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A History of the Orthodox Church

The Church of Imperial Byzantium

Introduction | History | Doctrine

Byzantine Christianity about AD 1000 | Relations between Church and state
The Development of Monasticism
Relations with the West | The Crusades | The Mongol invasion
Attempts at ecclesiastical union | Relations with the Western Church
Theological and monastic renaissance

Byzantine Christianity about AD 1000

Not without reason has Byzantium been called 'the image of the heavenly Jerusalem'. Religion entered into every aspect of Byzantine life. Byzantine holidays were religious festivals; the races which took place in the Circus began with the singing of hymns; and trade contracts invoked the Trinity and were marked with the sign of the Cross. Today, in an untheological age, it is all but impossible to realize how burning an interest was felt in religious questions by every part of society, by laity as well as clergy, by the poor and uneducated as well as the Court and the scholars. Gregory of Nyssa describes the unending theological arguments in Constantinople at the time of the second general council:

The whole city is full of it, the squares, the market places, the cross-roads, the alleyways; old-clothes men, money changers, food sellers: they are all busy arguing. If you ask someone to give you change, he philosophizes about the Begotten and the Unbegotten; if you inquire about the price of a loaf, you are told by way of reply that the Father is greater and the Son inferior; if you ask 'Is my bath ready?' the attendant answers that the Son was made out of nothing.'

This curious complaint indicates the atmosphere in which the councils met. So violent were the passions aroused that sessions were not always restrained or dignified. 'Synods and councils I salute from a distance,' Gregory of Nazianzus dryly remarked, 'for I know how troublesome they are.' 'Never again will I sit in those gatherings of cranes and geese." The Fathers at times supported their cause by questionable means: Cyril of Alexandria, for example, in his struggle against Nestorius, bribed the Court heavily and terrorized the city of Ephesus with a private army of monks. Yet if Cyril was intemperate in his methods, it was because of his consuming desire that the right cause should triumph; and if Christians were at times acrimonious, it was because they cared about the Christian faith. Perhaps disorder is better than apathy. Orthodoxy recognizes that the councils were attended by imperfect humans, but it believes that these imperfect humans were guided by the Holy Spirit.

The Byzantine bishop was not only a distant figure who attended councils; he was also in many cases a true father to his people, a friend and protector to whom people confidently turned when in trouble. The concern for the poor and oppressed which John Chrysostom displayed is found in many others. St John the Almsgiver, Patriarch of Alexandria (died 619), for example, devoted all the wealth of his see to helping those whom he called 'my brothers and sisters, the poor'. When his own resources failed, he appealed to others: 'He used to say,' a contemporary recorded, 'that if, without ill-will, someone were to strip the rich right down to their shirts in order to give to the poor, he would do no wrong.'' Those whom you call poor and beggars,' John said, 'these I proclaim my masters and helpers. For they, and they alone, can really help us and bestow upon us the kingdom of heaven.' The Church in the Byzantine Empire did not overlook its social obligations, and one of its principal functions was charitable work.

At the beginning of the 2nd millennium of Christian history, the church of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire, was at the peak of its world influence and power. Neither Rome, which had become a provincial town and its church an instrument in the hands of political interests, nor Europe under the Carolingian and Ottonian dynasties could really compete with Byzantium as centres of Christian civilization. The Byzantine emperors of the Macedonian dynasty had extended the frontiers of the empire from Mesopotamia to Naples (in Italy) and from the Danube River (in central Europe) to Palestine. The church of Constantinople not only enjoyed a parallel expansion but also extended its missionary penetration, much beyond the political frontiers of the empire, to Russia and the Caucasus.

Relations between church and state

The ideology that had prevailed since Constantine (4th century) and Justinian I (6th century)—according to which there was to be only one universal Christian society, the oikoumene, led jointly by the empire and the church—was still the ideology of the Byzantine emperors. At the heart of the Christian polity of Byzantium was the Emperor, who was no ordinary ruler, but God's representative on earth. If Byzantium was an icon of the heavenly Jerusalem, then the earthly monarchy of the Emperor was an image or icon of the monarchy of God in heaven; in church people prostrated themselves before the icon of Christ, and in the palace before God's living icon - the Emperor. The labyrinthine palace, the Court with its elaborate ceremonial, the throne room where mechanical lions roared and musical birds sang: these things were designed to make clear the Emperor's status as vicegerent of God. 'By such means,' wrote the Emperor Constantine Vll Porphyrogenitus, 'we figure forth the harmonious movement of God the Creator around this universe, while the imperial power is preserved in proportion and order.'' The Emperor had a special place in the Church's worship: he could not of course celebrate the Eucharist, but he received communion within the sanctuary 'as priests do'- taking the consecrated bread in his hands and drinking from the chalice, instead of being given the sacrament in a spoon - and he also preached sermons and on certain feasts censed the altar. The vestments which Orthodox bishops now wear are the vestments once worn by the Emperor in church.

The life of Byzantium formed a unified whole, and there was no rigid line of separation between the religious and the secular, between Church and State: the two were seen as parts of a single organism. Hence it was inevitable that the Emperor played an active part in the affairs of the Church. Yet at the same time it is not just to accuse Byzantium of Caesaro-Papism, of subordinating the Church to the State. Although Church and State formed a single organism, yet within this one organism there vvere two distinct elements, the priesthood (sacerdotium) and the imperial power (imperium); and while working in close co-opcration, each of these elements had its own proper sphere in which it was autonomous. Between the two there was a 'symphony' or 'harmony', but neither element exercised absolute control over the other.

This is the doctrine expounded in the great code of Byzantine law drawn up under Justinian (see the sixth Novel) and repeated in many of the; Byzantine texts. Take for example the words of Emperor John Tzimisces: 'I recognize two authorities, priesthood and empire; the Creator of the world entrusted to the first the care of souls and to the second the control of men's bodies. Let neither authority be attacked, that the world may enjoy prosperity." Thus it was the Emperor's task to summon councils and to carry their decrees into effect, but it lay beyond his powers to dictate the content of those decrees: it was for the bishops gathered in council to decide what the true faith was. Bishops were appointed by God to teach the faith, whereas the Emperor was the protector of Orthodoxy, but not its exponent. Such was the theory, and such in great part was the practice also. Admittedly there were many occasions on which the Emperor interfered unwarrantably in ecclesiastical matters; but when a serious question of principle arose, the authorities of the Church quickly showed that they had a will of their own. Iconoclasm, for example, was vigorously championed by a whole series of Emperors, yet for all that it was successfully rejected by the Church. In Byzantine history Church and State were closely interdependent, but neither was subordinate to the other.

There are many today, not only outside but within the Orthodox Church, who sharply criticize the Byzantine Empire and the idea of a Christian society for which it stands. Yet were the Byzantines entirely wrong? They believed that Christ, who lived on earth as a man, has redeemed every aspect of human existence, and they held that it was therefore possible to baptize not human individuals only but the whole spirit and organization of society. So they strove to create a polity entirely Christian in its principles of government and in its daily life. Byzantium in fact was nothing less than an attempt to accept and to apply the full implications of the Incarnation. Certainly the attempt had its dangers: in particular the Byzantines often fell into the error of identifying the earthly kingdom of Byzantium with the Kingdom of God, the Greek people - or rather, the 'Roman' people, to use the term by which they themselves described their own identity - with God's people. Certainly Byzantium fell far short of the high ideal which it set itself, and its failure was often lamentable and disastrous. The tales of Byzantium duplicity, violence, and cruelty are too well known to call for repetition here. They are true - but they are only a part of the truth. For behind all the shortcomings of Byzantium can always be discerned the great vision by which the Byzantines were inspired: to establish here on earth a living image of God's government in heaven. The authority of the patriarch of Constantinople was motivated in a formal fashion by the fact that he was the bishop of the "New Rome," where the emperor and the senate also resided (canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, 451). He held the title of "ecumenical patriarch," which pointed to his political role in the empire. Technically, he occupied the second rank—after the bishop of Rome—in a hierarchy of five major primates, which included also the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. In practice, however, the latter three were deprived of all authority by the Arab conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century, and only the emerging Slavic churches attempted to challenge, at times, the position of Constantinople as the unique centre of Eastern Christendom.

The relations between state and church in Byzantium are often described in the West by the term caesaropapism, which implies that the emperor was acting as the head of the church. The official texts, however, describe the emperor and the patriarch as a dyarchy (government with dual authority) and compare their functions to that of the soul and the body in a single organism. In practice, the emperor had the upper hand over much of church administration, though strong patriarchs could occasionally play a decisive role in politics: Patriarch Nicholas Mystikus (patriarch 901-907, 912-925) and Polyeuctus (patriarch 956-970) excommunicated emperors for uncanonical acts. In the area of faith and doctrine, the emperors could never impose their will when it contradicted the conscience of the church: this fact, shown in particular during the numerous attempts at union with Rome during the late medieval period, proves that the notion of caesaropapism is not unreservedly applicable to Byzantium.

The Church of the Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia, built by Justinian in the 6th century, was the centre of religious life in the Eastern Orthodox world. It was by far the largest and most splendid religious edifice in all of Christendom. According to The Russian Primary Chronicle, the envoys of the Kievan prince Vladimir, who visited it in 987, reported: "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth." Hagia Sophia, or the "great church," as it was also called, provided the pattern of the liturgical office, which was adopted throughout the Orthodox world. This adoption was generally spontaneous, and it was based upon the moral and cultural prestige of the imperial capital: the Orthodox Church uses the 9th-century Byzantine Rite.

The Development of Monasticism

Monasticism played a decisive part in the religious life of Byzantium, as it has done in that of all Orthodox countries. It has been rightly said that 'the best way to penetrate Orthodox spirituality is to enter it through monasticism'. 'There is a great richness of forms of the spiritual life to be found within the bounds of Orthodoxy, but monasticism remains the most classic of all." The monastic life first emerged as a definite institution in Egypt and Syria during the fourth century, and from there it spread rapidly across Christendom. It is no coincidence that monasticism should have developed immediately after Constantine's conversion, at the very time when the persecutions ceased and Christianity became fashionable. The monks with their austerities were martyrs in an age when martyrdom of blood no longer existed; they formed the counterbalance to an established Christendom. People in Byzantine society were in danger of forgetting that Byzantium was an image and symbol, not the reality; they ran the risk of identifying the kingdom of God with an earthly kingdom. The monks by their withdrawal from society into the desert fulfilled a prophetic and eschatological ministry in the life of the Church. They reminded Christians that the kingdom of God is not of this world.

Monasticism has taken three chief forms, all of which had appeared in Egypt by the year 350, and all of which are still to be found in the Orthodox Church today. There are first the hermits, ascetics leading the solitary life in huts or caves, and even in tombs, among the branches of trees, or on the tops of pillars. The great model of the eremitic life is the father of monasticism himself, St Antony of Egypt (25l-356). Secondly there is the community life, where monks dwell together under a common rule and in a regularly constituted monastery. Here the great pioneer was St Pachomius of Egypt (286-346), author of a rule later used by St Benedict in the west. Basil the Great, whose ascetic writings have exercised a formative influence on eastern monasticism, was a strong advocate of the community life, although he was probably influenced more by Syria than by the Pachomian houses that he visited. Giving a social emphasis to monasticism, he urged that religious houses should care for the sick and poor, maintaining hospitals and orphanages, and working directly for the benefit of society at large. But in general eastern monasticism has been far less concerned than western with active work; in Orthodoxy a monk's primary task is the life of prayer, and it is through this that he serves others. It is not so much what a monk does that matters, as what he is. Finally there is a form of the monastic life intermediate between the first two, the semi-eremitic life, a 'middle way' where instead of a single highly organized community there is a loosely knit group of small settlements, each settlement containing perhaps between two and six members living together under the guidance of an elder. The great centres of the semi-eremitic life in Egypt were Nitria and Scetis, which by the end of the fourth century had produced many outstanding monks: Ammon the founder of Nitria, Macarius of Egypt and Macarius of Alexandria, Evagrius of Pontus, and Arsenius the Great. (This semi-eremitic system is found not only in the east but in the far west, in Celtic Christianity.) From its very beginnings the monastic life was seen, in both east and west, as a vocation for women as wel1 as men, and throughout the Byzantine world there were numerous communities of nuns.

Because of its monasteries, fourth-century Egypt was regarded as a second Holy Land, and travellers to Jerusalem felt their pilgrimage to be incomplete unless it included the ascetic houses of the Nile. In the fifth and sixth centuries leadership in the monastic movement shifted to Palestine, with St Euthymius the Great (died 473) and his disciple St Sabas (died 532). The monastery founded by St Sabas in the Jordan valley can claim an unbroken history to the present day; it was to this community that John of Damascus belonged. Almost as old is another important house with an unbroken history - the monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai, founded by the Emperor Justinian (reigned 527-565). With Palestine and Sinai in Arab hands, monastic pre-eminence in the Byzantine Empire passed in the ninth century to the monastery of Stoudios in Constantinople. St Theodore, who became Abbot here in 799, reactivated the community and revised its rule, attracting vast numbers of monks.

Since the tenth century the chief centre of Orthodox monasticism has been Athos, a rocky peninsula in North Greece jutting out into the Aegean and culminating at its tip in a peak 6,670 feet high. Known as 'the Holy Mountain', Athos contains twenty 'ruling' monasteries and a large number of smaller houses, as well as hermits' cells; the whole peninsula is given up entirely to monastic settlements, and in the days of its greatest expansion it is said to have contained nearly forty thousand monks. The Great Lavra, the oldest of the twenty ruling monasteries, has by itself produced 26 Patriarchs and more than 144 bishops: this gives some idea of the importance of Athos in Orthodox history.

There are no 'Orders' in Orthodox monasticism. In the west a monk belongs to the Carthusian, the Cistercian, or some other Order; in the east he is simply a member of the one great fellowship which includes all monks and nuns, although of course he is attached to a particular monastic house. Western writers sometimes refer to Orthodox monks as 'Basilian monks' or 'monks of the Basilian Order', but this is not correct. St Basil is an important figure in Orthodox monasticism, but he founded no Order, and although two of his works are known as the Longer Rules and the Shorter Rules, these are in no sense comparable to the Rule of St Benedict.

A characteristic figure in Orthodox monasticism is the 'elder' or 'old man' (Greek geron; Russian starets, plural startsy). The elder is a monk of spiritual discernment and wisdom, whom others - either monks or people in the world - adopt as their guide and spiritual director. He is sometimes a priest, but often a lay monk; he receives no special ordination or appointment to the work of eldership, but is guided to it by the direct inspiration of the Spirit. A woman as well as a man may be called to this ministry, for Orthodoxy has its 'spiritual mothers' as well as its 'spiritual fathers'. The elder sees in a concrete and practical way what the will of God is in relation to each person who comes to consult him: this is the elder's special gift or charisma. The earliest and most celebrated of the monastic startsy was St Antony himself. The first part of his life, from eighteen to fifty-five, he spent in withdrawal and solitude; then, though still living in the desert, he abandoned this life of strict enclosure, and began to receive visitors. A group of disciples gathered round him, and besides these disciples there was a far larger circle of people who came, often from a long distance, to ask his advice; so great was the stream of visitors that, as Antony's biographer Athanasius put it, he became a physician to all Egypt. Antony has had many successors, and in most of them the same outward pattern of events is found a withdrawal in order to return. A monk must first withdraw, and in silence must learn the truth about himself and God. Then, after this long and rigorous preparation in solitude, having gained the gifts of discernment which are required of an elder, he can open the door of his cell and admit the world from which formerly he fled.

Both in the capital and in other centres, the monastic movement continued to flourish as it was shaped during the early centuries of Christianity. The Constantinopolitan monastery of Studion was a community of over 1,000 monks, dedicated to liturgical prayer, obedience, and asceticism. They frequently opposed both government and ecclesiastical officialdom, defending fundamental Christian principles against political compromises. The Studite Rule (guidelines of monastic life) was adopted by daughter monasteries, particularly the famous Monastery of the Caves (Pecherskaya Lavra) in Kiev (in Russia). In 963 Emperor Nicephorus II Phocas offered his protection to St. Athanasius the Athonite, whose laura (large monastery) is still the centre of the monastic republic of Mt. Athos (under the protection of Greece). The writings of St. Symeon the New Theologian (949-1022), abbot of the monastery of St. Mamas in Constantinople, are a most remarkable example of Eastern Christian mysticism, and they exercised a decisive influence on later developments of Orthodox spirituality.

Historically, the most significant event was the missionary expansion of Byzantine Christianity throughout eastern Europe. In the 9th century, Bulgaria had become an Orthodox nation and under Tsar Symeon (893-927) had established its own autocephalous (administratively independent) patriarchate in Preslav. Under Tsar Samuel (976-1014) another autocephalous Bulgarian centre appeared in Ohrid. Thus, a Slavic-speaking daughter church of Byzantium dominated the Balkan Peninsula. It lost its political and ecclesiastical independence after the conquests of the Byzantine emperor Basil II (976-1025), but the seed of a Slavic Orthodoxy had been solidly planted. In 988 the Kievan prince Vladimir embraced Byzantine Orthodoxy and married a sister of Emperor Basil. After that time, Russia became an ecclesiastical province of the church of Byzantium, headed by a Greek or, less frequently, a Russian metropolitan appointed from Constantinople. This statute of dependence was not challenged by the Russians until 1448. During the entire period, Russia adopted and developed the spiritual, artistic, and social heritage of Byzantine civilization, which was received through intermediary Bulgarian translators. (See also below under The church and the world—Missions: ancient and modern).

Relations with the West

Relations with the Latin West, meanwhile, were becoming more ambiguous. On the one hand, the Byzantines considered the entire Western world as a part of the Roman oikoumene of which the Byzantine emperor was the head and in which the Roman bishop enjoyed honorary primacy. On the other hand, the Frankish and German emperors in Europe were challenging this nominal scheme, and the internal decadence of the Roman papacy was such that the powerful patriarch of Byzantium seldom took the trouble of entertaining any relations with it. From the time of Patriarch Photius (patriarch 858-867, 877-886), the Byzantines had formally condemned the Filioque clause, which stated that the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father and from the Son, as an illegitimate and heretical addition to the Nicene Creed, but in 879-880 Photius and Pope John VIII had apparently settled the matter to Photius' satisfaction. In 1014, however, the Filioque was introduced in Rome, and communion was broken again.The incident of 1054, wrongly considered as the date of the Schism (which had actually been developing over a period of time), was, in fact, an unsuccessful attempt at restoring relations, disintegrating as they were because of political competition in Italy between the Byzantines and the Germans and also because of disciplinary changes (enforced celibacy of the clergy, in particular) imposed by the reform movement that had been initiated by the monks of Cluny, France. Conciliatory efforts of Emperor Constantine Monomachus (reigned 1042-55) were powerless to overcome either the aggressive and uninformed attitudes of the Frankish clergy, who were now governing the Roman Church, or the intransigence of Byzantine patriarch Michael Cerularius (1043-58). When papal legates came to Constantinople in 1054, they found no common language with the patriarch. Both sides exchanged recriminations on points of doctrine and ritual and finally hurled anathemas of excommunication at each other, thus provoking what has been called the Schism.

The Crusades

After the Battle of Manzikert (1071) in eastern Asia Minor, Byzantium lost most of Anatolia to the Turks and ceased to be a world power. Partly solicited by the Byzantines, the Western Crusades proved another disaster: they brought the establishment of Latin principalities on former imperial territories and the replacement of Eastern bishops by a Latin hierarchy. The culminating point was, of course, the sack of Constantinople itself in 1204, the enthronement of a Latin emperor on the Bosporus, and the installation of a Latin patriarch in Hagia Sophia. Meanwhile, the Balkan countries of Bulgaria and Serbia secured national emancipation with Western help, the Mongols sacked Kiev (1240), and Russia became a part of the Mongol Empire of Genghis Khan.

The Byzantine heritage survived this series of tragedies mainly because the Orthodox Church showed an astonishing internal strength and a remarkable administrative flexibility.

Until the Crusades, and in spite of such incidents as the exchanges of anathemas between Michael Cerularius and the papal legates in 1054, Byzantine Christians did not consider the break with the West as a final schism. The prevailing opinion was that the break of communion with the West was due to a temporary take-over of the venerable Roman see by misinformed and uneducated German "barbarians," and that eventually the former unity of the Christian world under the one legitimate emperor—that of Constantinople—and the five patriarchates would be restored. This utopian scheme came to an end when the Crusaders replaced the Greek patriarchs of Antioch and Jerusalem with Latin prelates, after they had captured these ancient cities (1098-99). Instead of reestablishing Christian unity in the common struggle against Islam, the Crusades demonstrated how far apart Latins and Greeks really were from each other. When finally, in 1204, after a shameless sacking of the city, the Venetian Thomas Morosini was installed as patriarch of Constantinople and confirmed as such by Pope Innocent III, the Greeks realized the full seriousness of papal claims over the universal church: theological polemics and national hatreds were combined to tear the two churches further apart.

After the capture of the city, the Orthodox patriarch John Camaterus fled to Bulgaria and died there in 1206. A successor, Michael Autorianus, was elected in Nicaea (1208), where he enjoyed the support of a restored Greek empire. Although he lived in exile, this patriarch was recognized as legitimate by the entire Orthodox world. He continued to administer the immense Russian metropolitanate. From him, and not from his Latin competitor, the Bulgarian Church received again its right for ecclesiastical independence with a restored patriarchate in Trnovo (1235). It was also with the Byzantine government at Nicaea that the Orthodox Serbs negotiated the establishment of their own national church; their spiritual leader, St. Sava, was installed as autocephalous archbishop of Serbia in 1219.

The Mongol Invasion

The invasion of Russia by the Mongols had disastrous effects on the future of Russian civilization, but the church survived, both as the only unified social organization and as the main bearer of the Byzantine heritage. The "metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia," who was appointed from Nicaea or from Constantinople, was a major political power, respected by the Mongol Khans. Exempt from taxes paid by the local princes to the Mongols and reporting only to his superior (the ecumenical patriarch), the head of the Russian Church—though he had to abandon his cathedral see of Kiev that had been devastated by the Mongols—acquired an unprecedented moral prestige. He retained ecclesiastical control over immense territories from the Carpathian Mountains to the Volga River, over the newly created episcopal see of Sarai (near the Caspian Sea), which was the capital of the Mongols, as well as over the Western principalities of the former Kievan Empire—even after they succeeded in winning independence (e.g., Galicia) or fell under the political control of Lithuania and Poland.

Attempts at ecclesiastical union

In 1261 the Nicaean emperor Michael Palaeologus recaptured Constantinople from the Latins, and an Orthodox patriarch again occupied the see in Hagia Sophia. From 1261 to 1453 the Palaeologan dynasty presided over an empire that was embattled from every side, torn apart by civil wars, and gradually shrinking to the very limits of the imperial city itself. The church, meanwhile, kept much of its former prestige, exercising jurisdiction over a much greater territory, which included Russia as well as the distant Caucasus, parts of the Balkans, and the vast regions occupied by the Turks. Several patriarchs of this late period—e.g., Arsenius Autorianus (patriarch 1255-59, 1261-65), Athanasius I (patriarch 1289-93, 1303-10), John Calecas (patriarch 1334-47), and Philotheus Coccinus (patriarch 1353-54, 1364-76)—showed great independence from the imperial power, though remaining faithful to the ideal of the Byzantine oikoumene.

Without the military backing of a strong empire, the patriarchate of Constantinople was, of course, unable to assert its jurisdiction over the churches of Bulgaria and Serbia, which had gained independence during the days of the Latin occupation. In 1346 the Serbian Church even proclaimed itself a patriarchate; a short-lived protest by Constantinople ended with recognition in 1375. In Russia, Byzantine ecclesiastical diplomacy was involved in a violent civil strife; a fierce competition arose between the grand princes of Moscow and Lithuania, who both aspired to become leaders of a Russian state liberated from the Mongol yoke. The "metropolitan of Kiev and all Russia" was by now residing in Moscow, and often, as in the case of the metropolitan Alexis (1354-78), played a directing role in the Muscovite government. The ecclesiastical support of Moscow by the church was decisive in the final victory of the Muscovites and had a pronounced impact on later Russian history. The dissatisfied western Russian principalities (which would later constitute the Ukraine) could only obtain—with the strong support of their Polish and Lithuanian overlords—the temporary appointment of separate metropolitans in Galicia and Belorussia. Eventually, late in the 14th century, the metropolitan residing in Moscow again centralized ecclesiastical power in Russia.

Relations with the Western Church

One of the major reasons behind this power struggle in the northern area of the Byzantine world was the problem of relations with the Western Church. To most Byzantine churchmen, the young Muscovite principality appeared to be a safer bulwark of Orthodoxy than the Western-oriented princes who had submitted to Catholic Poland and Lithuania. Also, an important political party in Byzantium itself favoured union with the West in the hope that a new Western Crusade might be made against the menacing Turks. The problem of ecclesiastical union was, in fact, the most burning issue during the entire Palaeologan period.

Emperor Michael Palaeologus (1259-82) had to face the aggressive ambition of the Sicilian Norman king Charles of Anjou, who dreamed of restoring the Latin empire in Constantinople. To gain the valuable support of the papacy against Charles, Michael sent a Latin-inspired confession of faith to Pope Gregory X, and his delegates accepted union with Rome at the Council of Lyons (1274). This capitulation before the West, sponsored by the Emperor, won little support in the church. During his lifetime, Michael succeeded in imposing an Eastern Catholic patriarch, John Beccus, upon the Church of Constantinople, but upon Michael's death an Orthodox council condemned the union (1285).

Throughout the 14th century, numerous other attempts at negotiating union were initiated by the emperors of Byzantium. Formal meetings were held in 1333, 1339, 1347, and 1355. In 1369 Emperor John V Palaeologus was personally converted to the Roman faith in Rome. All these attempts were initiated by the government and not by the church, for an obvious political reason; i.e., the hope for Western help against the Turks. But the attempts brought no results either on the ecclesiastical or on the political levels. The majority of Byzantine Orthodox churchmen were not opposed to the idea of union but considered that it could only be brought about through a formal ecumenical council at which East and West would meet on equal footing, as they had done in the early centuries of the church. The project of a council was promoted with particular consistency by John Cantacuzenus, who, after a brief reign as emperor (1347-54), became a monk but continued to exercise great influence on all ecclesiastical and political events. The idea of an ecumenical council was initially rejected by the popes, but it was revived in the 15th century with the temporary triumph of conciliarist ideas (which advocated more power to councils and less to popes) in the West at the councils of Constance and Basel. Challenged with the possibility that the Greeks would unite with the conciliarists and not with Rome, Pope Eugenius IV called an ecumenical council of union in Ferrara, which later moved to Florence.

The Council of Ferrara-Florence (1438-45) lasted for months and allowed for long theological debates. Emperor John VIII Palaeologus, Patriarch Joseph, and numerous bishops and theologians represented the Eastern Church. They finally accepted most Roman positions—the Filioque clause, purgatory (an intermediate stage for the soul's purification between death and heaven), and the Roman primacy. Political desperation and the fear of facing the Turks again, without Western support, was the decisive factor that caused them to place their signatures of approval on the Decree of Union (July 6, 1439). The metropolitan of Ephesus, Mark Eugenicus, alone refused to sign. Upon their return to Constantinople, most other delegates also renounced their acceptance of the council and no significant change occurred in the relations between the churches.

The official proclamation of the union in Hagia Sophia was postponed until December 12, 1452; however, on May 29, 1453, Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks. Sultan Mehmed II transformed Hagia Sophia into an Islamic mosque, and the few partisans of the union fled to Italy.

Theological and monastic renaissance

Paradoxically, the pitiful history of Byzantium under the Palaeologan emperors coincided with an astonishing intellectual, spiritual, and artistic renaissance that influenced the entire Eastern Christian world. The renaissance was not without fierce controversy and polarization. In 1337 Barlaam the Calabrian, one of the representatives of Byzantine Humanism, attacked the spiritual practices of the Hesychast (from the Greek word hesychia, meaning quiet) monks, who claimed that Christian asceticism and spirituality could lead to the vision of the "uncreated light" of God. Barlaam's position was upheld by several other theologians, including Akyndinus and Nicephorus Gregoras. After much debate, the church gave its support to the main spokesman of the monks, Gregory Palamas (1296-1359), who showed himself as one of the foremost theologians of medieval Byzantium. The councils of 1341, 1347, and 1351 adopted the theology of Palamas, and, after 1347, the patriarchal throne was consistently occupied by his disciples. John VI Cantacuzenus, who, as emperor, presided over the council of 1351, gave his full support to the Hesychasts. His close friend, Nicholas Cabasilas, in his spiritual writings on the divine liturgy and the sacraments, defined the universal Christian significance of Palamite theology. The influence of the religious zealots, who triumphed in Constantinople, outlasted the empire itself and contributed to the perpetuation of Orthodox spirituality under the Turkish rule. It also spread to the Slavic countries, especially Bulgaria and Russia. The monastic revival in northern Russia during the last half of the 14th century, which was associated with the name of St. Sergius of Radonezh, as well as the contemporaneous revival of iconography (e.g., the work of the great painter Andrey Rublyov), would have been unthinkable without constant contacts with Mt. Athos, the centre of Hesychasm, and with the spiritual and intellectual life of Byzantium.

Along with the Hesychast revival, a significant "opening to the West" was taking place among some Byzantine ecclesiastics. The brothers Prochorus and Demetrius Cydones, under the sponsorship of Cantacuzenus, for example, were systematically translating the works of Latin theologians into Greek. Thus, major writings of Augustine, Anselm of Canterbury, and Thomas Aquinas were made accessible to the East for the first time. Most of the Latin-minded Greek theologians eventually supported the union policy of the emperors, but there were some—like Gennadios II Scholarios, the first patriarch under the Turkish occupation—who reconciled their love for Western thought with total faithfulness to the Orthodox Church.

Webmaster Note: This page was retrieved from www.archive.org after decani.yunet.com went defunct following the Kosovo conflict. This page was originally created by monks at Decani Monastery in Kosovo. It has been slightly edited for inclusion on this site. Abridged, from Callistos Ware, The Orthodox Church, p. 12-16.