The four ancient patriarchates enjoy the highest prestige. The patriarchate of Constantinople, having the primacy of honor after Rome, was set up when the Eastern capital was established; it included Asia Minor and the Balkan Peninsula. From the time of Justinian I the emperor controlled the patriarch absolutely. The patriarch was freer under the Turks, who gave him civil and religious jurisdiction over all the Orthodox within the Ottoman Empire. The patriarch of Constantinople never succeeded in establishing jurisdiction in the East comparable to that of the pope in the West. First the Russians, then the Greeks and the Balkan countries set up autonomous churches, always opposed by the patriarch, especially in the case of Bulgaria. In Turkey the patriarch now rules a remnant only, although some modern Orthodox churches in North and South America, Australia, and N Europe are under his direct control. The Orthodox patriarchates of Alexandria and Antioch are minority churches (for the corresponding separated churches, see Copts; Jacobite Church), as is the patriarchate of Jerusalem. The patriarch represents Orthodox interests in the shrines.
There are seven national churches, each the traditional patriotic church of the people. The Church of Cyprus has been autonomous since the Council of Ephesus. The Church of Georgia is also ancient. In the 19th cent. it was absorbed by the Russian church but in 1917 resumed its autonomy. The head of the Georgian Church is titled catholicos.
The Russian Orthodox Church, the largest of the Orthodox churches, was led first by the metropolitan of Kiev, under Constantinople. The see was moved to Moscow, and in 1589 a new patriarchate was set up under the czar. The language of the ritual is Church Slavonic. In 1721, Peter the Great (Peter I) abolished the patriarchate and established a synod, which he controlled through its lay procurator.
In 1917 the patriarchate was revived, just before the Bolshevik Revolution began the weakening of the whole church structure. In the disturbances of the revolution many priests and bishops were killed or exiled. Churches were plundered of their sacred vessels, and seminaries were closed. In 1920, bishops residing abroad formed the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia, leading to a split (1927) in Russian Orthodoxy that continued into the 21st cent. Relations between the two groups improved beginning in the late 1980s, and in 2007 they reestablished canonical communion, recognizing the overall authority of the Moscow patriarch while preserving the administrative independence of the Russian Orthodox Church outside Russia.
In World War II, the Soviet government consented (1943) to the reopening of churches and to the election of a patriarch (the first since 1925). The new patriarch and his successors were loyal to the Communist government. As the Soviet Union annexed lands after 1939, the local Orthodox churches disappeared; the same was true of Catholic churches of the Eastern rites, and thus it was announced that the Byzantine-rite Catholics of Ukraine and Ruthenia had united with the Russian Orthodox.
Under Mikhail Gorbachev, the patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was received (1988) at the Kremlin, the first such reception since World War II. Gorbachev oversaw a period of improved relations with the Orthodox Church, granting it legal status, returning relics seized by the state in 1920, and lifting other restrictions on worship. Since the end of the Soviet Union the church has seen enormous growth in Russia, and in 1997 it (along with other religions recognized under Soviet rule) was given special rights and legal exemptions. Legislation in 2004 gave the church the right to regain full ownership of its churches and other lands, and the Russian church now has relatively close ties to the government (especially compared to other faiths). In former Soviet-ruled lands outside Russia, the post-Soviet role of the Russian church sometimes has become controversial; in Ukraine, for example, many Orthodox believers have joined independent churches that are not subordinate to the Russian patriarch.
The self-governing Church of Greece dates from the Greek War of Independence. It is the state church and legally much favored. The patriarch at Belgrade heads the Church of Serbia, which suffered restrictions under the Communist government of Yugoslavia and developed a strong nationalist bent in the 1990s during the breakup of Yugoslavia. The Macedonian Orthodox Church declared itself autocephalous in 1967, leading to condemnation from the Serbian church (under which it had autonomy). The Macedonian church has not been recognized by other Orthodox churches, and an autonomous Macedonian archdiocese under the Serbian church also exists. The Church of Bulgaria was severed from communion by the ancient patriarchates in the 19th cent., but the Russian church recognized it. Its ruler is an exarch. The Romanian Orthodox Church has a patriarch at Bucharest; it was probably the most carefully organized of the Orthodox churches. After 1945 the government announced that the Roman Catholic dioceses of the Romanian rite had been annexed by the Orthodox church; the status of these dioceses and their property has become a source of tension in the post-Communist era.
Other Orthodox churches are minority denominations of recent creation. The Albanian Orthodox Church suffered considerably under Italian rule during World War II, as well as under Communist rule afterward. The Orthodox churches of Finland and of Poland, founded after World War I, lost most of their members when the eastern sections of the countries were repossessed by the Soviet Union in World War II. The Japanese Orthodox Church became autonomous under government pressure (1939). It had its origin in a Russian mission founded in 1860.
There are a number of autonomous Orthodox groups that began in emigration. Thus in the United States there have been separate hierarchies of Greeks, Russians, and others, sometimes in communion with each other. There have been many efforts to establish a single American Orthodox church, but no union has been effected. In 1950 several Eastern Orthodox denominations joined with Protestant groups in the formation of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America; almost all Orthodox churches in America are now members.
With the collapse of Communist rule in the countries of E Europe during the late 1980s and early 1990s, their Orthodox churches revived and gained new members. Following the establishment in 1991 of the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the Russian patriarch, a breakaway church emerged and demanded independence from Moscow, but Constantinople refrained from endorsing the break. Constantinople's recognition in 1996 of Estonia's church as under its, instead of Russian, oversight led to strain between it and the Russian church.