The "Greek Orthodox Church" is a common name for the Eastern Orthodox Church, a fellowship of several communions related by ssociation with certain partiarchs (above archbishops) in various regions, originally associated with the Eastern Roman Empire, and then with churches started by missionary activities of these original patriarchal churches.
The churches are episcopal, similar in structure to the Roman Catholic and Episcopalian churches, but are self-governing on ethnic or national lines, and some autonomous churches do not have their own patriarchs, like the Church of Cyprus, led by the Archbishop of Nicosia, who relates to the Patriarch of Istanbul (still called Constantinople in the Eastern Orthodox Church government).
The original 4 patriarchates are Constantinople (Istanbul; still considered the Ecumenical, or World, Patriarchate, though technically equal with the others), Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, and are considered to be apostolic. These patriarchs and other newer ones are equal in a council.
The patriarchs originally included the Patriarch of Rome, before the Roman see fell out of fellowship with the others, finally in 1054, after some serious earlier breaches of fellowship.
Other Patriarchates are Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Georgian. There are American branches of most Eastern Churches, and sources indicate the following communions in the US are led by bishops of their nationalities: Albanian, Bulgarian, Greek, Romanian, Russian, Serbian, Ukrainian, Carpatho-Russian and Syrian, but they may be independent in administration. There are a few parishes in the US under the patriarchs of Moscow and Alexandria. Some new churches in Africa are associated with the patriarch of Alexandria.
Egyptian Churches -- two Sees of Alexandria
The Greek Orthodox Church in Alexandria (Egypt) is a remnant of the Egyptian Church which remained loyal to the Orthodox communion after the Monophysite and Monothelitism controversies. This Church has been largely Greek since that time, and is small, but has maintained its identity and even the patriarchate, all through the Arab domination under Islam.
This church is not now related to the Coptic (Egyptian Orthodox) Church, led by patriarch Pope Shenuda. This church is a separate ancient church serving the indigenous Egyptians, called Copts, from the ancient Greek name Aigyptos for Egypt.
This church is officially called Church of Alexandria the seat of St. Mark See. The seat of the Coptic patriarch was in Alexandria until the seventh century, when it was moved to Cairo, to the Church of the Virgin (The famous "Hanging Church"), but was moved back to Alexandria in the fourteenth century.
This Church, representing the main body of Egyptian Christians, was gradually estranged from the main Orthodox movement due to technicalities resulting from the Monophysite movement, which was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
Alexandrian bishop Dioscoros tried to moderate the opposition to the Monophysite teachings, which was intended to preserve the divinity of Christ. Leaders of the Egyptian church continued trying to lead the Orthodox movement to make peace with the monophysite churches.
The Egyptian church did not follow the Monophysite belief, but formulated its unity of the divinity and humanity of Christ in a different way than the prevailing thought at the time. For this reason, they were branded also as Monophysites by the other orthodox churches.
The Egyptian (Coptic) majority formally separated from the Alexandrian see and the main Orthodox movement after the Council of Constantinople in AD 680. This council dealt with the question of Monotheletism (whether Jesus had one will or two), which developed in an attempt to heal the breach over Monophysitism by clarifying the long-standing question of the nature of Christ.
Monotheletism tried to declare the unity and purity of Christ´s will, while retaining the concept of full humanity with full divinity. But this formula was also declared a heresy by the Greek representatives who dominated the 680 council. Rome (the western church often ironically blamed by Copts for their unfair branding as Monophysites) was outvoted at the council condemning Dioscoros.
Roman and Eastern Churches
The 680 council also reprimanded the See of Rome for its support of Monotheletism and its more moderate attitude toward Monophysitism. This was the first breach that finally led to a separation of Rome from the other Patriarchates in 1054.
After the Council of Chalcedon in 451 declared the monophysite doctrine to be heresy, several churches (called the Ancient Eastern Churches) formally separated from the churches opposed to Monophysitism, which came to call themselves Orthodox. These eastern churches all also trace their origins to the apostles. The Egyptian Coptic church and several Eastern churches associated with the early monophysite movement are now in fellowship (communion) with the Roman Catholic Church.
Discussions in this century indicate the current Coptic understandings are close to the Orthodox dual-nature concept of Christ, which is the same as that shared by the Roman and Protestant communions.
Eastern Orthodox Doctrine
Doctrine is based on the Bible, holy tradition, and the decrees of the first 7 Ecumenical Councils of the undivided church. The Nicene Creed is always recited in any service. They claim their doctrine has not changed since that time. Both faith and works are considered necessary for justification.
The Eastern Churches do not have as highly-developed doctrinal statements as Western churches, believing the purpose of doctrinal confession (creeds) is as an expression of faith in worship to God. These churches have a highly ritualized worship and the chief service on Sundays and holy days centers in the Holy Eucharist (Thanks), called by Protestant (Evangelical) churches the Lord´s Supper, or communion. Incense is very important.
The Roman Catholic Church has continued adding official doctrines, even in the 20th century. These accretions continue to be denounced by the Orthodox communion.
Beliefs and Practices
The Orthodox honor icons, (religious pictures, as guides for devotion), either painted or bas-relief. We see much gold and silver bas-relief in the Cypriot churches. The use of carved images is forbidden.
They have a strong belief in apostolic succession. Orthodox Churches have, however, been involved in the World Council of Churches from the beginning.
They reject the doctrine of Papal infallibility, promulgated by Rome in 1870. They have no doctrine of Mary´s immaculate conception, also a recent Roman Catholic doctrine.
Some commentators, both Orthodox and non-Orthodox, point out that there is a difference between the Roman Catholic and Orthodox attitudes in honoring Mary. The traditional term used most in Orthodoxy for Mary is the God-bearer (theotokos), an ancient term of honor. Some commentators indicate the Orthodox do not call her mother of God. However, this is the name appearing on the icons of Mary. Yet it is clear that the Orthodox do not consider Mary to be a co-redeemer with Christ.
They do revere "saints." Churches are often decorated with murals of events in the life of biblical or historical "saints." Churches are commonly named after "saints." Those designated in the New Testament as Apostles are commonly called by this title rather than Saint, though the title saint is also seen. Some are designated more specifically for different roles in the same person´s life. For instance the Apostle John is sometimes called St. John the Theologian, sometimes St. John the Evangelist.
They practice 7 sacraments: baptism, anointing, communion, penance, holy orders, marriage and holy unction. The latter is similar to Roman Last Rites, but is not always a last rite. Anointing is confirmation involving the anointing with oil, but it is now done immediately after baptism.
The oil of anonting, the chrisma, must be blessed by the archbishop. Originally the newly baptized were brought before the archbishop for the chrisma. In later centuries the chrisma was distributed for local administration.
They baptize either adults or children by triple immersion. A child might be a year old or older before being baptized.
The Orthodox have three levels of orders: deacons, priests and bishops. A married man may be ordained a deacon or priest, but may not marry later if ordained as single. Bishops are always chosen from the monastic communities. There is only one monastic rule (order) throughout Eastern Orthodoxy, that of St. Basil the Great.
Cyprus: Greek, Christian, Orthodox
The Church of Cyprus has been self-ruling (autocephalous) since about 478. The church is led by an archbishop and is not under the authority of another patriarch. The Cypriot Church is ranked 5th in eminence among the Orthodox family and has been prominent in Orthodox History, despite its small size.
In Cyprus, as in Greece, to be Greek is to be Christian. To be a Greek Christian is to be Eastern Orthodox. Greek culture is closely intertwined with the liturgical calendar. There are religious days all through the year, which are national holidays in Cyprus. Cypriots have trouble understanding how a person could be Cypriot and not be Orthodox. Life is hard for the Evangelical Greek Cypriot. Many legal functions and privileges in Cypriot and Greek citizenship are tied to Orthodox Church membership.
Yet in Cyprus there is a growing dissociation of the government from the church. People are becoming disenchanted with the Church as closed, power oriented and financially greedy. Many participate little in actual church services or events.
The Church, however, was the primary cultural or political identity for Greek Cypriots over about 300 years of rule by Muslim Turks (till 1879), and was the major force in organized political resistance against the Ottoman Turks, then finally leading to independence from the British in 1960.
The first elected President of independent Cyprus was Archbishop Makarios, leader of the Cypriot Church. This was the first time in history that Cyprus had ever been independent. It had always been part of some other political domain through recorded history.
Cyprus, Afrodite and the Holy Virgin
Cyprus: Notes and Perceptions
Orthodoxy and the Latin Church
Patriarch of Rome
Petros the Rock and the Rock of the Church
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This article first posted 21 June 2000
Last updated 5 May 2014
Orville Boyd Jenkins, EdD, PhD
Copyright © 2000, 2008 Orville Boyd Jenkins
Permission granted for free download and transmission for personal or educational use. Please give credit and link back. Other rights reserved.