Orthodox Christianity is, according to Orthodox Christians, the original form of Christianity. The Church was founded on the Day of Pentecost, AD 33, and those that joined on that day "continued in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread, and the prayers" (Acts 2:42). It traces continuous apostolic succession back to the five major centers of Christianity in the early church: Rome, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. Although it is currently in schism or separated from the Roman Catholic Church (see Great Schism), it recognizes the Pope's apostolic succession from St. Peter; just not his complete authority over the entire Church.
From its founding the church spread quickly throughout most of the Roman Empire, despite much persecution. Widespread, organized persecution finally stopped in (year) when Emperor Constantine I so ordered it. From that time forward, the Byzantine emperor exerted various degrees of influence in the church. Sometimes this was seen as positive, as in the calling of the Ecumenical Councils to resolve disputes and establish church dogma on which the entire church would agree. Sometimes this was seen as negative, as when Patriarchs (usually of Constantinople) were deposed by the emperor, or when the emperor sided with the iconoclasts in the eighth and ninth centuries.
There were several doctrinal disputes from the 4th century onwards. Some of them led to the calling of Ecumenical councils to try to resolve them. The Church in Egypt (Patriarchate of Alexandria) split into two groups folloing the Council of Chalcedon (451), owing to a dispute about the relation between the divine and human natures of Christ. Eventually this led to each group having its own Pope. Those that remained in communion with the other patriarchs were called "Melkites" (the king's men, because Constantinople was the city of the emperors), and are today known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, led by Pope Petros VIII, while those who disagreed with the findings of the Council of Chalcedon are today known as the Coptic Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, led by Pope Shenouda III. There was a similar split in Syria. 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. The Oriental Orthodox are also sometimes referred to as "monophysites" or "non-Chalcedonians."
In the seventh century the areas covered by the churches of Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem were conquered by Muslim Arabs, and the native Christians were treated as second-class citizens. Westerners tend to think of Christianity as dominant in society for a long period of history, but this has definitely not been the case for Christians in three of the five ancient churches, who have been in Muslim-dominated societies for 13 centuries. It was the Muslims who first opposed the Christian use of icons, though many Christians swiftly came to the same conclusion. The use of icons was defended and upheld at the Seventh Ecumenical Council. The end of that council is still celebrated as the "Triumph of Orthodoxy" in Orthodox churches today, and icons remain a central part of Orthodox faith and practice.
In the ninth and tenth centuries, Orthodoxy made great inroads into Eastern Europe and Russia. This work was made possible by the work of Saints Cyril and Methodius, who translated the Bible and many of the prayer books into Slavic. They found themselves competing with missionaries from the Roman diocese in places like Czechoslovakia and Bulgaria. After being driven out of Czechoslovakia, they were later welcomed in Bulgaria, in part because they prayed in the people's native language rather than in Latin, as the Roman priests did. Today the Russian Orthodox Church, in spite of 70 years of persecution under the atheistic government of the USSR, is the largest of the Orthodox Churches.
In the 11th century the Great Schism took place between Rome and Constantinople, which led to the Church of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, becoming distinct from the Churches of the East. There were doctrinal issues involved in the split, but they were exacerbated by cultural and linguistic differences. The split was between the Greek East and the Latin West.
In 1431, the Byzantine Empire finally fell. By this time Egypt was also under Muslim control, but Orthodoxy was very strong in Russia; and so Moscow became the new center of the church at that time.
(scattered notes to be fleshed out later, help welcome)
Martin Luther sent delegates to the Patriarch of Constantinople to explore further relations with them, but the discussions went nowhere. Linguistic difficulties were partly to blame.
In the sixteenth century, Pope Gregory I called for a switch to the Gregorian Calendar. By then the Orthodox weren't listening to him, and so remained on the Julian Calendar. Today, many Orthodox have switched to a Revised Julian Calendar, which mostly matches the Gregorian Calendar, but places Easter and related feast days on the same day as does the Julian Calendar.
The Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to Alaska beginning in the 18th century. Their work eventually gave rise to the Orthodox Church in America. The Russian Orthodox Church was devastated by the Bolshevik Revolution and seventy years of Communism. One side effect was the flood of refugees from Russia and Eastern Europe to the United States, leading to the current jurisdictional mess.
Structure / Organization
Bishops, priests and deacons
Since its founding, the Church spread to different places, and the leaders of the Church in each place came to be known as episkopi (overseers), which in English is usually pronounced "bishop." The other ordained roles are elder from the Greek presbyter, now pronounced "priest," and "deacon" from the Greek diakonos, which literally means "servant." The bishop of the most important city of a region (Metropolic) was sometimes called a "Metropolitan", and smaller local churches looked to those in large cities for leadership.
The different Orthodox churches can generally be said to be united in faith and in liturgy, but not in polity. There is no single Pope or similar office that corresponds to the Roman Catholic Pope, nor is there a standing synod of bishops or patriarchs. In general, the church is organized along national and regional lines in hierarchical fashion, with the "top" hierarchs or patriarchs recognizing and remaining in communion with the other patriarchs. From about the fourth century the most important churches were Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The bishops of Rome and Alexandria had the title "Pope", while those of the other three cities were called "Patriarchs".
Orthodox Christians believe that they have preserved apostolic succession from the first Apostles. While Rome traces its papacy back to the Apostle Peter, Alexandria traces its papacy back to Mark the Evangelist, who founded the church in Alexandria in AD 40.
Work in progress
These are some things I'd like to see this article cover: Suggested outline:
- History (emphasis on the East with just enough milestones to let the reader sync it with History of Christianity)
- Bishops, Priests and Deacons, historically and today
- The original "Big 5" and the groups we have today, and their relationships. Disclaimer about not being the last word.
- What happened with the Russian Orthodox Church following the Bolshevik Revolution.
- The jurisdictional situation in North America
- General flavour and "phronema" without too many heavy details
- Asceticism and theosis
I don't know if much should be said about what a Divine Liturgy looks like, or their use of the liturgical calendar? Julian, Revised Julian and Gregorian Calendars? I'd love to include statistics on these and other pages about the current size of the various groups and recent growth rates and trends.