Monday, August 2, 2010

Eastern Orthodox Church

For some time I have had a fascination with the Eastern Orthodox Church (which I’ll refer to as the “Orthodox” Church). Until our recent trip into the Black Sea region, which put us right into the heartland of Orthodoxy, I had never had any contact with it. Below, the Ayia Aikaterini Church in the Plaka, Athens.
Our trip gave us some insights and following our trip I have done some research to learn more.

Experiencing the Bulgarian Orthodox Divine Liturgy: Perhaps our best insight came from attending a service in Nessebar, Bulgaria. Most of the congregation was standing. There were only a few chairs. The picture below is from a church in Delphi.
The church walls and ceilings were covered in colorful pictures of Jesus, Mary and other Saints. Below, from a church in Athens.
The church did not seem as large or as open as the churches I have experienced in western Europe. Below, from a church in Athens.
The priest, with a big beard and a beautiful voice, was constantly singing, moving around toward the front of the church, but also walking through the congregation waiving incense. During the service, some parishioners came and went, many lighting candles and crossing themselves in front of paintings of Jesus and Mary, and of many of them kissing a picture of Jesus that was near me. We lasted about 30 minutes and left, but we learned that the service can last two or three hours, many parishioners staying and standing that entire time.

The One True Church, a Community of Equal Churches: The Orthodox Church views itself as the one true church, the continuation from Christ and his successors through apostolic succession. Other churches, including the Catholics, are separated by schism or heresy. The Ecumenical Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church, who is also the Archbishop of Constantinople, is whom we would view as the head of the Orthodox, much like the Pope is head of the Catholics. However, the Ecumenical Patriarch is one among a number of other equals, each head of an autocephalous church, that is, a church that is independent and self-governed, with no other hierarchy above it. When a decision is made by the Orthodox, it is based on a decision arrived at by a synod of the bishops heading up each of the autocephalous churches.

Autocephalous and Autonomous Churches: There are roughly 210 million members of the Orthodox Church, a substantially smaller number than Catholicism which has about 1.2 billion members. Each autocephalous church is primarily determined by geography. The autocephalous churches are located in Russia (125 million), (below, a church in Odessa, Ukraine)
Romania (18 million), Serbia (15 million), Greece (11 million), Bulgaria (10 million), Georgia (5 million), Turkey (the Greek Orthodox Church of Constantinople with 3.5 million), Antioch (2.5 million), Alexandria (1.5 million), America (1.2 million), Poland (1 million), Albania (800,000), Cypress (700,000), Jerusalem (140,000) and the Czech Republic and Slovakia (70,000). The Orthodox Church also has what they call autonomous churches, which are self-governing in every respect, except that the bishop is confirmed by the bishop of one of the autocephalous churches. For example, churches in Ukraine – Moscow Patriarchate (7.2 million), Latvia (20,000), Finland (80,000), Japan (20,000) and China (20,000) are autonomous churches under the Russian Orthodox Church. There are also Orthodox churches that are not recognized by the Eastern Orthodox Churches, including some with some pretty big numbers. For example, the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (Kiev Patriarchate) has 5.5 million members. Its patriarch was excommunicated by the Russian Orthodox Church in 1995 but the members of the Kiev Patriarchate do not recognize the action. As another example, the Belarusian Autocephalous Orthodox Church has 2.4 million members that initially belonged to the Polish Orthodox Church. It was recognized as an autocephalous church after World War I but was destroyed by the Bolsheviks in 1938. Since the fall of the Soviet Union it has attempted to establish itself in Belarus, but has been hampered by hostility from the Belarusian government and non-recognition of the main national Orthodox churches.

Development and Separation from the Catholics: The early Church was originally organized into groups according to province in the Roman Empire. In 325, at the First Council of Nicaea, the title of “metropolitan” was first used to designate a bishop located in the capital of a province who was given extra rights in regards to other bishops in the same province. At the same Council, the bishops of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch were recognized as having extra rights over areas wider than their own provinces and ultimately were referred to as the three Petrine sees (Rome and Alexandria because they were founded by Saint Peter and Alexandria because it was founded by Peter’s disciple, Mark). The Bishop of Jerusalem was also given special recognition. At the First Council of Constantinople in 381, the Council determined that the bishop of Constantinople would have honor second to the bishop of Rome because Constantinople was the New Rome. This was later disputed by Pope Leo of Rome, because the pope’s legates were not present when this determination was made. By 500, Rome had become the center of Christianity in the west and Constantinople the center in the east. In 531, the Emperor Justinian used the title “patriarch” to designate the bishops of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, leading to them being referred to as “patriarchates” and putting them on a level above the other metropolitan bishops. Constantinople’s dominance in the east became even more so as Muslim Arabs took over the areas governed by the patriarchates of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem by the late 600s, dramatically reducing the number of Christians in those areas. The churches in the east and west maintained the same creeds and sacraments and the bishops came together occasionally for ecumenical councils to seek agreement on doctrines, but over the centuries they drifted progressively apart. The west used Latin in their liturgy and the east used Greek. The biggest cause of friction was the Pope claiming supreme authority over the entire church. At the time of the last ecumenical council in 787, Rome asserted Christ gave rule of the church to St. Peter and Peter’s authority descended by divine right to each man that succeeded him as Bishop of Rome. The east claimed the early Christian churches had great local autonomy and that every bishop is equal in authority to every other bishop. Only a synod, or council of bishops, can presume to legislate for the entire church. Byzantine writers had the attitude that Constantinople was the highest of the partriarchates as seat of the ruler of the empire, but chose not to insist on it with regards to Rome in the west. In 927, Bulgaria and the Byzantine Empire signed a peace treaty following a 20 year war and, given its size and influence, the Bulgarian Orthodox Church was recognized as autocephalous and headed by a patriarch. In 1054, the Great Schism occurred when a change was made to the Nicene Creed by the pope without an ecumenical council. The change was not accepted by the Orthodox and the Pope, the Bishop of Rome, excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople and vice versa. In 1204, any chance of reconciliation was destroyed when the Fourth Crusade sacked Constantinople and installed a papal legate in Constantinople. In the 1200s, Serbia was recognized as an autocephalous and patriarchate church and Russia followed in the 1500s.

Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople: I find it interesting that the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople was subject to the authority of the Ottoman Empire from the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to the establishment of the Turkish Republic in 1923. Today, he is subject to the Turkish government and must be a citizen of Turkey. The Turkish government only recognizes him as the Greek Orthodox Patriarch of the Phanar, a neighborhood in Istanbul where his church is located, consistent with their renaming of Constantinople as Istanbul.

Bishops – Metropolitans and Archbishops: Bishops are the successors to the Apostles. The ruling bishop of all the parishes in a geographical territory, called a diocese or archdiocese, is called either a metropolitan or an archbishop. In some Orthodox traditions, archbishops are designated when heading a major geographical area and metropolitans when heading a less important geographical area. In other Orthodox traditions, all ruling bishops are called metropolitans and the title archbishop is a title granted as an indicator of greater importance for whatever reason. A bishop who does not rule his own diocese is either a patriarchal vicar, an auxiliary bishop or an exarch.

Catholic Logic vs. Orthodox Mysticism: The Catholics believe in the power of logic, that through human reason, the knowledge of God can be attained. Catholic theology has developed in stages over the years. Initially, in addition to the Bible, there were the teachings of the Church Fathers, particularly Augustine. Then there was more doctrinal developments by the Scholastics, with Thomas Aquinas being the most significant. Then there have been modern developments, such as papal infallibility, the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary and Vatican II. The Orthodox are more mystical. They do not believe God can be known through logic, but that God is known intuitively. The mind is subjected to the heart and knowledge is developed through contemplation. They focus on the Bible and the early Church Fathers and give priority to the first seven ecumenical councils. They believe that the Catholics have distorted the faith by adding to it and many Orthodox believe the Catholics went astray when they adopted Augustine as their foremost early theological authority. Here are some examples of later Catholic teachings that the Orthodox reject:

        Original Sin: The Catholics believe in original sin, a concept first put forward by Augustine. The sin of Adam caused all men to fall. God became man to satisfy the divine justice and make amends for Adam’s sin. This was done by dying on the cross. For the Orthodox, there is no original sin. When Adam sinned, he introduced death into the world. All men inherit that death. Death creates passions, disease and aging. Christ suffered and died on the cross to conquer the devil and destroy his power, which is death. The sin of Adam created a genetic predisposition to sin, but man is still essentially good.

        Purgatory: The Catholics believe in purgatory is a condition of the departed before the final judgment. Souls destined for heaven endure a state of purgation or purification. They must be cleansed from sins committed on earth. The Orthodox teach the soul journeys to Hades, abode of the dead, and remain in a condition of waiting. When Christ returns, the soul rejoins the risen body to be judged by Him.

        Immaculate Conception: Catholics believe in the immaculate conception. Mary was preserved from all stain of original sin. This was put forth as a doctrine by Pope Pius IX in 1854. The Orthodox do not believe in original sin and don’t accept that idea.

Orthodox Icons: The murals or paintings which stood out so much to us, are called “icons” by the Orthodox. The depictions are always flat and are intended to convey the understanding that the world where Christ, Mary, the angels and departed dead dwell is a world of mystery which can’t be penetrated by the five senses. From the outside of a church in Odessa.
The icons are a window into heaven and a mode of worship.
The Orthodox honor and kiss icons as a matter of devotion that passes from the icon to the person or persons represented by the icon, but the icons are not idols and they do not worship them.
They contrast this with the Catholic Church, where life-like three-dimensional statues are often used which are more naturalistic, but are used as visual aids and decorations, and not commonly venerated.

Lack of Pews: For the Orthodox, standing forces the worshippers to be more involved, to become active participants in the service, to be “willing to suffer for Christ,” unlike the disciples that fell asleep while Christ prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane.

Divine Liturgy: The Orthodox believe that the highest form of Christian living is monasticism and they stress the mastery of the passions through prayer, fasting, and regular participation in the Eucharist. The Divine Liturgy is the primary vehicle for worship, which provides the history, story, meaning and practical application that is needed by worshippers. The kissing of icons, gathering around the priest and other movement among the congregation, such as the lighting of candles, is part of the feel of the service, and makes it more participatory. The Divine Liturgy is symbolic, but in a mystical way it is intended to unite the worshippers with the departed Saints and angels in worship. Virtually the entire liturgy, except the sermon, is chanted, including hymns, prayers, and readings from the Bible. The format of the liturgy is fixed, but specific readings and hymns vary with season and feast. The church architecture exists to serve the liturgy which is why the Orthodox churches tend to be smaller than the Catholic churches. Below, a church in Odessa, Ukraine.
The music is plain chant or derived from tones in plain chant. Organ music exists but is rare, and there are no other musical instruments.

Priests and Beards: It became apparent to us that the Orthodox priests all have long beards. Below, a priest at a small monastery outside of Sevastapol, Ukraine.
I asked one of our guides if a beard was a requirement and he said it was. The reason goes back to antiquity, and apparently involves not only untrimmed beards, but also untrimmed hair. In the Old Testament the Lord told the priests, to “not make baldness upon their head,” a pagan practice, “neither…shave off the corner of their beard” (Leviticus 21:5). To all men, the Lord said, “Ye shall not round the corners of your heads, neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.” (Leviticus 19:27). The Nazarites were told that “no razor [should] come upon his head” (Numbers 6:5) and cutting off the hair meant to cut off God’s power, with the example of Delilah shaving Samson (Judges 16:17-19). In New Testament times, Paul wore “head bands,” citing Acts 19:12, which indicated the length of his hair which had to be tied back to keep it in place (the King James Version uses the word “handkerchiefs” instead). Finally, custom was that the Apostle James, the head of the church in Jerusalem, never cut his hair. To us from the west, this really stood out and made the priests very distinctive. Catholics priests are usually beardless.

Other Differences from the Catholics:

        Transubstantiation: The Catholics believe in transubstantiation, that is, the bread and wine of the Eucharist are the actual body and blood of Christ. The Orthodox view it more mystically, as the body and blood of Christ, but not his real flesh or blood. Orthodox worshippers get both the body (leavened bread) and blood (wine) in Communion, while Catholics worshippers get only the body (an unleavened wager).

        Chrismation: The Orthodox link baptism, confirmation and communion together, with triple immersion, followed by confirmation, called Chrismation. The Catholics separate baptism and confirmation. Confirmation is done when a youth is older and can appreciate what is going on.

        Divorce: Catholics believe marriage is a binding contract and there can be no divorce. However, annulments can be obtained. For the Orthodox, marriage is not a contract, but a mystical union. Although divorce is forbidden, in practice, divorce is allowed for adultery and second and third marriages can be obtained after divorce or death of a spouse, although there may be a short period of excommunication.

        Married Priests: Orthodox parish priests may marry before ordination. Catholic clergy are celibate. However, even among the Orthodox, only celibates are eligible to be bishops.

Sources: Father Michael Azkoul, St. Catherine Mission in St. Loiuis, MO, “What are the Differences Between Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism?”,; Louis Cassels, “What’s the Difference? A Comparison of the Faiths Men Live By”, Chapter 9: The Eastern Orthodox,; OrthodoxWiki “Autocephaly,” “Autonomy,” “Bishop”; Wikipedia “Catholic-Eastern Orthodox theological differences,” “Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople,” “Oriental Orthodoxy,” “Pentarchy”

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