Orthodoxy 22nd October 2000
To the editor, Catholic Times
Fr Francis Marsden
Brown candles flicker in sand trays before the ancient icons: Nicholas and John the Baptist, Volodymyr and Demetrios. The lofty iconostases rise cobwebbed and dusty in remote Greek mountain chapels. Spendidly robed, bass-voiced deacons, and golden mitrat-topped bishops bless with the double and triple candlesticks. We see the onion domes of Russia, the red tiled cupolas of Byzantium, the mosaics of Kyiv. We hear the frantically ringing bells and clappers summoning the faithful to Mass in Romania and Bulgaria.
In an age turned mad by modernism, the ancient churches of the Greek and Slavic east stand as distant witnesses to an earlier era of Christian faith. By tragic accident separated from the Papacy, they nevertheless have conserved the rich treasury of Christian prayer and tradition, Scripture and sanctity, for a thousand years.
The negatively biased observer may criticise the Orthodox churches as arcane, inflexible, idolising the past, or inclined to a narrow nationalism. It is true that the absence of a living centre of authority, beyond the national Patriarchs, has contributed to a certain immobility. The Orthodox often regard the historic Liturgy as the transmitter of all tradition and orthodox belief.
Yet those in the West who will not or cannot accept the Papacy, might at least consider that almost every traditional doctrine taught by the Pope is also part of the belief of the ancient eastern Churches. When the Latins, Greeks, Copts, Syriacs and Armenians – who were present at the genesis of the Church – are 95% agreed about the Faith of the Fathers, the nouveaux arrivés, Lutherans, Zwinglians, Calvinists and Pentecostals do well to “Stand aright” and “Be attentive.”
The early Church recognised four principal Apostolic sees – Jerusalem (St James), Antioch (St Peter), Alexandria (St Mark) and Rome (SS Peter and Paul). In 321 the Emperor Constantine founded his New Rome on the Bosphorus, and christened it after himself, Constantinople.
Constantine took care to obtain from the Bishops of the Council of Nicea a solemn declaration that his New Rome would rank second in the world after Old Rome. In this way Constantinople became the second great Patriarchal see of the church of Christ.
The seven Ecumenical Councils of the ancient Church – Nicea, Constantinople I, Ephesus, Chalcedon, Constantinople II, Nicea II and Constantinople III were all held within 150 miles of Byzantium. To Greek minds the city was the centre of the Christian world, the richest and most civilised city upon earth.
How they pitied and looked down upon Old Rome, which by 600 AD had collapsed in ruins. 20,000 inhabitants tended their goats and sheep amidst the fallen edifices of a city built for a million. The fierce pagan tribes, Vandals, Goths and Huns, had swept through the Alpine passes, and had left Italy in anarchy, smouldering and cowering.
The Byzantine Empire still controlled of the eastern Mediterranean, until the militaristic spread of Islam. The capital on the Bosporus grew rich with gold and silver, as the riches of the peoples flowed in. How could her inhabitants have foreseen a day when Old Rome would flourish once again? - a catastrophic future when Byzantium would groan beneath the crescent of Islam, her Metropolitanates annihilated, her Patriarchate confined and subjected to a heathen Sultan, her glory but a few remnants of mozaic in a Turkish state museum?
Surprisingly, in the West, the barbarian chieftains one by one accepted baptism: Clovis, King of the Franks, the Goths, the Frisians, the Teutons. Celtic and Anglo-Saxon monks turned missionaries and flooded in from the north-west fringes of Europe. Even the Normans and the Vikings were evangelised as papal emissaries sailed from Bremen to the Danes and the Swedes. In Iberia the Christian Kings of Leon and Castile turned back the Mohammedan flood.
In the year 800, Rome witnessed the coronation of Charlemagne as the anointed Head of a new Holy Roman Empire. To the Greeks this could only be a foolishness, a preposterous scandal they could never swallow.
If the Greek mentality loves subtlety and mystery, the Latin mind prefers system, administration and legislation. The two mindsets often clashed: the static treasure-house of the rich east resented the thrusting impulsiveness of the newly-converted barbarian west. For decades the Papacy appeared little more than the bitterly contested prize of the barbarian Italian princes, poisoning and stabbing one another, that their house might occupy Peter’s throne.
In 1054 there came that fateful day when a bad-tempered Papal legate (whose office was void since his Master had died, though he knew it not) laid a hastily drafted Bull of Excommunication against the Patriarch of Constantinople upon the high altar of Hagia Sophia. Cardinal Humbert hastily marched off with his retinue. Photius, Patriarch of Constantinople, retaliated in like currency, and excommunicated his boss, the Vicar of Peter, from the Church of Christ, had such been possible.
This rent in the seamless robe of Christ has never been mended. In 1203 the Crusaders ripped it wide open, slashed at the scars and poured acid in the wound, as they ran amok in Byzantium. They slashed the icons, dressed up for mockery in the priests’ felonia, trampled the Blessed Sacrament in the streets because it was confected with leavened bread, stuffed every gold chalice and valuable relic into their haversacks, for the day they might return home to France and Germany and England. Worse than the Turks did these western “Catholics” behave.
For 60 years a Latin Patriarch ruled in Constantinople, until the Greeks re-took the city. As the See of Peter grew in influence through the Middle Ages, the power of Byzantium declined, pressed on all sides by the fierce Ottoman invaders. On that dreadful day in 1453, the brave Emperor Constantine XI Palaeologus perished, defending his namesake’s capital of 1130 years. The city fell beneath the pagan scimitars. The muezzins called the faithful to worship Allah, as the mosaics were whitewashed and the church bells melted down for cannon balls.
However, God had not left the Greek East without an heir. When Prince Volodymyr the Great of Kyivan Rus’ accepted Christianity in 988 AD, he adopted the Greek rite, then in union with the Roman See. After 1054, Kyiv followed Constantinople and slipped, accidentally almost, into schism from Rome. The bishops of Kyiv were usually Greeks.
In 1240 the Mongols destroyed the state of Kyivan Rus’. Kyiv lay in ruins. The Mongol raids continued. In 1299 the Metropolitan of Kyiv abandoned the city and moved 1000 miles north-east to the forests, to the city of Vladimir-on-the-Klyasma.
The minor settlement of Moscow, hidden in the swamps and forests, is first mentioned only in 1147. Relatively safe from Mongol attack, it slowly grew to prominence. Winning overlordship over its neighbours: Vladimir, Yaroslavl, Tver, Rostov, Novgorod, the state of Muscovy gradually expanded.
In 1326 the Metropolitan “of Kyiv and all Rus’” moved his see from Vladimir to Moscow to be near the new Tsar. Living 700 miles from Kyiv, he was unable to administer the Church of the western and southern borderlands.
So began the long, unfinished dispute between Moscow and the Ukrainian lands (centred on Kyiv). Bereft of church leadership, the Galician (west Ukrainian) princes, had the Patriarch of Constantinople institute a separate Metropolitanate in their domains in 1303. The Muscovite princes consistently pressurised the Patriarch to dissolve this rival Metropolitanate. It was closed and re-opened several times.
Muscovy was intent upon undivided ecclesiastical supremacy over the Slavic lands, whether their own, or those under Lithuanian-Polish rule. Nevertheless, by 1415 Constantinople established a new metropolitanate of Kyiv, Galicia and all Rus’.
The fall of Constantinople to the Turks in 1453 greatly impeded the power of the patriarch. The Muscovite Church separated itself from Constantinople and declared its independence.
Muscovy took up the mantle of Orthodox leadership and separatism from Rome. “The first Rome has fallen into heresy, the Second Rome has fallen to the Turks, Moscow is the third Rome, and there shall be no Fourth!” One cannot comprehend the church politics of Moscow, without understanding this ideology.
Next week we shall look at how developments in Ukraine are threatening this centuries old self-understanding of Russian Orthodoxy,