The East-West Schism

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The East-West Schism


Christendom East and West. In the early centuries of Christianity the Church was governed by local bishops. Each community over which a bishop presided was juris-dictionally independent from the rest, but they were all regarded as part of a single, united body of Christ. The five most important episcopal sees were in Rome, Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem, with the bishops of these cities taking on the title of patriarch. After the spread of Islam in the eighth century the balance of ecclesiastical power was upset: the churches of North Africa and the Middle East lost much of their influence, and only the patriarchates of Rome and Constantinople remained as great centers of Christendom. When Charlemagne was crowned Holy Roman Emperor in 800 the situation became more polarized. Not only were there two religious centers within the Christian world, but two rival empires as well. The political tension between eastern and western Christendom emerged from this polarity.

Dogmatic and Liturgical Divergences. Over the centuries the predominantly Greek-speaking Eastern Church and the Latin-speaking Western Church had developed different canonical and liturgical practices. In the West, for example, unleavened wafers called “azymes” were used for the celebration of the Eucharist, while in the East only leavened bread was used. Priests under the jurisdiction of Rome were under strict requirements of celibacy, while in the East married laymen could be ordained. The beginning of Lent was observed on Ash Wednesday in the West, while for the Greek Church it began two days earlier, on Monday. In addition to these lesser differences, there were two important dogmatic divergences. First, there was the increasingly widespread insertion of the word jilioque (and from the Son) into the Nicene Creed in the West. In that context the word signifies that the Holy Spirit proceeds not only from the Father, but from the Son as well. The Eastern Church vehemently opposed this addition, which had serious implications for the central Christian doctrine of the Trinity. Then there was the question of papal authority. By at least the late sixth century the patriarchs, or Popes, of Rome had begun to claim that as successors of the Apostle Peter they should have authority over all other bishops and patriarchs. The Eastern Church rejected this notion.

The First Signs of Schism. The divergences between the two Churches led to direct conflict in the ninth century, when missionaries from both Rome and Constantinople found themselves working against each other in their efforts to convert Bulgaria. Each side wanted to convert the Bulgarians not only to Christianity, but to their own particular practices and dogmas. This situation prompted Photius, the Patriarch of Constantinople, to convene a council in 867 at which Pope Nicholas I was excommunicated and the Western Church was declared heretical for its divergent practices, especially for its use of the word filioque. The question of Bulgaria was eventually settled in favor of the Byzantines, and the breach sometimes referred to as the “Photian Schism” was healed. Rome and Constantinople were once again in communion, but tensions between them remained.

The Schism of 1054. A new controversy arose in the early eleventh century, when the Normans of southern Italy began forcing the Byzantine churches there to adopt Latin practices. The Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, responded by demanding that the Latin-rite churches of Constantinople should conform to local usage. When the Latin churches refused, the Patriarch ordered them closed, leading the Roman Pope to dispatch legates to settle the controversy. The attempt at reconciliation was a failure; in the end the leader of the papal legates, Humbert of Silva Candida, placed a bull of excommunication on the high altar of the cathedral of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, prompting the Greek Patriarch to respond with excommunications directed at the West. This event is sometimes referred to as the Great Schism, and the year 1054 is traditionally taken to mark the separation of the Eastern and Western Churches. Irreparable animosity between the two did not arise, however, until the western crusade against Constantinople one-and-a-half centuries later.

The Fourth Crusade. The Crusades to the Holy Land began after the Byzantine emperor Alexius Comnenus appealed for western aid against the Turks in 1095, but instead of repairing the rift between East and West these so-called holy wars eventually led to enduring hostilities between Byzantium and Rome. In 1201 Pope Innocent III mustered support for the Fourth Crusade against the Muslims in the Holy Land, but in this case the Crusaders never reached their destination. Rival claims to the Byzantine throne had arisen in Constantinople, and the son of the defeated claimant, Isaac Angelus, had fled westward in hopes of finding support among the Crusaders. He promised them not only military aid in their eastward mission, but also great wealth and the reunion of the two Churches on Roman terms. The Crusaders succeeded in overthrowing the usurper, Alexius III, and installing Isaac Angelus and his son Alexius IV, on the throne. Shortly thereafter, Isaac Angelus died and Alexius IV was murdered. Frustrated and undisciplined Crusaders decided to claim the city and elect a new emperor from their own ranks. In 1204 they seized and looted Constantinople, killing many of its Christian inhabitants. Indeed, according to local reports the Crusaders were far less respectful to the altars and holy vessels of the churches than the Muslims had been. Baldwin, Count of Flanders, was placed on the throne at Constantinople, and the empire was then divided among him, other leaders of the Crusade,

and the Venetians. When Innocent III first heard of the Crusaders’ outrageous actions he was appalled, but he later pardoned them, believing that this forced reunion of East and West would bring “great blessings” to Christendom. The Churches were nominally united under Rome until 1261, when the Byzantines overthrew the Latin regime, which was never popularly accepted in the East. Though attempts at ecclesiastical reunification were later made, none was successful, and the sack of Constantinople may be taken to mark the definitive schism between the Eastern and the Western Church.


C. Warren Hollister, Medieval Europe:A Short History, eighth edition (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1998).

Philip Sherrard, Church, Papacy, and Schism(London: SPCK, 1978).

R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1970).

Timothy Ware, The Orthodox Church (Harmondsworth, U.K.: Penguin, 1997).

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The East-West Schism

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The East-West Schism