The Orthodox church is the modern name of the Byzantine church. It came into existence after a long series of theological, political and cultural disputes with the Roman Catholic Church of Rome. It is regarded as the form of Christianity most closely linked to the original Christian doctrines, which is why the term Orthodox is used to describe it. Catholicism and Protestantism are regard as more closely related to each other than the Orthodox church.
In the West “Orthodoxy” means “correct doctrine.” In Slavic languages the word "Pravoslavie", is used to describe the church. It means “right praise” and links teaching and worship and implies that only those who pray and practice a religious life have access to the religion.
According to the BBC: “The Orthodox Church is one of the three main Christian groups (the others being Roman Catholic and Protestant). Around 200 million people follow the Orthodox tradition. It is made up of a number of self-governing Churches which are either 'autocephalous' (meaning having their own head) or 'autonomous' (meaning self-governing). The Orthodox Churches are united in faith and by a common approach to theology, tradition, and worship. They draw on elements of Greek, Middle-Eastern, Russian and Slav culture. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]
“Each Church has its own geographical (rather than a national) title that usually reflects the cultural traditions of its believers. The word 'Orthodox' takes its meaning from the Greek words orthos ('right') and doxa ('belief'). Hence the word Orthodox means correct belief or right thinking. The Orthodox tradition developed from the Christianity of the Eastern Roman Empire and was shaped by the pressures, politics and peoples of that geographical area. Since the Eastern capital of the Roman Empire was Byzantium, this style of Christianity is sometimes called 'Byzantine Christianity'.” |::|
Websites and Resources: Christianity Britannica on Christianity britannica.com//Christianity ; History of Christianity history-world.org/jesus_christ ; BBC on Christianity bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/christianity ;Wikipedia article on Christianity Wikipedia ; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org/christ.htm ; Christian Answers christiananswers.net ; Christian Classics Ethereal Library www.ccel.org ; Bible: Bible Gateway and the New International Version (NIV) of The Bible biblegateway.com ; King James Version of the Bible gutenberg.org/ebooks ;
Christian Denominations: Christianity.com christianity.com/church/denominations ; Christianity Comparison Charts religionfacts.com ; Difference between Christian Denominations Quoracom ; Holy See w2.vatican.va ; Catholic Online catholic.org ; Catholic Encyclopedia newadvent.org ; World Council of Churches, main world body for mainline Protestant churches oikoumene.org ; Wikipedia article on Protestantism Wikipedia ; Online Orthodox Catechism published by the Russian Orthodox Church orthodoxeurope.org ; Nihov's Worldwide Coptic Directory directory.nihov.org
Book: "Orthodox Church" by T. Ware (1963)
Different Orthodox Churches
There are 17 independent Eastern Orthodox churches. The main denominations are the Greek, Russian, Coptic, Ukrainian, Ethiopian and American. The Russian Orthodox Church is the largest. There is also churches in Romania, Cyprus, Serbia, Croatia. and the former Yugoslavia, Albania, Bulgaria, Georgia and Slovakia.
According to the BBC: “Not all Orthodox Churches are 'Eastern Orthodox'. The 'Oriental Orthodox Churches' have theological differences with the Eastern Orthodox and form a separate group, while a few Orthodox Churches are not 'in communion' with the others. Not all Churches in the Eastern tradition are Orthodox — Eastern Churches that are not included in the Orthodox group include the Eastern Catholic Churches. The nominal head of the Eastern Orthodox Churches is the Patriarch of Constantinople. However, he is only first among equals and has no real authority over Churches other than his own. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]
There are 15 'autocephalous Churches', listed in order of precedence. Churches 1-9 are led by Patriarchs, while the others are led by Archbishops or Metropolitans: 1) Church of Constantinople (ancient); 2) Church of Alexandria (ancient); 3) Church of Antioch (ancient); 4) Church of Jerusalem (ancient); 5) Church of Russia (established in 1589); 6) Church of Serbia (1219); 7) Church of Romania (1925); 8) Church of Bulgaria (927); 9) Church of Georgia (466); 10) Church of Cyprus (434); 11) Church of Greece (1850); 12) Church of Poland (1924); 13) Church of Albania (1937); 14) Church of Czech and Slovak lands (1951); and 15) The Orthodox Church in America (1970) |::|
“The Orthodox communion also includes a number of 'autonomous Churches': 1) Church of Sinai; 2) Church of Finland; 3) Church of Estonia*; 4) Church of Japan*; 5) Church of China*; 6) Church of Ukraine*; 7) Archdiocese of Ohrid*. * indicates a Church whose autonomy is recognised by only some of the other Churches |::|
Orthodox Christian Followers
Among the main Christian groups, the Orthodox church ranks third behind Catholicism and Protestantism in terms of the numbers of followers. It is regarded as very conservative and as a rule hostile to science and modernity. There are an estimated 225 to 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide. Most of them in Greece, Ethiopia, India, Egypt, Serbia, Bulgaria, Estonia, the Ukraine, Romania, Slovakia, Bulgaria, Russia and other places in Eastern Europe.
The Russian Orthodox church is the largest and most influential branch of the Orthodox faith. Including Ukrainian followers, it represents a third to half of the world’s Orthodox believers, dwarfing the 17 other official Orthodox Churches.
The Russian Orthodox church, a branch of Eastern Orthodoxy, claims to have about 80 million followers, or more than half the population of Russia. This number is regarded as an overestimate. The true figure is thought to be around 40 million, with about 4.4 million to 7.4 million being practicing worshipers. Numbers are dropping in part because the overall population is declining. Orthodox church:
Orthodox Christian Beliefs
Orthodox belief holds that the Orthodox Church is Christianity's true, holy, and apostolic church, tracing its origin directly to the institution established by Jesus Christ. Orthodox beliefs are based on the Bible and on tradition as defined by seven ecumenical councils held by church authorities between A.D. 325 and 787. Orthodox teachings include the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and the inseparable but distinguishable union of the two natures of Jesus Christ--one divine, the other human. Among saints, Mary has a special place as the Mother of God. Russian Orthodox services, noted for their pageantry, involve the congregation directly by using only the vernacular form of the liturgy. [Source: Library of Congress, 1996]
Eastern Orthodox churches are linked together by their belief in he Trinity, the human and divine nature of Christ and dogmas established by the first seven council of the Church, between A.D. 325 and A.D. 787. Beliefs have been promoted through ritual, saintly example and legal innovations. The faith of the Orthodox Church is expressed in the Nicene Creed— the assertion that the denial of Christ’s divinity was a heresy—and doctrinal definitions defined by the first seven Ecumenical Councils (Nicaea 325, Constantinople 381, Ephesus 431, Chalcedon 451,Constantinople 533 and 680 and Nicaea 787)
Among, Orthodox Christians, there is less emphasis on suffering and sacrifice than there is in the Catholic Church. Unlike Western Christians who regard salvation as the culmination of an act of forgiveness by Christ’s death at the cross, Orthodox Christians see salvation as a gift bestowed by the Holy Spirit that is a consequence of Christ’s victory over evil as represented by his Resurrection. This view is symbolized by Orthodox preference for the empty Cross as opposed to the crucifix favored by Catholics and the emphasis on triumph rather than suffering in Good Friday celebrations.
Orthodox Christianity is regarded as strict and full of prohibitions. Orthodox Christians place greater emphasis on the material elements of rituals. This is because the material and spiritual worlds are regarded as closely unified. They are regarded as more separate entities in western Christianity. According to the BBC: “Eastern Christianity stresses a way of life and belief that is expressed particularly through worship. By maintaining the correct form of worshipping God, passed on from the very beginnings of Christianity. Eastern Christians believe that they confess the true doctrine of God in the right (orthodox) way. The wisdom of the Fathers of the Church is central to the Orthodox way of life as today's inheritors of the "true faith and Church" passed on in its purest form. By maintaining the purity of the inherited teachings of the Apostles, believers are made more aware of the inspiration of the Holy Spirit being present both in history and at the present day. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008]
See Sacraments Below.
Differences Between the Orthodox and Western Churches
According to the BBC: “The Orthodox Church shares much with the other Christian Churches in the belief that God revealed himself in Jesus Christ, and a belief in the incarnation of Christ, his crucifixion and resurrection. The Orthodox Church differs substantially in the way of life and worship, and in certain aspects of theology. The Holy Spirit is seen as present in and as the guide to the Church working through the whole body of the Church, as well as through priests and bishops. The Bible of the Orthodox Church is the same as that of most Western Churches, except that its Old Testament is based not on the Hebrew, but on the ancient Jewish translation into Greek called the Septuagint.” [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008]
Whereas the Orthodox church starts first with the community and sees the individual as a member of this community Catholics and Protestants starts first with the individual and see the community as a collection of individuals. Moreover, the Orthodox church sees spirit and matter as interdependent while the Western church see them as separate and even opposed. While Catholics believe that the Holy Ghost comes from God and Christ, Orthodox believed it comes from God alone. Orthodox Christians put emphasis on the resurrection rather the crucifixion.
The Orthodox and Catholic churches have different interpretations of authority, of the Church, of the sacraments and even salvation. The Orthodox Church does not accept Catholic dogmas such as the infallibility of the Pope and the Immaculate Conception although it reveres the Virgin Mary as the mother of Christ.
Orthodox doctrines not ascribed by Catholics include the belief that Christ is the sole head of the Church (not the Pope), and that is authority comes from its members ("the totality of the people of God"). For Orthodox Christians Heaven and Hell are considered real places and salvation is achieved through the Church, good works and belief in Christ.
Orthodox Christian Texts and Saints
The Gospels are the most important part of the Bible for Orthodox Christians. The Septuagint remains the authoritative Old Testament of the Orthodox Church. Methodius translated the entire Bible into Old Church Slavonic in the 9th century. Old Church Slavonic (also known as Old Church Slavic) was the first Slavic literary language, which influenced the development of the modern Slavic languages, including literary Russian. Used in liturgies of the Slavic Orthodox churches, it became known as Church Slavonic after the twelfth century.
Commemorating Saints is an important aspect of Orthodox prayer life. Relics of the Saints are greatly venerated. The Catholic and Orthodox churches both hold saints in high esteem. Some Protestant sects do too but generally saints are held in lower esteem.
The Virgin Mary is greatly honored by Orthodox Christians. She is regarded as the Mother of the Incarnate Word, above all the saints. She is "Theotokos" (Gobbear or the Mother of God) and her name is frequently invoked in private and public prayers.
The role of the saints is to help members of the Church separate the message from the Holy Spirt from other message they pick up in their daily lives. The Saints are regarded as representing a divine truth that has been universally recognized by faithful of the church.
Sacred Mysteries (Sacraments) of Orthodox Christianity
The most important Orthodox Christian Christian rituals are the seven scared mysteries (sacrament)s: 1) baptism; 2) Eucharist (communion); 3) confirmation; 4) penance and confession; 5) marriage; 6) unction (anointing the sick); and 7) holy orders (by which laymen are raised for the priesthood). These sacraments are still recognized by the Catholic Church (and mostly by the Orthodox church) but have been rejected, with the exception of baptism and communion, by the Protestant church. There are other sacraments in the Orthodox church but these are not regarded as important as the seven previously mentioned ones.
All the sacraments are carried out so they ascribe to the concept of an individual as being part of a community rather than something onto himself or herself. The church itself is regarded as a source of sanctification and blessing for all aspects of life
A great effort has been made to preserve the material elements of the sacraments. Orthodox Christians look down on attempts by the Catholic church to minimize the material side of the sacraments such as pouring water rather than using immersion in baptism and using unleavened rather than leavened bread in the Eucharist.
The process of ordination begins with a nomination by a local congregation and ends with the formal laying of hands by a bishop in the name of the Church Universal. In the ordination ceremony, a candidate is brought before the congregation assembled to authorize the ordination. After formal approval is granted by the laity, the bishop lays his hands on the candidate and invokes divine help. The united prayers of the whole church are necessary to fulfil this sacrament.
Marriage is regarded as a sacrament in the Orthodox church and called “the crowning.” During Orthodox weddings the bride and groom exchange “crowns of glory” instead of rings. In the ceremony neither the bride or the groom make any promises; they merely express their consent to marry one another.
Orthodox Christian Baptism and Chrismation
Baptism is an important ritual. The whole body is immersed in water that has been previously blessed by special prayers. Orthodox Christians dismiss the Catholic act of just pouring water on the person being baptized. Orthodox baptism represents the inclusion of a newly born Christian into the community of believers.
Chrismation—also known Confirmation or Christening—is also important to Orthodox Christians. Children are confirmed with a sacred oil that has been elaborately prepared in a ceremony presided over by a Patriarch. It represents the sacrament of the Pentecost— when a Christian receives the gift of the Holy Spirit, enabling him or her to receive all other sacraments and elevating them to a kind of “special order” status that allows them to teach, and take part in governing a Christian community.
According to the BBC: The first two of seven principal Mysteries or sacraments at the heart of the Eastern Orthodox Church “are Baptism and Chrismation. Baptism of adults and infants is by immersion in water three times in the name of the Trinity and is both the initiation into the Church and a sign of forgiveness of sins. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]
“Chrismation follows immediately after baptism and is by anointing with holy oil called Chrism. Chrismation is followed by Holy Communion. This means that in the Orthodox Church babies and children are fully communicant members of the Church. Chrism can only be consecrated by the Patriarch, or chief Bishop, of the local Church. Some of the old Chrism is mixed with the new, thus linking the newly baptised to their forbears in the faith. |::|
The Chrism is used to anoint different parts of the body with a sign of the cross. The forehead, eyes, nostrils, mouth and ears, the chest, the hands and the feet are all anointed. The priest says the words, "The seal of the gift of the Holy Spirit" as he makes the sign of the cross at each point. |::|
“The newly baptised Christian is now a layperson, a full member of the people of God (the 'Royal Priesthood'). All Christians are called to be witnesses to the Truth. Chrismation is linked to Pentecost in that the same Holy Spirit which descended on the apostles descends on the newly baptised. |::|
Children are baptized and christened around the age of ten months or earlier to signify salvation. Orthodox Christianity differs from Western Christianity in that baptism and christening are performed together. Having these sacraments performed at such an early age means that life as a religious participant begins very early.
Orthodox Christian Confession
Orthodox Christians receive their first confession at around age seven. The event is preceded with instruction about moral responsibility. Afterwards a young person is deemed old enough to fast, reflect on themselves morally and receive confession. In the Russian church the taking of Holy Communion is always preceded by confession. Among other Orthodox groups confessing is not so commonly used. Confession is not simple a confession before a priest after one has sinned. In accordance with Orthodox teachings, a sinner is expected to make amends with the people who have been harmed by his actions first . Only then does he go before priest to confess.
According to the BBC: “All Orthodox Churches use the Mystery of Penance, or Confession, but in Greek speaking Churches only priests who have been blessed by the Bishop as 'Spiritual Fathers' are allowed to hear confession. Children may be admitted to the sacrament of Confession as soon as they are old enough to know the difference between right and wrong. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]
“Through this sacrament sinners may receive forgiveness. They enter into confession with a priest often in an open area in the church (not in a confessional as in the Roman Catholic tradition nor separated by a grille). Both priest and penitent stand and a cross and book of the Gospels or an icon is placed in front of the penitent with the priest standing slightly apart. This stresses that the priest is simply a witness and that forgiveness comes from God not the priest. The priest will then hear the confession and perhaps give advice. After confession the penitent kneels before the priest, who places his stole on the penitent's head saying a prayer of absolution. |::|
In Catholic confession, the priest acts as a judge and decides what an individual can do to be absolved of his sin. An Orthodox priest by contrast acts as a witness not a judge. He gives an introductory prayer and tells the penitent that only Jesus Christ can heal him. The priest acts as a fellow member of the church and a shoulder to cry on so to speak and offers advise on how the penitent can repent. At the end of the confession the priest asks God to reconcile the penitent to the church and forgive him of his sins.
Eucharist in Orthodox Christianity
The religious scholar Nicolas Zernov wrote: “The Eucharist is seen by the Orthodox Christians as the revelation of the divine Presence in the material world. Their rite has no single culminating point, but represents a gradual unveiling of Christ’s mystical presidency over the assembly of the faithful” and that “man is a worthy recipient of sacred mysteries.” The Eucharist “is based on the idea that matter is spirit-bearing and it is not only the participants but also their bodies and the fruits of the Earth transformed into bread and wine by their labors, which are sanctified and brought into sacramental union with the risen Christ and his glory.”
By contrast, through consecration in the Catholic Eucharist, according to the doctrine of Transubstantiation, the materials of the bread and wine keep their appearance of bread and wine but change their material substance into the Body and Blood of Christ.
The Orthodox Eurachrist is treated as a feast of both soul and body. The communion table is called the “Throne.” The screen, whose doors are opened and closed at various points of the service, are vital for the presentation of the Eucharist. A recipient of the Orthodox Eucharist does kneel after he has consumed the bread and wine. Leavened bread and red wine mixed with hot water are used.
According to the BBC: “The Eucharist, usually called the Divine Liturgy, fulfils the command of Jesus Christ at the Last Supper: "Do this in remembrance of me". A member of the congregation standing at the front of the church to lead the hymn-singing As in many Western churches the Eucharist is a service consisting, in the first part, of hymns, prayers, and readings from the New Testament, and in the second the solemn offering and consecration of leavened bread and wine mixed with water, followed by the reception of Holy Communion. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]
“The Orthodox believe that by the consecration the bread and wine are truly changed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Communion is given in a spoon containing both the bread and the wine and is received standing. A sermon is usually preached either after the reading of the Gospel or at the end of the service. At the end of the Liturgy blessed, but not consecrated, bread is distributed to the congregation, and non-Orthodox are often invited to share in this as a gesture of fellowship." |::|
Orthodox Christian Liturgy
The Orthodox Christian liturgy includes multiple elaborate systems of symbols meant to convey the content of the faith to believers. Many liturgical forms remain from the earliest days of Orthodoxy. The liturgy is the essence of Orthodoxy. The living and the dead are regarded as single congregation The liturgical action and prayers sanctify both their soul and their bodies.
Old Church Slavonic (also known as Old Church Slavic) was the first Slavic literary language, which influenced the development of the modern Slavic languages, including literary Russian. Used in liturgies of the Slavic Orthodox churches, it became known as Church Slavonic after the twelfth century.
The focal point of the Orthodox Christian liturgy is the Eucharist (Communion, taking of bread and wine) According to the BBC: “Both parts of the Liturgy contain a procession. At the Little Entrance, the Book of the Gospels is solemnly carried into the sanctuary and at the Great Entrance the bread and wine are carried to the altar for the Prayer of Consecration and Holy Communion. The prayer of consecration is always preceded by the proclamation of the Nicene Creed, frequently by the whole congregation. The Orthodox Church lays particular emphasis on the role of the Holy Spirit in the Eucharist, and in the Prayer of Consecration calls on the Father to send down his Holy Spirit to effect the change of the bread and wine into the Body and Blood of Christ. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]
“There are four different liturgies used throughout the year: 1 ) The Liturgy of St John Chrysostom (used on Sundays and weekdays); 2) The Liturgy of St Basil the Great (used 10 times a year); 3) The Liturgy of St James, the Brother of the Lord (sometimes used on St James' Day); 4) The Liturgy of the Presanctified (used on Wednesdays and Fridays in Lent and on the first three days of Holy Week) |::|
Anointing of the Sick
According to the BBC: ““In Greek-speaking Churches this is performed annually for the whole congregation during Holy Week on the eve of Holy Wednesday. Everyone is encouraged to come forward for anointing with the special oil whether they are physically ill or not. This is because it is generally held that all are in need of spiritual healing even if they are physically well. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]
“Anointing of the sick can also be performed on individuals. People sometimes keep the blessed oil of the sick in their homes. Timothy Ware said: “This sacrament,', remarks Sergius Bulgakov, 'has two faces: one turns towards healing, the other towards the liberation from illness by death.” [Source: Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church] |::|
“The Church anoints the sick with oil, following the teaching of St James in his Epistle (5:14-15), "Is anyone among you sick? He should summon the presbyters of the Church, and they should pray over him and anoint (him) with oil in the name of the Lord, and the prayer of faith will save the sick person, and the Lord will raise him up. If he has committed any sins he will be forgiven."" |::|
Russian Marriage and Wedding
Marriage is regarded as a sacrament in the Orthodox church and called “the crowning.” During Orthodox weddings the bride and groom have traditionally exchanged “crowns of glory” instead of rings but these they often exchange rings too. In the ceremony neither the bride or the groom make any promises; they merely express their consent to marry one another. According to the BBC: “Marriage is celebrated through the rite of crowning, showing the importance of eternal union of the couple. Although marriage is seen as a permanent commitment in life and in death, remarriage and divorce are permitted in certain circumstances. [Source: BBC, June 11, 2008 |::|]
Orthodox wedding ceremonies have traditionally been part of a full mass. The central elements of the ceremony are the presentation of rings and the exchanging of crowns. According to Russian Orthodox custom, married couples wear their wedding bands on their right hands.
During some Orthodox Christian ceremonies rings are given to the bride and groom by a priest. The couple approach a table at the altar. Incense smoke pours out of swinging sensors that are carried before them. The priest recites a litany, invokes a prayer and blesses the couples. He gives the bride and groom each a ring from the table and proclaims them "married now and forever" three times as the couple exchange rings three times. Sometimes the couples’ hands are bound together with a long embroidered scarf called a "rushnychok".
The priest takes the rings and makes a cross on the foreheads of the bride and groom. The rings are then placed on their right hands and the priest recites passages from the Bible and declares that the ring is a symbol of "union, honor and power.”
Orthodox Christian Morality and Miracles
The Orthodox church has traditionally promoted such values as the cardinal importance of life, respect associated with parents, obligation to give alms and abhorrence of suicide. Orthodox Christianity is regarded as strict, tolerant, full of prohibitions and traditionally has had very little social activism.
The religious scholar Nicolas Zernov wrote that the purpose of a church is to promote spiritual growth and increase the power of love among the faithful. “Christian love is interpreted as a desire for perfect unity among independent persons. Only where freedom is unimpaired is it considered that love can grow into its fullness. The Orthodox church therefore lays great emphasis on freedom as an indispensable condition for the proper functioning of the Church organism.
Holy Unction is the sacrament of healing. The sick are anointed with oil. It is a kind of faith healing that is used to treat people with physical, mental and spiritual problems or who need purification. On the ceiling of some churches hang small silver, gold or wax votive offering of arms, hands, torso, ears—representing afflicted body parts that people want to be healed—and even boats and trucks.
There is also a strong belief in miracles. In 1996, thousands of pilgrims flocked to the Greek Orthodox Church on Kykko Mountain in Cyprus (60 miles southwest of Nicosia) to pray before an icon of the Virgin Mary and child Jesus that reportedly had begun to weep. The pilgrims began arriving after monks at the 11th century monastery reported seeing tears forming in the eyes of the icon and slowly flowing down.
Orthodox Christian Funerals and Views on Death
Burial in a consecrated ground has traditionally been important to Orthodox Christians. Cremation has traditionally been forbidden by the Orthodox Church, which sees the human body as a temple for the soul and burying intact ensures that a person is in one piece when the resurrection comes. Any meddling with the body is regarded as a desecration and an offence against god.
In Orthodox countries like Romania and Bulgaria, cremation became legal under Communist rule. Orthodox funeral rites are held over he ashes of cremated bodies. Only Greece and Cyprus still forbid it.
A memorial service 40 days after a death is very important in the Orthodox religion. In Byzantine tombs, the head of the dead was propped up facing east. Byzantines burned lamps at grave sites.
Death is viewed not as the destruction of matter and the body but rather as transformation into matter that is obedient to the Holy Spirit. The dead are still regarded as part of the congregation. Remembering departed loved ones is an important aspect of Orthodox prayer life. Prayers are said to the dead and requests are made for them with the belief that the power of love is stronger than the power of death. Orthodox Christians do not define the status of the dead and do not claim to know what effect their prayers might have on them.
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Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.
Last updated September 2018