Orthodox Christianity


Eastern Orthodox Church

“Orthodox Church”, “Orthodox Catholic Church”, and “Orthodox Christian Church” redirect here. For other uses of the term, see Orthodox (disambiguation). Not to be confused with Eastern Catholic Churches, Oriental Orthodoxy, or Eastern Christianity.
The Eastern Orthodox Church, officially the Orthodox Catholic Church, also referred to as the Orthodox Church, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Orthodoxy, is the second largest Christian Church in the world, with an estimated 225–300 million adherents.
The Eastern Orthodox Church is one of the oldest religious institutions in the world, teaching that it is the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church established by Jesus Christ in his Great Commission to the apostles, and practicing what it understands to be the original faith passed down from the Apostles.
United in communion with the Latin Church before the East–West Schism in 1054, and with the Oriental churches for the first quarter of its history, Eastern Orthodoxy spread throughout the Roman and later Byzantine Empires and beyond,  playing a prominent role in European, Near Eastern, Slavic, and some African cultures. Its most prominent episcopal see is Constantinople.
Eastern Orthodoxy has no Papacy or similar authority, but instead teaches that all bishops are equal by virtue of their ordination, and each autocephalous church is typically governed by a Holy Synod. This is one of the main reasons for the division between the Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church. The commonly-used but unofficial designation “Eastern” derives from the geographical location of the main centers of Orthodoxy in relation to the “Western” churches (now known as the Roman Catholic Church), and from Constantinople being the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire.
Geographically, the majority of Eastern Orthodox Christians in the 21st century reside in Greece, Eastern Europeand Russia, with less numerous communities in the former Byzantine regions of the Middle East and around the Eastern Mediterranean. There are also many small but growing communities in other parts of the world, formed in part through immigration and in part through conversion and missionary activity.


The Descent of the Holy Spirit, a contemporary icon portraying Pentecost, which includes the characteristic Orthodox depiction of the Third Person of the Trinity (the Holy Spirit) as a small flame on the head of each Apostle. The central female figure is the Virgin Mary, known as Bogoroditsa in Slavonic and Theotokos in Greek.


Almost from the very beginning, Christians referred to the Church as the “One, Holy, Catholic (from the Greek καθολική, or “according to the whole, universal”) and Apostolic Church”. The Orthodox Church claims that it is today the continuation and preservation of that same Church.
A number of other Christian churches also make a similar claim: the Roman Catholic Church, the Anglican Communion, the Assyrian Church and the Oriental Orthodox Churches. In the Orthodox view, the Assyrians and Orientals left the Orthodox Church in the years following the Third Ecumenical Council of Ephesus (431) and the Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon (451), respectively, in their refusal to accept those councils’Christological definitions. Similarly, the churches in Rome and Constantinople separated in an event known as the East–West Schism, traditionally dated to the year 1054, although it was more a gradual process than a sudden break. The Church of England separated from the Roman Catholic Church, not directly from the Orthodox Church, for the first time in the 1530s (and, after a brief reunion in 1555, again finally in 1558). Thus, though it was united to Orthodoxy when established through the work of Saint Augustine of Canterbury in the early 7th century, its separation from Orthodoxy came about indirectly through the See of Rome.
To all these churches, the claim to catholicity (universality, oneness with the ancient church) is important for multiple doctrinal reasons that have more bearing internally in each church than in their relation to the others, now separated in faith. The meaning of holding to a faith that is true is the primary reason why anyone’s statement of which church split off from which other has any significance at all; the issues go as deep as the schisms. The depth of this meaning in the Orthodox Church is registered first in its use of the word “Orthodox” itself, a union of Greek orthos (“straight” “correct” “true” “right”) and doxa (“glory” as in Doxa Patri, “Glory to the Father”).
The dual meanings of doxa, with “glory” or “glorification” (of God by the Church and of the church by God), especially in worship, yield the pair “correct belief” and “true worship”. Together, these express the core of a fundamental teaching about the inseparability of belief and worship and their role in drawing the Church together with Christ. The Bulgarian and all the Slavic churches use the titlePravoslavie (Bulgarian:Православие), meaning “glorifying correct”, to denote what is in EnglishOrthodoxy, while the Georgians use the title Martlmadidebeli. Several other churches in Europe, Asia, and Africa also came to use Orthodox in their titles, but are still distinct from the Orthodox Church as described in this article.
The term “Eastern Church” (the geographic east in the East–West Schism) has been used to distinguish it from western Christendom (the geographic West, which at first came to designate the Roman Catholic communion, later also the various Protestant and Anglican branches). “Eastern” is used to indicate that the highest concentrations of the Orthodox Church presence remain in the eastern part of the Christian world, although it is growing worldwide. Orthodox Christians throughout the world use various ethnic or national jurisdictional titles, or more inclusively, the title “Eastern Orthodox”, “Orthodox Catholic”, or simply “Orthodox”.
What unites Orthodox Christians is the catholic faith, whose vessel is Holy Tradition, inspired through the operation of the Holy Spirit. That faith is expressed most fundamentally in Scripture and in worship, and the latter most essentially through the mystery of Baptism and in the Divine Liturgy. The faith lives and breathes by God’s energies in communion with the Church. Inter-communion is the litmus test by which all can see that two churches share the same faith; lack of inter-communion (excommunication, literally “out of communion”) is the sign of different faiths, even though some central theological points may be shared. The sharing of beliefs can be highly significant, but it is not the full measure of the faith.
The lines of even this test can blur, however, when differences that arise are not due to doctrine, but to recognition of jurisdiction. As the Orthodox Church has spread into the west and over the world, the church as a whole has yet to sort out all the inter-jurisdictional issues that have arisen in the expansion, leaving some areas of doubt about what is proper church governance. And as in the ancient church persecutions, the aftermath of modern persecutions of Christians in communist nations has left behind both some governance and some faith issues that have yet to be completely resolved.
All members of the Orthodox Church profess the same faith, regardless of race or nationality, jurisdiction or local custom, or century of birth. Holy Tradition encompasses the understandings and means by which that unity of faith is transmitted across boundaries of time, geography, and culture. It is a continuity that exists only inasmuch as it lives within Christians themselves. It is not static, nor an observation of rules, but rather a sharing of observations that spring both from within and also in keeping with others, even others who lived lives long past. The Holy Spirit maintains the unity and consistency of the Holy Tradition to preserve the integrity of the faith within the Church, as given in the Scriptural promises.
The shared beliefs of Orthodoxy, and its theology, exist within the Holy Tradition and cannot be separated from it, for their meaning is not expressed in mere words alone. Doctrine cannot be understood unless it is prayed. To be a theologian, one must know how to pray, and one who prays in spirit and in truth becomes a theologian by doing so. Doctrine must also be lived in order to be prayed, for without action, the prayer is idle and empty, a mere vanity, and therefore the theology of demons. According to these teachings of the ancient church, no superficial belief can ever be orthodox. Similarly, reconciliation and unity are not superficial, but are prayed and lived out.


An icon of Saint John the Forerunner, 14th century, Macedonia

Catholicity of the Orthodox Church

The Orthodox Church considers itself to be both orthodox and catholic. Due to the influence of the Roman Catholic Church in the west, where the English language itself developed, the words “catholic” and “catholicity” are sometimes used to refer to that church itself. However, the more prominent dictionary sense given for general use is still the one shared by other languages, implying breadth and universality, reflecting comprehensive scope. In a Christian context, the Church, as identified with the original Church founded by Christ and His apostles, is said to be catholic (or universal) in regard to its union with Christ in faith. Just as Christ is indivisible, so are union with Him and faith in Him, whereby the Church is “universal”, unseparated, and comprehensive, including all who share that faith. Orthodox Bishop Kallistos Ware has called that “simple Christianity”. That is the sense of early and patristic usage wherein the Church usually refers to itself as the “Catholic Church”, whose faith is the “Orthodox faith”. It is also the sense within the phrase “One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church”, found in the Nicene Creed, and referred to in Orthodox worship, such as the litany of the catechumens of the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom.
With the mutual excommunications of the East–West Schism in 1054, the churches in Rome and Constantinople each viewed the other as having departed from the Church, leaving a smaller but still-catholic Church in place. Each retained the “Catholic” part of its title, “Roman Catholic Church” on the one hand, and “Orthodox Catholic Church” on the other, each of which was defined in terms of inter-communion with either Rome or Constantinople. While Orthodoxy recognizes what it shares in common with the heterodox churches of our time, including Roman Catholicism, it sees catholicity in terms of complete union, in communion and faith, with the Church throughout all time, and the sharing remains incomplete when not shared fully.


In keeping with the Church’s teaching on universality and with the Nicene Creed, Orthodox authorities such as Saint Raphael of Brooklyn have insisted that the full name of the church has always included the term “Catholic”, as in “Holy Orthodox Catholic Apostolic Church”. The official name of the Eastern Orthodox Church is the Orthodox Catholic Church. It is the name by which the church refers to itself in its liturgical or canonical texts,  in official publications,  and in official contexts or administrative documents. Orthodox teachers refer to the Church as Catholic. This name and longer variants containing “Catholic” are also recognized and referenced in other books and publications by secular or non-Orthodox writers.
The common name of the Church, Eastern Orthodox Church, is a shortened practicality that helps to avoid confusions in casual use. From ancient times through the first millennium, Greek was the most prevalent shared language in the demographic regions where the Byzantine Empire flourished, and ethnic Greeks were widely dispersed geographically throughout. For this reason, the eastern churches were sometimes identified as “Greek” (in contrast to “Roman” or “Latin”), even before the great schism. After 1054, “Greek Orthodox” or “Greek Catholic” marked a church as being in communion with Constantinople, much as “Roman Catholic” did for communion with Rome. This identification with Greek, however, became increasingly confusing with time. The Byzantine Empire brought Orthodoxy to many regions without ethnic Greeks, where Greek was also not spoken. In addition, struggles between Rome and Constantinople to control parts of southeastern Europe resulted in the conversion of some churches to Rome, which then also used “Greek Catholic” to indicate their continued use of the Byzantine rites. Today, many of those same Roman churches remain, and a very large number of Orthodox are also not of Greek national origin, and do not use Greek as the language of worship. “Eastern”, then, indicates the predominance of geography in the Church’s origin and development, while “Orthodox” indicates not only the faith, but communion with the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople. (There are additional Christian churches in the east that are in communion with neither Rome nor Constantinople, who tend to be distinguished by the category named “Oriental Orthodox”.) While the Church continues officially to call itself “Catholic”, for reasons of universality, the common title of “Eastern Orthodox Church” avoids casual confusion with the Roman Catholic Church.

Organization and leadership

The religious authority for Eastern Orthodoxy is not a Patriarch or the Pope as in Catholicism, nor the Bible as in Protestantism, but the scriptures as interpreted by the seven ecumenical councils of the Church. The Orthodox Church is a fellowship of “autocephalous” (Greek for self-headed) Churches, with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople being the only autocephalous head who holds the title primus inter pares, meaning “first among equals” in Latin. The Patriarch of Constantinople has the honor of primacy, but his title is only first among equals and has no real authority over Churches other than the Constantinopolitan. The Orthodox Church considers Jesus Christ to be the head of the Church and the Church to be his body. It is believed that authority and the grace of God is directly passed down to Orthodox bishops and clergy through the laying on of hands—a practice started by the apostles, and that this unbroken historical and physical link is an essential element of the true Church (Acts 8:17, 1 Tim 4:14, Heb 6:2). However, the Church asserts that Apostolic Succession also requires Apostolic Faith, and bishops without Apostolic Faith, who are in heresy, forfeit their claim to Apostolic Succession.
The Eastern Orthodox communion is organized into several regional Churches, either autocephalous or lower ranking autonomous (the Greek for self-lawed) Church bodies unified in theology and worship: including the fifteen autocephalous Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem, Georgia, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Serbia, Russia, Greece, Poland, Romania, Albania, Czech and Slovakia, America and a number of autonomous Churchesnd teaching of the apostolic and patristic traditions and church practices. Each Church has a bishop and a Holy Synod to administer its jurisdiction and to lead the Church in the preservation a
Each bishop has a territory (see) over which he governs. His main duty is to make sure the traditions and practices of the Church are preserved. Bishops are equal in authority and cannot interfere in the jurisdiction of another bishop. Administratively, these bishops and their territories are organized into various autocephalous groups or synods of bishops who gather together at least twice a year to discuss the state of affairs within their respective sees. While bishops and their autocephalous synods have the ability to administer guidance in individual cases, their actions do not usually set precedents that affect the entire Church. Bishops are almost always chosen from the monastic ranks and must remain unmarried.


Holy Mother of God Church, Ohrid, Macedonia. The church was built before 1295 and the church was a seat of the Ohrid Archbishopric

Church councils

There have been a number of times when alternative theological ideas arose to challenge the Orthodox faith. At such times the Church deemed it necessary to convene a general or “Great” council of all available bishops throughout the world. The Church considers the first seven Ecumenical Councils (held between the 4th and the 8th centuries) to be the most important; however, there have been more, specifically the Synods of Constantinople, 879–880, 1341, 1347, 1351, 1583, 1819, and 1872, the Synod of Iași (Jassy), 1642, and the Pan-Orthodox  Synod of Jerusalem, 1672, all of which helped to define the Orthodox position.
The ecumenical councils followed a democratic form, with each bishop having one vote. Though present and allowed to speak before the council, members of the Imperial Roman/Byzantine court, abbots, priests, monks and laymen were not allowed to vote. The primary goal of these Great Synods was to verify and confirm the fundamental beliefs of the Church as truth, and to remove as heresy any false teachings that would threaten the Church. The Pope of Rome, at that time, held the position of “first among equals”. And while he was not present at any of the councils he continued to hold this title until the East–West Schism of 1054 AD.
According to Orthodox teaching the position of “First Among Equals” gives no additional power or authority to the bishop that holds it, but rather that this person sits as organizational head of a council of equals (like a president). His words and opinions carry no more insight or wisdom than any other bishop. It is believed that the Holy Spirit guides the Church through the decisions of the entire council, not one individual. Additionally it is understood that even the council’s decisions must be accepted by the entire Church in order for them to be valid.
One of the decisions made by the First Council of Constantinople (the second ecumenical council, meeting in 381) and supported by later such councils was that the Patriarch of Constantinople should be given equal honor to the Pope of Rome since Constantinople was considered to be the “New Rome“. According to the third Canon of the second ecumenical council: “Because it is new Rome, the bishop of Constantinople is to enjoy the privileges of honor after the bishop of Rome.” This means that both enjoy the same privileges because they are both bishops of the imperial capitals, but the bishop of Rome will precede the bishop of Constantinople since Old Rome precedes New Rome.
The 28th canon of the fourth ecumenical council clarified this point by stating: “For the Fathers rightly granted privileges to the throne of Old Rome because it was the royal city. And the One Hundred and Fifty most religious Bishops (i.e. the second ecumenical council in 381) actuated by the same consideration, gave equal privileges to the most holy throne of New Rome, justly judging that the city which is honored with the Sovereignty and the Senate, and enjoys equal privileges with the old imperial Rome, should in ecclesiastical matters also be magnified as she is.”
The Pope of Rome would still have had honorary primacy before Constantinople if the East-West Schism had not occurred. Because of that schism the Orthodox no longer recognize the primacy of the pope. The Patriarch of Constantinople therefore, like the Pope before him, now enjoys the title of “first among equals.” This is not, however, meant to imply that he is the leader of the Orthodox Church. Also, this is not an official title of any sort, just a way of describing the seniority of the “imperial” bishops with respect to all other bishops.


Patriarch Bartholomew I of Constantinople and Patriarch Kirill of Moscow with President of Russia Dmitry Medvedev , Moscow 2010.


Politics, wars, persecutions, oppressions, and related potential threats can make precise counts of Orthodox membership difficult to obtain at best in some regions. Historically, forced migrations have also altered demographics in relatively short periods of time. The most reliable estimates currently available number Orthodox adherents at around 200 million worldwide, making Eastern Orthodoxy the second largest Christian communion in the world after Catholicism. The numerous Protestant groups in the world, if taken all together, outnumber the Orthodox,  but they differ theologically and do not form a single communion. According to the 2015 Yearbook of International Religious Demography, the Orthodox population in 2010 decreased to 4% of the global population from 7.1% of the global population in 1910. According to the same source, in terms of the total Christian population, the relative percentages were 12.2% and 20.4% respectively.  According to the Pew Research Center, the Orthodox share of the world’s total Christian population was 12% in 2011.
Most members today are concentrated in Eastern Europe and Asian Russia, in addition to significant minorities in Central Asia and the Levant, although Eastern Orthodoxy has spread into a global religion towards Western Europe and the New World, with churches in most countries and major cities. The adherents constitute the largest single religious faith in the world’s largest country –Russia, where roughly half of Eastern Orthodox Christians live. They are the majority religion in Ukraine, Romania,Belarus, Greece, Serbia, Bulgaria, Moldova, Georgia, Macedonia, Cyprus,  Montenegro, they also dominate in the disputed territories Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transnistria. Significant minorities of Eastern Orthodox are present in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Latvia,  Estonia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan,Lebanon,  Albania, Syria,  and many other countries.
The percentage of Christians in Turkey fell from 19 percent in 1914 to 2.5 percent in 1927, due to events which had a significant impact on the country’s demographic structure, such as the Armenian Genocide, the population exchange between Greece and Turkey, Bulgaria and Turkey and the emigration of Christians to foreign countries (mostly in Europe and the Americas).  Today there are more than 160,000 people of different Christian denominations.
Through mostly labor migration from Eastern Europe and some conversion, Orthodox Christian population is the fastest growing religious grouping in some Western countries, for example in the Republic of Ireland, but Orthodoxy is not “a central marker of minority identity” for the migrants.  While in the United States, the number of Orthodox parishes is growing.

diffusione dei fedeli ortodossi



Orthodox Christians believe in the Trinity. The Holy Trinity is three, distinct, divine persons (hypostases), without overlap or modality among them, who share one divine essence (ousia Greek ουσία)— uncreated, immaterial and eternal.  These three persons are typically distinguished by their relation to each other. The Father is eternal and not begotten and does not proceed from any, the Son is eternal and begotten of the Father, and the Holy Spirit is eternal and proceeds from the Father. Orthodox doctrine regarding the Holy Trinity is summarized in the Nicene Creed (Symbol of Faith).
In discussing God’s relationship to His creation, Orthodox theology distinguishes between God’s eternal essence, which is totally transcendent, and His uncreated energies, which is how He reaches us. The God who is transcendent and the God who touches us are one and the same. That is, these energies are not something that proceed from God or that God produces, but rather they are God himself: distinct, yet inseparable from, God’s inner being.
In understanding the Holy Trinity as “one God in three persons”, “three persons” is not to be emphasized more than “one God”, and vice versa. While the three persons are distinct, they are united in one divine essence, and their oneness is expressed in community and action so completely that they cannot be considered separately. For example, their salvation of mankind is an activity engaged in common: “Christ became man by the good will of the Father and by the cooperation of the Holy Spirit. Christ sends the Holy Spirit who proceeds from the Father, and the Holy Spirit forms Christ in our hearts, and thus God the Father is glorified.” Their “communion of essence” is “indivisible”. Trinitarian terminology- essence, hypostasis, etc. – are used “philosophically”, “to answer the ideas of the heretics”, and “to place the terms where they separate error and truth.” The words do what they can do, but the nature of the Trinity in its fullness remains beyond our comprehension and expression, a Holy Mystery that can only be experienced.

Christian Life

Church teaching is that Orthodox Christians, through baptism, enter a new life of salvation through repentance whose purpose is to share in the life of God through the work of the Holy Spirit. The Orthodox Christian life is a spiritual pilgrimage in which each person, through the imitation of Christ and hesychasm, cultivates the practice of unceasing prayer. Each life occurs within the life of the church as a member of the body of Christ. It is then through the fire of God’s love in the action of the Holy Spirit that each member becomes more holy, more wholly unified with Christ, starting in this life and continuing in the next. The church teaches that everyone, being born in God’s image, is called to theosis, fulfillment of the image in likeness to God. God the creator, having divinity by nature, offers each person participation in divinity by cooperatively accepting His gift of grace.
The Orthodox Church, in understanding itself to be the Body of Christ, and similarly in understanding the Christian life to lead to the unification in Christ of all members of his body, views the church as embracing all Christ’s members, those now living on earth, and also all those through the ages who have passed on to the heavenly life. The church includes the Christian saints from all times, and also judges, prophets and righteous Jews of the first covenant, Adam and Eve, even the angels and heavenly hosts. In Orthodox services, the earthly members together with the heavenly members worship God as one community in Christ, in a union that transcends time and space and joins heaven to earth. This unity of the Church is sometimes called the communion of the saints.


The Theotokos of Vladimir, one of the most venerated of Orthodox Christian icons of the Virgin Mary.

Mother of God and Saints

The Orthodox Church believes death and the separation of body and soul to be unnatural—a result of the Fall of Man. They also hold that the congregation of the Church comprises both the living and the dead. All persons currently in heaven are considered to be saints, whether their names are known or not. There are, however, those saints of distinction whom God has revealed as particularly good examples. When a saint is revealed and ultimately recognized by a large portion of the Church a service of official recognition (glorification) is celebrated.
This does not ‘make’ the person a saint, it merely recognizes the fact and announces it to the rest of the Church. A day is prescribed for the saint’s celebration, hymns composed and icons are created. Numerous saints are celebrated on each day of the year. They are venerated (shown great respect and love) but not worshiped, for worship is due to God alone. In showing the saints this love and requesting their prayers, the Orthodox manifest their belief that the saints thus assist in the process of salvation for others.
Pre-eminent among the saints is the Virgin Mary, the Mother of God). In Orthodox theology, the Mother of God is the fulfillment of the Old Testament archetypes revealed in the Ark of the Covenant (because she carried the New Covenant in the person of Christ) and the burning bush that appeared before Moses (symbolizing the Mother of God’s carrying of God without being consumed). Accordingly, the Orthodox consider Mary to be the Ark of the New Covenant and give her the respect and reverence as such. The Theotokos was chosen by God and she freely co-operated in that choice to be the Mother of Jesus Christ, the God-man.
The Orthodox believe that the Christ Child from the moment of conception was both fully God and fully Man. Mary is thus called the ‘Theotokos’ or ‘Bogoroditsa’ as an affirmation of the divinity of the One to whom she gave birth. It is also believed that her virginity was not compromised in conceiving God-incarnate, that she was not harmed and that she remained forever a virgin. Scriptural references to “brothers” of Christ are interpreted as kin, given that the word ‘brother’ was used in multiple ways, as was the term ‘father’. Due to her unique place in salvation history, Mary is honored above all other saints and especially venerated for the great work that God accomplished through her.
The Church regards the bodies of all saints as holy, made such by participation in the Holy Mysteries, especially the communion of Christ’s holy body and blood, and by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit within the Church. Indeed, that persons and physical things can be made holy is a cornerstone of the doctrine of the Incarnation, made manifest also directly by God in Old Testament times through his dwelling in the Ark of the Covenant. Thus, physical items connected with saints are also regarded as holy, through their participation in the earthly works of those saints. God himself bears witness to this holiness of saints’ relics through the many miracles connected with them that have been reported throughout history since Biblical times, often including healing from disease and injury.


Our Lady of Tinos is the major Marian shrine in Greece.

Territorial expansion and doctrinal integrity

During the course of the early church, there were numerous followers who attached themselves to the Christ and His mission here on Earth, as well as followers who retained the distinct duty of being commissioned with preserving the quality of life and lessons revealed through the experience of Jesus living, dying, resurrecting and ascending among them. As a matter of practical distinction and logistics, people of varying gifts were accorded stations within the community structure – ranging from the host of agape meals (shared with brotherly and fatherly love), to prophecy and the reading of Scripture, to preaching and interpretations and giving aid to the sick and the poor. Sometime after Pentecost the Church grew to a point where it was no longer possible for the Apostles to minister alone. Overseers (bishops) and assistants (deacons and deaconesses) were appointed to further the mission of the Church.
The ecclesia recognized the gathering of these early church communities as being greatest in areas of the known world that were famous for their significance on the world stage – either as hotbeds of intellectual discourse, high volumes of trade, or proximity to the original sacred sites. These locations were targeted by the early apostles, who recognized the need for humanitarian efforts in these large urban centers and sought to bring as many people as possible into the ecclesia – such a life was seen as a form of deliverance from the decadent lifestyles promoted throughout the eastern and western Roman empire.
As the Church increased in size through the centuries, the logistic dynamics of operating such large entities shifted: patriarchs, metropolitans, archimandrites, abbots and abbesses, all rose up to cover certain points of administration.
As a result of heightened exposure and popularity of the philosophical schools (haereseis) of Greco-Roman society and education, Synods and Councils were forced to engage such schools that sought to co-opt the language and pretext of the Christian faith in order gain power and popularity for their own political and cultural expansion. As a result, ecumenical councils were held to attempt to rebuild solidarity by using the strength of distant orthodox witnesses to dampen the intense local effects of particular philosophical schools within a given area.
While originally intended to serve as an internal check and balance for the defense of faulty local doctrine against the doctrine developed and spread by the apostles to the various sees, at times the church found its own bishops and emperors falling prey to local conventions – at these crucial moments in the history of the church, it found itself able to rebuild on the basis of the faith as it was kept and maintained by monastic communities who subsisted without reliance on the community of the state or popular culture and were generally unaffected by the materialism and rhetoric that often dominated and threatened the integrity and stability of the urban churches.
In this sense, the aim of the councils was not to expand or fuel a popular need for a clearer or relevant picture of the original apostolic teaching. Rather, the theologians spoke to address the issues of external schools of thought who wished to distort the simplicity and neutrality of the apostolic teaching for personal or political gain. The consistency of the Orthodox faith is entirely dependent on the Holy Tradition of the accepted corpus of belief – the decisions ratified by the fathers of the seven ecumenical councils, and this is only done at the beginning of a consecutive council so that the effects of the decisions of the prior council can be audited and verified as being both conceptually sound and pragmatically feasible and beneficial for the church as a whole.

Monasticism –  Degrees of Orthodox monasticism

The Eastern Orthodox Church places heavy emphasis and awards a high level of prestige to traditions of monasticism and asceticism with roots in Early Christianity in the Near East and Byzantine Anatolia. The most important centres of Christian Orthodox monasticism are Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula (Egypt) and Mount Athos in Northern Greece.
All Orthodox Christians are expected to participate in at least some ascetic works, in response to the commandment of Christ to “come, take up the cross, and follow me.” (Mark 10:21 and elsewhere) They are therefore all called to imitate, in one way or another, Christ himself who denied himself to the extent of literally taking up the cross on the way to his voluntary self-sacrifice. However, laypeople are not expected to live in extreme asceticism since this is close to impossible while undertaking the normal responsibilities of worldly life.
Those who wish to do this therefore separate themselves from the world and live as monastics: monks and nuns. As ascetics par excellence, using the allegorical weapons of prayer and fasting in spiritual warfare against their passions, monastics hold a very special and important place in the Church. This kind of life is often seen as incompatible with any kind of worldly activity including that which is normally regarded as virtuous. Social work, school teaching, and other such work is therefore usually left to laypeople. Ascetics of the Orthodox Church are recognized by their long hair, and in case of male monks, long beards.
There are three main types of monastics. Those who live in monasteries under a common rule arecoenobitic. Each monastery may formulate its own rule, and although there are no religious orders in Orthodoxy some respected monastic centers such as Mount Athos are highly influential. Eremiticmonks, or hermits, are those who live solitary lives. It is the yearning of many who enter the monastic life to eventually become solitary hermits. This most austere life is only granted to the most advanced monastics and only when their superiors feel they are ready for it.
Hermits are usually associated with a larger monastery but live in seclusion some distance from the main compound. Their local monastery will see to their physical needs, supplying them with simple foods while disturbing them as little as possible. In between are those in semi-eremitic communities, orsketes, where one or two monks share each of a group of nearby dwellings under their own rules and only gather together in the central chapel, or katholikon, for liturgical observances.
The spiritual insight gained from their ascetic struggles make monastics preferred for missionary activity. Bishops are almost always chosen from among monks, and those who are not generally receive the monastic tonsure before their consecrations.
Many (but not all) Orthodox seminaries are attached to monasteries, combining academic preparation forordination with participation in the community’s life of prayer. Monks who have been ordained to the priesthood are called hieromonk (priest-monk); monks who have been ordained to the diaconate are calledhierodeacon (deacon-monk). Not all monks live in monasteries, some hieromonks serve as priests in parish churches thus practicing “monasticism in the world”.
Cultural practices differ slightly, but in general Father is the correct form of address for monks who have been tonsured, while Novices are addressed as Brother. Similarly, Motheris the correct form of address for nuns who have been tonsured, while Novices are addressed as Sister. Nuns live identical ascetic lives to their male counterparts and are therefore also called monachoi (monastics) or the feminine plural form in Greek,monachai, and their common living space is called a monastery, “monastíri” in Greek.


The Schema worn by Orthodox monks.


Saint Catherine’s Monastery in the Sinai Peninsula.


The term ‘icon’ comes from the Greek word eikona, which simply means image. The Orthodox believe that the first icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary were painted by Luke the Evangelist. Icons are filled with symbolism designed to convey information about the person or event depicted. For this reason, icons tend to be formulaic, following a prescribed methodology for how a particular person should be depicted, including hair style, body position, clothing, and background details.
Icon painting, in general, is not an opportunity for artistic expression, though each iconographer brings a vision to the piece. It is far more common for an icon to be copied from an older model, though with the recognition of a new saint in the church, a new icon must be created and approved. The personal and creative traditions of Catholic religious art were largely lacking in Orthodox iconography before the 17th century, when Russian iconography began to be strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Roman Catholic Europe. Greek iconography also began to take on a strong western influence for a period and the difference between some Orthodox icons and western religious art began to vanish. More recently there has been a trend of returning to the more traditional and symbolic representations.
The style of the icons seems to have been borrowed heavily from the paganism of the Greek culture. Henry Chadwick writes, “In this instinct there was a measure of truth. The representations of Christ as the Almighty Lord on his judgment throne owed something to pictures of Zeus. Portraits of the Mother of God were not wholly independent of a pagan past of venerated mother-goddesses. In the popular mind the saints had come to fill a role that had been played by heroes and deities.”
Free-standing statues (three-dimensional depictions) are almost non-existent within the Orthodox Church. This is partly due to the rejection of the previous pagan Greek age (Greek gods) of idol worship and partly because icons are meant to show the spiritual nature of man, not the sensual earthly body. Bas reliefs, however, became common during the Byzantine period and led to a tradition of covering a painted icon in a silver or gold ‘riza’ in order to preserve the icon. Such bas relief coverings usually leave the faces and hands of the saints exposed for veneration.
Icons are not considered by the Orthodox to be idols or objects of worship. The parameters of their usage were clearly spelled out by the 7th ecumenical council. Justification for their usage utilises the following logic: before God took human form in Christ, no material depiction was possible and therefore blasphemous even to contemplate. Once God became incarnate, depiction was possible.
As Christ is believed to be God, it is justified to hold in one’s mind the image of God-incarnate. Likewise, when one venerates an icon, it is not the wood or paint that are venerated but rather the individual shown, just as it is not the paper one loves when one might kiss the photograph of a loved one. As Saint Basil famously proclaimed, honour or veneration of the icon always passes to its archetype. Following this reasoning, the veneration of the glorified human saint made in God’s image, is always a veneration of the divine image, and hence God as foundational archetype.
Icons can be found adorning the walls of churches and often cover the inside structure completely. Most Orthodox homes have an area set aside for family prayer, usually an eastern facing wall, where are hung many icons. Icons have been part of Orthodox Christianity since the beginning of the church.
Icons are often illuminated by a candle or oil lamp. (Beeswax for candles and olive oil for lamps are preferred because they are natural and burn cleanly.) Besides the practical purpose of making icons visible in an otherwise dark church, both candles and oil lamps symbolise the Light of the World, who is Christ.
Tales of miraculous icons are not uncommon, though it has always been considered that the message of such an event was for the immediate faithful involved and therefore does not usually attract crowds. Some miraculous icons whose reputations span long periods of time nevertheless become objects of pilgrimage along with the places where they are kept. As several Orthodox theologians and saints have explored in the past, the icon’s miraculous nature is found not in the material, but in the glory of the saint who is depicted. The icon is a window, in the words of Paul Florensky, that actually participates in the glory of what it represents.


Our Lady of St. Theodore, the protector of Kostroma, following the same Byzantine “Tender Mercy” type.


Depictions of the cross within the Orthodox Church are numerous and often highly ornamented, but its use does not extend to all Orthodox traditions. Some carry special significance. The Tri-Bar Cross, popular in Russia and Ukraine, but common throughout the Orthodox world, seen to the right, has three bars. Its origins are in the early Byzantine Church of the 4th century AD.
The small top crossbar represents the sign that Pontius Pilate nailed above Christ’s head. It often is inscribed with an acronym, “INRI”, Latin, meaning “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” or “INBI”, Ancient Greek, “Jesus; of Nazareth, King of the Jews“; however, it is often replaced or amplified by the phrase “The King of Glory” in order to answer Pilate’s statement with Christ’s affirmation, “My Kingdom is not of this world”.
There is also a bottom slanting bar. This appears for a number of reasons. Claims of evidence indicate that there was a small wooden platform for the crucified to stand on in order to support his weight; in Jesus’ case his feet were nailed side by side to this platform with one nail each in order to prolong the torture of the cross.
Implied evidence for this comes mainly from two sources within holy tradition, namely, the Bible (in order to cause the victim to die faster, their legs were broken so they could not support their weight and would suffocate) and iconography (all early depictions of the crucifixion show this arrangement, not the later with feet on top with single nail). It has also been pointed out by some experts that the nailed hands of a body crucified in the manner often shown in modern secular art would not support the weight of the body and would tear through. A platform for the feet would relieve this problem.
The bottom bar is slanted for two reasons, to represent the very real agony which Christ experienced on the cross (a refutation of Docetism) and to signify that the thief on Christ’s right chose the right path while the thief on the left did not. Other crosses associated with the Orthodox Church are the more traditional single-bar crosses, budded designs, the Jerusalem cross (cross pattée), Celtic crosses, and others. A common symbolism of the slanted foot stool is The foot-rest points up, toward Heaven, on Christ’s right hand-side, and downward, to Hades, on Christ’s left. “Between two thieves Thy Cross did prove to be a balance of righteousness: wherefore one of them was dragged down to Hades by the weight of his blasphemy , whereas the other was lightened of his transgressions unto the comprehension of theology . O Christ God, glory to Thee.” Another Orthodox cross which is worn in gold is an outer budded cross with an inner Three Bar Cross. The inscription Jesus Christ in Greek: IC (Iesous) on the left side bar and XC (Xhristos) on the right side bar, with a sun on the top of the cross. There is also typically an inscription on the back in Church Slavonic which says “Save and Protect.” i.e. “спаси и сохрани” i.e. “Spasi i Soxrani”. This cross is known as the Saint Olga Cross.

Art and architecture

The church building has many symbolic meanings; perhaps the oldest and most prominent is the concept that the Church is the Ark (as in Noah‘s) in which the world is saved from the flood of temptations; therefore, most Orthodox Churches are rectangular in design. Another popular configuration, especially for churches with large choirs iscruciform or cross-shaped or what is called the “Greek-cross.”
Architectural patterns vary in shape and complexity, with chapels sometimes added around the main church, or triple altars; but in general, the symbolic layout of the church remains the same. Each church is created with specified qualifications based on what the apostles said in the Bible. These qualifications include how big the temple should be.
The Church building is divided into three main parts: the narthex (vestibule), the nave and the sanctuary (also called the altar or holy place). The narthex is where catechumens and non-Orthodox visitors were traditionally asked to stand during services. It is separated from the nave by “The Royal Gate”. On each side of this gate are candle stands (menalia) representing the pillars of fire that went before the Hebrew people escaping from Egypt.
The nave is where most of the congregation stand during services. Traditionally, men stand on the right and women on the left. This is for a number of reasons: (1) Considering the family unit of past centuries the husband was dominant; thus, standing the same distance from the altar, equality is emphasised. (2) The idea of separating the sexes was inherited from the Jewish tradition of doing so within synagogues (3) Separation of sexes also followed the practice of choirs in which different levels of voice are placed in groups to facilitate harmony.
In general, men and women dress respectfully, typically wearing their “Sunday best” to enter the church. Often, women cover their heads as prescribed by Paul (1 Cor. 11:13). Children are considered full members of the Church and stand attentively and quietly during services. There is often a choir area at the side or in a loft in back. In addition to the Choir, a Chanter is always present at the front of the church to chant responses and hymns that are part of the Divine Liturgy offered by the Priest. There is usually a dome in the ceiling with an icon of Christ depicted as Ruler of the Universe (Pantocrator).


An illustration of the traditional interior of an Orthodox church.

History of the Orthodox Church

Early Church

Following Jesus Christ’s Great Commission to the apostles, Christianity spread rapidly throughout the Roman Empire. Paul and the Apostles traveled extensively throughout the Empire, including Asia Minor, establishing Churches in major communities, with the first Churches appearing in Jerusalem and the Holy Land, then in Antioch, Ethiopia, Egypt, Rome, Alexandria, Athens, Thessalonica, Illyricum, and Byzantium, which centuries later would become prominent as the New Rome. Christianity in the Roman Empire met with considerable resistance, as its adherents would refuse to comply with the Roman state (even at the threat of death) in offering sacrifice to the pagan gods. Despite persecutions, the Church spread. The persecution dissipated upon the conversion of Emperor Constantine I in 324 AD.
By the 4th century Christianity had spread to numerous regions. A number of influential schools of thought had arisen, particularly the Alexandrian and Antiochian philosophical approaches. Other groups, such as the Arians, had also managed to gain influence. However, their positions caused theological conflicts within the Church, thus prompting the Emperor Constantine to call for a great ecumenical synod in order to define the Church’s position against the growing, often widely diverging, philosophical and theological interpretations of Christianity. He made it possible for this council to meet not only by providing a location, but by offering to pay for the transportation of all the existing bishops of the Church. Most modern Christian Churches regard this synod, commonly called the First Council of Nicaea or more generally the First Ecumenical Council, as of major importance.

Ecumenical councils

 Several doctrinal disputes from the 4th century onwards led to the calling of Ecumenical councils. In the Orthodox Church, an Ecumenical council is the supreme authority that can be invoked to resolve contested issues of the faith. As such, these councils have been held to resolve the most important theological matters that came to be disputed within the Church. Many lesser disagreements were resolved through local councils in the areas where they arose, before they grew significant enough to require an Ecumenical council.
There are seven councils authoritatively recognized as Ecumenica:
1. The First Ecumenical Council was convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine at Nicaea in 325 and presided over by the Patriarch Alexander of Alexandria, with over 300 bishops condemning the view of Arius that the Son is a created being inferior to the Father.
2. The Second Ecumenical Council was held at Constantinople in 381, presided over by the Patriarchs of Alexandria and Antioch, with 150 bishops, defining the nature of the Holy Spirit against those asserting His inequality with the other persons of the Trinity.
3. The Third Ecumenical Council is that of Ephesus in 431, presided over by the Patriarch of Alexandria, with 250 bishops, which affirmed that Mary is truly “Birthgiver” or “Mother” of God (Theotokos), contrary to the teachings of Nestorius.
4. The Fourth Ecumenical Council is that of Chalcedon in 451, Patriarch of Constantinople presiding, 500 bishops, affirmed that Jesus is truly God and truly man, without mixture of the two natures, contrary to Monophysite teaching.
5. The Fifth Ecumenical Council is the second of Constantinople in 553, interpreting the decrees of Chalcedon and further explaining the relationship of the two natures of Jesus; it also condemned the alleged teachings of Origen on the pre-existence of the soul, etc.
6. The Sixth Ecumenical Council is the third of Constantinople in 681; it declared that Christ has two wills of his two natures, human and divine, contrary to the teachings of the Monothelites.
7. The Seventh Ecumenical Council was called under the Empress Regent Irene of Athens in 787, known as the second of Nicaea. It supports the veneration of icons while forbidding their worship. It is often referred to as “The Triumph of Orthodoxy”.
There are also two other councils which are considered Ecumenical by some Orthodox. All Orthodox agree that the decisions of these further councils are valid; the disagreement is only whether they carry sufficient importance to be considered truly Ecumenical:
8. The Fourth Council of Constantinople was called in 879. It restored St. Photius to his See in Constantinople and condemned any alteration of the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed of 381.
9. The Fifth Council of Constantinople was actually a series of councils held between 1341 and 1351. It affirmed the hesychastic theology of St. Gregory Palamas and condemned the philosopher Barlaam of Calabria.
In addition to these councils there have been a number of other significant councils meant to further define the Orthodox position. They are the Synods of Constantinople, in 1484, 1583, 1755, 1819, and 1872, the Synod of Iași (Jassy) in 1642, and the Pan-Orthodox Synod of Jerusalem in 1672. Another council is set to convene in 2016 to discuss many modern phenomena including Modernism, other Christian confessions, Orthodoxy’s relation with other religions and fasting disciplines.


Hagia Sophia, once the largest church is Constantinople, later converted into a mosque

Roman/Byzantine Empire

Eastern Christian culture reached its golden age during the high point of the Byzantine Empire and continued to flourish in Ukraine and Russia, after the fall of Constantinople. Numerous autocephalous churches were established in Europe: Russia, Greece, Armenia, Georgia and Ukraine, as well as Asia.In the 530s the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) was built in Constantinople under emperor Justinian I.

Early schisms

The Church in Egypt (Patriarchate of Alexandria) split into two groups following the Council of Chalcedon (451), over a dispute about the relation between the divine and human natures of Jesus. Eventually this led to each group anathematizing the other. Those that remained in communion with the other patriarchs (by accepting the Council of Chalcedon) are known today as the Greek Orthodox Church of Alexandria, where the adjective “Greek” refers to their ties to the Greek-speaking culture of the Byzantine Empire. However, those who disagreed with the findings of the Council of Chalcedon were the majority in Egypt, and today they are known as the Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria, having maintained a separate patriarchate. The Coptic Orthodox Church is currently the largest Christian church in Egypt and in the whole Middle East. There was also a similar, albeit smaller scale, split in Syria (Patriarchate of Antioch), which resulted in the separation of the Syriac Orthodox Church from the Byzantine Patriarchate of Antioch.
Those who disagreed with the Council of Chalcedon are sometimes called “Oriental Orthodox” to distinguish them from the “Eastern Orthodox“, who accepted the Council of Chalcedon. Oriental Orthodox are also sometimes referred to as “non-Chalcedonians”, or “anti-Chalcedonians”. The Oriental Orthodox Church denies that it is monophysite and prefers the term “miaphysite“, to denote the “united” nature of Jesus (two natures united into one) consistent with St. Cyril’s theology: “The term union…signifies the concurrence in one reality of those things which are understood to be united” and “the Word who is ineffably united with it in a manner beyond all description” (St. Cyril of Alexandria –On the Unity of Christ). Both the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches formally believe themselves to be the continuation of the true church, although over the last several decades there has been considerable reconciliation and the prospect of reunification has been discussed.
As well, there are the “Nestorian” churches, which are Eastern Christian churches that keep the faith of only the first two ecumenical councils, i.e., the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople. “Nestorian” is an outsider’s term for a tradition that predated the influence of Nestorius. The “Nestorian Church” is commonly referred to as “the Assyrian Church” or the Assyrian Church of the East.

Conversion of East and South Slavs

Christianization of Bulgaria, Christianization of the Rus’ Khaganate and Christianization of Kievan Rus’
In the 9th and 10th centuries, Christianity made great inroads into pagan Europe, including Kievan Rus’. This work was made possible by the work of the Byzantine-era saints Cyril and Methodius. When king Rastislav of Moravia asked Byzantium for teachers who could minister to the Moravians in their own language, Byzantine emperor Michael III chose these two brothers. Cyril and Methodius translated the Bible and many of the prayer books. As the translations prepared by them were copied by speakers of other dialects, the hybrid literary language Old Church Slavonic was created. Originally sent to convert the Slavs of Great Moravia, Cyril and Methodius were forced to compete with Frankish missionaries from the Roman diocese. Their disciples were driven out of Great Moravia in AD 886.
Some of the disciples, namely Saint Clement of Ohrid and Saint Naum, were of great importance to the Orthodox Faith in Bulgaria. In a short time, the disciples of Cyril and Methodius managed to prepare and instruct the future Bulgarian clergy into the biblical texts and in AD 893, proclaimed the first organized Church on the Balkan Peninsula. The success of the conversion of the Bulgarians facilitated the conversion of East Slavic peoples, most notably the Rus’, predecessors of Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians.
The work of the Thessaloniki brothers Cyril and Methodius and their disciples had a major impact to Serbs as well. However, they accepted Christianity collectively by families and by tribes (in the process between the 7th and the 9th century). In commemoration of their baptisms, each Serbian family or tribe began to celebrate an exclusively Serbian custom called Slava in a special way to honor the Saint on whose day they received the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It is the most solemn day of the year for all Serbs of the Orthodox faith and has played a role of vital importance in the history of the Serbian people. Slava is actually the celebration of the spiritual birthday of the Serbian people which the Church blessed and proclaimed it a Church institution.
The missionaries to the East and South Slavs had great success in part because they used the people’s native language rather than Greek, the predominant language of the Byzantine Empire or Latin as the Roman priests did.  Today the Russian Orthodox Church is the largest of the Orthodox Churches followed by the Romanian Orthodox Church.

Great Schism (1054) East-West Schism

In the 11th century what was recognised as the Great Schism took place between Rome and Constantinople, which led to separation between the Church of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Eastern Byzantine Churches, now the Orthodox. There were doctrinal issues like the filioque clause and the authority of the Roman Pope involved in the split, but these were greatly exacerbated by political factors of both Church and state, and by cultural and linguistic differences between Latins and Greeks. Prior to 1054, the Eastern and Western halves of the Church had frequently been in conflict, particularly during the periods of Eastern iconoclasm and the Photian schism.
The final breach is often considered to have arisen after the capture and sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204; the final break with Rome occurred circa 1450. The sacking of Church of Holy Wisdom and establishment of the Latin Empire as a seeming attempt to supplant the Orthodox Byzantine Empire in 1204 is viewed with some rancour to the present day. In 2004, Pope John Paul IIextended a formal apology for the sacking of Constantinople in 1204, which was importantly also strongly condemned by the Pope at the time (Innocent III, see reference at end of paragraph); the apology was formally accepted by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Many things that were stolen during this time — holy relics, riches, and many other items—were not returned and are still held in various European cities, particularly Venice.
Reunion was attempted twice, at the 1274 Second Council of Lyon and the 1439 Council of Florence. The Council of Florence did briefly reestablish communion between East and West, which lasted until after the fall of Constantinople in 1453. In each case, however, the councils were rejected by the Orthodox people as a whole, and the union of Florence also became very politically difficult after Constantinople came under Ottoman rule, so in both cases came to fail. Some local Eastern Churches have, however, renewed union with Rome in time since (see Eastern Catholic Churches). Recent decades have seen a renewal of ecumenical spirit and dialogue between the Churches.


Latin Crusaders sacking the city of Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Orthodox-controlled Byzantine Empire.

Age of captivity

Christianity in the Ottoman Empire and History of the Eastern Orthodox Church under the Ottoman Empire
In 1453, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Empire. By this time Egypt had been under Muslim control for some seven centuries, but Orthodoxy was very strong in Russia which had recently acquired an autocephalous status; and thus Moscow called itself the Third Rome, as the cultural heir of Constantinople.
Under Ottoman rule, the Greek Orthodox Church acquired substantial power as an autonomous millet. The ecumenical patriarch was the religious and administrative ruler of the Rûm (Ottoman administrative unit meaning “Roman”), which encompassed all the Orthodox subjects of the Empire.


Stavronikita monastery, Mount Athos, Greece (South-East view)

Russian Orthodox Church in the Russian Empire

Up until 1666, when Patriarch Nikon was deposed by the tsar, the Russian Orthodox Church had been independent of the State. In 1721 the first Russian Emperor, Peter I abolished completely the patriarchate and so the Church effectively became a department of the government, ruled by a Most Holy Synod composed of senior bishops and lay bureaucrats appointed by the Emperor himself. From 1721 until the BolsheviksOctober Revolution of 1917, the Russian Orthodox Church was essentially transformed into a governmental agency, a tool used to various degrees by the tsars in the imperial campaigns of Russification. The Church was allowed by the State to levy taxes on the peasants. Therefore, the Church, along with the imperial regime, to which it belonged, came to be presented as an enemy of the people by the Bolsheviks and the other Russian revolutionaries.

Russian Orthodox Church in Soviet Russia and the Soviet Union (1917–91)

The revolution brought a brief period of freedom from governmental control for the Church: an independent patriarchate was reestablished briefly in 1917, until Vladimir Lenin quashed the Church a few years later, imprisoning or killing many of the clergy and of the faithful. Part of the clergy escaped the Bolshevik persecutions by fleeing abroad, where they founded an independent church in exile, reunified with the Russian one in 2007.
The Orthodox Church clergy in Russia were seen as sympathetic with the cause of the White Army in the Civil War (see White movement) after the October Revolution, and occasionally collaborated with it; Patriarch Tikhon‘s declared position was vehemently anti-Bolshevik in 1918. This may have further strengthened the Bolshevik animus against the church.
Before and after the October Revolution of 7 November 1917 (25 October Old Calendar) there was a movement within Russia to unite all of the people of the world under Communist rule (see Communist International). This included the Eastern Bloc countries as well as the Balkan States. Since some of these Slavic states tied their ethnic heritage to their ethnic churches, both the peoples and their church were targeted by the Soviets.


1931 demolition of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour in Moscow
The Soviets’ official interpretation of freedom of conscience was one of “guaranteeing the right to profess any religion, or profess none, to practice religious cults, or conduct atheist propaganda”, though in effect atheism was sponsored by state and was taught in all educational establishments.Public criticism of atheism was unofficially forbidden and sometimes led to imprisonment. Soviet Russia was the first state to have as an ideological objective the elimination of religion.  Toward that end, the government confiscated church property, ridiculed religion, harassed believers, and propagated atheism in schools. Actions toward particular religions, however, were determined by State interests, and most organized religions were never outlawed. Some actions against Orthodox priests and believers along with execution included torture, being sent to prison camps, labour camps ormental hospitals. The result of state sponsored atheism was to transform the Church into a persecuted and martyred Church. In the first five years after the Bolshevik revolution, 28 bishops and 1,200 priests were executed.
After Nazi Germany’s attack on the Soviet Union in 1941, Joseph Stalin revived the Russian Orthodox Church to intensify patriotic support for the war effort. By 1957 about 22,000 Russian Orthodox churches had become active. But in 1959 Nikita Khrushchev initiated his own campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church and forced the closure of about 12,000 churches. It is estimated that 50,000 clergy had been executed between the revolution and the end of the Khrushchev era. Members of the church hierarchy were jailed or forced out, their places taken by docile clergy, many of whom had ties with the KGB. By 1985 fewer than 7,000 churches remained active.



The rebuilt Cathedral of Christ the Saviour

In the Soviet Union, in addition to the methodical closing and destruction of churches, the charitable and social work formerly done by ecclesiastical authorities was taken over by the state. As with all private property, Church owned property was confiscated into public use. The few places of worship left to the Church were legally viewed as state property which the government permitted the church to use. After the advent of state funded universal education, the Church was not permitted to carry on educational, instructional activity of any kind. Outside of sermons during the celebration of the divine liturgy it could not instruct or evangelise to the faithful or its youth. Catechism classes, religious schools, study groups, Sunday schools and religious publications were all illegal or banned. This persecution continued, even after the death of Stalin until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. This caused many religious tracts to be circulated as illegal literature orsamizdat.
Among the most damaging aspects of Soviet rule, along with these physical abuses, the Soviet Union frequently manipulated the recruitment and appointment of priests, sometimes planting agents of the KGB within the church to monitor religious persons who were viewed – simply for not being atheists – as suspicious and potential threats to Soviet communism. As a result, the return of religious beliefs in Russia has been impeded even after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. However, there is definitely marked return to Christian Orthodoxy in Russia. According to the Pew Research Religion & Public Life Project, between 1991 and 2008, the share of Russian adults identifying as Orthodox Christian rose from 31 percent to 72 percent, according to a new Pew Research Center analysis of three waves of data (1991, 1998 and 2008) from the International Social Survey Programme (ISSP) – a collaboration involving social scientists in about 50 countries.

Other Orthodox Churches during the Cold War

Albania was the only state to have declared itself officially fully atheist. In some other communist states such as Romania, the Orthodox Church as an organization enjoyed relative freedom and even prospered, albeit under strict secret police control. That, however, did not rule out demolishing churches and monasteries as part of broader systematization (urban planning), and state persecution of individual believers. As an example of the latter, Romania stands out as a country which ran a specialized institution where many Orthodox (along with people of other faiths) were subjected to psychological punishment or torture and mind control experimentation in order to force them give up their religious convictions. However, this was only supported by one faction within the regime, and lasted only three years. The Communist authorities closed down the prison in 1952, and punished many of those responsible for abuses (twenty of them were sentenced to death).

Relations with other Christians

Fourth Crusade and Polish–Muscovite War (1605–18)

Eastern Orthodoxy represents the majority of Eastern Christianity. The Orthodox trace their bishops back to the apostles through apostolic succession, venerate saints, especially Mary the Mother of God as the Theotokos, pray for the dead, and continue the ancient Christian practice of monasticism. Orthodoxy does not openly promote statuary, although it is not expressly condemned, instead limiting itself primarily to two-dimensional iconography. Western theological concepts of original sin, atonement, predestination, purgatory and particular judgment are generally rejected by traditional Orthodox theologians.
The Orthodox understand themselves to be the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church; the true Church established by Jesus Christ and placed into the care of the apostles. As almost all other Christian groups are in indirect schism with the Orthodox Church, mostly as a result of the Great Schism with the Roman Catholic Church at the turn of the second Christian millennium (prior to the additional schisms of the Protestant Reformation), these other groups are viewed as being Christian, but who in varying degrees lack full theological orthodoxy and orthopraxy.
As such, all groups outside of the Orthodox Church are not seen as being members of the Church proper, but rather separated brethren who have failed to retain the fullness of the Christian faith and theology, as was given to the apostles by Jesus Christ. These deviations from orthodoxy have traditionally been called heresy, but due to the term’s immediately pejorative connotations, some prefer the more technical designation of the term heterodoxy.
Hilarion Alfeyev, the Metropolitan of Volokolamsk and head of external relations for the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church, stated that Orthodox and evangelical Christians share the same positions on “such issues as abortion, the family, and marriage” and desire “vigorous grassroots engagement” between the two Christian communions on such issues.

Relations with Islam

Orthodoxy has had a long relationship with Islam. After the Islamic conquests, much of the Orthodox Christian world was subject to Muslim rule. The entire Orthodox world excluding Russia was subjugated by Muslims during at least one point in history. Egypt and the Levant were conquered early in the 7th century during theRashidun Caliphate.  Anatolia was taken gradually starting in the 9th century and finally at the end of the Byzantine Empire in 1453. The Kingdom of Georgia was invaded in the 8th century, regaining independence again only in the 12th century. Greece was invaded gradually from the 14th-16th century, and the Balkans throughout the 15th-16th centuries. Even today most of the former Orthodox world is predominantly Muslim, with the result that in the majority of those countries both the remaining Orthodox Christians and Orthodox Christian Heritage alike are often at the mercy of extremists and/or governmental persecution, in places such as Turkey, the Turkish occupied part of Cyprus, Iraq as a whole, and certain parts of Syria and Iraq. In Russia, Metropolitan Alfeyev stated belief in the possibility of peaceful coexistence between Islam and Christianity as the two religions have never had religious wars in Russia. However, Alfeyev stated that the Russian Orthodox Church “disagrees with atheist secularism in some areas very strongly” and “believes that it destroys something very essential about human life.


The various autocephalous and autonomous synods of the Orthodox Church are distinct in terms of administration and local culture, but for the most part exist in full communion with one another. Presently, there are two communions that reject each other and in addition – some schismatic churches not in any communion, all three groups identifying as Eastern Orthodox. The main traditional historical communion are referred to as New Calendarists, who use a Revised Julian Calendar for calculating the feasts of the ecclesiastical year, the another group are referred to as True Orthodoxy (also Old Calendarists), they are those who separated from the mainstream, have continued to use the old Julian Calendar claiming that the Calendar reform in 1920s is in contravention of the Ecumenical Councils. Similarly, another group called Old Believers, separated in 1666 from the official Russian Orthodox Church as a protest against church rite reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon of Moscow. As Eastern Orthodox Christianity is both collegial and local in structure, there is no single organization called the “True Orthodox Church” nor is there official recognition among the “True Orthodox” as to who is properly included among them. While some unions have taken place even up to the present, the majority of True Orthodox are only secondarily concerned with reunion as opposed to preservation of Eastern Orthodox teaching.. The calendar question reflects the dispute between those who wish to synchronize with the modern Gregorian calendar, which its opponents consider unnecessary and damaging to continuity, and those who wish to maintain the traditional ecclesiastical calendar (which happens to be based on the Julian calendar), arguing that such a modern change goes against 1900 years of Church tradition and was in fact perpetrated without an ecumenical council, which would surely have rejected the idea.
The dispute has led to much acrimony, and sometimes even to violence. Following canonical precepts, some adherents of the Old Calendar have chosen to abstain from clerical intercommunion with those synods which have embraced the New Calendar until the conflict is resolved. The monastic communities on Mount Athos have provided the strongest opposition to the New Calendar, and to modernism in general, while still maintaining communion with their mother church. Some latent discontent between different national churches exists also in part due to different approach towards ecumenism. While the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, the Orthodox bishops in North America gathered into the Standing Conference of the Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas (SCOBA), Romanian bishops, and others are fairly open to dialog with the Roman Catholic Church, both conservative and moderate Old Calendarists, many of the monks of Mount Athos, several bishops of Russian, Serbian, and some of Greek and Bulgarian churches regard ecumenism as compromising essential doctrinal stands in order to accommodate other Christians, and object to the emphasis on dialogue leading to inter-communion; believing instead that Orthodox must speak the truth with love, in the hope of leading to the eventual conversion to Orthodoxy ofheterodox Christians. Eastern Orthodox Christians are among the wealthiest Christian denominations in the United States. They also tend to be better educated than most other religious groups in America, having a high number of graduate (68%) and post-graduate (28%) degrees per capita. The Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) has recently united with the Moscow Patriarchate (MP); these two branches of the Russian Orthodox Church had separated from each other in the 1920s due to the subjection of the latter to the hostile Soviet regime (see Act of Canonical Communion).

Main Communion

The Orthodox Church is a communion of 14 autocephalous (that is, administratively completely independent) regional churches, plus the Orthodox Church in America, which is recognized as autocephalous only by the Russian, Bulgarian, Georgian, Polish, the Czech-Slovak churches. Each has defined geographical boundaries of its jurisdiction and is ruled by its Council of Bishops or Synod presided by a senior bishop – its Primate (or First Hierarch). The Primate may carry the honorary title of Patriarch, Metropolitan (in the Slavic tradition) or Archbishop (in the Greek tradition). Each regional church consists of constituent eparchies (or, dioceses) ruled by a bishop. Some churches have given an eparchy or group of eparchies varying degrees of autonomy (self-government). Such autonomous churches maintain varying levels of dependence on their mother church, usually defined in a Tomos or other document of autonomy. Below is a list of the 14 (15) autocephalous Orthodox churches, all of which are titled equal to each other, but the Ecumenical Patriarchate is titled first among equals. Based on these definitions, the list is in their order of precedence and alphabetical order where necessary, with constituent autonomous churches and exarchates. The Liturgical title of the Primate is listed in italics.


Leaders of Eastern Orthodox churches with the President of Russia in Moscow on the occasion of marking the 1,025th anniversary of the baptism of Kyivan Rus

The communion:

  • Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople (Archbishop of Constantinople-New Rome and First Among Equals Patriarch)
  • Autonomous Orthodox Church of Finland (Archbishop of Karelia and All Finland)
  • Self-governing Orthodox Church of Crete (Archbishop of Crete)
  • Self-governing Monastic Community of Mount Athos
  • Exarchate of Patmos (Patriarchal Exarch of Patmos)
  • Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Thyateira and Great Britain (Archbishop of Thyateira and Great Britain)
  • Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Italy and Malta (Orthodox Archbishop of Italy and Malta and Exarch of Southern Europe)
  • Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America (Archbishop of America)
  • Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of Australia (Archbishop of Australia)
  • Exarchate of the Philippines (Exarch of Philippines)
  • Patriarchal Exarchate for Orthodox Parishes of Russian Tradition in Western Europe (Archbishop of Komana)
  • Autonomous Orthodox Church of Korea (Archbishop of Korea)
  • Orthodox Church of Albania (Archbishop of Tirana and all Albania)
  • Orthodox Church in America (Archbishop of Washington, Metropolitan of All America and Canada)
  • Orthodox Church of Cyprus (Archbishop of New Justiniana and all Cyprus)
  • Orthodox Church of the Czech lands and Slovakia (Archbishop of Prague, the Metropolitan of Czech lands and Slovakia or the Archbishop of Presov, the Metropolitan of Czech lands and Slovakia)
  • Orthodox Church of Greece (Archbishop of Athens and all Greece)
  • Orthodox Church of Poland (Metropolitan of Warsaw and all Poland)
  • Patriarchate of Alexandria (His Most Divine Beatitude the Pope and Patriarch of the Great City of Alexandria, Libya, Pentapolis, Ethiopia, all the land of Egypt, and all Africa, Father of Fathers, Shepherd of Shepherds, Prelate of Prelates, Thirteenth of the Apostles, and Judge of the Œcumene)
  • Patriarchate of Antioch (Patriarch of Antioch and all the East)
    • Self-governing Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese of North America (Archbishop of New York and Metropolitan of All North America)
  • Patriarchate of Bulgaria (Metropolitan of Sofia and Patriarch of All Bulgaria)
  • Patriarchate of Georgia (Catholicos-Patriarch of All Georgia, the Archbishop of Mtskheta-Tbilisi and Metropolitan bishop of Abkhazia and Pitsunda.)
  • Patriarchate of Jerusalem (Patriarch of the Holy City of Jerusalem and all Palestine, and of Syria, Arabia, beyond the Jordan River, Cana of Galilee, and Sacred Zion)
    • Autonomous Church of Mount Sinai (Archbishop of Choreb, Sinai, and Raitha)
  • Patriarchate of Russia (Patriarch of Moscow and all Russia)
    • Autonomous Orthodox Church of Japan (Archbishop of Tokyo and Metropolitan of All Japan)
    • Autonomous Orthodox Church of China (defunct)
    • Self-governing Orthodox Church of Ukraine (Metropolitan of Kiev and all Ukraine)
    • Self-governing Orthodox Church of Moldova (Metropolitan of Chişinău and all Moldova)
    • Self-governing Orthodox Church of Latvia (Metropolitan of Riga and all Latvia)
    • Self-governing Estonian Orthodox Church (Moscow Patriarchate) (Metropolitan of Tallinn and all Estonia) [Autonomy not recognized by the Ecumenical Patriarchate]
    • Self-governing Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (Metropolitan of Eastern America and New York, First Hierarch of the Russian church abroad)
    • Exarchate of Belarus (Metropolitan of Minsk and Slutsk, Patriarchal Exarch of All Belarus)
  • Patriarchate of Romania (Archbishop of Bucharest, Metropolitan of Ungro-Valachia, and Patriarch of All Romania)
  • Patriarchate of Serbia (Archbishop of Peć, Metropolitan of Belgrade and Karlovci, Patriarch of the Serbs)

There are unresolved internal issues as to the autonomous or autocephalous status of the following Orthodox churches:

  • Estonian Apostolic Orthodox Church (Metropolitan of Tallinn and all Estonia) — Autonomy is recognized only by the Ecumenical Patriarchate, opposed only by the Russian Orthodox Church.
  • Autonomous Archdiocese of Ohridas the Macedonian Orthodox Church‘ (Archbishop of Ohrid and Metropolitan of Skopje) – The Church proclaimed independence, but this is objected only by the Serbian Orthodox Church as a schism. Though officially unrecognised by the other churches in the communion, the Macedonian Orthodox Church de facto communicates with many of the churches, a hymnographer from the Ecumenical Patriarchate wrote a liturgy for a canonization of matures in the Macedonian Church and a delegate from the Patriarchate was send on a funeral of a Macedonian president where they met with representatives of the Macedonian Church; the Macedonian Church engaged in exchange of relics with the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, representatives of both churches met in official conferences and at the Bulgarian patriarch’s funeral, they celebrated a holiday together as well, where even Bulgarian representatives expressed love for the Macedonian Church’s dellegate as for brothers;  the leading archbishop of the Church of Greece met with some Macedonians; together the patriarch of the Romanian Orthodox Church and a Macedonian priest participated in a chirotony, the Macedonian and Romanian churches exchanged relics as well.
  • Self-governing Metropolis of Bessarabia, autonomy is objected by the Russian Orthodox Church

Traditionalist communions

True Orthodoxy separated from the mainstream communion over issues of Ecumenism and Calendar reform since the 1920s. The movement reject the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople, the Moscow Patriarchate, and those Churches in communion with them, accusing them of heresy and placing themselves under bishops who do the same. They have continued to using of the old Julian Calendar since Antiquity, claiming that the Calendar reform in 1920s is in contravention of the Ecumenical Councils. True Orthodox writers have argued that in missionary areas such as the United States, Orthodox membership numbers may be overstated, with the comparative number of True Orthodox as up to 15% of the Orthodox population, in Russia, it has been claimed by some clergymen that up to a million Russians may be True Orthodox of different jurisdictions, though the total number is often cited at 1.7-2 million together.

Communion of True Orthodoxy:

  • Churches Descending from the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia
  • Greek Old Calendarists
  • Old Calendar Bulgarian Orthodox Church
  • Old Calendar Romanian Orthodox Church
  • Russian Orthodox Autonomous Church
  • Serbian True Orthodox Church
Old Believers are groups that do not accept liturgical reforms carried out in the Russian Orthodox Church by Patriarch Nikon in the 17th century.Although all Old Believers groups emerged as a result of opposition to the Nikonian reform, they do not constitute a single monolithic body. Despite the emphasis on invariable adherence to the pre-Nikonian traditions, the Old Believers feature a great diversity of groups that profess different interpretations of the church tradition and often are not in communion with each other (some groups even practise re-baptism before admitting a member of another group into their midst).

Old Believers:

  • Russian Orthodox Old-Rite Church (Belokrinitskaya Hierarchy)
  • Lipovan Orthodox Old-Rite Church (Belokrinitskaya Hierarchy)
  • Russian Old-Orthodox Church (Novozybkovskaya Hierarchy)
  • Pomorian Old-Orthodox Church (Pomortsy)

Churches not in communion with others

Churches with irregular or unresolved canonical status are entities that have carried out episcopal consecrations outside of the norms of canon law or whose bishops have been excommunicated by one of the 14 (15) autocephalous churches. These include nationalist and other schisms.

See also

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Sovereign Order of Saint John  – Knights of Malta