- The Orthodox Church
- The Autocephalous Orthodox Churches
- The Patriarchate Of Constantinople
- The Patriarchate Of Alexandria
- The Patriarchate Of Antioch
- The Patriarchate Of Jerusalem
- The Orthodox Church Of Russia
- The Orthodox Church Of Serbia
- The Orthodox Church Of Romania
- The Orthodox Church Of Bulgaria
- The Orthodox Church Of Georgia
- The Orthodox Church Of Cyprus
The Orthodox Church
Orthodox Christians consider themselves to constitute one Church in the sense that
they share the same faith and sacraments, as well as the Byzantine liturgical, canonical,
and spiritual tradition. All Orthodox recognize the first seven ecumenical councils
as normative for doctrine and church life.
At the level of church government, Orthodoxy is a communion of Churches, all of
which recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople as primus inter pares,
or first among equals. Although he does not have authority to intervene in the affairs
of local Churches outside his own Patriarchate, he is considered first in honor
and the symbolic center of the all Orthodox churches.
The schism between what are now known as the Orthodox and Catholic Churches was
the result of a centuries-long process of estrangement. Such events as the excommunications
in 1054 between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the papal legate were only high
points in this process. Moreover, each Orthodox Church has its own history concerning
the rift with Rome. There was never, for example, a formal separation between Rome
and the Patriarchate of Antioch, although Antioch came to share the common Byzantine
perception of the schism. Today it is widely agreed that there were significant
non-theological factors at play in this gradual alienation between east and west.
These included the loss of ordinary contact imposed by political developments, and
the loss of ability to understand the Greek or Latin of the other church. But doctrinal
issues were also involved, especially in relation to divergent understandings of
the nature of the Church. The most important of these concerned the eternal procession
of the Holy Spirit (related to the addition of the filioque to the Creed by the
western Church), and the meaning of the role of the bishop of Rome as first bishop
in the Church.
Two major attempts to reestablish communion between Catholics and Orthodox took
place at the second Council of Lyon in 1274 and the Council of Florence-Ferrara
in 1438-1439. Many centuries of mutual isolation have been ended only in the contemporary
period. An official international dialogue between the churches has been in progress
The Autocephalous Orthodox Churches
Today there are thirteen Orthodox Churches that are generally accepted as autocephalous,
which in Greek literally means Self-headed. An autocephalous Church possesses
the right to resolve all internal problems on its own authority and the ability
to choose its own bishops, including the Patriarch, Archbishop or Metropolitan who
heads the Church. While each autocephalous Church acts independently, they all remain
in full sacramental and canonical communion with one another.
Today these autocephalous Orthodox Churches include the four Eastern Patriarchates
(Constantinople, Alexandria, Antiochia, Jerusalem), and ten other Orthodox Churches
that have emerged over the centuries in Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Georgia,
Cyprus, Greece, Poland, Albania, and the Czech and Slovak Republics.
Nine of these autocephalous Churches are Patriarchates: Constantinople, Alexandria,
Antiochia, Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria and Georgia. The others
are headed by an Archbishop or Metropolitan.
The Patriarchate Of Constantinople
The Emperor Constantine began a process that led to the adoption of Christianity
as the imperial state religion by Emperor Theodosius in the late 4th
century. Constantine moved the empires capital from Rome to the small Greek city
of Byzantium in 330 and renamed it Constantinople, or New Rome.
Because of Constantinople’s new status as capital of the empire, its Church grew
in importance. Canon 3 of the First Council of Constantinople (381) stated that
the bishop of that city shall have primacy of honor after the Bishop of Rome because
Constantinople is the New Rome. Thus it assumed a position higher than
the more ancient Patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch. In its disputed 28th
canon, the Council of Chalcedon in 451 recognized an expansion of the boundaries
of the Patriarchate of Constantinople and of its authority over bishops of dioceses
among the barbarians, which has been interpreted as referring either to areas
outside the Byzantine Empire or to non-Greeks.
The schism between Rome and Constantinople developed slowly over a long period,
and is often described in older books as culminating in 1054 with the mutual excommunications
between Patriarch Michael Cerularius and Cardinal Humbert, the papal legate. But
for the common people in the Empire, the rift took on real meaning only after the
1204 sacking of Constantinople by the Latins during the Fourth Crusade.
Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks in 1453. While they placed many restrictions
on Christians, in some ways the Turks enhanced the Patriarchs authority by making
him the civil leader of the multi-ethnic Orthodox community within the Empire, and
he retained his position as the first of the Orthodox Patriarchs.
When the Greeks rebelled against Turkish rule in 1821, the Ottoman sultan held Patriarch
Gregory V responsible and had him hanged at the gates of the patriarchal compound.
In 1832 an independent Greek state was established, and a separate autocephalous
Church of Greece was set up in 1833. Anti-Greek riots in Istanbul in the 1950 precipitated
another exodus of Greeks from Turkey. Now very few remain.
Today the Patriarchate of Constantinople includes the 4000 to 5000 Greeks who remain
in Turkey, as well as some sections of Greece (Mount Athos, the semi-autonomous
Church of Crete, and the Dodecanese Islands).
The Patriarchate Of Alexandria
Until the period following the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451, the Christians in Egypt
were united in a single Patriarchate. The controversy surrounding Chalcedons Christological
teaching, however, led to a split between the majority that rejected the Council
(the Coptic Church), and the Greek minority that accepted it. The Greek Orthodox
Patriarchate of Alexandria is descended from the latter group. By the 7th
century, it has been estimated that there were 17 or 18 million Copts in Egypt,
and approximately 200,000 who accepted Chalcedon. At this time both groups used
the ancient Alexandrian liturgy, but in the Greek Patriarchate it was gradually
replaced by the Byzantine liturgy, the Alexandrian rite having died out by the 12th
With the Arab conquest and the withdrawal of the Byzantine armies in 642, the Greeks
in Egypt suffered persecution because of their links with the Byzantine Empire.
This difficult situation became even worse with the Turkish conquest of Egypt in
1517. The Greek Patriarchs began to live off and on in Constantinople, and the Ecumenical
Patriarchate often appointed them to office. Patriarch Melitios II (1926-1935) compiled
the bylaws of the Patriarchate and submitted them to the Egyptian government. Under
these bylaws the Patriarchate remained independent.
In the 1930s a spontaneous movement of indigenous Africans towards the Orthodox
Church began in Uganda under the leadership of a former Anglican, Reuben Spartas.
He was received into full communion with the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria
in 1946, and the Orthodox communities in East Africa that had been founded under
his leadership were organized into the Archdiocese of Irinoupolis with headquarters
in Nairobi in 1958.
The Patriarchate of Antioch
Antioch was an important urban center in the ancient world and it was there, according
to the Book of Acts, that the followers of Jesus were first called Christians. Antioch
eventually became a seat of a Patriarchate that included all the Christians in the
vast Eastern Province of the Roman Empire and beyond.
Reactions to the Council of Chalcedon triggered a schism in the Patriarchate. The
larger group, which repudiated the council, eventually formed the Syrian Orthodox
Church. This Church is made up of those who accepted Chalcedon, mostly Greeks and
Hellenized sections of the indigenous population.
Such was the situation when Antioch fell to the Arab invaders in August 638. Perceived
as allies of the Byzantine enemy, the local Greeks now underwent a long period of
persecution, and the patriarchal throne was often vacant or occupied by a non-resident
during the 7th and first half of the 8th century.
The Byzantines regained possession of the city in 969, and until 1085, when Antioch
fell to the Seljuk Turks, the Greek Patriarchate prospered under Byzantine rule.
During this period, the West Syrian liturgy was gradually replaced by the Byzantine
liturgy, a process that would be complete by the 12th century.
In 1098, the Crusaders took Antioch and set up a Latin kingdom in Syria that would
last nearly two centuries. A Latin Patriarchate of Antioch was established, while
a line of Greek Patriarchs continued in exile.
After Antioch was taken by the Egyptian Mameluks in 1268, the Greek Patriarch was
able to return to the area. Because Antioch itself had long ago been reduced to
a small town, the Patriarchate was permanently transferred to Damascus in the 14th
century. The area was taken from the Mamelukes by the Ottoman Turks in 1517, and
remained under Turkish control until the end of World War I.
By this time the great majority of the faithful of this patriarchate were Arabs.
In 1898 the last Greek Patriarch was deposed, and an Arab successor was elected
in 1899. Thus the Patriarchate became fully Arab in character.
The Patriarchate of Jerusalem
Given its association with the life of Jesus and his first community of disciples,
Jerusalem has always been of great importance to Christians.
At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, it was decided to raise the Church of Jerusalem
to the rank of Patriarchate. In doing so, three ecclesiastical provinces with about
sixty dioceses were detached from the Patriarchate of Antioch.
Under Greek Byzantine rule, Jerusalem continued to thrive as the destination of
countless Christians pilgrims. But this prosperity was brought to an end by the invasions
of Persians in 614 and the Arabs in 637. Many Christian churches and monasteries
were destroyed, and much of the population gradually converted to Islam.
In 1099 the Crusaders took over Jerusalem and established a Latin kingdom that would
endure for almost a century. During this period a Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem
was established, while a line of Greek Patriarchs continued in exile, usually residing
in Constantinople. The Greek Patriarchs began living at or near Jerusalem again
following the collapse of the Crusader kingdom.
Jerusalem fell to the Seljuk Turks in 1187, but was soon taken by the Egyptian Mameluks.
The Ottoman Turks gained control of the city in 1516. During the 400 years of Ottoman
rule there were many struggles between Christian groups over possession of the holy
places. In the mid-19th century, the Turks confirmed Greek control over
most of them. This arrangement has remained unchanged during the British mandate,
which began in 1917, and under subsequent Jordanian and Israeli administrations.
The Orthodox Church of Russia
In the late 10th century, according to the legend, the pagan Grand Prince
Vladimir of Kiev sent envoys to different parts of the world to examine the local
religions and to advise him which would be best for his kingdom. When the envoys
returned, they recommended the faith of the Greeks, for they reported that when
they attended the divine liturgy in the cathedral Hagia Sophia in Constantinople
we didn’t know if we were in heaven or on earth. After the baptism of Prince Vladimir,
many of his followers were baptized in the waters of the Dnieper river in 988. Thus
Byzantine Christianity became the faith of the three peoples who trace their origins
to Rus of Kiev: the Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Russians.
Christian Kiev flourished for a time, but then entered a period of decline that
culminated in 1240 when the city was destroyed during the Mongol invasions. As a
result of the Mongol destruction, large numbers of people moved northward. By the
14th century a new center grew up around the principality of Moscow,
and the Metropolitans of Kiev took up residence there. Later, Moscow was declared
the metropolitan see in its own right.
When Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453, Russia was throwing off Mongol rule
and becoming an independent state. Because the first Rome was said to have fallen
into heresy and the New Rome had fallen under the Turks, some Russians began to
speak of Moscow as the third Rome which would carry on the traditions of Orthodoxy
and Roman civilization. The tsar was the champion and protector of Orthodoxy just
as the Byzantine Emperor once had been.
A Russian Orthodox Patriarchate was officially established by Constantinople in
1589, but it was abolished by Peter the Great in 1721.
In August 1917, a synod of the Russian Orthodox Church began in Moscow. It reestablished
the Russian Patriarchate.
Under communism the persecution took different forms in different periods: virtually
all the theologians and leaders of the church were either exiled in the 192Os or
executed in the 193Os.
After 1990, thanks to the reforms set in motion by President Mikhail Gorbachev,
the situation of the Russian Orthodox Church began to improve dramatically.
The highest authority in the Russian Orthodox Church is the local synod. It is convened
periodically and made up of bishops, other clergy and the laity. Ordinary administration
of the church is carried out by the Holy Synod. It is composed of the Patriarch
and six diocesan bishops, three of them permanent and three temporary members.
The Orthodox Church of Serbia
The origins of Christianity in Serbia are obscure. It is known that Latin missionaries
were active along the Dalmatian coast in the 7th century, and that by
the 9th century Byzantine missionaries were at work in Serbia, having
been sent by Emperor Basil I the Macedonian.
Due in part to its geographical location, the Serbian church vacillated between
Rome and Constantinople for a time, but finally gravitated towards the Byzantines.
In 1219, St. Sava was consecrated the first Archbishop of a self-governing Serbian
Orthodox Church by the Patriarch of Constantinople.
The Serbian kingdom reached its apogee during the reign of Stevan Dushan, who extended
Serbian rule to Albania, Thessaly, Epirus, and Macedonia. Dushan was crowned Emperor
of the Serbians and established a Serbian Patriarchate at Pec in 1346. This state
of affairs was recognized by Constantinople in 1375.
The Serbians were defeated by the Turks in 1389, and subsequently they were gradually
integrated into the Ottoman Empire. The Turks suppressed the Serbian Patriarchate
in 1459, only to restore it in 1557. But it was suppressed again in 1766, when all
the bishops in Serbia proper were replaced by Greeks subject to the Patriarchate
The emergence of an autonomous Serbian state in 1830 was coupled with the establishment
of an autonomous Orthodox metropolis based at Belgrade. In 1878 Serbia gained international
recognition as an independent nation, and in 1879 the Patriarchate of Constantinople
recognized the Serbian church as autocephalous.
In 1918 the multinational state of Yugoslavia was formed. This made possible the
amalgamation of various Orthodox jurisdictions now within Yugoslavia (the formerly
autonomous Serbian metropolis of Belgrade, Karlovci, Bosnia, Montenegro, and the
diocese of Dalmatia) into a single Serbian Orthodox Church. In 1920 this union was
recognized by Constantinople and raised to the rank of Patriarchate.
The Serbian Church suffered heavily during World War II. Following the establishment
of a communist Yugoslav government in 1945, the Serbian church had to work out a
new relationship with the state. But Titos break with the Soviet Union led to greater
tolerance of religion and an improved situation for the church.
Following the breakup of Yugoslavia, the Serbian Orthodox Church has become more
involved in political matters. It has strenuously denounced the anti-religious practices
of past communist regimes and, in May 1992, began to distance itself from the Milosevic
The highest authority in the Serbian Church is the Holy Assembly of Bishops, composed
of all the diocesan bishops. But the permanent Holy Synod of Bishops, made up of
the Patriarch and four bishops governs the church on a day-to-day basis.
The Orthodox Church of Romania
The Romanian Church is unique among the Orthodox Churches because it alone exists
within a Latin culture. Romanian is a romance tongue, directly descended from the
language of the Romans who occupied Dacia and intermarried with its inhabitants
following its conquest by Emperor Trajan in 106 AD.
Both Latin and Byzantine missionaries had been active in the area, but Romanian
lifestyle was identified with the Orthodox faith. In any case, by the time the Romanian
principalities of Moldovia and Wallachia emerged as political entities in the 14th
century, Romanian ethnic identity was already closely identified with the Orthodox
Christian faith. Approval was given for the liturgy to be celebrated in Romanian
at a local synod in 1568.
The Patriarchate of Constantinople recognized the autocephalous status of the Romanian
Orthodox Church in 1885. The establishment of a communist government in Romania
after World War II required a new modus vivendi between church and state. In general,
the Romanian Orthodox Church adopted a policy of close cooperation with the government.
Following the overthrow of the government of Nicolae Ceausescu in December 1989,
the Romanian Orthodox hierarchy was severely criticized for having cooperated with
the communist regime. Since that time, however, the Romanian Orthodox Church seems
to have stabilized its position and is experiencing a sustained growth in its activity.
The Orthodox Church of Bulgaria
A Christian presence in the territory of modern Bulgaria can be traced back to early
centuries, as a council of bishops met in Sardica (now Sofia) in 343.
The decisive moment in the development of Christianity among the Bulgarians was
the baptism of King Boris I by a Byzantine bishop in 865, which was followed by
the gradual Christianization of the Bulgarian people. Bulgaria wavered between Rome
and Constantinople for a time and became the subject of a major dispute between
the two churches. But in the end Bulgaria opted for Constantinople and Byzantine
The Bulgarian state became very powerful in the 10th century. In 927
Constantinople recognized the king as Emperor of the Bulgarians and the Archbishop
of Preslav as Patriarch of the Bulgarian Church. But the Byzantines gained strength
and invaded the Bulgarian Empire in 971, at which time the Patriarch left Preslav
and took up residence at Ohrid, Macedonia. The Byzantines conquered Macedonia in
1018, and reduced the patriarchate to the rank of autocephalous archbishopric.
Bulgria regained its independence in 1186 with the establishment of the second empire
based at Turnovo. After lengthy negotiations the Bulgarian Church recognized the
supremacy of the Pope in 1204. But this agreement ended in 1235 when the Bulgarian
Emperor made an alliance with the Greeks against the Latin Empire in Constantinople,
and the Byzantine patriarch recognized a second Bulgarian Orthodox patriarchate
With the beginning of Turkish domination in 1393, the Bulgarian Church lost its
autocephalous character and was integrated into the Patriarchate of Constantinople.
In 1870 the Ottoman government allowed the reestablishment of a national Bulgarian
Church as an autonomous exarchate. Constantinople reacted strongly and declared
the Bulgarian Church schismatic in 1872. It was only in 1945 that the Ecumenical
Patriarchate recognized the Bulgarian Church as autocephalous and ended the schism.
The Metropolitan of Sofia assumed the title of Patriarch in 1953 and he was recognized
as such by Constantinople in 1961. During the period of communist rule, which began
in 1944, the government followed a religious policy similar to that of the Soviet
Union, and the church was compelled to play a largely passive role in society.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church has not escaped the turmoil that followed the collapse
of the communist system.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Holy Synod, made up of the Patriarch and diocesan bishops,
meets twice a year and is the highest decision-making body. A council of Bishops,
composed of the Patriarch and four other bishops elected to four-year terms, meets
almost continually and deals with current church affairs.
The Orthodox Church Of Georgia
Georgia is centered in the Caucasus Mountains at the eastern end of the Black sea.
Due in part to the missionary activity of St. Nino, a slave girl from Cappadocia,
the kingdom of Iberia (East Georgia) adopted the Christian faith as its state religion
in 337. West Georgia, then a part of the Roman Empire, became Christian through
a gradual process that was complete by the 5th century. The Church in
Iberia was at first dependent on the Patriarchate of Antioch, but it was established
as an independent church by King Vakhtang Gorgaslan in 467. For a time following
the Council of Chalcedon (451), the Georgians of Iberia joined the neighboring Armenians
in rejecting its teachings. But in 607 they broke with the Armenians and accepted
it. Monasticism began to flourish in Georgia in the 6th century, and
reached its zenith in the 8th and 9th centuries. The monasteries
became important centers of missionary and cultural activity. From the 11th
to the 13th centuries, Georgia underwent a golden age during which a
rich Christian literature was developed in the Georgian language. But this came
to an end when the country was devastated by the invasions of Genghis Khan in the
13th century and Tamerlane in the 15th century. In the period
1500 to 1800 Georgia underwent a cultural renaissance, largely because the rivals
Ottomans and Persians kept each other from gaining full control over the country.
New contacts were developed with the West and Russia. In 1801 Georgia was annexed
by Russia, and when the Patriarch died in 1811 the Russians abolished the Patriarchate.
The Georgian Church was then administered from St. Petersburg by the Holy Synod
of the Russian Orthodox Church through a special exarch. After the Bolshevik revolution
of 1917, Georgia briefly regained its independence. The Georgian Church took this
opportunity to declare that it was autocephalous once again, and to re-establish
the Patriarchate, in 1918. This was accepted by the Moscow Patriarchate in 1943.
On 4 March 1990, the Ecumenical Patriarchate confirmed both the autocephalous status
of the Church of Georgia, and its patriarchal rank. Georgia adopted the Byzantine
The Orthodox Church of Cyprus
The church of Cyprus traces its origins back to apostolic times, the island having
been evangelized by Sts. Paul and Barnabas according to the Book of Acts (13:4-13).
Because the island was administered as part of the civil province of the East, whose
capital was Antioch, the Patriarchs of Antioch for a time claimed jurisdiction over
the Cypriot Church and the right to appoint its Archbishop. But the Council of Ephesus
in 431 recognized the church’s independence and directed that the Archbishops of
Cyprus should be elected by the synod of Cypriot bishops.
From the mid-7th century to the mid-10th century, there were
frequent Arab attacks against Cyprus which often wrought widespread devastation.
Because of this Arab threat, Byzantine Emperor Justinian II evacuated the Christian
population of the island from 688 to 695, and settled many of them in a new city
on the Daradanelles called Nea Justiniana. The Archbishop of Cyprus took up residence
there, and was given the additional title of Archbishop of Nea Justiniana, an honor
which he retains to this day. The decisive victory of Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus
II Phocas (963-969) over the Arabs inaugurated a period of peace during which churches
and monasteries were rebuilt and the church flourished. In the 11th and
12th centuries, however, there was growing resentment against the oppressive
rule of successive Byzantine governors who often used Cyprus as a basis for rebellion
against the Emperors in Constantinople.
In 1191 the island was conquered by the English king Richard the Lionhearted, who
had come to the area on a crusade. A few months later, Richard sold the island to
the Knights Templar, who then sold it in 1192 to the Frenchman Guy de Lusignan,
the exiled king of the Crusader state of Jerusalem. He established a western feudal
society in Cyprus and a dynasty that would last nearly 300 years. A Latin hierarchy
was soon erected, to the detriment of the Orthodox.
This situation changed little with the conquest of Cyorus by Venice in 1489.
In 1571 the island fell to the
Ottoman Turks. The Turks ended the feudal social system, banished the Latin hierarchy,
and recognized the Orthodox. When the Greek revolution broke out in 1821, the bishops
were considered sympathetic to the Greek cause. In the same year, all the bishops
and many other prominent churchmen were summoned to the governor’s palace and murdered
by the guards. Later a new hierarchy was sent to the island by the Patriarchate
of Antioch. These bishops were able to improve the situation of the Greek community
somewhat, but it still suffered under very heavy taxation.
In 1878 Great
Britain leased the island from Turkey and in 1914 annexed it outright. A political
movement soon developed on Cyprus among the majority Greek community in favor of
enosis, or union with Greece. Orthodox religious leaders were involved in this
movement, in keeping with their now traditional role in political affairs. When
Britain granted independence to the island in 1960, the Archbishop of Cyprus, Makarios
III, was elected its first president. Clashes between the Greek and Turkish communities
culminated in 1974 with a Turkish invasion of the island and the establishment of
the Turkish Republic of Northern Cyprus.