What is Western-Rite Orthodoxy?

BY A.D. 2000, approximately 1.433 billion persons, or slightly less than one-third of the world’s population, called themselves, Christians, according to David Barrett’s World Christian Encyclopedia. In spite of these millions of adherents, the percentage of the globe’s population that calls itself Christian will have fallen since 1900.

Sadly, these statistics include folk who claim to be Christian but who are not necessarily active in local congregations. Even more startling for most Americans is the decline in the influence of Christian institutions and values on contemporary life in terms of ethical standards and practice, political and economic policies, and popular culture, such as movies, music, the press, and so forth.

As a consequence of this diminution of Christianity’s impact on society at large, historians, both Christian and secular, call this a post-Christian age. Martin Marty, a faculty member at the University of Chicago and author of The Modern Schism, notes that industrialization and urbanization which swept through Western Europe and North America in the latter half of the nineteenth century resulted in a society in which religion, if acknowledged at all, has been relegated to the private concerns of most citizens lives where it has less and less importance for each passing generation.

Therefore, it is not surprising that Bishop Leslie Newbigin, a long-time Christian missionary in India and author of Foolishness to the Greeks, maintains that the culture most impervious to the Christian Gospel is not Africa, Asia, or Oceania, but the industrialized West (Western Europe, North America, Australia, and New Zealand).

Newbigin’s observations are manifested in the decline of mainstream American churches since the 1960s, when, according to “Christianity Today”, Methodists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, and Episcopalians lost literally millions of members. While mainline churches are losing members for a multiplicity of reasons, conservative or traditional Christian bodies continue to grow.

Among those groups that are growing are Christians known as Orthodox or Eastern Orthodox. Orthodoxy in North America claims about one million adherents. Worldwide, the Orthodox Church has a membership of about 300 million persons, which makes it the second largest Christian body on the globe, with Roman Catholicism’s having a membership of around 1 billion.

American Orthodoxy has been, until the last few years, a church primarily of immigrants and their descendants. With these new arrivals came their clergy from the old country. So, today in the United States there are 14 Orthodox jurisdictions that reflect the ethnic make-up of those who initially brought the ancient Christian faith to these shores.

Among those jurisdictions are the Orthodox Church in America, the Greek Orthodox, Serbian Orthodox, Ukrainian Orthodox, Albanian Orthodox, and the Antiochian Orthodox. While each of these groups has its own hierarchy of bishops and administrative responsibilities, all of these churches are a part of the ancient Church of Christ known as Orthodoxy or Eastern Orthodoxy and are in communion with each other.

All of these bodies believe in the triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who has always existed as one God in three divine Persons. Orthodox Christians believe that Almighty God created all that is and that He is the Lord of all history. These Christians affirm that Jesus Christ is fully God and fully man, that He died for the sins of mankind, that He was raised from the grave by the power of the Father on Easter morning, that He ascended into heaven, that He is the head of His body, the Church, and that He sent God the Holy Spirit to guide the Church into all truth. The summary of the faith is proclaimed each Sunday when the faithful recite the Nicene Creed during the Mass.

To the casual observer, the Orthodox Church appears to have much in common with the Roman Catholic Church. This is of course true in many ways. However, Rome began the process of breaking with the Eastern expression of the catholic faith, i.e. Orthodoxy, in the eleventh century. This break was completed in the early 1700s when the church of Antioch broke communion.

Perhaps the most obvious difference between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodoxy is the role of the Pope in the life of the universal Church. The Orthodox Church does not adhere to one bishop supremely leading the entire church but instead is maintained in a conciliar fashion. Every bishop in the Orthodox church is equal theologically. The differences between the levels of the episcopacy are administrative, such as Metropolitans and Patriarchs. Our Ecumenical Patriarch is the first among equals.

The worship of the overwhelming majority of Orthodox congregations is called Eastern Rite. The Eastern Rite is an umbrella term for churches that serve the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom on Sunday mornings even though the music can vary greatly from one culture to the next. In the Middle East and Greece, they sing Byzantine Chant. In most Eastern European countries, they sing Slavic Chant. Georgia has its own music system.

Not all Orthodox Christians use the Eastern Rite. Four branches of the Orthodox Church include congregations that use Western liturgies. The Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese is the larger body that sanctions the use of forms of worship that most Americans would perhaps find more familiar.

This liturgical form is known as the Western Rite. More specifically, the Western Rite is a specified form of worship that was used by Christians in the west. The Western Rite is an umbrella including both the Roman and English Rite. The Western Rite, when compared to Eastern forms, employs a hymnody (the hymns used) that is familiar to a great many Americans. 

Before the year 1054, there would have been no difficulty in declaring that the Western Rite of the Undivided Church was simply the use of Latin speaking Churches. The Rite used by Christians in Scotland, Ireland, and England, was as Orthodox as that used in Constantinople. In the first thousand years of Christendom, all the far flung churches that were in communion with the Five Patriarchates (Constantinople, Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, and Rome) were Orthodox. Over the next seven hundred years, the rest of the Patriarchates broke communion with Rome. Antioch was the last Patriarchate to break communion with Rome, which happened in the 18th century.

The restoration of a correct, and truly Orthodox, Western Rite to Holy Orthodoxy in the United States was not originated by the laity or by ordinary clergy. The vision of the Western Rite as an essential part of the Orthodox Mission in America belonged to Archbishop Tikhon of the American Archdiocese under the Moscow Patriarchate. Around 1900, he was asked by Episcopalians to examine the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and it was sent to the Holy Synod of Moscow. That Mass, derived from the ancient use of the Orthodox West, and first expressed in English in the edition of the 1549 Book of Common Prayer, by the authority of King Edward the Sixth of England, was corrected and approved by the Holy Synod for Orthodox Church use.

In the years following, blessed Tikhon was himself elevated to Patriarch of Moscow, martyred by the communists in 1925, since declared a Saint of the Church, and thus known to Orthodox faithful throughout the world as St. Tikhon, Enlightener of America. This is the same Saint Tikhon who, about the time he obtained approval for the restoration of the Western Rite in America, also consecrated (in 1904) Raphael Hawaweeny to the episcopate of the Orthodox Church of North America, from which the Antiochian Orthodox Christian Archdiocese descends. With these two, the following saints have also supported the restoration of the Western Rite in the Orthodox Church: Innocent of Alaska, Nicholas of Japan, John of Shanghai and San Francisco, and John Kochurov (one of the first martyrs of the Bolshevik revolution).

As American Orthodoxy grew in numbers and in maturity, further authorization of the Western Rite was given by the Patriarch and Holy Synod of Antioch after consultation with the other Patriarchs of the Orthodox Church. Metropolitan Anthony (Bashir) founded the Western Rite Vicariate for the creation of Western Rite Missions and Parishes in the Archdiocese. Metropolitan Philip (Saliba) has promoted an increasing number of Western Rite Parishes throughout North America. New additions of Clergy and Laity have more than doubled their size in a few years. Metropolitan Joseph has continued episcopal support and even given speeches on the importance of the Western Rite. Western Rite Orthodoxy is now a rapidly growing dimension of the Church’s Mission in America.