National and Ethnic Churches

OK, what’s with all these national and ethnic churches around the world and here in the West?

In brief, the Orthodox Church opposes having a strong central command entity like the Catholic Church has. Instead, the Orthodox Church is comprised of 15 commonly-recognized self-governing national or multinational Churches, each theologically equal to all the others. It’s not altogether unlike the national Churches of the worldwide Anglican Communion. (There’s an order of honorary seniority among Orthodox Churches, but we don’t need to go into that really.)

  • The Church of Constantinople (Istanbul) covers most of Turkey, and eastern Greece. Also referred to as the Ecumenical Patriarchate, an honorific going back to the first millennium.
  • The Church of Alexandria (Egypt) covers all of Africa.
  • The Church of Antioch (now based at Damascus) covers Syria, Lebanon, bordering areas of Turkey, Iraq, and Kuwait.
  • The Church of Jerusalem covers Palestine, Israel, Jordan, and the Arabian Peninsula.
  • The Church of Russia covers most of the former Soviet Union.
  • The Church of Serbia covers the former Yugoslavia.
  • The Church of Greece (based at Athens) covers western Greece.
  • The Churches of Georgia (Caucasus), Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, and Albania, cover their respective countries.

That brings us to North America, and by extension, the rest of the West. For the most part, ecclesiatical jurisdiction here is disputed. There is an entity called The Orthodox Church in America (OCA) that covers the U.S., Canada, and Mexico…but not alone. Also with Western dioceses are the Churches of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, and Poland. If a parish you’re looking at belongs to any of these, it’s commonly recognized as legitimate Orthodox (in the jargon, “canonical”).

What does that mean? Well, it’s like this. A priest, during Divine Liturgy, commemorates his Bishop. A diocesan Bishop commemorates his regional primate, an Archbishop or Metropolitan. If they belong to a Patriarchate, they commemorate their Patriarch. Finally, a top Bishop or Patriarch commemorates all the other top Bishops or Patriarchs by reading a list called the Diptychs. (Remember, there’s only 14 or 15 names, and I’ve heard it done quite quickly: Bartholomewofconstantinopletheodoreofalexandria ignatiusofantiochirenaiosofjerusalem…!) This is the chain that links the “canonical” Orthodox Church worldwide.

(BTW, although not all Churches list the OCA Metropolitan in their Diptychs, all acknowledge them as “canonical.” I think they just consider them as continuing under the Russian Patriarchate or something.)

Moving towards rejoining that chain via the Church of Russia is the Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR), with parishes throughout the West (mostly).

BTW, at this time the churches called Oriental Orthodox, Non-Chalcedonian, or Monophysite, are not considered part of the Orthodox Church, but they’re said to be fairly close in theological dialogue. This includes the Armenian, Coptic, Syriac/Jacobite, Ethiopian, Eritrean, and Malankara/Indian churches.

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