One summer’s afternoon in 1054, after testy exchanges with the Patriarch of Constantinople, the Pope’s representative, Cardinal Humbert, entered the city’s main place of worship, Hagia Sophia, placed a document on the altar, and then left quickly. The document was a Bull of Excommunication, expelling the recipients from the church and thereby denying them a route to heaven. This dramatic gesture is widely taken to mark the beginning of the ‘Great Schism’, the moment when the previously ‘undivided’ Church was split and Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism were born.
History, of course, is more complicated than this. At the end of the first millennium, the unity of the Church was already broken. Five hundred years earlier, complex disputes about the nature of Christ had led to a rupture between the Catholic/Orthodox and Eastern ‘Oriental’ Churches following the Council of Chalcedon in 451.
And even the moment seen as the start of the schism was infact just the latest step in what was a growing gap between east and west.
The Bull of Excommunication was the not so much the cause, but rather the symptom, of the difficulties which had been gradually unfolding over time.
Both the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches organise their spiritual officers into three main categories: deacons at the bottom followed by priests and then bishops.
The biggest difference between the two churches is the status of the Roman Catholic Pope.
The Bishop of Rome was very early in Christian history given a position of honour based on the city’s significance and history. But while the Orthodox are happy to recognise the Pope, they reject his supremacy over the Church as a whole, and the suggestion that the Pope’s decisions on religious matters are ‘infallible’ and binding for all Christians.
During the second millennium, the Roman Catholic Church developed an intensely centralised concept of spiritual authority, but the Orthodox Church has always tolerated greater independence. It is made up of a number of effectively self-governing churches. The Patriarch of Constantinople for instance, has no direct jurisdiction over the other Patriarchs.
The Roman Catholic Church’s beliefs are neatly contained in a single-volume document known as the Catechism. The same is not true for the Eastern church.
Nevertheless, both adhere to decisions made by the first Seven Ecumenical Councils which united the leaders of the Church between 325 and 787 to agree key principals such as:
- The three forms of God – “The Father” in heaven, “The Son, Jesus Christ” who came to earth returned to heaven and “The Holy Spirit” which is God’s presence everywhere
- The ability of Jesus Christ to be divine and human at the same time
- The special status of Mary as the mother of God
- The use of icons in worship.
However, Roman Catholics and Orthodox disagree on the nature of the relationship of the Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son.
They also have different understandings of the meaning of Easter, the festival marking the death and resurrected of Jesus Christ. For Roman Catholics, Jesus saved man and allowed him to reach heaven by paying the price for sin through his death by crucifiction.
For the Orthodox, salvation is achieved by Christ’s triumph over death in the Resurrection. As a result, Greek art, unlike Western art doesn’t fixate on the figure of the bleeding, crucified Christ.
The richness of the spiritual practices of the Western and Eastern Churches nearly defy categorisation. Nevertheless, certain customary differences stand out.
While Roman Catholics tend to use statues to represent the saints, the Orthodox Church has a rich iconographic or pictorial tradition.
Roman Catholics tend to kneel in prayer while Orthodox worshippers usually stand.
In Roman Catholic Churches, unleavened bread (made without yeast) is used in church rituals, while leavened bread is employed by the Orthodox Church.
The latter permits married priests but western Catholic priests are required to remain single and abstain from sexual relations.
Until 1923, all eastern churches used the ‘Old’ Julian Calendar (introduced by Julius Caesar in 45 BC) which is at present runs 13 days behind the ‘New’ Roman Catholic calendar (introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582). This meant that the West and East celebrated church feasts such as Christmas and Epiphany on different dates. Many Orthodox Churches have since adopted the new calendar, which means that the feasts now coincide except for Easter which they still calculate according to the old calendar. Accordingly, Orthodox and Roman Catholic Easters may be celebrated up to five weeks apart.
Spiritually and theologically, far more unites the Western and Eastern Churches than divides. Through the centuries, numerous attempts have been made to unite them and these efforts are likely to continue through the third millennium.
By Mark Bratton