President Vladimir Putin’s decision to attack Ukraine has divided the Orthodox Church.
Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople, a leading authority in the Eastern Orthodox Church, was quick to condemn “the unprovoked invasion of Ukraine”.
In contrast, Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, head of the Russian Orthodox Church, supported the war, which he said in a sermon was a struggle to defend “human civilization” against the “sin” of the “parades of the gay pride”.
As a scholar who has spent decades studying religion in Russia, I follow the debates within the Orthodox Church very closely. To better understand the current conflict, it is useful to know more about the structure and history of Orthodox Christianity.
What is the Orthodox Church?
Orthodoxy is the smallest of the three major branches of Christianity, which also includes Catholicism and Protestantism. There are about 1.34 billion Catholics, about 600 million Protestants and about 300 million Orthodox Christians in the world. Most Orthodox Christians live in Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
The word “Orthodox” means both “right belief” and “right worship,” and Orthodox Christians insist on the universal truth of their doctrine and practice.
Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church claims to be the only true church established by Christ and his apostles.
Structure of the Orthodox Church
Unlike the Roman Catholic Church, which is headed by the Pope, the worldwide Orthodox Church does not have a single spiritual leader. Instead, the worldwide Orthodox communion is divided into autocephalous churches. Formed from two Greek roots, the word “autocephalus” means “autocephalous”.
Autocephalous churches are completely independent and autonomous. Each Autocephalous Orthodox Church has its own head, a bishop who presides over the territory of his church. Some, but not all, of these presiding bishops bear the title of patriarch.
The number of autocephalous churches has varied over time. The four oldest patriarchates – Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem – were important religious and political centers of the Byzantine Empire. When Orthodox missionaries brought their faith to other countries, patriarchates were established in Bulgaria in 927, in Serbia in 1346, and in Moscow in 1589. In the 19th and 20th centuries, as the Ottoman and Russian empires were falling apart, new autocephalous churches were created. formed in the new nations of Greece, Romania, Poland and Albania, between 1850 and 1937.
Currently, there are 14 Autocephalous Orthodox Churches which are universally recognized in the worldwide Orthodox community. All these autocephalous churches share the same faith and the same sacraments.
Among the 14 churches, the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople is considered first among equals. If the patriarch of Constantinople enjoys a primacy of honor, he has no direct authority over the other churches.
The Russian Orthodox Church, with over 90 million members, is by far the largest. The Romanian Orthodox Church has the second largest number of believers, with around 16 million.
In Ukraine, Orthodox believers are divided between two competing ecclesiastical structures. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was only established in 2018, is autocephalous. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Patriarchate of Moscow is placed under the spiritual authority of Patriarch Cyril of Moscow. Both Ukrainian churches strongly condemned Russia’s unprovoked war against Ukraine.
The Great Schism of 1054
Until the 11th century, the Orthodox Churches recognized the Roman Catholic Church as one of the autocephalous Orthodox Churches. In 1054, however, differences in theology, practice, and church government led the pope and patriarch of Constantinople to excommunicate themselves. In particular, the pope claimed to have authority over all Christians, not just the Christians of his autocephalous church. The Orthodox Church has rejected this claim.
These mutual excommunications were not lifted until 1965. In 1980, the 14 Autocephalous Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church established the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue to discuss difficult issues that continue to divide them. These talks suffered a blow in 2018 when the Russian Orthodox Church suspended its participation in protest against the creation of a new autocephalous church in Ukraine.
The Orthodox clergy
The Orthodox Church is hierarchical. Spiritual authority is vested in an ordained clergy made up of bishops, priests and deacons.
Like the Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church adheres to the doctrine of apostolic succession. According to this doctrine, the Orthodox bishops, who govern the territory of a diocese, are the direct and historic successors of the apostles. Bishops are exclusively male. They must also be monks and must observe a vow of celibacy.
Priests and deacons, who are ordained by bishops, lead the spiritual and ritual life of Orthodox Christians in parishes. Unlike bishops, parish priests are usually married. While priests must be male and most deacons are male, some women have been ordained deaconesses since the early Christian period.
Orthodox spiritual life
Orthodox spiritual life is centered on the sacraments, or “mysteries”, generally celebrated by the parish priest. The first sacrament, baptism, is a rite of initiation into Christian life.
Most Orthodox Christians are baptized at a young age by triple immersion in holy water.
Immediately, a baptized child also receives two other sacraments. The priest anoints the child with chrism, a special oil prepared by bishops during Holy Week. The priest also gives the baby Communion, the consecrated bread and wine that have become mystically the body and blood of Christ.
Like Catholics and most Protestants, Orthodox Christians regularly celebrate the Eucharist. This central sacrament of the Orthodox Church is known as the Divine Liturgy.
Celebrated every Sunday, the Divine Liturgy has three parts: the offering, in which the priest and deacon prepare bread and wine; the gathering, which includes the reading of Scripture; and thanksgiving, in which bread and wine are consecrated and given to the faithful. Much of the liturgy is sung or chanted.
Unlike the Catholic Mass, the Divine Liturgy can never be celebrated by a single priest. The liturgy must always be celebrated by a community of Christians. While a Catholic Church may have multiple Masses on Sundays, the Orthodox Divine Liturgy can only be celebrated once a day at any given altar.
Like Catholics, Orthodox Christians regularly confess their sins to their priest in the Sacrament of Penance. Marriage, ordination and the anointing of the sick with holy oil are also recognized as sacraments.
Icons and worship
Icons – consecrated images of people or holy events – play an important role in the life of the Orthodox Church. Orthodox churches are filled with these images, which believers honor with kisses and bows.
In Orthodox theology, icons testify to the doctrine that God became man in Christ. Because he was human, he could be represented artistically. Likewise, saints, who are believed to be filled with the spirit of Christ, can be depicted and venerated in icons.
Orthodox theologians carefully distinguish between worship, which is offered to God alone, and veneration, which is appropriate for icons.
Orthodox Christians form a growing worldwide community. After the fall of communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, the Orthodox churches in these countries grew in number and political influence.