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An Orthodox Church Canonist Comments on Whether or not an Exarch of Constantinople Can Lead the Assembly of Bishops

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Ecumenical Patriarchate drawingSource: Orthodox Christian Laity

The argument presented to me by the Antiochian Archdiocese leadership is that Archbishop Demetrios cannot preside over the Assembly of Bishops of the USA, because he is an Exarch.  (See a reasonable explanation to the contrary below by Very Rev. Dr. Alexander Rentel, Assistant Professor of Canon Law and Byzantine Studies at St. Vladimir’s Orthodox Theological Seminary).    The games must stop!  The bishops have the responsibility to make canonical the Churches outside the boundaries of the former Roman Empire.  Orthodox Christianity as presently organized in the so-called Orthodox Diaspora is uncanonical.  The Assembly of Bishops of the USA has the task of presenting the blueprint to make the US Church canonical.  The Church as presently organized is not fulfilling the Commission of our Lord to bring the Good News to all people.  Orthodox Christian ecclesiology requires that the Church in the lands outside of the former Roman Empire be unified and self-governing, ruled by a Synod of Bishops in each specific geographic area that works in synergy with the clergy and laity through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.  In the United States, there needs to be a Synod of Bishops with its own Patriarch.  We have been discussing this proposition for 7 years now, and it is time to move ahead.      

George Matsoukas, OCL Executive Director

At the outset, I would say that the term exarch is both an honorific title and something particular to the person. So if you click here [http://www.ec-patr.org/hierarchs/index.php?lang=en], and look through the various titles of metropolitans and archbishops of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, with the exception of the metropolitans of the GOA in the US, all the hierarchs are “ὑπέρτιμος καί ἔξαρχος” of one area or another. These are in a sense honorific titles, as I say, but the authority of these metropolitans and archbishops within their canonical territory, including Abp. Dimitrios, is very real. The titles, in other words, do indicate to a degree the place of their episcopal authority.

As has been indicated to you, in the canonical literature, an ἔξαρχος can be the synonymous with the primate of a given territory (“the exarch of the eparchy” as in Sardica 6, or “the exarch of a diocese” as in Chalcedon 9 and 17), or can signify something akin to an emissary, someone invested with particular authority. In this case, the exarch is to be recognized and honored with the same recognition and honor accorded to the one whom the exarch represents.

Having said that, I want to be clear that exarchs as emissaries are not an Eastern Apostolic Nuncio, they are still bishops with very real local sees. What might be confusing is the practice of the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which has been to give titles to bishops in the so-called Diaspora not of the major Western cities, but of the countries. So for example Met. Gennadius is of Italy and Exarch of Southern Europe; Gregorios of Thyateria and Northern Europe and Ireland; Emmanuel of France (Gaul) and Exarch of Europe. In the same way, Abp. Demetrios is of America and exarch of the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. All of these bishops are bishops of a territory, with the canonical rights and responsibilities, and have the added honorific of Exarch and Ypertimos.

As such, to say that Abp. Demetrios is simply an exarch and cannot lead the Episcopal Assembly is not convincing to me.

Prof. Vlassios Phidas has written an excellent article on the history of these titles: V. Phidas, “The Ecclesiastical Title of ‘Hypertimos And Exarch,” Greek Orthodox Theological Review 44 (1999).

Finally, I point out that a bishop can be removed from his see by the holy synod of which he is a part. Obviously, it would have to be for a canonical reason, but it can and does happen.

Fr Alexander Rentel

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