Wednesday, December 09, 2015

The Great Schism: beginning of something new or culmination of a long process

To what extent was the Great Schism of 1054 between the Eastern and Western Churches the beginning of something new, and to what extent was it the culmination of a long process?


1.    Intro
2.    Political Factors
3.    Cultural Factors
4.    Ecclesiastical Factors
5.    Doctrinal Factors
6.    The Schism Itself
7.    Conclusion

To what extent was the Great Schism of 1054 between the Eastern and Western Churches the beginning of something new, and to what extent was it the culmination of a long process?


The history of the Church is full of events that have brought hostility, estrangement and separation. In the three main branches of Christianity today there are thousands of denominations and faiths, that often confuse the new believer, who has just read Christ’s prayer in Gethsemany for his followers[1]. Still, the Great Schism stands out as the major historical separation having taken place between brothers and sisters in Christ. That’s why we may legitimally ask ourselves, what the reasons were why the Eastern and Western Churches took this dramatic and, by all standards, tragical step?

Of course, there were particular historical and ecclesiastical circumstances that brought about the definitive split between Rome and Constantinople in mid eleventh century. But, in the preceding centuries there had been many diverse factors that caused the Churches to drift apart. Long before the actual schism between the East and the West took place, there were divergencies and tensions that were undermining the communion between both branches of the Christian church. So, in the following essay I will try to prove that the Great Schism of 1054 was not a suprising event in history, but a moment that was preconditioned by the centuries-long interplay of many political, cultural and religious factors.

Political factors

From the time of the apostle Paul the Roman Empire was characterised by political, economical and cultural unity. Even though it included many ethnic groups, all with their own languages, dialects and local cultures, it was ruled by one and the same emperor. All the Roman citizens spoke or at least understood either Greek or Latin. A good network of roads connected each of the imperial cities with the rest of the Roman world, and thus facilitated the development of different trades and the exchange of people and ideas.

But this unity at all levels would soon start to evaporate. Politically, since the end of the third century the Roman Empire had been practically divided into two parts[2], each having its own emperor, Constans in the West and Constantius in the East (Part 1, 11.2). It all started with Constantine’s decision to move the capital of the empire from Rome to the newly-built city of Constantinople in 330[3]. This shift was resented by the older Patriarchal Sees in the east and by the Western Churches. The latter feared that the authority of Rome would diminish and so were provoked to make even higher claims for the pope’s authority over the entire Church, which would eventually lead to the actual division of both Churches.

Another factor which precipitated the gulf between the two parts of the Empire was the barbarian invasions at the outset of the fifth century[4]. As early as the second and third centuries these tribes moved and settled in new territories of Western Europe, still beyond the Empire borders. Yet, this was just the beginning of a great shifting of peoples and within a century and a half the Alemani, the Franks, the Goths, the Visigoths, the Vandals and other tribes took over considerable territories of the Empire. In addition, Palestine, Syria, Spain, North Africa and other territories in the Mediterranean region were conquered by the Arabs. As a result the West was severed from the East politically, economically and culturallly.[5] It should have been not a surprise then that in such a situation the Pope tried to fill the political vacuum by crowning Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, as Emperor in 800. The project for creating a “Holy Roman Empire” in the west not only failed to consolidate the Empire, it actually broadened the gulf between east and west. Nobody has expressed it more aptly than Southern: “It (the corronation of Charlemagne) was at once the symbol of political liberation of the West, and of the political – and ultimately therefore religious – disruption of Christendom”[6]. As Southern puts it,

The threads which had been broken in the eighth century were never replaced. This is the ultmate secret of the division of Christendom. Nothing that happened ever seemed irremediable… By the middle of the eleventh century Christendom was held together only by the force of inertia.

Cultural factors
Culturally, both parts of the Empire were still very close to one another. The common
Church tradition of the past and the familiarity with both official languages of the Empire, Latin and Greek, gave men of learning from both parts of the Empire the sense that everything will be as it has always been. Yet, it only took several decades after Charlemagne’s corronation for them to see that each group of scholars had begun to interpret the tradition in its own unique way. Virtually, there were no more bilingual people in either the West or the East, so if anyone wished to read a book written by theologians from the other part of the Empire, he had to put up with its translation, bad as it may be. What happened in practice was that neither side was really willing to get acquainted with the literature achievements of the other so culturally “Greek East and Latin West drifted more and more apart”[7]. Constantinople kept on looking with contempt at the cultural endevours of the West, while the latter

“sought to create a new Christian civilization of their own. In fourth-century Europe there had been one Christian civilization, in thirteenth-century Europe there were two; perhaps it is in the reign of Charlemagne that the schism of civilizations first becomes clearly apparent”[8].

Ecclesiastical factors

Thus, it was only a matter of time for the political and cultural differences to impact the life of the Church. The Church situation in the East and the West had been different from the very start of Christendom. In the East there were
many Churches, whose authority rested on the foundation of the apostles, whose bishops were all equal and who solved all their theological issues by Church councils. The East acknowledged the Pope as “the first among equals”. In the West there was only one See claiming apostolic succession, the See of Rome. It accepted the decisions of the councils but did not play an active role in it. The Pope acted more as a monarch rather than “first among equals”. This was due not only to the more centralized nature of the western Church, but also to the barbarian invasions in the West. Since there wasn’t a strong secular monarch in the West, but several warring usurpers, the only one who could assure relative unity, stability and continuity in both political and spiritual life was the Pope[9]. This new status quo led the Pope to believe that his power extended not only to the West, but also to the East. At last, the dream of many popes for supremacy of Rome over the other Sees seemed to have become true. And yet, this was something that the Greeks could not accept. For they acknowledged his “primacy of honour”[10], but were not the least willing to let him interfere or have the final decision in their religious or secular affairs.

Doctrinal factors

After the iconoclast controversy had been solved and iconoclasm condemned at Nicea in 787, for a time it seemed that in spite of the political disruption, the Greek East and the Latin West will manage to preserve their cultural and spiritual unity. Still, in Southern’s words, “this exalted unity of mind and spirit had little chance of surviving when it was cut off from the natural strength that springs from political and social cohesion”[11]. Though the popes felt spiritually and intellectually closer to their brothers in the East, they couldn’t act independently of their supporters in the West. The schism was on the way.

There were other doctrinal ‘apples of discord’, of course, like the marrital status of clergy, and the rules of fasting. But the second biggest issue apart from the jurisdiction of the popes was the filioque. As early as 381 the Council of Constantinople issued the Nicaean Creed, which contained the statement that the Holy Spirit comes ‘from the Father’. Even though this creed was accepted by both the Eastern and Western churches, someone added to it the word Filioque or ‘and the Son’ and later on some of Charlemagne’s advisers added it to the Creed to be read at mass in their chapel. They insisted that for the matter of uniformity this addition should be accepted in all the Western church and even though the Pope adviced the king drop the addition, eventually it became universal in the Western church. There was no papal authorization or formal decision of a Church Council, but the first doctrinal difference between the East and West was a fact[12]. On the surface it might have seemed just like a minor theological disagreement; in reality this incident illustrated the further enstrangement of the papacy from the East and it’s taking sides with the unlettered West. This ‘westernalization’ of the papacy was evident even by the fact that between 752 and 1054 there wasn’t a single Pope of Greek origin[13].

The schism itself

All the above-mentioned factors played their role for the gradual estrangement of the East and West, starting from the fourth century onwards. But as always in human history, there was a particular event that led to the definite schism. The Normans, who had conquered southern Italy and Sicily with predominantly Greek population wanted to bring them under supervision of Rome. In 1052, Michael Cerularius, then Patriarch of Constantinople, answered by closing the Latin churches at Constantinople for not following the Greek usages. It is important to note here that some decades earlier, in 1009, Pope Sergius IV had sent a statement of faith to the Eastern Church which included the filioque. The Patriarch of Constantinople abstained from protesting, but ‘quietly retaliated by not including the new Pope’s name in the Diptychs’[14], or the lists containing the names of all other Patriarchs, whom he consideres orthodox. In 1053 Cerularius wrote to Pope Leo IX suggesting to restore the Pope’s name to the Dyptichs. The Pope then sent a small delegation to Constantinople, led by Cardinal Humbert, the Bishop of Silva Candida. The legates gave the letter to the Patriarch and then retired without saluting him. Neither was the letter written in a very friendly manner. Feeling offended, Cerularius cancelled any further talks with the legates. Humbert’s reaction was to write a Bull of Excommunication of Cerularius which he brought and laid on the altar of St. Sophia. The Patriarch answered with a reciprocal measure, excommunicating the Pope. Even though this event marked the official schism between both Churches, it did not affect the relations between them, and practically, the majority of Christians in the East and the West had no idea about it. What brought the schism on a more popular level were the Crusades. Some fifty years later the first military campaigns against the Turks ended victoriously, regaining Antioch and Jerusalem from the enemy[15]. But in 1204 the Crusaders got involved in Bysantine politics and in the long run, after loosing patience, sacked and raped the city. Their aggression and sacrilege would never be forgotten by the Eastern Orthodox Christians. As Runciman put it, “The Crusaders brought not peace but a sword; and the sword was to sever Christendom”[16]. There wasn’t any doubt any more that the de jure schism of 1054 had become a de facto one in 1204[17].


The Great Schism between the Eastern and Western churches did not happen overnight but was a culmination of a long process. It is considered that it was final and irrevocalbe only in 1350. As Ware points out, the schism “is not really an event whose beginning can be exactly dated… it came about gradually, as the result of a long and complicated process, starting well before the eleventh century and not completed until some time after.”[18] There were many political, cultural and religious factors that contributed to it. As early as the end of the third century the Empire, though theoretically one, was practically separated in two parts, having two capitals and two emperors. The barbarian invasions in the north and the conquests of Islam in the Mediterannean region in the fifth century severed the political and cultural ties between the East and the West. ‘Charlemagne’s corronation was regarded as an act of schism within the Empire’[19]. The lack of political cohesion led to cultural and ecclesiastical estrangement. Christians and men of learning from both Empires were no longer bilingual and spoke different languages, misunderstanding each other and mistranslating each other’s letters and books. The East regarded the West with contempt for its illiteracy and the West answered with the same indifference towards the writings and achievements of the East. On top of all these factors there were the differences of doctrine and Church practice, namely, the filioque and the Papal claims of hegemony, that brought about the separation between the Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Church[20]. The accummulative effect of all these factors was too strong for the schism to be avoided and has been too overwhelming to be recovered.
- The End -

Word count: 2195


NIV Study Bible, Hodder & Stoughton, 1995
Ware, T., The Orthodox Churh, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1963
Southern, R.W., Western Society and The Church in the Middle Ages, OTC, 2004.
Chadwick, H., The Early Church, Penguin Books, 1993
Хотън, С.М., Щрихи от Църковната история, Мисия Възможност, 1998
Кернс, Ъ., Християнството през вековете, Нов човек, 1998
The Church in the Middle Ages, Part 2, OTC

[1] John 17:20-23.
[2] Ware, T., The Orthodox Church, pp. 51-58, 60 – 70, quoted in  “The Church in the Middle Ages”, Part II, Reader II.32.
[3] The Early Church, Part I, 9.10.
[4] Ware, The Orthodox Church, pp. 51-58, 60-70, quoted in “The Church in the Middle Ages”, Part II, Reader II.32.
[5] Ibid.
[6] Southern, R.W., Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, p. 60-61.
[7] Ware, The Orthodox Church, pp. 51-58, 60-70, quoted in “The Church in the Middle Ages”, Part II, Reader II.33.
[8] Ibid.
[9] Ibid., II.34.
[10] Ibid., II.35.
[11] Southern, Western Society and the Church in The Middle Ages, p. 62.

[12] Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages, p. 64-65.
[13] Ibid.
[14] The Church in the Middle Ages, Part II, 5.11.
[15] It’s a strange world we live in; in history some military victories have proven to cost more to the winning party than the losses. Such was the victory at Antioch, after which the Latins set up their own Patriarch even though the Greek one was still in office. Almost 90 years later a similar situation took place in Palestine. These local rivalries were not just a quarrel between the Pope and the Patriarch; they affected very practically the ordinary Christians, as each one of them had to take sides with one of the Patriarchs and thus experience the hostility of the other side.
[16] From The Eastern Schism, p. 101, quoted in The Church in the Middle Ages, Part II, Reader II.42.
[17] Ibid.
[18] Ware, The Orthodox Church, pp. 51-58, 60-70, quoted in “The Church in the Middle Ages”, Part II, Reader II.31.
[19] Ibid., Reader Part II, II.32.

[20] Ibid., 42.