What is the Church?

He cannot have God for his Father who has not the Church for his Mother — St Cyprian of Carthage


What is the Church?

Nowhere does Jesus say that he has come to found a new religion or establish a new social movement. He did, however, say “I will found my Church” (Matthew 16:18).

When we speak of Church (Ekklesia), we are not referring simply to the church building — which in our services is referred to as a ‘temple’ (naós) or ‘holy house’ (hágios oíkos) — but rather to all those men and women throughout the world who belong to and make up the Body of Jesus Christ. 

The Bible uses a variety of images to describe this Church: God’s field and God’s building (1 Corinthians 3:9), the Bride (Revelation 21:9), the chosen race, royal priesthood, holy nation, people of God (1 Peter 2:5, 9-10), and household of God (1 Timothy 3:5), among other things. The most important such image is, perhaps, that of the Church as the “Body of Christ” (12:27), which expresses both the Church’s connection to Christ and the union of its members to one another.

The Church is made up of all the faithful who live now, have ever lived, and will ever live in future. They are divided into two groups: the Church Militant — those on earth striving to attain to the holiness we have all been called to — and the Church Triumphant — those who have finished the course of this life and who have attained to this holiness, such as the blessed Mother of our Lord, the Virgin Mary, the holy prophet and forerunner, St John the Baptist, the Prophets, Apostles, Church Fathers, Martyrs, Ascetics, Healers, and so on. 


Membership of the Church

Membership of the Church is membership of Christ, which we initially attain through the Mysteries of Baptism, Chrismation and Holy Communion. In Baptism, we renounce the devil and the fallenness of the world and confess our faith in the Holy Trinity and our desire to be joined to Jesus Christ. As we are immersed into the waters of the font, we are “baptised into his death” (Romans 6:3), and we emerge as partakers of his resurrection. In other words, the old man, the child of the first Adam, dies, and we are spiritually reborn as belonging to the New Adam, Jesus Christ. This makes us capable of becoming bearers of the Holy Spirit, and the sealing of our senses with the Holy Chrism is the consecration of our bodies as temples of that Spirit. Finally, our reception of Christ’s Body and Blood, his divine life, in Holy Communion completes our incorporation into the Body of Christ through our physical and spiritual participation in it.

In the Nicene Creed, the Church is described as “one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic”, which is how we can identify where this Body of Christ is to be found.


The Church is One

Although the Body of Christ has many members, the Body itself is one, because there is only “one Lord Jesus Christ”. As St Paul tells us, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:4-6).

To speak of more than one Church would be to imply the existence of more than one Christ, which is impossible. Thus, while we can colloquially speak of “churches” in the plural to denote different parishes, dioceses or patriarchates ⁠— the Church of Constantinople, the Church of Jerusalem, the Church of Cyprus, etc. ⁠— it is more appropriate to speak of the one Church that is manifest in various places. The Book of Revelation, for example, speaks of the “Church in Ephesus…the Church in Smyrna…the Church in Pergamos…the Church in Thyateira”, and so on (ch. 2).

The one Church is united by one faith, one baptism, one Eucharist, a common Apostolic Tradition and a mutually recognised hierarchy of bishops. 


The Church is Holy

In the Divine Liturgy, we confess that “one is holy, one is Lord, Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen”. The Church is holy because it is the Church of Jesus Christ and because its function is to make us holy by uniting us to him. This is why the Scripture refers to the members of the Church as “holy ones”, or saints (ἅγιοι), as does the priest in the Divine Liturgy when he lifts up the consecrated Bread and exclaims “The holy things for the holy”.


The Church is Catholic

The word ‘Catholic’ (καθολική) literally means ‘whole’ or ‘complete’. The word is often translated ‘universal’ because the Church is not confined to any particular nation or state, nor to any particular tribe or ethnic group. Certainly, such universality is an essential aspect of catholicity, but there is much more to catholicity than geography; it is a term that denotes fullness in every respect.

While other religious traditions and philosophical schools might teach much that is true and beneficial, they only do so partially. Only the Orthodox Church is truly Catholic because she alone, having been founded by the One who is the Way, the Truth and the Life, has the fullness of faith, the fullness of truth, the fullness of grace through the Holy Sacraments. In other words, in the Orthodox Catholic Church a person lacks none of the means by which to approach God and enter into union with him. 


The Church is Apostolic

The Church is also Apostolic because it can trace its history all the way back to the Apostles and, through them, to Jesus Christ himself. The Apostles ordained bishops to succeed them, who in turn ordained others to succeed them, and so on until the present day. Every Orthodox bishop can trace his ordination back to one of the holy Apostles through an unbroken line of succession.

However, apostolicity is not limited to historical continuity, but also continuity in faith and practice. The Church is described as apostolic because it is an apostolic institution, but also because it preserves and lives out the Apostolic Tradition (i.e., that which has been handed down to us from the apostles). 

One could think of apostolicity as a torch, lit with the fire of truth, which is passed on from one generation of bishops to the next. One cannot pass on the fire (the apostolic tradition) without the torch (the historical, institutional continuity), nor is there any value in passing on the torch unless it is lit.

Thus, while there are other Christian communities which can claim to have apostolic succession in the sense of historical institutional continuation (because they were once part of the Orthodox Church), they cannot be described as apostolic churches since they have not preserved the apostolic teaching and way of life, and have separated themselves from the apostolic community. To become apostolic, they would have to return to the One Church where the fire of Apostolic Tradition still burns and relight their proverbial torches.


Church governance

Unlike the Latin (Roman Catholic) Church, which has a centralised structure centred around the person of the Pope, the Orthodox Church has a decentralised and conciliar structure, which means that decisions are made by the gathering of the Church in council. This form of governance is Biblical and Apostolic, and is based on the Council of Jerusalem described in the Book of Acts (chapter 15), when the apostles gathered in the Holy City in response to a dispute about the extent to which the observance of Mosaic ritual regulations were applicable to Gentile converts to Christianity. 

When it comes to matters of faith, it goes without saying that no council has the ability to change the teaching of the Church. The role of a council is rather to uphold and defend orthodoxy (right belief) by clarifying what the Church has always taught and to discern whether or not a particular theological expression is in keeping with Holy Tradition.

The Church holds what are known as the Ecumenical (universal) Councils in particularly high regard, since these provided definite answers to questions about the Christian understanding of God as Trinity and of Jesus Christ as both human and divine:

The Council of Nicea (325 AD)

The Council of Constantinople (381 AD)

The Council of Ephesus (431 AD)

The Council of Chalcedon (451 AD)

The Council of Constantinople II (553 AD)

The Council of Constantinople III (680-681 AD)

The Council of Nicea II (787 AD)


The Council of Constantinople IV (879-880 AD)

The Council of Constantinople V (1341-51 AD)

In order to ensure the visible unity of the Church, this conciliar system includes three basic principles:

  1. There should not be more than one bishop overseeing any particular area, so that all the faithful in any given place have the same point of reference (Canon 8, Council of Nicea).
  2. The bishop of one area must not interfere in the affairs of another (Canon 2, Council of Constantinople).
  3. “The bishops of every nation must acknowledge him who is first among them and account him as their head, and do nothing of consequence without his consent but each may do those things only which concern his own parish, and the country places which belong to it. But neither let him (who is the first) do anything without the consent of all; for so there will be unanimity, and God will be glorified through the Lord in the Holy Spirit.” (Apostolic canon 34).

The bishop who is first (protos) presides at the council of bishops, for which reason he has the title archbishop (first bishop). The various archbishops in a given area will in turn recognise who is first among them; in many places, this archbishop has the title patriarch. The different patriarchates in turn have a set order. The first-ranking patriarchate in the Orthodox Church today is that of Constantinople (New Rome). However, unlike the centralised papal structure of the Latin church, where the Pope has universal jurisdiction and the right to intervene anywhere, the patriarch who is protos in the Orthodox Church has no jurisdiction outside of his own local territory. The Patriarch of Constantinople, for example, cannot interfere in the internal matters of another patriarchate (unless invited by them to do so in the capacity of an arbiter). His role as protos is to serve as a point of unity, and his prerogatives in this respect are limited to those matters which are of universal concern, where he would be responsible for calling and presiding over a synod to deal with those matters; it is not a position that allows for unilateral action.

Thus, at the divine services priests will commemorate by name their local bishop, bishops their archbishop, archbishops their patriarch, while the patriarchs will commemorate by name all other patriarchs with whom they are in communion. 

There are currently 16 autocephalous (self-governing) churches, each covering a different geographical area:


  1. The Patriarchate of Constantinople, New Rome
  2. The Patriarchate of Alexandria
  3. The Patriarchate of Antioch
  4. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem
  5. The Patriarchate of Moscow
  6. The Patriarchate of Georgia
  7. The Patriarchate of Serbia
  8. The Patriarchate of Romania
  9. The Patriarchate of Bulgaria
  10. The Archbishopric of Cyprus
  11. The Archbishopric of Greece
  12. The Archbishopric of Albania
  13. The Metropolitanate of Poland
  14. The Metropolitanate of the Czech Lands and Slovakia
  15. The Metropolitanate of Ukraine
  16. The Archbishopric of Ochrid

Of these, the churches of Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, Jerusalem and Cyprus were given autocephalous status by the Ecumenical Councils in the first millennium. The remaining eleven were granted autocephalous status by the Patriarchate of Constantinople in the second millennium, having previously been dioceses under that Patriarchate’s jurisdiction. The Tome (Tomos) of Autocephaly granted to these churches by the Patriarchate describe the territories over which they are responsible.

Thus, when you hear about “The Russian Orthodox Church”, “The Romanian Orthodox Church”, “The Serbian Orthodox Church” these terms do not denote rival churches or rival forms of Orthodoxy; they simply denote different administrative units covering different geographical territories. All form part of the same one, holy, Catholic and Apostolic Orthodox Church.

The problem of multiple jurisdictions

While the problem of multiple jurisdictions has little impact on the day to day lives of the faithful here in the UK, it is something that often leads to confusion and is therefore worth clarifying.

For the first thousands years of Church history, the Church of Rome was also part of the same Orthodox Catholic Church, with territorial jurisdiction over Western Europe and the northwestern parts of Africa. 

When the Pope of Rome broke away from the rest of the Church in 1054, an event known as the Great Schism, this left Western Europe without a valid Orthodox administrative structure. Therefore, when an Orthodox presence returned to these countries in recent years through immigration from Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Africa, there was no existing local church structure to accommodate them. Out of practical necessity, the parishes of each immigrant group therefore remained under the local church of the country from which they had arrived.

This is why you in places like London find Serbian parishes under one bishop, Romanian parishes under another, Russian parishes under another, etc. While this does not in any way undermine the spiritual and sacramental unity of the Church, it must be stressed that this is a departure from the Orthodox structure of Church government and that the phenomenon of overlapping “ethnic jurisdictions”, which some in the West think of as characteristic of Orthodoxy, is actually foreign to it.

After the conversion of the Roman Emperor, St Constantine the Great, in the 4th century, the imperial capital was moved from Rome to Constantinople (called New Rome). For this reason, the Church of Constantinople was established by the Ecumenical Councils as being the Church of New Rome, with rights and responsibilities equal to those of Old Rome. On this basis, many hold that the Patriarchate of Constantinople should take on the administrative responsibilities of the territories that formerly belonged to Old Rome (e.g. Britain) and that all Orthodox Christoans should unite around the local diocesan bishops of the Constantinople Patriarchate until such a time as the Church of Rome returns to the Orthodox fold, or a new Orthodox Bishop of Rome is appointed by an Ecumenical Council.