The most important church in Cyprus, the Church of Cyprus, is an autocephalous church in the Orthodox tradition using the Greek liturgy. It recognized the seniority and prestige of the ecumenical patriarch in Constantinople, while retaining complete administrative autonomy under its own archbishop. The Great Schism, as the split between Catholic and Orthodox became known, had major consequences for the Church of Cyprus. Under Lusignan and Venetian rule, the Church of Cyprus was pressured to recognize the authority of the Roman pope. The imposed Roman hierarchy attempted to remold the Church of Cyprus in the image of the Western church. Under the Muslim Ottomans, Cypriots were no longer considered schismatics, but merely unbelievers and followers of an inferior religion. As such they were allowed considerable autonomy, and the archbishop was the officially recognized secular as well as religious leader of his community. Under the British, there was an attempt to secularize all public institutions, but this move was bitterly opposed by church authorities, who used the conflict with the state to gain leadership of the Greek nationalist movement against colonial rule. At independence Archbishop Makarios III, a young, Western-educated former monk, was elected president of the republic, holding this position until his death in 1977. His successor, Archbishop Chrysostomos, was still head of the Church of Cyprus at the beginning of the 1990s. He was a conservative leader, both in religious and political matters, well-suited for a church that had never undergone reforms similar to those instituted by the Second Vatican Council for the Roman Catholic Church.
The church had long been composed of four episcopal sees: the archbishopric of Nicosia, and the metropolitanates of Paphos, Kition, and Kyrenia. New metropolitanates were created by Makarios in 1973 for Limassol and Morphou, with a suffragan, or assistant, bishop in Salamis under the archbishop. A bishop had to be a graduate of the Orthodox theological seminary in Greece and be at least thirty years of age. Since Orthodox bishops were sworn to a vow of celibacy and parish clergy were usually married, bishops were recruits from monasteries rather than parish churches. Bishops were not appointed by the archbishop, but, like him, were elected through a system granting representation to laymen, other bishops, abbots, and regular clergy.
Individual churches, monasteries, dioceses, and charitable educational institutions organized by the Church of Cyprus were independent legal persons enjoying such rights and obligations as holding property. In exchange for many church lands acquired by the government, the government assumed responsibility for church salaries. Parish clergy, traditionally married men chosen by their fellow villagers, were sent for brief training before ordination. In the twentieth century, modernizers, most notably Archbishop Makarios, were instrumental in strengthening the quality and training of priests at the Cypriot seminary in Nicosia.
The monasteries of Cyprus had always been very important to the Church of Cyprus. By the twentieth century many had long lain in ruins, but their properties were among the most important holdings of the church, the island's largest landowner. Although the number of monks decreased in the postwar era, in the early 1990s there were at least ten active monasteries in the government-controlled areas.
In the Orthodox church, ritual was to a great extent the center of the church's activity, for Orthodox doctrine emphasizes the mystery of God's grace rather than salvation through works and knowledge. Seven sacraments are recognized: baptism in infancy, followed by confirmation with consecrated oil, penance, the Eucharist, matrimony, ordination, and unction in times of sickness or when near death.
Formal services are lengthy and colorful, with singing, incense, and elaborate vestments according to the occasion for the presiding priest. Statues are forbidden, but the veneration of icons, located on the church's walls and often covered with offerings of the faithful, is highly developed. Easter is the focus of the church year, closing the Lenten fasting with an Easter Eve vigil and procession. Marriage is a highly ritualized occasion. Formal divorce proceedings are required for broken engagements that have been ratified by the church. The wedding sponsors play an important role in the family, for they usually act as godparents of all children born of that union.
Religious observance varied. In traditional rural villages, women attended services more frequently than men, and elderly family members were usually responsible for fulfilling religious duties on behalf of the whole family. Church attendance was less frequent in urban areas and among educated Cypriots. For much of the population, religion centered on rituals at home, veneration of icons, and observance of certain feast days of the Orthodox calendar.
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