Is the Eucharist episcopo-centric not presbytero-centric?

Is the Eucharist episcopo-centric not presbytero-centric? This is the view expressed by Metropolitan John (Zizioulas) as found in his article: “Ecclesiological Presuppositions of the Holy Eucharist” in The One and Many: Studies on God, Man, the Church and the World Today (Sebastian Press, 2010). He derives from this that a Presbyter serves in the name of the local bishop that the parish Eucharist is a problem because it does not have all the orders of the Church present because it does not include the bishop and so it must be seen as an extension of the bishop’s one Eucharist. This is in turn follows the logic that at the Eucharist there is the presence of the whole Church and a gathering of the faithful in one place with the bishop. The parish system is thus a distortion of the pure model of one congregation of the faithful in each place gathered around the bishop. Presbyters in this model seem to become vicars of the bishop, who is the required president of every Eucharist. Parishes are only parts of the community of people in one place but also part of the structure. So, is this correct?

The arguments for this view are quite strong and one can find support for them in the patristic literature. However, the results do not seem to properly reflect all the patristic evidence. For example St John Chrysostom describes the presbyter as a true president and teacher of his parish equal with the bishop in all but the power of ordination (Homily 11 on 1 Timothy). Also one can question the notion that a parish is somehow incomplete as a gathering of the Church without the physical presence of the bishops and that this must be somehow actualised. (If this is so on the grounds of all orders being present then the absence of each of a deacon, sub-deacon, reader, chanter, monk etc will also be a problem even if the bishop is present.)

A key assumption that seems to underlie the position in question of Metropolitan Zizioulas, whose thinking is generally consistent with the patristic witness, is that a local church is to be equated with a single gathering of faithful around its bishop and that the parish system is something of an acute problem. Rather it is argued that it is better to be assumed that the parish system was the proper structure of each local church from the start and that it was never intended that a local church was to be only one gathering for the eucharist of all members of that local church, although this was probably the case in many places at various times. Why not? Because the local church structure was not formed around gatherings of faithful but around the system of cities. Bishops were appointed to cities and oversaw the city and its hinterland. With some minor exceptions, bishops were not appointed to villages nor to a section of countryside nor to larger regions with multitudes of cities. Each city would have one bishop regardless of how many faithful were present. This association of bishops with cities can be seen in the New Testament (see Titus) and traced through the patristic record. The episcopal structure is thus based on identifiable secular centres of population in terms of the territorial place and not on the number of congregations nor sizes of congregations. One reason for this is that is enables a recognisable limit of jurisdiction and identification with a physical place and this is important because while the Church is no longer bound to one place, as the nation of the Jews were, there is nevertheless only one Church in each place with one bishop as the icon of one Christ. The Church is not merely an abstraction but is in the world and occupies physical territory; it has a real tangible presence. This is safeguarded in the territorial presence of the bishop and his sole jurisdiction within that territory. The city division rather than other territorial division is appropriate both due to practical issues of overseeing the flock both small enough to know and large enough to support a bishop and also iconically as pointing towards and making present the new Jerusalem, the heavenly city within which God reigns.

Because there is one Christ and many bishops all over the world we have in each local church one bishop and many priests all over that territory; thus reflecting the Catholic Church not only in the Eucharistic gathering but also in the hierarchal and territorial organisation. Also, as each bishop is truly president of his local church and serves with in union with Christ, that is expressed as maintaining and teaching the orthodox faith and acting in obedience to the sacred Canons, (as well as working in councils with other bishops) so too each presbyter is truly president of his local parish in union to Christ manifested as being in union with his bishop in one mind so doing nothing without his consent as well as orthodox faith and canonical obedience. (This is also seen in sees of primacy among bishops that no act is done beyond a bishop’s jurisdiction nor is a bishop appointed without consent of the primate, although a presbyter-bishop relationship is distinct from bishop-bishop for other reasons.) In the Eucharist just as a bishop is a true president of the gathering so also is the presbyter the true president in the parish not merely as a vicar, or hands, of the bishop but fully by way of his ordination to the priesthood. The presbyter fulfils the same iconic function as the bishop in terms of leading the Eucharist and nothing is missing in the parish led by a presbyter without the physical presence of the bishop. (In terms of lower orders they too should be present in a parish as much as in a cathedral.) A parish gathering is not merely a gathering the church in part but a full gathering in its local place. Each parish should, like each diocese, have a proper boundary and all faithful within this boundary should attend that parishes temple for worship.

The bishop does have a relationship with the priests as Christ to the Apostles and this is reflected well in a Eucharist with the bishop enthroned with the presbyters beside him. In terms of a parish the presbyter becomes Christ to the community just each Apostle and each of their successors, the bishops, make Christ present to those who have been entrusted to them.

Is the Eucharist episcopo-centric not presbytero-centric? No, it is also presbytero-centric. Correctly, it is centred around Christ as president and both the bishop and the presbyter enable Christ to be present as such when each presides at a Eucharist. The priest as president does not become congregationalism because the presbyter is ordained by one bishop and he serves with the consent of the bishop. The presidency of the eucharist gathering based on a congregation is not to be seen as equivalent to the presidency of a local church based on a city. Catholicity of the Eucharist is both in Eucharist itself and also in the union of the presbyter, and his community, with the bishop, who is remembered by a presbyter in the rite “among the first”. The bishop recognises his Metropolitan and he his Patriarch and he all others thus maintaining each one’s union, with his community, with the Catholic Church.


  1. Hmm, a thoughtful and generally balanced (presenting all sides) viewpoint. I have two questions. You say “nothing is missing in the parish led by a presbyter without the physical presence of the bishop” but if you look at the liturgy there are some key elements that are missing- they only happen when a bishop is present, and that presbyters do not do, or are you saying those bits are of very low importance? Secondly, St Chrysostom may qualify St Ignatius, but I doubt that he contradicts him, so how do you marry their statements on the centrality of the bisho?.


  2. Fr John,
    Which bits do you have in mind? My initial response is that these extra elements reflect the unique position of the bishop as distinct from the presbyters (although Abbots who are presbyters also use many of these extra elements) and are important as such but that they are not elements required to fulfil the role of president in the Eucharist that both bishop and presbyter fulfil.

    In terms of marrying the statements of St John Chrysostom and St Ignatius on the centrality of the bishop, the equality of presbyter and bishop in terms of being presidents and teachers does not clash with the centrality of the bishop which is manifested primarily in his function of ordination. The bishop’s unique functions that mark out his centrality and uniqueness are based on ordaining members of the clergy to serve, consecrating temples within which to serve and consecrating chrism with which to serve. Also, all things must be done with his consent (this is not the same as all by his initiation; the latter implies a passive presbytery rather than an active presbytery seeking consent). The presidency of the Eucharistic gathering is not unique to him nor is the teaching office. Hence, initially the names of presbyter and bishop were interchanged because they share the same functions for the most part and later the names become standardised to recognise the distinction in functions. This interchangeability of names and standardisation is important to both remind us of a level of equality that may be forgotten if the names were only ever used distinctly and of the distinction that may be forgotten if the names were always used interchangeably. The bishops centrality and uniqueness is for unity in the church and this seems to be the constant emphasis of St Ignatius. It is not to say that he is the only president and teacher. St Ignatius also recognises the Eucharist being presided by one other than the bishop: “Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.” (Smyrnaeans 8) Just as One Church does not prevent a number of local churches, so St Ignatius speaking of one Eucharist and one Altar does mean only one temple and one service but that each temple and service to conducted in unity as if one Eucharist and one Altar.


  3. Hi Fr. Patrick, thanks for your thoughtful and insightful reply which clarifies things. I have taken a few days to go back and read what was lurking in my almost subconscious on this issue because I think you are raising a very important issue. When I first read Fr Schmemann “The Eucharist” about 6 years ago I was overwhelmed- it was so good! and it made my previous years as a Protestant pastor look and feel like the shallow experience it sadly was. I agree with him that liturgical reform is necessary, which is part of why I read your article with deep interest.

    His comments on the centrality of the bishop p. 94 ff are what were behind my question and lurking in my memory- the danger of the Protestant “democratic” spirit is real. I think you have hit the nail on the head that it is the historic complexity/confusion of the bishop visavis the presbyter both in terminology and role which is difficult to resolve today, but needs clarification.

    Reading Schmemann I think I somewhat agree with Met John that the ideal is missing… “He derives from this that a Presbyter serves in the name of the local bishop that the parish Eucharist is a problem because it does not have all the orders of the Church present because it does not include the bishop and so it must be seen as an extension of the bishop’s one Eucharist.” HOWEVER “problem” is too strong a word IMHO having re-read the earlier St John on this, and your comments too. Is this another case where the ideal gave way to a practice, or is even the “ideal” of the bishop’s presence faulty (which i take it that you are arguing). Frankly, you have got me thinking a lot! And still split 50/50 🙂

    The role of the antimension requires further research… Does the priest operate on behalf of the bishop, or in his own right as appointed by the bishop. I was taught the first, and I think you’re saying that St John etc taught the second. Good issue. “Let that be deemed a proper Eucharist, which is either by the bishop, or by one to whom he has entrusted it.” seems very relevant. The word “entrusted” is imprecise! I’ll keep looking for clarification that may shed light.

    So, the parts of the liturgy i meant are significant are the extra prayers, washing of hands etc, but upon further re-reading of Fr S I see that these are really just reinstating into the liturgy the elements of the proskomede that were originally done during the liturgy rather than beforehand. So i think you are right regards this.

    I teach liturgical theology here and am currently president of the Melbourne Institute of Orthodox Christian Studies (MIOCS) hence my intense interest in this topic. I’ll follow this with interest 🙂 Thanks again or your probing article.


  4. It is interesting that the Orthodoxwiki says: “The antimension and the chrism are the means by which a bishop indicates his permission for priests under his omophorion to celebrate the Divine Liturgy and Holy Mysteries in his absence…” implying by the “absence” of the bishop that his presence is normative. However, this may be what Fr Schmemann would say is a novel modern distortion. hmm. I seek a more authoritative source 😉

    On the other hand, another website seems to imply the opposite view ie what you wrote above: “The antimension is a sign that the Divine Liturgy is only celebrated in communion with the Bishop and under his authority. The antimension is a very real symbol of a bishop’s authority as arch pastor of the whole church (eparchy). The priest is appointed and delegated by the bishop to serve the people of the parish and to celebrate the Divine Liturgy.” See

    And also, from the OCA website FWIW “On the altar table one always finds the antimension. This is the cloth depicting Christ in the tomb which contains the signature of the bishop and is the permission for the local community to gather as the Church. “Antimension” means literally “instead of the table.” Since the bishop is the proper pastor of the Church, the antimension is used instead of the bishop’s own table which is, obviously, in his own church building, the cathedral — the place where the bishop has his chair (cathedra). ”
    “Since the bishop is the proper pastor of the Church” is certainly a strong statement although not necessarily correct if you’re right.

    Nicolas Cabasilas “Divine Liturgy” has nothing on the antimins 😦

    “The Heavenly Banquet” by Fr Emmanuel Hatzidakis has in its article on the antimension that the priest:
    “acts under the authority and in union with the bishop”, and a separate article on the priesthood says similar, which implies the presbytero also – centric view.

    Google scholar has nothing useful.
    Surely there’s a church canon somewhere that solves this issue! 😉


  5. Two more conflicting quotes 🙂

    Neo-Caesarian Council (315) “Canon 13. Village Presbyters cannot offer in the Lord’s house of a city if a bishop or a city presbyter is present, nor moreover can he give bread in prayer, nor a cup. But if they are absent, and he is called alone to prayer, he may give.” seems to imply a prebytero-centric view.

    Whereas this Antiochian magazine article (on says the opposite (and this wording makes me frankly shudder) “In our day, every priest is but an extension of his bishop.” Unless he is saying this is wrong…


  6. Fr John,

    Regarding the antimension, I think that key to understanding this is in its name, “instead of the table” as you pointed out. The antimension was instead of a consecrated altar. As I mentioned, only a bishop could consecrate an altar because there is only one altar, which is recognised with one consecrator. The unity is found in the single consecrator not in making present the altar of a cathedral in a parish, which is not the meaning of “instead of the table” that you referenced. If one is to celebrate the Eucharist on a consecrated altar with relics within then the antimension is not necessary, hence no mention of it in the commentaries. We use it as a custom now on all altars, consecrated or not, but we should not try to use it to infer any meaning on the relationship of bishop to presbyter other than that concerning the consecration of altars. Also, the consecration by the myron for chrismation only by the bishop signifies one baptism.


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