‘Orthodox’ is only the technical name for the body of Christians who use the Byzantine Rite in various languages and are in union with the Patriarch of Constantinople but in schism with the Pope of Rome. The epithet Orthodox (orthodoxos), meaning "right believer" is naturally claimed by people of every religion. It is almost exactly a Greek form of the official title of the chief enemies of the Greeks, i.e. the Moslems (mu'min, fidelis). The Monophysite Armenians called themselves ughapar, meaning exactly the same thing.

How "Orthodox" became the proper name of the Eastern Church it is difficult to say. It was used at first, long before the schism of Photius, especially in the East, not with any idea of opposition against the West, but rather as the antithesis to the Eastern heretics — Nestorians and Monophysites. Gradually, although of course, both East and West always claimed both names, "Catholic" became the most common name for the original Church in the West, "Orthodox" in the East.

History and Developement

The Orthodox stream of Christianity developed from the church’s spread across the eastern Roman, or Byzantine, empire in the first centuries AD. Over the centuries relations between the two power bases of Constantinople and Rome grew tense over political and theological differences. Some points of great contention were and are - the celibacy of the clergy (priests in Rome had to be celibate whereas the orthodox priests could marry before becoming ordained); some differences in the way of fasting and over the wording of the Creed - for the Orthodox the Holy Spirit proceeds “from the Father” whereas Rome added “and the Son”. 

The disputes and opposition between the spiritual leaders of Orthodoxy and Catholicism grew so that in 1054 the Patriarch and the Pope excommunicated one another. There were disagreements over the Roman Pope’s claim to supremacy and the doctrine of the Holy Spirit which led to the split between the Eastern Church (centred in Constantinople, now Istanbul) and the Western Church (centred in Rome). The Orthodox Church (Eastern - Greek/Russian) and the Roman Catholic Church took their own way. This separation is called the “Great Schism”. 

The Russian Orthodox Church is more than one thousand years old. According to tradition St. Andrew, while preaching the gospel, stopped at the Kievan hills to bless the future city of Kiev. In the south of Russia the word was spread by Saint Cyril and Saint Methodius Equal to the Apostles, the Illuminators of the Slavs. In 954 Princess Olga of Kiev was baptised. All this paved the way for the baptism of Prince Vladimir and the Baptism of Russia in 988.  It was with the conversion of the Prince that the Russian Orthodox Church was created. 

In the pre-Tartar period of its history The Russian Church was one of the metropolitanates (religious heads) of the Patriarchate of Constantinople. “Majestic” churches began to be built in the tenth century. Monasteries began to develop in the eleventh century. St. Anthony of the Caves brought the traditions of Athonian monasticism to Russia in 1051.

In the twelfth century, the period of feudal divisions, the Russian Church remained the only bearer of the idea of unity of the Russian people, resisting the centrifugal aspirations and feudal strife among Russian princes. Even the Tartar invasion failed to break the Russian Church. The Church managed to survive as a real force. It made a great spiritual, material and moral contribution to the restoration of the political unity of Russia as a guarantee of its future victory over the invaders.

Divided Russian principalities began to unite around Moscow in the sixteenth century. The Russian Orthodox Church continued to play an important role in the revival of unified Russia. Russian bishops acted as spiritual guides and assistants to the Princes of Moscow. St. Metropolitan Alexis (1354-1378) educated Prince Dimitry Donskoy. He, just as St. Metropolitan Jonas (1448-1471) later, by the power of his authority helped the Prince of Moscow to put an end to the feudal discords and preserve the unity of the state. St. Sergius of Radonezh gave his blessing to Prince Dimitry Donskoy to fight the Kulikovo Battle which made the beginning of the liberation of Russia from the invaders.

Liberating itself from the invaders, the Russian state gathered strength and so did the Russian Orthodox Church. In 1448, not long before the Byzantine Empire collapsed, the Russian Church became independent from the Patriarchate of Constantinople. Metropolitan Jonas, installed by the Council of Russian bishops in 1448, was given the title of Metropolitan of Moscow and All Russia.

The growing might of the Russian state contributed also to the growing authority of the Autocephalous Russian Church. In 1589 Metropolitan Job of Moscow became the first Russian patriarch. Eastern patriarchs recognised the Russian patriarch as the fifth in honour.

The beginning of the seventeenth century proved to be a hard time for Russia. The Poles and Swedes invaded Russia from the west. The Russian Church played a great role at this time. Patriarch Germogen (1606-1612), an ardent patriot of Russia who was to be tortured to death by the invaders, was the spiritual leader of the mass levy led by Minin and Pozharsky. The heroic defence of St. Sergius' Monastery of the Trinity from the Swedes and Poles between 1608-1610 has been inscribed for ever in the chronicle of the Russian state and the Russian Church.

In the period after the invaders were driven away from Russia, the Russian Church was engaged in one of the most important of its internal tasks, namely, introducing corrections into its service books and rites. A great contribution to this was made by Patriarch Nikon, a church reformer. Some clergymen and lay people did not understand and did not accept the liturgical reforms introduced by Patriarch Nikon and refused to obey the church authority. This was how the Old Believers’ schism emerged.

The beginning of the eighteenth century in Russia was marked by radical reforms carried out by Peter I. The reforms did not leave the Russian Church untouched as after the death of Patriarch Adrian in 1700 Peter I delayed the election of the new Primate of the Church and established in 1721 a collective supreme administration in the Church known as the Holy and Governing Synod. The Synod remained the supreme church body in the Russian Church for almost two centuries.

In the Synodal period of its history from 1721 to 1917, the Russian Church paid special attention to the development of religious education and mission in provinces. Old churches were restored and new churches were built. The beginning of the nineteenth century was marked by the work of theologians. Russian theologians also did much to develop such sciences as history, linguistics and Oriental studies.

The twentieth century produced the great models of Russian sanctity, such as St. Seraphim of Sarov and the Starets of the Optina and Glinsky Hermitages. Early in the 20th century the Russian Church began preparations for convening an All-Russian Council. But it was to be convened only after the 1917 Revolution. Among its major actions was the restoration of the patriarchal office in the Russian Church. The Council elected Metropolitan Tikhon of Moscow Patriarch of Moscow and All Russia (1917-1925).

St. Tikhon of Moscow exerted every effort to calm the destructive passions kindled up by the revolution. For Bolsheviks who came to power in 1917 the Russian Orthodox Church was an ideological enemy, being an institutional part of tsarist Russia it resolutely defended the old regime also after the October revolution. This is why so many bishops, thousands of clergymen, monks and nuns as well as lay people were subjected to repression up to execution and murder striking in its brutality.

When in 1921-1922 the Soviet government demanded that church valuables be given in aid to the population starving because of the failure of crops in 1921, a fateful conflict erupted between the Church and the new authorities who decided to use this situation to demolish the Church to the end. By the beginning of World War II the church structure was almost completely destroyed throughout the country. There were only a few bishops who remained free and who could perform their duties. Some bishops managed to survive in remote parts or under the disguise of priests. Only a few hundred churches were opened for services throughout the Soviet Union. Most of the clergy were either imprisoned in concentration camps where many of them perished or hid in catacombs, while thousands of priests changed occupation.

The catastrophic course of combat in the beginning of World War II forced Stalin to mobilise all the national resources for defence, including the Russian Orthodox Church as the people’s moral force. Without delay churches were opened for services, and clergy including bishops were released from prisons.

This process, which can be described as a rapprochement between Church and state in a “patriotic union”, culminated in Stalin’s receiving on September 4, 1943 Patriarchal Locum Tenens Metropolitan Sergiy Stragorodsky and Metropolitan Alexy Simansky and Nikolay Yarushevich.

Since that historic moment a “thaw” began in relations between church and state. The Church, however, remained always under state control and any attempts to spread its work outside its walls were met with a strong rebuff including administrative sanctions. The Russian Orthodox Church was in a hard situation during the so called “Khrushchev’s thaw” as well when thousands of churches throughout the Soviet Union were closed for “ideological reasons.”

The celebrations devoted to the Millennium of the Baptism of Russia, which acquired a national importance, gave a fresh impetus to church-state relations and compelled the powers that be to begin a dialogue with the Church, building these relations on the basis of recognition of the great historical role it had played in the fortunes of the Motherland and its contribution to the formation of the nation’s moral traditions.


As far as doctrine, Holy Tradition, understanding of Scripture, etc., there is no difference between Greek and Russian Orthodox churches. The key word is "Orthodox," with the ethnic designation in front being a secondary consideration.  Orthodox beliefs include:

• The Orthodox Church does not believe that the Pope is infallible. Those in the Orthodox Church believe that the pope is “first among equals.” In the Orthodox Church, decisions and power are vested not in a single person but in a decision-making body called a synod which are said to be infallible. The leader of the Greek Orthodox Church is Bartholomew, the archbishop of Constantinople and the ecumenical patriarch. “He’s just a man”, said Gus Vasilakos, president of Kimisis’ parish council. “He’s the highest bishop, but he’s a man. He can make mistakes.”

• Following the Holy Fathers, Orthodoxy uses science and philosophy to defend and explain her Faith.

• The Orthodox Church does not endorse the view that the teachings of Christ have changed from time to time; rather that Christianity has remained unaltered from the moment that the Lord delivered the Faith to the Apostles.

• Orthodoxy teaches that the knowledge of God is planted in human nature and that is how we know Him to exist.

• Both the Orthodox and the Roman Catholics recognise at least seven Sacraments or Mysteries: The Eucharist, Baptism, Chrismation (a type of confirmation), Ordination, Penance, Marriage and Holy Oil for the sick (which the Roman Catholics have traditionally called “Extreme Unction” and reserved for the dying). According to Roman Catholic teachings about the Sacraments (mystagogy), a person becomes a member of the Church through Baptism. “Original sin” is washed away. Orthodoxy teaches the same, but the idea of an “original sin” or “inherited guilt” (from Adam) does not factor into the Orthodox faith.  Roman Catholics speak of “Confirmation” and the Orthodox of “Chrismation.” “Confirmation” is separated from baptism and is performed by the bishop and not the priest; but “Chrismation” is performed with Baptism by a priest who has received “chrism” from the bishop. The Sacrament of “Confirmation” and “Chrismation” both mean the giving of the Holy Spirit. The Roman Catholics delay “confirming” (with “first communion”) as they believe this gives a person time to have some appreciation of the gift of God. The Orthodox Church links Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion. The ceremony involves a threefold immersion into sanctified water, the “new Christian” rising from the water into the fellowship of the Holy Spirit which leads to union with God. Such is the purpose of membership in the Church. Concerning the Sacraments in general, the Orthodox teach that their material elements (bread, wine, water, chrism, etc.) become grace-filled by the calling of the Holy Spirit (epiklesis). Roman Catholicism believes that the Sacraments are effective on account of the priest who acts “in the person of Christ.”

• A canon is a “rule” or “guide” for governing The Church. Canons were composed by the Apostles, the Fathers, the local or regional and general or ecumenical Councils (in Latin) or Synods (in Greek). Only the bishop, as head of the church, applies them. He may use them “strictly” (akreveia) or “leniently” (economia). “Strictness” is the norm. Unlike the Roman Catholics, the Orthodox Church does not think of canons as laws, that is, as regulating human relationships or securing human rights. Orthodoxy views canons as the means of forging the “new man” or “new creature” through obedience. They are training in virtue. They are meant to produce holiness.

• The Roman Catholics teach that Adam and Eve sinned against God. The guilt of their sin has been inherited by every man, woman and child after them. All humanity is liable for their “original sin.” Following the Holy Fathers, the Orthodox Church holds that when Adam sinned against God, he introduced death to the world. Since all men are born of the same human stock as Adam, all men inherit death. Death means that the life of every human being comes to an end (mortality); but also that death generates in us the passions (anger, hate, lust, greed, etc.), disease and aging. Orthodoxy has always put great stress on “mastery of the passions” through prayer (public worship and private devotions), fasting (self-denial) and voluntary obedience and regular participation in the Eucharist. Therefore, the highest form of Christian living, “the supreme philosophy”, is monasticism. Here all human energy is devoted to the struggle for perfection. Monasticism, in this sense, among Roman Catholics has all but disappeared.

• The doctrine of the place and person of the Virgin Mary in the Church is called “Mariology.” Both Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism believe she is the “Mother of God”, however the Orthodox Church does not believe in the immaculate conception of Mary.

• Holy icons (consecrated pictures) are important elements in both public and private devotion.

• Purgatory is a condition of the departed before the final judgment. According to Roman Catholic theology, those souls destined for heaven (with a few exceptions) must endure a state of purgation, or purification. They must be cleansed of the sins committed on earth. The rest it is believed go to hell for eternal punishment. However, Orthodoxy teaches that after the soul leaves the body, it journeys to the abode of the dead (Hades). There are exceptions, such as the Theotokos, who was borne by the angels directly into heaven but it is believed everyone else must remain in a state of waiting. The state of waiting is called “Particular Judgment.” When Christ returns, the soul rejoins its risen body to be judged by Him. The “good and faithful servant” will inherit eternal life; the unfaithful with the unbeliever will spend eternity in hell. Their sins and their unbelief will torture them as fire.
Other Differences between Russian Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism

Orthodox presbyters and deacons may marry before ordination; Roman Catholic clergy are celibate.
Orthodox clergy wear beards; Papist clergy are generally beardless.

Russian Orthodox Today

There are around 200 million adherents of Eastern Orthodoxy world-wide.  In Britain, the Orthodox collectively forms the third largest Christian community, having some 250,000 members. Most of the local Orthodox Churches are represented, principally the Greek Orthodox Church (Ecumenical Patriarchate), but also the Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Antiochian Churches and the Oriental Orthodox Churches.



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