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Three Millennia of Greek Literature

Alexander Schmemann

3. The Age Of The Ecumenical Councils (50 pages)













From Schmemann's A History of the Orthodox Church


Development of Church Regional Structure.

In 395 Emperor Theodosius the Great on his deathbed divided the empire between his two sons. Honorius received the West and Arcadius, the East. Theoretically the empire continued to be one state with two emperors, but in practice, from that point on, the Eastern and Western roads inevitably diverged.

In the fourth century there had begun an evolution in ecclesiastical structure which was inevitable in view of the new position of the Church in the empire. Its general significance may be defined as the co-ordination of external Church structure with the imperial administrative structure. This development was not a revolutionary one, since it continued trends begun long before the conversion of Constantine — the gradual development of several large ecclesiastical regions, each united around a senior Church. The Council of Nicaea, in its sixth canon, sanctioned this situation. It recognized the de facto primacy of Rome in the West, of Alexandria in Egypt, and of Antioch in Syria. Since these primacies arose spontaneously, each expressed all the particularities of local conditions, the growth of the Church in given parts of the Roman Empire. Thus Rome was the only apostolic see in the West and had exclusive importance there. There was a difference, however, between the canonical or jurisdictional primacy of Rome over neighboring Italian churches and its moral authority, which was recognized, as we have seen, beyond the borders of Italy in Africa, Spain, and Gaul. The African Church from the beginning had had a special structure and canonical practice; the highest authority there was the regular synod of bishops, who met twice a year. In the East the canonical forms of ecclesiastical union differed again, depending on various historical conditions. In Egypt there was almost complete centralization: all authority was concentrated in the hands of the Alexandrian bishop or “pope,” in relation to whom the bishops held a position which by modern analogy one may define as that of a vicar bishop. In Syria, on the other hand, the local bishop was much more independent, although here, too, the center of agreement had from the first been the Church of the second city of the empire, Antioch. Though less important than these three apostolic seats, Ephesus was still a center for Asia Minor. In other areas there were no such large centers and the churches were usually grouped around a metropolis or capital of a province. It is characteristic, for example, that the Church of Jerusalem, once the mother of all Christians, represented itself at the end of the third century as a simple bishopric in the orbit of the metropolis of Caesarea, the civic center of Palestine. Only after the fourth century, because of Constantine’s special interest in the holy places and the flood of pilgrims, did its ecclesiastical significance also begin to grow.

While from the beginning the indivisible nucleus of Church structure had been the local Church or community or meeting headed by one bishop, presbyters, and deacons (for this nucleus flows from the very nature of the Church as the visible incarnation everywhere of the “new people of God”), it is quite clear that the relations or canonical links between the churches differed and were determined by local peculiarities of their growth and the development of Christianity itself. One thing is undeniable: the links were conceived and felt to be just as essential and elemental as the structure of each community; no single Church was self-sufficient, if only because its bishop received consecration from other bishops and in this way expressed and manifested the oneness of the gifts and life of the Spirit throughout the universal Church. The forms of this bond still differed, however. In some regions the highest canonical authority was the union of a group of churches around the Church of the main city in a province, whose bishop was recognized as metropolitan; in other areas such provinces in turn were united around some still more ancient, great, or apostolic Church, thus composing an ecclesiastical “region.” In Egypt, on the other hand, there were no metropolia, but all the bishops had the archbishop of Alexandria as their immediate primate.


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