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Many western Christians are baffled by the complexity of the Christian East, which can appear to be a bewildering array of national churches and ethnic jurisdictions. The purpose of this survey is to provide a clear overview of the eastern churches for the non-specialist by furnishing basic information about each of them and indicating the relationships among them. Each church is placed in its historical, geographical, doctrinal, and liturgical context. Because this book is primarily intended for an English-speaking audience, details are also provided regarding the presence of each of these churches in North America, Britain, and Australia.

The principle used in this book for the classification of churches is communion. That is, it describes groups of churches that are in full communion with one another, rather than categorizing them according to other criteria such as liturgical tradition.

This approach yields four distinct eastern Christian communions: (1) the Assyrian Church of the East, which is not in communion with any other church; (2) the six Oriental Orthodox churches, which, even if each one is independent, are in full communion with one another; (3) the Orthodox Church, which is a communion of national or regional churches, all of which recognize the Patriarch of Constantinople as a point of unity enjoying certain rights and privileges; and (4) the Eastern Catholic churches, all of which are in communion with the Church of Rome and its bishop.

The only exception I have made to the principle of communion for the classification of churches is the Orthodox Churches of Irregular Status. They have been included as a subcategory of the Orthodox Church, but they are not in full communion with it. All of them are of Orthodox origin, but today the Orthodox view them as at least uncanonical if not fully schismatic.

I have endeavored in this book to present these churches as they are, and to describe disputed matters without judgment. For instance, the order in which the autocephalous Orthodox churches should be listed presents a problem because the Orthodox are not in unanimous agreement among themselves as to the precedence of their churches after the four ancient patriarchates. I have listed them in the order recognized by the Patriarchate of Constantinople and most other Orthodox churches. The four ancient patriarchates are followed by the five patriarchates of more recent origin, and then by the other autocephalous churches that do not have the rank of patriarchate.

A word needs to be said also about the status of the Orthodox Church in America (the OCA), which I have included among the autocephalous Orthodox churches. In doing this I am aware that Constantinople and most other Orthodox churches do not recognize the OCA as autocephalous. This is why it is not allowed to take part in such pan-Orthodox activities as international dialogues with other Christian churches. Nevertheless, it functions as an autocephalous church, and its inclusion in the Standing Conference of Canonical Orthodox Bishops of the Americas indicates that it has achieved a certain level of legitimacy among other Orthodox churches in the United States. It seemed appropriate to include this church among the autocephalous Orthodox churches, along with a description of the controversy about its status. It is not my intention to take a position on the problem, but only to describe it.

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Tags: Orthodox Church