The Eastern Christian Churches by Ronald Roberson


Many western Christians are baffled by the complexity of the Christian East, which can appear to be a bewildering array of national churches and ethnic jurisdictions. The purpose of this survey is to provide a clear overview of the eastern churches for the non-specialist by furnishing basic information about each of them and indicating the relationships among them. Each church is placed in its historical, geographical, doctrinal, and liturgical context. Because this book is primarily intended for an English-speaking audience, details are also provided regarding the presence of each of these churches in North America, Britain, and Australia.

The principle used in this book for the classification of churches is communion. That is, it describes groups of churches that are in full communion with one another, rather than categorizing them according to other criteria such as liturgical tradition.

This approach yields four distinct eastern Christian communions: (1) the Assyrian Church of the East, which is not in communion with any other church; (2) the six Oriental Orthodox churches, which, even if each one is independent, are in full communion with one another; (3) the Orthodox Church, which is a communion of national or regional churches, all of which recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople as a point of unity enjoying certain rights and privileges; and (4) the Eastern Catholic churches, all of which are in communion with the Church of Rome and its bishop.

The only exception I have made to the principle of communion for the classification of churches is the Orthodox Churches of Irregular Status. They have been included as a subcategory of the Orthodox Church, but they are not in full communion with it. All of them are of Orthodox origin, but today the Orthodox view them as at least uncanonical if not fully schismatic.

I have endeavored in this book to present these churches as they are, and to describe disputed matters without judgment. For instance, the order in which the autocephalous Orthodox churches should be listed presents a problem because the Orthodox are not in unanimous agreement among themselves as to the precedence of their churches after the four ancient patriarchates. I have listed them in the order recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and most other Orthodox churches. The four ancient patriarchates are followed by the five patriarchates of more recent origin, and then by the other autocephalous churches that do not have the rank of patriarchate.

A word needs to be said also about the status of the Orthodox Church in America (the OCA), which I have included among the autocephalous Orthodox churches. In doing this I am aware that Constantinople and most other Orthodox churches do not recognize the OCA as autocephalous. This is why it is not allowed to take part in such pan-Orthodox activities as international dialogues with other Christian churches. Nevertheless, it functions as an autocephalous church, and its inclusion in the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the Americas indicates that it has achieved a certain level of legitimacy among other Orthodox churches in the United States. It seemed appropriate to include this church among the autocephalous Orthodox churches, along with a description of the controversy about its status. It is not my intention to take a position on the problem, but only to describe it.

The membership statistics provided in this book must be treated with great caution since many eastern churches exist in areas where no census regarding religious affiliation has been taken, or where the true size of church membership could have political implications. In each case I have consulted a number of sources and made my own judgment concerning an approximate membership figure. There were two sources I consulted most frequently. The first is the Second Edition of The World Christian Encyclopedia, D. Barrett, G. Kurian and T. Johnson, eds., Oxford University Press, 2001. The second is the series of International Religious Freedom Reports that were released by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor of the State Department of the United States in September 2006. Each of these country reports contains a section on religious demography based on information the local US Embassy was able to gather about the size of each religious community. For the most part the membership figures in this book report the number of persons who self-identify as a member of a particular church, a number that is much higher than those who regularly participate in liturgical services.

In the case of the Eastern Catholic churches, I have taken figures exclusively from the 2007 Annuario Pontificio, the annual yearbook of the Vatican. It provides official membership statistics for every Catholic jurisdiction. I have added up the membership figures of all the jurisdictions of each Eastern Catholic Church and rounded off the sum to the next highest thousand. It should be kept in mind that these figures will be lower than the real membership of churches that have a significant presence in areas outside their land of origin. This is because the statistics do not include faithful of those churches that, lacking sufficient numbers to have an ecclesial structure, come under the jurisdiction of the local Latin bishops.

Given the large amount of information that is now available on the internet, this edition also includes the addresses of official web sites maintained by the various churches. I have not included web sites of local jurisdictions, but these can often be found as links on the pages of the mother churches. A useful list of official Orthodox web site and e-mail addresses can be found on the site of the Orthodox Church of America at

In a departure from earlier editions of this book, three appendices to this seventh edition include brief descriptions of the ecumenical dialogues that the Catholic Church has with the Orthodox Church, the Oriental Orthodox Churches and the Assyrian Church of the East. Because of their importance as official texts of the churches involved, I thought it would be useful also to include the Common Declarations that have been signed by the heads of the churches in recent decades.

Any constructive comments that readers may wish to make on this text are welcomed, as well as updated information that could be considered for inclusion in subsequent editions of this book. Letters can be addressed to the author at St. Paul’s College, 3015 Fourth Street NE, Washington, DC 20017 USA.

An extremely varied and complex history is covered in this work, and I have striven to present it as clearly as possible. I have done my best to remain objective and fair in treating what at times are tragic and painful situations in the history of these churches and the relationships between them. I hope that this survey will in some small way help western Christians to understand more about our sisters and brothers in the East, so that one day the Church might learn – using the image that was often evoked by Pope John Paul II – to again breathe fully with two lungs, one eastern and one western.

Last Modified: 01 February 2024

Get to know us and stay informed about the impact your support makes.

Nous constatons que votre préférence linguistique est le français.
Voudriez-vous être redirigé sur notre site de langue française?

Oui! Je veux y accéder.

Hemos notado que su idioma preferido es español. ¿Le gustaría ver la página de Asociación Católica para el Bienestar del Cercano Oriente en español?

Vee página en español