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

Venerable Isaac the Founder of the Dalmatian Monastery at Constantinople

Venerable Isaac the Founder of the Dalmatian Monastery at Constantinople

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

by Father John Anthony McGuckin

The Patriarchate of Antioch

Antioch shares with Alexandria a glorious Christian past, but the advances of Islam from the 7th century onwards left its Christian civilization in a state of slow suffocation. Several of its greatest theologians have left their mark on the patristic tradition: writers such as Mar Theodore the Interpreter (of Mopsuestia), and Saint John Chrysostom, Mar John of Antioch, and numerous ascetics and saints. The cultural and theological sphere of influence exercised by the Syrian Church in its time of glory was much greater than the (very large) extent of its ancient territories. The Syrian ritual gave the substructure to the Byzantine liturgical rite, for example. It was also the Syrians who perfected the art of setting poetic synopses of Scripture to sung melodies. The Church's greatest poets, such as Saints Ephraim and Romanos the Melodist, were Syrians who taught this theological style to Byzantium and prepared the way for the glories of the medieval Orthodox liturgical chant. The Syrian Church generously organized missions to Ethiopia, Persia, India, and China. Its presence in China was historically covered up by the deliberate burning of Syriac Christian literature by the later Renaissance missionaries who claimed the origination of Christianity in that continent. It influenced the whole of ancient Cappadocia in its time, men such as the St. Basil the Great and Saint Gregory the Theologian were mentored by Syrian hierarchs such as Meletios, or Paul of Samosata, the great defenders of the Nicene faith at the time of the Second Council, that of Constantinople in 381 AD.

In its time of glory, the Christian orators of Syria spoke and wrote the finest Greek in the Roman world. The schools of Antioch were renowned for the purity of their Greek eloquence. Writers such as Saint Gregory the Theologian and Saint John Chrysostom have left behind a memorial of work that reaches to the standards of the greatest of all Greek rhetoric. Saint Gregory, for example, has been favorably compared to Demosthenes himself. Saint John Chrysostom gained his epithet 'Golden Mouth' because of the limpid quality of his Greek; but he was a Syrian by birth. This outpost of pure Greek culture on the banks of the Orontes was a bubble that broke before the advance of Islam, and since the 7th century the flourishing of Christianity in the Antiochene Patriarchate has given way to a long and slow twilight. As the Patriarchate of Constantinople flourished in the ambit of the Byzantine Empire, so Antioch declined in prestige and influence.

The first major land mass to go was Asia Minor, which was assigned to the purview of Constantinople in the early 5th century. Then the Church of Cyprus successfully asserted its independence from Antioch between 431 and 488 AD. The vast territory of Persia asserted its independence in 424 AD, after which point it refused its assent to the Council of Ephesus of 431 AD and fell away from communion with the Orthodox. Its continuing energy, for many centuries afterwards, drew away the allegiance of many Assyrian Christians from the Patriarchate of Antioch. The continuing prevalence of the Miaphysite resistance to the Council of Chalcedon after the 6th century also drew away many other Syrians from the communion of the Patriarch. Jerusalem became a separate Patriarchate in 451 AD and took with it the territory of Palestine. In later times the scattered state of the Christian communities and their appalling vulnerability to the forces of an increasingly hostile Islamic majority led to large numbers of the Syrian Christian communities fleeing for protection to the arms of a strong and missionary active Rome. The result is that there are now large communities of the so-called Uniates. At the beginning of the 20th century there were no fewer than seven distinct Uniate communities in the Syrian Church all representing another historic fragmentation of the ancient Patriarchate of Antioch, and seven senior clergy all claiming the right to be, and be designated as, the Antiochene 'patriarch'.

The Orthodox recognize only one Patriarch, who is in communion with the other ancient Patriarchates of the Orthodox Church, and resides at Damascus. The remaining jurisdictional territory for the Orthodox Patriarch is Syria, and the Asiatic Roman provinces of Cilicia, Mesopotamia, and Isauria. Most of his faithful today are Arabic-speaking Christians. From 1724 to 1899 the Orthodox Patriarch of Antioch was always a Phanariot Greek. Since that time Arabs have occupied the office. Today there are just over a million Syriac-speaking Christians in the world and half a million Arabic speakers, who belong to the Antiochene Patriarchate. The Orthodox Patriarch's flock currently consists of fewer than half a million faithful, centered largely in Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq, with the rest, a considerable diaspora, largely in America. The Patriarch's title is His Blessedness the Patriarch of Antioch in the City of God, of Cilicia, Iberia, Syria, Arabia and All the East.

In America, the hierarchs of the Antiochene Patriarchate have proved to be immensely creative and open to the new situations presented by life in the New World. The Antiochene Orthodox there have a large degree of autonomy afforded to them by the Patriarch, and are particularly ready to engage in evangelical mission. As well as being important pillars of support for their suffering Church in the homelands, they have sponsored several highly valuable translations of the liturgical texts and prayer books in English, and in recent times have encouraged numbers of evangelical Christians who have made their way into the Orthodox Church, both in America and England, and established them within their jurisdictional care.

(Next: The Patriarchate of Jerusalem)

"Then Barnabas departed for Tarsus to seek Saul. And when he had found him, he brought him to Antioch. So it was that for a whole year they assembled with the church and taught a great many people. And the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch" (Acts 11:26).



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

+Father George