By David J. Melling (1943-2004)
(Many thanks to De Unione Ecclesiarum for the text of this article.)
Early in his ministry as a Non-Juror Anglican priest, the saintly William Law published a sequence of “Letters to a Lady inclined to enter the Church of Rome.” (1732-3) His advice to the Lady was that she, like other laymembers and junior clergy of the Anglican Church, was in no way responsible for the schism separating her and her fellow Anglicans from the Greek and Roman Churches. There is, he argued, no way of escaping the reality of schism, since every history determines that each of us is “necessarily forced into one externally divided part, because there is no part free from external division.” The divisions cannot be escaped by simply changing one’s ecclesiastical allegiance, he tells her, since that action resolves the schism with the Church entered at the price of schism with the Church abandoned. He counsels her to stay where she is, but to love the Greek and Roman Churches with the same love she has for her own Church. Law attributes the schism that divides the Churches to “the unreasonable quarrels and unjust claims of the governors on both sides.” He sees schism as caused by the failings and shortcomings of hierarchs, and as something affecting only the external reality of the Church’s life. Law is not, of course, writing of all kinds of schism. His position flows from the belief that the Roman, Greek and English Churches, whatever their differences in theological tradition and styles of worship, are alike in being effective means of attaining “christian holiness.” He does not have the same positive view of any Christian bodies which are merely human institutions and lack the full means of sanctification.
In Eastern Christian tradition, schism between ecclesial communities is not always read as William Law reads it. Eastern theology has tended to stress the intimate unity of faith and sacrament and to see schism as a sign of heresy. Roman Catholic theology, on the other hand, has generally distinguished more sharply between schism, in which both the separated communities may be fully orthodox and retain a full sacramental life, and formal heresy which involves the rejection of the Church’s dogmatic teaching. Roman Catholic sacramental theology has tended to regard heretical sacraments as invalid by reason of heresy only in those cases when the heresy explicitly denied the Church’s dogmatic teaching about the sacraments. The consequence of such a denial is obvious: a heretical priest who does not believe in the Eucharistic Sacrifice, the Real Presence or the Apostolic Succession can hardly be the presiding minister at a Divine Liturgy, consecrating this bread and this wine to become the Body and Blood of Christ, since that is precisely what he does not believe he is authorised to do and what he believes does not come about even when a Catholic or Orthodox priest celebrates the Mass. Roman Catholic tradition differs from Eastern Orthodox in the relative status it accords the canons of the Ecumenical Councils. In Catholic theology, the infallibility attaching to the dogmatic definitions of the Councils is sharply distinguished from the relative degree of authority accorded their disciplinary and legal decisions. Orthodox Christians would not normally go so far as to claim the disciplinary canons of the Ecumenical Councils are absolutely immutable and irreformable, but tend to see them as reformable only by the authority of another Ecumenical Council.
This attitude to the legislation of the Ecumenical Councils explains in part the bitterness of the schism between Old Calendarists and New Calendarists in the Greek world. The Old Calendarists have consistently and vehemently denied the right of Patriarchs, Hierarchs and local synods to alter the calendrical arrangements laid down in the canons of the Council of Nicaea. Given the nature of what they see as a grave breach of Orthodox ecclesiastical discipline, some, but not all, Old Calendarists have gone further, and invoking the authority of St. Basil the Great, have seen New Calendarists not only as schismatics, but as a religious body whose sacraments are devoid of grace. Interestingly, this schism as the Old Calendarists see it does indeed conform in part at least to William Law’s characterisation of schism, since what the Old Calendarists object to is precisely what they see as high-handed, unlawful and unreasonable action by the Church’s hierarchs. This was equally an issue in the schism between the Old Believers and the Russian Orthodox Church. In both cases, what was judged by their opponents to be the illegitimate use of Hierarchical authority to alter the calendar in the one case, the service books in the other, was interpreted not merely as imposing on the Church untraditional and objectionable legislation, but also as signifying a drift into heresy that made schism both inevitable and a matter of inescapable duty. William Law, however, in speaking of the schism between the Roman and English Churches emphasises that the “unreasonable quarrels and unjust claims of the governors” were on both sides. An authoritarian and assertive Papacy had found its own claims reflected in the distorting mirror of Henry VIII’s assertion of his own divine right to rule as “Supreme Head” of the English Church. The Old Believers and Old Calendarists reflect the position not of the Vatican in relation to the Church of England, but of the Catholic Recusants, loyal to the religion they inherited from their fathers and mothers, and unable to accept the changes imposed by state authority. Conservative dissent is always an embarrassment to church authorities. It is not obvious exactly how one can become a heretic by standing fast on yesterday’s orthodoxy.
Law’s argument that schism as such is fundamentally a matter of the external reality of the Church is of particular significance if we attempt to interpret the schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches. The mutual excommunications of 1054, while furnishing a fine example of the “unreasonable quarrels and unjust claims” which Law identifies as the fundamental cause of schism, were neither the origin nor the legal basis of the schism. Had they been so, the lifting of the excommunications by the Pope and the Ecumenical Patriarch would have brought the schism to an end. It continues. The schism between Catholics and Orthodox continues, yet the full ecclesial life of both Churches also continues. While the absence of external institutional unity may be a cause of suffering and something to deplore, it has not prevented either Church from producing a rich crop of saints, from engaging in Apostolic missionary work, from serving the needy, from finding within its own spiritual resources the means for renewal.
The notion that Western and Eastern Churches were ever identical in theology, ritual and social life, is pure fantasy. Theological differences existed in the days when the Church of the Roman Empire was a legal unity. The typically Augustinian doctrine of Original Sin as inherited guilt is to be found in the doctrinal canons of the early sixth century councils of Carthage and Orange, and the latter council even went so far as to condemn the typical Eastern view that what is inherited from Adam and Eve as a consequence of their sin is our mortality. The dogmatic canons of the latter council were confirmed by Pope Boniface II. Eastern and Western Churches had different rules concerning the bread to be used in the Eucharist, different rules for fasting, clerical celibacy, the ordination of eunuchs, and later, the legitimacy of fourth marriages and the permissibility of divorce even during the period when the Churches were in full communion.
The schism between the Catholic and Orthodox Churches did not begin, nor was it completed in 1054. Indeed, one wonders at exactly what point in history many communities realised they were in schism from the other church. The failed reunion councils, the intrusion of Latin bishops in the wake of the Crusades, the sack of Constantinople and the profanation of Hagia Sophia in 1208 and the consequences of the Fall of the Byzantine Empire to the Ottoman Turks all helped crystallize out a pattern of relations that still managed to retain some fluidity even into the seventeenth century. The establishment of Eastern Catholic jurisdictions in the Patriarchate of Antioch and in the east of Poland helped considerably to confirm the external separation of the two Church institutions. The external separation spread and became firm. But what changed in the life of ordinary parishes? Some experienced a shift in hierarchical authority. Some experienced the arrival of new religious orders. In traditional Orthodox and Latin Catholic communities nothing took place. The life of the local Church carried on as before. Where things did change, it was not as a direct result of the schism, but as a result of the local changes taking place in the life of one Church or the other — e.g., the implementation of the reforms of the Council of Trent.
The heart of the life of every Catholic or Orthodox church, is the celebration of the Divine Liturgy. In the Liturgy we find ourselves called to communion with Our Lord, to eat mystically His Body and Blood in the form of bread and wine, to become one with Him, to be incorporated in Him. Our communion with Christ draws us into the life of the Holy Trinity. It is by the Power of the Holy Spirit He became a human being; it is by the Power of the Holy Spirit that the mystery of the Eucharist incorporates us in Christ. The Liturgy we celebrate here in our churches is an image of the Eternal Liturgy of the Court of Heaven. The barriers between Heaven and Earth are broken as the power of the Holy Spirit makes this holy table the Throne where the Son of God becomes present amongst us. Christ is “a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek” [Heb.5, 6] the one true High Priest of all humanity. He is the Son and Word of God, Who has put on our humanity so that we may share His Divinity. He is the one perfect Sacrificial Victim who “has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” [Heb.9, 26] He offers Himself once and for all, not in the sanctuary of the earthly Temple, but entering “into Heaven itself, now to appear in the presence of God for us.” [Heb.9, 24] His death on Calvary is the visible historical realisation of Christ’s sacrifice for us. In the Eucharistic Liturgy, the same High Priest is present offering Himself to the Father for us, and inviting us to the Mystic Feast where He Himself becomes our food and drink so that we become one with Him, becoming by His grace what He is by nature. The Son of God offers Himself to us to make us too children of God. But we stand in separate churches, hear different priests recite the ancient words of the anaphora, communicate from separate chalices. To that extent, precisely to that extent, the schism between Catholics and Orthodox is real. But we communicate together in the Body and Blood of the one Anointed, we put on the one Christ in Baptism and are incorporated in the one Anointed in the Mystical Supper. It is our communion with Him, and in Him with one another that is the fundamental basis of our relation to each other. In the most basic and the most important sense, we are in communion with one another and always have been. In Him we are in communion with each other in a sense far more important than that in which, because of the schism between the churches, we are separated. We are united in Christ by His Holy Spirit, and divided outwardly by the inherited habit of schism.
Understandably in this century of ecumenical politics and ecclesiastical bureaucracy, there is a broad pattern of exploratory discussions and negotiations underway aimed at the removal of the scandal of schism. Whatever may be agreed by such a path, for the Orthodox it will be necessary to find the consent of the Church in a way other than by Patriarchal or Synodical decree, unless the decree be that of what is recognised as an Ecumenical Council. The immediate response of the Monks of Mount Athos to the recent agreement between representatives of the Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox makes clear exactly what problems such negotiations will face. The theologians and hierarchs involved in the Orthodox-Oriental Orthodox discussions have published a report that shows a true spirit of conciliation and mutual acceptance. Unfortunately, it proceeds from and addresses the mind-set of those who are prepared to see the proceedings of Ecumenical Councils in their historical and political relativity, and are ready to renegotiate relations amongst Churches without demanding formal acceptance of the dogmatic definitions of the Seven Councils. There may be many Orthodox who share such an outlook: they do not include the Holy Epistasia of Mount Athos or the many thousands who will stand in solidarity with the Athonite Community in seeing the definitions of the Ecumenical Councils as infallible and irreformable, as divinely inspired, and as the only possible basis for unity.
A process of growing together based on mutual trust and respect offers a much more realistic model for future developments than the repetition of ancient errors by the construction of eirenic but ambiguous documents and the validation of proposals for reunion by Patriarchal fiat or Synodical decree. Face to face, local communities can experience for themselves the reality of their oneness in Christ — or they can discover precisely the opposite. The zeal for full union will come from mutual knowledge, shared experience and profoundly respectful love: it can also come from the vivid awareness of the reality of our present communion with each other in Christ. That is not to say the hierarchs have no role in promoting the removal of schism. Pope John Paul II has made a major personal contribution in the last few months with the two letters Orientale Lumen and Ut Unum Sint. Sadly, the publicity given the second of these encyclicals has almost totally overshadowed the first, a document of immense importance for Catholic-Orthodox relations, emphasising, as it does, the need for Western clergy and theologians to become far better acquainted with the Eastern tradition of theology and Christian worship. Indeed, the Encyclical shows a warm sympathy for and a profound awareness of Eastern theology. It also offers an unusual opportunity for Orthodox and Eastern Catholics to co-operate in responding to the Pope in creating opportunities for Western brethren to learn more of our shared Eastern tradition. Co-operation between Orthodox and Eastern Catholics may seem an odd thing to recommend. For many Orthodox “Uniatism” remains an offensive and illegitimate method of Vatican proselytism. Whatever the truth of such a charge, there is a need for Orthodox Christians to face the challenge of the deep loyalty to Rome shown by many Eastern Catholic communities, even in the face of contemptuous treatment by Latins, even of appalling humiliations, the ultimate being that revealed by the late Melkite Patriarch Maximos IV when he disclosed, that in the aftermath of the then patriarch’s opposition to the definition of Papal infallibility at the first Vatican council, His Beatitude had been forced to the ground before the Papal throne while Pius IX placed his foot on his head. Loyalty in the face of such provocation merits at least astonished respect.
The draft agreement between Catholic and Orthodox theologians reached at Balamand in 1993 proposes a helpful way forward here, in proposing a formal rejection by the Catholic Church, Latin as well as Eastern, of “proselytizing among the Orthodox.” Once it becomes clear to the Orthodox that this commitment is serious, (and at the moment that is very far from clear) the possibility will grow of precisely the open and co-operative dialogue between Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox that the Balamand agreement envisages. It has, however, to be recognised that in both Catholic and Orthodox Churches there remain zealots and integrists who will defend forever a maximalist ecclesiology which leaves no room for any ecumenical activity whatsoever, since it sees schism as defining the boundaries of the Church of Christ, outside of which there exist heretical conventicles devoid of sacramental grace. In the Orthodox Church such interests still have a powerful voice, as Patriarch Bartholomaeos has discovered to his cost, facing demonstrations protesting against his brotherly relationship with the Pope, and denunciation of him as trying to drag the Orthodox Church into union with Rome.
There are, indeed, specific problems in the relation of Catholic and Orthodox Churches that the present Ecumenical Patriarch’s very public role has made vividly evident to many Orthodox. The Ecumenical Patriarch’s role as senior hierarch of the Orthodox communion is far more fragile than his public image sometimes suggests. In Rome he may look like the Eastern counterpart of the Pope, and the vigour with which he has exercised and even developed his role in the Orthodox Church may give plausibility to that image, but the fact remains that he is not the linear superior of the chief hierarchs of other autocephalous Churches, but only the first among equals among them, and that is something very different. Orthodox tradition, moreover, has never recognised any hierarchical role above that of the local bishop as of divine authority. Any higher layer of authority and responsibility derives from Synodical or sometimes even state decision. There is nothing inevitable or immutable in the Primacy of Constantinople. Nor can the Ecumenical Patriarch assert his authority to guarantee the Orthodox Church’s acceptance of the policy he espouses. The same arguments that establish the ecclesiastical and human origin of the patriarchates are deployed by Orthodox to reject Catholic claims of divine institution for the Roman Papacy, and of course to reject any claims to Papal supremacy. (Not, of course, to the Primacy of Rome, that is a quite different and relatively uncontroversial matter.) It is, then, very helpful to see the Pope is clearly aware that his own office as interpreted by Vatican theologians and canonists is experienced by Christians of other traditions as a major obstacle to unity. In his encyclical Ut Unum Sint he calls for a “patient and fraternal dialogue” on the nature and exercise of his primacy. This is a welcome and helpful development.
Progress in extricating ourselves from the bad habit of schism involves a reappraisal of what is central to our Christian heritage and what is transitory and peripheral, what is essential and what is merely a matter of cultural tradition. When we return to the heart and centre of our faith, we find ourselves together in Christ. If we lose the living awareness of our oneness in Christ and identify ourselves simply in terms of a particular community’s history and interests, we find a chasm yawning at our feet. The full flourishing of the spirit of schism is not merely external separation and institutional rivalry, its fruit can be tasted at the point where religious identity becomes a means of justifying political and ethnic conflict.