Monday, March 23, 2015

What is a Metropolitan?

What do we think of when we hear the word “metropolitan”? Besides an opera house and a pretty good movie, we think of a rank of bishop. In the Russian tradition, he wears a white hat. Has some kind of authority.

In fact, the role of the metropolitan is a very ancient one which predates the existence of patriarchates. The metropolitan was the bishop of the capital of a Roman province (a metropolis). The bishop of the metropolis is seen as first among equals, since, according to Canon IX of the Council of Antioch, “all men of business come together from every quarter to the metropolis.”

Let’s pretend that America is an Orthodox country and that the Church is organized like it was in the fourth century. The Church in America would be more or less divided according to political subdivisions. Thus, each state would have its own metropolitan. Of course, perhaps some sees, due to ancient custom, have authority over other provinces, as did Rome and Alexandria. Thus, maybe the Metropolitan of Boston had authority over the entirety of New England. For the most part, however, each state would be a independent and autocephalous ecclesiastical province. Let’s take New York for an example, and assume that the Metropolis is actually New York City (instead of Albany).

The various counties/diocese of our theoretical Metropolia of New York
How would bishops be chosen?

According to Canon IV of the First Ecumenical Council, all the bishops in a province should get together to appoint a new bishop, but if that is impossible due to circumstances, three bishops should come to consecrate the new bishop, and the other bishops give their assent in writing. So, if there needed to be a new bishop of Herkimer, at least three bishops (e.g. Utica, Rochester, Oneonta) would have to come to consecrate the new bishop. Moreover, the a bishop is only consecrated with the ratification of the metropolitan. Incidentally, according to Fr. John Erickson, this means that for any part of the Church to be autocephalous it needs to have at least four dioceses.

This is a marked contrast with how bishops are appointed today in the Roman Catholic Church, which reserves the appointment or confirmation of bishops to the Pope, with the local metropolitan having a merely advisory role: “The Supreme Pontiff freely appoints Bishops or confirms those lawfully elected (Can. 377 §1, 1983).” The same applies to Eastern Catholic churches (Canon 182, CCEO).

Relationship of the Metropolitan and the Diocesan Bishops

The relationship between the metropolitan bishops and the other bishops of a province is enshrined in Apostolic Canon 34, which states:
The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent; but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.
The word “nation” (ἔθνος) here is interpreted as meaning “province” (ἐπαρχία) by canonists.

The metropolitan is not an absolute monarch but a primus inter pares. If a metropolitan becomes a heretic he has no authority (Canon 1, Council of Ephesus). However, the bishops cannot “go rogue” and act independently; they are obliged to act in one accord with the metropolitan and their fellow bishops. If there is a disagreement between the bishop and his metropolitan, the bishop can appeal to the Patriarch of Constantinople (Canon 9, Fourth Ecumenical Council).

According to the canons the bishops of the province also need to meet twice a year, and this synod is presided over by the metropolitan.

Titular Metropolitans

Sometimes a province would be split in two (like West Virginia split off from Virginia during the Civil War). The bishop of the new metropolis has the rank of metropolitan but not the authority, the original metropolitan retaining his rights (Canon 12, Fourth Ecumenical Council).

Relationship of Provinces with Each Other

According to the second canon of the Second Ecumenical Council, each province was independent of the others:
The bishops are not to go beyond their dioceses to churches lying outside of their bounds, nor bring confusion on the churches; but let the Bishop of Alexandria, according to the canons, alone administer the affairs of Egypt; and let the bishops of the East manage the East alone, the privileges of the Church in Antioch, which are mentioned in the canons of Nice, being preserved; and let the bishops of the Asian Diocese administer the Asian affairs only; and the Pontic bishops only Pontic matters; and the Thracian bishops only Thracian affairs.
On the other hand, if a metropolitan becomes a heretic he is subject to neighboring Orthodox metropolitans and his own bishops, who will deprive him of episcopal rank (Canon 1, Council of Ephesus).

Rise of Patriarchates

The authority of metropolitans was severely curtailed after the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon, which subordinated the metropolitans of Asia, Pontus, and Thrace to the Patriarch of Constantinople (Canon 28), and set up the Pentarchy (Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem) which lasted up until the Schism of 1054. Moreover, title inflation resulted in many titular metropolitans. Metropolitans still retain authority, especially in autonomous or semi-autonomous hierarchies such as in ROCOR.

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