The Orthodox Church of France

Her Canonical Situation


Father Jean de la Rosa

Professor at the Institute of Theology of Paris Saint-Denis

What is the canonicity of our Church with regard to Herself and in our current situation? One can understand canonicity in two ways. A Church is canonical when it rests on canonical foundations which are at least the foundations of faith. One also understands by canonical church, a church which holds itself in relationship to other Churches through a certain number of Canons. One can understand by canonicity a type of communion or of relationship.

To try to bring clarity and distinction let us return to the great principles of organization of the Orthodox Church so that all is very clear and that truly after that one can enter the debate such as it presents itself.

The first principle is that there is no Church without the bishop, because the bishop is the only plenary depository of the priesthood, the single dispenser of the total liturgical life. From whence comes this traditional saying within the Orthodox Church: "where the Bishop is, there the Church is". The tradition, moreover, goes beyond the spiritual and liturgical plane, since it makes even of the bishop the head, in a practical and temporal sense, of the church community, the head of the Church. Thus the 38th and 41st Apostolic Regulations give to the bishop any capacity on the administration and the provision of the goods and the resources of the Church with the only limit being: " the fear of God and piety ". The bishop incarnates the Church on the spiritual level but also on á much more concrete level, since he is the, virtually temporal, head. Canon 9 of the Council of Antioch (341) expresses well this principle which is called the monarchy of the bishop : "the bishop is a Master in his diocese and must govern by respecting the rights of each one". Insistence on the respect of the rights of each one moderates this monarchy.

If a bishop is necessary so that there may be the Church, so too, there cannot be a bishop if there are no people. It is one of the great Orthodox principles which is perhaps not always respected currently in our modern world. It is necessary that there must be a people in order for there to be a bishop, and the canons of the great councils have always affirmed this with force; thus as Canon No. 2 of the Council of Arles (314) declares: "one can only consecrate a bishop for one church in a given place and because there are people ". In other words, there is no consecrating of a bishop, in theory in the absolute, who would not be attached to a church. A people, a church, and a bishop, it is this unit which forms the Church. It be a great principle which it is always necessary to keep in mind in the Orthodox Church.

The second extremely important principle is that of territoriality which gave rise to what is called the local Church. This principle of territoriality is the same foundation of the organization of the Church. In theory in one place the Church gathers together the body of the Christians : " all those who have been sanctified in Jesus Christ, called to be holy ", like St. Paul says. Christians can be of any race or any culture; the essential thing being that, in one place, they gather in only one Church. This is not something that a canon has established, but it is a natural tendency of Church from Her foundation, as shown in the addresses of the letters (epistles) of St. Paul "to the Church of God which is in Corinth", "to the Churches of Galatia", or again "to the Church of the Thessalonians". According to this principle of territoriality, prevailing in the Orthodox Church, each Church is incarnated locally both with Her own organization and Her own legislation.

The local Church takes into account, by this incarnation, the traditions, the habits, the customs, the culture, and even the socio-economic situation of the people of God who live in this territory. The first epistle of St. Paul summarizes quite well this great principle which will be taken up again by the Orthodox Church. From this beginning, to respect the culture of the local people, the Church has naturally espoused the administrative structure that She has found in place at the time of Her creation, i.e. the Roman administrative structure: the province well defined with at its head a prefect, a procurator, and the diocese which comprises several provinces in what one would call today a large area. However, if the Church from the beginning embraced in Her incarnation the administrative structures, She did not espouse them to follow the State (which at the time did not recognize Her). But it is because in respecting, in embracing precisely the contour of the administrative demarcation of a territory, the Church takes truly into account the manners, the customs, the organization, the language of the Christian people who live in this territory.

The address of the first epistle of St. Peter reflects very exactly this agreement between the Roman delimitation and the ecclesiological delimitation of the Church. St. Peter, addressing himself to the Christians says this in his address of the first epistle: "Peter, apostle of Jesus Christ to the elect of Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia". Completely naturally, the Churches which were set up there, already found Their ecclesial geographical demarcation by exactly copying the Roman administrative province. The Church was not obliged to follow this model, but She made it in order to take into consideration precisely Her incarnation on earth. Following the command of Christ to the apostles: "Go, baptize the nations ", these people are taken into account by the Church together with their manners and the local culture.

This brings about a diversity that you already know very well. It is a natural consequence of Pentecost. As an Orthodox Englishman, Mgr. Kallistos Ware underlined with humor: "The apostles did not express themselves in Esperanto". They expressed themselves in the local language at the time of Pentecost. Therefore does one go on to liturgically also use the local language to praise God. This principle of diversity, was not understood as a factor of division for one extremely simple reason: this is because the Faith was held in common. Each Church, surrounded by Her bishop, with Her people, with Her own organization, confesses the same Faith, celebrates the same Eucharist, and possesses all that which is necessary and sufficient to live in a churchly manner. Thus, here it is possible to have Unity. The principle you know: this is a diversity in the unity of the Faith, in the unity of the Eucharist which is common to the full assembly of the Orthodox Churches.

The fact of having an organization which responds to the local need of the people of God is not understood as a factor of division or of parcelling out because, on the one side, there is a universal principle (the Faith is common and the Eucharist is common) and on the other side, there is the safeguard of the Church, because each Church, in Herself, preserves the sacred deposit of revelation and transmits it to the generations which follow. This is the great principle which still governs the Orthodox Church in its ecclesiology.

The last principle results from the two preceding ones; this is the principle of conciliarity. Each local church is in its fulness the Church, seeing that it has the Faith and it celebrates the Eucharist. But these local churches, each one in its own region, have felt the necessity of a drawing together among themselves, to the Faith, for reasons of benefit and in order to seek brotherly council. This allows the creation among them of a Christian ecclesial fabric. This principle of conciliarity is a universal natural principle, identical to that which brings parents to give and children to seek moral authority, the concerned protection of each other.

During the first centuries, the Church established Herself somewhat on a cellular mode. In the village where the apostles or the disciples established themselves, the Christian religion incarnated and propagated itself. This Church developed as a cell, and like a cell She gave birth to other Churches in other villages - daughter-Churches. These daughter-Churches, since they have their bishop and their people, celebrate the Eucharist and live in an independent fashion. But the mother-Churches and the daughter-Churches sharing the same Faith, and watching over their filial relationships somewhat, they continue to have a tendency to watch over contact among themselves.

In this way the bonds continue to exist among the Churches more recently founded and those which are more ancient, which have more experience in the Christian tradition. The different bishops of the Churches of the province went to unite themselves with the bishop of the metropolis, the Church which is in the prefecture. And the bishop of this metropolis receives a rank of honor. What emerges is that which in canonical terms is called the eparchy. It has been demonstrated historically that the Churches developed firstly in the great urban centers before expanding through this cellular system to the less important neighboring villages. It was natural that the bishop of the metropolis should have a primacy of honor, "primus inter pares", first among the other bishops of the province.

This will ultimately be codified by the canons. It is interesting to know that the canons have not established rules but are content in themselves to "canonize" an existing situation. When one wanted to establish canons, one has put under the form of a rule a situation stemming from natural movements. The 37th Apostolic Rule anticipates that these gatherings of bishops are going to take place twice a year in councils or synods. The synod is rather an regional assembly, while the council is national or even international which is then called an ścumenical council.

According to this same principle of conciliarity the consecration of a bishop would normally be done in an assembly of bishops in the province where it takes place, or more simply by three bishops who are being delegated for this purpose, but with the agreement of all.

Following the cellular system, that which has taken place within the province reproduces a higher level, to the level of that which is called a "diocese" according to Roman prerogative (the modern equivalent of which will be the region which contains a certain number of provinces).

The province has a metropolitan and a certain number of bishops of titular bishoprics. The joining together of the provinces of an ancient Roman diocese gives rise to that which is at the outset called a ‘greater metropolitan' which took the name exarch, then patriarch. The patriarch is the bishop of a ‘greater town' according to the Roman administrative standard. He becomes as a result the bishop of the capital of a large region or of a country.

This principle held to within Orthodoxy is found in Canon 6 of the Council of Nicaea. This Canon 6 is extremely important for the canonicity of our Church because it goes to certify that there exists in the organization of the Church a sort of hierarchy of unity of Churches which find themselves gathered together. With Canon 6 of Nicaea there is a beginning of the notion of patriarchate. The first three patriarchate appear: Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch which have been the three great one from the start. This is important to sound out.

It is not, for instance, a question for Constantinople. This is only at the time of the 2nd Ścumenical Council, which took place in 381 at Constantinople, which as the new capital of the empire was recognized as having equal rights with Rome. Rome remains despite all the first Church through precedence of Faith. The patriarchates, beginning at the Council of Nicaea, were definitively formulated at the Council of Chalcedon: the patriarchate of Rome, the patriarchate of Alexandria, the patriarchate of Antioch, and that of Jerusalem, and, with the council of 381, came the patriarchate of Constantinople. Celebrated Orthodox canonists of the 12th century such as Balsamon and Zinaras, in studying the canons, deduced from them that Rome was the patriarchate of all the provinces of the West (Occident) of the empire. And it is this that precisely results with Canon 6 of the Council of Nicaea. This fact is often forgotten.

Let us examine our Church in the context of these canons and of this Orthodox tradition, limiting ourselves to our relationship with the Church of Romania after 1972. Previously there was no great interest in that which concerned us except to truly recover the history of the Church.

Through the patriarchal decree of June 11, 1972, Bishop JUSTINIAN, Patriarch of the Church of Romania, received under his canonical protection Bishop GERMAIN and the Orthodox Church of France. The Church with Her institutions, with Her organization, with Her liturgy was recognized Orthodox and was protected by the Holy Synod and the Patriarchate of Romania. Bishop GERMAIN was consecrated at that moment by three Romanian hierarchs; Nicolas of Banat, Theophilus Ionesco of Paris, and Antony of Ploesti. Bishop GERMAIN was invested with full and complete Apostolic Succession, because in accord with the canons of the great Orthodox councils, he was consecrated by three bishops with the agreement of the whole of the bishops of the Romania Synod.

Nevertheless, in spite of this canonical protection under which we have lived for a period of twenty years, the recognition of the Church has presented some difficulties for certain other Orthodox Churches in France. They have not admitted that our Church has been canonically established.

As a first point we are going back to the conditions of canonicity. The foundations of the canonicity of a Church, in the strict sense of the word, are firstly the confession of the truth Faith, and at the same time, the Eucharist. If one has the same Faith, one is in relationship; if one celebrates the same Eucharist, one is in relationship. Nevertheless, understand well that to share the same Faith, to share the same Eucharist can be insufficient elements: one can celebrate the same Eucharist without being so much as canonical through connection to another. This was the case with certain schismatic churches like the Novatians who had the same Faith, who celebrated the same Eucharist but who refused mercy to those who had renounced the Faith at the time of the persecutions and, yet all the same, were no longer in accord with those who championed the unity of the other Churches. In order to take into account these differences, one has added to this principle of canonicity some other connections: a Church becomes canonical when this Church, with more than the common Faith, with more than the Eucharistic celebration, also goes and applies the same canons as the others.

In this way one arrives at defining the canonicity of a Church in the following fashion: Holy Scripture, the Orthodox Faith, the Orthodox Tradition which this Church follows, the common canonical legislation, this is to say, the respect, the recognition, and the application of the Seven Ścumenical Councils and the local councils, the regional councils which have been recognized by the Seven Ścumenical Councils. If a Church respects these conditions, She automatically finds Herself, without there being a need of agreement of other Churches, in a principle of canonicity which one can not deny Her.

It is in this manner that Monseigneur GERMAIN expressed himself in his letter to the faithful on the Second Sunday of Pascha 1993 (several months after the break), when he wrote: "Our canonicity is in ourselves". The "canonicity in ourselves" is in reality as being a foundational canonicity. The Church which respects the Faith, the canons, and which respects the Orthodox Tradition is undeniably canonical. Then a series of ties remain which can or cannot be created with the other Orthodox Churches which do or do not agree to receive this Church, but it is undeniable that on the blueprint of the canons in their strict application a Church which respects the principles that I enumerate is inevitably canonical from its roots.

What is it that has taken place in France at the level of the Orthodox Churches called the "diaspora"? The presence, the formation, the incarnation of this Church on Western land has been contested by Constantinople, on the pretext that the Church was not canonical in so far as where the bishop had been consecrated by the Patriarchate of Romania when it should have been by the Church of Constantinople.

This leads us to speak of the pretension of Constantinople upon the Occident (West). The Council of Chalcedon in 451 during the seventh session (one of the last where the legates of the Pope of Rome refused to sit), confirmed Canon 3 of the 2nd Ścumenical Council of Constantinople (this Canon 3, I recall, is the one which recognized that Constantinople was equal with Rome on a legal level), and added in agreement with Canon 28, which grants to the Patriarch of Constantinople a power of jurisdiction over the dioceses - and there I weight the terms because it is very important to know - "of the provinces of Pontus, of the province of Asia, and of the province of Africa". (This is to say in reality around Constantinople the european part of Turkey, the province of Thrace which touches Greece, Romania, and Bulgaria and one part of Anatolia where are found the provinces of Pontus and of Asia), the council adds that: "The parts of these dioceses located in the barbarian regions shall be set for the most holy Seat of the most holy Church of Constantinople".

This Canon 28 which caused so much ink to flow was vigorously fought by Leo the Great and was only accepted by the Roman documents in the 13th Century. As at Nicaea, the council Fathers canonized that which pre-existed, the bishop of Constantinople exercising in fact from the 4th Century the power which this canon conferred upon him. What is necessary to understand by these barbarian regions situated in the extension of these dioceses? It well appears that this is a question of all the regions of central and eastern Europe and of the Caucuses.

In a decision of June 1975, Reference No. 429.1974, the Patriarchate of Constantinople, taking a pretext from this Canon 28, arranged by an inter episcopal committee to refuse to receive Bishop GERMAIN upon the fact of "the illegal intervention of the Patriarchate of Romania in a domain pertaining to the jurisdiction of the Ścumenical Patriarchate". This pretension of the See of Constantinople, and in contradiction to the letter and the spirit of Canon 28, ignores or feigns to ignore, the history of the Roman provinces of the Western Empire. Geographically France, inheritor of ancient Gaul, is not a barbarian land, and she is not within the extension of the dioceses cited in this canon. Historically she is it no longer. During the epoch of Chalcedonian reign on the Western Empire, Valentinian III and his close aide Aetius, the vanquisher of Attila at Catalan in 451 (the same year as the council of Chalcedon) had succeeded to maintain imperial authority over the larger parts of Gaul. It is also necessary to emphasize that the majority of the Roman and Gallo-Roman populations put into practice the Theodosian Code and later the Justinian Code augmented the laws of the Roman emperors.

In 450 (a year before the Council of Chalcedon) there were in Gaul 116 or 117 episcopal sees grouped in 17 provinces conforming to the canons of Nicaea, canons which had been introduced to the West by the Council of Turin (398). It is necessary to emphasize that Saint Hilary of Arles asserted himself as a true leader of the Church in all of Gaul, president of the Council of Riez and at Orange: his efforts to establish a primacy in Gaul were dashed by Leo of Rome who obtained the assistance of Emperor Valentinian. It is manifestly understood that the Fathers of the Council of Chalcedon, did not have in view, with the attributing of these new powers to the Bishop of Constantinople, the territories of Gaul which it is necessary to emphasize were made part of the Western Roman Empire. The pretension of Constantinople of using a power of jurisdiction on the territory of Gaul well appears to be in contradiction with Canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon and also collides with the canonical rules of organization defined by Canon 6 of the Council of Nicaea.

An observation by Vladimir Lossky in 1937 does not seem to have attracted enough attention. He wrote to the members of the Commission for Occidental (Western) Orthodox Affairs:

The opinion of Vladimir Lossky of considering that the provinces of the West are dependent on the Patriarchate of Rome is not his personal judgment. It is also that of the great Greek canonists Balsamon and Zinaras, who have interpreted the 6th Canon of Nicaea in this sense. The Orthodox Church of France therefore exists properly, with Her traditions, Her rite, Her spirituality, and the cult of Her local saints; thus does She conform canonically to Canon 6 of Nicaea and cannot become a diocese of an Eastern Church, all the more so since Orthodoxy is not limited to only the territories of Eastern Europe.

And here, I shall make a second citation which appears to me also to be very important and which it is truly necessary to commit to memory. Monseigneur John of Saint Denis also said in Présence Orthodoxe de 1983 n° 3, p. 18 :

And Monseigneur John adds:

To be Orthodox, is to come back to the fundamental form of the undivided Church, and Orthodoxy is the body of the primitive Church. Orthodoxy not confined to only the lands of eastern Europe, there is no Orthodox diaspora as there is a Jewish diaspora. It is convenient to speak of the "Orthodox diaspora" in referring to this Jewish diaspora. In Judaism, the term is perfectly suited because the Jews have only one Temple located in Jerusalem, the Holy City. And it is toward Jerusalem that they faced and toward this temple that they turned eyes and their prayers. Where is the Orthodox temple? ‘Orientalization-easternizing' is not a factor of canonicity. And one can not bring reproach upon the Orthodox Church of France for Her rite, recognized Orthodox, Her organization whose usages conform to the tradition of the undivided Church. Therefore, there is an undoubted canonicity within the same foundations of the Orthodox Church of France.

What is it like since the break with the Patriarchate of Romania? Let us look initially at the blueprint of the principles, conciliarity establishes that a bishop can only be judged by a provincial council. This is a well-established rule that one finds set forth in a number of councils. Thus the Council of Antioch (341) quotes in its Canon 4 that the deposition of a bishop is the competence of a provincial council, and Canons 12, 14, and 15 organize a procedure for an appeal. The Council of Sardica (344) in its Canons 3, 4, and 5 sets up the appeal to Rome and Canon 3 provides a procedure elsewhere for a temporary vacancy during the entire duration of the appeal. The Council of Chalcedon (451) in its Canons 9 and 17 also set up the procedure of appeal to Constantinople in parallel with the appeal to Rome, similar to that which had been set up by the Council of Sardica. The 74th Apostolic Rule is interesting because it set up the procedure for deposing. A first notification to attend is addressed to the bishop. He can refer it; he presents himself, and the council renders a verdict. If he does not present himself, then a second notification to attend is delivered to him by two bishops. If the informed bishop refuses to present himself a second time, the Apostolic Rule allows him to be sent a third notification by two other bishops. And in this case, and only in this case, if, in spite of this third notification, the bishop refuses to present himself before the council, then he will be judged even in his absence, and a verdict rendered. Such is the conciliar procedure defined by the canons.

Incidently what is the procedure that has been followed by the Bishop of the Orthodox Church of France? It is exceedingly ambiguous because the Patriarchate of Romania has not been able to make a decision on what way would be best in considering the status of the Orthodox Church of France. The Patriarchate of Romania has acted abruptly, in great haste, in not respecting either the canons or procedure. The decision of March 3, 1993, can not be considered as a canonical suspension patterned on that of a diocesan bishop, because the established procedure has manifestly not been followed. It is not a matter of a "suspensio a divinis" for the good reason, one more time, that the procedure set forth by the 74th Apostolic Rule has been totally ignored. It is simply noted that canonical jurisdiction is withdrawn from the Bishop of the Orthodox Church of France. As to the dismissal of a bishop, such is absolutely unknown in Canon Law, and one can wonder about this arrangement.

Therefore in this present case it is obviously a matter of the withdrawal from a Church of canonical protection. And the defense of exercising episcopal functions can only be understood by reference to the Church of Romania and not in the absolute, seeing that it is a matter of one Church fully established, conformed to the canons but which, for reasons that belong to the Church of Romania, no longer has canonical protection. Or more exactly that the Church of Romania for some reasons which belong to Her, has decided to withdraw Her canonical protection, abandoning a valid episcopate, without challenging the canonicity and the validity of the episcopacy of the bishop.

Furthermore, the intention of the Holy Romanian Synod which was already defined in its meeting of May 8-10, 1991 (notified Monseigneur GERMAIN through Monseigneur DANIEL of Moldavia), to "withdraw its canonical protection". But this decision ought not to be implemented before Bishop Daniel consults the inter-episcopal committee concerning it. A commission of dialogue between the Orthodox Church of France and the inter-episcopal committee has to then be set in place.

Tradition expects that before withdrawing Her protection from a Church, the protecting Church carry out a certain number of steps, for instance, to find new protection for the Church that She intends to abandon, to try to resolve the situation in another fashion. It is rather what has been decided by this commission in conversation. It has never assembled, and this was not the act of our Church. We have asked that the ecclesiological problem in the West be examined, beforehand, by a college of bishops of autocephalous Churches. This examination as not taken place. And our Church before this situation, in a letter of April 9, 1992, informed the Patriachate of Romania at that time that it was asking the inter-episcopal committee for a gathering of the commission that was planned. The inter-episcopal Committee never responded, and this commission has never been assembled, as I indicated to you above. Without any new element having intervened, the Orthodox Church of France has then been notified of the decision regarding the canonical break of March 3, 1993. It is on this precise point that Orthodox Tradition has not been followed, because one can not leave a Church orphaned.

What about the actual situation? In strict accord with the canons, the canonicity of the Orthodox Church of France can not be put in doubt!

Contrary to that which has been said, Her bishop has not been made the object of any suspension 'a-divinis'; he preserves the entire fullness of the episcopacy. The Romanian decision is a decision of circumstance taken for motives of pure politics or of ecclesiastical politics; in any case for motives that are totally unknown to the Orthodox Faith or to Orthodox Tradition.

It remains that the Church is isolated by the concerted efforts of the Orthodox Churches in France, but not from all the Churches, since our bishop has regular rapport with a certain number of his confreres of the Oriental Orthodox Churches. It is a matter of a refusal of communion imposed by "Orthodoxy in France" under cover of the position of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, herself in non-conformity to the canons. This refusal of communion is not able to deprive our Church of Her intrinsic ecclesiological canonicity. One can knock at the door; if someone refuses entrance, it is not the one who has knocked who is responsible: it is the one who refuses entrance and who refuses to openly discuss matters who must give an answer before the Face of God.

This situation of isolation is not canonical 'per se' precisely because Tradition desires that no Church-Protectress abandon a small Church before having concluded taking every necessary step to entrust her to a new protector. The procedure followed by the Patriarchate of Romania has not been in conformity to Orthodox Tradition exactly on this point. The Orthodox Church of France is completely within the canonical provisions and Her canonicity cannot be put in doubt, even if She is in a certain isolation of the part of certain Churches which refuse us communion (which is itself another problem). This situation in which our Church finds Herself is, moreover, contrary to the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) and to its Eighth Canon, for it deprives a little local Church of Her liberty in the Lord.

The problem for our Church is that the Patriarchate of Rome is no longer Orthodox; but there is no canonical text that does not allow the Patriarcate of Constantinople to take her (Rome's) place. It is in fact a problem that relieves all the Orthodox Churches and not only the jurisdiction of the Patriarchate of Constantinople of responsibility and concern.

Translated with the express knowledge and gracious permission of the author Father Jean de la Rosa