More Terminology: Churches

In the previous post, I discussed and defined the relevant terminology in discussing Apostolic Succession for those churches that claim it.  In passing, I reeled off a list of the  major churches that do claim to maintain Apostolic Succession.  I am aware that many of them may be obscure, perhaps even unheard of, to the average American.  Thus, I want to take a very brief look at these churches.  Remember, the criterion is that they all claim valid Apostolic Succession.  Additionally, all of them maintain the Seven Sacraments in one way or another (though there are subtle differences which I won’t go into here).

The Catholic Church

The Catholic Church originated in the preaching of the Christian faith in Rome.  It claims that the Apostle Peter came to Rome and was the head of the church there until his execution by the Romans in the early 60’s AD.  Peter is considered the first Bishop of Rome, and his successors, to the present day–known since about the 4th Century on as “popes”–continue to lead the Catholic Church.  The Catholic Church, with over a billion members, is the largest church, and the largest single religious institution, in the world.  In the English-speaking world, it is often referred to as the “Roman Catholic Church”, sometimes abbreviated “RCC”.  This is actually less correct, and I always simply use “Catholic Church” on this blog.  I will reserve explanation of this for a later post.

The Orthodox Church

Also known as the Eastern Orthodox Church.  Though the name is singular, the Orthodox Church is better understood as a group of churches with common faith, sacraments, and beliefs, and in communion with each other, but with no unified leadership.  The Orthodox Church originated in the preaching of the Christian faith in Israel, North Africa, and Asia Minor.  Over the first three centuries, all the Orthodox churches came under the leadership of the bishops of one of four ancient cities.  These bishops came to be known as patriarchs (except for the Patriarch of Alexandria, who is known as “Pope”), and their dioceses “patriarchates”.  The four patriarchates are those of Jerusalem, said to have been founded by St. James, often identified as “The Brother of the Lord”; Alexandria, Egypt, said to have been founded by St. Mark, author of the eponymous Gospel; Antioch (in what is now Turkey), said to have been founded by St. Paul; and Constantinople (now Istanbul, Turkey), said to have been founded by St. Andrew, brother of St. Peter.  Originally, Rome, led by the successors of Peter, was the fifth patriarchate of the so-called Pentarchy.  After the Great Schism in 1054 AD, Rome and the other four Patriarchates separated, the former becoming known as the Catholic Church, and the latter four becoming known as the Orthodox Church.  Over time, other churches separated from the original four, becoming independent, while still in communion with the older churches:  e.g., the Patriarchate of Moscow (Russian Orthodox Church), the Patriarchate of Bulgaria (the Bulgarian Orthodox Church), and so on.  There is no equivalent to the Pope (in the Western sense) in the Orthodox Church.  Each church is led by its own patriarch, who has no authority over the others.  The leader of the Church of Constantinople is called the “Ecumenical Patriarch” and is first in honor among the others.  However, unlike the Pope of the Catholic Church, the Ecumenical Patriarch has no authority over the other Orthodox Churches.  He may merely lead by example or suggestion.  The total number of members of all the churches of the Orthodox communion is between two and three hundred million.

The Oriental Orthodox Churches

These churches are relatively unknown to the average American.  In brief, after the Council of Calcedon, some churches refused to accept the Council’s definition of the relationship of the Divine and human natures in Christ.  Briefly, the Council–which is accepted by the Catholic and Orthodox Churches–states that Christ is one person (hypostasis) in which two separate natures (physeis), Divine and Human, are united.  The Oriental Churches maintained that the Divine and human unite in one nature.  This position has been referred to as “Monophysitism” (“one nature”).  The Oriental Churches have thus often been referred to as the “Monophysite” Church.  They themselves prefer the subtly different term “Miaphysite“.  The theological intricacies involved are far beyond the scope of this post.  For those who want to learn more, I’d suggest Fr. Aidan Nichol’s excellent book, Rome and the Eastern Churches.  The main point here is that the Oriental Orthodox separated from both the Catholic and Orthodox Churches over theological issues and remain separate today, though dialogue has resolved some of the theological disputes.  The Oriental Orthodox Churches, while not in communion with the Catholic or Orthodox Churches, are in full communion with each other.  The Oriental Orthodox communion consists of the Coptic Orthodox Church in Egypt; the Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo Church; the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahedo Church; the Armenian Apostolic Church; the Syriac Orthodox Church of Antioch; and the Malankara Orthodox Syrian Church in India.  Each of these churches is led by a Patriarch (or in the case of Alexandria, a pope*) as in the Eastern Orthodox Church; and the structure, customs, and organization of the Oriental Orthodox Churches is similar to that of the Eastern Orthodox Church.  The various Oriental Orthodox Churches have a total of about seventy-six million believers.

The Assyrian Church of the East

By the 5th Century AD, Marian piety had become important and well-developed in the Church (not yet divided into Catholic and Orthodox). It had become customary to refer to Mary as Theotokos, “God-Bearer”, or more loosely, “Mother of God” (“Theotokos” is still used in the Orthodox Church, with “Mother of God” being preferred in the Catholic Church).  Nestorius, who was Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople from 428 to 431 AD, objected to this, insisting that it downplayed Christ’s humanity.  He developed a theology in which the Divine Logos was united to the human Jesus, coming perilously close to making Jesus two separate persons.  Based on this theology, Nestorius insisted that Mary be referred to not as “Theotokos”, or “God-Bearer”, but “Christotokos”, or “Christ-Bearer”.  After much heated debate, on this issue, the Council of Ephesus was called to rule definitively on the matter.  The Council ruled Nestorius a  heretic, and he was banished to a remote desert monastery in Egypt.  Despite the Council, many churches refused to go along with the council, preferring to follow the teachings of Nestorius.  These were mainly located in Persia, Syria, and Asia Minor, though later missionaries reached as far as China, where the Nestorian Church (as it is sometimes known) remained in peace for centuries.  The modern church descending from the ancient Nestorian Church is known as the Assyrian Church of the East.  The customs, language, and liturgy of the Assyrian Church of the East are similar to those of the Eastern Orthodox Church, as is its structure (bishops and archbishops organized under a patriarch), but it is not in communion with the Orthodox or Catholic or Oriental Orthodox Churches.  The Church of the East has been headquartered in many places throughout the Middle East, and for parts of the 20th and 21st Century, in the United States.  It is currently headquartered in Iraq.  A smaller, breakaway church, the Ancient Church of the East, which left over perceived modernization by the Assyrian Church of the East.  The Ancient Church of the East is headquartered in Baghdad, Iraq.  The Assyrian Church of the East has about three hundred thousand members, and the Ancient Church of the East about seventy thousand.

The Anglican Communion

This is the Church of England and all its branches in other countries.  The Church of England resulted from well-known frustration of King Henry VIII with the Catholic Church’s refusal to grant him a divorce to Catherine of Aragon.  Henry broke away from the Catholic Church, got his divorce, and proclaimed himself head of the Church of England–a title retained by English monarchs ever since.  The church is considered to be Protestant, as it took over many innovations and theological ideas from the Reformers.  It is, however, unique among Protestant churches in retaining the Catholic structure of bishops, priests, and deacons in Apostolic Succession, as well as the sacraments.  Over the centuries, the Anglican Church has swerved back and forth between the more Protestant-oriented views of some Anglicans–“Low Church”–and the more Catholic views and practices of others–“High Church”.  Through all these changes, the structure and claimed Apostolic Succession has remained constant.  In the United States, the Anglican Church is called the Protestant Episcopal Church (that little nastiness in 1776 having soured the people on the name “Church of England“).  The organization of the Anglican Communion is very similar to that of the Orthodox Church, with bishops and archbishops under a local leader who may be titled “Metropolitan”, “Presiding Bishop” (as in the USA), or various other titles.  The Archbishop of Canterbury is the head of the Anglican Church in Britain, and symbolic head of the Anglican Communion.  Like the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, though, the Archbishop of Canterbury has a leadership only of honor, having no authority to set policy or intervene in local branches of the Church.  Of all the churches listed in this post, only the churches of the Anglican Communion ordain women to be deacons, priests, and bishops on a large scale.  The Anglican Communion has about eighty-five million adherents worldwide.

The Old Catholic Communion

The Old Catholic Churches began with a series of disputes in the late Middle Ages and Renaissance over appointment of bishops in Utrecht, the Netherlands.  The details are extremely complex, and I won’t go into them here.  Suffice it to say that relations with Rome were strained for centuries, and were finally broken in the wake of the First Vatican Council (1868-1870) and its declaration of papal infallibility.  The Old Catholic Churches maintained the structure of the Catholic Church, sans pope, with bishops and archbishops and local presiding bishops, as in the Orthodox Church.  The sacraments and liturgy were retained, though the liturgy was translated into local languages and priests were allowed to marry.  Some Old Catholic branches began to ordain women in the 1990’s, but this is not as widespread as in the Anglican Communion.  The Old Catholic Churches are mainly located in Central Europe, with a few being in the United States and elsewhere, with a total membership of about a hundred and fifteen thousand.

The Polish National Catholic Church

This church broke away from the Catholic Church in the United States over the perceived neglect of Catholics of Polish descent.  Like the Old Catholic Church, it retained the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church, while translating the liturgy into the vernacular and allowing married clergy.  Unlike the Anglican Church and some of the Old Catholic Churches, the Polish National Catholic Church does not ordain women.  Structurally, the Polish National Catholic Church is administered much like the Orthodox Church, with bishops and archbishops under a “prime” bishop.  The total number of members is about twenty-five thousand.

Splinter Groups and Independent Churches

There are many churches worldwide that have split apart from the Catholic Church, much as did the Old Catholics and the Polish Catholic National Church.  The motivations are diverse.  Some, such as the Society of St. Pius X, broke away because they believed the Catholic Church to be too liberal; others, such as the Ecumenical Catholic Community, broke away because they though the Church was too conservative.  Other reasons churches have broken away include LGBT issues, disputes over ordination of women, and many other factors.  In a similar manner, many churches have broken away from the Orthodox, Anglican, and most of the other churches listed here.  Breakaway and independent churches vary wildly from those that are very traditional, sometimes considering themselves literally more Catholic than the Pope (e.g. the Society of St. Pius V), to churches that mix in beliefs and practices from New Age sources, occultism, and other religions to such an extent that they barely appear Christian, let alone Catholic or Orthodox.  The one common thread is that they all claim Apostolic Succession, usually from clerics who left one of the major churches listed here, but sometimes from wandering bishops (a topic that will require its own post in the near future).  The variety among these churches is so great that I won’t even attempt to discuss them in detail.  A partial list is here; and a good book for someone wishing to learn about such groups is Who Are the Independent Catholics, by John Plummer.  Sometimes these churches are collectively referred to as the Independent Sacramental Movement.  Statistics on these churches are difficult to come by.  Most of them have only a few hundred, or even a few dozen, members.  Some are essentially a bishop, a few clergy, and maybe a handful of members.  Some seem to be more of a web presence than actual, brick-and-mortar churches.  Some meet in houses.  Probably all of these groups across the world have a total membership of no more than a few thousand.

Gnostic Churches

Technically, these could be considered part of the Independent Sacramental Movement, like the ones in the last category.  I want to consider them separately, though, for four reasons.  First, as longtime readers are aware, I have a long-standing interest in Gnosticism.  Second, unlike most of the churches above, Gnostic churches in general are not breakaway or splinter groups.  In other words, they were not in communion with a church from which they later broke away.  In most cases, they were formed separately by various men and women with interests in Gnosticism, and their clerics acquired Holy Orders–and thus Apostolic Succession–from bishops of other churches who were, for whatever reason, willing to ordain them; or, more frequently, from wandering bishops (a topic we’ll treat in the future).  Third, the modern Gnostic movement, while small in numbers, has been widely noted over the last century, and has had a cultural impact far disproportionate to its small numbers. Finally, many Gnostic churches (not all) do claim valid Apostolic Succession for their hierarchs.  Gnostic churches, like independent churches in general, vary enormously.  The common thread among them is an interest in the scriptures and practices of ancient Gnosticism.  Gnostic Churches range from organizations with very traditional structures and minimal differences from little-o orthodox churches, to “anything goes” groups.  The most “traditional”–in the sense of being very similar to the Catholic Church in structure and liturgy–Gnostic church is probably the Ecclesia Gnostica, headed by Regionary Bishop Stephan Hoeller.  This Church is not to be confused with the Ecclesia Gnostica Catholica, a Thelemic organization which is not Gnostic in the strict sense of that word, and not even Christian in doctrine, let alone having any kind of Apostolic Succesion.  Gnostic churches tend to have a structure much like the Orthodox, based on individual bishops and dioceses (though many Gnostic churches have no more than one bishop) loosely grouped together.  The total number of adherents of the various neo-Gnostic Churches  is unknown, but probably ranges from a few hundred to a few thousand.


There are quite possibly churches claiming Apostolic Succession that I haven’t mentioned here; but the categories above cover the vast majority, I think. As various as these churches are, they share the following characteristics:

1. They all claim to have maintained a valid lineage of Apostolic Succession traceable to the Apostles themselves.

2. Those that have a formal structure (some of the small independent groups don’t) are ordered similarly to the Orthodox Church, with bishops and archbishops under local metropolitans, patriarchs, or other high-ranking bishops.

3. Most of them (some of the independent churches may vary) claim to have validly preserved the Seven Sacraments.

4.  Most of them are more similar to the Catholic or Orthodox Church than they are to any form of Protestantism.  To some extent, this is even true of the Anglican Church, which, though it is Protestant, has more of the traditions and trappings of Catholicism than other Protestant churches.

Another commonality, at least for some of the larger, major groups discussed here, is that they are in negotiation with the Catholic and/or Orthodox Churches for possible reunion/recognition.  That, however, is a topic for another day.


*There are actually two Patriarchates of Alexandria, the leader of each being referred to as “pope”.  The Coptic Orthodox Church is a branch of the Oriental Orthodox communion and is by far the larger of the two, with about twenty million members.  The other is a member of the Orthodox Church, and thus in communion with churches of Constantinople, Antioch, Jerusalem, Russia, and so on.  This latter church, known as the “Greek Orthodox Church of Egypt and All Africa”, has about two hundred thousand members in Egypt, and about a million dispersed throughout Africa.  Both the Coptic and Greek Orthodox Churches of Alexandria claim to be the “real” Patriarchate of Alexandria.

Posted on 10/02/2019, in Christianity, religion and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 5 Comments.

  1. I was under the impression that the Old Catholics are now in the Anglican Communion?

    One group that you missed is the Iglesia Filipina Independiente, usually called Aglipayans, in the Philippines. That seems rather like the Old Catholics, and I’m pretty sure it is in communion with the Anglicans, although perhaps just in a Parvoo sense, rather than in organisational terms.

    The Philippines is religiously fascinating, as the overseas-based Protestant groups have only very small followings, and the two main non-Catholic churches, the Aglipayans and Iglesia ni Kristo, are responses to purely Philippine issues, and have little membership outside the country.

    • Many Old Catholic bishops have been co-consecrators of Anglican priests and bishops, and I think the Anglican Church recognizes Old Catholic orders (not sure about the reverse); but the Old Catholics never actually were absorbed into the Anglican Communion as far as I know.

      You’re right that I didn’t mention the Filipino churches–they’re kind of lumped in under splinter groups and miscellaneous. I don’t actually know very much about them, so I wasn’t in a position to do much detail.

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