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Father Demetrios Serfes
Fr. Demetrios Serfes

Biography Profile
St Peter and St Paul
Icon of Saints Peter & Paul
(Holy Transfiguration Monastery)
Hierarchical Governance
of the
Orthodox Church

1. The Orthodox Church is a hierarchical ecclesiastical body, and its administration is governed by "The Sacred and Divine Canons of the Holy and Renowned Apostles, of the Holy Councils, Ecumenical as well as Regional, and of individual Divine Fathers", hereinafter referred to as the "Canons". These Canons were established as authoritative and normative, governing the administration and order of the Christian Church, by the seven Ecumenical Councils held at Nicaea in 325 AD, Constantinople in 381 AD, Ephesus in 431 AD, Chalcedon in 451 AD, Constantinople in 553 AD, Constantinople in 680 AD, and Nicaea in 783 AD. In addition to prescribing canons determined at the Councils themselves, they also proclaimed that certain canons prescribed at local councils were applicable to the governance of the universal Christian Church.

2. Canon III of the Second Ecumenical Council convened at Constantinople in 381 AD established the Bishop's See of Constantinople as second only to that of Rome, and senior therefore to Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. Following the Great Schism normally dated as of 1054 AD, Constantinople became the senior See in honor and responsible not only for the Greek churches through Asia Minor and the Balkans, but of all churches beyond Western Europe, the Middle East, and Africa. The Greek Orthodox Christians who arrived in America during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries came from churches that were therefore under the historic ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. When these immigrants established ethnic community centers and later desired to have a Priest and a church, they petitioned the Bishops from their native lands who were under the Patriarch of Constantinople, or temporarily under the Church of Greece, to assign clergy to the new American parishes.

3. In the fullness of time the Patriarch of Constantinople recognized that the Orthodox churches in America needed local Bishops to serve as shepherds for the parishes and their Priests and to administer these parishes in accordance with the Canons of the Church. Accordingly an Archdiocese of North and South America was established under the ecclesiastical authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople to serve the spiritual and canonical needs of the Greek Orthodox parishes in America. At the present time, a Hierarch is appointed by the Ecumenical Patriarch to the Diocese of Denver, a geographic area established on 1 September 1979 which extends over a vast area of 1.3 million square miles encompassing the states of Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Dakota, Texas, Utah, and Wyoming, as well as the western parts of Louisiana and Missouri, and which includes forty-eight parishes and two chapels.

4. The Bishop has absolute authority over his clergy; the chief canon that most concisely defines this relationship is Canon XXXIX of the 85 Canons of the Holy and Renowned Apostles which specifies:

"Let Presbyters and Deacons do nothing without the consent of the Bishop. For he is the one entrusted with the Lord's people, and it is from him that an accounting will be demanded with respect to their souls."

This Canon is only one of many that deals with the clergy and specifically with their relationship to the Bishop. The Priests and the Deacons within a diocese are unquestionably under the sole and exclusive authority of their Bishop as is attested by numerous canons and as can be indubitably inferred from very many other sources.

5. Regarding the absolute authority of the Bishop over the property of the church and its administration, the principal canon that most simply defines his role as despot within his Diocese is Canon XLI of the 85 Canons of the Holy and Renowned Apostles which specifies:

"We command that the Bishop have authority over the property of the church. For if the precious souls of human beings ought to be entrusted to him, there is little need of any special injunction concerning money; so that everything may be entrusted to be governed in accordance with his authority, and he may grant to those in need through the Presbyters and Deacons with fear of God and all reverence, while he himself may partake thereof whatever he needs (if he needs anything) for his necessary wants, and for brethren who are his guests, so as not to deprive them of anything, in any manner. For God's law has enjoined that those who serve at the altar are to be maintained at the altar's expense. The more so in view of the fact that not even a soldier ever bears arms against belligerents at his own expense."

According to this and various other canons it is clear that the administration and disposal of all church property within his diocese falls under the exclusive and absolute authority of the Bishop.

6. It should be noted that the 85 Canons of the Holy and Renowned Apostles which date from the first century AD were proclaimed as being of universal application by the First Ecumenical Council at Nicaea in 325 AD. Further it should be noted as a matter of precedent that the Canon Laws were regarded by the civil government of the Byzantine empire as the law of the land concerning Church matters and as inseparable from the other civil laws that applied to all peoples within their jurisdiction.

7. Pursuant to the canonical appointment by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Bishops to administer the affairs of the Greek Orthodox Churches in the Americas, these Hierarchs have chosen to permit the parishes a certain measure of self-administration in accordance with the Special Regulations and Uniform Parish Regulations of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of North and South America which, together with any necessary amendments, are the product of a biennial Clergy-Laity Congress.

8. These Special Regulations and Uniform Parish Regulations are therefore applied to the canonical administration of Greek Orthodox Church parishes, and their authority is traced in an unbroken line to the canons proclaimed by the Seven Ecumenical Councils which are the definitive administrative laws for the Orthodox Church.

9. Insofar as:

a. The Church of Constantinople was established by Saint Andrew the Apostle in 37 AD, and has been governed according to Apostolic decree and the Canons of the Seven Ecumenical Councils by Bishops elected in succession to the Apostle,

b. The Greek Orthodox Churches in America were established chiefly by Christians from the jurisdiction of the Patriarch of Constantinople,

c. These churches have existed under the authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople and have received clergy under the hierarchical authority of the Patriarch of Constantinople since their inception, these parishes remain subject to the Canon Laws of the universal Orthodox Church and under the hierarchical authority of the Bishop into whose pastoral care they are entrusted, and are moreover subject to such administrative regulations as may be deemed appropriate by their Bishop.

10. The civil government of the United States of America has been called upon at various times to interpret and define the status of the Greek Orthodox Church in America. Courts at various levels, including the Supreme Court, have held that:

a. The Greek Orthodox Church is a hierarchical (as opposed to congregational) church

b. The Greek Orthodox parishes are affiliated with, or are part of, the Greek Orthodox Church,

c. As such, the secular court declines to become involved in any determination of theological or ecclesiastical issues, including governance of the Church; these issues are the exclusive prerogative of the Bishops.

11. It is crucial to understand that there cannot be an Orthodox Church without the spiritual authority of a canonical Bishop. Otherwise the so-called parish becomes nothing but a fraternal society or an ethnic and cultural club; at best such a parish is a congregational entity. This would mean that there was no need for Bishops, nor any need of the validity of the Priesthood of Christ, nor the essential nature of Apostolic Succession. In other words, such an entity would not be the Church of Jesus Christ, but a secular, man-made organization.

12. Nonetheless, in her concern for Her people, the Church has invited the laity to give input in the affairs of the Church so that the Bishops may make more enlightened decisions. By doing so, however, the Bishops have not abdicated their positions for the laity to become the overseers of God's holy Church. This is fully appropriate, and indeed Scriptural, as the Apostles themselves asked the faithful to "pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we may appoint" (Acts 6:3). These were the first deacons in the Church, and the qualifications specified: "good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom" are the prototypical virtues absolutely required of each person who wishes to serve as a Parish Council member in the church today.

Text obtained from Greek Orthodox Dioecese of Denver, His Grace Bishop Isaiah of Denver.

Glory Be To God For All Things!