Orthodox Church Research Paper

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The term ‘Orthodox Church’ is the normal term to describe a body that like the Roman Catholic Church, traces its origins to apostolic times. However, it ceased to share in the life of the Roman Catholic Church from the early Middle Ages. It would be misleading to give a single date for the separation of the two traditions. Certainly, 1054 should no longer be treated as the decisive moment of division. More important was the year 1204, when the fourth Crusade sacked the city of Constantinople and thereby demonstrated the ‘otherness’ of Western as compared to Eastern Christians. The very use of such terms suggests that there were cultural, not merely dogmatic, differences between these areas of the Christian world.

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Meanwhile, the Orthodox have spread far beyond their one-time homelands in the ‘East.’ This was largely the Near East, as defined from a West European point of view. From the ninth century, Central and Eastern Europe were added to this notional ‘East.’ The modern move of Orthodox communities to other parts of the world tends to make ‘Eastern Orthodox’ an imprecise if not misleading term.

Some centuries before the separation of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic worlds occurred a different separation in the ‘East.’ The church council of Chalcedon (451) was the occasion on which a number of church bodies failed to accept the teaching, therefore also the fellowship of the established Orthodox Church in the Byzantine empire. It was (mistakenly) asserted that these were Monophysites. In other words it was presumed that they believed in Christ’s single nature as God at the expense of his humanity. The Churches that were supposed to maintain this teaching belonged to the Near and Middle East, as well as to Africa. They are often described as non-Chalcedonian. Less precisely, they are defined as ‘Oriental’ Orthodox. In the course of the twentieth century, they also have moved far beyond their traditional locations. Unlike the ‘Eastern’ Orthodox, all of whom follow the Byzantine rite, the ‘Oriental’ Churches have their separate liturgical traditions.

1. The ‘Eastern’ Orthodox At Home

1.1 The Former Ottoman Empire

World War 1 saw the disintegration of the Ottoman empire in which the Orthodox had been always granted a recognized if subordinate role as a people (millet).

Under Ottoman rule this millet had constituted a clearly segregated society within the Muslim realm. The Orthodox patriarch of Constantinople was treated as its principal administrator or ethnarch. It was possible to escape from the restraints imposed on the millet by conversion to Islam. Individuals who chose this way to advancement in the Muslim administration naturally lost the esteem of their former coreligionists. Yet those Orthodox who were executed after subsequent repudiation of Islam came to be venerated as neo-martyrs.

The Orthodox Church fostered ethnic or national aspirations in Ottoman times. In effect it was a people’s Church. All the more was it ready for new prominence in public life once Ottoman power had come to an end. Thus the Church of Greece came into its own after the Greek uprising against the Turks (1821). In due course it was proclaimed the established Church of the new Greek kingdom (1852). Likewise the Serbian Church was able to proclaim its independence in 1879. This was in the aftermath of Serbian emergence from the Turkish yoke. Hence the country’s Orthodox were eager to assert the unity of Church and state.

The Orthodox of Bulgaria aspired to such unity as well. But the Bulgarian Church claimed its independent status (1870) some years in advance of national independence (1878). Its aspirations were therefore condemned by the patriarchate of Constantinople as untoward, if not heretical (1872–1953). By contrast, the newly established Rumanian Church was to gain the patriarchate’s approval in 1885. It had already been recognized by the Rumanian constitution as the country’s national (‘dominant’) Church in 1866. Even after all the assaults of communism the Church could claim the allegiance of 87 percent of the population. The small Albanian Church was not to gain its independence until 1937. Unlike its Balkan partners, it could not claim to represent a majority of the population (no more than 25 percent).

These Orthodox populations could now swim with the tide and use their new opportunities to consolidate their dignity and self-esteem. But in the process they tended to despise their Muslim masters of the recent (even medieval) past. This was to motivate (politically motivated) attempts at ethnic ‘cleansing’ in Bosnia and Kosovo.

Memories of subjugation could also inspire a revanchist ideology among the Greeks. An aspiration to restore Constantinople as the center of an Orthodox empire animated religious and secular thinkers alike. The latter saw this as their ‘Great Idea.’ It created no problems until the disarray of the postwar years enticed the Greek authorities to put it into practice. Their ill-fated attempt to restore the one-time Byzantine territories of Asia Minor to the Greeks (1919–22) led to a disaster for the Greek-speaking Orthodox of the region, who were subsequently hounded thence by the victorious armies of Kemal Ataturk. The convention of Lausanne (1923) seemed to legitimize an earlier form of ‘ethnic cleansing.’ Significantly, this treaty determined that religious criteria should decide how peoples should be moved in the compulsory exchange of populations between Turkey and Greece. Only a small minority of Orthodox Greeks remained in Asia Minor, with the status of their former ethnarch correspondingly diminished. The patriarch of Constantinople was thought to retain merely a symbolic role. Certainly no ethnarch he, since the ethnos was displaced.

Only in the Church of Cyprus was the role of ethnarch to retain, even to regain, its former role. Cyprus had been taken from the Turks in 1878 and ceded to the British crown. But the ruling bishop continued to be the leader of the people. This was clearly revealed when Cyprus was seeking independence from the British. The Cypriot archbishop of the day (Makarios) was not only leader in the struggle to achieve this. In the immediate aftermath he was also to gain election as president of the new state (1960–77).

The Church of Cyprus received its independence in 431. The patriarchates of Africa (Alexandria) and the Middle East (Antioch and Jerusalem) are also rooted in the early medieval past.

Despite its once modest numbers, Alexandria claims pastoral responsibility for the whole of Africa. It has consequently acquired a sizeable flock in 60 different countries. This has modified its previously well-established character as a factor of Greek mercantile life.

Greek influence is strong among the leaders of the Jerusalem patriarchate. But it is an influence that is critically assessed by a predominantly Arab flock (perhaps 100,000 strong). By contrast, Antioch (in effect Syria and Lebanon) insists that its Arabic culture is central to its concerns. It is therefore well placed to promote dialogue with its Muslim neighbors.

1.2 The Former Russian Empire

Orthodoxy was well entrenched in Russian society by the end of the Middle Ages, and it had few competitors on native soil. But expansion of the Muscovite state from the mid-sixteenth century incorporated peoples with allegiance to other faiths. Muslim peoples were to remain proof against conversion. By contrast, the various pagan peoples of Siberia were often persuaded to join the state Church. Here, as elsewhere, conversion served as a function of colonization. More easily incorporated were the Orthodox of neighboring nations, who joined the Russian empire as the result of one treaty or another. Thus did Ukrainians merge with the Russian Orthodox Church (1686), while the ancient Church of Georgia was accommodated merely as a province (1811). After the church reforms of Peter I (1722), the Russian Orthodox Church was overtly a state church, with the emperor’s lay nominee at the head of its subservient synod. It was taken for granted that the population would normally belong to this body. To this end, Orthodoxy was taught in the schools. An annual confession and communion were seen as civic duties. Until an imperial edict of toleration was published in 1905, non-Orthodox religious rivals were restricted in their public life, if not actively restrained; some kind of pluralism might have been envisaged.

But it was not to be. The Bolshevik party, which seized power in 1917, proclaimed separation of Church and state on January 23, 1918. It was soon evident that this involved control, if not suppression of the Church. Most of the Church’s many institutions were abolished, and although Stalin’s constitution proclaimed ‘freedom of worship’ (1936), hardly a hundred churches were left open by 1939. Mere membership of the Church involved risk of liberty and life. Among the millions who vanished into concentration camps were almost all the bishops. Meanwhile, anti-religious propaganda was deployed in the formation of homo sovieticus. ‘Scientific atheism’ was taught throughout the schools and universities of the USSR. Membership of the communist party required commitment to the atheist cause.

During World War 2 a degree of toleration of the Russian Orthodox Church was introduced by Stalin in an attempt to raise national morale (1943) in those parts of the USSR that had escaped German occupation. It was toleration that extended also to the Georgian Church, which had reclaimed independence in 1917. However, such toleration signified no lessening of controls by the party and the state. Rather were these to be extended to Orthodox institutions in the larger Soviet Union of the postwar years.

With equal rigor were controls imposed on Eastern Europe. This meant that the Orthodox church establishment of Rumania and Bulgaria were used to further Soviet interests, while atheism was promoted in society at large. Mutatis mutandis the Serbian Church was similarly affected in Tito’s Yugoslavia. Yet only in Albania was official atheism to be taken to its logical conclusion: by 1967 religion was prohibited in any of its forms.

By contrast, the Greek Orthodox Church was left free of communist rule at the conclusion of a bitter civil war (1948–9). It was therefore able to continue its existence as established Church. Only one other matched it in this role, the Orthodox Church of Finland. But the two are curiously contrasted. Whereas the Church of Greece represents 98 percent of the population (hence problems of nominal membership), the Orthodox of Finland form hardly more than 1 percent of a predominantly Lutheran population.

The end of communist regimes in Eastern Europe and the former USSR has allowed the local Orthodox Church to reassert its place in secular society. But its potency and numbers are less than might have been expected in the aftermath of large-scale persecution. However, it is no longer barred from education or from social work, or from public propagation of its faith. Lack of an official ideology has encouraged the substitution of popular (often nationalistic) Orthodoxy by spokesmen of the Church. The Russian form of this nationalism involves an anti-Western stance, with anti-semitism one of its ingredients.

2. The ‘Eastern’ Orthodox Abroad

2.1 Missions

The missionary activities of St Cyril and St Methodios in Moravia (ninth century), and the associated translation of sacred texts from Greek into Slavonic, had legitimized the use of languages other than Hebrew, Greek, and Latin in church life. Later missionaries could therefore work unconstrained in a variety of cultures. Orthodox Christianity was able to bring literacy as well as other social tools to its clients. This was the case with the Siberian and Central Asian missions of the Russian Church. These had their extension to China (1695) and Alaska (1794). In due course there were Orthodox parishes founded in Japan (1868) and Korea (1897). These were modest-sized monocultural outposts of the Orthodox world and thus free of the conflicting loyalties that were later to burden the emigres of Western Europe, Australia, and North America.

2.2 The Orthodox Diaspora

Economic pressures and political oppression both led to the migration of Orthodox populations in the course of the twentieth century. Communist rule in Russia and Eastern Europe was among the most potent of the forces that propelled communities into exile. The number of North American immigrants from Russia was swelled by the Russian revolution and civil war of the post-1917 period. Communist rule in Eastern Europe after 1945 also brought Ukrainians, Rumanians, Serbs, Albanians, and Bulgarians to the new world. Meanwhile, Greeks had arrived in considerable numbers after their expulsion from Asia Minor in 1922–3. There were also Palestinians after 1948. In due course Orthodoxy came to be recognized as one of the ‘major’ religions of the USA.

However, there was never a united church administration. The attempt to form a largely English-speaking ‘Orthodox Church in America’ (1970) did not meet with universal approval. Apart from a Greek archdiocese, which retained its links with the patriarchate of Constantinople, there was a bewildering variety of national jurisdictions, and not infrequently more than one of each. Many immigrants preferred to retain their languages and customs. Even (or especially) in exile their church life was a function of national identity. Similar fragmentation was to be observed elsewhere (Western Europe or Australia, for example).

2.3 Diaspora And Mission

However nation-oriented the diaspora, it could still have an effect on its non-Orthodox host environment. The Orthodox may not have sought to proselytize their neighbours. Nevertheless, conversions took place. A common cause might be intermarriage between partners of different faiths. But other less specific causes might also prompt the conversion of individuals or groups.

Some of these have gravitated towards Orthodoxy of their own accord: here is hardly ‘mission’ in the usual sense of the term. Thus the self-established Orthodox of Uganda and Kenya were assimilated into the patriarchate of Alexandria (1946), and without becoming honorary Greeks in the process. Rather the black Orthodox of Africa (one million strong) have come to outnumber the Greek Orthodox founders of the patriarchate (200,000).

3. The ‘Oriental’ Orthodox At Home

However, there were already large numbers of indigenous African Orthodox outside the boundaries of the Alexandrian patriarchate, members of the non-Chalcedonian (‘Oriental’ Orthodox) Churches of Egypt and Ethiopia.

3.1 The Coptic Orthodox Church

The Coptic ( = Egyptian) Orthodox Church encompasses much of the non-Arabic part of the population, something like 10 percent of the total. This Church emerged as a distinct entity in the fifth and sixth centuries. But its distinctness was confirmed when the Arabs conquered Egypt in 639–42, since this freed it from Byzantine ( = Chalcedonian) control. It has retained its character as the church of its nation. Members of the Coptic Church have experienced constraints from the Muslim establishment. Some of the discrimination exercised by extremists is not far removed from persecution. All the more noteworthy is the vigor of church life among the Copts. In a low-income community this finds its expression in service of the poor.

3.2 The Ethiopian Orthodox Church

The Coptic Church supervised the life of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church from the fourth to the twentieth centuries. Not until 1957 was the formal autonomy of the Ethiopian Church proclaimed, and this despite the number of its members (20 million), which far exceeds that of any of its ‘Oriental’ sister Churches. This accounts for almost half the population. The state encouraged loyalty to the Church when it was an established institution. But much loyalty survived the rigors of a Marxist revolution, not only anti-clerical but anti-religious though it was (1974).

3.3 The Syrian Orthodox Church

The ‘Oriental’ Churches are also represented in the Middle East. Members of the Syrian Orthodox (‘Jacobite’) Church are distributed between Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq. In terms of culture and membership, this Church was at its strongest in the Middle Ages, but its numbers have declined to little more than 100,000. In the search of anonymity and self-protection (many have fled post-Ottoman Turkey since the 1920s for lack of adequate safeguards) its members tend to emulate their Arab neighbors’ way of life.

3.4 The Syrian Orthodox Church Of South India

However, the Syrian Orthodox gain extra prominence from the existence of their co-religionists in South India, who have been linked with them for much of the period since 1665 through acceptance of a common head, the (‘Oriental’) Syrian Orthodox patriarch of Antioch. However, the Church of South India, with its 1,500,000 adherents, has its independent history since early Christian times, and its autonomy is fiercely defended by many of its members to this day. As an indigenous church it is well integrated into its milieu (Kerala).

3.5 The Armenian Apostolic Church

Armenian home territories are difficult to define. The Armenian republic (formerly a constituent republic of the USSR) is central to them, not least since the spiritual center of all Armenians (Etchmiadzin) is located there. It was founded in 301. However, only a third of the Armenian people reside in that republic. Many find themselves in a diaspora. But others are distributed within the confines of an adjacent administration, the catholicosate of Cilicia (Lebanon) (founded 1441).

Armenia adopted Christianity as its state religion in 301. The Armenian Apostolic Church (its name in later centuries) has remained the Church of the nation since, irrespective of changing frontiers. Armenians in the Ottoman empire gained protection by virtue of their own millet (1461). But they could still be subject to pressures and persecution. The last decades of the nineteenth century and the first of the twentieth witnessed massacres of the Armenian population by the Turks that reached their climax in the early years of World War 1. Here was a genocide that claimed something like one and a half million lives, a third of the nation. Hence the dispersal of Armenians throughout the world. The persecutions confirmed Armenians in their commitment to their nation, their culture, and their Church.

4. The ‘Oriental’ Orthodox Abroad

4.1 Missions

The ‘Oriental’ Orthodox have been little involved in such political imperialism as might have prompted missionary outreach to nations other than their own.

4.2 Diaspora

Yet each of the ‘Oriental’ Churches has branches abroad. Thus Armenians have their communities in North and South America, in Russia, Western Europe, and the Middle East. As many are in the diaspora as in Armenia itself.


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