Autocephaly as a Function of Institutional Stability and Organizational Change in the Eastern Orthodox Church

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2005-02-01

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Abstract

The ecclesiastical organization uniquely characteristic of the Christian East is the autocephalous ("self-headed," or self-governing) church, which in the modern states of Eastern Europe, Russia, and the Balkans are truly national churches, whose boundaries, administrative structures, and identities closely mirror those of the state. Conventional wisdom attributes autocephaly to nationalism: Christianity inevitably becomes closely associated with national identity in those states whose churches are of Byzantine political patrimony, and autocephaly is the organizational manifestation of that association. This study argues that a better explanation for the prevalence of autocephaly lies with the church's institutional framework. Formal and informal institutions, or "rules of the game," structure the relationships between groups of local churches and provide incentives to observe constraints upon actions that restructure those relationships. A restructuring of ecclesiastical relationships implies that an alteration in incentives changed the equilibrium. In the Christian East, enforcement of the equilibrium historically has been carried out by the state.

This study explores the institutional framework of the Orthodox Church, outlining the formal (canon law) and informal (conventions and tradition) rules governing organizational change.  These rules are then examined in light of historical evidence of how autocephalous churches have come into being throughout the two millennia of the church's existence.  The study concludes that the institutional framework of the Orthodox Church, formed within the political context of the Roman and later East Roman (Byzantine) Empire, became increasingly incongruent both with the changing political geography of Eastern Europe and with the enforcing role afforded to secular political authority as imperial structures gave way to modern nation-states.  Since the formal institutional rules have proved resistant to change and unable to keep pace with the changing political geography, the Orthodox Church has relied increasingly upon flexible informal rules which has resulted in a proliferation of autocephalous churches.  In addition to locating a more compelling explanation for autocephaly within institutional theory, this study argues that the Orthodox Church provides a compelling area for exploration of some of the more vexing analytical problems in institutional theory, such as why institutions change slowly or even appear not to change at all.

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