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The Orthodox Church

A brief history of Orthodox Christianity

The Orthodox Church traces its beginning to an event conventionally dated to AD 33, when 120 people in an upstairs room of a house in Jerusalem experienced the power of the Holy Spirit of God in a new way. As promised by Jesus, the Holy Spirit gave them the power to be witnesses to him.

Seven weeks earlier the group had been scattered and dispirited when Jesus, their leader, whom they had hoped was the promised king sent by God, had been betrayed into the hands of his enemies, cruelly put to death on a cross, and buried. But, when the Holy Spirit came upon them St Peter announced to the Jerusalem public that "this Jesus, whom you crucifed, God has made both Lord and Christ" (Acts 2:36).

Many of those who heard him were convinced that in having Jesus crucified, they had made the biggest mistake of their lives, and asked St Peter what they should do. "Repent, and be baptized" he said, and we are told that about 3000 of them did that, and joined the 120, and continued in "the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers" (Acts 2:42).

More were added as time went by, not only in Jerusalem, but in the rest of Judea and Samaria, and eventually, to the ends of the earth, and, from that day to this, those who have continued in "the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers" have been the Orthodox Church. When they reached Antioch, the followers of Jesus began to be called Christians, and local communities of Christians were eventually to be found in all the lands around the Mediterranean and beyond. Each of these local churches was led by its bishop, and elders or priests, and deacons.

As time passed, the churches of some important cities came to be regarded as the leading churches, and by the end of the fourth century there were five such leading churches - Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The bishops of two of them, Alexandria and Rome, were called popes, while the bishops of the other three were called patriarchs. Rome and Constantinople were important because they were the capitals of the Roman Empire. Antioch and Alexandria were important because they were centres of Christian learning. Jerusalem was important as the scene of the earthly life of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Roman empire had been divided into east and west, and four of the great churches fell in the eastern part, and one, Rome, in the west. Invaders from beyond the borders of the empire brought about great changes. In the west the invaders were different Germanic tribes, who brought about the collapse of civil authority in the 5th and 6th centuries. But eventually the invaders were evangelised, and most of them became Christians. But the western church eventually became Latin-speaking. In the east, there were also invasions - of Slavic tribes in the area near Constantinople. In the 7th century three of the patriarchates were in areas of the empire invaded by Arabs, but, unlike the Germans in the west, the Arabs had a new unifying religion - Islam.

The early Christians had mostly lived in a common social milieu - the multinational Roman empire. But by the end of the 7th century, those of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were a more or less tolerated group under Arab Muslim rule. Those of Rome were living in a variety of Germanic kingdoms, held together by the Latin language, and the church. Constantinople remained as the capital of a much-shrunk Christian Roman empire. Christians were thus living in very different circumstances, and shaped by this, they began to grow apart. Rome, the western patriarchate, gradually began to move away from the others. The schism is conventionally dated to 1054, though that is a more or less arbitrary date fixed for convenience. From then on, however, the Orthodox Church acquired the epithet "Eastern".

So today the Orthodox Church is the local churches (dioceses) in communion with the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, and the newer patriarchs that appeared later - of Moscow, Bulgaria, Romania, Belgrade and so on.

There are some features of the Orthodox Church that have been very different from the experience of Western Christians. One is that since the seventh century, most of the Orthodox Christians have been part of an oppressed and subjugated group. Alexandria, Jerusalem and Antioch have been under Arab and Turkish Muslim rule for much of the time between then and now. Orthodox Christianity spread to the Slavic lands - Bulgaria and Russia - in the 9th and 10th cenutries, but had barely established itself when most of Russia fell under Tatar rule for some 2 centuries. No sooner was Russia free than Constantinople and much of the Balkans were conquered by the Turks. From the 15th to the 19th centuries Russia was the only Orthodox country in which Christians were free to engage in mission. In the 19th and 20th centuries Greece and other Balkan countries threw off the Turkish yoke, and Russia came under the atheist Bolshevik regime. Western Christians, for the most part, have had an entirely more tranquil existence.

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The Orthodox Church today

The largest of the Orthodox Churches is the Russian Orthodox Church under the Patriarchate of Moscow. After two generations of persecution, the Orthodox Church in Russia is experiencing a revival, but there are many problems as well. Under the Bolshevik regime, all church buildings were confiscated by the state, and a very few were leased back to the church for services. Now the state has handed back some of the confiscated churches, but most of them are in very poor repair, and some have to be rebuilt from scratch. I was able to visit Russia in August 1995, and a more detailed account can be found on my Russia page.

The Patriarchate of Constantinople is now in Turkey, and most of the Orthodox Christians left Turkey after a war between Greece and Turkey in the 1920s. The Patriarchate does, however, include groups of Christians in Western Europe, the Americas, Australia and some other places in Asia. A group in the Philippines recently joined the Orthodox Church, and there are new and growing Orthodox Churches there and in Indonesia.

Patriarchate of AlexandriaThe Patriarchate of Alexandria and All Africa traces its history back to the first century, when St Mark established the Church in Alexandria, Egypt. The Church of Alexandria has been influential in shaping Christianity throughout the world. A theological dispute that arose in Alexandria as a result of the heretical teaching of Arius led to the calling of the first ecumenical council, the First Council of Nicaea, in AD 325. St Athanasius, who later became Pope and Patriarch of Alexandria, influenced the proceedings to such an extent that the Symbol of Faith (also known as the Nicene Creed) could be said to reflect St Athanasius's theology. Another contribution of the Church of Alexandria to the Church as a whole is monasticism. The monastic movement began in the third century, when Christians fled from the cities to the desert to escape persecution, and stayed there to pray. Monasticism spread throughout the Christian world, and most Christian mission since then has been inspired and led by monks.

The Patriarchate of Alexandria has seen its centre of gravity shift from Egypt to the south during the 20th century. In the first three centuries it was confined to Egypt and the coast of Libya, and only in the 4th century did it spread as far as Ethiopia. Some people from further south did join the Church, however. One of the best-known is St Moses the Black, a runaway slave who became a gangster, and then repented, and founded a monastery. Today most Christians in Egypt itself belong to the Coptic Orthodox Church, which split off in the 6th century, though steps are being taken to heal that schism. The Greek Orthodox patriarchate has most of its members in Kenya, Uganda and Tanzania, and is also growing in other places in tropical Africa. In Kenya, the Divine Liturgy is celebrated in 11 languages. Outside the tropics, however, the number of Orthodox Christians has been shrinking, though in the 1990s there have been signs of a new growth. In South Africa, most Orthodox are descendants of Greek immigrants. For some more details, see my article on Orthodox mission in tropical Africa.

The Patriarch of Antioch is now really based in Damascus, Syria (Antioch itself is actually in Turkey). Most of the Orthodox Christians are Arabic-speaking, and the Patriarchate has also established churches in other countries for Syrian and Lebanese emigrants. A recent change was the reception of a group of former Protestants in North America, who had formed the Evangelical Orthodox Church, and more recently groups in Britain that had left the Church of England.

The Patriarchate of Jerusalem is largely Arabic-speaking, though much of the leadership of the Patriarchate is in the hands of Greek-speaking monks. There are also Patriarchates of Belgrade, Sofia and Romania, and autocephalous (independent churches choosing their own head) in Cyprus, Greece, Poland and a few other places. Russian missionaries went to China, Japan, Korea and North America in the 18th & 19th centuries, and there are Orthodox Churches in those places too.

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More information about Orthodoxy

If you would like more information about Orthodox Christianity, here are some links you can try - some of them are to other pages on this site, and some are to other sites.

This consists of Orthodox web pages submitted to a database we keep, so it is something of a lucky dip. But you can learn something of the variety of Orthodoxy from these links

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Started: 1996-09-11
Updated: 18 June 2013