When the Christian community — the church — began to grow from its origins in Jerusalem, it spread throughout the Roman Empire and beyond. The westward expansion of the church in the Roman Empire is better known through the New Testament writings.
Christianity thrived in three great urban centers of the empire: Rome, Alexandria and Antioch. After the foundation of a new Christian capital, Constantinopleook a prominent place among them.
The four Christian centers or patriarchates of the Eastern Roman Empire, and the daughter churches that sprang or separated from them, are usually described as Orthodox churches — although the title reflects a later period of history when these churches sought to distinguish themselves from Rome.
Many of them share the same liturgy, customs and traditions; others, different but similar ones.
The ancient Eastern patriarchates. Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem are “autocephalous” or independent churches, each headed by a patriarch.
Daughter churches of Constantinople. Over the centuries, the Patriarchate of Constantinople constituted or recognized the independence of other churches.
Five are headed by a patriarch: the Russian, Serbian, Romanian, Bulgarian and Georgian churches. Five others are headed by an archbishop or metropolitan: the Cypriot, Greek, Polish, Albanian and Czech-Slovak churches.
The churches of Finland and Estonia are autonomous but not independent.
Five other churches in North America and one in Europe are under Constantinople.
Daughter church of Jerusalem. The monastery of Mount Sinai is autonomous.
Daughter churches of Moscow. The Patriarchate of Moscow constituted the Orthodox Church in America as autocephalous and granted autonomy to churches in Japan and China.
Oriental churches. At the 451 Council of Chalcedon, three churches separated from communion with the others while retaining it themselves. They and their descendants constitute the Oriental Orthodox churches.
Ancient Armenia was a nation situated on the fringe of the Roman Empire. Its autonomous church was until Chalcedon in communion with the others.
The Coptic (Egyptian) church gradually departed from the usages of ancient Alexandria finally becoming autonomous under its own patriarch. A similar process was repeated in modern times when the Ethiopian church separated the Coptic and, in turn, the Eritrean from the Ethiopian.
The Syriac church similarly separated from the Antiochene and, in turn, part of the Malankara (Indian) from the Syriac.
Other churches. Four or five small churches, mostly in Eastern Europe, are in varying degrees of separation from the rest of the Orthodox world.
All these churches take pride in their “Orthodoxy” — their fidelity to authentic doctrine. Their faithful witness is part of the precious patrimony of the one Church of Christ.
Msgr. Archimandrite Robert L. Stern