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The Greek (Eastern) Orthodox Church and The Greek Orthodox Archdiocese Of America

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Rev. Alciviadis C. Calivas, Th.D.


What's in our name?

Our name, or rather, our names tell a great deal about us. Many names have been used throughout the centuries to describe our Church and its over 250 million adherents. "Greek, "Eastern', "Orthodox", "One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic" are all appropriate designations of the Church.

Our Church is called the "Greek Church" because Greek was the first language of the ancient Christian Church from which our Faith was transmitted. The New Testament was written in Greek and the early writings of Christ's followers were in the Greek language. The word "Greek" is not used to describe just the Orthodox Christian peoples of Greece and other Greek speaking people. Rather, it is used to describe the Christians who originated from the Greek speaking early Christian Church which used Greek thought to find appropriate expressions of the Orthodox Faith .

"Orthodox" is also used to describe our Church. The word "Orthodox" is derived from two short Greek words orthos meaning "correct" and doxa meaning "belief" or "glory". Thus, we used the word "Orthodox'' to indicate our conviction that we believe and worship God correctly. We emphasize Apostolic tradition, continuity and conservatism over a 2,000 year history.

Our Church is also spoken of as the "Eastern Church" to distinguish it from the Churches of the West. "Eastern" is used to indicate that in the first millennium the influence of our Church was concentrated in the eastern part of the Christian world and to show that a very large number of our membership is of other than Greek national origin. Thus, Orthodox Christians throughout the world use various ethnic or national titles: "Greek", "Russian", "Serbian", "Romanian", "Ukrainian", "Bulgarian", "Antiochian", "Albanian", "Carpatho-Russian", or more inclusively, as "Eastern Orthodox".

In the Nicene Creed of faith, our Church is described as the "One, Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church." "One" because there can only be one true Church with one head Who is Christ. "Holy" because the church seeks to sanctify and transfigure its members through the Sacraments. "Catholic" because the Church is universal and has members in all parts of the world. The word "Catholic" comes from a Greek word "Katholikos" (kath-oh-lee-KOHS) which means world-wide or universal. '"Apostolic" because its teachings are based on the foundations laid by the Apostles from whom our Church derives its teachings and authority without break or change.

Each of these titles is limiting in some respects, since it defines Christians belonging to particular historical or regional Churches of the Orthodox communion. Orthodox Christianity is not limited to the East, however, either in terms of its own self-definition or in geographical location. There are many Orthodox Christians who live in the West, and are rapidly becoming integrally related to its spiritual, intellectual and cultural life.

Our origins and development: to know us is to understand our history

Christianity originated in Palestine, spread rapidly throughout the Mediterranean basin, and by the end of the fourth century was recognized as the official religion of the late Roman or Byzantine Empire. Seen in the context of its historical milieu it was a unified religious movement, although diverse in many respects. It was extremely vital and dynamic in its historic development.

Orthodox Catholic Christianity remained essentially undivided. Its five major administrative centers were located in Rome, Constantinople (present-day Istanbul), Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The articulation of Christian doctrine and order was achieved through the great Ecumenical Councils, the first of which was convened in AD 325. At these Councils, all leaders and centers of Christianity were represented and shared in the deliberations.

The first great schism or separation took place in the fifth and sixth centuries, chiefly over the understanding of the person of Christ. Certain ancient and venerable Eastern Churches are quite similar to the Orthodox Church in ethos, lifestyle, and worship. They are of two types, one called the Nestorian or Assyrian Church of the East, and the other much larger grouping called Pre-Chalcedonian because of its non-acceptance of the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451). The non-Chalcedonian Churches include the Coptic Church of Egypt, the Ethiopian Church, the Armenian Apostolic Church, the Church of St. Thomas in India, and the Jacobite Syrian Church of Antioch. Altogether they claim approximately 22 million faithful.

The Christian religion was the principal influence in the Byzantine Empire, shaping its culture, laws, art, architecture and intellectual life. The harmony between the civic and ecclesiastical spheres, Emperor and Church, was rarely broken so as to present a truly unified Christian Empire, a Christian ecumene. This symphonic relationship of faith and culture is a distinctive legacy of the Orthodox Church which was later transmitted to the slavic peoples of Eastern Europe and Russia.

After the seventh Ecumenical Council in AD 787, the basic unity of faith and ecclesiastical life between East and West began to disintegrate, due to a variety of theological, jurisdictional, cultural and political differences. This eventually led to the Great Schism between East and West of AD 1054. This unfortunate division was aggravated to the point of a complete break in communication between the Orthodox and the Roman Catholic Church. Centuries later the protests against Rome in Western Europe gave rise to the Protestant Reformation. In our day the non-Chalcedonian Oriental Churches, the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church and the many Protestant Churches and groups comprise the wide spectrum of Christendom.

After the Great Schism Orthodox Christianity continued to develop apart from Western Christianity. Tenaciously conservative, relying on its dynamic concept of Tradition, it preserves the classical forms of Christian life and dogma to this very day. It is very much a "popular" Church, closely identified with the national life and aspirations of its people. In traditional Orthodox lands it is difficult to separate religious and secular life, since they are one in the minds of the people. Orthodoxy has absorbed, and in some cases even shaped, the cultural traditions of many nations, chiefly in the Near East, the Balkans and Greece, Eastern Europe and Russia. It is, for many of these nations, the national religion. In other lands, of course, it is a tiny minority group. In fact, large numbers of Orthodox Christians today live in officially atheistic or secularized socialist republics and witness to their faith under conditions of active persecution and intolerance. They are true martyrs for the faith.

The Orthodox Church today

The Orthodox Church today is a communion of self governing Churches, each administratively independent of the other, but united by a common faith and spirituality. Their underlying unity is based on identity of doctrines, sacramental life and worship, which distinguishes Orthodox Christianity. All recognize the spiritual pre-eminence of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople who is acknowledged as primus inter pares, first among equals. All share full communion with one another. The living tradition of the Church and the principles of concord and harmony are expressed through the common mind of the universal episcopate as the need arises. In all other matters, the internal life of each independent Church is administered by the bishops of that particular Church. Following the ancient principle of the one people of God in each place and the universal priesthood of all believers, the laity share equally in the responsibility for the preservation and propagation of the Christian faith and Church.

In addition to the four ancient Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem with their several geographic and ecclesiastical subdivisions, there are also many independent or autocephalous Orthodox Christian Churches. These include the Churches of Russia, Romania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Greece, Georgia, Cyprus, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland, Albania and Sinai. Smaller autonomous Orthodox Churches and missions can be found on every continent throughout the world.

The Christian life

The life of an individual Christian is understood in the context of the community of the faithful. Each person is called to live the godly life and to advance in spiritual and moral growth into the fullness of the Divine Life itself, by grace.

Salvation is seen as a process begun at Baptism and continuing until death. The Commandments and the express Will of God are the criteria for ethical conduct and spiritual elevation. The aim of Christian piety is union with God, and our cooperation with Divine Grace is necessary to this union. The struggle and the effort to live in God involves a constant ascent, away from the temptations and ambiguities of a sinful and distorted human condition to the eternal glory of the Kingdom of God. This possibility is given to everyone in Jesus Christ and His Church. It is a daily mystical and ascetical effort of obedience and faith in cooperation with divine grace.

Tradition: The key to our self understanding

Orthodoxy holds that the eternal truths of God's saving revelation in Jesus Christ are preserved in the living Tradition of the Church under the guidance and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Scriptures are at the heart of the Tradition and the touchstone of the faith. While the Bible is the written testimony of God's revelation, Holy Tradition is the all-encompassing experience of the faithful Church under the abiding guidance and direction of the Holy Spirit. Essentially, Orthodox Christians consider that their beliefs are very similar to those of other Christian traditions, but that the balance and integrity of the entire Apostolic faith once delivered to the Saints has been preserved inviolate in the Orthodox Church. This self-understanding of Orthodoxy has not prevented it from participating actively in the Ecumenical movement. There is full cooperation in the many efforts to affirm the Biblical and Apostolic testimony which alone provide the firm foundation for the unity of Christians in the one Church.

The Nicene Creed: The Faith of Orthodoxy

The Orthodox Church is profoundly biblical and patristic. Its essential credal formulation is the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed which was universally promulgated during the Second Ecumenical Council (AD 381). It is a brief, essential summary of the saving truths of Christianity, proclaiming in doxological form the mystery of God's love and activity for mankind. The Nicene Creed contains the standards of the Christian faith, and is considered a guide for understanding the Bible. This Creed is the authoritative and official statement of faith and the infallible criterion of true Orthodoxy. It proclaims one God in three Persons - Father, Son and Holy Spirit; the one, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church; one Baptism for the remission of sins; the Resurrection of the dead; and life eternal.

We know God in Trinity through His energies and actions for us in sacred history, first through the Jewish people and finally in His Son Jesus Christ and His mystical Body, the Church. The Christian Church is founded on the faith of the Holy Apostles and is led and sanctified by the abiding Holy Spirit. It is the "Body of Christ", the community of the faithful people of God. It is the historical locus of the inaugurated Kingdom of God which will find its ultimate fulfillment in God at the end of time.

God's Revelation in worship: The Beauty of Orthodoxy

God's revelation is made fully known in Jesus Christ and is confirmed by the Holy Spirit in our obedience of faith. In Jesus Christ we have:

"the revelation of the mystery which was kept secret for long ages, but is now disclosed and, through the prophetic writings, made known to all nations" (Romans 16:25-26).

Those associated with Christ during His lifetime or mystically and sacramentally united with him thereafter are Saints. Foremost among the Saints is the Virgin Mary, also known by the doctrinal title "Theotokos" - Mother of God. The total event of Christ, that is, the Incarnation, Earthly Ministry, Death, Resurrection and Ascension in Glory, is a historical event which unites eternity and creation. This insight of biblical realism is captured in the elaborate and highly symbolical worship of the Orthodox Church. Easter is the "Feast of Feasts", repeated annually and weekly in Sunday worship. The Church celebrates and participates in the event of the Resurrection of the Lord at each Divine Liturgy. Each particular moment of Christ's life and ministry is seen in the Light of the Resurrection. Each worship motif of the Church is intimately related to the Proclamation and participation in this saving event. Every aspect of liturgy and prayer is understood as an effort at the beautiful expression of this reality. All the senses are employed in Orthodox worship. Every appropriate means is employed to reveal in human terms the mystery of God's love for us.

The Sacrament: The Mystical Life of Orthodoxy

An Orthodox Christian, of whatever national origin, may go to any Orthodox Church and receive the sacraments: Baptism, Chrismation, Holy Communion, Confession, Unction, Matrimony and Holy Orders. The first four are obligatory, the latter three optional. The usual practice is to baptize infants, based on the understanding of a close knit Christian family and the importance of a sponsor or Godparent. Christian nurture is placed properly in the home and in the teaching office of the Church.

Baptism: Water Baptism of adults and infants is celebrated by three-fold immersion in the Name of the Trinity. It is an initiation into the Church, forgiveness of sins and the beginning of the Christian life. The Sacrament of Chrismation (Confirmation), in conformity with the ancient practice, is performed immediately after baptism as a seal of the divine gifts of the Holy Spirit to the new Christian. Holy Communion is also given at baptism, emphasizing the fullness of participation in the sacramental life of the Church.

Holy Eucharist/Communion: The Holy Eucharist, known as the Divine Liturgy, is the chief worship service and is celebrated on all Sundays and Holy days during the liturgical year. Orthodoxy maintains a high sacramental view. The Sacraments are visible signs of an invisible Divine Grace. The elements of bread and wine in the Holy Eucharist are believed to be the very Body and Blood of Jesus Christ received for the remission of sins and life everlasting.

Holy Unction: Holy Unction, the sacrament of the sick, is an anointing with oil and prayers for those who feel the need for healing of body and soul. However, it is not exclusively a "last rite".

Confession: Confession or the Sacrament of Penance is considered necessary to the spiritual development and growth of a believer. This is usually conducted privately, in the presence and under the direction of a spiritual father and confessor.

Marriage: Christian marriage is a Sacrament of union of a man and woman for mutual complementarity and propagation of the race. It must be performed by an Orthodox priest on behalf of the community of faith.

Holy Orders: Holy Orders or the Sacrament of Priesthood is understood as a special ministry of service in and for the Church. The three major orders of clergy are deacon, presbyter and bishop. Bishops are consecrated by at least three other Bishops. Orthodox priests are often married men, although they must wed before ordination. Bishops are chosen from among the monastic clergy who have the vow of celibacy.

Many other rites and blessings are expressions of the one sacramental ministry of the Church. All of these may be seen as gracious and spiritually fruitful actions for the welfare of the faithful. There are services for the dead, based on the understanding that the entire church, visible and invisible, is one communion of faithful bound together in love and prayer.


1978 Archdiocese Charter

Archbishop Iakovos determined that the administrative system that helped the Church to meet the challenges of the past was inadequate to deal with the problems the Church is facing today and will face in the future. Recognizing the need for closer ties and communications between the Church leadership and the people, he appealed to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for a new Charter that would help the Archdiocese meet the challenge of the future. The new Charter was officially granted at the 24th Clergy-Laity Congress in Detroit in 1978.

According to the 1978 Charter the Archdiocese remains within the jurisdiction of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople and is composed of an Archdiocesan District - New York and ten dioceses: New Jersey, Chicago, Atlanta, Detroit, Toronto, San Francisco, Pittsburgh, Buenos Aires, Boston and Denver. It is governed by the Archbishop and the Synod of Bishops. The Synod of Bishops is headed by the Archbishop and comprised of the Bishops who are in charge of a diocese. It has all the authority and responsibility which the Church canons provide for a provincial synod.

The most significant change introduced by the 1978 Charter is related to the authority of the bishops. The duties and rights of the local bishop are of spiritual and administrative nature. Among his rights and responsibilities are the consecration of churches, convening and presiding over the spiritual court of the Diocese, issuing permits for the performance of the sacraments of marriage and baptism and administering his diocese in an orderly fashion. The bishop is assisted in the administration of his diocese by the Diocesan Council.

Clergy-Laity Congress

The Clergy-Laity Congress, the highest legislative body of the Archdiocese, is convened biennially and presided over by the Archbishop. It is concerned with all matters, other than doctrinal or canonical, affecting the life, growth and unity of the Church, the institutions, finances, administration, educational and philanthropic concerns and its increasing growing role in the life of the nations of the Western Hemisphere.

The decisions of the Clergy-Laity Congress are submitted to the Ecumenical Patriarchate for approval and ratification. Following their approval, the decisions must be faithfully adhered to by all parishes regardless of whether or not they were represented at the Clergy-Laity Congress at which they were adopted. This represents the will of the people because the delegates are the pastors and elected lay representatives .

The Charter provides that in the interval between the biennial congresses the Archdiocese would be governed by a council of clergy and laity. The Archdiocesan Council's duties are to interpret and execute the decisions of the biennial congresses and to administer the temporal and financial affairs of the Archdiocese.

There are 555 parishes in the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America. The parish is the local congregation which is canonically dependent on the diocese and ultimately, on the Archdiocese of America. Every parish is governed by the priest and parish council cooperatively. The priest is the head of a parish and is ultimately responsible along with the parish council to the Bishop. The supreme legislative body of the parish is the parish assembly which consists of members who are in good standing.

As we see, the parish, the diocese and the Archdiocese comprise the Greek Orthodox Church of America, which is itself an exarchate of the Ecumenical Patriarchate of Constantinople in the Western Hemisphere.

-- Rev. Robert G. Stephanopoulos, Ph.D.

Father Robert G. Stephanopoulos is Dean of the Archdiocesan Cathedral of the Holy Trinity and Adjunct Professor of Eastern Christian Thought at St. John's University. He authored the Guidelines for Orthodox Christians in Ecumenical Relations, has served as Ecumenical Officer of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese and is chairman of the Constituent Membership Committee of the National Council of Churches. A graduate of Holy Cross School of Theology, he studied at the University of Athens School of Theology and received his Ph.D. in Ecumenics. Missions and Religions from Boston University.

Copyright: © 1983-1996 Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America Department of Communications
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