Ancient oriental churches

19.05.2018 Author: Psychologist Pavel Khoroshutin

The Ancient Eastern Churches are a group of the oldest churches of Eastern Christianity. They recognize the decrees of the first two or three Ecumenical Councils and espouse their spiritual principles.

The churches of that period are divided into two groups: pre-Ephesian churches (they recognise the ideas of the first two Ecumenical Councils – the First Nicene Council and the First Constantinople Council held in 381) and the ancient Eastern Orthodox churches (they honour the first three Ecumenical Councils, including the Council of Ephesus, but do not recognize the fourth – the Council of Chalcedon).

Depending on the civilisation, the characteristics of its traditions and the history of development, ancient Eastern churches have their own characteristics and are divided into several types.

Ancient oriental churches

Coptic orthodox church

The Coptic Orthodox Church of Alexandria is a Christian church in Egypt, which belongs to the group of Ancient Eastern (non-Chalcedonian) churches. Like most of the Ancient Eastern churches, it recognises the decisions of the first three Ecumenical Councils and adheres to the Myafisite Christology which is a doctrine that claims the unity of the nature of the God-man Jesus Christ.  The Coptic Church does not belong to the local Orthodox churches of the Byzantine (Chalcedonian) tradition.

According to legend, the church was founded by the Apostle Mark in the mid-first century in Alexandria. Later (6th century), it developed as a distinctive autocephalous church due to the division of the single church in Africa into two groups – Chalcedonian (Diophysite) and non-Chalcedonian (Myafisite). As a result of persecution, replaced by relative religious tolerance in the 7th-12th centuries, the centre of the Coptic Church moved from Alexandria to Cairo.

The supreme governing body is the Holy Synod, headed by the Patriarch who has a residence in Cairo. Since 18 November 2012, Fyodor II has been holding the position of Patriarch. The number of followers of the Coptic Orthodox Church is about 18-22 million, and the number of communities is 400, most of which are in Egypt.

Church parishioners practise the Coptic rite with the three liturgies of

  • Saint Basil the Great,
  • Saint Gregory the Theologian,
  • Saint Cyril of Jerusalem and others

Services are held in both Arabic and Coptic. During the liturgy, the eight church modes (Octoechos) are used. This is a voice system used for singing during the service.

The Coptic Church differs from the Orthodox Church in both its theology and liturgical traditions. However, the Coptic and Russian Orthodox Churches, represented by their patriarchs, maintain friendly relations. As Patriarch Kirill said, they “were and are holding a theological dialogue”.

Ethiopian orthodox church

The Ethiopian (Abyssinian) Orthodox Church also belongs to the group of Ancient Eastern (pre-Chalcedonian) churches. It uses an Ethiopian rite and has a special hierarchical structure of the clergy with no similarities in other church traditions.

Ethiopian Orthodox Church followers keep some of the Old Testament commandments (for example, they observe the food law and circumcise male infants).

Christianity came to Ethiopia in the 1st century because of Philip the Apostle. From the very beginning of its existence, the Ethiopian Church was one of the dioceses of the Coptic Patriarch of Alexandria. He conferred the title of abune in Ethiopia on the Egyptian bishop. The Patriarch of Alexandria was reluctant to grant autonomy to the Ethiopian Church and this situation continued for fifteen centuries.

Not until 1951, was the Church headed by an abune who was Ethiopian, for the first time. A few years later in 1959 the Ethiopian Orthodox Church became completely independent (autocephalous) from the Coptic Church. Its head was then endowed with the rank of Patriarch.

In 2007, in Cairo, the Coptic and Ethiopian Orthodox Churches solemnly declared their unity of faith, loyalty to a common testimony, and willingness to deepen and broaden cooperation. Despite the friendship, the Coptic Church has maintained full autonomy over the Eritrean Church, which led to a split in the Ethiopian Church.

The Ethiopian Orthodox Church and the ROC have maintained close ties for many centuries.

Eritrean orthodox church

The Eritrean Orthodox Church, which belongs to the Myafisite Old Eastern Orthodox churches, was formerly part of the Ethiopian Orthodox Church. After Eritrea gained independence in 1993, the Ethiopian Patriarch recognized the church as autocephalous in 1998.

As the Ethiopian Church did not participate in the issue of granting autonomy to the Eritrean diocese by the Coptic Orthodox Church, there is some tension in the relations between the Ethiopian and Eritrean churches. However, they maintain complete spiritual commonality with each other.

Abune Philippos was the first patriarch of the Church. He died in 2002 and was replaced by Abune Yacob, who served as Patriarch for a short time. He was replaced by Abune Antonios in March 2004. Antonios was the first Patriarch of the Eritrean Church, who had not previously served as a bishop in the Ethiopian Orthodox Church.

Despite all the solemnity of the power transfer ceremony, Anthony had lost the real possession of the Abune’s powers by August 2005. Afterwards the management of church affairs passed to Yoftah Dimetros, a layman appointed by the government.

According to the available information, the Patriarch was punished for resisting government interference in church affairs. The government decided to replace him and asked the Patriarch of Alexandria, Shenuda, to do so. When the latter refused to remove the Eritrean, the government temporarily endowed him with ceremonial powers but transferred actual power to Dimetros.

As a result of the controversy over the legitimacy of the move and attempts to regain ecclesiastical authority, Abune Anthonios was deposed by the Holy Synod of Eritrea, likely under government pressure. On 27 May 2007, Abune Dioskoros was appointed the fourth Patriarch of Eritrea. In 2008, Anthonios was under house arrest.

Syro-jacobite orthodox church

The Syro-Jacobite (Syrian) Orthodox Church is also one of the “non-Chalcedonian churches”. The Syrian Church differs in its theological tradition from the Orthodox tradition of the Byzantine Church, which builds its teaching on decisions of the Chalcedonian and its three subsequent councils. The Orthodox Syrian Church of South India is also Jacobite.

While the official name is the Syrian Orthodox Church, the full name is the Syrian Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and All the East. Its adherents are usually called Yakovites.

The most influential days of the Syrian Orthodox Church were in the 12th century when the borders of its patriarchy reached Central Asia and spread to 20 metropolises and over 100 dioceses. However, from 1391 to 1404, the church was savagely persecuted by the army of the Turkic-Mongol conqueror Tamerlane and this led to a decrease in the number of Syrian Christians. By the 16th century, the patriarchy consisted of just 20 dioceses.

After the First World War, Christians in Turkey were brutally massacred, which resulted in members fleeing to Syrian cities. At present, followers of the Syrian Orthodox Church live in many countries of the world including –

  • India
  • Armenia
  • Iraq
  • Egypt

Four dioceses of the modern Syrian Church are located in Syria and two churches exist in both Turkey and Iraq. There is a single church in Lebanon, Israel and the United States. The largest congregations in Syria have about 680 thousand adherents and in India there are more than a million.

The Syrian Orthodox Church professes St. Cyril’s formula regarding the single nature of God of the Incarnate Word. Baptism is performed by “triune” pouring, encompassing a special form of the sign of the cross. The Liturgy of St. James of Jerusalem is held and is performed in Arabic and Old Syrian languages. Monasticism is widespread, and hermit monks are especially revered.

There are about 2,250,000 church members worldwide (India, Turkey, Syria, Iraq, Israel, Lebanon, USA, Germany, Netherlands, North and South America, and Australia).

At the end of March 2014, Ignatius Aphrem II (Kerim) was elected as the new head of the Church.

Malankara orthodox church

According to legend, the Malankara Orthodox Church was founded in the year 52 by the Apostle Thomas. The church primate is called Metropolitan Malankar, with a residence in Kottayam (Kerala state).

The name of the church comes from the word Maliankara, the geographical name of a location in the southwest of the Indian subcontinent, where Thomas first set foot on Indian soil.

Traditionally, the worship service was performed in the Syrian language, but this was later supplanted in some congregations by the Malayalam language.

During the liturgy, the ministers wear black cylindrical caps, which are also worn outside of the worship service. Monks wear hoods of black fabric and ornaments in the form of small crosses. Bishops and priests of a high rank cover their heads during services with hoods of the same fabric as the upper sacerdotal robes.

Malankara orthodox church

The Church performs the Syro-Malankar rite, which belongs to the Western Syrian ritual group. Divine Liturgy is performed using large loaves of leavened bread. During the sacrament, a particle of the Christ’s Body is immersed in the Blood of Christ, while the members of the congregation sit on the floor in the position traditional for Indians.

The Malankara Syrian Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church have long been on friendly terms, despite repeated attempts at reunification.

With their communication with the Russian Orthodox Church, a mutually beneficial cooperation can also be observed. Several churches of the Russian Orthodox Church are located in the premises of the Malankara Church. In 2019, the patriarchs of both churches agreed to establish a working group to coordinate bilateral relations between the Russian Orthodox Church and the Malankara Church. They also exchange experiences in theological education, translation and the publication of spiritual literature.

Ancient Eastern churches have aroused considerable interest from other confessions because of their unique theological traditions that were formed under the influence of contradictions with the Fourth Ecumenical Council. The formula of Christological dogma remains the main obstacle to the union between the churches.