Church History for Orthodox | 5


1. Christianity's greatest tragedy.

Century by century, we have been building toward a dramatic break , a catastrophic split , between the Christians in the East and the Christians in the West .

I hope that prior pages have sufficiently prepared the ground so that these sorrowful and decisive moments may be understood.

In the 800’s, despite cultural / linguistic differences, the art, worship, and discipline of the Eastern and Western Churches were remarkably similar, if we contrast this common ground to the gulf that divides the Roman Catholicism of today from Orthodoxy.

Yet the two menacing currents of the filioque change to the Creed and the pursuit of Papal power threatened to tear asunder this unity, and indeed did so for a brief period in the 800’s.

Throughout the 900’s, the Byzantines were preoccupied with the Muslim threat and tended to isolate themselves in a narrow, classical world of high cultural standards and court refinements.

At the same time, the Popes of Rome presented such a morally decrepit and administratively weak picture that they were in no position to make any major moves which would impact the Eastern churches.

2. Prelude to the schism.

As the year 1000 A.D. grew nearer, Central Europe continued to be Christianised, mostly through the efforts of monks.

Parts of present-day Germany, Poland, and Denmark were accepting the Faith around this time,

and in Eastern Europe the great Slavic missionary movement begun by the brothers Sts. Cyril and Methodius in the 9th century matured and bore rich fruit.

These two apostles to the Slav peoples translated the liturgy, scriptures, and spiritual writings into the Slavonic tongue which is the ancestor of modern Russian, Serbian, Polish, and Bulgarian.

Although they were careful to gain the support of the Popes as well as the Patriarchs of Constantinople,

the brothers’ mission was bitterly attacked by the German Bishops, who insisted that services could only be held in Greek , Latin , or Hebrew , since these were the three languages inscribed on the title above Christ’s Cross.

The Germans also insisted upon the addition of filioque to the creed, and when the disciples of Cyril and Methodius would not agree to these things, they closed their churches and sold the missionaries themselves into slavery.

None of this bode very well for future relations between East and West.

In 988 , the ruler of Kievan Rus , St. Vladimir , led his nation into the Christianity of the Eastern form , a move which was later to provide Orthodoxy with a new, northern heartland.

In both East and West, the liturgical life of the Church reached a new maturity and stability; in fact, the Roman and Byzantine rites scarcely changed at all after 1000.

7 Holy Councils were accepted by both the Eastern and the Western Christians, and there was still a measure of cultural borrowing and goodwill on both sides.

3. Filioque prevails over Rome.

After the year 1000, however, a series of more intelligent and organized Popes began to stir up the old East-West tensions:

In 1008 , Pope Sergius issued a statement of faith which contained the filioque :

This was the first time it was formally adopted by Rome, and at Constantinople the response was to remove the Pope’s name from the diptychs (the prayer list of Patriarchs who are considered Orthodox).

In 1014 , Henry II , master of the Western Roman Empire, demanded that the Pope include the filioque in the Creed sung at Mass (previously, the Creed was not done at Mass in Rome).

The Pope balked at first, then gave in.

Steeped in the writings of St. Photius , the East naturally refused this intruder phrase whenever the issue arose.

4. The Great Schism — 1054 A.D.

What brought matters to a head was the Norman French invasion of Italy:

In 1052 , the Normans forced Byzantine-Rite churches, of which there were many in Italy, to adopt Western customs.

The Emperor at Constantinople reacted by shutting down all the Western-Rite churches in Constantinople that would not adopt Eastern customs, and there were many of them.

In the heat of this charged atmosphere, the Roman church changed in 1053 to the use of unleavened bread at the altar, a Jewish practice which aroused suspicion among the Easterners.

Tempers were hot;

therefore, Pope Leo IX sent a delegation headed by the most hot-tempered and tactless churchman available — Cardinal Humbert — to negotiate with Patriarch Michael of Constantinople (no model of patience himself).

When Humbert and his cohorts arrived at New Rome, they refused the usual courtesies to the Patriarch and thrust into his hands a paper listing their demands, including the submission of all the Patriarchs of the East to the Pope.

After this initial contact, Michael simply refused to meet with the delegation.

Before long, Humbert lost patience and drew up a Bull of Excommunication against Michael and “those in sympathy with him .”

Early on the morning of June 16, 1054 , Humbert and the others entered the Cathedral before the service and slapped the Bull of Excommunication down upon the altar.

Ignoring the Deacons who ran after them pleading with them to reconsider, they left the city, shook the dust off their feet, and reported to Rome.

Curiously, Pope Leo , on whose authority they supposed they were acting, had died three months before they cast their sentence at Michael.

The Patriarch, for his part, summoned a council of Bishops who excommunicated Humbert and “all those responsible ” for the incident. At this point, communion between Rome and the East was effectively and irreversibly shattered.

In the 1080’s , the Eastern Patriarchs appealed to the Pope to initiate the standard procedure for re-establishing communion between two churches:

they begged him to write a confession of faith, of the sort St. Gregory the Great had written to St. John the Faster, in accord with the Early Christian Fathers and Orthodox tradition.

This was to be followed by their affirmation of the Pope as the most honoured of Patriarchs, but it was not to be:

The Pope angrily retorted that neither he nor his faith could ever be brought into question by mortal men.

5. Schism or family quarrel?

Hindsight, as the saying goes, is 20/20, and as we look back on the events of 1054 we can detect a decisive rift between Christian West and Christian East.

However, the original terms of the Schism were limited to a dispute between Rome itself and Constantinople itself, and there are signs of more closeness between other parts of Christian East and West during this time.

For example, Western pilgrims to the Holy Land were still given Holy Communion by the Greek clergy at the holy places.

In the minds of many Christians, the squabble between Old and New Rome might have been merely another family altercation of the sort which had happened before and could always happen again.

Yet the Schism in 1054 was permanent, for several reasons:

Filioque :

Before 1054, the filioque caused disturbances, but in the main the Popes stood firmly against it, which pacified the Eastern churches.

After 1014, filioque invaded Rome itself and the Popes began ordering the Easterners to adopt it. In 1054, this was the only dogmatic issue on which Rome and the East could not at all see eye to eye.

Soon after 1054, Western theologians hastened to justify the Creed change with a number of “dogmatic ” opinions, cementing the mistake in place.

Papal Power :

As we saw earlier, East-West unity was severely threatened in the 9th century by Pope Nicholas I’s power dramas.

After a century of dormancy, a series of 11th century Popes stirred up the unholy fires of ambition afresh, and Papal power reached its peak in the 13th century.

At Rome, the papal pretensions finally grew so ingrained that no moderating voice could be found to reconcile Pope to Patriarchs.

Disparity of Customs :

The Greeks were already wary of certain liturgical innovations adopted at Rome, such as unleavened bread (1053) and single-immersion baptisms (in some regions).

This suspicion was often levelled against the West indiscriminately, and in some circles had risen to nothing short of a fever pitch.

Ancient Western customs, such as omitting the singing of “alleluia ” during Lent and the manner of preparing the bread and wine for the Eucharist, etc., were bitterly attacked.

6. The Crusades — 1096 to 1290 A.D.

The Church is often affected not so much at the intellectual level or the dogmatic level as at the gut level. This was certainly true as the shadow cast by the Great Schism deepened over time, and the main catalyst is usually considered to be the Crusades .

Crusades, of course, were Western holy wars, and absolution of sins was promised by the Western Church to soldiers who died in battle.

The First Crusade was stirred up by Pope Urban II (1096) , and was successful in capturing much of the Levant and establishing a Latin Kingdom there.

Of course, Latin bishops were installed where Greek Bishops had governed, and for the first time the practical effects of the Schism were felt in the East. Bishop was set against bishop, altar against altar, and both claimed to represent the One Church of Christ.

After the Second Crusade , stirred up by Bernard of Clairvaux , the Westerners living in Constantinople were massacred (1186 ).

Obviously, emotions were heated, but the final blow to any hope of reconciliation between Roman West and Byzantine East came in 1204 , when participants in the Fourth Crusade turned their weapons not on the Muslims but on their fellow Christians.

7. The sack of Constantinople — 1204 A.D.

For three days in 1204 , Christian blood ran in the streets of New Rome as her churches and holy things were desecrated.

Prostitutes were placed upon the altars of the churches, and many relics and other holy things were destroyed in the name of the Papacy.

It is difficult for Western people to imagine the horror felt by Orthodox Christians at this violence; it continues to smoulder even today.

8. Two Churches.

From this point on, it was clear to everyone that the Schism was not a matter of brother Bishops who could not get along, but of 2 different groups of believers —

1. the Orthodox , who clung doggedly to the faith of their ancestors, and

2. the Western Papal Catholics , who after separating from the Apostolic Church developed with surprising rapidity into a religion different both from pre-Schism Western Christianity and Eastern Orthodoxy.

The impact was devastating both for the Western Christians, as they lost touch with the Orthodox Faith, and for the Eastern Christians, as the numbers of communicants of the Church plummeted

and (worst of all) the Orthodox Faith came to be thought of as an Eastern affair, rather than as a universal faith , embracing all peoples and cultures — as the Holy Fathers had always understood it.

Since after the Schism of Rome the Faith which we profess was preserved in Eastern lands exclusively, our Church history will largely be an Eastern one from this point onward.

Still, we will keep abreast of events which shaped the Roman Catholic Church so that the present-day situation, and the revival of Orthodoxy among Western Christians in the 20th century, can be understood and appreciated.