Orthodoxy is the First Church. It is the living, unbroken continuation of the Faith as first given to the Apostles. I once saw a bumper sticker that says it all: ORTHODOXY - PREACHING THE GOSPEL SINCE 33 A.D.!
This doesn't mean that the Orthodox Churches have researched and attempted to re-create the Primitive Church. It means that we have lived, prayed and preached continuously and consistently since the days of the Apostles. The Liturgies we use, with regional variations, are all descended from the Liturgy put together by the Apostle St, James the Just, based upon the Jewish Temple Liturgy and the Passover. It's the one that was used by St. John the Evangelist, on Patmos.
Since we don't believe in things like "development of doctrine," Orthodox teaching has been carefully safeguarded and faithfully passed down through the centuries. It is no stretch to say that a First-Century Christian who could somehow walk into an Orthodox church today would (after he adjusted to the architecture and the electricity) feel completely comfortable.
When people think "Orthodox Christian," the phrase "Eastern Orthodox" often comes to mind. Most of
us think of the "west" as the province of the Roman Catholics or of the Protestant denominations.
There were no Protestant denominations, however, until just five hundred years ago; and the Roman
Patriarchate didn't really come to be distinct from the rest of the Church before the establishment of
Charlemagne's Holy Roman Empire in 800 A.D. Even then, they didn't separate themselves from the other four patriarchates of the Church until 1054.
While the West was undergoing all the turmoil of the antipopes, the revisionism of the Faith under Franco-Latinism, the rampages of William the Conqueror and the Protestant Reformation, the Ancient Faith simply continued as it had always been, in the East. The ancient doctrines remained intact, unchanged even under the captivity of the Ottomon Caliphate or of Tsar Peter the Great's attempt to "Westernize" Russia even at the expense of the Church. It's no surprise. therefore, that the unbroken existence of the Primitive Church is identified with the East.
The Eastern Church has been heroic in defending and teaching the Ancient Faith. This does not mean, however, that the Ancient Church is a strictly "Eastern" phenomenon.
In fact, the Church was established in the West in about 37 A.D., with the mission of St. Joseph of Arimathea to Britain. The first actual Christian church building was a wattle-and-daub structure on whose site the famous Glastonbury Abbey was built. St. Aristobulus, the brother of the Apostle Barnabas and himself one of the Seventy, was the first Bishop of Britain (see the following: http://codexjustinianus.blogspot.com/2011/03/st-aristobulus-first-bishop-of-britain.html).
At around the same time, St. Philip the Apostle was in Gaul, preaching the Gospel to the Franks,
as was Mary Magdalene. Some accounts hold that Joseph of Arimathea first landed in Gaul, and
that the Apostle Philip consecrated him a bishop and sent him to Britain from there (see http://www.goldenageproject.com.uk/345firstchurch.php).
So, the First Church moved out from Jerusalem into the west rather rapidly, and moved out from
Glastonbury and the Gaulish missions to take root throughout Europe.
Both the Gallican (Celtic) and Latin (Roman) Liturgies have their origins in a West that was still Orthodox, part of the Undivided Church. The principal monastic Rule of the West, the Rule of St. Benedict, is Orthodox, having originated in the doctrinally undivided, Orthodox Church of the Sixth Century. The Roman Church Councils of Pisa (1409), Constance (1414), Siena (1423) and Basle (1431), affirm that Joseph of Arimathea brought the Faith to Britain "Immediately after the Passion of Christ." Appropriately, the British bishops at these councils were accorded particular honor. Thus does even the Roman Church acknowledge that the Western Church was established in Glastonbury some five years before Peter went to Rome in 42 AD.
Western Orthodoxy produced giants: Saints Colum Cille, Kentigern, David of Wales, Patrick, Brigit, Brendan the Navigator, Germaine, Ambrose, Gregory the Great, Benedict...the list could go on for page after page. This is the living legacy of Orthodoxy's Western Rites, the sacred patrimony of the One Undivided Church of the East and West, alive and well today. That patrimony is our inheritance as Christians. You might say it's "the birthright of the born-again."
You don't find a great deal of "systematic theology" in Orthodoxy. We are about knowing God rather than trying to know about God. So, we don't read the Fathers to look for "the rules." The Fathers (and Mothers) of the Church lived by different Rules of life, many of which varied widely from each other. Rather, we immerse ourselves in the Fathers, and in the way of life they left us, in order to acquire their point of view--their attitude--their mindset. The Greek word for "mindset" is phronema (frow-KNEE-ma) and that's what we call it: the Orthodox Mindset, or the Phronema.
The Phronema leads us into a world where all created things are holy, because God created them; where we are comfortable with the fact that God is a Mystery, and that we cannot know Him in His Essence because His Essence is completely beyond us. We can, however, know Him in His Energies, in the ways in which He deals with us and the ways in which He reveals Himself to us. And we can become intimate with Him as His Presence grows in our hearts and speculations about "why" and "how" simply become irrelevant. Most importantly, we can then go to the Word of God in Scripture, and view it through the lens of the Phronema--the lens of the disciples of the men whose lives God devoted to the writing of it, and of their disciples.
Iconic, not Scholastic
The Scholastic mindset comes to God with questions and a drive to gain an understanding that can be explained, discussed and refined. The Iconic mindset comes to God and relaxes. It lets Him lead us into seeing that all things are icons of Him and of His Work, in one way or another.
Our training for this is the use of icons made by hand. An icon is a two-dimensional representation, usually (but not necessarily) of a Saint, usually holding or surrounded by something he or she is known for. Icons are not usually emotionally evocative. The expressions on the faces are neutral, the settings plain. The scenes draw us into them, our mind's eye providing the "missing" third-dimension and perspective. So, we notice things, and ideas about them occur to us. Our spirits are touched. We are thus led into a wordless, noiseless, argumentless encounter with some little "something" about God, about the way in which He works in and through us and His creation, and we find we have grown larger. We thus develop the capacity to appreciate the "greater dimensions" in the wide world and the things we encounter in it.
Perhaps the most famous of icons is not a man-made icon at all: St. Patrick was once challenged to explain his "Triune God." In response, he plucked a shamrock from the ground and displayed it, declaring, "Three in One, One in Three." Understanding, here, is instantaneous and profound, yet beyond explanation. It comes from the Holy Spirit, operating within us in "groanings too deep for words," bringing us close to God in a way that cannot be described, only experienced, confessed and pointed to.
The Liturgy is the real Catechism of the Church. In the Liturgy we have the ultimate human experience: Christ, present on the Altar, offering Himself as Sacrifice for us; yet not "another" Sacrifice, but a miraculous participation in the same Sacrifice offered once, for all. In the Liturgy space and time are suspended, and the church becomes a "thin place:" a place where the barrier between Time and Eternity becomes porous. We sit at table with the Apostles; not figuratively, but actually. And we, the Church on earth, are made welcome in the company of the Church in Heaven. We pray and partake with them, for we are all sitting at the same table in the same timelessness.
The Formation of the Church
God formed the Church over an almost six hundred year period which is widely considered to have ended with the death of St. Gregory the Great in 604 AD. This was the "Patristic Period," or "the time of the Fathers."
We forget, sometimes, just how absolutely in charge God actually is, and how much His time-scale differs from ours. We rather expect Him to conform to our view of Him--or even to several different, conflicting views of Him, and to share our time-frame and agenda. So, we say things like, "After the Canon of Scripture was complete, all the Church did was follow the Bible." However... there were no printing presses, hardly any Bibles and very few people who could read. For most of its history, the Church was dependent on the oral teaching of faithful stewards who had been found worthy by their teachers. We lose sight of this because our views, time-frames and agendas are geared to the world as it is around us, now, and to the span of a mortal life.
God, however, did not set about building His Church only to have to re-build it with every succeeding
generation. Moreover, He is not surprised by us. God is intimately familiar with the vanities and weaknesses of the fallen creatures who retain His Image, and He knows that, while He builds for Eternity, these vanities and weaknesses limit our own capacity to sustain what He builds. There was nothing about the conflicts and schisms, even the wars fought between His confessed followers, supposedly in His Name, or the shattering of His Work into thousands of pieces, each functioning on its own according to a "distinctive" of some sort or another, that shocked Him. Even as He prayed, "Let them all be one," He knew we would never be able to be so.
So, the Lord built carefully, and well. He put together a structure that would stand the test of time, and that would shelter His errant children through to Eternity, even as we did our best to tear it down. It was during the Patristic period that the great missionary journeys were made; that the organization that would provide shelter against persecution and a welcoming refuge for the unsaved took shape; that the great monasteries took root, with their scriptoria that produced the only Bibles there were, at the rate of about one, or maybe even as many as three, per year These built the libraries that preserved the legacy of civilization and reason against generations of predatory barbarians.
We call the legacy of this period, "Holy Tradition." and we all, to one degree or another, follow it. The sparest "order of service" follows the pattern laid out in the ancient Liturgies. The most contemporary of contemporary "worship tunes" aspire to the spirit--and even at times duplicate the meter--of fourteen-hundred-year-old hymns and plain-chants. And, however hard they may try to re-phrase it and whatever they may accompany it with, the whole of the company of believers winds up expressing in some way the ancient formula of Nicaea-Constantinople whenever they undertake to state a Creed. So, however much some who would follow Christ try, they can never fully get away from the foundation established by the Ancient Church which continues alive and well, in her fullness, in Orthodoxy.
Saint Benedict in his Rule called a monastery a building built with living stones: that is, the monks who live there. The same can be said of the whole Body of Christ, the Church. It is a building, formed over centuries of the Holy Spirit working through prayer and patience, and it is not built of human hands. If it had been, it would have collapsed, by now, its ruins lying in the same rubble with the great empires it has survived.
In 451, the Council of Chalcedon organized the Church into five centers, or "Patriachates:" Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch and Jerusalem. The Roman Empire still defined the known world, and these five places constituted its great strategic and economic centers. The priority was the Great Commission of Matthew 28:18-20, and an order of primacy was assigned according to the political and economic clout of each. The two centers of the Empire were Rome itself, in the west, and Constantinople in the east. Alexandria was the home of the mighty Egyptian Empire, now an almost equally-mighty Roman province. Syria (Antioch), with its Mediterranean port and land connections into the interior, stood upon the great trade connection between the East and the West. And even as it is today, Jerusalem's location made it the critical strategic center of the world. Together, this Pentarchy was able to provide access and funding to missionaries, who proceeded, in obedience to Christ's command, to carry the Gospel to the ends of the known world.
The Pentarchial Patriarchates have changed radically over the years. Rome became separate, and the lands of the rest were invaded and subjugated by the Muslims; all but Jerusalem, which remains under siege to this day. The Russian Patriarchate of Moscow stands alone as the torch-bearer of once-mighty Christian Byzantium. So, it is variously called the "Fifth Patriarchate" or the "Third Rome." Missions have become largely self-financing: the world-wide Empire from which the Patriarchates launched their
predecessors is no more. The Pentarchy became loci of continuity rather than political and economic support, and the Churches of a commonly-recognized "World Orthodoxy" are those which have persisted in active fellowship with their ancient foundation. This arrangement, like every arrangement on our troubled planet, is fraught with its own problems. It does, however serve to maintain the Faith intact, and that is the job God gives it.
Intimacy with God
Orthodoxy can be pretty impressive. Our Liturgies have been called "doorways to Heaven." Our prayers are ancient and beautiful, our vestments from another, less-grey-toned time. The incense and the bells, the several times of prayer, have all persisted from the earliest hours of the Church. It is a place of panoply and wonder, of lifting up the best and most beautiful of which we are capable in humble offering to the magnificent God without Whom we would be capable of nothing. And yet it--all of it--is in service to one thing: a simple, personal, individual, immediate relationship with God the Father, lived in the power of the Holy Spirit, in Personal relationship with our Lord, God and Saviour Jesus Christ. Orthodoxy, in its fullness, abides in the most magnificent of cathedrals and in the humblest of house-churches. The surroundings and the "stuff" are, at best, secondary. What is primary is what they preserve and teach, which is the path to depth of intimacy with the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. This is accomplished in a Personal relationship with Jesus, in Whom alone is salvation, immersed in the ways in which He lived with, and which He taught, His own Apostles: The Church, against whom the gates of hell cannot and shall not prevail, now and always and unto ages of ages.