The Greek Ecclesiastical Settlement

A really interesting passage from “The legacy of the French Revolution: Orthodoxy and nationalism,” an essay by Paschalis Kitromilides, which explains, among other things, the historical process by which the Church of Greece was granted autocephaly.

While the Enlightenment confronted the church with a secular universalist ideology, which, questions of doctrine aside, could in some instances complement and even sustain its own ecumenical values, nationalism gave rise to a conflict, where the issues not only were on the level of secular versus transcendental values but also set the ecumenicity of Christian ideals against the parochialism of nationalism. The history of this conflict turned out to be identical with the history of the Orthodox Church in the nineteenth century.

Ultimately, writes Kitromilides, “the ecumenical patriarchate, once its own formal requirements were satisfied, supplied the canonical sanction for turning regional churches into instruments of secular authority. The latter in turn used the churches for the enhancement of its own power by enlisting them in a leading role in nationalist projects.” The essay is reproduced in the Cambridge History of Christianity (Vol. 5, Eastern Christianity) published in 2008.


Greece’s first head of state, Ioannis Kapodistrias, was a devout Orthodox, deeply concerned with the restoration of religious order and Christian morals in the fledgling state emerging from the war of independence. This was reflected in the pertinent initiatives of his administration. One of his main concerns had to do with the preservation of the administrative links between the Orthodox Church in the new Greek state and the ecumenical patriarchate, because Kapodistrias was convinced that the doctrinal communion between the two branches of Greek Orthodoxy might be upset if the administrative links were severed.

The president’s good intentions, however, were not much helped when in May 1828 Patriarch Agathangelos dispatched a mission of four very senior prelates from the patriarchal synod to Greece bringing letters addressed to ‘the clergy and notables of the Peloponnese and the Aegean Islands’, whereby they were asked to resubmit to the Sublime Porte. In respectful and entirely conciliatory letter, Kapodistrias rejected the patriarch’s admonition, pointing out that it was totally impossible for the people of Greece to give up the freedom they had won with so many sacrifices. In contrast to Agathangelos, his successor Konstantios I sent his good wishes and his blessings to the Greek state in August 1830 but expressed his concern about news of Calvinist infiltration among the Orthodox of Greece. Kapodistrias reassured the patriarch about Greece’s devotion to Orthodoxy and to the Great Church. This in turn gave Konstantios the opportunity to insist on the complete re-establishment of administrative unity between the church in the territories of the Greek state and the Great Church of Constantinople.

Things were left at that. Kapodistrias’s murder in September 1831 was not only a great tragedy for the Greek state but also a tragedy for the future of relations between the church in Greece and the church of Constantinople. His approach to the ecclesiastical question was probably the only guarantee for a smooth settlement of the ecclesiastical question between Greece and Constantinople. But while the Orthodox establishment was agonizing over the issues posed by the challenges of modern politics and nationalism, Adamantios Korais, the foremost Greek political theorist of the Enlightenment, had already provided a categorical answer to all these dilemmas and questionings. This was in 1821, the very first year of the Greek war of independence. Korais used it to instruct his embattled compatriots in the duties of a free citizen. He was the first writer to frame an unequivocally nationalist position on the ecclesiastical question:

The clergy of the part of Greece that has so far been liberated … has no longer any obligation to acknowledge as its ecclesiastical head the patriarch of Constantinople, for as long as Constantinople remains contaminated by the seat of the lawless tyrant, they should instead be governed by a hieratic church, and as to some degree occurs nowadays in the church of our Russian coreligionists. It is entirely untoward for the clergy of the free and autonomous Greeks to obey the orders of a patriarch elected by a tyrant and forced to pay homage to a tyrant.

This is a remarkable statement. It formed the first of eight articles on the status of the church in the free and well-ordered republic, which Korais visualized as the future of Greece. His proposal for the regulation of ecclesiastical affairs reflected faithfully the blueprint of Enlightenment views of the shape of the rule of law. In doing this, however, Korais subjected the church to the requirements and priorities of the secular order, and although his sincere belief and hope was to see the church restored to evangelical purity, practicing and teaching genuine Christian values, in fact he delivered her to the dictates of nationalism that formed the predominant content of the new political culture associated with the modern state.

Korais’s counsels remained unheeded by Greek lay and ecclesiastical leaders in the 1820s. Somewhat paradoxically they were to be put into practice — partially and not necessarily with identical purposes in mind — not by liberal and republican thinkers and politicians like himself, but by the bureaucratic officials who took over the administration of the Greek Kingdom under the regency of Greece’s first king, Otto. One of the regency’s earliest actions, and a distinctive mark of the statecraft connected with the establishment of the new state, was a unilateral declaration of the autocephaly of the Orthodox Church in Greece. That action was part of a political program aimed at affirming the national independence and sovereignty of the new kingdom.

Sovereignty was connected with absolutism on the legitimist model of Restoration Europe. This in turn entailed a policy of administrative centralization, which not only involved breaking the power of local oligarchies and sectional interests and imposing military discipline on the chieftains of revolutionary armies, but also required bringing the church under control. In an act of 4 August 1833 the regency imposed an ecclesiastical settlement that declared the Orthodox Church in Greece independent of the mother-church in Constantinople. The head of the new autocephalous church was to be the Roman Catholic sovereign of the new kingdom, and its governance was delivered to clerical officials appointed by the crown. This was extreme caesaropapism, which was quite foreign to the traditions of the Orthodox Church and to the holy canons. The regime thus imposed on the church in Greece was dictated by considerations of a political nature, which aimed to strengthen both national independence and royal absolutism. But these aims were promoted by subjecting the church to an Erastian settlement of Protestant inspiration, which meant transferring to Greece the model of church-state relations prevailing in German Protestant states and in the Scandinavian kingdoms.

There was widespread resistance to the ecclesiastical settlement, which was later completed by decrees abolishing most monasteries and practically all nunneries in Greece. It was only under considerable pressure that Orthodox bishops resident in the kingdom, numbering some fifty-two prelates, gave their assent to the proposed settlement, on 27 July 1833, insisting only that respect for the holy canons should be explicitly added to all relevant decrees. Resistance to the settlement, nevertheless, came from the monks and from a wide cross-section of society, especially in the countryside, where there was a real fear that the faith might be adulterated. On the level of theological argument Constantine Oikonomos led the resistance to unilateral autocephaly. This towering intellectual leader was deeply devoted to the canonical order represented by the patriarchate of Constantinople. The most distinguished theological proponent of autocephaly was Theokletos Pharmakidis, a theologian trained in Gottingen and a follower of Korais’s views. He was to play the key role in the implementation of the ecclesiastical settlement.

The ecumenical patriarchate under successive patriarchs rejected the settlement as uncanonical and broke off communion with the church of Greece, which it considered schismatic. The patriarchate’s disagreement was primarily with the procedures followed in proclaiming autocephaly, not with autocephaly per se, to which Greece as a sovereign independent state was entitled according to the canons and the traditions of the church. But it took a long time to find the appropriate procedure for the accession of the church in Greece to autocephaly. In 1831 Patriarch Konstantios I and Prince Milos Obrenovic may have been able, without serious difficulty, to agree on the canonical procedures for the establishment of an autonomous church in the principality of Serbia, but a similar agreement with Greece took seventeen years to reach. Eventually in July 1850, during the second patriarchate of Anthimos IV (1848-52), an agreement on Greek autocephaly was reached, once the Greek state and the church in Greece accepted unconditionally terms that in the patriarchate’s judgment satisfied the requirements of the holy canons. On 29 June 1850, in response to formal applications by the Greek government on behalf of the church in Greece, the ecumenical patriarchate issued a ‘Synodal Tome’, granting autocephaly to the church of Greece, under a synod of bishops to be presided over by the metropolitan of Athens.

The canonical aspect of the final resolution of the problem of Greek autocephaly is important in that it set a precedent for handling similar situations in the life of Orthodoxy later on in the nineteenth and in the twentieth century. More importantly, however, from the point of view of the history of Christianity itself, the issue of Greek autocephaly set up a model and supplied the canonical basis for the sanctioning the piecemeal transformation of the universal Orthodox Church into national churches. Paradoxically, what had originally been an Erastian church settlement on the Protestant model underlay this transformation, while the ecumenical patriarchate, once its own formal requirements were satisfied, supplied the canonical sanction for turning regional churches into instruments of secular authority. The latter in turn used the churches for the enhancement of its own power by enlisting them in a leading role in nationalist projects.

The Great Church’s rejection of unilateral autocephaly remained a firm and uncompromising position. This rejection epitomized the conflict and the fundamental opposition between Orthodoxy and nationalism: the church remained adamant that it was not prepared to accept the logic of nationalism, because it involves a total indifference to the means so long as the ‘higher’ purposes of the nation are served and promoted.


  1. Isaac Crabtree :

    Fascinating essay into this subject. I’m confused, though. Which canon, exactly, condemn the Church of Greece for refusing to yoke itself to a bishop selected and to some extent controlled by a political leader who was hostile not only to Greek sovereignty but to the Orthodox Christian faith itself? I’m thinking they might have invoked the canon of common sense on that one– that, or they should have said: “Your All-Holiness, we’ll submit to you just as soon as we hang the Sultan from the walls of the city in the manner that he did so many of your predecessors.”

    I’m not sure I agree much with the idea that autocephaly can’t simply be declared. Situations like the Church of Greece demanded it, and so did the Muscovite situation after Constantinople’s betrayal of the Faith (for the second time) in the 15th Century. Is it similar to nationalism? Of course, but it’s not the same. And certainly the conscience of the whole Body is brought to bear on the decisions of a local Church. Why do we have to label adaptations of Church administration to new circumstances “protestant” or “nationalist”?

  2. George Michalopulos :

    Isaac, you are correct. In fact, there are specific canons which state that you should not commemorate a bishop during the litanies if he is preaching heresy and/or schism.

  3. George Michalopulos :

    One of the things that struck me like a punch in the gut, was the address to the “clergy and notables of the Pelopenese and the Aegean islands.” This was a way of the Phanar not even recognizing “Ellada” (Greece), which is the name of that newly independent and recognized nation.

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