The Orthodox Church

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Excerpts from the

Orthodox Church

by Bishop Kallistos Ware

Part I: History.

(Please get the full version of this book at any major bookstore)


Introduction. The Beginnings. Byzantium: The Church of the Seven Councils. The Great Schism. The conversion of the Slavs. The Church under Islam. Moscow and St. Petersburg. The twentieth century: Greeks and Arabs. The twentieth century: Diaspora and mission.


Orthodoxy is not just a kind of Roman Catholicism without the Pope, but something quite distinct from any religious system in the west. Yet those who look more closely at this “unknown world” will discover much in it which, while different, is yet curiously familiar. “But that is what I have always believed!” Such has been the reaction of many, on learning more fully about the Orthodox Church and what it teaches; and they are partly right. For more than nine hundred years the Greek East and the Latin West have been growing steadily apart, each following its own way, yet in the early centuries of Christendom both sides can find common ground. Athanasius and Basil lived in the east, but they belong also to the west; and Orthodox who live in France, Britain, or Ireland can in their turn look upon the national saints of these lands — Alban and Patrick, Cuthbert and Bede, Geneviève of Paris and Augustine of Canterbury — not as strangers but as members of their own Church. All Europe was once as much part of Orthodoxy as Greece and Christian Russia are today.

Robert Curzon, traveling through the Levant in the 1830s in search of manuscripts which he could buy at bargain prices, was disconcerted to find that the Patriarch of Constantinople had never heard of the Archbishop of Canterbury. Matters have certainly changed since then. Travel has become incomparably easier; the physical barriers have been broken down. And travel is no longer necessary: a citizen of western Europe or America need no longer leave his own country in order to observe the Orthodox Church at first hand. Greeks journeying westward from choice or economic necessity, and Slavs driven westward by persecution, have brought their Church with them, establishing across all Europe and America a network of dioceses and parishes, theological colleges and monasteries. Most important of all, in many different communions during the present century there has grown up a compelling and unprecedented desire for the visible unity of all Christians, and this has given rise to a new interest in the Orthodox Church. The Greco-Russian diaspora was scattered over the world at the very moment when western Christians, in their concern for reunion, were becoming conscious of the relevance of Orthodoxy, and anxious to learn more about it. In reunion discussions the contribution of the Orthodox Church has often proved unexpectedly illuminating: precisely because the Orthodox have a different background from the west, they have been able to open up fresh lines of thought, and to suggest long-forgotten solutions to old difficulties.

The west has never lacked men whose conception of Christendom was not restricted to Canterbury, Geneva, and Rome; yet in the past such men were voices crying in the wilderness. It is now no longer so. The effects of an alienation which has lasted for more than nine centuries cannot be quickly undone, but at least a beginning has been made.

What is meant by “the Orthodox Church”? The divisions which have brought about the present fragmentation of Christendom occurred in three main stages, at intervals of roughly five hundred years. The first stage in the separation came in the fifth and sixth centuries, when the “Lesser” or “Separated” eastern Churches became divided from the main body of Christians. These Churches fall into two groups, the Nestorian Church of Persia, and the five Monophysite Churches of Armenia, Syria (the so-called “Jacobite” Church), Egypt (the Coptic Church), Ethiopia, and India. The Nestorians and Monophysites passed out of western consciousness even more completely than the Orthodox Church was later to do. When Rabban Sauma, a Nestorian monk from Peking, visited the west in 1288 (he traveled as far as Bordeaux, where he gave communion to King Edward I of England), he discussed theology with the Pope and Cardinals at Rome, yet they never seem to have realized that from their point of view he was a heretic. As a result of this first division, Orthodoxy became restricted on its eastward side mainly to the Greek-speaking world. Then came the second separation, conventionally dated to the year 1054. The main body of Christians now became divided into two communions: in western Europe, the Roman Catholic Church under the Pope of Rome; in the Byzantine Empire, the Orthodox Church of the East. Orthodoxy was now limited on its westward side as well. The third separation, between Rome and the Reformers in the sixteenth century, is not here our direct concern.

It is interesting to note how cultural and ecclesiastical divisions coincide. Christianity, while universal in its mission, has tended in practice to be associated with three cultures: the Semitic, the Greek, and the Latin. As a result of the first separation the Semitic Christians of Syria, with their flourishing school of theologians and writers, were cut off from the rest of Christendom. Then followed the second separation, which drove a wedge between the Greek and the Latin traditions in Christianity. So it has come about that in Orthodoxy the primary cultural influence has been that of Greece. Yet it must not therefore be thought that the Orthodox Church is exclusively a Greek Church and nothing else, since Syriac and Latin Fathers also have a place in the fullness of Orthodox tradition.

While the Orthodox Church became bounded first on the eastern and then on the western side, it expanded to the north. In 863 Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius, the Apostles of the Slavs, traveled northward to undertake missionary work beyond the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire, and their efforts led eventually to the conversion of Bulgaria, Serbia, and Russia. As the Byzantine power dwindled, these newer Churches of the north increased in importance, and on the fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 the Principality of Moscow was ready to take Byzantium’s place as the protector of the Orthodox world. Within the last 150 years there has been a partial reversal of the situation. Although Constantinople itself still remains in Turkish hands, a pale shadow of its former glory, the Church in Greece is free once more; but Russia and the other Slavonic peoples have passed in their turn under the rule of a non-Christian government.

Such are the main stages which have determined the external development of the Orthodox Church. Geographically its primary area of distribution lies in eastern Europe, in Russia, and along the coasts of the eastern Mediterranean. It is composed at present of the following self-governing or “autocephalous” Churches (After each Church an approximate estimate of size is given. Like all ecclesiastical statistics, these figures are to be treated with caution, and they are in any case intended merely as a rough comparative guide. For many Orthodox Churches, particularly those in communist countries, no up-to-date statistics are available. For the most part the figures indicate nominal rather than active membership):
The four ancient Patriarchates: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. Though greatly reduced in size, these four Churches for historical reasons occupy a special position in the Orthodox Church, and rank first in honor. The heads of these four Churches bear the title Patriarch.
Eleven other autocephalous Churches: Russia, Romania, Serbia (in Yugoslavia), Bulgaria, Georgia, Cyprus, Poland, Albania, Czechoslovakia and Sinai.

All except three of these Churches — Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Albania — are in countries where the Christian population is entirely or predominantly Orthodox. The Churches of Greece, Cyprus, and Sinai are Greek; five of the others — Russia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Poland — are Slavonic. The heads of the Russian, Romanian, Serbian, and Bulgarian Churches are known by the title Patriarch; the head of the Georgian Church is called Catholicos-Patriarch; the heads of the other churches are called either Archbishop or Metropolitan.

There are in addition several Churches which, while self-governing in most respects, have not yet attained full independence. These are termed “autonomous” but not “autocephalous”: Finland, Japan and China.
There are ecclesiastical provinces in western Europe, in North and South America, and in Australia, which depend on the different Patriarchates and autocephalous Churches. In some areas this Orthodox “diaspora” is slowly achieving self-government. In particular, steps have been taken to form an autocephalous Orthodox Church in America, but this has not yet been officially recognized by the majority of other Orthodox Churches.
The Orthodox Church is thus a family of self-governing Churches. It is held together, not by a centralized organization, not by a single prelate wielding absolute power over the whole body, but by the double bond of unity in the faith and communion in the sacraments. Each Church, while independent, is in full agreement with the rest on all matters of doctrine, and between them all there is full sacramental communion. (Certain divisions exist among the Russian Orthodox, but the situation here is altogether exceptional and, one hopes, temporary in character). There is in Orthodoxy no one with an equivalent position to the Pope in the Roman Catholic Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople is known as the “Ecumenical” (or universal) Patriarch, and since the schism between east and west he has enjoyed a position of special honor among all the Orthodox communities; but he does not have the right to interfere in the internal affairs of other Churches. His place resembles that of the Archbishop of Canterbury in the worldwide Anglican communion.

This decentralized system of independent local Churches has the advantage of being highly flexible, and is easily adapted to changing conditions. Local Churches can be created, suppressed, and then restored again, with very little disturbance to the life of the Church as a whole. Many of these local Churches are also national Churches, for during the past in Orthodox countries Church and State have usually been closely linked. But while an independent State often possesses its own autocephalous Church, ecclesiastical divisions do not necessarily coincide with State boundaries. Georgia, for instance, lies within the U.S.S.R., but is not part of the Russian Church, while the territories of the four ancient Patriarchates fall politically in several different countries. The Orthodox Church is a federation of local, but not in every case national, Churches. It does not have as its basis the political principle of the State Church.

Among the various Churches there is, as can be seen, an enormous variation in size, with Russia at one extreme and Sinai at the other. The different Churches also vary in age, some dating back to Apostolic times, while others are less than a generation old. The Church of Czechoslovakia, for example, only became autocephalous in 1951.

Such are the Churches which make up the Orthodox communion as it is today. They are known collectively by various titles. Sometimes they are called the Greek or Greco-Russian Church; but this is incorrect, since there are many millions of Orthodox who are neither Greek nor Russian. Orthodox themselves often call their Church the Eastern Orthodox Church, the Orthodox Catholic Church, the Orthodox Catholic Church of the East, or the like. These titles must not be misunderstood, for while Orthodoxy considers itself to be the true Catholic Church, it is not part of the Roman Catholic Church; and although Orthodoxy calls itself eastern, it is not something limited to eastern people. Another name often employed is the Holy Orthodox Church. Perhaps it is least misleading and most convenient to use the shortest title: the Orthodox Church.

Orthodoxy claims to be universal — not something exotic and oriental, but simple Christianity. Because of human failings and the accidents of history, the Orthodox Church has been largely restricted in the past to certain geographical areas. Yet to the Orthodox themselves their Church is something more than a group of local bodies. The word “Orthodoxy” has the double meaning of “right belief” and “right glory” (or “right worship”). The Orthodox, therefore, make what may seem at first a surprising claim: they regard their Church as the Church which guards and teaches the true belief about God and which glorifies Him with right worship, that is, as nothing less than the Church of Christ on earth. How this claim is understood, and what the Orthodox think of other Christians who do not belong to their Church, it is part of the aim of this book to explain.

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