“How many Orthodox churches are there?”
This question kept returning to me while I was converting to Orthodoxy.
And I would sometimes browse Google looking for a straight answer.
But, although I could find lots of search results, I still couldn’t find a simple answer to my question. And I thought was a simple question.
So I’ve written this blog post to provide a clear answer to this question for any newcomers to Eastern Orthodoxy.
There is one Orthodox church with 260 million members. It is composed of sixteen independent churches which affirm the Nicene Creed. These churches are tied to geographic areas. New churches are created when Orthodox communities form outside of the jurisdiction of the independent sixteen.
For example, one of the sixteen autocephalous churches is the Russian Orthodox Church.
When Russians leave their country and form a new Orthodox community, a local division of the Russian Orthodox Church is formed.
That local church then answers to the Russian Orthodox Church.
This is why a person living in North America might encounter people who actively attend the Russian Orthodox Church.
The leadership of the Orthodox church has an oligarchical structure. It lack an absolute leader, and many smaller churches follow the larger ones.
So, what are the main things to know about the Orthodox churches?
The Sixteen Churches
The Orthodox communion encompasses sixteen churches. Fourteen of these are autocephalous; they operate of their own accord. The other two are the Orthodox Church in America and the Orthodox Church of Ukraine.
These churches are:
The Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople
Each fo the fourteen autocephalous churches is equal in authority, but the Ecumenical Patriarch is the “first among equals”. This is a ceremonial recognition that does not bear with it real governing power; it is not like the papacy.
The patriarchate finds its base in Turkey. But Muslims fill the country of Turkey. The Muslim control of that country often creates challenges for the patriarchate’s activities.
As a rule, two faction dominate Turkey’s political landscape: Muslim Turks and Secular Turks. After the fall of the Ottoman Empire, the Turkish leader, Ataturk, tried to secularize Turkey. He did this because of his contempt for Islam. The man belonged to a group of people which the Muslims had treated as second-class Turks. So when he atteined power, he used it to avenge the wrongs brouught upon his people.
His followers did the same after his death.
The result of Ataturk’s efforts was to inspire the contempt of the devout Muslims in the region. And that group currently controls Turkey under Erdogan. The Muslims are attempting to bring Islam to its previous dominant position.
It is within this political climate that the Ecumenical Patriarch, Bartholomew I, finds himself. From here he leads the region’s Orthodox Christians into the uncertain future.
The Patriarchate of Alexandria
Mark the Evangelist founded this church. This is the same man who wrote the Gospel of Mark. His was the first Christian church in Africa.
During the first few centuries of its existence, the patriarchate was instrumental in overseeing the expansion of Christian theology because the Library fo Alexandria had made the area into a scholarly hub.
In 451, the first large schism in Christianity occurred within the patriarchate’s dominion, and the Coptic Orthodox Church split from the Alexandrian patriarchate on issues concerning the nature of Christ’s divinity.
Later, the Islamic invasions under Umar suppressed the Christian population of the region, and the Egyptian Christians would remain in this state for a long time.
In the modern age, massive backlash against Islam from Muslim heretics and Westernizers has allowed Christians in the region to enjoy some breathing room,a dn the patriarchate is growing freely.
The Patriarchate of Antioch
Peter and Paul founded this church. It was here that the followers of Christ were first called Christians (Acts 11:26). Much of the Book of Act takes place within this patriarchate’s lands.
The boundaries fo this patriarchate loosely conform to those areas of the Middle East which are between Turkey, Iran, Arabia, and the Mediterranean. The Church excludes Israel from this list.
The primary challenge faced by this patriarchate has usually been the dominance of Islam throughout the region. However, the rising secularism of the Muslim community is allowing the Christians here to practice more freely.
The Patriarchate of Jerusalem
This is the patriarchate which includes the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.
The Church of the Holy Sepulcher is the church containing the two holiest sites in Christianity: the location where Jesus was crucified and the tomb where he arose.
The fact that the Church of the Holy Sepulcher is part of the Eastern Orthodox Communion means that if the Orthodox are not real Christians, then Christ’s grave site is not controlled by real Christians.
Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, so the Muslim dominance in this region has been less harmful to the site than it has been to other Christian locations.
The Muslim kings did not permit their subjects to desecrate the tomb of a prophet.
The Russian Orthodox Church
Vikings founded Russia.
They entered the lands that would become Russia and conquered the Slavs living there.
Later, they converted to Orthodox Christianity.
This is their church.
The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest and most influential of the sixteen churches in the Orthodox Communion.
The current political climate of Russia is also favorable to its growth and expansion.
The Russian Orthodox Church is often seen as the de facto leader of the Orthodox churches. This is because of the power of the Russian antion and the awkward position of the Ecumenical Patriarch in Turkey.
The Serbian Orthodox Church
This is the Orthodox church of the Serbians (duh). Orthodox churches often have strong nationalist underpinnings, and the Serbian church is arguably the one with the greatest degree of national affiliation.
The Bulgarian Orthodox Church
The Bulgarian Church often find itself at odds with its Orthodox neighbors.
The church was founded when the Bulgars, originally nomads from the Eurasian steppe, invaded the lands on the periphery of the Eastern Roman Empire, settled there, and adopted Orthodox Christianity for diplomatic purposes.
Over time, they would sporadically raid their Orthodox neighbors. This continued until the Ottoman Empire arose and subjugated the Balkan region.
So the Bulgarians struggled against the Ottomans for a few hundred years until they had achieved their independence.
The Bulgarian church then maintained tolerable relations with the other Orthodox until they were declared heretical by the Patriarchate of Constantinople for attempting to subordinate Christian teachings to nationalist views.
So the Bulgarian church was deprived of its patriarchate for a time.
Later, the Bulgarian Church fell under Soviet rule, and many of it members worked as spies and collaborators for the state police.
After the fall of the USSR, the church has maintained tolerable relations with its Orthodox neighbors, although the Bulgarians maintain a reputation for their unpleasantness.
The Romanian Orthodox Church
The Romanian church is one of the younger on this list. The Orthodox founded it during the 19th century.
The main struggle the Romanian church has faced during its existence has been life under Communist rule. the Romanians were hit especially hard by the purges which occurred under Lenin and the atheist regime.
In the years that have passed after the fall of the USSR, the Romanians have been quite aggressive in restoring the authority of their church within their lands.
This aggressive recapture of Romania for Romanian Orthodoxy leads them into conflict with other Christians in the country.
The Georgian Orthodox Church
This is the church founded by the Apostle Andrew, whom Jesus called first.
The Church has existed as a trusted body within Georgia for nearly all of the country’s history.
The church often focuses on protecting the region’s independence from its more powerful neighbors.
S the Georgian people regard their church highly for its many years of struggle on the nation’s behalf.
The Church of Cyprus
The Church of Cyprus began as a division under the Patriarchate of Antioch.
It achieved independence early during Christianity’s history.
The island’s church claims authority over the grave site of Barnabas. He was the man who replaced Judas in the Book of Acts.
The Church of Greece
Orthodoxy is the prevalent religion in Greece, and the Greeks have often incorporated this fact into their government.
The Greek church usually enjoys state sponsorship. Therefore, it is much more politically active in Greece than are churches in other countries.
The Orthodox Church of Albania
The Orthodox founded this church in 1922. But the atheist state which came over it tried to destroy the church shortly afterward.
The destruction of the Albanian Orthodox Church would persist until 1991. At this point only 22 priests were left alive.
In the years that have followed the collapse of Communism, the church has been regenerating rapidly.
It has undertaken a large number of projects to expand its presence here.
Although it is lacking in manpower because of the region’s low population.
The Polish Orthodox Church
The Polish church was also ravaged by communism and is experiencing a revival. Interestingly, most of its members live outside of Poland. This is because Polish people tend to emigrate to wealthier European countries in pursuit of work, and they bring their religion with them.
The Orthodox Church of the Czech Lands and Slovakia
This is the newest Orthodox church to gain autocephalous status.
The church has existed in this area since *roughly* the 9th century, and gradually came to be a dominant cultural force in the area.
In the 20th century, Nazi Germany invaded the jurisdiction of the church, decimated the Orthodox population, and quashed church activity in the area. The Nazis saw Eastern Orthodoxy as the religion of the Slavs. And the same Nazis believed the Slavs to be an inferior race….Until Hitler changed his mind.
Soviet Russia would later attempt to assert its control over the church here.
But the Orthodox in this region were able to avoid the persecutions that the Orthodox further east endured. This is because they were at the far end of Russia’s control. They were able to avoid the gaze of the Kremlin.
The Orthodox Church in America
Russians colonized Alaska. They did so by traveling east to the Pacific Ocean, crossing the Bering Strait, and then traveling along the island chains off the Alaskan coast until they came southward into California.
they brought Eastern Orthodoxy with them.
Later, Orthodox Christians from other places would enter North America,a nd some would lose their national roots while keeping their religion.
And some North Americans without prior affiliation with the Orthodox Church would study Christianity and conclude that Eastern Orthodoxy was the right religion.
Other Americans would become disaffected by the hedonism of the modern world and find Orthodoxy as a solution to its wickedness.
And some Catholics who had become disillusioned with the Catholic Church would turn to Orthodoxy, which they viewed as uncorrupted Catholicism.
These groups would eventually begin to coalesce into an Orthodox community within North America and under the jurisdiction of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The Orthodox Church in America gained independence from its parent in 1963, and many of the other churches recognized its autocephalous status.
However, the Ecumenical Patriarchate in Constantinople did not.
The Ecumenical Patriarch argued that the Russian Orthodox Church did not have the authority to grant autocephalous status to the Orthodox church in America. This is because the church fell outside of the historical boundaries of the Roman Empire. Prior canons had set that only the Ecumenical PAtriarch could grant autocephaly to churches of that type.
The Russian church didn’t have the authority to give the American Orthodox Church independent status, so it technically didn’t count.
…And the Orthodox Church of Ukraine
This si the newest and most controversial entry on this list.
Orthodox Christians often interweave their national identity and their religion.
So when two nations of Orthodox Christians feud, the church is dragged into the feud, and theological issues arise.
And the Russians are the most important nation of Orthodox Christians. And all of Russia’s neighbors loathe them.
Especially the Ukrainians.
So in 2019, when years of bad diplomatic relations between the Russians and the Ukrainians came to a head, the Ukrainian church split from the Russian church with the support of the Ecumenical Patriarch and a few other churches.
The existence of this church is due solely on national animosities between the Russians and Ukrainians. And its recognition is driven by political positions of the parties involved.
Further Divisions of the Church
The regional churches are further divided into dioceses. These dioceses will contain any number of parishes and missions. Monastic communities and seminaries will also be found therein.
Potential Future Churches?
Muslims spent most of the last millenium oppressing Orthodox Christians in their ancestral lands.
And Communist atheists spent most of the 20th century suppressing the Orthodox as well.
And many Protestants have entered Orthodox lands in an attempt to convert Orthodox Christians to their various churches.
But now massive backlash against Islam, both inside and outside the Islamic World, is destroying the future of the religion, and Muslims are abandoning its demands for violent expansion
And the communists have exhausted themselves and destroyed their credibility.
And the Protestants have destroyed their credibility as well because they have divided their religion into 10,000 factions with contradictory teachings.
So three of the greatest opponents to Orthodoxy are dying out, and the Orthodox are enjoying a resurgence in power and influence.
So the Orthodox faithful will surely create new churches.
And the regions in which they are most likely to be are Australia/New Zealand and central Asia.
Australia and New Zealand already have comparatively large Orthodox populations, and the two countries are especially susceptible to America’s cultural influence.
As the population of Orthodox Christians in America grows, so too will those of Australia and New Zealand.
And in the central Asian countries, the Orthodox population is already relatively large because of their proximity ot Russia, and the peoples of this region are more secular that those within the rest of the Islamic World.