The Orthodox Church
The word “Orthodox” can be translated as “right glory” or “right belief” – and both translations are necessary to understand what the Orthodox Church is. The Orthodox Church claims to have maintained the right belief or teaching that Jesus Christ gave to His Apostles, and which the Apostles then handed on to their successors. The Orthodox Church also claims to rightly glorify God by giving Him the praise and honor due Him, and by worshipping through the grace of the Holy Spirit according to the principles given to Christ’s church by God.
Many people have heard of the Orthodox Church, but they may not understand very much about it. Describing yourself as an Orthodox Christian may get you a blank stare until you use one of the many ethnic modifiers – “Greek” or “Russian” Orthodox, for example. Then, the response may be, “Oh, I’ve heard of you! You people have a different Easter and eat a lot of lamb.” Many people may be vaguely aware that the Orthodox faith is the Christian faith practiced in < s t 1 : c o u n t r y-region>Russia and < s t 1 : c o u n t r y-region>Greece -- they may even realize that it is also practiced in the Middle East.
Most people would be surprised to learn that in membership or numbers, the Orthodox Church is the second largest Christian group in the world, exceeded in size only by the Roman Catholic Church. The Orthodox Church membership numbers range anywhere from 80 million to 250 million, depending upon how many “baptized, but inactive” members are counted. Since most people who are aware of the Orthodox Church consider it to be an “Eastern Church” (with most of its membership in Eastern Europe or the Mediterranean), they might be surprised to learn that there are as many as six million Orthodox believers in North America. In the United States, for example, there are far more Orthodox Christians than Episcopalians. Most, although not all, of the United States Orthodox Christians are immigrants or descendants of immigrants. Many, who believe they have “found the true faith,” are converts to the Orthodox Faith.
Western Rite Orthodoxy is a term used to describe the way in which some Orthodox Christians worship in churches that are Orthodox by doctrine, but Western in culture. The word “rite” means the forms, words, and actions that are used in worship – in other words, the way in which a worship service is put together and expressed. Rite is often a reflection of the culture within which a service, or ceremony, develops. The way people dress, sing music, and write poetry with a particular culture will affect the way worship appears and is experienced among those people. Most Orthodox Christians in the world today worship according to the “Eastern Rite,” because their churches have their roots in those “eastern” cultures that people see in movies like “Zorba the Greek” or “My Big Fat Greek Wedding.”
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The Orthodox Church is actually a family of independent churches, united in faith and sacraments. Each independent church is autocephalous; which means “self-governing.” There is no single bishop who rules over the entire Orthodox world, as there is in the Roman Catholic Church. Orthodox “oneness” is sacramental, rather than administrative. In the Orthodox Church, the head, or bishop, of one church has no authority to interfere in the affairs of another bishop’s church.
The four most ancient churches of the Orthodox Church family are: < / SPAN>Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Constantinople. (Until the eleventh century, the Roman Church was part of this Orthodox family.) The heads of these churches are called “Patriarchs,” which is a biblical term meaning “Father.” Each Patriarch is considered the equal of the others, although the Patriarch of Constantinople (contemporary Istanbul, < st1:country-region>Turkey) is considered the “first among equals.” This honor is given to Constantinople because it was the seat of the ancient Byzantine empire, and implies honor among equals, not authority over the other churches.