Our Community and the Larger Church

When we refer to “the Church,” we can mean several things: the local community; a group of local communities gathered together in one area, called a diocese or metropolis; a grouping of dioceses together in one nation or territory; or all the faithful of the Body of Christ.

We experience the Church mostly in our local congregation (also called a parish). The parish is the local group of Christians meeting together in a community. A local parish that is not yet fully developed is often referred to as a mission. In either case, whether there are five Christians or five hundred, each parish or mission is both valuable in God’s eyes and can meet all the spiritual needs of the local Christians gathered together for prayer, fellowship, and outreach. A parish is headed by a priest, and a mission is served by a priest who may travel in from another area. In our mission, the priest caring for our community is Fr. Anastasios Hudson, who serves our mission, and St. Mark the Evangelist Orthodox Mission in Raleigh, NC.

The parishes are gathered together in a group, which is called either a diocese or metropolis. A Metropolis is headed by a bishop, and the priests in the parish serve as his deputies. We are used to thinking of parishes as parts of the diocese, with the diocese being above a parish in terms of organization and priority. However, this is not the most helpful way to think about it. In the early Church, each city had a bishop caring for it, and oftentimes the bishop was the president of one community. As Christianity spread, and there were Christians located in several areas in a city, the bishop would deputize priests to represent him in satellite communities, but they always remembered him by name as they prayed, in order to keep alive the intimate relation between all the communities under the one bishop. The bishop then should be seen as the center of a circle, and the parishes are surrounding him, being served by those who share in the bishop’s priesthood and serve under his guidance. In our diocese, the Metropolis of North and South America, the ruling bishop is His Eminence Metropolitan Pavlos.

Each bishop serving in his diocese is actually the Church in its fullness; instead of viewing dioceses as parts of a larger entity, Orthodox theology sees each diocese as the Church in its fullness. What this means is that each local Church has all of the means for grace; a priesthood, a flock, the Gospel is preached, and people serve the Lord. This scenario is repeated in each local Church, such that all the Churches together are not parts of a whole, but rather each local Church is the full Church, but becoming one body by sharing in communion. This is similar to a marriage, where two whole persons become one flesh. Both is a person in his or her own right, but together they manifest what marriage is: a unity of persons in one. In the same way, all of the full local Churches together manifest unity and the fullness of faith. This is most manifest when they serve Holy Communion together, partaking of the one chalice, or celebrate together a major feast day, such as Theophany.

For purposes of administration, the local bishops in one area meet together to discuss issues of common concern, and they set common policy. This is called a Synod of bishops. Our diocese is a member of the Synod of the Church of Greece, because it was founded in the 1950’s as a missionary district. Eventually, when there are enough communities and bishops in America, the American Church might even become its own self-governing local Church. In either case, the diocese is united to other dioceses based on a commonality, in this case our origins in Greece.

Each Synod has a president or first hierarch. Unlike the papal model, he is not above the other bishops, but is rather elected by them to preside at meetings and serve as a first among equals for good order. Our Synod’s first hierarch is His Beatitude Archbishop Chrysostomos II (Kiousis).

Together with the Orthodox in other areas such as Russia, Serbia, and even Australia and Africa, we are the body of Christ, the same Church mentioned in the New Testament, which was commissioned by Christ to baptize all nations, and which was given the grace to do this on the day of Pentecost.