What is the Orthodox Church? And why a field guide? Put simply: she is the world’s oldest Church, and as such, she has matured and grown over time in her daily practices and liturgical expression, so understanding how to navigate her services and daily life is an important issue for anyone in the Church, or those exploring her for truth.
To those who have never been to an Orthodox worship service, the first few visits can be scary, and the services so intense, it can be confusing. Add to this, many times the services are conducted in strange languages that a visitor may not understand. And sometimes, even those who feel at home in the Orthodox Church, having spent many years experiencing her faith and worship services, may not have reflected on the meaning of this or that particular practice.
The Church is unchanged in a very real sense—she has carefully preserved, promoted, and died for the faith entrusted her by Jesus Christ in the first century. But that does not mean that she didn’t have to occasionally expand on or rephrase how she articulated that faith (usually to combat errors), or develop new customs over time. This process of maturity is not unlike life for any ordinary human being—we learn from our mistakes, grow from our trials, and try to find better ways to communicate.
The purpose of any field guide is to assist an observer in appreciating and understanding what he sees. This blog is no different. Its goal is to be a practical help and handy reference, designed for use with the shortest notice and easy to navigate answers about whatever a person may observe in a typical Orthodox church.
This guide tends to focus on North American Orthodoxy, with a primary emphasis on the United States, but we will do our best to be faithful to worldwide Orthodoxy. There is a recognizable beautiful and organic unity among the various church jurisdictions, most of which makes no difference whether it is a Russian parish in San Francisco, a Greek parish in Nashville, a so-called Pan-Orthodox parish in Hawaii, or even a Ukrainian parish in Odessa, Ukraine. Yet with more visits, and more familiarity with the services, a visitor will begin noticing subtle differences in liturgical customs.
While not a precise set of categories, for the sake of these blogs, the lower-case “t” tradition of the Orthodox Church are categorized broadly as Slavic-Russian or Byzantine-Greek. The category of Slavic-style parishes may include Russian, Ukrainian, Georgian, and Romanian churches—among a few others. The category of Byzantine-Greek parishes is typically inclusive of Greek, Turkish, Antiochian/Syrian, and Serbian churches—again, among a few others. This blog attempts to be as universal as possible, and where “Slavic” and “Byzantine” practices are different, an attempt will be made to note such differences, at least in a general way. (Somewhere, someplace, at some time there will almost certainly be exceptions to these generalizations. (And at this time posts will not focus on differences within the Orthodox Western Rite—that would likely require its own treatment.)
The approach this blog takes may appear random at first. But eventually a trajectory to the posts will emerge. If this field guide were a physical book, one would open it to find two sections. The first section would be a step-by-step walk-through of a typical Divine Liturgy, our most sacred and central service. The Divine Liturgy is the heartbeat of the life of Church, and without it, there is no Orthodoxy. The second section would be an A-to-Z reference of the Orthodox Church, with a special emphasis on the services and daily disciplines of her people.
The most important thing we hope to communicate with these posts really isn’t the nuts and bolts of Orthodox worship and discipline, but the One who is the reason for our worship and discipline: Jesus Christ. The whole point of Orthodoxy is to life a Eucharist life in Christ for our salvation, and for the life of the world.
Nothing in this guide blog is the final word. The author is a mere layman, and it is quite likely he will overgeneralize and make an occasional mistake. There is always a danger at interpreting local practices as universal, perhaps not realizing that the Greeks or Russians in the old countries have never done it like this or that. Charitable comments, corrections, suggestions, or notable exceptions are always welcomed.
A similar version of this post appears here.