The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine and Spiritual Culture (Part VI)

Glorification of the Venerable Zabulon, the father of St. Nino the Enlightener of Georgia

Glorification of the Venerable Zabulon, the father of St. Nino the Enlightener of Georgia

My beloved spiritual children in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,

By Father John Anthony McGuckin

[About the author: Father John Anthony McGuckin is a Starvrofor Priest of the Romanian Orthodox Church. He is the Nielsen Professor of Early Christian and Byzantine Church History at Union Theological Seminary, and Professor of Byzantine Christianity at New York's Columbia University. Professor McGuckin has published more than twenty books on religious and historical themes and is considered one of the most articulate spokespersons of the early Christian and Eastern Orthodox Tradition writing in English today.]

East and West: The Parting of Ways

After the last council in 787 AD, the political affairs of the Byzantine Empire went into a long decline, largely because of the pressure of the advance of Islam in the form of the Seljuk and Ottoman Turks. The emperor's role in the gathering together of the synodical bishops, and his supervision of the proclamation of their decrees as part of Christian law for the Eastern Churches, was progressively hindered by the political reality that saw more and more parts of the ancient Christian lands now under the control of Islamic rulers, the caliphs, and then the sultans. The weakened position of the Eastern Christians was exacerbated even more as a result of the Crusades. From the late 11th century onwards western armies, inspired by the appeal of the pope for Christian soldiers to liberate the holy sites in Palestine, were regarded as a mixed blessing by the Christian emperors in Constantinople. Only forty years before the beginning of the First Crusade there had been a particularly bitter 'falling out' between the Papacy and the Constantinopolitan Patriarchate. Pope Leo IX had, with the emperor's support, sent legates among the Cardinal Humbertus to resolve the several differences between the Latin and Greek Churches that were currently causing friction. The list of problems included the Filioque clause, and the extent to which the pope was entitled to a jurisdiction of power over Churches outside his immediate territory, but also included the sense of the widening gap that had grown up between Greek and Latin liturgical life and spiritual customs.

Far from being resolved, the arguments between Humbertus and Patriarch Michael Caerularios flared to new heights. It ended with the cardinal leaving a decree of excommunication against the Patriarch on the altar of Hagia Sophia, in July 1054, and the Holy Synod of Constantinople, in return, excommunicating the papal legates. This was not an exchange of excommunications between the Churches in any sense, but it had the effect of being a public severance of unity, and it is often cited as a significant 'moment' in the story of what was to become the long separation of the Orthodox and Latin catholic Churches. Increasingly from that time onwards, the Papacy regarded the Greeks as having become 'schismatic' by having refused the rights of papal jurisdiction, and the Orthodox regarded the Western Church as having lapsed into heresy for elevating the Papacy to such extraordinary heights, while tampering with the ancient deposit of the faith in such matters as adding the Filioque to the Creed, and using unleavened bread in the Eucharist. Mutual respect, by the high Middle Ages, was at a low ebb. By 1190, the sense among the Orthodox that the long alienation had actually become a schism becomes apparent in the great Orthodox canonist Theodore Balsamon, the Patriarch of Antioch, who wrote:

"For many years now, the western church has been divided in spiritual communion from the other four patriarchates and has become alien to the no Latin should be given communion unless he first declares that he will abstain from the doctrines and customs that separate him from us, and that he will be subject to the canons of the Church in union with the Orthodox."

The sense of separation, even at this late date, however, was such that it could be 'repaired' by a simple statement of assent. Today there is a sense that things have gone further astray; and a simple individual statement of faith is not generally felt to be sufficient remedy to initiate intercommunion.

The worst fears of the Byzantines, in regard to the crusading movement, however, were realized in 1204, during the infamous Fourth Crusade, when the crusading fleet turned aside from their goal of Jerusalem, and settled into several days of looting after their involvement in the toppling of the incumbent Byzantine emperor. The behavior of the Crusaders, who looted the Orthodox churches of their relics, suggested to the Orthodox observers that not only were the Latins more hostile to them than their Islamic foes, but they clearly had little respect for them as fellow Christians. The invading force desecrated the altars and monasteries of the Byzantine capital, and even though the behavior of the Crusaders was censured by the pope, it left an abiding sense among the Greeks that Latin Christianity had changed, substantively, had adopted a new attitude to fundamental matters of religion that, to them, now appeared alien and hostile to the Churches of the East. From the time of the Fourth Crusade onwards there is clearly a sharp frost in the air in relation to all issues of Orthodox dialogue with the Western Church. There is in addition a pervasive sense (still discernible among many Orthodox in Eastern Europe to whom one might talk to this day).

From that time onwards, most of the Orthodox world was to know subjection for centuries to come. It carried on its Christian life, for the most part, under sufferance of non-Christian powers. From this time to the 19th century the Orthodox Church lists a massive list of Neo-martyrs and Confessors among its ranks. There were attempts to broker reunion, and these were especially led by the Byzantine emperors of the day who were desperate to secure the political support of the Western Christian states (and thus needing the pope's blessing) as Islam advanced more and more aggressively against the East-Roman Christian empire. The first reunion council was that of Lyons in 1274. The Orthodox delegates then present agreed (though in as vague a way as they could) to recognize papal claims to supremacy, and also to recite the Creed with the Filioque added. Their 'acceptance' of these ideas led to their wholesale repudiation among the Orthodox at large. The emperor's sister is reputed to have replied to the news of Lyons with the words: 'Better my brother's empire should perish, than the unity of the Orthodox faith.' When the empire was once more in critical need of military aid, Emperor John VIII made a passage to the west, and personally attended the unionist Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-9). The discussions at Florence were much more substantial than anything that had occurred since the time of the Patriarch Photios in the 19th century.

The Orthodox delegates at Florence all signed the Act of Union, with the exception of Markos Eugenikos, the archbishop of Ephesus, who has since gained the title of 'Pillar of Orthodoxy'. But the terms of the union were never accepted by the Orthodox back in the home countries, and remained a policy adopted by a tiny minority of court clerics in the capital city. John, and his successor Emperor Constantine IX, the last of the Byzantine emperors, tried to act as if it were an accomplished fact, but it was indicative that the imperial court did not even proclaim publicly that the Act of Union had been signed until 1452, one year before the city's conquest. Many of the Orthodox signatories revoked their names as soon as they left Florence...The forces of Mehmet II, Ottoman sultan, attacked the capital on 7 April 1453, and despite a courageous defense of the Great Walls, broke through on 29th May. At dawn on that day, the last Christian Eucharist was celebrated in the great cathedral of Hagia Sophia. Faced with the prospect of death or enslavement, Latins and Greek Orthodox alike stood together to receive the holy gifts.

In the same period that Constantinople suffered her long decline, Russia rose to political eminence and, along with other eastern European states that retained some degree of free action (such as Wallachia and Moldovia, the precursors of modern Romania), they gave help to the wider Orthodox world, and acted as the patrons of Orthodoxy. One of the greatest casualties of the long decline was the great diminution of the schools of the Orthodox at the very time the Renaissance was starting to take effect with the boom of knowledge and literacy in the West. Orthodoxy still suffers from the destruction of its schools to the present, and only in the late 20th century did the signs change, promising a revival, and good new things for the future, as theological studies once more flourished in Russia and eastern Europe after decades of suppression. (Source: The Orthodox Church: An Introduction to its History, Doctrine, and Spiritual Culture)

(To be continued)



With sincere agape in Our Risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ,
The sinner and unworthy servant of God

+Father George