Nature and significance
Eastern Orthodoxy is the large body of Christians who follow the faith and practices that were
defined by the first seven ecumenical councils. The word orthodox ("right believing") has
traditionally been used, in the Greek-speaking Christian world, to designate communities, or
individuals, who preserved the true faith (as defined by those councils), as opposed to those who
were declared heretical. The official designation of the Church in Eastern Orthodox liturgical or
canonical texts is "the Orthodox Catholic Church." Because of the historical links of Eastern
Orthodoxy with the Eastern Roman Empire and Byzantium (Constantinople), however, in
English usage it is referred to as the "Eastern" or "Greek Orthodox" Church. These terms are
sometimes misleading, especially when applied to Russian or Slavic churches and to the
Orthodox communities in western Europe and America. It should also be noted that there are
Monophysitic churches (holding that after Incarnation Jesus had only a divine, and not a
human and divine, nature) that have adopted the term orthodox as part of their names.
The cultural context
The schism between the churches of the East and the West (1054) was the culmination of a gradual process of estrangement that began in the first centuries of the Christian Era and continued through the Middle Ages. Linguistic and cultural differences, as well as political events, contributed to the estrangement. From the 4th to the 11th century, Constantinople, the center of Eastern Christianity, was also the capital of the Eastern Roman, or Byzantine, Empire, while Rome, after the barbarian invasions, fell under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire of the West, a political rival. In the West theology remained under the influence of St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), while in the East doctrinal thought was shaped by the Greek Fathers. Theological differences could have been settled if the two areas had not simultaneously developed different concepts of church authority. The growth of Roman primacy, based on the concept of the apostolic origin of the Church of Rome, was incompatible with the Eastern idea that the importance of certain local churches--Rome, Alexandria, Antioch, and later, Constantinople--could be determined only by their numerical and political significance. For the East, the highest authority in settling doctrinal disputes was the ecumenical council.
At the time of the Schism of 1054 between Rome and Constantinople, the membership of the
Eastern Orthodox Church was spread throughout the Middle East, the Balkans, and Russia, with
its center in Constantinople, which was also called "New Rome." The vicissitudes of history have
greatly modified the internal structures of the Orthodox Church, but, even today, the bulk of its
members live in the same geographic areas. Missionary expansion toward Asia and emigration
toward the West, however, have helped to maintain the importance of Orthodoxy worldwide.
The norm of Church organization
The Orthodox Church is a fellowship of "autocephalous" churches (governed by their own head bishops), with the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople holding titular or honorary primacy. The number of autocephalous churches has varied in history. Today there are many: the Church of Constantinople (Istanbul), the Church of Alexandria (Egypt), the Church of Antioch (with headquarters in Damascus, Syria), and the Churches of Jerusalem, Russia, Ukraine, Georgia, Serbia, Romania, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Greece, Albania, Poland, the Czech and Slovak republics, and America.
There are also "autonomous" Churches (retaining a token canonical dependence upon a mother see) in Crete, Finland, and Japan. The first nine autocephalous churches are headed by "Patriarchs," the others by archbishops or metropolitans. These titles are strictly honorary.
The order of precedence in which the autocephalous churches are listed does not reflect their actual influence or numerical importance. The Patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Antioch, for example, present only shadows of their past glory. Yet there remains a consensus that Constantinople's primacy of honour, recognized by the ancient canons because it was the capital of the ancient empire, should remain as a symbol and tool of Church unity and cooperation. The modern pan-Orthodox conferences were thus convoked by the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople. Several of the autocephalous Churches are de facto national Churches, by far the largest being the Russian Church; however, it is not the criterion of nationality but rather the territorial principle that is the norm of organization in the Orthodox Church.
Since the Russian Revolution there has been much turmoil and administrative conflict within the
Orthodox Church. In western Europe and in the Americas, in particular, overlapping jurisdictions
have been set up and political passions have led to the formation of ecclesiastical organizations
without clear canonical status. Though it has provoked controversy, the establishment (1970) of
the new autocephalous Orthodox Church in America with the tacit approval of the Patriarch of
Moscow has as its stated goal the resumption of normal territorial unity in the Western
Hemisphere. However, this tacit approval of the Patriarch of Moscow is in direct opposition to
the actual establishment of the autocephalous American Orthodox Church by his predecessor
Patriarch of Moscow in the early Twentieth Century, which was done to prevent the Orthodox
Church in the Americas from falling under the influence of the Communist who were overtaking
all aspects of life in Russian, and who had begun to attempt to take over various administrative
aspects of the Russian Orthodox Church.
The church of imperial Byzantium
Byzantine Christianity about AD 1000
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 centers 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. 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 center of Eastern Christendom.
The relations between state and church in Byzantium are often described 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 Ptriarch 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 Ptriarchs could occasionally play a decisive role in politics: Patriarch Nicholas Mystikus (Ptriarch 901-907, 912-925) and Polyeuctus (Ptriarch 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.
Monastic and mission movements
Both in the capital and in other centers, 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 center 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 (now known as Veliki Preslav). Under Tsar Samuel
(976-1014) another autocephalous Bulgarian center 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.
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.
Invasions from East and West
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. Orthodox have never fully trusted Romans since that time. 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 and theological renaissance
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 favored 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
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