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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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7 occurrences of Dictionary_of_the_History_of_Ideas
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V. THE ORTHODOX CHURCH

In the Byzantine or Orthodox Church of the East
the situation was seriously affected by the fact that
the culture, the imperial system and religion itself
enjoyed a continuity which the barbarian invaders had
badly broken in the West. The Eastern Emperor re-
mained still in a sense the Pontifex Maximus; he could
virtually choose the Patriarch of Constantinople, he
legislated on ecclesiastical matters, initiated such leg-
islation, and could behave tyrannically on occasion. It
gradually became explicit that the ordinary adminis-
tration of the Church was regarded as shared by the
five Patriarchates of Rome, Constantinople, Antioch,
Alexandria, and Jerusalem; though a place of special
honor was conceded to Rome, and, from the eighth
century it was true for the most part that the Patri-
archate of Constantinople covered the area effectively
ruled by the Eastern emperor.

Elements of an earlier democracy continued in the
ecclesiastical system, the laity having a part in the
election of a priest, the lower clergy in the choice of
a bishop. The laity—and perhaps, in particular, the
mob in Constantinople—were a force in religious
affairs, and were not regarded as incapable of holding
views on theology. They were greatly under the influ-
ence of the lower clergy and the monks, and able to
resist even a Patriarch, even an emperor. Perhaps the
most effective practical difference from the West came
from the continuance of secular education in the
Byzantine Empire: the fact that high civil servants
might be more cultured than the bishops and might
be appointed to high ecclesiastical office. On doctrinal
matters Constantinople was disposed to have respect
for Rome, but in the East, the final authority in this
field was an Ecumenical Council, and there was a
greater desire not to allow minute differences of doc-
trine to ruin charitable relations with other parts of
the Church. Greater value was attached to mysticism,
and there was less suspicion of it, than in the West,
the emphasis being more definitely on the otherworldly
aspect of religion.

When the Church had settled down after the Icono-
clastic controversy in the eighth and early ninth cen-
turies, the missionary work amongst the Slavs was
taken up, and with it went the general civilizing influ-
ences of Byzantium, producing a distinct differentiation
in culture between the two halves of the whole conti-
nent. Soon after 860 Cyril and Methodius carried to
the swollen Moravian empire the Slavonic literary
language which they had constructed apparently on
the basis of a dialect in Macedonia. Both here and in
the conversion of Bulgaria the competition between
the Eastern and the Latin church is visible, and it
brought out a tendency to mutual criticism, but did
not produce anything like the serious schism once
associated with the name of Photius.

Over a century later the conversion of a Russian
prince and his marriage to a Byzantine princess
heralded the Christianizing of Russia and brought that
country into the orbit of Byzantium, though Latin
missionaries had appeared there at an earlier date.
Earlier than all this the rule of Byzantium in southern
Italy, and the policy of taking over for the Orthodox
church that region, together with Illyrium (which had
been part of the Roman Patriarchate), had begun to
lead to serious trouble. Furthermore the conquests by
the Normans in southern Italy in the eleventh century,
together with their threat to move into the Balkans,
complicated still further the relations between Latin


410

and Greek. The troubles of 1054, however, did not
produce the real schism or the enduring estrangement
that the Western church later alleged to have taken
place. Political events and purely ecclesiastical rivalries
and disputes would lead to polemical quarrels between
Rome and Constantinople over points where each side
had often been content to allow differences. The em-
perors in Constantinople, however, often needed help
from the West, and tended to be an influence on the
side of reconciliation.

The chief difficulties had reference to some things
which had received general recognition in the Western
church only comparatively recently, so that in a sense
they were the result of the separate life that had been
developing. This was true of the most serious theolog-
ical difference, the famous filoque clause, the Western
view that the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Son as
well as from the Father. Fundamental differences in
mentality and language between the Greeks and the
Latins obstructed any agreement on this; but in any
case the East had a still stronger hostility to the West-
ern policy of adding to the creed without reference
to a general council.

The reform of the Western church and the tremen-
dous advance of papal claims in the latter half of the
eleventh century (at a time when conditions in Rome
for a long period had led Easterners to have a low
opinion of the papacy) provided a substantial cause
of further alienation, especially as the claims involved
the right to appeal to Rome from ecclesiastical courts
in Constantinople. For the rest the Orthodox Church
tended to feel strongly about the comparatively recent
development which had brought the West to the use
of unleavened bread in the sacrament. And, once hos-
tility was awakened, there were numerous differences
in custom that could be turned into debating points
against the West—the fasting on Saturdays, the clerical
shaving of beards, the question of the celibacy of the
clergy, etc.

Though the first Crusade was an answer to a call
for help from Constantinople, it increased the es-
trangement. The establishment of a Latin bishop of
Antioch, while the Orthodox one went into exile, pro-
duced a real schism in one of those eastern Patri-
archates that had hitherto tried to avoid participation
in the quarrels between Rome and Constantinople. The
Fourth Crusade, involving the sack of Constantinople
and the establishment for a time of a Latin empire
there, made the estrangement enduring and profound,
and marks the fundamental breach.

From the thirteenth century Byzantine culture was
brilliant, as the empire declined. The Emperor Michael
VIII Palaeologus in 1273-74, hoping to stave off an-
other attack from the West, overbore both the Patri
arch and the Synod and, in an agreement for ecclesias-
tical union, admitted the full primacy of the Roman
See. But the Church refused to hold to this. The teach-
ing of Gregory Palamas, which gave Orthodox
mysticism a dogmatic basis and was adopted as official
doctrine, provided a new obstruction to union; but the
need for help against the Turks made the issue a live
one in the fourteenth century and the Conciliar Move-
ment in the West produced a situation somewhat more
favorable to the policy. Representatives of Byzantium
appeared at the Council of Constance. In 1439 a union
was achieved at the Council of Florence. The Russians
rejected this; however, the Byzantines were unrecon-
ciled; Constantinople fell in 1453; and in 1484 the
agreement was formally repudiated there.

Before 1453 a great part of the flock of the Patriarch
of Constantinople (in Asia Minor, for example) had
been living under Turkish rule and the Patriarchates
of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem had long been
under the infidel. After the conquest, the Christians
were allowed to exist as a separate nation, governing
their own affairs according to their own laws and
customs, the Patriarch being responsible for the ad-
ministration, the securing of the payment of taxes, and
the maintenance of a proper attitude towards the gov-
ernment. The Turkish government itself was not hostile
but the local authorities in Asia seem to have been
more intolerant than those in Europe. Also, in their
reduced position, the Christians were unable to keep
up their educational system, and the church suffered
disastrously for this, though before long some use was
being made of facilities in Venice.

The Russians were more passionately Orthodox than
the Greeks, and more hostile to other forms of Christi-
anity, so that they regarded the fall of Constantinople
as the punishment for the union attempted with Rome.
The Christians under Turkish rule might have a Patri-
arch, but they no longer had the leadership of a Chris-
tian emperor, and as the rulers of Russia increased in
power—becoming Tsars from 1480—they saw them-
selves as heirs of the Byzantine emperors, Ivan III
having married the niece of the last of these in 1472.
They appointed their own Metropolitan of Kiev (after
a nominal election) and though Ivan III had declared
that the Patriarch of Constantinople had no authority
in Russia, the Metropolitan acknowledged the superior
position of the latter. The Russian clergy came to have
a certain contempt for the Greeks, and the Tsar
claimed to be the royal leader of Orthodoxy. In 1587
Constantinople recognized Moscow as a Patriarchate.

After the Time of Troubles, the first Romanov Tsar,
Michael, made his able father Patriarch, and from 1610
to 1633 these two ruled together, to the great advan-
tage of the Church. Orthodoxy had suffered a great loss


411

during the troubles, however, because the whole of the
Ukraine, including Kiev, had passed to Poland, which
was attempting to impose upon it a Uniate system,
agreed upon in that country in 1595. This involved
the recognition of papal supremacy but the retention
of the Orthodox liturgy, marriage of the clergy, etc.
Between 1652 and 1658 Nikon, the Patriarch of
Moscow, made a thorough reform of the Russian
church, and even pressed ecclesiastical authority in the
spirit of the medieval papacy. Peter the Great saw the
danger, however, and, from 1700, he and his successors
refused to nominate a Patriarch.

Relations with the West are illustrated by the fact
that Cyril Lucaris, who was Patriarch of Constanti-
nople from 1620 to 1635 and in 1637-38, put out a
distinctly Calvinistic “confession of faith.” Before 1640,
Peter Moghila, Metropolitan of Kiev drew up (in Latin)
a similar “confession” which showed a curious sympa-
thy with Catholic doctrine. From 1672, Dositheus, the
Patriarch of Jerusalem, was working to secure the
production of a “confession” which should at least
avoid these aberrations. In the eighteenth century
progress was limited by the fact that in Constantinople
the lay intelligentsia acquired the leading position
amongst the Greeks, while Catharine the Great in
Russia tended to elevate free-thinkers to high ecclesi-
astical appointments. In 1774 Russia created trouble
for the future by securing treaty-recognition of her
right to intervene on behalf of Orthodox subjects of
the Ottoman Empire.

The prosperity of the Phanariots, the great influence
they acquired over the church in Constantinople and
their dream of a revival of Greek imperialism brought
embarrassment to the Patriarchs; and the opening of
the Greek revolt—which the Patriarch could not bring
himself actually to denounce—led to the execution of
the head of the church, two metropolitans, twelve
bishops, and all the leading Phanariots in 1821. The
Patriarchate never recovered from this blow and began
to lose many of the features that had made it generally
important in mundane affairs. With the establishment
of a Greek kingdom not only the Orthodox Greeks of
the country itself but also those in Turkey tended to
look towards the Metropolitan of Athens. The twenti-
eth century has seen an important squeezing out of
Orthodoxy in Turkey and Egypt, and this has been
helped in both cases by the departure of so many of
the Greeks from these two countries. The See of Anti-
och has become much more important because it con-
tains along with the Patriarchate of Jerusalem, the
main Arabian section of Orthodoxy, and has itself been
in Syrian or Lebanese hands throughout the present
century. The Orthodox church in Europe became
closely associated with nationalism in the Balkans, and
this worked to the detriment of the Patriarch of Con-
stantinople, who, however, was perhaps too Greek to
be truly ecumenical. It was even Arab-speaking mem-
bers of the Orthodox church who played a leading part
in the rise of Arabian national movements.

The Church has suffered of late from the secularizing,
tendencies of the modern world, and in the 1960's it
has in the Middle East only a fifth of the numbers it
had fifty years ago. Though the Patriarch of Constanti-
nople has only a small immediate flock, the very mis-
fortunes of the office seem to have freed it for a more
ecumenical role, especially as the Orthodox in Western
Europe, in America, and in Australia are under its
jurisdiction. And at least, in spite of all that has hap-
pened in recent centuries, the Church has maintained
its spiritual power and its ability to play a part in the
ecumenical movements of the present day.