Noll, Ch. 6: The Great Schism (1054 CE)

Chapter 6 may have come as a bit of a surprise to you, in that this event is not one that most of us “feel” every day – or every Sunday. The eastern and western churches have been divided for so long – nearly 1,000 years! – that we hardly notice the breach. It’s like when there was a family fight a couple of generations in the past; we know that there are long-lost cousins out there somewhere, and we hope that things are well with them, but we don’t miss them.

However, this chapter is an important part of the book, and an important part of our learning about church history, because this is where Noll teaches us about what we often call “Eastern Orthodox Christianity.” (Side note: “Eastern” is relative. If you were in Japan, they would properly be the “Western Orthodox.” Let’s just call them the “Orthodox,” since that’s what they call themselves.) As Noll says, the breach between East and West traces back quite early in church history, not least in matters of language, and then later in matters of culture, church organization, and worship. We tend to talk about the sad events of 1054 as a turning point merely because it made things official; it’s sort of like when a married couple has been estranged for a long time, but it’s only when the divorce decree is signed that it’s really final.

You may have been glad to know that there have been efforts at reconciliation, most recently in the last 50 years, especially with the pontificate of John Paul II. You may also have been excited to learn more about Christianity in Russia; many contemporary individuals still think of Russia as communist and godless, but this has actually been only a recent development. And then, you may have been dismayed to learn about some of the sad chapters of this part of our history, like the sack and occupation of Constantinople starting in 1204. (By the way, that episode really is one of the darkest ones in all of Christian history. It’s repugnant enough when we have done things like that to people of other faiths. But when we’ve done it to people of our own faith – to members of our own family? There are few words to describe the emotions that arise.)

In case you’d like to read the actual “bull of excommunication,” you can find it here:

Here are a few issues/questions to discuss on the chapter:

  1. The Great Schism, unhealed for over a millennium, had as much (or even more) to do with the personalities of leaders as matters of doctrine. Is it inevitable that strong personalities will divide churches? What value, if any, is there in preserving these divisions persisting after the deaths of those influential leaders?
  2. In the late Middle Ages, there were strong attempts on the part of the church hierarchy to reunite the Eastern and Western churches, but these efforts were ultimately rejected by the Eastern lay-people. Do you think today that the views of “ordinary pew-sitters” can mitigate the effectiveness of progressive efforts by leaders? Is there an appropriate role for church leadership to override the opinion of the laity for a greater good? Should, alternatively, a democratic principle reign in the church?
  3. Eastern Orthodoxy for much of its history as a distinct church has been “mostly separated from current affecting other Christians” (p. 125). Other Christian traditions have developed largely, if not exclusively, in isolation from the broader body of the church (i.e., Churches of Christ, Anabaptist churches). What are the benefits and detriments of this kind of isolation?
  4. In the 1200’s, Western Crusaders did great evil against Eastern Christians. The Crusades have made dialogue difficult, at times impossible, between East and West ever since. Is there a “statute of limitations” on fallout between descendants of old crimes? In America, racial relations are affected by the history of slavery. Is a few hundred years enough to heal the breach by these crimes against humanity? Is over a thousand years enough to forgive the sacking of Constantinople by the Crusaders? Are some crimes (i.e., the Holocaust) so great that reconciliation is not a realistic option?
  5. A major theological dividing point between the East and the West was the “filioque” clause. How do you respond to this theological debate? Is it a pressing issue or a “disputable matter?” How might your reaction be shaped by your own religious background, particularly if it was a non-creedal tradition?
  6. The acceptance of Orthodoxy in Russia changed the history of this ecclesiastical tradition. How might the demographic shifts in modern Christianity (to Africa, Asia and Latin America, away from Europe and European-descendants) shape the future of global Christianity? How is it already doing so, to your knowledge?

Credit for image of Pope Benedict XVI and Patriarch Bartholomew:

Suggested next click: Chapter 7

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