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

Greatmartyr George the New at Sofia, Bulgaria

Greatmartyr George the New at Sofia, Bulgaria

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

by John Anthony McGuckin

The Slavic Mission

When Byzantium was at its zenith, it expanded its sphere of influence by a vast system of federation and alliances with outlying states and peoples. To be adopted by the emperor or to be married into the imperial family was a way in which a political web of treaty and interdependence was extended far and wide as a form of kinship relation of princes all looking to the Byzantine emperor as the center. This inevitably involved the transmission of Christianity itself into the new regions with which Byzantium came into contact. With the exportation of books and literacy came Christianization of eastern European tribes, and their incorporation into the federation of the Christian imperium. One mission that would have a far-reaching effect was the evangelization of the pagan Slavs, who lay to the north and north-west of the Byzantine borders: the tribes of the Moravians, the Bulgars, Serbs, and Rus, all precursors of great Christian nations to come. Patriarch Photios of Constantinople inspired the Slavic mission and blessed two Greeks from Thessaloniki to organize it: Constantine (826-69) and his brother Methodios (815-85). They are more commonly known as Saints Cyril and Methodios. As children they had already encountered Slavic tribes around their city and had gained familiarity with their language. Inventing a script, based upon Greek letters but with extra sound-signs added, Cyril and Methodios prepared extensive translation of church service books and Gospel translations into this dialect. It would have a vast transmission as 'Church Slavonic' and is still the common ecclesiastical language of Russia, Bulgaria, and Serbia.

When the two brothers left Constantinople they disseminated the literature, the language, and the spiritual culture of Orthodoxy wherever they went. Their mission was hampered by a conflict with the German missionaries who were also at work Latinizing Moravia and Bulgaria. Issues of divergence between the two Christian traditions soon let to acrimony, and the brothers appealed to the Papacy to limit the range of the hostile German preachers, and to allow them to use their vernacular method of spreading the Gospel. Pope Hadrian II gave them his support, but Cyril died in Rome, and when Methodios returned he found papal support actually counted for little on the missionary field. His work was hindered at every turn by German ecclesiastics in Moravia, and after his death his followers were expelled. However, the dramatic failure of the Byzantine-Slav mission in Moravia was not this case elsewhere. The work took root in Bulgaria, Serbia, and among the Rus, the ancestors of Russia. At the very end of the reign of Tsar Simeon (893-927) Bulgaria was recognized as an autonomous patriarchal Church, the first national Christian Church of the Slavs. Serbia became progressively Christianized in the later ninth century.

Whether or not the general view of the 'fall' of the Christian East as partly caused, or at least hastened, by the abandonment of the Christian West is correct, it became a deep part of how the Orthodox in the late Middle Ages and into the present had the story of their decline recounted to them. But, as they declined, the Western church grew in power and status, until the extraordinary events of the multiple scissions among it that are known to us today in the West as the Reformation. Orthodoxy was not able to repair the breach with the West before that extensive fragmentation happened. Even in the present day, its dialogues with Western Christianity are haunted by the suspicion that Western Christians have 'ulterior motives', and even now the relations between the patriarchate of Moscow and the Roman Papacy have been troubled by this ongoing issue, in the form of why the Vatican, after the end of communist control, restored an independent catholic hierarchy within the territory of Russia, at the same time as the pope called for restoration of communion between Western Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Issues that are for many Western Christians things long forgotten, or mere dim memories, are often to the fore of the collective memory and sense of identity of the Orthodox, most of them rooted in a Church history which European textbooks still tend to neglect as too obscure for general issue. It will take a long time and much mutual honesty before dialogue can really flower into a mutual understanding and reconciliation.

The Ancient Patriarchates

1. The Patriarchate of Constantinople

The Patriarchate of Constantinople now has a primacy of honor within Orthodoxy...The patriarch known as His All-Holiness the Archbishop of Constantinople, the New Rome, and ecumenical patriarch, is now still resident in Istanbul, the ancient Constantinople. This capital of 'New Rome' was founded by Constantine the Great in the early 4th century to be the military and political center of the Roman Empire. From this time onwards, and it remained the case until the 9th century, the fortunes of the old Western capital at Rome went into serious decline. Even late into the 4th century, however, Constantinople's ecclesiastical significance was very modest, reflecting its origins (as the colonial port of Byzantium) as a subordinate of the diocese of Thrace (now Bulgaria). Byzantium had been a thoroughly insignificant city before Constantine's re-foundation, and the new capital took some time to establish itself as a powerful magnet of ecclesiastical affairs, just as it did to establish itself as the veritable center of all political power in the Roman world. The rise to pre-eminence was rapid enough when it did happen, of course. And by late 4th and early 5th century the bishops of Constantinople had become in effect archbishops by gathering together a whole ecclesiastical territory that looked to them for supervision and guidance. The institution of the home synod was encouraged by the archbishop of Constantinople. Because so many bishops came to the capital so regularly, to pursue political and other business there, they were invited to share in the deliberations of the local Church. The home synod still functions in a more ecclesiastical eparchies which are still immediately subject to the patriarch (Derkos, Chalcedon, Prinkipo, and Imbros), along with other titular archbishops who, as senior hierarchs (metropolitans), govern the diaspora Churches as exarchs on behalf of the patriarch...

The Second Ecumenical Council, which took place at Constantinople in 381, and the Council of Chalcedon in 451, gave the precedence of Constantinople greater clarity and force. It has always been seen as a matter of 'normalcy' among the Orthodox that a city's ecclesiastical importance should reflect its role in the structure of the civic governance. By this period the position of the imperial capital was unarguably central in Church affairs just as it was in political affairs, and from this time on the patriarchate of Constantinople was established as the center of precedence among the Eastern Churches. The Roman patriarchate continued to resist the implication that a see's precedence should be tied to its geopolitical importance. Nevertheless the canonical position of the patriarchate of Constantinople was universally accepted in the East, and Rome itself came to admit it, long before the time of the Great Schism of the Middle Ages..."

The present territorial extent of Constantinople's ecclesiastical jurisdiction is comprised by Turkey, the ancient parts of Thrace that are not in present-day Bulgaria, Crete, some Greek islands in the Aegean, the monasteries of Mount Athos, all Greeks of the diaspora (large numbers in Europe, America, and Oceania), and a jurisdictional oversight over the Church of Finland (since 1923)...The category of the diaspora at first initiated as a mission to Greeks who came to the West has now been extended, in some places over many generations, to cover the very large Greek Christian communities of America and Australia, and also the smaller exarchate of Great Britain and Ireland...Much more than half the lay members of the patriarchate, for example, now reside in North America, and many of the Greek Orthodox there are so thoroughly Americanized that some of them have forgotten their ancestral language..."



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

+Father George