Independent Orthodox churches
Independent "Orthodox" churches are groups which often use the term Orthodox in their names but have no canonical connection with the mainstream Orthodox Church, do not practice communion with it, and often have no direct historical connection to it. Many are led by episcopi vagantes, bishops claiming "valid" apostolic succession but not maintaining communion with the Orthodox Church. Not all use the term Orthodox in their names, but may also use Catholic, Apostolic, or other names associated with the historical churches.
Such churches are, almost without exception, quite small, usually with only a few parishes at most, often with none at all, and often the clergy outnumber the laity. With the advent of the Internet, the spread and visibility of these independent churches has increased significantly. In many ways, the phenomenon is much more like Protestantism than like the Orthodoxy or Roman Catholicism which these churches often resemble. That is, their ecclesiology usually is characterized by some form of the branch theory (that the Church Catholic is visibly divided but invisibly united, despite there being no intercommunion between constituent "parts"). Further, most begin in much the same manner as new Protestant churches, being an independent enterprise embarked upon by one person or a small group without being sanctioned or part of some larger ecclesiastical communion.
In terms of their self-understanding, these churches can vary from regarding themselves as the only legitimate church for a particular region or ethnicity (invariably hostile to the mainstream claimants) to a sort of Protestant pluralist perspective in which all groups with "apostolic succession" (including themselves) are regarded as legitimately "Catholic," "Orthodox," "Christian," "Church," "Apostolic," etc. Usually, however, the mainstream claimants to these labels (e.g. the Orthodox Church, the Roman Catholic Church, or the Anglican Communion) do not regard these groups as legitimate claimants to such titles and are not in communion with them. Occasionally, such a group will enter into communion with the Church, as the Society of Clerks Secular of St. Basil did with the Church of Antioch in 1961 or the Evangelical Orthodox Church did in the late 1980s with Antioch or the OCA.
Because they regard their historical claims as being valid over and against the Protestantism with which they are often associated, they will often go to great lengths to prove their historical succession from more generally recognized episcopacies. They also often have an "alternate" history set forth in great detail on websites and in publications, focused on rebutting claims either by the mainstream churches or against others in the independent movement, and their websites are usally significantly dedicated to such topics, including mainstream media references (which are themselves widely known in Orthodox circles to have accuracy problems in their reporting) such as obituaries, and obscure documents of ordinations and the like. Major portions of such documents are typically focused on asserting the "canonicity" of the group in question.
Verifying the histories the independent churches set forth regarding themselves can be quite difficult, usually because their obscurity and small size does not typically warrant treatment by scholarly sources. If they are mentioned in academic sources, they usually dedicate portions of their histories to denouncing the alleged slander from the mainstream.
In terms of doctrine and praxis, many of these groups may be indistinguishable from their mainstream Orthodox or Roman Catholic counterparts, but occasionally certain aberrations will be found, such as the ordination of women, acceptance of homosexuality, or other changes based on modern political and cultural debates.
Some independent "Orthodox" churches may have historical links with the Orthodox, Catholic or Anglican churches, usually through episcopi vagantes, but such links are usually tenuous at best, and at least in the case of the Orthodox Church, legitimacy is not derived simply from having a historical connection to the Church. Rather, there must be an ongoing history of communion (though of course some temporary suspensions sometimes occur within the Church).
Another interesting phenomenon of independent church websites is that they usally include information on ordination in their church, typically because there is usually a great need to expand their ranks but few laity from which to draw new clergy.
Although some use the Old Calendar, it is to be noted that these groups are distinguished from the Old Calendarist movement, which is composed of groups who are historically Orthodox but maintain various levels of resistance against the mainstream Orthodox Church, including the suspension of communion and/or concelebration.
- Religious Groups That Use 'Orthodox' in Their Names But Are Not Canonical Eastern Orthodox Churches - A very helpful, comprehensive but not exhaustive page from Al Green's website
- Ind-Movement.org, "Your Complete Guide to the World of Autocephalous ('Independent-Movement') Churches in the Apostolic Succession"
- Unofficial Home Page of The One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church
- Independent Movement Database