World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

You are here: Home / Church families / Orthodox churches (Oriental)

Orthodox churches (Oriental)

The Oriental Orthodox family is comprised of the Ethiopian, Coptic, Armenian, Syrian, Indian and Eritrean Churches. Historically they have been referred to as non- or anti- or pre-Chalcedonian, Monophysite, Ancient Oriental or Lesser Eastern. Presently the generally accepted name is Oriental Orthodox. The majority of the members of these churches live in Ethiopia, Egypt, Eritrea, Armenia, India, Syria and Lebanon. There are also large diaspora communities in parts of the Middle East, Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Australia. The Oriental Orthodox churches are ancient churches which were founded in apostolic times, by apostles or by the apostles' earliest disciples. Their doctrinal position is based on the teachings of the first three ecumenical councils (Nicea 325, Constantinople 381 and Ephesus 431). The Alexandrian school of thought has guided and shaped their theological reflection. The teachings of Saint Cyril the Great constitute the foundation of their Christology. They are firmly attached to the Cyrilian formula of "One nature of the Word Incarnate". Their theology is biblical, liturgical and patristic, and is embodied in mysticism and spirituality.

The Oriental Orthodox churches, along with those of the Byzantine tradition or Eastern Orthodox, belong to the larger family of the Orthodox churches. The two groups are not in communion with each other. The breach, which occurred in 451, marking the first ecclesial division in church history, was about the Christological teaching of the Council of Chalcedon. Through the centuries confrontation and estrangement, but also dialogue and rapprochement have characterized the relations between the Oriental and Eastern Orthodox churches. In 1985, after two decades of unofficial meetings, the two groups engaged in an official theological dialogue, which has resulted in Christological agreements. The main remaining question is the reception of the agreements in the churches.

The history and life of the Oriental Orthodox churches has been marked by ceaseless persecution and massacres under the Byzantine, Persian, Muslim and Ottoman powers. The sufferings have had a profound impact on their life, witness, theology and spirituality. Yet this life of the cross has not led them to become entirely isolated and introverted. In spite of their continuous suffering, these churches have sustained themselves through constant efforts of renewal. Under the imperative of new realities and the demands of changing times, they have been able to challenge the strong traditionalism and inward-looking estate that prevailed for some time, due to the historical circumstances. While ancient traditions still dominate, a fresh vitality and creativity are blowing in these churches, both in their motherlands and in the diaspora. They have significantly revived monastic life as a rich source of spirituality, evangelism and diakonia for clergy as well as laity, men and women. They have reorganized theological education. Sunday schools have become centres of intense activities. Youth movements and student associations have been created. Bible study seminars, courses for the Christian formation of laity, fasting and daily celebrations of saints are vivid expressions of deep spirituality and of evangelistic inreach and outreach, which nurture and build these communities of faith. They are churches of the people, without the dichotomy between institution and community. The whole people of God participate actively in the life and witness of the church.

In early centuries the Oriental Orthodox churches have played a pivotal role in the expansion of Christianity beyond the borders of the Byzantine empire. The Christian faith was taken from Alexandria down to Africa, from Armenia to the North, from Antioch to the Far East. In later centuries, because of changing political and religious conditions, the missionary activities have been carried on mainly in terms of building and sustaining their own community. In today's context of a globalized world, and of pluralistic societies, there is an increasing awareness on the part of the Oriental Orthodox churches of the need to renew the methodologies and forms of mission and evangelism.

Although the Oriental Orthodox churches have suffered from Western missionary efforts in the Christian East, both Catholic and Protestant, they have taken the ecumenical challenge seriously. They firmly believe that meeting together, praying together and entering into frank and critical dialogue with their ecumenical partners is the will of the Lord. The World Council of Churches is for them the most comprehensive instrument of the ecumenical movement, providing them with a global framework for close and meaningful relationships and cooperation with other churches.

After centuries of isolation from each other, the Oriental Orthodox churches finally met in 1965 in Addis Ababa. At this historic meeting the church heads reaffirmed their belonging to one faith. They took several decisions which, for many reasons, have not fully materialized. The challenge remains to give more visibility and tangible expression to the unity of faith of the Oriental Orthodox churches. Among the issues they need to address together are the influence of secularism, the resurgence of religious fundamentalism and the increasing migration of the faithful from the motherlands to other parts of the world. The Oriental Orthodox family does not have an organized institution. Since 1996 the heads of the three churches in the Middle East (Coptic, Armenian and Syrian) have put in place a framework for annual meetings at which they discuss common concerns and issues. Several working groups have been formed to assist the patriarchs with this process. Besides the dialogue with the Eastern Orthodox, the Oriental Orthodox as a family is also engaged in a theological dialogue with the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, the Catholic Church and the Anglican Communion. The Oriental Orthodox churches have much to share with other churches. They have preserved a strong sense of history and tradition. They can make a unique contribution through their monastic tradition, oriental spirituality, rich liturgy and mystical theology.

The Oriental Orthodox churches, which are all members of the World Council of Churches, represent some 60 million Christians.

See also the entry on Oriental Orthodox Churches from the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement.