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  • Luke Hildebrand

The Great Schism of 1054

It is difficult to maintain a united church these days. With so many churches of varied traditions and beliefs, it is easier than ever for Christians to change churches. Some believers leave their church for important doctrinal reasons, but for most, the reasons they leave are much less high-minded. Gossip, envy, and social politics are but a few of the very human problems that are a plague on any church, quickly causing a split in the church family where all were united before. 1 Corinthians 1:10 says "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgement." Christ wants His Church to be united in love and service to Him and each other. Not doing so may lead to a problem similar to the one that has haunted the Church for a thousand years, the Great Schism of 1054.

The Great Schism of 1054, or The East-West Schism, was the result of centuries of growing tensions and political strife between the Western Catholic Church led by the church in Rome and the Eastern Byzantine Churches led by the church in Constantinople. The schism culminated with the mutual excommunicating of each other in 1054 by Pope Leo IX of the West and Patriarch Michael Cerularius of the East. Opposing politics, geography, language, theology and church liturgy all contributed to the eventual split between churches, but the main cause of the problem was human desire for precedence and power. It is valuable for us to study what happened in the past to avoid similar situations in the future, if only in our own churches’ sake.

History shows that a divide began to grow between the Roman and Byzantine churches as early as the 5th century. In the early church, three cities held political preeminance over the others. So, the bishops of Rome, Alexandria, and Antioch received precedence due to the political prestige of presiding over their church districts. However, the seat of the empire was transferred from Rome to Constantinople in 476 while Alexandria and Antioch became battlegrounds between Christendom and Islam. Thus Constantinople grew in political prominence. However, during this time, the theological peace of the pope-led West, contrasting the often violent theological disputes between Eastern patriarchs, strengthened the position of the Romans, leading to increasing claims of preeminance. These claims, or rather what Rome thought they entailed, were never acknowledged by the Byzantine churches.

The rift in the Church also grew because of geography and language. The area influenced by the Roman Catholics encompassed Western Europe and the northern and western areas of the Mediterranean while the Byzantine Church influenced Asia Minor, the Middle East, and Northern Africa. Each church taught their clergy, and by extension their common folk in the language of the culture they drew their traditions and beliefs from. As a result the Eastern Church knew less and less of the Latin language and tradition and visa versa. Thus, most patriarchs in Constantinople couldn’t read any Latin, and most popes in Rome couldn’t read any Greek. This loss of ability to communicate alienated the Church from one another on a fundamental level and led to the final cause of the schism.

The way the East thought was theologically different the West. The Eastern theology had its roots in Greek philosophy whereas a great deal of Western theology was based on Roman law. They held opposing, but not necessarily wrong, views of Jesus Christ. The Byzantines were more theoretical in their thinking and, though they believed in and loved the humanity of Christ, they focused more on the mysteries of His divinity. The Romans were more practical and, though they believed in and strictly upheld the divinity of Christ, emphasized His humanity in their art and iconography.

These differences caused misunderstandings and finally led to two widely separate ways of seeing and defining an important doctrine: the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father, or from the Father and the Son. The Roman churches, without consulting the East, added “and from the Son” or Filioque to the Nicene Creed. The Eastern churches resented this along with the Roman enforcement of clerical celibacy, the limitation of the rite of confirmation to the bishop, and the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist (or Communion).

The Great Schism of 1054 was not even the worst event to occur, but merely a prelude to more dire happenings. The Latin Church led Crusades: the Massacre of the Latins in 1182, the Western retaliation in the Sacking of Thessalonica in 1185, the capture and pillaging of Constantinople by the Fourth Crusade in 1204. Along with this, the Latin patriarchs imposed upon the East which made reconciliation ever more distant. Establishing Roman hierarchies in the Crusader states meant that there were two rival candidates for each of the patriarchal jurisdictions of Antioch, Constantinople, and Jerusalem, making the existence of schism obvious. Many attempts at reconciliation have been made since, but none bore fruit. In 1965, Pope Paul VI and the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople, Athenagoras I, nullified the excommunications of 1054, but this nullification of measures taken against individuals was mostly a goodwill gesture and did not make progress toward any sort of reunion.

Today the Great Schism, almost a thousand years old, has affected millions of people. How can a little gossip in the church compare to such an utter disassociation of holy empires, eventually devolving into violence? What is important is not how it ended, but how it began, with men and women of God attempting to raise themselves while discrediting other believers. By seeking greater position for themselves, they forgot what is most important for a Christian church member, serving Jesus Christ by serving others. We must all remember that we are given a calling here on earth, not to accommodate our own desires, but to spread and grow the reach of the Gospel.

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