Most Americans are aware there are two branches of Christianity, Catholicism and Protestantism. Many don't know much about a third major group; the Orthodox Churches. In the earliest days of the Church the political and spiritual center of Christianity was Constantinople with smaller groups spread throughout Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Syria. Rome was viewed as another of these smaller branches.
The Roman Empire, East and West, essentially had two capitals. Rome guided the West and Constantinople the East. It was principally during the invasion of the barbarians into the former Western Roman Empire that Rome through the genius of Pope Gregory in the 5th Century, ascended to the forefront in the west as protector and overseer. When Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 A.D. the separation between East and West was practically if not philosophically completed.
Over the centuries political and theological differences continued to threaten separation until finally in 1054 both bishops, the Pope in the West and the Patriarch in the East, excommunicated each other. Now the division was official. This led to great upheaval over the following centuries and only recently has the schism begun to heal through ecumenical discussions.
Unlike the traditional Catholic church where Latin allowed some continuity between nations, cultures and time, Orthodox churches have historically had their own national hierarchy for leadership making them practically independent bodies utilizing national languages and ethnic forms to facilitate faith. Theologically and liturgically very similar they are all, nevertheless, accountable to Constantinople.
An important mystery of Orthodoxy is the veneration of Icons or Holy Images found throughout the church.
As the Roman Church expanded converted those who had overrun its territory and expanded into new areas, the Eastern Church expanded into pagan territories as well, including Bulgaria, Serbia and Russia. Much of the expansion slowed or stopped completely with the ascendancy of Islam in the East. Within a few centuries the churches (Sees) of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem were under harsh restrictions demanded by Muslim potentates.
The Eastern Roman Empire had also been known as the Byzantine Empire in the East since Constantinople previously had been called Byzantium (today called Istanbul). In 1454, Constantinople's authority halted when Turks invaded, thus establishing the Ottoman Empire. The largest Church in the world, Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) was converted into a mosque and the leaders were forced to pledge allegiance to their new Muslim masters. At the same time, the Russian Orthodox, less influence by Islam would flourish and become known as the "Third Rome".
When the Russian Orthodox Church came under terrible persecution during the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the spread of Communism, the church in other nations, including Poland, Finland, Estonia and others grew more independent. After World War 2, some of these Churches reunited with the Russian Church.
As with most U.S. churches, initial growth came from immigration. Whatever else the new American confronted in their new country, the transplanted church enabled them to identify with people who remained in their mother countries, retain ethnic and linguistic practices and gradually assimilate into their adopted culture. Nearly all Orthodox groups are represented in the United States today. Over the centuries however, there has been an ebb and flow in continuity, unity and membership. Of the 200 million Orthodox Christians in the world, it is estimated that nearly 3.5 million live in the U.S.
While some U.S. Churches adhere to several historical Creeds and other adhere to none, Orthodox Churches follow closely the Nicene Creed. To Orthodoxy, the Creed is not simply theological explanation but faith expressed through worship. The liturgy, worship service, is more about expressing the mystery of faith than about doctrine. Therefore, while Westerners tend to attempt to explain their faith, Orthodoxy is much more comfortable with the experience of the Christian mystery, God Incarnate.
An important mystery of Orthodoxy is the veneration of Icons or Holy Images found throughout the church. While much of the West, especially Protestants, rejects Icons Orthodoxy holds that the human element of God, in the Incarnation, can be symbolized in images and thus, used as aids in worship and faith.
The sacraments, also known as "the mysteries" are essential to worship. They include baptism, the Eucharist, penance, holy orders, matrimony and others. Church government is episcopal with a synod of bishops governed by an elected archbishop, "metropolitan", or patriarch. Three "orders" include deacons, priests and bishops. Worship or liturgy is ornate, respectful and beautiful. Every nuance of movement and word has meaning.
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