Visiting the Largest Church in the World

When I was very young, I knew there were Protestants, and they were the Christians. Later on I learned there were Catholics, and about the Reformation, and the glorious Martin Luther. It wasn't until I got to college that I learned that there was this third branch, the Orthodox. Soon I learned that they were actually two different groups with the same name, divided into Chalcedonian Orthodox (those who believed Jesus is one person, two natures), and Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox (the so-called Monophysites, like the majority of Egyptian Christians, believing Jesus is one person, one nature). It is said Protestants and Catholics have different answers; the Orthodox have different questions.

Then in grad school I found out that there were other groups: the Quakers with their non-sacramental theology and placement of the Holy Spirit above either the Bible or tradition deservedly were a separate branch; and then the Nestorians, who believe that Christ is two natures, and two people.

The Nestorians don't like that term, as common as it is in the West to describe them, as it has bad historical allusions, and isn't completely accurate, unless one's historical allusions are accurate, and in this matter, they often are not. So they prefer the term The Church of Theodore of Mopsuetia, which is far too cumbersome to write all the time. There is also the Assyrian Orthodox Church, not to be confused with the Syrian Orthodox Church, which is a Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox Church. But it is often confusing to use those two terms. Other names include the Chaldean Syrian Church, or it's official name, The Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East. But they aren't Catholic, though there is a Chaldean Catholic Church, who is actually Roman Catholic.

The Roman Catholics of this rite are a result in a split from the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, after the church started having hereditary Patriarchs, uncle to nephew. Those that didn't agree with this became Roman Catholics; those that did stayed with the same church. That worked for 250 years, until those previously with the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East lost there Patriarch, and decided to accept the Roman Catholic one. Happily for the sake of confusion, a hundred years earlier the Roman Catholic group had decided to leave the Roman Pope and fully commit to their previous line of thinking- but keeping their own Patriarch. Now therefore the previous Roman Catholics are the official Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East, and the previous members of the Holy Apostolic Catholic Assyrian Church of the East are Roman Catholics, of the Chaldean Catholic Church. Again, happily, a shorthand for the name of this group is simply the incredibly accurate Church of the East.

This church has been in mutual anathema with the rest of the Church for some 1500 years. And this is why they don't like to be called Nestorians. Theodore of Mopsuetia responded to Apollinaris's claims that there was one nature in one person. (Like what is described by the Non-Chalcedonian Orthodox, but they say there is one nature in one person, and that nature has two natures.) Theodore said that there were two natures, and really stressed those to the point where it could easily be seen as saying there was two people. In fact, many followers of him did, a century after his death, so they were anathematized, as were some works Theodore wrote- but not Theodore himself, as you can't anathematize someone now dead.

Nestorius was an immediate disciple of Theodore. He went further than Theodore went in claiming two people within Christ- or less far than Theodore, depending on which scholar you read, and which of Nestorius' writings you read. Nestorius was anathematized, though it appears he fully accepted one person in Christ. A document unearthed only in the 1800's indicates that Nestorius was clearly not a Nestorian. It would seem now that there was a lot of politicking going on at the time, especially by one Cyril the not-so-Great, a lot of cultural supremacy wars, and a lot of confusion in different languages of Latin, Greek, and Syriac.

The church in the East that arose then claimed allegiance to Theodore of Mopsuetia, but in the West they were seen as following Nestorius. The Church of the East didn't want to be seen that way, but they had the unhappy misfortune to be under the Persian Empire, arch-rivals to the Roman/Byzantine Empire. This brought in issues of allegiance and cut off trade, including theological contact. A number of times the churches were close to healing the rift, only to have war and ethnic mistrust get in the way. The two churches spoke different languages, so it became confusing when the Church of the East said in Syriac that they didn't follow Nestorius, or even Theodore that much, but more Basil the Great, who said that there were two essences in one person. But that word essence would get translated with word for the oneness of the Trinity in Greek. And not only was there a language divide, but naturally a strong cultural divide, in how they viewed the world.

Thankfully, about ten years ago, the Roman Church and the Church of the East withdrew their mutual anathemas and came back into communion. (The Non-Chalcedonian Churches have yet to reconcile with the Church of the East.) Turns out everyone can now agree it was just a silly misunderstanding about language, and perhaps cultural emphasis on different aspects of Christ. Lest you think however that the issues at heart weren't important, the other 4 branches of Christianity think the Protestant divisions are squabbles over nothing compared to the unifying theological error of Protestantism.

It's a shame though that it took 1500 years so straighten out this little misunderstanding. Because the Church of the East was isolated during that time, and went it's own way. They are said to be The Martyr's Church, for more have died from their church than any other. And it is the blood of the martyrs that is the seed of the church. Constantly under oppression from a first Zorastrian and then Muslim government in Persia, they grew in theology, sustained themselves, and branched out. They planted themselves in India and by 635 in China. They were planted through as businessmen full of the Gospel, sharing about Christ through business contacts, all up and down the Silk Road, throughout Central Asia and down to the island of Suqutra. By 1200, despite repeated persecutions, the church was eight million strong and at one point the largest in the world. The majority of the Christian Church lived in Asia. Christianity was an Asian religion. We don't know about it because they were anathematized at the time, and therefore not considered Christian.

What happened to such a large church? (Consider for a moment that world population in 1000 AD was around 300 million.) There were repeated attacks by the Zorastrian Persians, and then Genghis Khan arrived, followed by Timur the Lame. (Actually because he was lame in one leg, but a conveniently ironic moniker nonetheless.) Timur killed millions in Persia, and it just so happened that millions of those killed were Assyrian Christians. Then the Muslims came into power- or more precisely the Mongols went Muslim (despite some intriguing historical possibilities that they almost decided for Christianity, a number of times). And the combined knell of all this decimated the Church of the East- the only truly Semitic church, attached to the roots of the Church, speaking Syriac as it's liturgy. Because of the mutual anathemas it had no other group to rely on, and it never recovered it's missiological fervor. Thus the Church lost out on winning a substantial part of the world and changing the course of history.

In WWI and WWII the church was further decimated, and this continued under the regimes of Saddam Hussein and George Bush II. Turns out the center of the ancient church, where most of it's members lived, had the unfortunate chance to be in Kurdistan. Today a scant 700,000 to 1 million remain there in Iraq- still bombed and attacked by Kurds, Shi'i, Sunni, and Americans. Most of those of the unique ethnicity remaining are actually part of the Chaldean Catholic Church, such as Tariq Aziz, former Foreign Minister to Saddam.

I had to share all of that before I could get to the good part. For there's one other way this church is unique. After all of this persecution and decimation (though in truth a good more than a mere tenth of the people), the center of the church left. The See of Babylon moved to safer place- Chicago.
The only church in apostolic succession with it's headquarters in America, or the New World for that matter, is the Church of the East. And they have only one parish in all of their church that is ethnically white- not Chaldean, Indian, or Chinese. (In 2003 it was amazingly discovered that one Assyrian Church remained in China, unable to communicate with it's Patriarch for 800 years.) That one parish church happens to be in my city.

What an opportunity- to be able to partake in this liturgy, in the only place in the world where I can understand it! I've been a couple times before, four years ago, and thought I'd visit again. The exterior is fairly nondescript in North Seattle. The service was relaxing if sparse. We began with 10, and ended with 20- although they said a good number were missing today. It was good to breath in incense again, after so long a liturgical pause. (The Eastern Churches say the Catholics have left tradition, and with good reason.) The liturgy was more similar to Coptic Orthodox services I've been to than the Greek Orthodox service I attended in Casablanca. There I found that much of liturgy is cultural- the Greeks sing Hellenic hymns; the Arabs, both Orthodox and Muslim, chant. This was chanting.

But in line with the philosophy of the Church of

the East, everything was done with respect forthe dominant culture. The entire liturgy was in English- most Orthodox churches will do a service in a liturgical language, or predominantly in English, as in the heavily missiological-focused Antiochian Orthodox. And there is a certain sence of mystery present. Non-Western churches prefer the term mystery to that of sacrament, a legal notion, and I agree with them. This was mystical, which I'm learning is the dependence on analogy. Their exhortation to worship declared, "In the tabernacles of the faithful Church we see as in a mystery the living Lamb of God, borne upon the exalted Altar and united with it in love. The people of the Lamb become one in spirit in the unconquerable Kingdom and will receive there a wondrous crown and an imperishable robe of glory as they draw near to the Father with the Son. He is the true head and we are his precious body."

This is poetry, come as liturgy. It was call and response, naturally, but more an entrance into the Holy of Holies, as the insence wafter our prayers to our Lord. Three scriptures were read, and the Kiss of Peace exchanged- the priest to the deacon, the deacon to us at the head of each role, clasping both hands with his, wishing peace to us, to which we respond, "To you and to your Nestorian Crossspirit." Much genuflecting and crossing, all with the focal point of the Nestorian cross above and the mystery of His flesh and blood below. No sermon- the presence of God was focused on. And then wonder of wonders! I waited for the congregation to go through the taking of the mystery, knowing that traditional churches only allow their members to partake. But I had forgotten- a deacon came up to me to say that as long as I had been baptized I could partake, regardless of church affiliation. And as Grace would have it, the repeatitions of the Lord's Prayer had encouraged me to pray through again forgiveness for key people that have hurt me, so that, for the first time in a year, I was able to partake in communion. (But they give you a rather large piece of bread, and then not enough time to swallow it before drinking of the global goblet.)

Afterwards there was coffee downstairs. Since I was offered, I couldn't refuse, so I figured I'd try it with some sugar. I started off with 5 tablespoons, and you know what? It tasted exactly like the Berber coffee I had in Merzuga- the only time I've ever liked coffee! I do believe I've found the way to enjoy coffee.

I spoke with the Father on duty and asked him some about his church- particularly on how he would describe it was different from other churches. Surprisingly, the nature of Christ, even in emphasis, he didn't feel was an issue at all- he felt that all of the churches in apostolic succession were in agreement on this. Rather he pointed to things like the nature of the liturgy, the huge number of martyrs and its unique history, and that priests, bishops, and patriarchs can be married. (Most of the Orthodox allow priests but not bishops to marry; the patriarch technically can marry in the Church of the East but in practice steps down if he does so.) After 1500 years of separation, it appears that now the rank and file of this church see themselves as one with the rest of the Church.


Sara said…
FYI: I met quite a few Chaldean Christians while in Jordan.
@bdul muHib said…
Neat! (And nice to hear from you again!)

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