The Orthodox Church: A History
adapted from Fr. Thomas Fitzgerald’s series Treasures of Orthodoxy
The Church has her origin with Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit, not with a human teacher, or group, nor a code of conduct or religious philosophy. Orthodoxy believes that the Church has her origin in the Apostolic Community called into being by Jesus Christ, and enlivened by the Holy Spirit. The Feast of Pentecost, which is celebrated fifty days after Easter, commemorates the “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit upon the Apostles and marks the beginning of the mission of the Church to the world. The Orthodox Church believes that she has maintained a direct and unbroken continuity of love, faith, and order with the Church of Christ born in the Pentecost experience.
THE TIME OF PERSECUTION
While the early Church received many converts from Judaism and the pagan religions, the world in which the Gospel was proclaimed was, in the words of St. Paul, “heartless and ruthless.” With only a few intervals of peace, the Church was persecuted throughout the Empire for nearly three hundred years. The faith and love expressed by the Christians were viewed as a threat to the religion and political policies of the Empire. Thousands upon thousands of Christians were martyred.
THE TIME OF GROWTH
The fundamental doctrines of the Church were proclaimed and defended by the Seven Ecumenical Councils. These Synods, which are known by the names of the cities in which they were convened, included Bishops from throughout the world, who came to affirm the authentic teachings on the Incarnation and the Holy Trinity. The Councils did not create new doctrines, but in a particular place and time, they proclaimed what the Church always believed and taught. The counciliar and collegial expression of Church life and authority which was manifest at the Ecumenical Councils and other synods of the early Church continue to be an important aspect of Orthodox Christianity.
The Ecumenical Councils also sanctioned the organization of the Church about the five great ecclesiastical centers of Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. The Archbishops of these cities came to be known as Patriarchs. They presided over the synod of bishops in a particular area. Since the early Church was not monolithic, each center had its own theological style, customs, and liturgical traditions. Yet, all shared in the unity of the faith.
THE GREAT SCHISM
Although it is difficult to date the exact year of the schism, in the year 1054 official charges, known as Anathamas, were exchanged. The Crusades, and especially the sack of the city of Constantinople by the western crusaders in 1204, can be considered the final element in the process of estrangement and deepening mistrust.
From that period onward, the Western Church, centered about the Pope of Rome, and the Eastern Church, centered about the Patriarchs of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem, went their separate ways. Although there were attempts to restore communion in the years 1274 and 1439, there was no lasting unity achieved. While political, cultural, and emotional factors have always been involved, the Orthodox Church believes that the two principal reasons for the continued schism are the papal claims of universal jurisdiction and infallibility, as well as the meaning of the Filioque.
For nearly 500 years the two traditions lived in formal isolation from each other. Only since the early 1960’s have steps been taken to restore the broken unity. Most significant has been the mutual lifting of the Anathamas of 1054 by the late Patriarch Athenagoras of Constantinople and Pope Paul VI in 1965.
TIME OF STRUGGLE
After the decline of Byzantium, the Church in Russia thrived for nearly 500 years. However, with the Bolshevik revolution of 1917, Orthodoxy found itself confronted with the beliefs and political policies of militant atheists. Most churches were closed; and a policy was inaugurated to eliminate Christianity from Russia, a land which was steeped in Orthodoxy since the tenth century. In the years between the two World Wars, Orthodox Christians in Russia suffered much cruel and devastating persecution. Only recently has there been modifications in government policy which have permitted the Church some degree of existence.
Today, in many of the lands which were once the pride and glory of Eastern Christendom, the Orthodox Church struggles amid great obstacles and persecution. It has been observed that in recent centuries there have been more martyrs than during the great persecutions of the early Church. Yet, despite injustices and indignities, the Faith survives.
TIME OF RENEWAL AND RECONCILIATION