Archbishop Nathaniel

Archbishop Nathaniel

Archbishop Nathaniel of Detroit | Originally published in Solia – The Herald, February 2000 HT: St. Andrew House Discussion Forum

When an Orthodox Christian is asked to state what is considered to be a major difference between Orthodox Christianity and Roman Catholicism, the response is: “We don’t have a pope.” In other words, Ortho- doxy does not recognize the claim of the Bishop of Rome to have universal jurisdiction over the Church.

Jesus put a question to his disciples. “But you, who do you say I am?’ Then Simon Peter spoke up and said, `You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.’ Jesus replied, `Simon son of Jonah, you are a blessed man! Because it was no human agency that revealed this to you but my Father in heaven. So now I say to you: You are Peter and on this rock I will build my community.” (Mt 16:15-18 NJB)

The Church of Rome interprets this to mean that the person Simon son of Jonah; now called “Peter,” would be the individual in whom would reside the fullness of Christ’s own authority after the earthly mission of the Lord had been fulfilled. In other words, Peter’s personal profession of faith gave him the authority to be the guarantor of the Christian faith.

From the Orthodox point of view, there was no such understanding among the Apostles. Orthodox interpretation of Saint Matthew’s text is that Christ’s statement refers to Peter’s faith that Jesus of Nazareth is truly the Son of God and does not refer to Peter as a person in whom will reside the gift of authority over the entire Church. The Orthodox interpretation is that everyone who confesses Jesus Christ as Son of the living God is a “rock,” a witness of faith and of these witnesses is the Church of God comprised. The so-called “Petrine privilege” is a late Roman invention and is not recognized by serious historians.

Perhaps due to the unification of Italy into a secular state in the last century at the expense of the papal estates and due to the decline of Catholic ecclesiastical power in Western Europe following the “Enlightenment”, Pope Pius IX insisted on the declaration by the First Vatican Council (1870) that the Bishop of Rome is infallible when he speaks “ex cathedra,” or “officially.” In this moment in history the Roman Pontiff was guaranteed a limited geophysical site, a “political state” complete with diplomats, its own currency, postal system, etc. the “City-State” known as “The Vatican” which did not in anyway challenge his “right” to a universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

The Pope of Rome claims universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction over all adherents of the Church of Rome (and implicit is a jurisdiction over all human kind because of the great command to bring all nations to Christ). By himself, he can define dogma, and he alone chooses who will be consecrated a bishop. Every hierarch is thus a “suffragan bishop” to the Bishop of Rome.

We have gone to some length to state what we understand to be the Roman Catholic teaching of the universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Bishop of Rome, not to herein refute it so much as to use it as a point of departure in contrast with Orthodox ecclesiology. Orthodoxy states that “where the bishop is, there is the Church.” Orthodox ecclesiastical consideration is that every Bishop, Archbishop, Metropolitan, Patriarch has a particular geographic, ecclesiastical jurisdiction, but no one hierarch can claim a universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction.

In the context of Orthodox Christianity in North America today, however, the status of the Church here is in an unusual state of being in that numerous Patriarchs “de facto” claim jurisdiction over “their” people in the United States and Canada, even though this jurisdiction is outside their own national boundary and over another continent. Many of the same Patriarchates also lay claim to “their” people in other continents, as well.

It can be stated then, that identifiable, overlapping “Orthodox” universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdictions exist in Orthodoxy today. This is not an Orthodox concept.

Whereas the Pope of Rome claims universal jurisdiction based on Petrine Privilege, some Orthodox Patriarchs are exerting universal jurisdiction based on ethnic priorities. We do not know where in the Canons of the Church or the historical experience of the Church it can be found that any Patriarch may lay rightful claim to universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction based on ministry to a select ethnic presence, the so-called “diaspora” (not to be confused with the “Babylonian Captivity).
The word, “diaspora,” at best, meant the technical term for Jewish communities settled outside Palestine during the last century BC and the first century AD. These individuals regarded Jerusalem as their spiritual capital.

The use of the word “diaspora” by various Orthodox Churches to express the status of their faithful who have left their nation, willingly or unwillingly, and are living “beyond” the political, geographic borders of that homeland is strained. It is strained, because there is no geographical “center” for Orthodox Christianity; there is no “Rome,” old or new which is the unique “touchstone” for the faith; the “new” Jerusalem is the heavenly one, yet to come; and, then it is the center because the Lord Himself will dwell there, and He is the source of life and truth. The guarantor of the faith is not a place nor a particular person but the indwelling of the Holy Spirit in the Church.

Can there ‘ be a multitude of Orthodox “centers/ capitals,” each claiming spiritual obedience but just for a determined ethnic few? How can one admit to a multiplicity of such centers of jurisdiction without creating a plurality of interpretations or variations of the truth? The Church is one, the faith is one, baptism is one; and, although it might have been useful to allow an elasticity of jurisdiction based on an assumed “temporary” status of the immigrant, surely that time is past. This temporary status has continued for two centuries. Orthodox Christians in North America, for the most part, do not consider themselves to be in a state of “diaspora,” nor do they have any intention, nor desire, nor plan to “return” permanently elsewhere. Just as they are permanent citizens of North America, and those nations of birth or naturalization, so too, their Church is permanent and not in. diaspora.

It appears that the basis for the employment of universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction rested on a particular interpretation of Christ’s command to go forth and preach to all nations; that is to say, that Christ’s reference is to the conversion of people being part of a national identity, not to the conversion of individuals. One is saved through being part of a people.

This interpretation appears to have arisen in these latter times as a response to sustaining modern “national” identities, and has given rise to the “obligation” of the Mother Churches to care for her spiritual offspring around the political globe. If the obligation was forced by geo-political pressures, the Church can be excused, temporarily. This was the experience during the communist era. Now that the Churches are free to reestablish traditional Orthodox ecclesiology, they can also eradicate this un-Orthodox “universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdictionalism.”

How can the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church have a multiplicity of jurisdictions overlapping the same geographical area? How can the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Moscow, Belgrade, Bucharest, Sofia, all claim universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdiction in North America (and the rest of the world) based on the existence of their particular ethnic spiritual children living here? We are thankful that the Churches of Cyprus, Finland, Slovakia, Japan, etc., have not yet made similar claims to their ethnic compatriots in North America.

We respond to the question: “Is the concept of universal, geographical, ecclesiastical jurisdictions an Orthodox one?” We believe it is not. Therefore, let the Orthodox Christians of Canada and the United States work with the Mother Churches and seek their blessings for their respectful “long-distance” shepherds and flocks to join into one administrative unity as is the Orthodox ecclesiastical principle. Let them elect patriarchs for Canada and the United States so that the Lord’s work can continue with one heart and one mind to serve and thus give glory to the All Holy Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. To whom be all glory, honor and worship, now and ever. Amen.

+NATHANIEL, Archbishop of Detroit
Originally published in Solia – The Herald, February 2000


  1. The Archbishop presents an interesting contrast to what we just witnessed yesterday with the creation of Russian churches on the territory of the ecumenical patriarchate. This comes on the heels of Russian parishes being founded in Africa following the visit of Patriarch Kyrill to the Alexandria.

    We need to decide what the future is going to look like for the Orthodox Oecumene. Is it going to be a story of warring worldwide universal jurisdictions; Russian, Romanian, Greek, Serbian, Antiochian, causing chaos throughout the traditionally non Orthodox lands (and thereby minimizing our ability to evangelize any of these areas), or will it be a return to the traditional method of Orthodox governance, i.e. the creation of local churches – locally elected bishops sitting in synod.

    One path leads to self worship, disaster and extinction; the other leads to vibrant, growing communities.

    Given the recent actions of the Old World patriarchates, there will be a natural tendency for the Episcopal Assembly to do nothing more than legitimize the overlapping patchwork of universal jurisdictions…each Old World church retaining it’s New World colonial eparchy for it’s own parochial use.

    We must remind our bishops that such a system of governance simply guarantees our extinction on this continent…and that only a local church, in the ancient Orthodox tradition, will allow this continent to be evangelized.

    The Archbishop’s article, helps to make that point.

    Best Regards,

    • Scott Pennington :

      I don’t know that what Archbishop Nathaniel said really has any bearing on the creation of “Russian churches” on the territory of Constantinople or in Africa, so long as these churches fall under the omophorion of Constantinople and Alexandria. I mean, if non-geographical ethnic dioceses are a problem even if they’re under the omophorion of the church to whom the canonical territory belongs, then Abp. Nathaniel is a hypocrite and should merge his Archdiocese geographically with the rest of the OCA on non-ethnic lines. I’m not sure that’s what he was criticizing.

      • Scott,

        Keep in mind this article was written 10 years ago, so it was not addressing the most recent issue specifically.

        On a broader front, though, I thought the article was addressing something that is confronting the church in North America – ie, the issue of many of the Old World patriarchates essentially taking up the (Roman Catholic) notion of universal jurisdiction – which i think we would all agree is foreign to the Orthodox church.

        If you think about it…isn’t that what we are really witnessing worldwide right now? Russia setting up new parishes in W. Europe, Africa and now Turkey, and the Romanian patriarch claiming jurisdiction for Romanians all over the world are only two recent examples.

        Isn’t the reluctance of these Old World patriarchs to let go of their respective eparchies in America really the root of the problem?

        I thought the article was good because it put a finger on what is a serious problem. Look at it this way – if we continue to allow this universal jurisdiction we will have abandoned the notion of local churches. Isn’t that really what SCOBA represented…the continued interests of the Old World patriarchates?

        Is that what we are really intending to do? If so, let’s at least make a conscious decision and be done with it.

        Best Regards,

  2. Geo Michalopulos :

    Dean, as usual, His Eminence is spot on. I would add this one factor: papalism is foreign to Orthodoxy, therefore it cannot be made Orthodox, despite the best intentions of the CP. In time it will be completely repudiated, or we will have entered into a time of great apostasy.

  3. Geo Michalopulos :

    Dean, is there anyway we can send a copy of this speech to Istanbul, ATTN: Rev Fr Dr Elpidophorous Lambrianides?

  4. Scott Pennington :


    We need to distinguish between three types of situations:

    1) The situation within the OCA where they have overlapping dioceses because of the non-geographical ethnic eparchies, like that of Ab. Nathaniel.

    2) A situation where a local church, like Russia, basically offers to build and staff parishes in North Africa or Turkey for the use of its own ethnic group as well as anyone else in the area, but does so with the permission of the the local church and under its omophorion.

    3) The situation where different local churches establish overlapping jurisdictions in a no man’s land like America.

    Number 3 seems to be the problem that Ab. Nathaniel was addressing, and correctly IMHO. Number 1 is certainly less than ideal but I don’t think he was criticizing that (otherwise he would be a hypocrite, which I do not believe he is).

    I don’t see any problem at all with number 2. I don’t think it even qualifies as an anomaly.

  5. Question: Ordinarily, these issues regarding overlapping jurisdictions in North America, make my head pound, so I prefer to ignore them, but I do have a question. The bishop is coming to visit our parish church as part of our name day celebration and everyone rec’d a link to his website where I learned he had been designated the bishop of Mokissos, a place described by Wikipedia (sorry) that sounds like an abandoned archeological dig. Can anyone explain this practice to me?

    • Scott Pennington :


      This particular bishop is both bishop of Mokissos and chancellor of the diocese of Chicago. It is common practice in the Greek church in Asia Minor to name titular bishops for territories that have long since ceased to have any significant Christian presence. As a practical matter, they function as auxiliaries. Part of it is a kind of nostalgic reluctance to cede the territory to Muslims since it was historically Christian. One possible reason is to create lots of bishops for their local church in anticipation of the always-just-around-the-corner next Ecumenical Council. More bishops = more power to influence. There may be other reasons – rewarding this or that monk or cleric for loyal service, etc. I assume the duties regarding his see aren’t too demanding (no baptisms, funerals, marriages, etc.).

      There may be more legitimate reasons for this, these are just the ones I’ve heard of. Perhaps someone else will chime in.

      • Scott; The whole idea of an “auxillary bishop” is totally against true orthodox eccelesiolgy. In the consecration ceremony, a bishop is consecrated to a particular place WITH FAITHFUL and the faithful confirm it with AXIOS. A bishop without a see with faithful in that see is no bishop, according to our ecclesiology!

        • Scott Pennington :


          In one sense I agree with you, in another I would prefer to be less adamant. A man consecrated by three other bishops according to canon law is a bishop. I don’t think that you’re suggesting that his consecration was not valid and therefore his episcopal acts have no grace. Also, I would qualify what you said by also saying that a bishop of a see from which he is driven may remain a valid bishop, even of that see. Were it not so, neither Patriarch Ignatius nor the former Karlovtsy Synod would have any authority.

          However, in a very real sense you are spot on. The existence of auxiliary bishops is not a canonical phenomenon. However, neither is the New Calendar, kneeling on Sundays, or any number of things done here and there in the Orthodox world. I don’t think they’re all “hanging offenses” though. Really, the bottom line standard is what the wider community of bishops is willing to tolerate. What they should tolerate is another question . . .

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