The Orthodox Church was founded by our Lord Jesus Christ and is the living manifestation of His presence in the history of the mankind. The most conspicuous characteristics of Orthodoxy are its rich liturgical life and its faithfulness to the apostolic tradition. It is believed by Orthodox Christians that their Church has preserved the tradition and continuity of the ancient Church in its fullness compared to other Christian denominations which have departed from the common tradition of the Church of the first 10 centuries. Today the Orthodox Church numbers approximately 300 million Christians who follow the faith and practices that were defined by the first seven ecumenical councils. The word orthodox (“right belief and right glory”) has traditionally been used, in the Greek-speaking Christian world, to designate communities, or individuals, who preserved the true faith (as defined by those councils), as opposed to those who were declared heretical. The official designation of the church in its liturgical and canonical texts is “the Orthodox Catholic Church” (gr. catholicos = universal).
The Orthodox Church is a family of “autocephalous” (self governing) churches, with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople holding titular or honorary primacy as primus inter pares (the first among equals). The Orthodox Church is not a centralized organization headed by a pontiff. The unity of the Church is rather manifested in common faith and communion in the sacraments and no one but Christ himself is the real head of the Church. The number of autocephalous churches has varied in history. Today there are many: the Church of Constantinople (Istanbul), the Church of Alexandria (Egypt), the Church of Antioch (with headquarters in Damascus, Syria), and the Churches of Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Czechlands and Slovak, Albania and America.
There are also “autonomous” churches (retaining a token canonical dependence upon a mother see) in Sinai, Crete, Finland, Japan, China and Ukraine. In addition there is also a large Orthodox Diaspora scattered all over the world and administratively divided among various jurisdictions (dependencies of the above mentioned autocephalous churches). The first nine autocephalous churches are headed by patriarchs, the others by archbishops or metropolitans. These titles are strictly honorary as all bishops are completely equal in the power granted to them by the Holy Spirit.
The order of precedence in which the autocephalous churches are listed does not reflect their actual influence or numerical importance. The Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch, for example, present only shadows of their past glory. Yet there remains a consensus that Constantinople’s primacy of honor, recognized by the ancient canons because it was the capital of the ancient Byzantine empire, should remain as a symbol and tool of church unity and cooperation. Modern pan-Orthodox conferences were thus convoked by the ecumenical patriarch of Constantinople. Several of the autocephalous churches are de facto national churches, by far the largest being the Russian Church; however, it is not the criterion of nationality but rather the territorial principle that is the norm of organization in the Orthodox Church.
In the wider theological sense “Orthodoxy is not merely a type of purely earthly organization which is headed by patriarchs, bishops and priests who hold the ministry in the Church which officially is called “Orthodox.” Orthodoxy is the mystical “Body of Christ,” the Head of which is Christ Himself (see Eph. 1:22-23 and Col. 1:18, 24 et seq.), and its composition includes not only priests but all who truly believe in Christ, who have entered into the Church He founded, those living upon the earth and those who have died in the Faith and in piety.”
The Great Schism between the Eastern and the Western Church (1054) was the culmination of a gradual process of estrangement between the east and west that began in the first centuries of the Christian Era and continued through the Middle Ages. Linguistic and cultural differences, as well as political events, contributed to the estrangement. From the 4th to the 11th century, Constantinople, the center of Eastern Christianity, was also the capital of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire, while Rome, after the barbarian invasions, fell under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire of the West, a political rival. In the West theology remained under the influence of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) and gradually lost its immediate contact with the rich theological tradition of the Christian East. In the same time the Roman See was almost completely overtaken by Franks.
Theological differences could have probably been settled if there were not two different concepts of church authority. The growth of Roman primacy, based on the concept of the apostolic origin of the Church of Rome which claimed not only titular but also jurisdictional authority above other churches, was incompatible with the traditional Orthodox ecclesiology. The Eastern Christians considered all churches as sister churches and understood the primacy of the Roman bishop only as primus inter pares among his brother bishops. For the East, the highest authority in settling doctrinal disputes could by no means be the authority of a single Church or a single bishop but an Ecumenical Council of all sister churches. In the course of time the Church of Rome adopted various wrong teachings which were not based in the Tradition and finally proclaimed the teaching of the Pope’s infallibility when teaching ex cathedra. This widened the gap even more between the Christian East and West. The Protestant communities which split from Rome in the course of centuries diverged even more from the teaching of the Holy Fathers and the Holy Ecumenical Councils.
Due to these serious dogmatic differences the Orthodox Church is not in communion with the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities. Some Orthodox theologians do not recognize the ecclesial and salvific character of these Western churches at all, while others accept that the Holy Spirit acts to a certain degree within these communities although they do not possess the fullness of grace and spiritual gifts like the Orthodox Church. Many Orthodox theologians are of the opinion that between Orthodoxy and heterodox confessions, especially in the sphere of spiritual experience, the understanding of God and salvation, there exists an ontological difference which cannot be simply ascribed to cultural and intellectual estrangement of the East and West but is a direct consequence of a gradual abandonment of the sacred tradition by heterodox Christians.
At the time of the Schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople, the membership of the Eastern Orthodox Church was spread throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, and Russia, with its center in Constantinople, the capital of the Byzantine Empire, which was also called New Rome. The vicissitudes of history have greatly modified the internal structures of the Orthodox Church, but, even today, the bulk of its members live in the same geographic areas. Missionary expansion toward Asia and emigration toward the West, however, have helped to spread the presence of Orthodoxy worldwide. Today, the Orthodox Church is present almost everywhere in the world and is bearing witness of true, apostolic and patristic tradition to all peoples.
The Orthodox Church is well known for its developed monasticism. The uninterrupted monastic tradition of Orthodox Christianity can be traced from the Egyptian desert monasteries of the 3rd and 4th centuries. Soon monasticism had spread all over the Mediterranean basin and Europe: in Palestine, Syria, Cappadocia, Gaul, Ireland, Italy, Greece and Slavic countries. Monasticism has always been a beacon of Orthodoxy and has made and continues to make a strong and lasting impact on Orthodox spirituality.
The Orthodox Church today is an invaluable treasury of the rich liturgical tradition handed down from the earliest centuries of Christianity. The sense of the sacred, the beauty and grandeur of the Orthodox Divine Liturgy make the presence of heaven on earth live and intensive. Orthodox Church art and music have a very functional role in liturgical life and help even the bodily senses to feel the spiritual grandeur of the Lord’s mysteries. Orthodox icons are not simply beautiful works of art which have certain aesthetic and didactic functions. They are primarily the means through which we experience the reality of the Heavenly Kingdom on earth. The holy icons enshrine the immeasurable depth of the mystery of Christ’s Incarnation in defense of which thousands of martyrs sacrificed their lives.
What is the Orthodox Church
The Orthodox Church is the original Christian Church founded by Jesus and continued by his Apostles. It is the same Church described in the Bible as the Body of Christ and the Bride of Christ (1 Corinthians 12 : 27; Ephesians 5 : 23–25). Throughout its 2000-year history Orthodox Christianity has remained faithful to the teachings and practices passed on from the Apostles and early Church Fathers (2 Thessalonians 2 : 15).
The Orthodox Church began in Jerusalem on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2), and from there spread throughout the world. Today some 200 million people identify themselves as Orthodox, most of whom live in Greece, Russia, Romania, Serbia and other eastern European countries, as well as throughout the Middle East. Approximately four million Orthodox live in the United States.
This ‘Eastern’ Orthodox faith has established itself throughout the world: in North America, Africa, Australia, and Western Europe. Small groups also exist in Asia and South America. Orthodox missionaries from Russia were present in Alaska by the late 1700s, and in Japan and China by the mid-1800s. But the spread of Orthodox peoples throughout the world increased dramatically during the 20th century, particularly in the wake of anti-Christian Communist oppression throughout Eastern Europe.
Greek Orthodox or Russian Orthodox?
Orthodox parishes are often identified according to the language in which services are celebrated or the national identity of parishioners. Thus they have come to be known as ‘Greek Orthodox,’ ‘Russian Orthodox,’ ‘Serbian Orthodox,’ etc. But this can be misleading: there is only one Orthodox Church, and it is not tied to any particular nationality. The Orthodox Church is for everyone, regardless of ethnicity: this is shown by the presence in most Orthodox parishes of many converts from Western Christianity (Protestant or Catholic) or from non-Christian beliefs.
Orthodoxy and Catholicism
The Catholic Church was one with the Orthodox Church until about the 11th century. The rupture that occurred at that time had many complex causes, including the tendency of the Western Church to invest more and more authority in the Pope. The Orthodox Church has never had a worldwide, centralized government like the Papacy; instead, each local church governs itself in mutual accord with all the other local Orthodox churches. The Orthodox Church has also maintained unchanged the original form of the Nicene Creed. The Creed was altered in the Western Church, and this was another significant cause of the schism.
Unlike the Catholic Church since Vatican II, the Orthodox Church has had no liturgical reform. It maintains a richly beautiful liturgical tradition with many customs dating back to Apostolic times, including fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays, receiving Communion on an empty stomach, ancient liturgical prayers and chants, frequent sacramental confession, standing or kneeling during services instead of sitting, and baptism by full immersion.
In the Orthodox Church there is no universal liturgical language (such as Latin in the Catholic Church); it has always been our tradition to pray in the local language. Orthodoxy also upholds the ancient practice of married clergymen, while also valuing and encouraging celibacy for those who are called to it (cf. Matthew 19 : 10–12).
Orthodoxy and Protestantism
Protestant denominations (such as Baptist, Anglican or Episcopalian, Lutheran, Presbyterian, etc.) have their origins in 16th-century Western Europe. These groups were a departure from the Catholic Church which, five hundred years previous, had departed from the Orthodox Church. Some of the Protestant reformers were earnestly trying to return to the Church of the New Testament – the early Church of the Apostles, which they believed had been distorted by the Catholic Church. Ironically, with a bit of education they would have found what they were seeking in the Orthodox Church.
In recent years, many groups within Protestantism have abandoned fundamental Christian doctrines and moral teachings, despite the clear witness of Holy Scripture, so highly valued by the 16th-century reformers. But the theological and moral vision of Orthodoxy – what Saint Paul calls ‘the mind of Christ’ – remains unchanged (1 Corinthians 2 : 16; cf. Hebrews 13 : 8).
What does Orthodoxy Teach?
The word Orthodox is Greek for ‘right glory’ and refers to the correctness and truth of the Orthodox Church’s faith and worship (cf. John 4 : 23–24).
The Orthodox faith is expressed most fully in the Bible – the God-inspired books of the Old and New Testaments. This same faith is expressed very succinctly by the Nicene Creed, composed by theologians who met at the first two (of seven) great Ecumenical Councils held in 325 and 381. This statement, based on the Scriptures, teaches that there is one God in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. God the Son – Jesus Christ – became man, was born of the Virgin Mary, suffered and died for our salvation, rose from the dead, and ascended physically to heaven, from whence he will come again at the end of the world to judge the living and the dead.
The Divine Liturgy (what Catholics often call the Mass) is the very heart of Orthodox life and faith. In it we receive Holy Communion which unites us with other Orthodox believers throughout the world. We are also united to the whole ‘communion of saints’ – all the departed martyrs, holy fathers and mothers of past ages – who join us and the hosts of angels in giving unceasing glory to God (cf. Isaiah 6 : 3; Revelation 7 : 9–17). But most importantly, Holy Communion unites each of us to Jesus Christ, for he offers himself to us in his very Body and Blood (cf. John 6 : 53–57). Orthodox parishes celebrate the Divine Liturgy every Sunday morning as well as on many feast days throughout the year.
Orthodox Christian Living
The Orthodox Church maintains basic Christian moral positions on the sanctity of life and marriage. Marriage is between one man and one woman for life, and this is the only appropriate context for physical relations that can lead to childbirth. Abortion, euthanasia, divorce, and homosexual activity are a few examples of actions which seriously distort God’s loving purpose for our lives. However, there is no sin that God will not forgive and whose damaging spiritual affects God cannot heal.
The Christian life consists in opening our hearts, minds, and bodies to this merciful grace of God’s healing, and this is a life-long endeavor requiring faith and perseverence. (cf. Philippians 2 : 12–13)
Through constant prayer, through participation in the Church’s sacraments and the study of Holy Scripture, through serious struggle against our strong inclinations to sin and selfishness, and through gestures of loving self-sacrifice for others, we strive to enter more deeply into communion with the God who is Love (1 John 4 : 16). Union with God constitutes man’s only true and lasting happiness. It is this union and this happiness which Christ Jesus longs to give us, and the Church exists to make that happen.