The Great Schism and the Way Back to Unity

The Great Schism of 1054

The differences and quarrels of today's Churches are best explained by what has happened in the past. It's very much like family history. As children we accept the fact that Aunt Emma never comes to see us. As we grow up, however, we want to know why. A family quarrel of years ago has left a legacy of division. Can it be healed? The same is true of the Churches.

The biggest Church quarrel of all is not the split between Roman Catholic and Protestant but something older and more fundamental. We call this earlier quarrel the Great Schism of 1054. There was another 'Great Schism' of a later date when Western Christendom was divided in loyalty between two rival Popes. This Western 'Great Schism' ended some years before the Reformation: the Great Schism between Eastern and Western Christendom had begun long before and remains with us to this day.

WHY 1054?
1054 is a convenient date because something happened that year in Constantinople which still holds the two sides apart. There were serious difficulties long before 1054, and attempts at reconciliation later. For years afterwards people acted as though nothing much had happened. It was only when the Crusaders arrived in the Middle East that it became clear that Christendom had reached a parting of the ways in that fatal year.

The problem which still remains to be resolved concerns the nature of the Church and the part played by the 'Holy Tradition'. It is the Holy Spirit who brings the Church into being - uniting men and women through the Sacraments and transforming them into the Body of Christ. In this way the Holy Spirit ministers the New Life in Christ which is eternal salvation. Moreover, Our Lord promised the Holy Spirit to his first disciples as their constant guide to lead them into all truth. To this constant guidance by the Holy Spirit we give the name 'the Holy Tradition'.

The Spirit inspired witness of the Apostles to the New Life in Jesus Christ is the abiding concern of the Holy Tradition. The New Testament is that part of the Apostolic witness committed to writing (for which, as for all Scripture, the Holy Tradition provides the authentic interpretation). The Holy Tradition presents the Apostolic Faith as a living Faith, as a sacramental Faith, and therefore as a corporate Faith. Since such a Faith centers upon the New Life in Christ, its maintenance, through the Holy Tradition, is the responsibility of the whole Church and especially of the bishops as successors of the Apostles.

For the first thousand years the Christian Church had only one Faith and one kind of ministry based on a pattern which goes back to the Apostles themselves - the ministry of bishops, priests, and deacons. This three-fold ministry is itself an aspect of the Holy Tradition. Because, by the Holy Spirit, Christ himself is everywhere present in his Church, every local Christian community (diocese as we would call it) lives sacramentally in the fullness of Christ's saving presence. The many bishops who preside over their local communities are all equal - all are successors of the Apostles, all receive the same sacramental ministry from the Holy Spirit, all are called to maintain the Holy Tradition.

In spite of this fundamental equality, it has been the custom of the Church to recognize that some bishops have a special position of honor and responsibility. This special position is called 'primacy' and provides a ministry of unity, order and cohesion among the bishops and their dioceses in any given area - usually known as a province. The pattern of primacy is repeated at still higher levels - the most senior bishops being known as Patriarchs.

Because all bishops, whatever their status, share a common responsibility for the Holy Tradition, major challenges to the Faith have always been dealt with by councils of bishops. The highest authority for clarifying the Holy Tradition in matters of Faith rests with the Seven Ecumenical Councils which represent the common mind of the undivided Catholic Church as guided by the Holy Spirit.

What is described above is the pattern of unity founded upon the Holy Tradition. Such unity rests upon the sacramental reality of Christ' presence, through the Holy Spirit, with the whole Church and in each local Church. This is the understanding of the nature of the Church (the ecclesiology) which prevailed universally for the first thousand years of the Christian era. This ecclesiology was not one among several possible theories about the nature of the Church, it was an integral part of the Vision of Faith imparted by the Holy Tradition. A change to an alternative ecclesiology, as described below, triggers off further changes. The outward form of doctrinal teaching may be retained for a while, but the underlying Vision of Faith has been re-aligned and the differences will begin to appear on the surface.

In the undivided Catholic Church the most senior Bishop of all was the Bishop of Rome. The Roman Pope was not only Bishop of the ancient capital of the Roman Empire but could claim St. Peter and St. Paul as the founders of his Church. From about the time that the emperors moved the seat of government to Constantinople, the Church in Rome began to claim a special status for its Bishop. This notion grew slowly until Roman Popes began to assert an absolute authority over all the Churches. It was only at the beginning of the second Christian millennium that the Popes had gained sufficient power and influence to extend this claim to include the Eastern Orthodox.

The Patriarchs of the Eastern Churches refused to accept this claim by their fellow-Patriarch of the West. The concept behind the Roman claim was contrary to the Holy Tradition. The claim shifted the spiritual centre of gravity from the sacramental fellowship of each bishop with his flock and with his fellow bishops to a centralized authority in Rome. In any case, the Orthodox Churches were already disturbed by the way in which a Pope had endorsed a long-standing but unofficial addition to the 'Nicene' Creed (the 'Filoque' clause).

The addition of a clause to the official text of the 'Nicene' Creed (accepted universally by the Seven Ecumenical Councils) implied that the Pope's authority exceeded that of the Ecumenical Councils. The clause itself suggested to the Orthodox a false understanding of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. A dispute arose between the Latin West and the Greek East on this and other differences.

In 1054 the Pope sent a delegation to Constantinople in the hope of resolving the dispute in his own favor. The delegation was headed by Cardinal Humbert, a man full of the new Roman ideas. The delegation attempted to enlist the support of the Emperor while treating the Patriarch of Constantinople as though he were a rebel against the Pope. The Patriarch, Michael Cerularius, was not the man to be dealt with in such a fashion. The delegation departed empty-handed, but as a last gesture, Humbert placed a notice, excommunicating the Patriarch, on the altar of the great church of the Holy Wisdom. The Patriarch replied by calling a Council which excommunicated the Pope. This is why the date 1054 has become so significant.

As time went by, what had been seen as a temporary breach of communion became the Great Schism. The coming of the Crusaders, their sacking of Constantinople and the setting up of a Latin Patriarchate, subservient to the Papacy, showed how far apart the two sides of Christendom had moved. Both sides claimed the other was in heresy over the 'Filoque clause' and this has remained the outstanding doctrinal issue between the two sides. In the later Middle Ages two major attempts were made to bring about a reconciliation: both attempts involved surrender on the part of the Orthodox and came to nothing.

In recent years a new spirit of reconciliation has developed. The 1054 excommunications have long been withdrawn and the Vatican has acknowledged that the 'Nicene' Creed without the 'Filoque' is the definitive version. Fresh study by theologians from both sides has shown that the 'sacramental' model of the Church of primitive times, rather than the 'institutional' model introduced by Rome, provides the true path to reunion. The abandonment of the 'universal jurisdiction' claimed by the Popes involves a radical change in the persisting Roman Catholic attachment to the notion of a centralized Church and will prove the most difficult problem to resolve.

The Holy Catholic Church Anglican Rite, with its commitment to the Faith of the undivided Catholic Church, accepts the Holy Tradition as maintained so faithfully by the Orthodox Churches. For the HCC-AR, the Church is not a centralized organization guaranteeing by its authority the validity of the Sacraments. The Church is brought into existence by the Holy Spirit as New Life in Christ. The Church exists ultimately as a Sacrament, not as an organization dispensing Sacraments. This is the truth about the inner being of the Church which the Roman doctrine of Papal authority has obscured although not obliterated utterly.

As a result of the Reformation in the Western Church, Protestants (including Anglicans) repudiated the papal claims, but not the notion of an 'institutional' Church created by papalism. Protestants continued to regard the Church as an organization motivated by a religious ideology. Under the influence of the Anglo-Catholic movement, Anglicanism began a process of restoring the Holy Tradition to its rightful place. Within Anglicanism this process has collapsed but it has found new life, vigor and fulfillment in the Anglican Catholic Church. The Anglican Rite Church now occupies a very special position as the only Western originating Church maintaining faithfully the Holy Tradition concerning the nature of the Church.

At the time the events of 1054 appeared to be yet one more in a series of temporary estrangements between Rome and Constantinople - history tells otherwise. It is important to keep this date in mind because the crucial issues which lay behind the dispute remain unresolved. The date 1054 is a constant reminder that, among the Western Churches, much of the Holy Tradition has to be rediscovered and accepted afresh-only thus can Catholic Christendom be truly united once more. In this the Holy Catholic Church Anglican Rite is pointing the way forward.