The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey

The Eastern Christian Churches: A Brief Survey

By Ronald Roberson
CSP. 6th ed. Rome: Pontifical Oriental Institute, 1999. Paperback, 276 pages.

Among the many Eastern spiritual traditions of our world, some of the least well-known are the varied and diverse Eastern expressions of Christianity. This sixth edition of Fr. Roberson's standard reference work on Eastern Christianity is the best starting place for any seekers interested in learning more about the history, demographics, and groupings of the member Churches of the four extant communions of Eastern Christianity that have institutional continuity with their ancient parent Churches.

The philosopher Kant teaches us that we cannot think without categories. Not knowing which questions to ask is a primary obstacle to understanding. When people first encounter Eastern Christianity they may often lack effective categories and definitions to comprehend the riches of these ancient traditions. Fr. Roberson offers considerable assistance in this journey of exploration, first in his introduction, and then in the individual sections themselves. He analyzes the Eastern Christian Churches on the basis of communion, one of the translations of the Greek term koinonia.

In classic Christian terms, a communion (or koinonia) of Churches is a grouping of ecclesial communities which, although they may follow differing liturgical and spiritual traditions, recognize the same proclamation (kerygma) of faith in one another. This enables members of one member Church to participate in the Holy Mysteries (Sacraments) of another member Church within the communion.

From the beginning, this understanding of plurality and diversity has been a basic (although tragically sometimes forgotten) part of the life of the worldwide Christian community. Unity in love and faith, not uniformity in practice, is the venerable ideal.

It is important: to note that in Christian parlance, the term "church" is used to designate (l) an individual parish community; (2) a particular administrative unit, a diocese or eparchy; (3) a particular Church, family of dioceses or eparchies that share a common liturgical and spiritual tradition; (4) a communion of diverse Churches; and (5) a spiritual notion, the whole Body of Christ. Fr. Roberson's work will go a fair distance in allowing the reader to understand these various levels of meaning in regard to Eastern Christianity.

This handbook is designed to allow those beginning to explore Eastern Christianity to get an overview of the situation of Eastern Christian communities worldwide, with particular emphasis on the English-speaking world, while providing enough in-depth and current information to be of great use to the specialist.

The work is organized according to the four ancient communions of Eastern Christianity. Each section gives a brief overview of the history of the particular ecclesial group, readable for the beginner, but accurate and detailed enough for even the seasoned veteran. Following the overview, recent history and events of the Church group are reviewed, and insofar as data are available, the general distribution of communities around the world, headquarters, leadership, membership statistics, and web site.

The first communion is the Assyrian Church of the East, made up of two (or three) widely dispersed Churches throughout the world, originating in Iraq and India. These Churches share the East Syriac (East-Antiochian) liturgical, spiritual, and communal traditions.

The second communion is the Oriental Orthodox, six Churches that follow diverse traditions-Armenian, Alexandrian (Coptic and Geez of Ethiopia and former Eritrea), and West Syriac (West-Antiochion) -- but have a shared history since the Council of Chalcedon (AD 451) in their definition of the way they describe the interaction of the humanity and divinity in Christ.

The third communion is the Eastern Orthodox, a very large koinonia of Churches all sharing the Byzantine tradition originating in Constantinople. This includes some thirty-two Churches and communities throughout the world. These are the Eastern Churches with which many westerners are most familiar: Greek and Russian Orthodox.

The fourth communion is the most diverse, the Eastern Catholics. These are members of some twenty-two Churches representing all of the liturgical and spiritual traditions of Eastern Christianity in communion with the Roman Catholic Church. Fr. Roberson organizes his treatment of the Eastern Catholic Churches according to the individual community's correspondence with an existing Church in one of the first three communions.

It might seem at first glance that this is a book for specialists in Christian arcana and historical footnotes. Nothing could be further from the truth. Eastern Christianity is a major reality at the turn of the millennia. Of Catholics in India, 51 percent are Eastern Catholic (Malabar and Malankar}, not Roman Catholic. The Christian Community of India is almost 2000 years old. In North America there are millions of Eastern Christians of all four communions, a larger population than, for example, Episcopalians, but far less well-known. In other areas of Eastern Christian roots and large indigenous populations (such as Eastern Europe, Russia, the Middle East, Northern and Eastern Africa), the consequences of not promoting religious understanding and an acceptance of diversity arc tragically evident, and threaten to destabilize not only the spiritual life of humanity but, the very survival of our planet, because of wars and strife.

Finally, it is a disservice to the deep spiritual and historical legacy of Christianity to allow the misconception to continue that: Christianity is essentially only a Western, European phenomenon. Christianity is at its origin a Middle-Eastern wisdom path, now thoroughly acculturated with incredible diversity throughout the world's peoples. This age-old stance of unity in diversity is quite well-suited to twenty-first century pluralist nations and, if properly understood, will promote much more peaceful dialogue among religious and spiritual persons.

Whether one is seeking a spiritual tradition or wishing to know more about the millions of women and men who share the Eastern Christian life and worship and who are reemerging as vital participants in the world community, this book is an indispensable starting point.

Fr. Roberson comes to the task of preparing this work with impeccable credentials, academic, pastoral, and professional. Having completed a bachelor's degree in political science from the University of Kansas in 1972, he joined the Paulist Fathers and studied theology at Catholic University of America in Washington, DC After presbyteral ordination in 1977, Fr. Roberson spent five years in pastoral ministry in Montreal. He received a doctorate from the Pontifical Oriental Institute in Rome in 1988 with a thesis on contemporary Romanian Orthodox ecclesiology.