The bishop is the first and highest degree of the clergy in the Orthodox Church (επίσκοπος or episkopos in Greek, which means overseer). A bishop is the direct successor to the Apostles in the service and government of the Church. The bishop thus serves εις τόπον και τύπον Χριστού (in place and as a type of Christ) in the Church. No bishop in Orthodoxy is considered infallible. None has any authority over or apart from his priests, deacons, and people or the other bishops. They have the responsibility of maintaining the unity of the Church throughout the world by insuring the truth and unity of the faith and practice of their diocese. The bishop represent his particular diocese to the other churches or dioceses, and represents the Universal Church to his own particular priests, deacons, and people.
In the Orthodox Church, from about the sixth century, it has been the rule that bishops are single men or widowers. Bishops are also usually in at least the first degree of monastic orders.
It is the belief of Orthodoxy that Christ is the only priest, pastor, and teacher of the Christian Church. He alone forgives sins and offers communion with God, his Father. Christ alone guides and rules his people. Christ remains with his Church as its living and unique head. Christ remains present and active in the Church through the Holy Spirit.
Through the sacrament of holy orders bishops give order to the Church. Bishops guarantee the continuity and unity of the Church from age to age and from place to place, that is, from the time of Christ and the apostles until the establishment of God’s Kingdom in eternity. Bishops receive the gift of the Holy Spirit to manifest Christ in the Spirit to men. Bishops are neither vicars, substitutes, nor representatives of Christ. It is Christ, through his chosen ministers, who acts as teacher, good shepherd, forgiver, and healer. It is Christ remitting sins, and curing the physical, mental, and spiritual ills of mankind. This is a mystery of the Church.
A ruling bishop or diocesan bishop is responsible for and the head of all the parishes located in his a particular geographical territory, called a diocese or archdiocese. All authority of the lower orders of clergy is derived from the bishop. No divine services may be served in any Orthodox temple without the authorization of a bishop. Saint Ignatius the God-bearer of Antioch went so far as to state that
“he who acts without the bishop’s knowledge is in the devil’s service.”
Sacramentally, all bishops are equal. Nevertheless, there are distinctions of administrative rank among bishops.
The title patriarch is reserved for the primate of certain of the autocephalous Orthodox churches. The first hierarch of the other autocephalous churches are styled metropolitan or archbishop or archbishop. The title patriarch was first applied to the original three major sees of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch, and shortly after extended to include Constantinople and Jerusalem (cf. Pentarchy). Much later the term was granted to the heads of other most significant churches. Significance for some churches now may be more historical than actual.
The primate of the Church of Constantinople assumed the title Ecumenical Patriarch. The primate of the Church of Alexandria was granted the title Pope and Patriarch. The primate of the Church of Georgia recently amended his title from Catholicos to Catholicos-Patriarch.
Archbishops and Metropolitans
The title of archbishop or metropolitan may be granted to a senior bishop, usually one who is in charge of a large ecclesiastical jurisdiction. He may or may not have provincial oversight of suffragan bishops. He may or may not have auxiliary bishops assisting him.
In the Slavonic and Antiochian traditions, a metropolitan outranks an archbishop. The reverse is the situation in the Greek tradition. The Antiochian tradition also uses the style metropolitan archbishop to differentiate from metropolitan bishops in the Greek tradition.
The change in the Greek tradition came about in later Greek history, because the diocesan bishops of ancient sees (which in the Greek diaspora include most) came to be styled metropolitans, short for “metropolitan bishops.”
The Slavonic and Antiochian churches continue to follow the older tradition, where an archbishop is a senior bishop in charge of a major see, and a metropolitan is a bishop in charge of a province which may include a number of minor and/or major sees.
In the Greek tradition, all diocesan bishops of autocephalous churches such as the Church of Greece (the bishop of Patras being Metropolitan) are now metropolitans, and an archbishop holds his title as an indication of greater importance for whatever reason.
The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America is the notable exception in the Greek practice where diocesan bishops carry the title of metropolitan. In other churches under the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate such as the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia the ruling bishop is the archbishop while the other bishops are auxiliary bishops with titles of the ancient sees.
A bishop who does not rule his own diocese is either a Patriarchal Vicar or an Auxiliary Bishop.
In the Church of Antioch, a bishop who is in charge of a newly-created diocese on behalf of, and under the supervision of, the Patriarch of Antioch is called a Patriarchal Vicar. The diocese is usually kept under the direct control of the patriarch until it becomes self-supporting. Patriarchal Vicars are not members of the Holy Synod, and do not answer to the Holy Synod. When a diocese becomes self-supporting, it is usually granted a ruling bishop who becomes a member of the Holy Synod The equivalent title in some Orthodox jurisdictions is Exarch.
Most Orthodox Churches allow themselves the capacity to appoint auxiliary bishops to assist ruling bishops within their own dioceses or archdioceses. Auxiliary bishops do not govern in their own right but only act as directed by their diocesan bishop.
Bishops who are assigned a title of ancient dioceses that no longer function are called titular bishops. The Diocese of Sourozh, the diocese of the Russian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) in Great Britain and Ireland, is an example. However, generally, titular bishops are auxiliary bishops.
The bishop wears a monastic garment called a mantiya when he arrives at a divine service. Unlike the typical monastic mantiya, which is black, that of the bishop is some other color, purple for bishops and Greek metropolitans, blue for archbishops and non-Greek metropolitans, and green for a patriarch, and upon it are sewn the Tables of the Law, square patches at the neck and feet, characterizing the Old and New Covenants.
In addition, strips of cloth, called fountains, are sewn horizontally around the mantiya, representing the streams of teachings which flow from the bishop’s mouth.
In the slavonic traditions, a ruling bishop is usually liturgically vested in the center of his church. In the Greek traditions, bishops are often vested at the altar. In the Antiochian tradition, the bishop usually vests in the sanctuary.
Liturgically, except for the phelonion and the nabedrennik, a bishop wears all the vestments of a priest. The phelonion was at first part of the bishop’s vestments but was replaced by a garment, similar to the deacon’s sticharion, called a sakkos (also saccos), a garment of humility. As Christ’s robe was without seam, the bishop, as an icon of Christ, wears the saccos either sewn or buttoned at the sides.
Over the saccos, the bishop wears a wide shoulder covering called the omophorion. It hangs down in front and back, and symbolizes the wandering sheep which Christ took upon his shoulders as the Good Shepherd. In ancient times, was made of sheepskin. At other times at services, the bishop may wear a shorter omophorion that has both ends hanging down the front called the small omophorion
The bishop wears a richly embroidered crown, called a mitre. This is to represent the power conferred upon a minister of the Church.
Together with his pectoral cross, the bishop also wears a small, circular icon of the Savior or of the Mother of God, called the Panagia (All-Holy), or Engolpion, over his heart. This is to remind him that he must always bear in his heart our Lord and his Holy Mother, and thus his own heart must be pure.
An episcopal staff called a crozier is carried by the bishop, as a shepherd’s crook, to be reminiscent that he is a shepherd of Christ’s flock. It has a cross at the top, just above a double crook. This double crook is sometimes in the shape of serpents’ heads, symbolizing the serpent lifted up by Moses in the wilderness. (Now Christ lifted up on the Cross.)
At services in the Slavic traditions, the bishop stands on a small round or oval rug, called orlets, upon which is represented an eagle hovering over a city. This symbolizes his rule over a city and the eagle reminds the bishop that by his teaching and life he must rise above his flock and be an example of one hopeful to the things of heaven.
In the Greek traditions, the bishop sits or stands at the bishop’s throne on the south side of the church, on the solea. The back of the chair of this throne has an icon depicting Christ the King, and the bishop will first venerate this icon before occupying the throne.
At times during the services, the bishop blesses the faithful with two candlesticks, one with two candles called dikiri and the other with three called trikiri, the first symbolizing the two natures of Christ, the other symbolizing the three persons of the Holy Trinity.