Western Orthodoxy

Western Rite Orthodoxy or Western Orthodoxy or Orthodox Western Rite are terms used to describe congregations that are within churches of Orthodox tradition but which use liturgies of Western or Latin Rite origin rather than using Eastern liturgies such as the Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom. While there are some ancient examples of Western Rite communities in areas predominantly using the Byzantine Rite before the Great Schism was fully consolidated (the Monastery of Saint Mary of the Latins, often referred to as Amalfi, is a common example), the history of the movement is often considered to begin in the nineteenth century.

Old Romans, are Latin Rite Catholics continuing in the primitive Tradition of the Roman Catholic Church, preserved by the original See of Utrecht founded by St Willibrord in the Netherlands, that refused to surrender its acknowledged and historical canonical privileges in the face of increased centralisation of power by the Bishops of Rome from the 17C onwards. Preserving intact the ancient expression of the Catholic and Apostolic Faith as it had always been believed in the West and expressed in the Latin Rite, the Old Roman See of Utrecht in the Netherlands later drew interest from other disaffected western Catholics who could not abide the ultramontanism that the Popes were imposing upon the Latin Church.

In the Nineteenth Century, when the Papal claims of supremacy culminated in the novel dogma of “Papal infallibility,” the Orthodox Church was approached by some western Catholics seeking the apostolic unity of the ancient, unchanging orthodox Faith wherein the Bishop of Rome would be considered to have primacy of honour. They would utilise their own familiar and theologically orthodox liturgical forms, while coincidentally restoring the Western liturgy to the Orthodox Church.

The Holy Synod of Moscow responded by approving the restored form of the Western Liturgy, the ancient Liturgy of St. Gregory the Great (the oldest Orthodox liturgy of the undivided Church still in use) presented in 1870 by Julian Joseph Overbeck (a former Roman Catholic priest) who hoped to establish an Orthodox Western Rite in England. By 1876, Overbeck appealed to other Orthodox Churches for their recognition of his plan. In 1879 he was received in audience by the Patriarch Joachim III of Constantinople, who recognized the theoretical right of Western Christians to have a Western Orthodox Church. Three years later, Joachim III and the Synod of the Ecumenical Patriarchate conditionally approved Overbeck’s Western rite and Benedictine offices. However, Overbeck’s efforts ultimately did not result in the establishment of a Western Orthodoxy in his lifetime.

Overbeck had attempted to encourage Old Roman Catholics to his scheme, especially after the First Vatican Council’s dogmatic definition of Papal infallibility, but with little success. However, just a few years after his death, the Old Roman mission in Great Britain under ✠Arnold Harris Mathew was to realise something of Overbeck’s vision after declaring independence from Utrecht over protestantising influences.  The balance was struck involving the Eastern and Western traditions of Orthodoxy. The Patriarch of Antioch recognised the former members of the Old Roman Catholic See of Utrecht, and much later would establish a Western Rite Vicariate in North America.

On August 5th, 1911, a conference took place in Bredon’s Norton, Worcestershire, attended by Metropolitan Gerassimos Messarra, Archbishop of Beirut, Legate of the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East together with ✠Arnold Harris Mathew and others in Great Britain. After a long and full discussion, the faith of the Old Romans under ✠Mathew, as at the Council of Florence in 1445 was considered in full accord with that of the Eastern Orthodox by Archbishop Messarra on behalf of Patriarch Gregory IV (Haddad) and the Old Romans were recognised as orthodox western Catholics by the Greek Orthodox Patriarchate of Antioch and all the East. On February 26th, 1912, His Holiness, Photius, Pope and Greek Orthodox Patriarch of Alexandria also accepted this recognition. The Church of Antioch was established by the Apostles Paul and Barnabas in 42 A.D., with St. Peter serving for the next eight years as its first prelate. The Church of Antioch is one of the five ancient Patriarchates of the Christian Church, along with Alexandria, Constantinople, Jerusalem, and Rome. Many of the great saints of the Church, including St. Ignatius and St. John Chrysostom, have come from Antioch. Today the Antiochian Patriarchate has endured despite centuries of oppression, and shepherds over half a million Christians in Syria, Lebanon and other countries in the Middle East along with communities throughout the Americas, Australia and Europe.

Regrettably, through the machinations of individuals and the disruptive realities of two World Wars the relationship between the Old Romans with the Greek Orthodox Church effectively lapsed, though there has never been issued an official retraction of the mutual recognition. Recent investigations with the Patriarchate of Antioch have confirmed that which has been stated anecdotally by several Antiochian priests (converts from Anglicanism) in England to Old Roman prelates that the reason why a Western Orthodox Rite was refused them following the ordination of women in the Church of England (1992) was due to the presence of the Old Romans.

So it was that after the centenary of the historic “Act of Union” in 2011, orthodox Old Roman prelates began to consider again the status of the recognition. Based on historical facts as described above, the bishops determined to accept and embrace the historical situation without prejudice to the continuation of the Latin Rite tradition of their Ultrajectine forbears, noting that ✠Mathew’s recognition by the Orthodox did not require any refutation of doctrine nor dogma, nor indeed the validity of holy Orders and sacraments, nor of the Latin liturgy of the Roman Catholic Church [“Root and Branch” p.75 quoting from “Bishop Mathew and the Orthodox” by Mar Seraphim, The Glastonbury Bulletin 67 (May 1984) pp.197-206 in turn quoting from the letter of Pope Photios of Alexandria to +Mathew in February, 1912]. Discussions were begun and continue both with Patriarchal and other Orthodox ecclesial communities to determine how this earlier feat in reconciliation between the East and the West may yet assist contemporary efforts for the reunion of Christendom.

The “Dogmatic” and “Organic” Articles agreed between Archbishop Messarra and ✠Mathew on August 11, 1911 in no way detract from the classical Latin Rite understanding of the Catholic and Apostolic faith as taught and expressed in the Catechisms of the Latin West until the effective annexation by Pius IX of the Church in Holland in 1853. Thus both in terms of “right-belief” and in recognition of historical facts the Old Romans may justifiably refer to themselves as “orthodox” in every sense of the term. Thus Old Romans were able to achieve at the beginning of the 20C, something that all later ecumenical efforts have yet to achieve.  

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