When word came of a meeting between Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis in Cuba, a headline in the National Post wondered whether the event might hail the “End of the 1,000-year schism?” Accompanying photographs of the two church leaders, adorned respectively in Byzantine bling and papal finery attracted my attention, but I’m guessing the event barely registered on the radar of most Evangelicals.
When word came of a meeting between Russian Orthodox Patriarch Kirill and Pope Francis in Cuba, a headline in the National Postwondered whether the event might hail the “End of the 1,000-year schism?” Accompanying photographs of the two church leaders, adorned respectively in Byzantine bling and papal finery attracted my attention, but I’m guessing the event barely registered on the radar of most Evangelicals.
After all, what do they have to do with us?
It’s a question I’ve long considered. While vaguely aware that there is some relationship—between the Protestant denominations of which I’ve been a part my entire life, and the Eastern Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches of the Christian Church—I confess that the connection only really became clear to me a few years ago, while researching a feature story on Eastern Orthodoxy for Faith Today.
Long before the various reformation movements of the 16th Century (which would give rise to the Protestant churches) Eastern and Western branches of Christianity experienced their own tumult, leading to what has become known among historians as The Great Schism of 1054.
Of course, long, long before the events of the 11th Century, the Church was one body. But, human nature being what it is, that body was never completely at peace with itself. (The book of Acts, for example, records that there were disputes between Hellenist and Hebrew believers, between Peter and Paul. Paul’s letters provide further evidence of squabbles within various congregations.)
Disagreements are not hard to understand when you recognize the incredible pace at which the Church grew in the first few centuries of the Christian era. Everything was new and changing. People were just trying to figure stuff out.
There were, after all, New Testament books to be written and accepted as authoritative, creeds to be penned, doctrines to be determined and more. So very much more.
As one historian has observed, “The very rapidity with which churches sprang up around the Roman world left plenty of freedom for local liturgies to be developed and interpreted in different directions.” And when things get interpreted in different directions, conflicts can arise.
Except that as the Church grew in the Roman West and the Greek East, leaders were mostly able to set their differences aside, resolve them or just ignore them altogether.
It was a different time.
Separated by language and culture, not to mention vast geographical distances in an age before iPhones and the Internet, it was possible then to just go about your worship in your own way and not worry too much about what the other guys were doing.
Until the differences became so deeply entrenched and so blatantly, well, different, that when the two sides did encounter one another, it became impossible to ignore those differences any longer.
Which brings us to the middle of the 11th Century, when the Church in both the Greek East and the Roman West found itself in a bit of a political-ecclesiastical pickle. Norman armies had invaded and occupied much of southern Italy, which was then a Greek region. The occupiers were suppressing Greek customs and religious rites with the blessing of the Pope, which made the Eastern emperor—back in Constantinople—pretty unhappy. In retaliation, the Greeks ordered the Latin churches in Constantinople to adopt Greek practices. When they refused, the Patriarch, ordered them closed.
What followed was a tit-for-tat correspondence between representatives of the Eastern and Western churches in which insults were lobbed, and which culminated in the Pope sending a three-man delegation to Constantinople to attempt to resolve the differences.
Unfortunately, the lead diplomat in the delegation was less than diplomatic. And the Patriarch was distrustful. Talks stalled, and ended altogether when the Western delegates marched into the Hagia Sophia just as Eastern clergy were preparing for worship, placed a document excommunicating the Patriarch on the altar, then stalked out, shaking the dust from their feet. Eight days later, the Patriarch issued his own excommunications.
Recent scholarship downplays the significance of the events of 1054, pointing instead to the Crusades and the sack of Constantinople, 150 years later, as being among the culminating acts that drove the final wedge between the two branches of the Christian Church—which to that point had been, at least in name, “one Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church.”
For all sorts of technical reasons—the mutual excommunications were not legitimate and should not have been binding. “Had either side wanted to, there was still opportunity to pull back from the brink,” notes one source.
But human nature being what it is, brothers in the faith found it easier to walk away from one another—nursing their respective wounds and grudges—than to continue the hard work of seeking to come to a place of mutual understanding in love.
It was both parties’ acceptance of the estrangement that led to the real and permanent break—a break that continues in far too many ways and in spite of the recent meeting in Cuba—to the present day.
Of course the Eastern Church and the Western Church would each go on to suffer further separations, estrangements, schisms and splits.
Such splits are so common in the Evangelical world we laugh about them happening over the colour of the carpet, or which side of the church the piano should be on.
But it is a humbling and even tragic thing to think that our contemporary indifference to such a situation could be the very reason that the prayer of our Saviour for the unity of believers recorded in John 17:20–23 remains unanswered.
Patricia Paddey is a senior writer of Faith Today, and a student at McMaster Divinity College in Hamilton, Ont.