Those familiar with the Church’s history know that what is called the “Great Schism” between the Christian East and West did not occur overnight. It came about gradually, starting before July 17, 1054, when the papal legates placed the excommunication on the altar in the Church of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople, and was not confirmed until some time later, when it was deepened and extended during the Fourth Crusade, becoming a real, decisive schism.
Historians point out in this regard that cultural, political and economic estrangement gradually led to the formation of this schism, which took place for dogmatic reasons that had existed for centuries but over which Rome and the East had nevertheless avoided any open conflict, before the personal temperament of the leaders of the two churches at the time led to their inflammation and their allowing them to be inflamed rather than working to solve them within the one Church.
What is striking here is that the results of this schism were not catastrophic at the time for the faithful, who did not sense its danger then and who continued to participate in the sacraments when they moved between East and West. This is perhaps due to their belief in the possibility of transcending the crisis because Constantinople and Rome had broken communion with each other more than ten times since the fourth century and each time they had been able to overcome their differences.
But the schism that at the beginning had been limited to the Pope of Rome and Patriarch of Constantinople refraining from commemorating each other at the liturgy and which many, such as Patriarch Peter III of Antioch, attempted to work to heal, reached the popular level with the Crusades, which introduced a spirit of hatred, bitterness and resentment between the peoples, especially after Rome consecrated patriarchs for the patriarchates of the East and bishops for the bishoprics there, so altar stood against altar and in each city there were two rival communities.
So that which had begun as estrangement between East and West and developed to become a division that many worked to fix, evolved, on account of unanticipated political factors, to become a lasting schism between the churches of East and West, which deepened with the passage of time and now constitutes the great tragedy of Christianity.
A comparison between the reasons, repercussions, and courses of the schism between East and West, which took place at the beginning of the second millennium, and the situation from which the Orthodox Church is suffering today at the beginning of the third millennium, leads one to observe some worrying aspects of resemblance between them, including:
– The division that exists between the churches of Constantinople and Moscow today started with estrangement at the beginning of the twentieth century on account of what Moscow regards as collusion by Constantinople with its persecutors at the beginning of the Soviet era. It increased with Stalin’s attempt in 1948 to establish something like an Orthodox Vatican in Moscow and the undermining of Constantinople’s primacy, which revives Constantinople’s fears of ambitions to be “Third Rome”.
– This estrangement, which transformed into the current division in the mid-1990s on account of the Estonian crisis, has today become a sharp division and has reached a degree of crisis, danger and verbal hostility between Greek and Russian theologians and clergy and their supporters.
– The break of communion between the Church of Moscow and Constantinople and the advocacy and mobilization campaigns that both churches are undertaking have brought the struggle, even if it is in a manner that’s not widespread, to the level of ordinary believers.
– The continued division, given the lack of success of any mediation or initiative to resolve the Ukrainian crisis, has led the Church of Moscow to create its own parishes within the historical territory of the Patriarchate of Constantinople, with all the division that this brings at the level of the faithful. This is liable to spread to the territory of the churches that recognize the newly-created entity in Ukraine.
– The continued division has started to cast its shadow over relations between the faithful belonging to the two patriarchates in the diaspora, where the rupture deepens and the rift grows between the faithful who support this see or that, as has been made clear by the crisis of the Archdiocese of the Russian Tradition in Western Europe and the correspondence between Constantinople’s and Moscow’s bishops in South Korea.- The deepening of the disagreement about the understanding of primacy in the Church and the manner in which it is exercised between Constantinople and Moscow, its having gone from a stage of theological discussion to a stage of mutual accusations of departure from Orthodoxy, and the breaking off of direct dialogue about this issue has brought the disagreement to the dogmatic level.
All the above indicates that the current division between Moscow and Constantinople has reached a degree of severe danger that can lead to a real and lasting schism within the Orthodox Church in the event that there is an external political element that favors one side or the other. Perhaps the possibility of sliding into schism is not trivial in the context of the current crisis state in international relations, which some describe as a hot peace that is liable to burst into flame.
Will rational people be quick to dress the wound and heal it before it’s too late? Or will they afford hotheads the luxury of amusing themselves with making mutual accusations, exaggerating simple differences, stoking feelings of enmity, setting the Orthodox world on fire and dragging it to a catastrophe?
Let us redeem the time, for the time for luxury is over!