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Eastern Christianity
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The Eastern Orthodox Church (encompassing national Orthodox jurisdictions such as Greek Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, etc.—see Eastern Orthodox Church organization) is a body of Christians that claims origins extending directly back to Jesus and his Apostles through unbroken Apostolic Succession. Its doctrines were formalized through a series of church councils, the most authoritative being the Seven Ecumenical Councils held between the 4th and 8th centuries. These councils were convened out of the necessity to resolve conflicts that had developed concerning beliefs such as Arianism, Nestorianism, and Monothelitism. Toward the end of its first thousand years of existence, differences developed between the Church in the Eastern and Western Roman Empire that ultimately led to the Great Schism in 1054, dividing Chalcedonian Christianity into Western Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy.

Based on numbers of adherents, Eastern Orthodoxy is the second largest Christian communion in the world after the Roman Catholic Church, and the third largest grouping overall after Protestantism.

The present-day influence of the Eastern Orthodox Church encompasses the territories associated with the former Byzantine and Russian empires: Eastern Europe, Asia (Russia/Siberia), and parts of the Middle East and Africa. Today, although Eastern Orthodoxy's strongest influence can be seen in Greece, Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Serbia and Montenegro, Republic of Macedonia, Romania, Republic of Moldova, Bulgaria, and Georgia, the Orthodox Church has a presence in a great many other countries largely because of the emigration of Eastern Orthodox peoples, with large communities in the USA, Canada and Australia.

In the remainder of this article, for convenience of reference, the expressions "Orthodox" and "the Church" refer to "Eastern Orthodox" unless the context indicates otherwise.


The Trinity

Orthodox Christians believe in a single God who is both three and one (triune): Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, "one in essence and undivided". The Holy Trinity is three "unconfused" distinct divine persons (hypostases), with no overlap or modality among them, who share one divine essence (ousia)—uncreated, immaterial and eternal. In discussing God's relationship to his creation a distinction is made between God's eternal essence and uncreated energies, though it is understood that this distinction is artificial and that there is no real separation in God. Energies and essence are both inseparably God. This distinction is used by theologians to explain how it is that God can be both transcendent (His "essence" lies outside and infinitely distant from his creation), while at the same time he can touch his creation (His "uncreated energies" interact with His creation). It is also in His energies that we can perceive the three distinct persons of the Trinity.

The Father is the eternal source of the Godhead, from Whom the Son is begotten eternally and also from Whom the Holy Spirit proceeds eternally. Orthodox doctrine regarding the Holy Trinity is summarized in the Symbol of Faith (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed).


Orthodox Christians hold that man was originally created in perfect communion with God, but through his own actions he turned away from God and sinned ("missed the mark"). Because of man's refusal to fulfill the "image and likeness of God" within him, corruption and the sickness of sin whose consequence is death entered man's nature. But when Jesus came into the world He Himself was Perfect Man and Perfect God united. Through his participation in humanity, human nature was re-created, allowing human beings to participate in the divine nature.

"The Word of God came in His own Person, because it was He alone, the Image of the Father, Who could recreate man made after the Image. In order to effect this re-creation, however, He had first to do away with death and corruption. Therefore He assumed a human body, in order that in it death might once for all be destroyed, and that men might be renewed according to the Image [of God]." St. Athanasius, On the Incarnation

Salvation, or "being saved," therefore, refers to this process of being saved from the state of separation from God. It is a distinct concept separate from the concept of "going to heaven." The Orthodox Church refuses to comment on the state of those outside the Church, choosing to hope in the Mercy of God; however, it is believed that the best and most complete path to participation in the gifts of God is found in the Orthodox Church alone.

The Orthodox believe that there is nothing that a person can do to earn entrance into Heaven. It is rather a gift from God, who wants nothing more than to restore the original relationship with mankind. However, this gift of relationship has to be accepted by the believer, since God will not force Heaven on humanity. Man is free to reject the gift of salvation continually offered by God.

"God becomes powerless before human freedom; He cannot violate it since it flows from His own omnipotence. Certainly man was created by the will of God alone; but he cannot be deified [made Holy] by it alone. A single will for creation, but two for deification. A single will to raise up the image, but two to make the image into a likeness. The love of God for man is so great that it cannot constrain; for there is no love without respect. Divine will always will submit itself to gropings, to detours, even to revolts of human will to bring it to a free consent." Vladimir Lossky, Orthodox Theology: An Introduction

The ultimate goal of the Orthodox Christian is to achieve theosis, or Union with God. This is sometimes expressed thus: "God became Man so that Man might become God." Some of the greatest saints have achieved, in this life, a measure of this process. Of course, the individual who achieves theosis never realizes his accomplishment, as his perfect humility keeps him blind to pride. Salvation therefore is not merely an escape from the eternal bondage of death, but an entrance to life in Christ here and now.


Orthodox consider the Bible to be the central part of "Tradition", but not the only part, in contrast to Protestantism, which generally relies upon the Bible as the ultimate doctrinal authority (sola scriptura). Tradition also includes the Creed, the decrees of the Seven Ecumenical Councils, the writings the "Church Fathers", as well as Orthodox laws (canons), liturgical books and icons, etc. In defense of extrabiblical tradition, the Orthodox Church quotes Paul: "Therefore, brethren, stand fast, and hold the traditions which ye have been taught, whether by our spoken word, or by our epistle." (2 Thessalonians 2:15). The Orthodox Church also believes that the Holy Spirit works through history to reveal truth to the Church, and that He weeds out falsehood in order that the Truth may grow.

The Bible

In Orthodoxy the Bible is not always interpreted with "wooden literalism". In Orthodoxy, the true believer accepts what is written in The Bible, and never doubts it, but the attitude of Eastern Orthodox toward various details varies, for example concerning the Theory of Evolution. Many Orthodox do not consider this theory to be necessarily problematic in and of itself to their faith.

Orthodoxy interprets truth based on three witness; the consensus of the Holy Fathers and Mothers of the Church; the ongoing teaching of the Holy Spirit guiding the life of the Church through the nous, or mind of the Church, which is believed to be the Mind of Christ; but also in typography, hymnology and iconography. The consensus of the Church over time defines its catholicity—that which is believed at all times by the entire Church. Those who disagreed with what came to be considered the consensus are not accepted as authentic "Fathers." All theological concepts must be in agreement with that consensus. Even those considered to be authentic "Fathers" may have some theological opinions that are not universally shared, but are not actually heretical. Thus an Orthodox Christian is not bound to agree with every opinion of every Father, but rather with the overall consensus of the Fathers, and then only on those matters about which the church is dogmatic.

Eastern Orthodox theologians tended to rely more on Greek philosophers than did the West, often borrowing the categories and vocabulary of Neoplatonism to explain Christian doctrine, though not necessarily accepting all their theories. Some later non-Christian neoplatonist philosophers also borrowed some vocabulary from Christian theologians.

Sin and redemption

Generally speaking, the Orthodox tradition is uncomfortable with any practice which interprets doctrine in "legalistic" terms. Following rules strictly without the heart "being in it" does not help a believer with his salvation. Sin is not about breaking some set of rules; rather, it is the name for any behavior which "misses the mark," that is, moves a believer away from God rather than closer to Him.

Thus, in the Orthodox tradition sin is not viewed as a stain on the soul that needs to be wiped out, but rather as an illness that needs healing. Just like a bodily illness, human sinfulness needs individual attention and correction. The ultimate goal for this process is not to win back God's favor, but rather to get back on the path towards God.

A traditional practice of Orthodox is to have a spiritual guide to whom one confesses and who treats the sin on an individual basis. An experienced spiritual father or mother will know how and when to apply strictness in dealing with sin and when to administer mercy.

Original Sin

To place the term Original sin in context: God created man perfect with free will and gave man a direction to follow. Man chose rather to disobey God, thus changing the "perfect" nature of man to the "flawed" nature of man. This flawed nature and all that has come from it is a result of that Original Sin. Because we participate in humanity, we share in the sin of Adam because like him, we are human. This "change of nature" in humanity is the reason Christ God united his divine nature to man, in order to alter human nature and thus save man from Hell. All humans participate in human nature including the Virgin Mary (which is why the Orthodox Church rejects the Immaculate conception). Original sin is cleansed in humans through baptism or, in the case of the Theotokos, the moment Christ took form within her.

The Incarnation

Prior to Christ's incarnation on Earth it was man's "fate", when he died, because of the fall of Adam, to be separated from God. Because man introduced something alien to his nature by participation in evil through disobedience to God, mankind placed itself in a terrible and inescapable position. The answer to this problem was for God to raise man's fallen nature, to unite his divine nature with our human nature. This he accomplished through the incarnation, becoming man and yet remaining God. This is why Christ Jesus is referred to as the Logos, the solution to man's problem (one of the several meanings of Logos). It is absolutely fundamental for Orthodox Christians that one accept Christ as both God and Man, both natures complete. This is the only means whereby we could escape the fate of hell. The incarnation changes mankind itself, uniting it to the divine. And now, because of that Incarnation, everything is different. St Basil states: "We are to strive to become little gods, within God, little jesus christs within Jesus Christ". In other words, we must seek perfection in all things in our lives; we must strive to acquire Godly virtue. God, through participation in mankind, makes it possible for man to participate in divinity. While it is true that we will not become "separate" gods in the pagan sense we will participate in the divine energies of God (which are not separate from God) and still retain our individuality.

The Theotokos

A great many traditions revolve around the Ever-Virgin Mary, the Theotokos, the Birth-giver of God, which are theologically paramount. It is believed by Orthodox Christians that she was and remained a Virgin before and after Christ's birth. Many of the Church's beliefs concerning the Virgin Mary are reflected in the apocryphal text "The Nativity of Mary", which was not included in scripture, but is considered to be accurate in its description of events. The child Mary was consecrated at the age of three to serve in the temple as a temple virgin. Zachariah, at that time High Priest of the Temple, did the unthinkable and carried Mary into the Holy of Holies as a sign of her importance – that she herself would become the ark in which God would take form. At the age of twelve she was required to give up her position and marry, but she desired to remain forever a virgin in dedication to God. And so it was decided to marry her to a close relative, Joseph, an uncle or cousin, an older man, a widower, who would take care of her and allow her to retain her virginity. And so it was that when the time came she submitted to God’s will and allowed the Christ to take form within her. It is believed that she, in her life, committed no sin; however, the Orthodox do not accept the Roman Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate conception. The Theotokos was subject to original sin as the Orthodox understand it, yet she lived her life without sinning, stainless and pure. In the theology of the Orthodox Church, it is most important to understand that Christ, from the very moment of conception, was 100% God and 100% man. Therefore Orthodox Christians believe that it is correct to say that Mary is indeed the Theotokos, the Birth-giver of God, and that she is the greatest of all humans ever to have lived. This term has tremendous theological significance to Orthodox Christians, as it was at the center of the Christological debates of the 4th and 5th centuries AD. After her great role was accomplished, the Church believes she remained a virgin, continuing to serve God in all ways. She traveled much with her son, and was present both at his Passion on the Cross and at his ascension into heaven. It is also believed that she was the first to know of her son's resurrection – the Archangel Gabriel appearing to her once more and revealing it to her. It is believed she lived to the age of seventy and called all the apostles to her before she died. According to tradition Saint Thomas arrived late and was not present at her death. Desiring to kiss her hand one last time he opened her tomb but her body was gone. The Orthodox believe she was assumed into heaven bodily; however, unlike in the Roman Catholic Church, it is not a dogmatic prescription and the holy day is usually referred to as the Feast of the Dormition, not that of the Assumption.

The Resurrection

The Resurrection of Christ is the central event in the liturgical year of the Orthodox Church and is understood in literal terms as a real historical event. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, was crucified and died, descended into Hades, rescued all the souls held there through man's original sin; and then, because Hades could not restrain the infinite God, rose from the dead, thus saving all mankind. Through these events, he released mankind from the bonds of Hades and then came back to the living as man and God. That each individual human may partake of this immortality, which would have been impossible without the Resurrection, is the main promise held out by God in his New Covenant with mankind, according to Orthodox Christian tradition.

Every holy day of the Orthodox liturgical year relates to the Resurrection directly or indirectly. Every Sunday of the year is dedicated to celebrating the Resurrection; most Orthodox believers will refrain from kneeling or prostrating on Sundays in observance thereof. Even in the liturgical commemorations of the Passion of Christ during Holy Week, there are frequent allusions to the ultimate victory at its completion.

Saints, relics, and the deceased

In the Eastern Orthodox Church a saint is defined as anyone who is currently in Heaven, whether recognized here on earth or not. By this definition, Adam and Eve, Moses, the various prophets, martyrs for the faith, the angels and archangels are all given the title of Saint. There is a service in the Orthodox Church in which a saint is formally recognized by the entire Church, called glorification. This does not, however, "make" a saint but simply accords him or her a place on the calendar with regular services in his honor. Recently, in order to avoid abuses, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople has begun to follow the longstanding practice of other local Orthodox churches by issuing special encyclical letters (tomoi) in which the Church acknowledges the popular veneration of a saint. Glorification usually happens after believers have already begun venerating a saint. There are numerous small local followings of countless saints that have not yet been recognized by the entire Orthodox Church.

A strong element in favor of glorification can be the perceived "miraculous" condition of physical remains (relics), although that alone is not considered sufficient. In some Orthodox countries it is the custom to re-use graves after three to five years due to limited space. Bones are respectfully washed and placed in an ossuary, often with the person's name written on the skull. Occasionally when a body is exhumed something believed to be miraculous occurs to reveal the person's sainthood. There have been numerous occurrences where the exhumed bones are said to suddenly give off a wonderful fragrance, like flowers; or sometimes the body is said to be found incorrupt despite having not been embalmed (traditionally the Orthodox do not embalm the dead) and having been buried for three years.

For the Orthodox, body and soul both comprise the person, and in the end, body and soul will be reunited; therefore, the body of a saint shares in the holiness of the soul of the saint.

Because the Orthodox Church shows no true distinction between the living and the dead (believing the saints are alive in Heaven), the Orthodox treat the saints as if they were still here. They venerate them and ask for their prayers, and consider them brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus. Saints are venerated and loved and asked to intercede for salvation, but they are not given the worship accorded to God, because their holiness is believed to come from God. In fact, anyone who worships a saint, relics, or icons is to be excommunicated. As a general rule only clergy will touch relics in order to move them or carry them in procession; however, in veneration the faithful will kiss the relic to show love and respect toward the saint. Every altar in every Orthodox church contains relics, usually of a martyr. The Church building interiors are covered with the icons of saints.

The Orthodox Church sees baptism, both for infants and adults, as the moment one is born into Christ. The person entering the baptismal font is not seen as the same person who emerges, so the person is given a new name, always the name of a saint. As well as birthdays, Orthodox celebrate the day of the saint for whom the person is named (the person's name day).

The Last Things

Eastern Orthodox theology does not consider Heaven to be a static state. Mankind will be restored to a state of perfection in which he retains his individuality and personality, yet he is devoid of all adverse traits which limit his unending progression towards God (i.e. Since God's love and wisdom are infinite, there will be constant progression toward a deeper understanding of that love and wisdom), and this is seen as heavenly bliss. Heaven is the unending sea of God's love in which we are plunged.

Concerning those who have rejected the love and mercy of God, they will likewise be plunged into that endless sea of God's love, but because of their rejection and hatred it will seem to them an unquenchable and eternal fire. In other words, God is love, and his love does not change, and so it is our acceptance or rejection of that love that will bring either heaven or hell upon us.

Art and architecture

Church buildings


Depiction of a typical Orthodox Church building

The church building has many symbolic meanings. Perhaps the oldest and most prominent is the concept that the Church is the Ark (as in Noah's) in which the world is saved from the flood of temptations. And so, most Orthodox Churches are rectangular in design. Another popular shape, especially for churches with large choirs is the Cross. Architectural patterns may vary in shape and complexity, with chapels sometimes added around the main church, or triple altars, but in general, the symbolic layout of the church remains the same.

The Church building is divided into three main parts: the narthex (entrance hall), the nave and the sanctuary (also called the altar or holy place).

Narthex: The narthex is the connection between the Church and the outside world and for this reason catechumens (pre-baptized Orthodox) and non-Orthodox stand here (note: the tradition of allowing only confirmed Orthodox into the nave of the church has for the most part fallen into disuse). In monastic churches it is usual for the lay people visiting the monastery to stand in the narthex while the monks or nuns stand in the nave. Separating the narthex from the nave are the Royal Doors (from the time of the Byzantine Empire, when the emperor would enter the main body of Hagia Sophia, the Church of holy Wisdom, through these doors and proceed up to the altar to partake of the Eucharist). On either side of this portal are large brass candlestands called menalia which represent the pillars of fire which went before the hebrews into the promised land.

Nave: The nave is the main body of the church where the people stand during the services. In most Orthodox churches there are no pews but rather stacidia (like a high chair with foldup seat—it has arm rests high enough to be used while standing—see the picture of the monks); these were usually found along the walls, to be used only by the aged and infirm. Traditionally there is no sitting during services with the only exceptions being during the reading of the Psalms, and the priest's sermon. The people stand before God. However because of the influence of Roman Catholic and Protestant practices in western countries it is not uncommon to find pews and kneelers in more modern church structures.

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The Hram Svetog Save or Temple of St. Sava, the world's largest Orthodox church

The walls are normally covered from floor to ceiling with icons or wall paintings of saints, their lives, and stories from the Bible. Because the church building is a direct extension of its Jewish roots where men and women stand separately, the Orthodox Church continues this practice, with men standing on the right and women on the left. Because of this arrangement it is emphasized that we are all equal before God (equal distance from the altar), and that the man is not superior to the woman. In many modern churches this traditional practice has been altered and families stand together.

Above the nave in the dome of the church is the icon of Christ the Almighty (Pantokratoros, "Ruler of All"). Directly hanging below the dome (In more traditional churches) is usually a kind of circular chandelier with depictions of the saints and apostles, called the horos which represents the Choir of the saints; during certain significant moments of the service, it is swung to symbolically represent the universal participation of the church on earth and the church in heaven.

Iconostasis: Traditionally called the templon, it is a screen or wall between the nave and the sanctuary, which is covered with icons. There will normally be three doors, one in the middle and one on either side. The central one is traditionally called the Beautiful Gate and is only used by the clergy. There are times when this gate is closed during the service and a curtain is drawn. The doors on either side are called the Deacons' Doors or Angel Doors as they often have depicted on them the Archangels Michael and Gabriel. These doors are used by deacons and servers to enter the sanctuary. Typically, to the left of the Beautiful Gate (as seen from the altar) is the icon of Christ, then the icon of St John the Baptist; to the right the icon of the Theotokos, always shown holding Christ; and then the icon of the saint to whom the church is dedicated (i.e., the patron). There are often other icons on the iconostasis but these vary from church to church. Above and behind the iconostasis (if the iconostasis does not reach the ceiling) is the Platytera ton Ouranon ("more spacious than the heavens"), the icon of Virgin Mary with Christ blessing all. Oil lamps burn before all the icons.

Sanctuary: The area including the altar table at its center, behind the iconostasis: it is the "Holy of Holies" of the church. The church, if at all possible, is always aligned with the altar facing East. The priest also faces East when before the holy table (away from the congregation), offering prayers for the people to God and then coming out through the Beautiful Gate to give God's good news (Gospel) to the people. To the left of the altar table will be the Prosthesis table (table of preparation) where the bread and wine are prepared for the Eucharist before the Divine Liturgy begins.


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A fairly elaborate Orthodox Christian prayer corner as would be found in a private home

Icons are replete with symbolism meant to convey far more meaning than simply the identity of the person depicted, and it is for this reason that Orthodox iconography has become an exacting science of copying older icons rather than an opportunity for artistic expression. The Orthodox believe that the first icons of Christ and the Virgin Mary were painted by Luke the Evangelist. Orthodox regard their depiction of Christ as accurate, with Christ having brown semi-curly hair, brown eyes, and Semitic features (the Virgin Mary being similar). The personal, idiosyncratic and creative traditions of Western European religious art are largely lacking in Orthodox iconography before the 17th century, when Russian icon painting was strongly influenced by religious paintings and engravings from both Protestant and Catholic Europe. Greek icon painting also began to take on a strong romantic western influence for a period and the difference between some Orthodox icons and western religious art began to vanish. More recently there has been a strong trend of returning to the more traditional and symbolic representations.

Statuary is almost non-existent within the Orthodox Church possibly because it too closely resembles the previous pagan Greek age of idol worship and also because Icons are designed to capture the spiritual aspects of Christ and the Saints, not the material physical human form. Icons are not considered by the Orthodox to be "graven images" or idols. Their usage is justified by the following logic: When the immaterial God was all that we had, no material depiction was possible and therefore blasphemous even to contemplate; however, Biblical prohibitions against material depictions have been altered by Christ (as God) taking on material form thus allowing a material depiction. Also, it is not the wood or paint that are venerated but rather the individual shown.

Large icons can be found adorning the walls of churches and often cover the inside structure completely. Orthodox homes often likewise have icons hanging on the wall, usually together on an eastern facing wall, and in a central location where the family can pray together.


Our Lady of St Theodore (10th century), the protectress of Kostroma, following the same Byzantine "Tender Mercy" type

Icons are often illuminated with a candle or oil lamp. (Beeswax for candles and olive oil for lamps are preferred because they are natural and burn cleanly.) Besides the practical purpose of making icons visible in an otherwise dark church, both candles and oil lamps symbolize the Light of the World which is Christ.

Tales of miraculous icons that moved, spoke, cried, bled, or gushed fragrant myrrh are not uncommon, though it has always been considered that the message of such an event was for the immediate faithful involved and therefore does not usually attract crowds. Some miraculous icons whose reputations span long periods of time nevertheless become objects of pilgrimage along with the places where they are kept.

Some of the most venerated Russian Orthodox icons are treated in separate articles.

See also Category:Eastern Orthodox icons.

The Cross: The Byzantine (sometimes Russian) style cross (seen above-right) is usually shown with a small top crossbar representing the sign that Pontius Pilate nailed above Christ's head, however, instead of the Latin acronym INRI (Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum, meaning "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews") the Greek INBI or its Slavonic equivalent is used. It is not uncommon, however, for this to be replaced by the phrase "The King of Glory" in order to answer Pilate's mocking statement with Christ's affirmation, "My Kingdom is not of this world". There is also on many Orthodox depictions of the cross a bottom slanting bar. This appears for a number of reasons. First of all, there is enough evidence to show that there was a small wooden platform for the crucified to stand on in order to support his weight; in Christ's case his feet were nailed side by side to this platform with one nail each in order to prolong the torture of the cross. Evidence for this idea comes mainly from two sources, biblical (that in order to cause the victim to die faster their legs were broken so they could not support their weight and would strangle) and tradition (all early depictions of the crucifixion show this arrangement, not the later with feet on top with single nail). It has also been pointed out that the nailed hands of a body crucified in the manner often shown in modern secular art would not support the weight and would tear through, a platform for the feet would relieve this problem. The bottom bar is slanted two reasons, to represent the very real agony which Christ experienced on the cross (a refutation of Docetism) and to signify that the thief on Christ's right chose the right path while the thief on the left did not.



Orthodox services are sung nearly in their entirety. Services consist in part of a dialog between the clergy and the people (often represented by the choir or the Psaltis (Cantor). In each case the text is sung or chanted following a prescribed musical form. Almost nothing is read in a normal speaking voice with the exception of the homily if one is given. The church has developed eight Modes or Tones, (see Octoechos) within which a chant may be set, depending on the time of year, feast days, or other considerations of the Typikon. There are numerous versions and styles that are traditional and acceptable and these vary a great deal between cultures. It is common, especially in the United States, for a choir to learn many different styles and to mix them, singing one response in Greek, then English, then Russian, etc. This adds to the beauty and universality of the service.


Incense is burned during all services in the Eastern Orthodox Church. Traditionally, the incense used is the resin of Boswellia thurifera, but it the resin of fir trees has been used as well. The spiritual significance of incense is simple and straightforward: it symbolizes the congenial ardor that Orthodox believe ought to characterize the life of a believing Christian, as well as evoking Christian integrity and goodness; it is seen as a representation of prayer rising to God. The Romanian Church adds to this symbolism: the incense is also the symbol of the Holy Spirit blessing the congregation, and warding off evil (a popular saying, "fuge ca dracul de tămâie", translates as "ran away like the devil from the incense").


All Orthodox Christians are expected to participate in at least some ascetical works, in response to the commandment of Christ to "come, take up the cross, and follow me." (Mark 10:21 and elsewhere) They are therefore all called to imitate, in one way or another, Christ himself who denied himself to the extent of literally taking up the cross on the way to his voluntary self-sacrifice. However, laypeople are not expected to live in extreme asceticism since this is close to impossible while undertaking the normal responsibilities of worldly life. Those who wish to do this therefore separate themselves from the world and live as monastics: monks and nuns. As ascetics par excellence, using the allegorical weapons of prayer and fasting in spiritual warfare against their passions, monastics hold a very special and important place in the Church. This kind of life is often seen as incompatible with any kind of worldly activity including that which is normally regarded as virtuous. Social work, schoolteaching, and other such work is therefore usually left to laypeople.

There are three main types of monastics. Those who live in monasteries under a common rule are coenobitic. Each monastery may formulate its own rule, and although there are no religious orders in Orthodoxy some respected monastic centers such as Mount Athos are highly influential. Eremitic monks, or hermits, are those who live solitary lives. Hermits might be associated with a larger monastery but living in seclusion some distance from the main compound, and in such cases the monastery will see to their physical needs while disturbing them as little as possible. They often live in the most extreme conditions and practice the strictest asceticism. In between are those in semi-eremetic communities, or sketes, where one or two monks share each of a group of nearby dwellings under their own rules and only gather together in the central chapel, or kyriakon, for liturgical observances.

The spiritual insight gained from their ascetical struggles make monastics preferred for missionary activity. Bishops are often chosen from among monks, and those who are not generally receive the monastic tonsure before their consecrations.

Many (but not all) Orthodox seminaries are attached to monasteries, combining academic preparation for ordination with participation in the community's life of prayer. Monks who have been ordained to the priesthood are called hieromonk (priest-monk); monks who have been ordained to the deaconate are called hierodeacon (deacon-monk). Not all monks live in monasteries, some hieromonks serve as priests in parish churches thus practising "monasticism in the world".

For the Orthodox, Father is the correct form of address for monks who have been tonsured to the rank of Stavrophore or higher, while Novices and Rassophores are addressed as Brother. Similarly, Mother is the correct form of address for nuns who have been tonsured to the rank of Stavrophore or higher, while Novices and Rassophores are addressed as Sister. Nuns live identical ascetic lives to their male counterparts and are therefore also called monachoi (monastics), and their common living space is called a monastery. Some women's monasteries are nearby or even adjoining a men's monastery.


Fasting is a very important, indeed necessary practice in the Orthodox Church. Fasting is never seen as a way to earn the believer "points" or the right to salvation; it is merely an exercise in self-denial that serves to rid the believer of his or her passions (what most modern people would call "addictions"). These often low-intensity and hard-to-detect addictions to food, television or other entertainments, sex, or any kind of self-absorbed pleasure-seeking are seen as some of the most significant obstacles for man seeking closeness to God. Through struggling with fasting the believer comes face to face with the reality of his condition — the starting point for genuine repentance according to the Eastern Orthodox tradition.

Fasting is also never looked on as a hardship or punishment but rather as a great privilege and joy, although it can be very difficult. Those who for medical reasons (diabetes, for example) cannot fast, often see themselves as missing a great spiritual opportunity. Fasting typically involves differing levels of abstinence depending on the day or season and ranges from a complete fast from all food and drink to abstinence from all animal products (meat, dairy, eggs, etc.), olive oil, and wine.

Although the traditional proscription is against olive oil, it is often interpreted as excluding all vegetable oils.

Shellfish is not included in the proscription against meat; accordingly, shellfish is permitted during fasts. (So-called "imitation crabmeat" is not Lenten fare as it is made not made from shellfish but, rather from fish, generally, pollock.) Although shellfish is permitted, fasting Orthodox Christians would also need to take into account the overarching principles of denial and moderation; thus, feasts of lobster and crab (like feasts on other luxurious Lenten foods) during fasts could still be contrary to the spirit of fasting.

Vegetable oils are permitted on certain days and weeks of the fast as is wine. Thus, most fasting guidelines resemble a vegan diet with all cooking done simply with water but no oil. In addition to restrictions on food, it is generally understood that married couples abstain from sexual relations during a fast (see 1 Corinthians 7:5) and it is often recommended that entertainments or amusements be eliminated altogether during the stricter periods of fasting.

The time and type of fast is generally uniform for all Orthodox Christians; the times of fasting are part of the ecclesial calendar. There are four major fasting periods during the year. They are:

  • The Nativity Fast (Advent or Winter Lent) which is the 40 days preceding the Nativity of Christ (Christmas).
  • Great Lent which consists of the 6 weeks (40 Days) preceding Palm Sunday, and Great Week (Holy Week) which precedes Pascha (Easter).
  • The Apostles' Fast which varies in length from 2 to 6 weeks on the Old Calendar. It begins on Monday following the first Sunday after Pentecost and extends to the feast day of Saints Peter and Paul on June 29th. It can virtually disappear on the New Calendar (one of the reasons for the Old Calendar Movement).
  • The two-week long Fast preceding the Dormition of the Theotokos (repose of The Virgin Mary).

In addition, except during feasting weeks, members of the Orthodox Church fast on every Wednesday in commemoration of Christ's betrayal by Judas Iscariot, and on every Friday in commemoration of his crucifixion. Monastics often include Mondays as a fast day in commemoration of the Angels.

The number of fast days varies each year, but in general the Orthodox Christian can expect to spend over half the year fasting at some level of strictness.

It is considered a greater sin to advertise one's fasting than to not participate in the fast. Fasting is a purely personal communication between the Orthodox and God, and in fact has no place whatsoever in the public life of the Orthodox Church. If one has responsibilities that cannot be fulfilled because of fasting, then it is perfectly permissible to not fast.


"Almsgiving" refers to any charitable giving of material resources to those in need. Along with prayer and fasting, it is considered a pillar of the personal spiritual practices of the Orthodox Christian tradition. Almsgiving is particularly important during periods of fasting, when the Orthodox believer is expected to share the monetary savings from his or her decreased consumption with those in need. As with fasting, bragging about the amounts given for charity is considered anywhere from extremely rude to sinful.


Baptism is the rite by which a person's sins are remitted and he is united to the Body of Christ by becoming a member of the Orthodox Church. Holy water is blessed, and the person to be baptized is fully immersed in it three times in the name of the Holy Trinity. This is considered to be a death of the "old man" by participation in the crucifixion and burial of Christ, and a rebirth into new life in Christ by participation in his resurrection.

Children of Orthodox families are normally baptized shortly after birth. Converts from other religions or the unchurched must be received by baptism. Local rules vary for converts from other Christian groups. Depending on the group and the rules of the local Church, such a convert may be received by either baptism, chrismation, or just by confession of the Orthodox faith.

This is the only one of the Mysteries (Sacraments) that need not be facilitated by a minister who has received Holy Orders, although this would mostly obtain to emergency situations.


Chrismation (sometimes called confirmation) is the mystery by which a person, who has been baptized is granted the gift of the Holy Spirit through anointing with Holy Chrism. It is normally given immediately after baptism as part of the same service, but is also used to receive lapsed members of the Orthodox Church. As baptism is a person's participation in the death and resurrection of Christ, so chrismation is a person’s participation in the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.

A baptized and chrismated Orthodox Christian is a full member of the Church, and may receive the Eucharist regardless of age.

Chrism may be blessed by any bishop, but this is normally done only by the chief hierarch of a local church during Holy Week. Anointing with it substitutes for the laying-on of hands described in the New Testament.

Holy Communion

The Eucharist is at the center of Orthodox Christianity. In practice, it is the partaking of bread and wine in the midst of the Divine Liturgy with the rest of the church. The bread and wine are believed to be the genuine Body and Blood of the Christ Jesus. The Eastern Orthodox Church has never described exactly how this occurs, or gone into the detail that the Roman Catholic and Protestant churches have in the West. The doctrine of transubstantiation was formulated after the Great Schism took place, and the Orthodox churches have never formally affirmed or denied it, preferring to state simply that it is a mystery and sacrament.

Communion is given only to baptized, chrismated Orthodox Christians who have prepared by fasting, prayer, and confession (if of the age of reason, see below). The priest will administer the gifts with a spoon directly into the recipient's mouth from the chalice. From baptism young infants and children are carried to the chalice to receive Holy Communion.

It is the opinion of some traditionalists that frequent communion is dangerous spiritually if it reflects a lack of piety in approaching the most significant of the Mysteries, which would be damaging to the soul. However, many spiritual advisors advocate frequent reception as long as it is done in the proper spirit and not casually, with full preparation and discernment. Frequent reception is more common now than in recent centuries.


Orthodox Christians who have committed sins but repent of them, and who wish to reconcile themselves to God and renew the purity of their original baptisms, quietly confess their sins to God before an icon of Jesus and in the presence of a priest as a witness, who then prays for God's forgiveness and confirms it with a blessing. Although it is not an essential component of the Mystery, the opportunity is often taken at this time to offer spiritual counsel. Orthodox confession can therefore take the form of a discussion between the confessor and the penitent concerning his or her sins and the best means of overcoming them. Sin is not viewed by the Orthodox as a stain on the soul that needs to be wiped out, or a legal transgression that must be set right by a punitive sentence, but rather as an illness in need of a cure. Penance is therefore given only occasionally, at the discretion of the confessor, if he believes the sins mentioned in his hearing to be symptomatic of some spiritual illness requiring that treatment. It typically consists of a temporary excommunication, ideally accompanied by intensified prayer and fasting.

Repentance is essential preparation for receiving the Eucharist (1 Corinthians 11:28) but this is not required of very young children who have not yet attained the age of reason.


Marriage in the Eastern Orthodox Church

Orthodox Marriage is seen as an act of God in which he joins two believers into one. Procreation is not seen as the only reason for marriage though it is referenced throughout the standard Orthodox Wedding Service. The fact that intimacy between married adults creates a loving bond is paramount, and that union between the two is reflective of our ultimate union with God.

The Sacrament of Marriage in the Orthodox Church has two distinct parts: The Betrothal and The Crowning. The Betrothal includes: The exchange of the rings, the procession, the declaration of intent and the lighting of candles. Then follows the Crowning, the epistle, the gospel, the Blessing of the Common Cup and the Dance of Isaiah, and then the Removal of the Crowns. Finally there is the Greeting of the Couple.

Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church allows divorce and allows divorced men and women to remarry under specific circumstances (infidelity, apostasy, etc.) as judged by a Spiritual Court or Bishop. It is regarded as a great tragedy, however, and a second marriage normally requires special permission from a bishop. A second wedding is always performed in the context of repentance on the part of the previously married party, a fact reflected in the ceremony.

A peculiarity of the Orthodox wedding ceremony is that there is no exchange of vows. There is a set expectation of the obligations incumbent on a married couple, and whatever promises they may have privately to each other are their responsibility to keep.

Holy Orders

Since its founding, the Church spread to different places, and the leaders of the Church in each place came to be known as episkopoi (overseers, plural of episkopos, overseer — Gr. ἐπίσκοπος), which became "bishop" in English. The other ordained roles are presbyter (Gr. πρεσβύτερος, elder), which became "prester" and then "priest" in English, and diakonos (Gr. διάκονος, servant), which became "deacon" in English (see also subdeacon). There are numerous administrative positions in the clergy that carry additional titles. In the Greek tradition, bishops who occupy an ancient See are called Metropolitan, while the lead bishop in Greece is the Archbishop. Priests can be archpriests, archimandrites, or protopresbyters. Deacons can be archdeacons or protodeacons as well. The position of deacon is often occupied for life. The deacon also acts as an assistant to a bishop.

The Orthodox Church has always allowed married priests and deacons, provided the marriage takes place before ordination. In general, parish priests are to be married as they live in normal society (that is, "in the world" and not a monastery) where Orthodoxy sees marriage as the normative state. Unmarried priests usually live in monasteries since it is there that the unmarried state is the norm, although it sometimes happens that an unmarried priest is assigned to a parish. Widowed priests and deacons may not remarry, and it is common for such a member of the clergy to retire to a monastery (see clerical celibacy). This is also true of widowed wives of clergy, who often do not remarry and may become nuns if their children are grown. Bishops are always celibate. Although Orthodox consider men and women equal before God (Gal. 3:28), only men who are qualified and have no canonical impediments may be ordained bishops, priests, or deacons.

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Orthodox bishops and faithful at the 2005 March for Life in Washington, DC

Anointing with Holy Oil

Anointing, or Holy Unction, is one of the many mysteries administered by the Orthodox Church. The Mystery is far more common in the Orthodox Church than in the Roman Catholic as it is not reserved for the dying or terminally ill, but for all in need of spiritual or bodily healing. In addition to it being given annually on Great Wednesday to all believers, it is often distributed on major feast days, or any time the cleargy feel it necessary for the spiritual wellfare of its congregation.

According to Orthodox teaching Holy Unction is based on James 5:14-15:

Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord. And the prayer of faith will save the sick, and the Lord will raise him up. And if he has committed sins, he will be forgiven.


The early Church

Christianity first spread in the predominantly Greek-speaking eastern half of the Roman Empire. Paul and the Apostles traveled extensively throughout the Empire, establishing Churches in major communities, with the first Churches appearing in Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, and then the two political centres of Rome and Constantinople. Orthodox believe an Apostolic Succession was established; this played a key role in the Church's view of itself as the preserver of the Christian community. Systematic persecution of Christians stopped in 313 when Emperor Constantine the Great proclaimed the Edict of Milan. From that time forward, the Byzantine Emperor exerted various degrees of influence over the church (see Caesaropapism). This included the calling of the Ecumenical Councils to resolve disputes and establish church dogma on which the entire church would agree. Sometimes Patriarchs (often of Constantinople) were deposed by the emperor; at one point emperors sided with the iconoclasts in the eighth and ninth centuries.

Several Ecumenical Councils were held between 325 (the First Council of Nicaea) and 787 (the Second Council of Nicaea), which to Orthodox constitute the definitive interpretation of Christian dogma. Orthodox thinking differs on whether the Fourth and Fifth Councils of Constantinople were properly Ecumenical Councils, but the majority view is that they were merely influential, and not bindingly dogmatic.

Orthodox Christian culture reached its golden age during the high point of Byzantine Empire and continued to flourish in Russia, after the fall of Constantinople. Numerous autocephalous jurisdictions were established in Eastern Europe and Slavic areas.

The Orthodox jurisdictions with the largest number of adherents in modern times are the Russian and the Romanian Orthodox churches. The most ancient of the Orthodox churches of today are the Churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Georgia, Antioch, and Jerusalem.

The Roman/Byzantine Empire

Several doctrinal disputes from the 4th century onwards led to the calling of Ecumenical councils. The Church in Egypt (Patriarchate of Alexandria) split into two groups following the Council of Chalcedon (451), over a dispute about the relation between the divine and human natures of Jesus. Eventually this led to each group having its own Patriarch (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) [not to be confused with the Melkite Catholics of Antioch], and are today known as the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, until recently led by Pope Petros VII. 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. Oriental Orthodox are also sometimes referred to as "monophysites", "non-Chalcedonians", or "anti-Chalcedonians", although today the Oriental Orthodox Church denies that it is monophysite and prefers the term "miaphysite", to denote the "joined" nature of Jesus. Both the Eastern Orthodox and Oriental Orthodox churches formally believe themselves to be the continuation of the true church and the other fallen into heresy, although over the last several decades there has been some reconciliation.

In the 530s the Church of the Holy Wisdom (Hagia Sophia) was built in Constantinople under emperor Justinian I.

The seven ecumenical councils

Eastern Orthodox Christianity recognizes only these seven ecumenical councils.

  1. The first of the Seven Ecumenical Councils was that convoked by the Roman Emperor Constantine at Nicea in 325, condemining the view of Arius that the Son is a created being inferior to the Father.
  2. The Second Ecumenical Council was held at Constantinople in 381, defining the nature of the Holy Spirit against those asserting His inequality with the other persons of the Trinity.
  3. The Third Ecumenical Council is that of Ephesus in 431, which affirmed that Mary is truly "Birthgiver" or "Mother" of God (Theotokos), contrary to the teachings of Nestorius.
  4. The Fourth Ecumenical Council is that of Chalcedon in 451, which affirmed that Jesus is truly God and truly man, without mixture of the two natures, contrary to Monophysite teaching.
  5. The Fifth Ecumenical Council is the second of Constantinople in 553, interpreting the decrees of Chalcedon and further explaining the relationship ot the two natures of Jesus; it also condemned the teachings of Origen on the pre-existence of the soul, etc.
  6. The Sixth Ecumenical Council is the third of Constantinople in 681; it declared that Christ has two wills of his two natures, human and divine, contrary to the teachings of the Monothelites.
  7. The Seventh Ecumenical Council was called under the Empress Regent Irene in 787, known as the second of Nicea. It affirmed the making and veneration of icons, while also forbidding the worship of icons and the making of three-dimensional statuary. It reversed the declaration of an earlier council that had called itself the Seventh Ecumenical Council and also nullified its status (see separate article on Iconoclasm). That earlier council had been held under the iconoclast Emperor Constantine V. It met with more than 340 bishops at Constantinople and Hieria in 754, declaring the making of icons of Jesus or the saints an error, mainly for Christological reasons.

The Oriental Orthodox

As noted above, Eastern Orthodoxy strives to keep the faith of the aforementioned seven Ecumenical Councils. In contrast, the term "Oriental Orthodoxy" refers to the churches of Eastern Christian traditions that keep the faith of only the first three ecumenical councils — the First Council of Nicaea, the First Council of Constantinople and the Council of Ephesus — and rejected the dogmatic definitions of the Council of Chalcedon. Thus, "Oriental Orthodox" churches are distinct from the churches that collectively refer to themselves as "Eastern Orthodox". As well, there are the "Nestorian" churches, which are Eastern Christian churches that keep the faith of only the first two ecumenical councils, i.e., the First Council of Nicaea and the First Council of Constantinople.

The Great Schism

In the 11th century the Great Schism took place between Rome and Constantinople, which led to separation of the Church of the West, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Churches of the East. There were doctrinal issues like the filioque clause and the authority of the Pope involved in the split, but these were exacerbated by cultural and linguistic differences between Latins and Greeks.

The final breach is often considered to have arisen after the sacking of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. The sacking of the Church of Holy Wisdom and establishment of the Latin Empire in 1204 is viewed with some rancour to the present day. In 2004, Pope John Paul II extended a formal apology for the sacking of Constantinople in 1204; the apology was formally accepted by Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople. Many things that were stolen during this time: relics, riches, and many other items, are still held in various Catholic churches in Western Europe.

In 1453, the Byzantine Empire fell to the Ottoman Empire. By this time Egypt had been under Muslim control for some seven centuries, but Orthodoxy was very strong in Russia which had recently acquired an autocephalous status; and thus Moscow called itself the Third Rome, as the cultural heir of the Constantinople. Under Ottoman rule, the Greek Orthodox Church acquired substantial power. The ecumenical patriarch was the religious and administrative ruler of the entire "Greek Orthodox nation" (Ottoman administrative unit), which encompassed all the Eastern Orthodox subjects of the Empire.

Conversion of East and South Slavs

In the ninth and tenth centuries, Orthodoxy made great inroads into Eastern Europe, including Kievan Rus'. This work was made possible by the work of the Byzantine saints Cyril and Methodius. When Rastislav, the king of Moravia, asked Byzantium for teachers who could minister to the Moravians in their own language, Byzantine emperor Michael III chose these two brothers. As their mother was a Slav from the hinterlands of Thessaloniki, Cyril and Methodius spoke the local Slavonic vernacular and translated the Bible and many of the prayer books. As the translations prepared by them were copied by speakers of other dialects, the hybrid literary language Old Church Slavonic was created. Originally sent to convert the Slavs of Great Moravia, Cyril and Methodius were forced to compete with Frankish missionaries from the Roman diocese. Their disciples were driven out of Great Moravia in AD 886.

Some of the disciples, however, reached Bulgaria where they were welcomed by the Bulgarian Tsar Boris I who viewed the Slavonic liturgy as a way to counteract Greek influence in the country. In a short time the disciples of Cyril and Methodius managed to prepare and instruct the future Slav Bulgarian clergy into the Glagolitic alphabet and the biblical texts and in AD 893, Bulgaria expelled its Greek clergy and proclaimed the Slavonic language as the official language of the church and the state. The success of the conversion of the Bulgarians facilitated the conversion of other East Slavic peoples, most notably the Rus', predecessors of Belarusians, Russians, and Ukrainians.

The missionaries to the East and South Slavs had great success in part because they used the people's native language rather than Latin as the Roman priests did, or Greek. Today the Russian Orthodox Church, in spite of being discouraged and sometimes persecuted by the secular government of the Soviet Union, is the largest of the Orthodox Churches.

The Church in North America

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St. Tikhon's Russian Orthodox Monastery in South Canaan, Pennsylvania

The Russian Orthodox Church sent missionaries to Alaska beginning in the 18th century. Among the first was Saint Herman of Alaska. This established missionary precedence for the Russian Orthodox Church in the Americas, and Eastern Orthodox Christians were under the omophorion (Church authority and protection) of the Patriarch of Moscow. The Russian Orthodox Church was devastated by the Bolshevik Revolution. One side effect was the flood of refugees from Russia to the United States, Canada, and Europe. Among those who came were Orthodox lay people, deacons, priests, and bishops. In 1920 Patriarch Tikhon issued an ukase (decree) that Orthodox Christians under his leadership but outside of Russia should seek refuge with whatever Orthodox jurisdiction that would shield them from Communist control. The various national Orthodox communities thus were permitted as an emergency measure to look towards their immigrant homelands for ecclesiastic leadership rather than be tied to Russia. Some of the Russian Orthodox formed an independent synod that became the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), sometimes also called the Russian Orthodox Church Abroad. Some of the Russian Orthodox remained in communion with Moscow and were granted autocephaly in 1970 as the Orthodox Church in America (OCA, though rarely referred to as "TOCA"). However, recognition of this autocephalic status is not universal, as the Ecumenical Patriarch (under whom is the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America) and some other jurisdictions have not officially accepted it. The reasons for this are complex; nevertheless the Ecumenical Patriarch and the other jurisdictions remain in communion with the OCA.

Today there are many Orthodox churches in the United States and Canada that are still bound to the Greek, Antiochian, or other overseas jurisdictions; in some cases these different overseas jurisdictions will have churches in the same U.S. city. However, there are also many "pan-orthodox" activities and organizations, both formal and informal, among Orthdox believers of all jurisdictions. One such organization is the Standing Conference of Orthodox Bishops in America (SCOBA), the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in the Americas, which comprises North American Orthodox bishops from nearly all jurisdictions. (See list of Orthodox jurisdictions in North America.)

In June of 2002, the Antiochian Orthodox Church granted self-rule to the Antiochian Orthodox Archdiocese of North America. Some observers see this as a step towards greater organizational unity in North America.

During the past 50 years there have come into existence in North America a number of Western Rite Orthodox parishes. These are sometimes labelled "Western Orthodox Churches," but this term is not generally used by Orthodox Christians of Eastern or Western rite. These are Orthodox Christians who use the Western forms of liturgy yet are Orthodox in their theology. The Antiochian Orthodox Church and ROCOR both have Western Rite parishes.

Eastern Orthodoxy has had a history in China and East Asia as well.

The Church today

The various local churches within the Orthodox Church are distinct in terms of administration and local culture, but for the most part exist in full communion with one another, with exceptions such as lack of relations between the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) and the Moscow Patriarchate (the Orthodox Church of Russia) dating from the 1920s and due to the subjection of the latter to the hostile Soviet regime. However, attempts at reconciliation are being made between the ROCOR and the Moscow Patriarchate with the ultimate purpose of reunification. Further tensions exist in the philosophical differences between the New Calendarists and the Moderate Old Calendarists.

See also

External links

Informational and further reading

Local Orthodox churches (churches in full communion)

Local Orthodox churches (churches not in full communion)


Seminaries and Schools

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