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The Orthodox Church - Excerpted from Dictionary of Religion
By Jonathan Smith.
Source: . Harper/Collins - Date: 1995

Orthodox Church: a fellowship of Christian churches that has developed historically from the Church of the Byzantine Empire. There are currently fifteen self-governing ("autocephalous") including four ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The See of Rome, which is the fifth Patriarchate in the system of Pentarchy established at the Council of Chalcedon (451), separated from the Orthodox Church. The Patriarch of Constantinople, known as the Ecumenical Patriarch, is given primacy of honor within the Orthodox Church but has no authority comparable to that of the pope. The system of patriarchs does not undermine the equality of bishops. Conciliar authority is held to be superior to that of the patriarch. Thus the unity of the Orthodox Church does not reside in the primacy of a single individual or in a centralized administration, but in a common faith defined primarily through the seven ecumenical councils and in sacramental Communion. Of the other eleven self-governing churches, those of Russia, Serbia, Georgia, Romania, and Bulgaria are also headed by patriarchs, while the churches of Greece, Cyprus, Albania, Poland, former Czechoslovakia, and America are led by metropolitans or archbishops. In addition there are "autonomous" churches in Japan, Finland, and Crete that are not fully independent.

History: The Orthodox maintain that the ecumenical councils of Nicaea I (325), Constantinop1e (381), Ephesus (431), Chalcedon (451), Constantnople II (553), Constantinople III (680) and Nicaea II (787) provide an infallible guide to Christian doctrine and church organizations. They do not recognize as ecumenical any council held after Nicaea II.

The schism between the Byzantine Church in Constantinople and the Church of Rome developed gradually from causes that were theological, cultural, and political. The use of the title Ecumenical Patriarch of the Patriarch of Constantinople, the coronation of Charlemagne by Pope Leo III as Emperor of the Holy Roman empire in opposition to the Byzantine emperor, the dispute over the use of leaven over unleavened bread in the Eucharist, debates over clerical celibacy, the papal excommunication of the patriarch of Constantinople in 1054, and finally the sack of Constantinople in 1204 and the subsequent installation of Latin Patriarch in the Great Church, Hagia Sophia, all exemplify the deteriorating relationship between the Orthodox and Western churches. Yet the Orthodox perceive the fundamental issues underlying the lasting schism to be chiefly two: the development of the claim for papal primacy over all bishops including those in the East, and the Western introduction of the filioque, the claim that the Holy Sprit proceeds from the Father and the Son, into the Nicene Creed. Political expedience led emperors to seek union at the Council of Lyons (1274) and Council of Florence (1438-39), but these unions were renounced by the Orthodox Church.

Expansion of the Orthodox Church was achieved by missionary activity among the Slavs in the ninth century. Cyril and Methodius developed a Slavonic alphabet and provided the people with the liturgy in the vernacular. Church Slavonic remains the liturgical language of the Russian church. Russia itself became Orthodox in 988 after the conversion of the Kievan prince Vladimir I. The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 left the task of preserving and developing Orthodox traditions primarily with the church in Russia. The Russian church gained independence from the Patriarch of Constantinople in 1448, when Russian bishops first elected their own metropolitan, and was recognized as a new patriarchate in 1589. Other autocephalous Orthodox churches were established as national churches in the Balkans following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in the nineteenth century.

Church Structure and Worship: The Orthodox claim to be the one true, visible church. The structure of the Orthodox Church is guided by the Byzantine nomocanon, a collection of traditional regulations from various sources including the ecumenical councils, the final form of which is attributed to Photius, a ninth-century patriarch of Constantinople. However, the church is understood to be first and foremost a Eucharist community, not an institutional organization, and it is according to this self-understanding that the nomocanon is interpreted. The Orthodox believe that the church is the body of Christ through which a Christian participates in the divine life and finds salvation. Each local community of Christians gathered around its bishop and sharing in the Eucharist is the whole body of Christ uniting heaven and earth.

The structure of the visible church is hierarchical. The highest office is that of the bishop, who is responsible for teaching the faith and celebrating the sacraments in his own community. Bishops are believed to stand in the apostolic succession; responsibility for appointing bishops to vacant Sees generally falls to the General Synod of each autocephalous church. Bishops are drawn from the monastic clergy who, having taken monastic vows, are not permitted to marry. Priests and deacons, the other two major orders within the Orthodox Church, are typically married men. However, the decision to marry must be made prior to ordination since the Orthodox forbid marriage after an individual's ordination.

Seven sacraments are recognized by the Orthodox Church: baptism, chrismation (confirmation), Eucharist, confession, holy orders, marriage, and anointing of the sick. Orthodox children are initiated by infant baptism, which includes a triple immersion in water. Chrismation, in which the priest anoints the child with oil (chrism), immediately follows baptism and is believed to confer the Holy Spirit. After baptism and chrismation children are allowed to partake of Holy Communion. The sacrament of confession is provided for the remission of sins committed after baptism and typically an Orthodox will go to confession prior to Communion.

The heart of Orthodox worship is the Divine Liturgy (Mass). There are four different eucharistic liturgies, the most common being the Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. Typically the liturgy is presented in the vernacular and it is always sung a cappella either by the choir alone or, occasionally, with the congregation.

A distinctive feature of Orthodox worship, both public and private, is the use of icons. An icon is a flat picture bearing an image of Christ, the Theotokos ("Mother of God") (lit. "Bearer of God"), or a particular saint. In venerating an icon, honor is given to the person represented in it. Veneration of icons was attacked during the iconoclastic movement of the eighth and ninth centuries. Behind this controversy over liturgical art was a theological dispute concerning the doctrine of the Incarnation and the relation between divinity and humanity. The victorious Orthodox faith affirmed that the image of Christ reveals God who became visible in the Incarnation, and the images of the Theotokos and the saints reveal the deification of humanity, which God makes possible through Christ.

Monasticism: Monasticism has been an important element in Orthodoxy since the fourth century. Unlike monasticism in the West, Orthodox monasticism has never developed religious orders, each devoted to a special service such as education or missionary work. Orthodox monasticism exhibits a greater degree of individuality. Each Orthodox monastery is a separate foundation governed by its own rule, and in addition to cenobitic (communal) monasticism the Orthodox have both preserved the original eremitic (solitary) form and developed idiorhythmic monasticism that allows for greater individual freedom within a communal context.

Monasticism has been influential in the development of the Orthodox spiritual tradition, a distinctive element of which is Hesychasm. Hesychast spirituality centers around the Jesus Prayer and has its roots in the spirituality of Evagrius Ponticus (a fourth-century monk) and the Macarian Homilies. Hesychasm reached its height during the fourteenth century among the monks of Mt. Athos in Greece, which had been the center of Orthodox monasticism since the tenth century. Attacks on Hesychasm by Barlaam the Calabrian brought forth the fullest theological defense of Hesychasm practices and Orthodox beliefs concerning the divine light and divine energies by Gregory Palamas, a monk of Athos. Hesychasm was officially confirmed as Orthodox teaching at the council of Constantinople in 1341 1and 1351.

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