In the first centuries of the history of the Christian church, the autocephalous status of a local church was promulgated by canons of the ecumenical councils. Thus, there developed the pentarchy, i.e. a model of ecclesiastical organization where the universal Church was governed by the primates (patriarchs) of the five major episcopal sees of the Roman Empire: Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. Additionally, the Church of Lebanon previously within the Church of Antioch, was granted full autocephaly in 685 AD by Pope Sergius I, the Church of Cyprus, also previously within the Church of Antioch, was granted autocephaly by Canon VIII of the Council of Ephesus and has since been governed by the Archbishop of Cyprus, who is not subject to any higher ecclesiastical authority.
The right to grant autocephaly is nowadays a contested issue, the main opponents in the dispute being the Ecumenical Patriarchate, which claims this right as its prerogative, and the Russian Orthodox Church (the Moscow Patriarchate), which insists that an already established autocephaly has the right to grant independence to a part thereof. Thus, the Orthodox Church in America was granted autocephaly by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1970, but this new status was not recognized by most patriarchates. In the modern era the issue of autocephaly has been closely linked to the issue of self-determination and political independence of a nation, or a country; self-proclamation of autocephaly was normally followed by a long period of non-recognition and schism with the mother church.
Modern-era historical precedents
Following the establishment of an independent Greece in 1832, the Greek government in 1833 unilaterally proclaimed the Orthodox church in the kingdom (until then within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate) to be autocephalous. It was not until June 1850 that the Mother Church, under the Patriarch Anthimus IV, recognized this status.
In May 1872, the Bulgarian Exarchate, set up by the Ottoman government two years prior, broke away from the Ecumenical Patriarchate, following the start of the struggle for national self-determination. The Bulgarian Church was recognized as an autocephalous patriarchate in 1945, after decades of schism.
Following the Congress of Berlin (1878), which established Serbia's political independence, full ecclesiastical independence for the Metropolitanate of Belgrade was negotiated and recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1879. Additionally, in the course of the 1848 revolution, following the proclamation of the Serbian Vojvodina (Serbian Duchy) within the Austrian Empire in May 1848, the autocephalous Patriarchate of Karlovci was instituted by the Austrian government to be abolished in 1920, shortly after the dissolution of the Austria-Hungary in 1918 and Vojvodina being incorporated into the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes. The Patriarchate of Karlovci was merged into the newly united Serbian Orthodox Church under Patriarch Dimitrije residing in Belgrade, the capital of the new country that comprised all the Serb-populated lands. The united Serbian Church also incorporated the hitherto autonomous Church in Montenegro whose independence was formally abolished by Regent Alexander's decree in June 1920.
The autocephalous status of the Romanian Church, legally mandated by the local authorities in 1865, was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate in 1885, following the international recognition of the independence of the United Principalities of Moldavia and Wallachia (later Kingdom of Romania) in 1878.
In late March 1917, following the abdication of the Russian tsar Nicholas II earlier that month and the establishment of the Special Transcaucasian Committee, the bishops of the Russian Orthodox Church in Georgia, then within the Russian Empire, unilaterally proclaimed independence of the Georgian Orthodox Church, which was not recognized by the Moscow Patriarchate until 1943 and by the Ecumenical Patriarchate until 1990.
In September 1922, Albanian Orthodox clergy and laymen proclaimed autocephaly of the Church of Albania at the Great Congress in Berat. The church was recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople in 1937.
The independent Kiev Patriarchate was proclaimed in 1992, shortly after the proclamation of independence of Ukraine and the dissolution of the USSR in 1991, and remains condemned as schismatic by the Moscow Patriarchate, which claims jurisdiction over Ukraine, and unrecognized by the other Orthodox churches. In 2018, the problem of autocephaly in Ukraine became a fiercely contested issue and a part of the overall geopolitical confrontation between Russia and Ukraine as well as between the Moscow Patriarchate and the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople.
A similar situation persists in North Macedonia, where the Macedonian Orthodox Church – Ohrid Archbishopric remains canonically unrecognized since it split off from the Serbian Church and proclaimed autocephaly in 1967. The Serbian Church still maintains an autonomous Orthodox Ohrid Archbishopric in North Macedonia, which is recognised by all other Orthodox churches as the country's canonical local church.