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Oriental Orthodox Churches

The following article is the entry on Oriental Orthodox Churches from the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement published jointly by the World Council of Churches and the Wm. Eerdmans in 1991.

The six Oriental Orthodox churches -- Coptic, Syrian, Armenian, Ethiopian, Eritrean and the (Indian) Malankara -- are in communion with each other and 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) and do not accept Chalcedon (451). 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 the central committee in Paris admitted the Armenian church in 1962. 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.

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 passing and yet necessary stage during the development of dogmas. Whenever the paradoxical mystery of Christology and Trinity could not be fully appreciated, rationalism erected narrow domestic walls. 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". One of its chief strengths was in continuing the great ascetic-monastic traditions that originated in the Egyptian deserts. The church has initiated considerable missionary work in other parts of the African continent. The Coptic church has a significant diaspora in North America, Europe, Australia and the Middle East.

The Syrian Orthodox Church traces its history to A.D. 37 and 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 until it was established in Damascus in this 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, and the West Syrian liturgy was thus 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: Armenia, the first nation to accept Christianity as the official religion (in 301), traditionally attributes the beginning of Armenian Orthodox Christianity to the preaching of St Thaddeus and St Bartholomew. Victims of terrible persecution through the centuries, Armenian Christians heroically preserved their apostolic faith. The catholicos of All Armenians resides in Etchmiadzin in the Soviet Union. 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 very significant diaspora spread out in all the continents. The Armenian national aspirations and the Armenian Orthodox faith are integrally interconnected.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church: An authentically African Orthodox church, the Ethiopian church has a history going back to apostolic times. For long under the tutelage of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the Ethiopian church declared its 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. The Ethiopian church is now gradually emerging from age- old social and economic structures to meet contemporary challenges.

The Eritrean Orthodox Church is also an autocephalous church, depending directly on the Coptic Orthodox church.

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 west Syrian patriarchate of Antioch in 1665 and thus inherited the Syrian liturgical and spiritual tradition. The Orthodox church in India declared itself autocephalous in 1912, though conflicts with the Syrian patriarchate continue. With a well- equipped theological college, a mission training centre and many educational and charitable institutions, the church is fully involved in the life of the country. With the catholicos residing at Kottayam, Kerala, the church has 20 bishops and more than 1,000 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; Armenian catholicos Karekin (Sarkissian) was the vice-moderator of the central committee from Uppsala to Nairobi; Paulos Gregorios of the Orthodox Syrian Church (India) has been one of the presidents since Vancouver and was 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 greater in the area of Faith and Order than in the other sub-units of the WCC.

For further reading, consult the following

  • H.E. Fey ed., A History of the Ecumenical Movement: The Ecumenical Advance, vol. 2: 1948-1968, 2nd ed. WCC, 1986,
  • R. Roberson, The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey, Ed. Orientale Cristiana, 1995
  • The Star of the East, 4, 3, 1982
  • Wort und Wahrheit, supplementary issues 1-4, 1972-78.
This entry on Oriental Orthodox Churches was written by Geevarghese Mar Osthathios and appears in the Dictionary of the Ecumenical Movement edited by Nicholas Lossky, José Míguez Bonino, John Pobee, Tom Stransky, Geoffrey Wainwright and Pauline Webb. The volume was published by WCC Publications (Geneva) and Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company (Grand Rapids, MI) in 1991. The Dictionary is presently being revised and a second edition is forthcoming.

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