Holy Tradition vs. Customs


With the Orthodox church being the true Apostolic church—meaning that the Apostles were the first Bishops/Priests of the Christian faith—why are there so many difference between the Orthodox churches? One Orthodox church will do things one way and another Orthodox church will perform “what ever” differently.

An Orthodox church I attended for a Sunday Liturgy performed the Litany for the departed of which it stated in the service book that they were using to not do the Litany for the departed during Liturgies on Sundays and holidays. Then there are Orthodox churches that don’t chant that part of the service at all. I was in a Serbian church where the Subdeacon was allowed to assist the celebrant Priest with articles on the Altar and the Subdeacon in the OCA church is not allowed to touch the Holy Table. The Greek Orthodox church does things their way, the Russian Orthodox church will do things their way, etc.

In other words, all the Orthodox churches are different in certain ways. Why is that when they are a ‘One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church.’

One other question. Do the Orthodox bookstores sell an Orthodox dictionary with the meanings of the words that are used by the Holy Fathers and other writers of Orthodox books. One such word would be “Exegesis.”


In the Orthodox Church there are those things which belong to “Holy Tradition” and those things which are simply “traditions” (or, perhaps, better called “customs”). In essential matters—doctrine, sacraments, worship, etc.—there are no differences.

In minor things—the style of vestments, the exact order of services, customs associated with various feast days—there is a wide variety of customs which may be found, as developed in various times and various places based on a wide variety of circumstances. Furthermore, these customs are not, nor were they ever intended to be, that which brings about unity within the Church.

For example, in some places it is the custom to close the royal doors for much of the Liturgy; in other places this is not the case. What is important is that the Eucharist is being celebrated, that the faithful are receiving the Body and Blood of Christ in a reverent manner—and with proper preparation—etc. Whether the doors are opened for the entire Liturgy, as in some practices, or closed for much of it is secondary. After all, Christ says, “Unless you eat of my body and drink of my blood, you have no life in you.” He does not say, “Unless you open the doors, you have no life in you.”

The sin of the pharisees, which Christ continually combatted, was enslavement to externals with no regard to the spirit in which the externals were developed or employed.

Another example: In some places the iconostasis is a rather high, solid wall, consisting of several rows of icons; in other places, the iconostasis is low, perhaps only one or maybe two rows high. The important thing is that the icons are properly displayed and employed and venerated; of secondary—and here quite inconsequential—importance is how many rows any given iconostasis may or may not have.

A third example: Among some Orthodox Christians there is a custom of blessing food in conjunction with the celebration of Holy Pascha; in other places this practice is unknown. This does not indicate a “difference” in anything essential in the faith or in the life of the Church; rather, it is an expression of Paschal joy developed in some places for specific reasons but perhaps not in others. In no way does the blessing of Paschal food, or the lack thereof, make one’s celebration “better” or “worse.”

What is critical—and what is absolutely the same among all Orthodox Christians—is the centrality of the celebration of the Holy Pascha, the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Blessing food may be a wonderful aspect of this celebration, but it surely is not essential to obtaining eternal life.

For a complete listing of books and other resources on Orthodox Christianity, you may wish to visit the web site of St Vladimir’s Seminary and follow the links to the seminary bookstore, where you will find a variety of publications. Of special interest perhaps to you is the Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Churchby Prokurat, Golitzin, and Peterson—an excellent dictionary containing many, many definitions and other entries.