Oriental Orthodox Churches
The following article by Geevarghese Mar Osthathios is the entry on Oriental Orthodox Churches from the revised edition of the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement published jointly by the World Council of Churches and the Wm. Eerdmans in 2002.
The six Oriental Orthodox churches - Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Eritrean and (Indian) Malankara - are also called ancient Oriental, lesser Eastern, and pre- or ante-Chalcedonian churches. They are the churches of the first three ecumenical councils" (Nicea,* Constantinople* and Ephesus) but do not accept the fourth, Chalcedon" (451). The six churches are in communion"- with each other.
The Ethiopian, Coptic and Indian churches have been full members of the WCC since its inauguration in Amsterdam in 1948. The Syrian church joined at the New Delhi assembly (1961), and in Paris in 1962 the central committee admitted the Armenian church. Since the entry of Byzantine Orthodox churches at New Delhi, there have been a number of bilateral consultations between the Byzantine and Oriental churches which have brought them closer to each other, though communion has not yet been achieved (see Oriental Orthodox-Orthodox dialogue).
The statement of Nikos Nissiotis at New Delhi - that once there is a schism,* both parties are in schism - was objected to by conservative theologians, but it has paved the way for mutual respect in place of the ancient heresy-hunting, which was perhaps a necessary stage during the development of dogmas. Whenever the paradoxical mystery of Christology and the Trinity* could not be fully appreciated, rationalism erected walls that blocked wider communion. The Faith and Order* commission of the WCC paved the way for bilateral consultations between theologians of Byzantine and Oriental churches at Aarhus (1964), Bristol (1967), Geneva (1970) and Addis Ababa (1971).
The Coptic Orthodox Church traces its history back to St Mark the Evangelist, who founded the church in Egypt. The ancient Egyptian patriarchate of Alexandria represented one of the chief sees of the early church within the Roman empire. The Copts, descendants of the ancient Egyptians, preserved the Coptic language in their liturgy.* Through a long period of persecution since Byzantine times, the Coptic Orthodox Church tenaciously held fast to the "faith of the fathers". A chief strength was its continuing the great ascetic-monastic traditions that originated in the Egyptian deserts. The church has initiated considerable missionary work in other parts of Africa and has a significant diaspora* in North America, Europe, Australia and the Middle East.
The Syrian Orthodox Church, which traces its origins to A.D. 37, holds the traditions of St Peter's work. The church suffered severe persecution during the struggle against Hellenistic domination at the time of the council of Chalcedon and later through Mongol invasions and Turkish rule. The patriarchate had to be moved several times, finally being established in Damascus only in the 20th century. Syrian liturgical and theological life flourished until the 13th century but steadily declined afterwards. The monastic movement produced many universally acknowledged saints* and contributed enormously to the creation of a rich liturgical tradition. In 1665 the Antiochian church came into contact with the ancient church of St Thomas Christians in India, which led to the West Syrian liturgy being introduced to the Christians in South India. Though the Syrian church is vastly reduced in number because of Muslim domination, it has a considerable diaspora in the US, Australia and Europe.
The Armenian Apostolic Church traditionally attributes its beginning to the preaching of St Thaddeus and St Bartholomew. In 301 Armenia became the first nation to make Christianity its official religion. Victims of terrible persecution through the centuries, Armenian Christians heroically preserved their apostolic faith. The catholicos of All Armenians resides in Etchmiadzin, Armenia. There are three ecclesiastical centres within the church apart from Etchmiadzin: the catholicate of Cilicia (Antelias, Lebanon), the patriarchate of Jerusalem and the patriarchate of Constantinople. The Armenian church has a significant diaspora in all the continents. The Armenian national aspirations and the Armenian Orthodox faith are integrally interconnected.
The Ethiopian Orthodox Church traces its history back to apostolic times. Long under the tutelage of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian church declared autocephaly in 1950 and is now governed by its own patriarch in Addis Ababa. The church uses both the ancient language of Geez and modern Amharic in its liturgy. Influenced by a long tradition of monastic spirituality, this church has produced considerable religious literature and has its own iconographic tradition. It is now gradually moving beyond age-old social and economic structures to meet contemporary challenges.
The Eritrean Orthodox Church is also an autocephalous church, with a direct relationship to the Coptic Orthodox Church. Its first patriarch, Philipos I, was consecrated in 1998.
The Malankara (Indian) Orthodox Church has always cherished the tradition of St Thomas as the founding father of Christianity in India. The Indian church, now divided into Roman Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox families, has suffered from Western colonial missions. The church came into contact with the Syrian patriarchate of Antioch in 1665 and thus inherited the west Syrian liturgical and spiritual tradition. The Orthodox church in India declared itself autocephalous in 1912, though conflicts with the Syrian patriarchate continue. With two theological colleges, Kottayam and Nagapur, a mission training centre and many educational and charitable institutions, the church is fully involved in the life of the country. Besides the catholicos residing at Kottayam, Kerala, the church has 17 bishops and more than 1000 parishes. It has a diaspora in North America, Malaysia, Singapore and the Gulf countries.
Five of the Oriental churches have contributed leaders to the ecumenical movement: Aboon Theophilus, patriarch of Ethiopia, was one of the presidents of the WCC from Evanston to New Delhi; the late Armenian Catholicos Karekin (Sarkissian) was the vice-moderator of the central committee from Uppsala to Nairobi; the late Paulos Mar Gregorios of the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church (India) had been one of the presidents from Vancouver to Canberra and also moderator of the Sub-unit on Church and Society from Nairobi to Vancouver; Patriarch Shenouda and the late Bishop Samuel of the Coptic Church, Patriach Ignatius Zakka of the Syrian Church, and V.C. Samuel of the Malankara Church have done signal service for the ecumenical movement; Vasken, former catholicos of All Armenia, has hosted a number of ecumenical meetings in Holy Etchmiadzin.
The contributions have been greatest in the area of Faith and Order of the WCC.
- Aram I Keshishian, "The Oriental Orthodox Churches", ER, 46, 1, 1994
- H.E. Fey ed., A History of the Ecumenical Movement: The Ecumenical Advance, vol. 2: 1948-1968, London, SPCK, 1970, ch. 11 .
- R. Roberson, The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey, 6th ed., Rome, Orienrala Christiana, 1999
- AI The Star of the East, 4, 3, 1982
- S' Wort and Wahrheit, supplementary issues 1-4, 1972-78.