Orthodox Eastern Church

Also found in: Dictionary, Thesaurus.
Related to Orthodox Eastern Church: Eastern Orthodox Christianity

Orthodox Eastern Church

Orthodox Eastern Church, community of Christian churches whose chief strength is in the Middle East and E Europe. Their members number some 300 million worldwide. The Orthodox agree doctrinally in accepting as ecumenical the first seven councils (see council, ecumenical) and in rejecting the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome (the pope). This repudiation of the papal claims is the principal point dividing the Orthodox from Roman Catholics. Eastern Christians who have returned to communion with the pope are called Eastern Catholics, or Uniates; in every respect apart from this obedience to Rome, they resemble their Orthodox counterparts. This use of the terms Catholic (obeying the pope) and Orthodox (belonging to one of the Orthodox churches) is not technical, for both groups call themselves both Catholic and Orthodox (see catholic church). The word Orthodox became current at the time of the defeat (753) of iconoclasm in Constantinople. Orthodox acceptance of the seven councils resulted in the exclusion from their communion, on grounds of heresy, of the Nestorian, Jacobite, Coptic, and Armenian churches; it also involves holding a sacramental doctrine of grace ex opere operato (see grace) and of veneration of the Virgin Mary, two points differentiating the Orthodox from Protestants.

Ritual and Liturgy

The ritual that developed at the patriarchate of Constantinople—known as the Byzantine rite—gradually replaced other local rites in the Orthodox East, and after the 13th cent. became, with local variations and translations, the standard of Orthodox worship. It is sometimes called the Greek rite, because the original language was Greek, but the liturgy has been adapted into Slavonic, Arabic, Estonian, and many other languages. The liturgy is not usually celebrated daily as in the West, and it is always sung. Leavened bread is used in the Eucharist, and communion is given to laymen in both kinds (i.e., both bread and wine). Infants receive communion and confirmation. The other sacraments are similar to those of the Latin rite, except in details; e.g., confirmation is conferred by priests. The frequency of confession varies in the different self-governing churches. The church buildings are generally square, with a solid sanctuary screen covered with icons (iconostasis; for the style, see Byzantine art and architecture). Parish priests may marry prior to ordination; monks and bishops may not marry.

Church Government

The old mode of government was the patriarchate (see patriarch), but now for the most part the churches, all of which are self-governing, are each governed by a holy synod, a board of bishops and laymen, often appointed by the government; where the head of the church is called patriarch, he is often only the moderator of the synod. The number of Orthodox churches recognizing one another as such is indefinite because of the fluid state of the relations of Orthodox bishops in countries to which communicants have emigrated and, more recently, as a result of the break between the Russian Orthodox church with the patriarchate of Constantinople over the latter's recognition of the independence of the Ukrainian Orthodox church.

There are many churches apart from those directly under the patriarchs. A unique, ancient church is that of Mt. Sinai, made up of the monastery of St. Catherine and its subject houses. The archbishop is also abbot. The monastic community of Mt. Athos in Greece is of special interest.

The Patriarchs and Churches

The four ancient patriarchates enjoy the highest prestige. The patriarchate of Constantinople, having the primacy of honor after Rome, was set up when the Eastern capital was established; it included Asia Minor and the Balkan Peninsula. From the time of Justinian I the emperor controlled the patriarch absolutely. The patriarch was freer under the Turks, who gave him civil and religious jurisdiction over all the Orthodox within the Ottoman Empire. The patriarch of Constantinople never succeeded in establishing jurisdiction in the East comparable to that of the pope in the West. First the Russians, then the Greeks and the Balkan countries set up autonomous churches, always opposed by the patriarch, especially in the case of Bulgaria. In Turkey the patriarch now rules a remnant only, although some modern Orthodox churches in North and South America, Australia, and N Europe are under his direct control. The Orthodox patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch are minority churches (for the corresponding separated churches, see Copts; Jacobite Church), as is the patriarchate of Jerusalem. The patriarch represents Orthodox interests in the shrines.

There are eight national churches, each the traditional patriotic church of the people. The Church of Cyprus has been autonomous since the Council of Ephesus. The Church of Georgia is also ancient. In the 19th cent. it was absorbed by the Russian church but in 1917 resumed its autonomy. The head of the Georgian Church is titled catholicos.

The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the Orthodox churches, was led first by the metropolitan of Kiev, under Constantinople. The see was moved to Moscow, and in 1589 a new patriarchate was set up under the czar. The metropolitan of Kiev was later reestablished separate from the Moscow patriarchate under Polish-Lithuanian rule; it transferred from Constantinople to Moscow in 1686. The language of the ritual is Church Slavonic. In 1721, Peter the Great (Peter I) abolished the patriarchate and established a synod, which he controlled through its lay procurator.

In 1917 the patriarchate was revived, just before the Bolshevik Revolution began the weakening of the whole church structure. In the disturbances of the revolution many priests and bishops were killed or exiled. Churches were plundered of their sacred vessels, and seminaries were closed. In 1920, bishops residing abroad formed the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, leading to a split (1927) in Russian Orthodoxy that continued into the 21st cent. Relations between the two groups improved beginning in the late 1980s, and in 2007 they reestablished canonical communion, recognizing the overall authority of the Moscow patriarch while preserving the administrative independence of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia.

In World War II, the Soviet government consented (1943) to the reopening of churches and to the election of a patriarch (the first since 1925). The new patriarch and his successors were loyal to the Communist government. As the Soviet Union annexed lands after 1939, the local Orthodox churches disappeared; the same was true of Catholic churches of the Eastern rites, and thus it was announced that the Byzantine-rite Catholics of Ukraine and Ruthenia had united with the Russian Orthodox.

Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was received (1988) at the Kremlin, the first such reception since World War II. Gorbachev oversaw a period of improved relations with the Orthodox Church, granting it legal status, returning relics seized by the state in 1920, and lifting other restrictions on worship. Since the end of the Soviet Union the church has seen enormous growth in Russia, and in 1997 it (along with other religions recognized under Soviet rule) was given special rights and legal exemptions. Legislation in 2004 gave the church the right to regain full ownership of its churches and other lands, and the Russian church now has relatively close ties to the government (especially compared to other faiths).

In former Soviet-ruled lands outside Russia, the post-Soviet role of the Russian church sometimes has become controversial. In Ukraine, for example, many Orthodox believers joined independent churches not subordinate to the Russian patriarch, and Ukrainian lawmakers called for Constantinople to recognized the independence of Ukrainian Orthodoxy from Moscow. The tensions following Russia's seizure of Crimea in 2014 and subsequent encouragement of separatists in E Ukraine led to a renewed push for the independence of the Ukrainian church, and the patriarch of Constantinople reversed (2018) the decision of 1686 and then formally recognized (2019) the independence of the Orthodox Church of Ukraine, headed by the metropolitan of Kiev. The new church was formed through the union of previously independent Ukrainian Orthodox Church–Kiev Patriarchate and Ukrainian Autocephalous Orthodox Church as well as parts of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the patriarch of Moscow. The last, however, continues to oversee thousands of parishes in Ukraine, and regards the new church as schismatic.

The self-governing Church of Greece dates from the Greek War of Independence. It is the state church and legally much favored. The patriarch at Belgrade heads the Church of Serbia, which suffered restrictions under the Communist government of Yugoslavia and developed a strong nationalist bent in the 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Macedonian Orthodox Church declared itself autocephalous in 1967, leading to condemnation from the Serbian church (under which it had autonomy). The Macedonian church has not been recognized by other Orthodox churches, and an autonomous Macedonian archdiocese under the Serbian church also exists. The Church of Bulgaria was severed from communion by the ancient patriarchates in the 19th cent., but the Russian church recognized it. Its ruler is an exarch. The Romanian Orthodox Church has a patriarch at Bucharest; it was probably the most carefully organized of the Orthodox churches. After 1945 the government announced that the Roman Catholic dioceses of the Romanian rite had been annexed by the Orthodox church; the status of these dioceses and their property has become a source of tension in the post-Communist era.

Other Orthodox churches are minority denominations of recent creation. The Albanian Orthodox Church suffered considerably under Italian rule during World War II, as well as under Communist rule afterward. The Orthodox churches of Finland and of Poland, founded after World War I, lost most of their members when the eastern sections of the countries were repossessed by the Soviet Union in World War II. The Japanese Orthodox Church became autonomous under government pressure (1939). It had its origin in a Russian mission founded in 1860.

There are a number of autonomous Orthodox groups that began in emigration. Thus in the United States there have been separate hierarchies of Greeks, Russians, and others, sometimes in communion with each other. There have been many efforts to establish a single American Orthodox church, but no union has been effected. In 1950 several Eastern Orthodox denominations joined with Protestant groups in the formation of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America; almost all Orthodox churches in America are now members.

With the collapse of Communist rule in the countries of E Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s, their Orthodox churches revived and gained new members. Following the establishment in 1991 of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Russian patriarch, a breakaway church emerged and demanded independence from Moscow, but Constantinople refrained from endorsing the break until 2018–19. Constantinople's recognition in 1996 of Estonia's church as under its, instead of Russian, oversight led to strain between it and the Russian church. In 2016 Bartholomew I, patriarch of Constantinople, sought to hold a long-planned council of the Orthodox churches at Iráklion, Crete, but the leaders of the Russian and several other national churches did not attend. Constantinople's recognition of the independence of the Ukrainian church led the Russian church to sever (2018) its ties with Constantinople.

Relations with Rome and the West

The relations between the Orthodox and the Western Church have been full of misunderstandings, which became grave as political and cultural ties loosened after the 5th cent. There were breaks between Constantinople and Rome in the 9th cent. (see Photius) and in 1054 (see Leo IX, Saint), but the main obstacle to reconciliation was the conduct of the Crusades, especially the Fourth Crusade (when the Crusaders seized Constantinople), since the whole of Western Christendom, most of all the pope, was inevitably blamed. In 1274 there was an attempt at reunion (Second Council of Lyons), and in 1439 another (see Ferrara-Florence, Council of); the second was repudiated (1472) by Constantinople.

In the Middle Ages the points at issue were papal authority, matters of worship and discipline, and the addition of the filioque to the Nicene Creed (see creed (1)). There have been fractional reunions, notably the Union of Brest-Litvosk (1595) of Ukrainians, who retained their hierarchy and rites. A synthetization of Orthodox and Protestant beliefs was unsuccessfully attempted in the 17th cent. by Patriarch Cyril Lucaris. In the 19th cent. began the cultivation of cordial relations between Anglicans and Orthodox, and official exchanges between them have become frequent. In 1962 several observers from the Orthodox churches attended the Second Vatican Council, convened by Pope John XXIII. The following year the Orthodox churches (with the exception of the Greek church) agreed to open a dialogue with Rome on equal terms, and in 1964 Pope Paul VI meet Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople. Contacts between the Orthodox and Rome continued into the 1990s, but opposition to the dialogue has been strong in some Orthodox churches. A 1997 Russian law granting special status to the Orthodox Church was widely deplored by Western religious leaders as contrary to the spirit of the ecumenical movement. Not until 2016 did the Roman Catholic pope and Russian Orthodox patriarch meet.


See A. A. King, The Rites of Eastern Christendom (2 vol., 1950, repr. 1962); D. Attwater, The Christian Churches of the East (2 vol., rev. ed. 1961); J. Paraskevas and F. Reinstein, The Eastern Orthodox Church (1969); J. Meyendorff, Byzantine Theology (1974); D. J. Constantelos, ed., Issues and Dialogues in the Orthodox Church since World War II (1986).

The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia™ Copyright © 2022, Columbia University Press. Licensed from Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
Full browser ?