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Joseph Julian Overbeck

Joseph Julian Overbeck (1820-1905) was an Orthodox layman who played a central role in the early development of modern Western Rite Orthodoxy.


Overbeck was born in Bonn, Germany, and attended the University of Bonn where he became a specialist in Syriac. Ordained to the Catholic priesthood, he did further studies at the Vatican Library and became a professor at Bonn. Disillusioned with the claims of the Roman Church, he left his position at Bonn and began attending Lutheran services. In 1857, he moved to England where he married and taught German in Oxford and later at Staff College, Camberley. Overbeck's marriage after his Catholic ordination was considered a canonical impediment to the priesthood, and while there was an initial inquiry as to whether he could be re-ordained, he continued his work for the rest of his life as a layman.

His translations of Ephrem the Syrian sparked an interest in the Orthodox Church. In 1864, Overbeck was chrismated into the Orthodox Church. He then published, in 1866, Catholic Orthodoxy and Anglo-Catholicism, which contained the groundings for his work for the next twenty years. A year later, he began publishing a periodical, Orthodox Catholic Review, aimed at putting forward Orthodoxy and rejecting Catholicism and Protestantism. His early works contained a number of refutations of what would later develop into the ecumenical movement.

1867 saw Overbeck, with 122 signatures from the Oxford Movement, petition the Church of Russia for the establishment of a Western Rite church in full communion with the Eastern Rite. A seven-member synodal commission was then formed, and invited Overbeck to attend. The idea was approved, and Overbeck set about submitting a draft of the proposed Western liturgy. The base of Overbeck's submission was the Tridentine Mass of 1570, which added in an epiclesis and the Trisagion hymn. This rite was submitted in 1871, and was examined and approved by the commission. Overbeck focused his efforts on the Old Catholic movement, which had rejected Papal Infallibility. He continued to engage in polemics with Catholics, Anglicans, and Orthodox converts using the Byzantine rite.

In 1876, Overbeck issued an appeal to the various Holy Synods, traveling to Constantinople in 1879. There he met the Ecumenical Patriarch, who authorised him to deliver sermons and apologetics. In 1881, some success was had when the Ecumenical Patriarchate agreed that the West had a right to a Western church and rite.

However, it went no further. The Holy Synod of Greece vetoed his scheme amongst the Orthodox Churches, the Orthodox Catholic Review ended its run, and, by 1892, he admitted failure due to the Church of Greece of the time. Overbeck reposed in 1905.

Historical legacy

Overbeck's work laid the foundations of possible reunion schemes for Western Christians with the Orthodox Church. His work was widely distributed in Russia, where it became very popular among Orthodox missionaries, and became a point of reference for the Russian Church in its earliest writings. Virtually all Western Rite Orthodox today were affected in one way or another by the original canonical foundation originally envisioned by Overbeck.



  • "Overbeck, J.J." in The Blackwell Dictionary of Eastern Christianity (2001).