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Eastern Christianity refers collectively to the Christian traditions and churches that developed in Greece, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Russia, Georgia, Armenia, the Balkans, Eastern Europe, Asia Minor, the Middle East, Northeastern Africa and southern India over several centuries of religious antiquity. This blanket term or umbrella concept is usually contrasted with Western Christianity that developed in Western Europe.
This term is a convention that does not truly or accurately define a single common religious tradition or communion. In particular, the Eastern Orthodox Church is more closely linked historically to the Roman Catholic Church (i.e. the Western Church), and Eastern Catholic Churches than to the Oriental Orthodox Church, since Oriental Orthodoxy split from the larger body of the Christian Church centuries before Eastern Orthodoxy and Catholicism split. The term Eastern Christianity, therefore, is more of a Western convention to describe non-Western Churches.
Families of churches
Eastern Christians have a shared tradition, but they became divided during the early centuries of Christianity in disputes about christology and theology.
In general terms, Eastern Christianity can be described as comprising four families of churches: the Assyrian Church of the East, the Eastern Orthodox Churches, Oriental Orthodoxy, and the Eastern Catholic Churches.
Although there are important theological and dogmatic disagreements among these groups, nonetheless in some matters of traditional practice that are not matters of dogma, they resemble each other in some ways in which they differ from Catholic and Protestant churches in the West. For example, in all the Eastern churches, parish priests administer the sacrament of chrismation to newborn infants just after baptism; that is not done in Western churches. All the groups have weaker rules on clerical celibacy than those of the Latin Rite (i.e., Western) Catholic churches, in that, although they do not allow marriage after ordination, they allow married men to become priests (and originally bishops).
The Eastern churches' differences from Western Christianity have as much, if not more, to do with culture, language, and politics as they do with theology. For the non-Catholic Eastern churches, a definitive date for the commencement of schism cannot be given, although conventionally, it is often stated that the Assyrian Church of the East became estranged from the church of the Roman Empire in the years following the Council of Ephesus (431 C.E.), Oriental Orthodoxy separated after the Council of Chalcedon (451 C.E.), and the split between the Church of Rome and the Orthodox Church is usually dated to 1054 C.E. (often referred to as the Great Schism).
Assyrian Church of the East
The Assyrian Church of the East, which sometimes calls itself the Assyrian Orthodox Church, traces its roots to the See of Babylon, said to have been founded by Saint Thomas the Apostle. It accepts only the first two Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church—the Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople—as defining its faith tradition. This church, developed within the Persian Empire, at the east of the Christian world, and rapidly took a different course from other Eastern Christians. In the West, it is sometimes inaccurately called the Nestorian Church.
Oriental Orthodox Churches
Oriental Orthodoxy refers to the churches of Eastern Christian tradition that keep the faith of the first three Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church: the First Council of Nicaea (325 C.E.), the First Council of Constantinople (381 C.E.) and the Council of Ephesus (431 C.E.), and rejected the dogmatic definitions of the Council of Chalcedon (451 C.E.). Hence, these churches are also called Old Oriental Churches.
Oriental Orthodoxy developed in reaction to Chalcedon on the eastern limit of the Byzantine Empire and in Egypt and Syria. In those locations, there are now also Eastern Orthodox Patriarchs, but the rivalry between the two has largely vanished in the centuries since schism.
The following Oriental Orthodox churches are autocephalous and in full communion together:
- Armenian Apostolic Church
- Coptic Orthodox Church
- Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo Church
- Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church
- Indian Orthodox Church
- Syriac Orthodox Church
Eastern Orthodox Churches
The Eastern Orthodox Church is a Christian body whose adherents are largely based in Russia, Greece, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East, with a growing presence in the western world. Eastern Orthodox Christians accept seven Ecumenical Councils.
Orthodox Christianity identifies itself as the original Christian church founded by Christ and the Apostles, and traces its lineage back to the early church through the process of Apostolic Succession and unchanged theology and practice. Orthodox distinctives (shared with some of the Eastern Catholic Churches) include the Divine Liturgy, Mysteries or Sacraments, and an emphasis on the preservation of Tradition, which it holds to be Apostolic in nature.
Orthodox Churches are also distinctive in that they are organized into self-governing jurisdictions along national lines. Orthodoxy is thus made up of 14 or 15 national autocephalous bodies. Smaller churches are autonomous and each have a mother church that is autocephalous.
The Eastern Orthodox Church includes the following churches
- Autocephalous Churches
- The Church of Constantinople
- The Church of Alexandria
- The Church of Antioch
- The Church of Jerusalem
- The Church of Moscow
- The Church of Georgia
- The Church of Serbia
- The Church of Romania
- The Church of Bulgaria
- The Church of Cyprus
- The Church of Greece
- The Church of Albania
- The Church of Poland
- The Church of Slovakia and the Czech Lands
- The Orthodox Church in America
- Autonomous Churches
- The Church of Sinai (Jerusalem Patriarchate)
- The Church of Finland (Ecumenical Patriarchate)
- The Church of Japan (Moscow Patriarchate)
- The Church of Ukraine (Moscow Patriarchate)
- Exceptional churches generally considered to be orthodox in beliefs but otherwise not in communion with all of the above churches.
- Russian Orthodox Church outside of Russia - Talks underway to normalize status. (Unification with Russian Orthodox Church achieved May 17, 2007)
- The Church of Ukraine (Kiev Patriarchate)
- The Church of Macedonia
Most Eastern Orthodox are united in communion with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, though unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, this is a looser connection rather than a top-down.
Today, many adherents shun the term "Eastern" as denying the church's universal character. They refer to Eastern Orthodoxy simply as the Orthodox Church.
Eastern Catholic Churches
The twenty-two Eastern Catholic churches are all in communion with the Holy See at the Vatican, but are rooted in the theological and liturgical traditions of Eastern Christianity.
Many of these churches were originally part of one of the above families and are closely related to them by way of ethos and liturgical practice. As in the other Eastern churches, married men may become priests, and parish priests administer the mystery of confirmation to newborn infants immediately after baptism, via the rite of chrismation; the infants are then administered Holy Communion.
The Maronite Church always remained in communion with the Holy See, and thus does not have a counterpart among the non-Catholic Eastern churches. The (Italo-Albanian) Italo-Greek Catholic Church has also always remained in communion with the Holy See. Eastern Catholics form around two percent of the entire membership of the Roman Catholic Church. Most of the Eastern Catholic churches re-established communion with Rome during the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.
Ecumenical dialogue over the past 43 years since Pope Paul VI's meeting with the Orthodox Patriarch Athenagoras I has awoken the nearly 1000-year hopes for Christian unity. Since the lifting of excommunications during the Paul VI and Athenagoras I meeting in Jerusalem there have been other significant meetings between the Pope and Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. A 2006 meeting between Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I led to the signing of the Common Declaration. It states "We give thanks to the Author of all that is good, who allows us once again, in prayer and in dialogue, to express the joy we feel as brothers and to renew our commitment to move towards full communion'."
In addition to these four mainstream branches, there are a number of much smaller groups which, like Protestants, originated from disputes with the dominant tradition of their original areas, but are usually not referred to as Protestants because they lack historical ties to the Reformation, and usually lack a classically Protestant theology. Most of these are either part of the more traditional Old Believer movement, which arose from a schism within Russian Orthodoxy, or the more radical "Spiritual Christianity" movement. The latter includes a number of diverse "low-church" groups, from the Bible-centered Molokans to the Doukhobors to the self-mutilating Skoptsy. None of these groups are in communion with the mainstream churches listed above, aside from a few Old Believer parishes in communion with the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia.
There are national dissidents, where ethnic groups want their own nation-church such as the Macedonian Orthodox Church and Montenegrin Orthodox Church; both domiciles of the Serbian Orthodox Church. However, it should be noted that in Macedonia, the influence of the Serbian Orthodox Church is minimal to non-existent. The vast majority of Orthodox ethnic Macedonians view the Serbian Orthodox Church as hostile to Macedonian history, national interests, and self-determination.
The Eastern churches (except the non-liturgical dissenting bodies) each belong to one of several liturgical families:
- Alexandrian Rite
- Antiochene Rite
- West Syrian Rite
- Armenian Rite
- Byzantine Rite
- East Syrian Rite
- Common Declaration of Pope Beneict XVI and the Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I Libreria Editrice Vaticana. Retrieved February 12, 2022.
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Binns, John. An Introduction to the Christian Orthodox Churches (Introduction to Religion). Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 0521667380
- Harakas, Stanley H. The Orthodox Church; 455 Questions and Answers. Light and Life Publishing Company, 1988. ISBN 0937032565
- Ware, Timothy. The Orthodox Church. Penguin Books, 1997. ISBN 0140146563
All links retrieved February 12, 2022.
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