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The Orthodox Church
(Church History)

by Metropolitan Kallistos (Ware)

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This publication pursues philological teaching purposes as part of a course in English religious vocabulary and discourse taught to undergraduate and postgraduate students of St. Tikhon's Orthodox University for the Humanities. Therefore this publication contains elements (links, words and phrases in bold type, etc) which do not belong to the original text and its author, Metropolitan Kallistos. Those who wish to read this book for purposes other than philological without distractions we refer to the source of this publication.

1. The Beginnings
2. Byzantium, I: The Church of the Seven Councils
   The establishment of an imperial Church
   The first Six Councils (325-681)
   The holy icons
   Saints, monks, and emperors
3. Byzantium, II: The Great Schism
   The estrangement of Eastern and Western Christendom
   From estrangement to schism: 858-1204
   Two attempts at reunion; the hesychast controversy
4. The Conversion of the Slavs
   Cyril and Methodius
   The Baptism of Russia: The Kiev Period (988-1237)
   The Russian Church Under the Mongols (1237-1448)
5. The Church under Islam
   Imperium in Imperio
   Reformation and Counter-Reformation: their double impact
6. Moscow and Petersburg
   Moscow the third Rome
   The schism of the Old Believers
   The Synodical period (1700-1917)
7. The twentieth century, I: Greeks and Arabs
8. The twentieth century, II: Orthodoxy and the Militant Atheists (1)
8. The twentieth century, II: Orthodoxy and the Militant Atheists (2)
9. The twentieth century, III: Diaspora and Mission (1)
9. The twentieth century, III: Diaspora and Mission (2)
   Western Orthodoxy

The twentieth century,

Greeks and Arabs

The Orthodox Church of today exists in two contrasting situations: outside the communist sphere lie the four ancient Patriarchates and Greece, under communism are the Slav Churches and Romania. Whereas communism only impinges upon the periphery of the Roman Catholic and the Protestant worlds, in the case of the Orthodox Church the vast majority of its members live in a communist state. At the present moment there are probably between sixty and ninety million practicing Orthodox — the number of baptized Orthodox is considerably higher — and of these more than eighty-five per cent are in communist countries.

Following this obvious line of division, in this chapter we shall consider the Orthodox Churches outside the communist bloc, and in the next the position of Orthodoxy in the "second world." A third chapter is devoted to the Orthodox "dispersion" in other places, and to Orthodox missionary activities at the present time.

Of the seven Orthodox Churches not under communist rule, four — Constantinople, Greece, Cyprus, Sinai — are predominantly or exclusively Greek; one — Alexandria — is partly Greek, partly Arab and African; the remaining two — Antioch and Jerusalem — are mainly Arab, although at Jerusalem. the higher administration of the Church is in Greek hands.


The Patriarchate of Constantinople, which in the tenth century contained 624 dioceses, is today enormously reduced in size. At present within the Patriarch’s jurisdiction are: Turkey; Crete and various other islands in the Aegean; All Greeks of the dispersion, together with certain Russian, Ukrainian, Polish, and Albanian dioceses in emigration; Mount Athos and Finland.

This amounts in all to about three million persons, more than half of whom are Greeks dwelling in North America.

At the end of the First World War, Turkey contained a population of some 1,500,000 Greeks, but the greater part of these were either massacred or deported at the end of the disastrous Greco-Turkish War of 1922, and today (apart from the island of Imbros) the only place in Turkey where Greeks are allowed to live is Istanbul (Constantinople) itself. Even in Constantinople, Orthodox clergy (with the exception of the Patriarch) are forbidden to appear in the streets in clerical dress. The Greek community in the city has dwindled since the anti-Greek (and anti-Christian,) riot of 6 September 1955, when in a single night sixty out of the eighty Orthodox Churches at Constantinople were gutted or sacked, the total damage to Christian property being reckoned at ₤50,000,000. Since then, many Greeks have fled from fear or else have been forcibly deported, and there is a grave danger that the Turkish government will eventually expel the Patriarchate. Athenagoras, Patriarch during 1948-1972 — indefatigable as a worker for Christian unity — and his successor Patriarch Dimitrios have shown great patience and dignity in this tragic situation.

The Patriarchate had a celebrated theological school on the island of Halki near Constantinople, which in the 1950s began to acquire a somewhat international character, with students not only from Greece but from the Near East in general. But unfortunately from 1971 onwards the Turkish authorities prevented the school from admitting any new students, and there is at present very little prospect that it will be reopened.

Mount Athos, like Halki, is not merely Greek but international. Of the twenty ruling monasteries, at the present day seventeen are Greek, one Russian, one Serbian, and one Bulgarian; in Byzantine times one of the twenty was Georgian, and there were also Latin houses. Besides the ruling monasteries there are several other large houses, and innumerable smaller settlements known as sketes or kellia; there are also hermits, most of whom live above alarming precipices at the southern tip of the peninsula, in huts or caves often accessible only by decaying ladders. Thus the three forms of the monastic life, dating back to fourth-century Egypt — the community life, the semi-eremitic life, and the hermits — continue side by side on the Holy Mountain today. It is a remarkable illustration of the continuity of Orthodoxy.

Athos faces many problems, the most obvious and serious being the spectacular decline in numbers. And it is likely that numbers will continue to decline, for the majority of the monks today are old men. Although there have been times in the past — for example, the early nineteenth century — when monks were even fewer than at present, yet the suddenness of the decrease in the past fifty years is most alarming.

In many parts of the Orthodox world today, and not least in certain circles in Greece itself, the monastic life is viewed with indifference and contempt, and this is in part responsible for the lack of new vocations on Athos. Another cause is the political situation: in 1903 more than half the monks were Slavs or Romanians, but after 1917 the supply of novices from Russia was cut off, while since 1945 the same has happened with Bulgaria and Romania. The Russian monastery of Saint Panteleimon, which in 1904 had 1,978 members, in 1959 numbered less than 60; the vast Russian skete of Saint Elias now has less than five monks, while that of Saint Andrew is entirely closed; the spacious buildings of Zographou, the Bulgarian house, are virtually deserted, and at the Romanian skete of Saint John the Baptist there is a mere handful of monks. In 1966, after prolonged negotiations, the Greek government eventually allowed five monks from the U.S.S.R. to enter Saint Panteleimon, and four monks from Bulgaria to enter Zographou: but clearly recruitment on a far vaster scale is necessary. Of the non-Greek communities, the Serbian monastery alone is in a slightly better position, as some young men have recently been allowed to come from Yugoslavia to be professed as monks.

In Byzantine times the Holy Mountain was a center of theological scholarship, but today most of the monks come from peasant families and have little education. This, though not a new situation, has certain unfortunate consequences. It would be sad indeed were Athos to modernize itself at the expense of the traditional and timeless values of Orthodox monasticism; but so long as the monasteries remain intellectually isolated, they cannot make their full (and very necessary) contribution to the life of the Church at large. There are signs that leaders on Athos are aware of the dangers of this isolation and are seeking ways to overcome it. The Athonite School of Theology was reopened in 1953, in the hope of attracting and training a somewhat different type of novice. Father Theoklitos, of the monastery of Dionysiou, goes regularly to Athens and Thessalonica to speak at meetings, and has written an important book on the monastic life, Between Heaven and Earth, as well as a study of Saint Nicodemus of the Holy Mountain. Father Gabriel, for many years Abbot of Dionysiou, is also widely known and respected in Greece as a whole.

But it would be wrong to judge Athos or any other monastic center by numbers or literary output alone, for the true criterion is not size or scholarship but the quality of spiritual life. If in Athos today there are signs in some places of an alarming decadence, yet there can be no doubt that the Holy Mountain still continues to produce saints, ascetics, and men of prayer formed in the classic traditions of Orthodoxy. One such monk was Father Silvan (1866-1938), at the Russian monastery of Saint Panteleimon: of peasant background, a simple and humble man, his life was outwardly uneventful, but he left behind him some deeply impressive meditations, which have since been published in several languages (See Archimandrite Sophrony, The Monk of Mount Athos and Wisdom from Mount Athos, London, 1973-1974 [most valuable]). Another such monk was Father Joseph (died 1959), a Greek who lived in a semi-eremitic settlement — the New Skete — in the south of Athos, and gathered round him a group of monks who under his guidance practiced the continual recitation of the Jesus Prayer. So long as Athos numbers among its members men such as Silvan and Joseph, it is by no means failing in its task. (The text above describes the situation as it existed on Athos during 1960-1966. Since then there has been a notable improvement. Although the non-Greek monasteries have only been able to receive a few fresh recruits, in several Greek houses there has been a striking increase in numbers, and many of the new monks are gifted and well-educated. The revival is particularly evident in Simonos Petras, Philotheou, Grigoriou, and Stavronikita. In all of these monasteries there are outstanding abbots).


The Orthodox Church of Finland owes its origin to monks from the Russian monastery of Valamo on Lake Ladoga, who preached among the pagan Finnish tribes in Karelia during the Middle Ages. The Finnish Orthodox were dependent on the Russian Church until the Revolution, but since 1923 they have been under the spiritual care of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, although the Russian Church did not accept this situation until 1957. The vast majority of Finns are nominally Lutheran, and the 66,000 Orthodox comprise only ***1.5 percent of the population. There is an Orthodox seminary at Kuopio. "With its active youth, concerned with international and ecumenical contacts, anxious to appear a western and European community, while at the same time safeguarding its Orthodox traditions, the Church of Finland is perhaps destined to play an important role in the western witness of Orthodoxy" (J. Meyendorff, L’Eglise orthodoxe hier et aujourd’hui, Paris, 1960, p. 157).


The Patriarchate of Alexandria has been a small Church ever since the separation of the Monophysites in the fifth century, when the great majority of Christians in Egypt rejected the Council of Chalcedon. Today there are about 10,000 Orthodox in Egypt, and perhaps 150,000-250,000 elsewhere in Africa. The head of the Alexandrian Church is known officially as "Pope and Patriarch": in Orthodox usage, the title "Pope" is not limited solely to the Bishop of Rome. The Patriarch and most of his clergy are Greek. The whole of the African continent falls under the charge of the Patriarch, and since Orthodox are just now beginning to undertake missionary work in Central Africa, it may well be that the ancient Church of Alexandria, however attenuated at present, will expand in new and unexpected ways during the years to come. (On missions in Africa, see Chapter 9.).


The Patriarchate of Antioch numbers some 320,000 Orthodox in Syria and the Lebanon, and perhaps a further 150,000 in Iraq and America. (Roman Catholics, Uniate and Latin, number about 640,000 in Syria and the Lebanon). The Patriarch, who lives in Damascus, has been an Arab since 1899, but before that time he and the higher clergy were Greek, although the majority of the parish clergy and the people of the Antiochene Patriarchate were and are Arab.

Some thirty years ago a leading Orthodox in the Lebanon, Father (now Bishop) George Khodre, said: "Syria and the Lebanon form a dark picture among Orthodox countries." Indeed, until recently the Patriarchate of Antioch could without injustice be taken as a striking example of a "sleeping" Church. Today there are signs of an awakening, chiefly as a result of the Orthodox Youth Movement in the Patriarchate, most remarkable and inspiring organization, originally founded by a small group of students in 1941-1942. The Youth Movement runs catechism schools and Bible seminars, as well issuing an Arabic periodical and other religious material. It undertakes social work, combating poverty and providing medical assistance. It encourages preaching and is attempting to restore frequent communion; and under its influence two all but outstanding religious communities have been founded at Tripoli and Deir-el-Harf. In the Youth Movement at Antioch, as in the "home missionary" movements of Greece, a leading part is played by the laity.


The Patriarchate of Jerusalem has always occupied a special position in the Church: never large in numbers, its primary task has been to guard the Holy Places. As at Antioch, Arabs form the majority of the people; they number today about 60,000 but are on the decrease, while before the war of 1948 there were only 5,000 Greeks within the Patriarchate and at present there are very much fewer (? not more than 500). But the Patriarch of Jerusalem is still a Greek, and the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre, which looks after the Holy Places, is completely in Greek control.

Before the Bolshevik Revolution, a notable feature in the life of Orthodox Palestine was the annual influx of Russian pilgrims, and often there were more than 10,000 of them staying in the Holy City at the same time. For the most part they were elderly peasants, to whom this pilgrimage was the most notable event in their lives: after a walk of perhaps several thousand miles across Russia, they took ship at the Crimea and endured a voyage of what to us today must seem unbelievable discomfort, arriving at Jerusalem if possible in time for Easter (See Stephen Graham, With the Russian Pilgrims to Jerusalem, London, 1913. The author traveled himself with the pilgrims, and gives a revealing picture of Russian peasants and their religious outlook). The Russian Spiritual Mission in Palestine, as well as looking after the Russian pilgrims, did most valuable pastoral work among the Arab Orthodox and maintained a large number of schools. This Russian Mission has naturally been sadly reduced in size since 1917, but has not entirely disappeared, and there are still three Russian convents at Jerusalem; two of them receive Arab girls as novices.


The Church of Greece continues to occupy a central place in the life of the country as a whole. Writing in the early 1950s, a sympathetic Anglican observer remarked: "Hellas, when all is said as to the spread of secularism and indifference, remains a Christian nation in a sense of which we in the west can have but little conception" (Hammond, The Waters of Marah, p. 25). In the 1951 census, out of a total population of 7,632,806, the Orthodox numbered 7,472,559 other Christians no more than 41,107; in addition there were 112,665 Mohammedans, 6,325 Jews, 29 persons of other religions, and 121 atheists. Today there is much more indifference than in the 1950s, and the Socialist government elected in 1981 began to take steps towards a separation of Church and State; but the Church remains deeply influential.

Greek dioceses of today, as in the primitive Church, are small: there are 78 (contrast Russia before 1917, with 67 dioceses for 100 million faithful) and in north Greece many dioceses contain less than 100 parishes. In ideal and often in reality, the Greek bishop is not merely a distant administrator, but an accessible figure with whom his flock can have personal contact, and in whom the poor and simple freely confide, calling daily in large numbers for practical as well as spiritual advice. The Greek bishop delegates far less to his parish clergy than a bishop in the west, and in particular he still reserves to himself much of the task of preaching, though he is assisted in this by a small staff of monks or educated laymen, working under his direction.

Thus by no means all the married parish clergy of Greece in the past preached sermons; nor is this surprising, since few had received a regular theological training. In pre-Revolutionary Russia all parish priests had passed through a theological seminary, but in Greece in the year 1920, of 4,500 married clergy, less than 1,000 had received more than an ordinary elementary school education. Hitherto the priest of the Greek countryside has been closely integrated with the local community: usually he is a native of the village which he serves; after ordination, as well as being priest, he still continues with his previous work, whatever that may be — carpentry, shoemaking, or more commonly farming; he is not a man of higher learning than the laity round him; very possibly he has never attended a seminary. This system has had certain undeniable advantages, and in particular it has meant that the Greek Church has avoided a cultural gulf between pastor and people, such as has existed in England for several centuries. But with the rise in educational standards in Greece during recent years, a change in this system has become necessary: today priests clearly need a more specialized training, and it seems likely that henceforward most, if not all, Greek ordinands will be sent to study in a seminary.

The two older universities of Greece, at Athens and Thessalonica, both contain Faculties of Theology. Non-Orthodox are often surprised to find that the great majority of professors in both faculties are laymen, and that most of the students have no intention of being ordained; but Orthodox consider it entirely natural that the laity as well as the clergy should take an interest in theology. Many students afterwards teach religion in secondary schools, and it is usually the local schoolmasters whom the bishops choose as their lay preachers. Only a few of these students become parish clergy; a few others are professed as monks, though it is likely that only a minority of these graduate monks will live as resident members of a monastery: in most cases they will work on the bishop’s staff, or perhaps become preachers.

The theological professors of Greece have produced a considerable body of important work during the past half century: one thinks at once of Chrestos Androutsos, author of a famous Dogmatic Theology first published in 1907, and more recently of men such as P. N. Trembelas, P. I. Bratsiotis, I. N. Karmiris, B. Ioannides, and Ieronymos Kotsonis, the recent Archbishop of Athens, an expert on Canon Law. But while fully acknowledging the notable achievements of modern Greek theology, one cannot deny that it possesses certain shortcomings. Many Greek theological writings, particularly if compared with work by members of the Russian emigration, seem a little arid and academic in tone. The situation mentioned in an earlier chapter has continued to the present century, and most Greek theologians have studied for a time at a foreign university, usually in Germany; and sometimes German religious thought seems to have influenced their work at the expense of their own Orthodox tradition. Theology in Greece today suffers from the divorce between the monasteries and the intellectual life of the Church: it is a theology of the university lecture room, but not a mystical theology, as in the days of Byzantium when theological scholarship flourished in the monastic cell as well as in the university. Nevertheless in Greece at the present time there are encouraging signs of a more flexible approach to theology, and of a living recovery of the spirit of the Fathers.

What of the monastic life? In male communities, the shortage of young monks is as alarming on the mainland of Greece as it was on Athos until recently, and many houses are in danger of being closed altogether. There are very few educated men in the communities. But this gloomy prospect is relieved by striking exceptions, such as the recently founded monastery of the Paraclete at Oropos (Attica). Some older communities still attract novices — for example, Saint John the Evangelist on the island of Patmos (under the Ecumenical Patriarch). In Meteora some notable efforts to revive the monastic life were made by the late Metropolitan Dionysius of Trikkala. Here there are a series of monastic houses, perched on rocky pinnacles in a remote part of Thessaly, which were partially repopulated in the 1960s by young and well-educated monks. But the constant flow of tourists rendered monastic life impossible, and in the 1970s almost all the monks moved to Mount Athos.

But while the situation of male communities is often critical, the female communities are in a far more lively condition, and the number of nuns is rapidly increasing. Some of the most active convents are of quite recent origin, such as the Convent of the Holy Trinity on Aegina, dating from 1904, whose founder, Nektarios (Kephalas), Metropolitan of Pentapolis (1846-1920), has already been canonized; or the Convent of Our Lady of Help at Chios, established in 1928, which now has fifty members. The Convent of the Annunciation at Patmos, started in 1936 by Father Amphilochios (died 1970; perhaps the greatest pnevmatikos or spiritual father in post-war Greece), already has two daughter houses, at Rhodes and Kalymnos. (In this connection one must also mention the impressive Old Calendarist Convent of Our Lady at Keratea in Attica, founded in 1925, which now has between two and three hundred nuns. On the Old Calendarists, see p. 309).

In the past twenty years a surprising number of classic works of monastic spirituality have been reprinted in Greece, including a new edition of the Philokalia. It seems that there is a revived interest in the ascetic and spiritual treasures of Orthodoxy, a development which bodes well for the future of the monasteries.

Religious art in Greece is undergoing a most welcome transformation. The debased westernized style, universal at the beginning of the present century, has largely been abandoned in favor of the older Byzantine tradition. A number of churches at Athens and elsewhere have recently been decorated with a full scheme of icons and frescoes, executed in strict conformity with the traditional rules. The leader of this artistic renewal, Photius Kontoglou (1896-1965), was noted for his uncompromising advocacy of Byzantine art. Typical of his outlook is his comment on the art of the Italian Renaissance: "Those who see in a secular way say that it progressed, but those who see in a religious way say that it declined" (C. Cavarnos, Byzantine Sacred Art: Selected Writings of the contemporary Greek icon painter Fotis Kontoglous, New York, 1957, p. 21).

Greece possesses an Orthodox counterpart to Lourdes: the island of Tinos, where in 1823 a miracle-working icon of the Virgin and Child was discovered, buried underground in the foundations of a ruined church. A large pilgrimage shrine stands today on the site, which is visited in particular by the sick, and many cases of miraculous healing have occurred. There are always great crowds on the island for the Feast of the Assumption (15 August).

In the Greek Church of the present century there has been a striking development of "home missionary" movements, devoted to evangelistic and educational work. Apostoliki Diakonia ("Apostolic Service"), the official organization concerned with the "Home Mission," was founded in 1930. Alongside it there are a number of parallel movements which, while cooperating with the bishops and other Church authorities, spring from private initiative — Zoe, Sotir, the Orthodox Christian Unions, and others. The oldest, most influential, and most controversial of these movements, Zoe ("Life"), also known as the "Brotherhood of Theologians," was started by Father Eusebius Matthopoulos in 1907. It is in fact a kind of semi-monastic order, since all its members must be unmarried, although they take no formal vows and are free to leave the Brotherhood at any time. About a quarter of the Brotherhood are monks (none of whom live regularly in a monastery) and the rest laymen. One wonders how far Zoe, with its monastic structure, points the way to future developments in the Orthodox Church. In the past the primary task of an eastern monk has been prayer; but, besides this traditional type of monasticism, is there not also room in Orthodoxy for "active" religious orders, parallel to the Dominicans and Franciscans in the west, and dedicated to the work of evangelism in the world?

These "home missionary" movements, especially Zoe, lay great stress on Bible study and encourage frequent communion. Between them they publish an impressive number of periodicals and books, with a very wide circulation. Under their leadership and guidance there exist today about 9,500 catechism schools (in 1900 there were few if any such schools in Greece), and it is reckoned that fifty-five per cent of Greek children — in some parishes a far higher proportion — regularly attend catechism classes. Besides these schools, a wide program of youth work is undertaken: "The period of adolescence," to quote an Anglican writer, "when so overwhelming a portion of our own children lose all vital contact with the Church, is commonly that at which the young Greek Christian begins to play an active part in the life of his local community" (P. Hammond, The Waters of Marah, p. 133).

The influence of these "home missionary" movements has declined considerably in the 1900s and 1970s, and in particular the words just quoted — written more than twenty-five years ago — unfortunately would need today to be qualified.


The ancient Church of Cyprus, independent since the Council of Ephesus (431), has at present 600 priests and over 450,000 faithful. The Turkish system, whereby the head of the Church is also the civil leader of the Greek population, was continued by the British when they took over the island in 1878. This explains the double part, both political and religious, played by Makarios, the recent head of the Cypriot Church, "ethnarch" and President as well as Archbishop.


The Church of Sinai is in some ways a "freak" in the Orthodox world, consisting as it does in a single monastery, Saint Catherine’s, at the foot of the Mountain of Moses. There is some disagreement about whether the monastery should be termed an "autocephalous" or merely an "autonomous" Church (see p. 314). The abbot, who is always an archbishop, is elected by the monks and consecrated by the Patriarch of Jerusalem; the monastery is entirely independent of outside control. Sad to say, there are today fewer than twenty monks.



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