially during the first Christian millennium. They were elected by other bishops and presided in a conciliar model of governance. They were primates of ecclesiastical provinces that corresponded to political provinces and/or capitals. In our day, almost all the Orthodox churches around the world roughly follow this model except for the churches of the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Church of Greece. It is the contention of this writer that much of the administrative disunity in North America can be traced to the corruption of the early model by the Ecumenical Patriarch and the Church of Greece, and that the continuing misuse of the office and title derails further attempts at unity in the United States.


The Orthodox Church in the United States is in considerable disarray. Unlike other Orthodox nations, disunity in America is the normal order of things as evidenced by the existence of at least twenty different Orthodox jurisdictions, most of them based on ethnicity and foreign immigration patterns.

Why the disunity continues to exist can be reduced to three main causes: 1) extreme parochialism; 2) nationalism and attendant xenophobia; and 3) willful ignorance of proper ecclesiastical order.1 This essay is primarily concerned with the third point, especially how the title of Metropolitan has been shorn from its traditional understanding and led to considerable confusion in the American Orthodox experience.

The confusion is most apparent in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (GOA). In the late 1990s, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew elevated all of the bishops of the former Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America to the status of metropolitan. At the time, the explanation was offered that the GOA had matured to the point where the Church was ready to elevate bishops to metropolitans. What was unclear to all but a few observers at the time was that the elevations did in fact establish the bishops as archbishops, that is, accountable no longer to the Archbishop in New York but to the Ecumenical Patriarch in Constantinople.

Along with the elevation, Canada, Central America, and South America were established as separate metropolises and no longer under the purview of the Archbishop of the United States. Elevating the former bishops of these areas to metropolitans follows sound logic: the bishops were now archbishops of newly minted episcopal sees. Less clear however, is why the bishops of American cities such as Chicago, Boston, etc., should enjoy this same privilege, especially since they were not different political entities or ecclesiastical provinces.

This result is almost comical. The new metropolitans, who were previous known by the cities that they served ("the Bishop of Boston," The Bishop of Chicago," etc.), were now titled the Metropolitan of this or that defunct episcopal see. For good measure, the curious phrase "presiding hierarch"2 was added, perhaps to address the puzzled looks that resulted.

How did we get to this impasse? Why are the GOA Metropolitans named for non-existent sees when in fact serving metropolises in America? To answer this question, we must examine the history of the title and the nature of the episcopacy of earlier times.

The Title of Metropolitan: Etymology, Origins, and its Role in the Early Church
Historical Background of the Episcopal Office

We can tell from the earliest Church documents,3 that by the time the sub-apostolic age commenced (ca AD 66), all of the churches that had been founded by Apostles were led by "overseers" (Greek: episkopos). By process of transliteration, this word became vescovo (Latin), bischoff (German), busceop (Saxon), and then finally bishop in our own language.

In the early days of Christianity, each church had its own bishop who functioned as the presiding officer. They performed many of the same tasks we attribute to presbyters (priests) today as well as the responsibilities and authority bishops held today. Thus, in addition to presiding at the Eucharist, they had the authority (charism) to ordain other ecclesiastical officers and bore the final responsibility to teach, preach, administer alms, and resolve disputes. They received their office by consecration from other bishops,4 who in turn received it from earlier bishops, and so on going back to the Apostles.

In the late first and second centuries, most cities had only one church, hence the axiomatic formula of "one church, one bishop." Even churches that had more than one apostolic tradition (such as Rome) strictly followed this principle. As the Church grew however, it became apparent that more than one house of worship was necessary especially in the larger cities. Not wanting to introduce more than one bishop in any one city, the formula was modified to "one city, one bishop."

In most lands the ancient Christian practice of "one city, one bishop," still applies. There is only one bishop of Corinth, one archbishop of Milan, and one patriarch of Venice, and so forth. The breakdown occurs in pluralistic countries that have more than one Christian confession. Take the title "Archbishop of Boston," for example. Does it mean the Roman Catholic cardinal, the Orthodox metropolitan, or the Episcopal bishop?

Sometimes efforts are made to make the distinctions more comprehensible. Take London, for example. The Anglican Archbishop is the "Archbishop of Canterbury," the Roman Catholic Archbishop is the "Archbishop of Westminster," and the head of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese is the "Archbishop of Thyateria." In this way the canonical boundaries are at least nominally honored. The letter of the law is followed if not the actual spirit.5

Rise of Metropolises

During the first Christian millennium, the need for distinct diocesan boundaries necessarily fostered collegiality between bishops. More than one bishop was required to consecrate new ones. Certainly the rite itself was an occasion for discussion and confraternity. If nothing else, they simply had to know each other in order to have valid diptychs.6

These meetings could have been called together for any number of reasons, including settling property and boundary disputes, trying moral transgressions, and resolving doctrinal questions. Although the consecration of a bishop required other bishops to travel and meet, it made no sense for normal episcopal councils to take place in small, out-of-the-way burgs. It made more sense for regional bishops to travel to a more centrally located, larger city. In Greek, these regional hubs were known as metropolises.

The term metropolis comes from two Greek words meter and polis, or "mother-city." The bishop of the mother city became known as a metropolites arkhiepiskopos or "metropolitan [arch]bishop." Because he ruled over an established, populous, and no doubt more materially viable church, his status was enhanced in relation to the other bishops, many of whom represented rural areas.

In time, as the right of direct, popular election became attenuated, it became normal in many regions of the empire for the metropolitans to be chosen from the ranks of regional bishops who were part of the greater metropolitan area. In due course the definition of metropolitan also came to mean an archbishop who was elected by suffragan7 bishops.

In almost all cases the term "metropolitan" refers to "the primate of an ecclesiastical province."8 Since the Great Schism of 1054, the different Christian traditions have stuck to this definition consistently. In England during the early Middle Ages, both the Archbishops of Westminster and York were metropolitans; between them they had jurisdiction over at least twenty-five bishops. Upon unification under William the Conqueror, both retained their status as archbishops (albeit with the Archbishop of Canterbury enjoying primatial status). With the expansion of Anglicanism outside the border of England, the primates of the various provinces were each given metropolitan rank.

In the Roman Catholic tradition this tradition has been somewhat relaxed; a metropolitan is simply an archbishop who has authority over one or more suffragan sees. The practice in the Orthodox Church is roughly parallel to what is found in Anglicanism, that is, the metropolitan is the primate of an ecclesiastical province (at least in the ideal). In all of the cases above, the distinctions are rather too fine to make any significant difference.

Once Constantine legalized Christianity in AD 313, the administrative functions of the metropolitan archbishops became more established. For example, the Bishop of Jerusalem, arguably the most senior of all bishops (at least chronologically speaking) answered administratively to the metropolitan of Caeserea. The reasons for this were apparent to anybody living in the Roman world at that time: Caeserea was a bustling port on the Mediterranean whereas Jerusalem was little more than an out-of-the-way hamlet that had been devastated by the Roman legions as a result of the first and second Jewish wars (AD 66/135).

Likewise the Bishop of Byzantium in its earliest days was a suffragan of the Metropolitan of Heraclea, which was a much more substantial city in Thrace9 and so on. Socio-political considerations were central in deciding which diocese would become the metropolis of any given ecclesiastical province, and usually the largest city in any given area was the logical choice.

Other factors came into play as well. The more settled Mediterranean littoral had many larger cities while in the largely pagan non-Roman world, the newly established metropolitans sees, such as Kiev, Canterbury, Paris, York, were not necessarily the largest cities but the capitals of kings and/or tribal chieftains who had converted to Christianity. Paradoxically, because of their pagan surroundings, the metropolitans of these archdioceses enjoyed a prestige that was not available to the plentiful metropolitans of the Roman world.10

Even after the unification of England in 1066 for instance, the title and functions of the metropolitans of York and Canterbury remained meaning that there were only two archbishops in that one country. Likewise with the rise of Moscow as the center of pre-Romanov Russia: the metropolitan of Kiev remained the premier ecclesiarch of the Russian lands even when he was removed to the city of Vladimir in 1316 (and later to Moscow). During the conquest of the New World by Spain, the bishops of Lima and Mexico City were given metropolitan status, with all subsequently formed dioceses reporting to them.

Bishops as Court Functionaries: Titular Bishops and Ecclesiastical Bureaucrats

Why then in the Byzantine Empire do we find the opposite? Why do seventy-seven metropolitans exist in modern Greece, for example?

Many reasons can be offered but geographical considerations top the list. The Balkan Peninsula possesses some of the roughest terrain in the world making communication difficult. The hundreds of islands of the Aegean archipelago are isolated from their nearest neighbors. An island such as Crete, which has dozens of cities and many bishops, could easily accommodate a senior archbishop. Travel to Athens or Rome11 could be difficult and dangerous.

Political considerations also come into play. Athens and Thessalonica were capitals of separate Roman and later, Byzantine provinces. In addition, the despots of Trebizond, Epirus, and Nicaea, who ruled the remnants of Byzantium following the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade in 1204, viewed themselves as autonomous emperors-in-exile and believed the churches in their territories should be autonomous as well. It made no sense for the churches within their mini-empires to be headed by archbishops who answered to the Latin patriarchs of Constantinople (who were neither Greek nor Orthodox).

We must remember that in the Christian world of the first millennium there was one united Roman Empire. Although its capital was now in the East, its people considered themselves as Romans whether they spoke Latin or not. Hence, the idea of a "pentarchy" – rule by five patriarchs – must be reconsidered without the biases of the intense nationalism we find in some quarters of modern Orthodoxy today.

A better analogy would be if the United States today had five different patriarchs within its contiguous borders. That is to say a patriarch in Washington, New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Boston. To modern ears this sounds incongruous but this was exactly the situation in the fifth and sixth centuries. Even after the loss of the West in the seventh century, the fiction that Rome was still part of the empire remained. (When Charlemagne was crowned Emperor of the Romans in AD 800 by the pope, great care was taken to assure the Byzantines that Charlemagne was only claiming sovereignty of the empire in the West and not over the entire empire.)

Regardless, if there had been any reticence about the idea of more than one patriarch in one nation, the issue became moot with the loss of Jerusalem and then Antioch to the Muslim caliphate. Alexandria fell in due time as well. The precedent had been set, at least in the abstract: one nation (Rome) at one time had had five patriarchs.12

In this light, it is easy to see how the Byzantines at least could countenance the existence of numerous metropolitan archbishops within their midst. The experience of the Greek-speaking peoples in this regard was significantly different than that of the newly baptized non-Romans who lived outside of the frontiers of the old empire.

Resident Synods

Moreover, Constantinople had its obvious attractions for well-educated bishops and as early as the fourth century many felt its pull. Many were employed in a "resident synod" (endemousa synodos) presided by the Ecumenical Patriarch with membership open to any and all bishops visiting the city. Its purview was the ecclesiastical affairs of the city itself but given its ecumenical makeup, it necessarily took up the affairs of dioceses outside of Constantinople. Its members even had say over the election and deposition of patriarchs.

The administration of the home dioceses of the resident bishops was often left in charge of deputies (called exarches). This enabled the bishops to both justify their absence their flock while representing them in the imperial court. If there was need, they would return to their sees to take up weightier matters that deserved their immediate attention.

Resident synods became common. The sees of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch held them as well and travel took place frequently between them. The same bishop could sit in more than one synod; the only qualification was that he must at least have a deputy in attendance. One of the benefits of the synods was that it allowed problems to be addressed in a pro-active manner. Much of the preliminary groundwork for subsequent ecumenical councils took place in these synods.

The Rise of Titular Bishops

Titular bishops (a bishop who possesses the title but no real diocese) arose with the gradual dissolution of the Byzantine Empire particularly after the Great Schism of 1054. In earlier resident synods, the bishops took their diocesan duties seriously (albeit through a deputy) but the gradual disintegration of the empire often meant the permanent loss of a diocese. Thus, the preoccupation of the bishop-in-residence at the imperial court was redirected towards the court itself rather than the diocese. This happened for example in North Africa, which was lost to the Roman Empire and Christendom after the rise of Islam.

Before passing too hasty of a judgment on this phenomenon, it must be remembered that the time in question (roughly the 8th through the 11th centuries) was one of unremitting warfare. Norman conquests in the West, Bulgar and Russian invasions from the North, and Islamic incursions from the East and South took their toll on the Byzantine state. Bishops often went into exile. The removal of a bishop under such circumstances as well as the loss of the entire diocesan structure could be catastrophic in the life of a diocese and sometimes stop it altogether. Without pastors and other functionaries, Christian life and worship oftentimes atrophied.

The emergence of titular bishops, although understandable, proved to be disastrous to the ecclesiology of the Church. John Zizioulis, one of the harshest critics of the system of titular bishops argued that the bishop’s very "…existence, makes no sense apart from his role as the one through whom all divisions…are transcended. His primary function is to make the catholicity of the Church reveal itself in a certain place. For this, he must be existentially related to the community. There is no ministry in the catholic Church that can exist in absoluto13" (emphasis in original). One cannot be a priest without a parish, or a bishop without a diocese.

To the Christian world at the time, the division between Rome and Constantinople was a gradual process not readily discerned. Even when serious doctrinal questions such as the filioque occupied the Church, the idea of a formal and irrevocable schism was never realistically considered. Numerous controversies had happened in the past and the Church had managed to heal. Thus, the accession of Charlemagne did not occasion the mass exodus of Orthodox bishops to Constantinople even though his reforms were viewed with a suspicious eye.14 Even the loss of England to the Latinizing Normans was not viewed in catastrophic terms because most Christians did not forsee a lasting schism taking place.

On the other hand, the loss of Antioch and Jerusalem to the Moslems was considered a stinging defeat, especially when it became obvious that the Romans would not return. The loss was keenly felt throughout the Christian world, not just in Constantinople.15

The growing and permanent presence of foreign bishops residing in Constantinople brought out the worst in the Byzantines. Always a haughty people, the diminishing the Byzantine Empire intensified these regrettable traits. The exaggerated self-importance of the emperors have been catalogued elsewhere,16 and the patriarchs were not far behind.

Ironically, while the empire was losing land, the same could not be said for the Orthodox Church. The loss of the Anatolian plain to the Seljuk Turks in the late thirteenth century, though devastating to the Byzantine state, did not adversely affect the Church. This was because the Muslim Seljuks respected the prerogatives of their Christian subjects. Christians and Jews were subject to higher taxation (the jizzya,), so it was in the Muslim interest to leave the "peoples of the Book" unmolested (at least in the ideal).17

While the Christian prerogatives were respected however, secular power waned to where the Byzantine emperors became outright vassals to the sultans. At one time the situation became so dire that the emperor had to pawn the crown jewels to the Venetians in order to pay tribute.

Metropolitans as Bureaucrats

Although the Byzantine Empire did not fully expire until the Fall of Constantinople, the patriarchs began to fill the political vacuum that resulted from the diminution of the emperor’s prestige. In order to run such a vast church, the normal administrative duties that had been the purview of the imperial court (and usually performed by archdeacons), were brought under patriarchal control.

Beginning with the reign of Patriarch Michael Cerullarius (ca. 1054), five offices – the Grand Economus, Grand Sacellarius, Grand Skevophylax, Grand Chartophylax, and Prefect of the Sacellion – were filled by patriarchal nomination. By the 13thcentury, when the loss of imperial prestige was more acute, the holders of these offices were accorded honors higher than even metropolitans.18 Despite the honorifics however, the officials function as titular bishops, that is, bureaucrats possessing little more than an empty title.

During this period of imperial decline (and perhaps because of it), the sense of an imperial patriarchate grew among the Patriarchs of Constantinople. Although there was nothing controversial about the efforts to maintain the properties, treasures, and monasteries of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, using archbishops for these for tasks that were ordinarily performed by deacons and laymen set an unfortunate precedent.

For the first time in the history of the Eastern Church, metropolitans were reduced to bureaucrats. And unlike the bishops of the earlier resident synods, who were truly independent and could come and go as they pleased, patriarchal metropolitans could be promoted and demoted upon the whim of the patriarch.

Canonical Irregularities and Chaos:The Model Inherited Today
The Rise of the Imperial Patriarchate

After the fall of Constantinople in 1453, the conqueror Mehmed II found himself in an interesting quandary. The 21-year-old ruler fancied himself a new Alexander the Great. Although his reputation as the "Terrible Turk" had spread throughout Europe, he was no savage in the model of Attila. He saw himself as a worthy successor to the Caesars and intended to make the city of Constantine his resplendent capital.19

He thus made an accommodation with the Orthodox Church, even going so far as to view consider himself as her protector. So serious was he about maintaining the Roman trappings of power, that he struck a gold coin with his image and the legend imperator mundi on it (in Latin script no less!). There were even rumors that he considered converting to Christianity.

In the end Mehmed did not convert. The Church however, was handsomely rewarded. The new patriarch, the renowned scholar George Scholarius, was given much of the imperial regalia. As Patriarch Gennadius II, he was made ruler of the Rum millet (Roman nation), that is, the Christian subjects of the Ottoman Empire.

Patriarch Gennadius took decisive, although in many cases inconclusive, action. Independent churches that had broken away from Constantinople such as Wallachia and Georgia, were forcibly returned to Byzantine control. Bulgaria and Serbia retained their autonomy even though the patriarchate refused to recognize this fact. Russia, because of its distance from the Sublime Porte became autonomous in both deed and in law.20 Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, never had their autocephaly officially rescinded and became dependencies of Constantinople. (To this day, Jerusalem and Alexandria remain so.)

Despite the great catastrophe that had befallen the Christian world with the loss of the legendary city, these were heady days for the Orthodox hierarchy. Not only were its bishops and clergy now part of a much-expanded patriarchate, they were temporal potentates as well, something which had rarely (if ever) happened in the first Christian millennium.21

Further, unlike the Byzantine emperors of old, the Turkish sultans never concerned themselves with the finer points of Christian theology. As long as the hierarchy kept the native Christians under control, they could count on long and lucrative careers. This new milieu led the formalization of top-down rankings of patriarch – metropolitan – bishop. Bishops and metropolitans were no longer viewed as independent diocesan supervisors in their own right, but part of a strict chain of command that fostered bribery and other malfeasance.

Thus, if a priest wanted to become a bishop, he had to raise money from his parishioners; if a bishop wanted to refurbish a church, he had to pressure his priests for fund, and so forth. Sometimes the corruption ran so deep that the sacraments themselves were sold, one of the most egregious of ecclesiastical crimes.22

Today the former collaborations are repudiated. Even modern Orthodox bishops within the Patriarchate of Constantinople admit the accommodation between state and ecclesiastical authority corrupted the Church.23 At the time however, many bishops justified their collaboration as a necessary evil.

First, for all the brutality of the Turks, they did not force conversion to Islam. Second, as subjects of the Sublime Porte, Christians of the Balkans were protected from missionary activity from the West,24 something that was not afforded to Orthodox Christians in Russia who suffered under the depredations of the Teutonic Knights during the Baltic Crusades.

These benefits however, were but a thin, silver lining to an exceedingly dark cloud. From the standpoint of resolute Christianity – one that had stood up to the Caesars even when it meant certain death – the Patriarchal decline represented severe internal weakness. Much of the activity, particularly simony and other malfeasance, is hard to justify even if their situation was dire.

The Rise of the Phanariotes

The Patriarchal Court, possessing no real power other than what the Turks gave them and completely disinterested in evangelism, quickly fell into petty internal intrigues and squabbling. Adding the to the confusion was the stranglehold the phanariotes, the elite Constantinopolitan families, had over the Patriarchate.

These families resided in the Phanar ("lighthouse") district of Constantinople and argued the patriarchate’s interests before the sultan, paid off many of the patriarchate’s incessant debts, and more than once ransomed a clergyman from prison (or worse). Over time however, the relationship between the Patriarch and the Phanariotes soured and they began to view themselves as the patriarch’s puppeteers rather than his loyal servants.

It was an unsavory turn of events made all the more apparent when, despite their solicitude to the Church, the Phanariotes never encouraged their own sons to enter the ranks of the priesthood. As far as they were concerned, these offices were to be filled by the sons of peasants. Hopefully the lower orders could produce enough intelligent boys to fill these positions.25

The patriarchs and bishops were not stupid men and understood perfectly how the game was played. As a sop to their bruised egos and perhaps as a check on the untrammeled power of their elite patrons, they retreated into obscurantism – often the last refuge of theological scoundrels. Arcane debates about the finer points of canon law and liturgical minutia became an all-consuming pastime. Evangelism was a dead letter. To be sure, the Ottomans forbade evangelism among Muslims, but as far as heterodox Christians were concerned, the sultans cared not a whit.

This was the period when the West was rediscovering the theological wealth of the East and often sincere overtures from the West went unheeded. Two well known attempt concerned the Lutheran Reformers of Germany and the Non-Jurors in England in the 18th century. In stunning displays of bad faith, the patriarchal court did everything they could to downplay requests for dialogue.

They even played childish games such as pretending not to have received a letter from prominent Lutherans such as Philip Melanchthon, who requested clarification on the finer points of Eastern theology. Sadly, this particular ruse lasted for many years.26

Implications for Today

A patriarchal court has always been necessary, even today. The earlier model of resident sees filled a useful role in administering ecclesiastical affairs since the bishops were still responsible for geographically concrete sees. When the office was elevated to a titular level and the bishops were no longer responsible for actual sees however, corruptions set in that made the Church insular and subject to petty intrigues that darkened its salvific mission in the world.

Historical circumstances certainly played a huge role in this decline. As historical circumstances changes however, it appears that the corrupted models of church governance did not change with them. Nowhere is this more evident than in North America where the Orthodox Church is held hostage to the outdated and non-canonical administrative infrastructures of the Old World patriarchates and the political intrigues they fostered.

This is especially apparent in the Greek Orthodox Church of America. Eight dioceses have been renamed as metropolises each with a ruling metropolitan.27 When Patriarch Bartholomew elevated the Bishops to the status of metropolitans (widely believed to buy the silence of the Bishops during the tumultuous tenure of Archbishop Spyridon Papageorge from 1996 to 1999), he effectively "balkanized" the GOA by establishing each metropolis as a separate eparchy accountable only to Constantinople, rather than as dioceses accountable to an American Archbishop.

The creation of eight metropolises in the United States (and one archdiocesan district) would be reasonable if America were a largely Orthodox nation and if each of these metropolitans had suffragan bishops presiding over their dioceses. Unfortunately they do not. Further, the elevations removed the metropolitan’s accountability to his flock (the Patriarch is the only court of appeal) and fosters increasingly arbitrary decisions, including the mistreatment of priests. The result is greater instability in the Church.

Finally, their elevation could be viewed as a broadside to the other ethnic churches, each of which is supervised by one metropolitan according the canonical norm, the primate of an ecclesiastical province (overlooking the overlapping Orthodox jurisdictions in one nation for the moment). This may well be part of the ancient intrigue to dominate American Orthodoxy altogether. In any event, The Ecumenical Patriarchate’s dependence on old models has certainly complicated the chances of an administratively unified American Orthodox Church.

What Can the Orthodox Do?

The question Orthodox Christians in America must ask is what can be done to rectify our non-canonical situation?

Orthodoxy in America has promising beginnings. A native missionary church was established in North America over two hundred years ago in what was once a Russian colony. When Alaska was made a territory of the United States in 1867, foreign patriarchs recognized the mission as legitimate. Certainly none of the other Old World churches had the means to evangelize North America, yet the canonical norms were upheld and a precedent set. By the time Metropolitan Platon was appointed in the early days of the twentieth century, all Orthodox Americans belonged to a semi-autonomous ecclesiastical province known at that time as North America headed by one metropolitan archbishop just as the canons prescribe.

What happened subsequently has been chronicled elsewhere and lies beyond the scope of this discussion. The road back to canonical restoration however, has been arduous. Only fifteen years ago, twenty-nine American bishops meeting at Ligonier, Pennsylvania surveyed the chaos and were appalled at what they saw. It wasn’t the first time. In his first and only visit to the United States in 1990, Patriarch Demetrios of Constantinople also concluded that the American situation needed to be rectified.

So how do we go about unifying the American Church? What do we do with the excessive number of metropolitans in the United States? Does our present situation allow for a restoration of the canonical norms?

Yes. One idea is that the eight metropolitan districts set up by the Ecumenical Patriarch in 1998 could serve as ecclesiastical provinces of the American Orthodox Church (the archdiocese of Washington, DC could be a ninth ecclesiastical province). The districts could be subdivided into dioceses, where an existing bishop elected by diocesan clergy and laity heads each diocese. An archdiocesan council of clergy and laity would elect the metropolitans. We already have enough active bishops in the United States to make this happen.

For example the southern United States has three bishops: the Archbishop of Dallas, the Metropolitan of Atlanta, and the Bishop of Miami (OCA, GOAA, and AOAA respectively). Between them distinct geopolitical boundaries can be drawn:

  1. Southern states west of the Mississippi River (Louisiana, Arkansas, Texas, Oklahoma, New Mexico) would fall under the Archdiocese of Texas;
  2. Florida would be part of the Diocese of Miami;
  3. North Carolina, South Carolina, and Georgia would fall under the Archdiocese of Atlanta;
  4. An extra bishop could be elected in Nashville who would have purview over Alabama, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

Under this scenario, the metropolitan of Atlanta would be considered the metropolitan of the South. This model could be duplicated throughout the other regions of the United States.

No doubt other models could be offered. Nevertheless, unification of Orthodox Christianity in America will not occur until the good and faithful Orthodox Christians demand it from our leaders. Gone are the days of the diaspora. We are Americans. We have to learn how to live our Orthodox Christians lives in a country that is increasingly hostile to Christian faith, and longings for days long gone or trying to impose ecclesiastical structures that are either corrupt or irrelevant, does not meet the challenges what we face.

The process will be difficult. Egos will be bruised. Old World bishops will be alarmed and attempt to undermine the efforts. Schism may even result for a time. But Orthodoxy will not grow in America until concrete steps are taken to eradicate our tribalism and ensure that a church will exist for our children and grandchildren.



  1. Once not too long ago, Bishop Basil Essey of Wichita was asked why there were multiple Orthodox jurisdictions in America. His responded with one word: "pride."
  2. The ridiculousness of this is apparent to those who translated the Greek title — ho proedros tou Boston — literally: "The President of Boston."
  3. Ignatius of Antioch (d. AD 115) for example wrote that "Where the bishop is, there is the Church" (Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 8).
  4. Bishops themselves were usually chosen by the people, either by direct election or by popular acclamation. Once a bishop was chosen, it was the duty of neighboring bishops to consecrate him, which was done by cheirotoneia or the laying on of hands.
  5. In light of this, how much more regrettable is the situation in the United States when such competition exists between Orthodox bishops? (For example, the five Orthodox bishops of Chicago, or the two of Pittsburgh, three in Detroit, four in New York, and so forth?)
  6. Diptychs were small, hinged tablets usually made of wood but sometimes of metal, containing two leaves. On one leaf were the names of the living and on the other the names of the dead. They were used by bishops in liturgies for intercessory prayer given on behalf of brother bishops.
  7. A suffragan bishop is a diocesan bishop subordinate to a metropolitan. The word comes from the Latin suffragium, which means "support or prayer" and is the root for suffrage which is political support and in our day, voting.
  8. Merriam’s New World Collegiate Dictionary (1980 ed.), p. 719.
  9. According to Demetrius Kymenas, Thriskeftiki kai Ethiki Enkyklopaeidia (Athens 1962-8). Byzantium in its earliest days was ruled by a violent pagan named Xeuxikus who violently tormented Christians. The first bishops had to reside in a nearby town called Argyroupolis where they established the Byzantine church in exile. According to one source, Eugenius I (237-42) was known as the "second bishop of Byzantium," meaning he was the second bishop after his predecessor St Castinus (d. 237), to actually live in the city itself (
  10. Russians and other former pagans often regarded it as a mark of great pride that their lands had never been evangelized by an actual Apostle, thereby making their own Christianization all the more remarkable.
  11. In the first millennium, most of what is now modern Greece was under the see of Rome.
  12. Sir Stephen Runciman, The Great Church in Captivity, p 23.
  13. John D Ziziioulis, Being as Communion, pp 165-66
  14. The accession of Charlemagne to the imperial throne in AD 800 was viewed with horror by the Byzantines who considered it a great sacrilege, "…just as there was only one God in heaven, so there could be but one supreme ruler on earth." John Julius Norwich, A Short History of Byzantium (London: Penguin, 1997), p 120
  15. Ultimately, the loss of the Christian Near East to the Muslims instigated the Crusades.
  16. One of the titles of the Byzantine emperor during this time was kosmokrator (ruler of the world).
  17. The Seljuks had learned their lesson from their earlier misadventure when they conquered Palestine, and persecuted the Christians, thereby precipitating the First Crusade. Thomas F Madden, The New Concise History of the Crusades (Rowan Littlefield: Lanham, 2008), p 5.
  18. Runciman, Op cit,, p 30.
  19. This idea is not as outlandish as it sounds. The Turkish state that had been established in the Anatolian heartland was known as the "Sultanate of Rum." It was a separate Islamic state distinct from the Fatimid Caliphate (which ruled Egypt) and the Abbassid Caliphate (which was based in Baghdad).
  20. Runciman, Op cit., pp 24-25.
  21. In the ante-Nicene period, bishops were often called upon to adjudicate court cases, even those involving non-Christian litigants. The reason being that many of these men were of such exemplary character that they were viewed as honest brokers by all the concerned parties.
  22. The term simony comes from a sorcerer named Simon Magus, who tried to bribe the Apostles into selling him their power (Acts 8:18-20).
  23. Isaiah Chronopoulos, "The concept of ethnarch, which was an Ottoman invention, provided physical and material security, to a limited extend, in the lives of the Christians. However, from a theological and ecclesiological perspective, it went contrary to the Scriptural teaching that the Church is in the world, but She is not of [it]….the leader of the Church appeared to have allowed himself to be identified with the world, a theocracy on earth, if you will. This, of course, is untenable…[and]…unthinkable from any pure, Christian point of view. For the Church believes that only Christ…will establish the eternal theocracy." (Writings of His Eminence Metropolitan Isaiah of Denver, The Influence of Islam on Orthodox Christianity, 2005; may be accessed at
  24. This was not the first time that an Islamic state had unwittingly safeguarded the interests of Orthodoxy. During the council of Ferrara-Florence (1449), all of the Constantinopolitan bishops had been coerced into signing the Act of Union with the West. The only holdout was St Mark Eugenicus, the metropolitan of Ephesus, who because his diocese was under Turkish control, was free of imperial coercion.
  25. Runciman, Op cit. p 362.
  26. In Runciman’s elegant words, "The Patriarch and his advisers took refuge in the favorite device of oriental diplomacy. They behaved as if they had never received the communication, which they carefully mislaid." In the interim, Melanchthon, who was well-disposed towards the Greek East and had initiated the first contact, had died. See also H W Langford, The Non-Jurors and the Eastern Orthodox, a paper read at the Fellowship of St Alban and Sergius, Durham, England (Jun 226.1965).
  27. The Greek Orthodox Metropolis of Denver for example, has perhaps 5,000 congregants spread out over 14 states, whereas the Archdiocesan District (New York) has over 100,000 members. All other ethnic jurisdictions have only one metropolitan.


George Michalopulos is a layman in the Orthodox Church in America. He is married to the former Margaret Verges of Houston, Texas, and the father of two boys, Constantine and Michael. Together with Deacon Ezra Ham, he is the author of The American Orthodox Church: A History of Its Beginnings (Salisbury: Regina Orthodox Press, 2003), as well as several articles and essays published on the Orthodox Christian Laity website. He has served as parish council president of Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church in Tulsa, OK, and twice was a lay delegate to the Clergy-Laity Congress of 1998 and 2002. He helped found Holy Apostles Orthodox Christian Mission, a parish of the OCA in 2003 and continues to be active in pan-Orthodox events in the greater Tulsa area.