Julius Joseph Overbeck was a Roman Catholic priest who converted to Eastern Orthodoxy and became a pioneer of Western Rite Orthodoxy.
The modern re-emergence of an Orthodox Western Rite begins in 1864 with the work of former Catholic priest Julius Joseph Overbeck. Overbeck had left the priesthood, converted to Lutheranism and married, though it is uncertain whether he ever functioned as a Lutheran pastor. He immigrated to England in 1863 to become professor of German at the Royal Military Academy, where he also undertook studies of the Church of England and Orthodoxy.
Convinced that both the Papacy and Anglicanism were on the verge of collapse, Overbeck was received into the Orthodox Church at the Russian Embassy in London by Fr. Eugene Poppoff in 1865 as a layman because he had married following his ordination.
As a part of his conversion to the Orthodox Church, Overbeck had requested permission from the Synod of the Russian Orthodox Church to begin a Western Orthodox Church in England. Initially, Metropolitan Philaret was hesitant about Overbeck’s request, but did not rule out the idea entirely. Overbeck outlined his rationale for a Western Orthodox Church in his book “Catholic Orthodoxy and Anglo-Catholicism,” a largely polemical work describing why the established Western churches should be rejected.
In 1867 Overbeck also began to publish “The Orthodox Catholic Review,” a journal for the advancement of Western Orthodoxy.
Overbeck had also begun to convince others of the feasibility of a Western Orthodox Church and was ultimately able to submit a petition of 122 signatures (mostly Tractarians) to the Holy Synod in 1869 asking for the creation of a Western Rite. A synodical commission was established to investigate the question, and Overbeck was invited to state his case before the commission in St. Petersburg in 1870.
Overbeck’s idea received the approval of the commission and he was instructed to present a revised Western Liturgy for evaluation by the commission, which he did in December of that year which was subsequently approved. At the same time as Overbeck was making his overtures to the Russian Church, another anonymous individual was making a similar plea to High church elements within the Anglican Church.
The next several years were spent with further developing the Western liturgies for administration of the other sacraments as well as the praying of the Divine Office. Overbeck also attempted to woo Old Catholics to his scheme since they had just recently gone into schism form the Roman Catholic Church over Vatican I’s definition of Papal infallibility, though to little avail. Overbeck also continued to criticize Roman Catholics and Anglicans as well as those Western converts to Orthodoxy who utilized the Byzantine Rite.
By 1876, Overbeck began to make appeals to other Orthodox Churches for their recognition of his scheme. He received audiences with the Patriarch of Constantinople Joachim III and received recognition from the Patriarch of the theoretical right of Western Christians to have a Western Orthodox Church. However, Overbeck’s efforts did not result in the establishment of a Western Orthodoxy.
He was especially suspicious the role which the Greeks in London (and the Church of Greece generally) played in the stagnation of his ambitions, directly blaming the Greek Church’s protest against the plan in 1892.
The Orthodox Catholic Review published its final issue in 1885 and Overbeck died in 1905 without seeing the implementation of the Western Orthodox Church. Georges Florovsky summed up Overbeck’s experience in this way:
“it was not just a fantastic dream. The question raised by Overbeck was pertinent, even if his own answer to it was confusedly conceived. And probably the vision of Overbeck was greater than his personal interpretation.”