Modern Structure of the Church
Elements of the modern structure of the Church’s leadership are anticipated in the pages of the New Testament, however formal geographical divisions developed over time and were greatly influenced by the political boundaries of the Roman empire. This exploration will work from the most particular, local level up to the general, worldwide level.
Parish - The smallest individual unit within the formal structure of the Church is the Parish.
In the earliest days of Christianity there was one Parish in a given city, and within this Parish a Bishop (Greek ‘episcopos’, meaning “overseer”) presided. As the Church grew, and multiple parishes were needed in a given city, the Bishop’s assistants, variously called Presbyters (‘elders’) or Priests, assisted the Bishop by leading the other parishes in his stead.
Today, each Parish has at least one Priest, while larger Parishes may have several. The Bishop is still the chief-shepherd of each flock, but the Presiding Priest (Greek ‘proïstamenos’, meaning “he who stands as first”) acts in the Bishop’s name with Assistant Priest(s) in turn aiding the Presiding Priest, under his direction. The Bishop’s main Parish retains the ancient distinction of being the Cathedral (from the Greek, meaning “seat”).
Diocese - A grouping of all the Parishes under the leadership of a single Bishop is called a Diocese.
In America, a Diocese may be as geographically small as a couple of tiny states, or as expansive as many large ones—simply depending on the density of Parishes. A Diocese whose Cathedral city has the distinction of being a significant center may have an honorific, such as ‘Metropolis,’ ‘Archdiocese,’ or even, in the most ancient of cities, ‘Patriarchate’. A Bishop who is seated in one of these cities is thus styled as ‘Metropolitan,’ ‘Archbishop,’ or ‘Patriarch,’ respectively.
A Bishop is sovereign in his own Diocese, assisted by his priests. Nevertheless, he does nothing extraordinary within his Diocese without the consent of the most senior Bishop of the larger Region to which his Diocese belongs.
Synod - A Synod (Greek ‘to share the same road’) is a body of Bishops whose Dioceses are all in the same Region.
The most senior among them is referred to as the Protos, or Primate (‘first’). Together, they decide on matters that pertain to the whole Region, and deal with any extraordinary matters that arise. In the ancient tradition of the Church, the Protos does nothing extraordinary without the consent of the Synod, and none of the Bishops of the Synod does anything extraordinary without the consent of the Protos.
General Synod - A General Synod comprises all the Primates of the regional Churches.
General Synods are incredibly rare, they have no set regular schedule for convening, as a regional Synod does, but are convened when matters that affect the worldwide Church must be addressed. The most famous examples of General Synods are the Ecumenical Councils which deliberated over weighty matters of theology, and formulated guidelines to navigate difficult pastoral problems.
The most recent General Synod was held in the summer of 2016 on the island of Crete. The heads of nearly all the local Churches were in attendance, the earliest preparatory work for it having begun nearly a century before its convocation. The determinations of a General Synod are considered binding upon the whole worldwide Church, but the acceptance of its rulings takes time beyond the meetings of the General Synod itself. Regional Synods continue to discuss the documents produced, theological scholars continue to examine their import and argumentation, and the laity either accept or reject these determinations. The fallout from the Council of Florence in the 15th century is the preëminent example of laity rejecting a General Synod. As the Turkish armies were about to take what was left of the Eastern Roman Empire, a delegation of Greek Orthodox bishops met with a Roman Catholic delegation in Florence, Italy—they hoped union would also bring military aid from Rome. There, all but one bishop—St. Mark of Ephesus—signed an agreement, acquiescing to the Roman Catholic teaching on such matters as the Filioque and Purgatory. When the bishops returned, the laity were enraged at the theological compromises they had made—the bishops recanted, joining St. Mark’s opposition, and the council was overturned.
It should be noted that outside its formal leadership structure, there is a yet more fundamental unit within the body of the Church, that of the family. A Parish is made up of the laity (‘the people’), and they themselves live out Christian lives not only in the Parish but in their own homes. Appropriately, the Christian home is described as ‘the little Church’. Thus:
The worldwide Church is only as healthy as its regional Churches.
A regional Church is only as robust as its Dioceses.
A Diocese is only as vigorous as its Parishes.
And a Parish is only as strong its families.
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