(The Conversation) — 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, the head of the Russian Orthodox Church, supported the war, which he claimed in a sermon was a struggle to be defended”civilization” against the “sin” of “gay pride parades.”
As a scholar who passed several 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 approximately 1.34 billion Catholics, about 600 million Protestants and about 300 million Orthodox Christians around the world. Most Orthodox Christians live in Russia, Eastern Europe, the Caucasus and the Middle East.
Like the Roman Catholic Church, the Orthodox Church claims to be the one 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 “autocephalous” means “autonomous”.
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 the year 927in Serbia in 1346 and in Moscow in 1589. In the 19th and 20th centuries, as the Ottoman and Russian empires fell apart, new autocephalous churches formed in the new nations of Greece, Romania, Poland and Albania between 1850 and 1937.
Currently there is 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. While the Patriarch of Constantinople enjoys a primacy of honor, it 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 church structures. the Ukrainian Orthodox Church, which was only created in 2018, is autocephalous. the Ukrainian Orthodox Church – Moscow Patriarchate is under the spiritual authority of Patriarch Cyril of Moscow. The two Ukrainian churches to have severely 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 to excommunicate. 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 raised only in 1965. In 1980, the 14 Autocephalous Orthodox Churches and the Roman Catholic Church created the International Joint Commission for Theological Dialogue discuss the difficult issues that continue to divide them. These talks suffered a severe blow in 2018 when the Russian Orthodox Church suspended his participation to 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 holds 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 ordered by the bishops, direct the spiritual and ritual life of Orthodox Christians in the parishes. Unlike bishops, parish priests are usually married. While priests must be men and most deacons are men, some women have been ordained deaconesses because the early Christian period.
Orthodox spiritual life
The Orthodox spiritual life is centered on the sacraments, or “mysteries”, usually celebrated by the parish priest. The first sacrament, baptism, is a rite of initiation into Christian life.
More Orthodox Christians are baptized infants 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 parties: the offering, in which the priest and the deacon prepare the bread and the 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 alone. The liturgy must always be celebrated by a community of Christians. While a Catholic Church may have multiple Masses on Sundays, the Divine Orthodox Liturgy may be celebrated only once a day on a given altar.
Like the Catholics, Orthodox Christians regularly confess their sins to their priest in the Sacrament of Penance. Marriage, ordination and anointing of the sick with holy oil are also recognized as sacraments.
Icons and worship
Icons – consecrated images of holy persons or events – play an important role in the life of the Orthodox Church. The Orthodox churches are filled with these images, which believers honor with kisses and bows.
In Orthodox theology, the 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 suitable for icons.
(J. Eugene Clay is an associate professor of religious studies in the School of Historical, Philosophical and Religious Studies at Arizona State University. The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)