The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to Its History, Doctrine and Spiritual Culture (Part VII)

Glorification of the Venerable Sosana (Susan), the mother of St. Nino the Enlightener of Georgia

Glorification of the Venerable Sosana (Susan), the mother of St. Nino the Enlightener of Georgia

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

By Fr. John Anthony McGuckin

From the Medieval to Modern Times

The Extension of the Orthodox Church

In the course of the twentieth century Christianity, demographically speaking, became the most extensive and universal religion know to human history. At the beginning of the third millennium there were a total of 2,000 million Christians on earth--one-third of the entire world's population. Among that number the Orthodox are present as 210 million souls bearing witness to the history of the Church, its active present, its anticipated future. One of the important aspects of that witness is the complete unanimity in the faith of the Orthodox believers, and their common allegiance to the self-same spiritual ethos of their theological tradition. It is this unanimous bonding and spiritual unity which constitutes their very identity as those who possess the phronema Christou (mind of Christ), and share the ancient faith of the Apostles and Martyrs, who handed it to them authoritatively and charismatically.

The term 'Orthodox' originally came into popular usage in the Eastern Christian world as a descriptor of the church communities in the sixth century, to distinguish those who accepted the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon (451 AD) from those who refuse them. It grew up as a party term, therefore, meant to distinguish the Byzantine Christians (and the Latins along with them) from those dissenting from the Christological settlement of Chalcedon. In subsequent times the anti-Chalcedonian churches of the East have also adopted the epithet, applying it in its wider patristic sense of 'true to the correct opinion' or 'proper in faith'. Thus most of the Churches of the East have the word 'Orthodox' in their descriptive title. In the sense of the normal understanding of the 'Orthodox Church', however, the word can be taken here in its original intent, to signify those Churches that are in communion with one another because they share the same faith, in which is included the acceptance of the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon, within the totality of the seven Ecumenical Councils from the first Council of Nicaea in 355 AD to the second of the same name in 787 AD. The Churches which rejected Chalcedon, were historically separated from the communion of the Roman and Byzantine Churches from the end of the fifth century onwards and, accordingly, were also not part of the settlement of any of three subsequently recognized Ecumenical Councils following. Chalcedon (Constantinople II in 553, Constantinople III in 681, and Nicaea II in 787).

The liturgical and spiritual life of these separated Churches of the East is very close to that of the Orthodox Church. The ethos and style of thinking, the attitude to prayer and sacraments, the overall 'ecclesiastical mentality' is also immensely close, since the separation took place at a time so early in the patristic age. By the grace of God a union may once more be a thing that can be accomplished, if more ways can be opened up for a renewal of mutual love and respect. Historically so much of the division was the result of political tensions and nationalist rivalry, and misunderstood intellectual initiatives. In the present century, where the political environment is so different, and the chances for a truer and deeper mutual understanding are so much better, the ecumenical 'dialogue of love' between Orthodoxy and the non-Chalcedonian Eastern Churches may indeed be coming to a new era of hope and fruitfulness, based on a deeper understanding that the Mia physis of Saint Cyril of Alexandria's early theology (which the non-Chalcedonians prioritize) is not intrinsically opposed at all, to the Christology of 'one hypostasis and two natures' presented by the Chalcedonian Fathers, who were also prioritizing (and nuancing) St. Cyril. Formerly designated the 'Monophysite' Churches and now more eirenically the 'Miaphysite' or non-Chalcedonian Eastern Churches, these are the Syrian, Armenian, Coptic, Ethiopic, and Malabar Indian Churches. There is also the so-called 'Nestorian' Church of Syria, which is more properly known as the Assyrian Church. This took a line of resistance quite different to the anti-Chalcedonian Miaphysites, and stressed the distinction of the natures of the Incarnate Lord in a way that held St. Cyril of Alexandria to be anathema (thus also rejecting the legitimacy of the generally accepted Council of Ephesus in 431 AD).

The members of this historic community of the Orthodox faithful are still today in communion with one another, joined by the strongest of spiritual bonds in oneness of faith and practice, though distinguished legitimate distinctions of national characteristic and organization. This Orthodox Church in the present world order knows much about national character (perhaps too much, for such 'new' things as the universal union of catholicity) but still the use of different national titles for Orthodoxy (such as the Greek Orthodox Church, or the Russian Orthodox Church, or the Romanian, Serbian, and so on) simply means the Orthodox Church as it concretely exists in Russia, Greece, Romania, or any of the other countries. The Orthodox canons have, from antiquity, recognized the principle of the organizational division of the Church on the basis of territorial separateness, that is the operative civic divisions. It is this dynamic principle of conformity to political realities, without capitulating to them, that has allowed Orthodoxy to develop and reorganize for so many centuries, whether under political rulers who favored the Church or persecuted it.

The Orthodox Church at present consists of four ancient Patriarchates which remain in communion that once established the largest-scale (what we would now call 'international') form of the canonical structure of early Christianity: Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. To these four Patriarchates are not added the other Churches that have been formed as the Church of Christ expanded in the world, and new nations and peoples were added to the family of Christ in the course of history, or as older parts of the whole reached a stage of legitimate self-determination and organize themselves more independently from the ancient centers of the empire. They can be briefly listed: first, those that were once par (or allies) of the ancient Byzantine empire but emerged into separate nationhood as that vast system began to fragment: Bulgaria, Ukraine, Russia, Serbia, Georgia, Romania, Greece, Poland, Hungary, Albania, Latvia, Moldavia, and Macedonia. Secondly, those also that were historically never part of the eastern Roman empire but came into their Christian maturity at a later date: Finland, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, Estonia, China, Japan, Sub-Saharan Africa, Australia, America, and many parts of Western Europe (as missions and exarchates).

Some of these newer Churches have subsequently, and more recently, been lifted to the designation of 'patriarchates' signifying their large extent, historical importance and general venerability. There is a precedence operating in the Orthodox understanding of the 'order' of the Churches, but it is not one that can be understood in the sense of a jurisdictional order, such as a hierarchical line of authority that runs down, in the manner of army authority working in a simple linear fashion, or suchlike. Orthodox Ecclesiology is adamant on one central point: that each local church is under its single bishop is the full and entire Church of Christ. Each Orthodox bishop is therefore, coequal with all his other brother bishops throughout the world. There may be a 'ranking of honor' in the sense that a metropolitan of a city (an archbishop, for example) has a supervisory role over a number of the other bishops of his local province, or in the way that a patriarch has a significant degree of precedence in the synod of all the bishops of his country, and sometimes (in accordance with the Canons) in relation to appeals sent to him from other parts of the Church over which he has the right to adjudicate, but all of this does not contravene the more fundamental principle that each bishop in his own diocese is entirely equal in apostolic status to all other bishops in the world.

For this reason Orthodoxy has no pope among its patriarchs. The outside world especially the media, may simplify their reports of Orthodox organization, so as to describe the Patriarch of Constantinople as the 'Leader of the Orthodox World', but in fact this is an erroneous representation of the inner life of the Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople is certainly 'first among equals' among all Orthodox bishops; but the issue of who leads the Church, who speaks for it, cannot be answered in this simplistic linear sense of monarchical governance (except to point to Christ, the undying Lord of His Church in heaven as well as on earth)  In terms of authority within the Church polity, however, the Patriarch of Constantinople has a prestigious office, and often 'speaks for' Orthodox interests on a broad world platform. But the Patriarch of Moscow is the senior hierarch of the single largest Orthodox Church in the world. For generations past his office has been stifled, and censored. Today it is learning to speak again in freedom. Its future will be immensely significant, for world-wide Christianity just as it once was before the disaster of the Soviet oppression of the early twentieth century overwhelmed it. But who leads the Church? No single earthly voice, but Christ, and Christ's inspired people in their various offices and duties (bishops, priests, deacons, ascetics, married couples, prophets, martyrs among). Who speaks for it? Christ and His Saints (in the Gospels and Scriptures) as well as the whole body of the faithful, formed in His Mind, in all their historic embodiment (including the utterances of the faithful from the past, epitomize in the symbolical sources, and those who may come from the future too). Bishops, among all these inspired offices which are represented across the great body of the faithful, have the special and particular office of teaching and guiding the flock; but this teaching charism does not exhaust, let alone supersede, that charism as it exists in many other places too: the multiform teaching ministry of parents, grandparents, catechism and school teachers, saints and martyrs, who all sing the song of Christ's glory through and across the generations, and pass on the charge and flame of faith like the flickering of a lighted candle from soul to soul, and from heart to heart; the only way Christ's love can be communicated truly.

(To be continued)



With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George