One Body: Antiochian Orthodox Church, part one

On Holy Family Sunday this year (that’s the one right after Christmas, for those of you who didn’t grow up with the Catholic calendar), Hopeful and I went off on another denominational adventure, this time to an Antiochian Orthodox church near where she lives.  I was super excited, because the Orthodox tradition is beautiful and also hella old.

Let me get my history on for a sec.  The first real and recognized (that is, still in some sense continuing and not universally labelled “heretical”) schisms in the Christian Church were in the 5th century, especially around the Council of Chalcedon.  Then as now, the nature of Jesus was one of the hot topics, because let’s face it, fully man and fully God messes with all of the fractions we had to do in grade school pretty badly.  But the Great Schism, the grandaddy of schisms, was in 1054.  A whole lot went into this, like the relationships of the Trinity and whether Rome was as important as it thought it was and whether icons were idols or not and much more; there were a lot of disagreements that were way bigger than “I don’t think the praise band should use a high hat in the drum kit.”  It got to the point where people felt things couldn’t be resolved, and then they started getting violent toward each other and super snippy in their communications.  So the patriarch (sort of like a super-archbishop) of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, shut down all the Latin churches in his city (which, by that point, was predominantly Greek).

In response, the patriarch of Rome (at this point, Leo IX) sent a messenger to Constantinople demanding the reopening of all the Latin churches and, for good measure, the recognition of the authority of Rome over all the other patriarchs of the Christian Church (there were five total).  There were also notes about war support and such because the Church was already in bed with emperors for the worst love/hate affair ever, but the authority thing honked Cerularius off something awful.  I mean, Rome, right?  What do they have, besides dead Peter?  But Rome thought dead Peter (and some other stuff, like the Donation of Constantine which was later proved totally fake–oops) was enough; so much so, in fact, that Leo’s letter to Michael demanding his allegiance threatened to boil him (as the wrong-choosing goat from Matthew 25:31-46) in his mother’s milk and scrub his “mangy hide with biting vinegar and salt” for his supposed disobedience.

No really.  I’m not making this up.  This is a real papal letter.  Isn’t history awesome?

Cerularius, perhaps understandably, was not really into this agreement, so he said no.  To which Cardinal Humbert (leader of the messengers) said fine, then you’re excommunicated.

Whoa!  This meant that Cerularius (patriarch, remember, Super Archbishop of Importantness) was banned from taking communion or any of the other sacraments.  It effectively cut him off from Heaven as well as the earthly community of believers, and meant also that anyone taking a sacrament from him wasn’t really getting the real deal.  It was a Very Big Thing, theologically and practically speaking, to excommunicate somebody.

Well, in fine third-grader tradition, Cerularius says, “Am not!  You’re excommunicated!  And so are your friends!”  So the Western part of the Church and the Eastern part of the Church excommunicated each other, and despite several attempts to bring them back together over the years, they’ve stayed apart.  (Things like sacking Constantinople in the Crusades didn’t help.)  The Roman Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church have thus been at odds for 960 years.

All of that is a lot of background to tell you about this really cool church Hopeful and I attended, but I want you know about where all of these denominations come from because I think it’s interesting that both the RCC and the EOC (and their various branches) still hold to the Nicene Creed (with variations), in which we say that we believe in one holy catholic (in the sense of universal) and apostolic church.

And I think that they both say it sincerely.  They do believe in this…but they also make allowance for a 960-year-old split in that universality.

So Hopeful and I went to this church.  The EOC has all of its smaller branches just as the RCC does, although EOC “denominations” tend to be more culturally linked and less solidly divided—thus the Russian Orthodox Church, or the Bulgarian Orthodox Church, or the Greek Orthodox Church, and so on.  This one was Antiochian Orthodox, which is loosely connected to Syria.

Here’s one cool thing about Orthodox liturgy:  they believe that it’s an ongoing thing.  When you come to a service, you’re not starting and then stopping worship—you’re dipping into an ever-present stream of worship that is always going on.  So before services on Sunday, there’s at least an hour of prayer going on, to which you can come or not.  And the whole thing is music, but not the way Westerners think of music.  There’s a drone quality to it because the liturgy is meant to be internalized and almost forgotten, like muscle memory.  So at this service, there were zero instruments, but the only non-sung things were the homily and the end announcements.

Erm…this is a bit awkward, but if I keep going this will be a ridiculously long entry.  Will you come back next week, Reader?  I promise to skip the history and tell you about the service proper.

See you then.


For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ.  For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit.  For the body is not one member, but many.  (1 Corinthians 12:12-14, ASV)

5 thoughts on “One Body: Antiochian Orthodox Church, part one

  1. […] jargon around).  This may be because the Eastern and Western churches have had, shall we say, a rocky relationship and Rome wasn’t all that keen on borrowing “Eastern” holidays, or it may be […]


  2. I’ve been thinking about your post quite a bit over the last few days and I agree with Sheila, especially when it comes to having you teach adults at our congregation. When I taught my course, “The Dawning of the Christ Culture” this past fall, the members of the class greatly appreciated learning the history of the early church, especially with emphasis on the cultural tensions (Jewish, Greek, Roman). Some asked about the history of the Coptic Christian church; others about Islam. I did not realize that one of our members had recently spent time in Eastern Europe on a Fulbright scholarship, and he and his wife asked probing questions about the history of that region. The group seemed especially interested when I talked about ancient Greek philosophy, and i did not water it down for them. In our last class session we had an invigorating discussion about Augustine.

    Since you have a course of your own coming up soon, I encourage you to teach us what you know, and do not pull any punches. Our people are well-educated, for the most part, and I have found them to be very able to digest anything I’ve thrown at them. Yes, they appreciate humor thrown in, but they also love to learn. I have found that it helps to give them a handout, so that they can follow along better with names, dates, and concepts that are new to them. I have also learned that it is essential to speak slowly and loudly, because the chapel has serious acoustical issues. But I think you will be surprised how well they respond when they have a teacher who knows her material and can relate it well. And that, of course, is you.


    • I’m still super sad I missed your class, which means you have to teach again next year on something so I can come to that. I’m hoping I can transition back from the pace of teaching middle-schoolers to teaching adults; we’ll see.

      Thanks for the tips; somehow I never feel right with handouts, but I’ll definitely give them a try.


  3. Sheila Bigelow says:

    No, no!  Don’t skip the history!  This was the most entertaining account of the Great Schism I’ve ever read–and probably the most understandable.

    The United Methodist Church used to (and perhaps still does) have a very nice sung liturgy for communion that was used in the church of my teen-aged years.  We got a Doctor of Music  of some sort as our Director of Music and the church went much higher.  I liked it.  The Lutherans had a much more beautiful sung communion liturgy that was used in the church in which Gary grew up.  

    And I do like icons.  I have a beautiful Mother and Child that I think qualifies, although it probably lacks the symbology, since it’s on the top of a box.  I look forward to next week.  Remember:  God works in mysterious ways.  Sheila


    • Thanks! I think so many people look at history as facts rather than story, and yes it is facts, but it’s about people and their weird relationships to each other. That makes it super crazy and fun.

      Nuts to God and His mysterious ways. Just once I’d love to say, “God works in completely translucent ways.”


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