Friday, August 14, 2009

Question about the Great Schism


I am reading Robert Letham's book Through Western Eyes: Eastern Orthodoxy: A Reformed Perspective right now and it is has raised a few questions in my mind. I'll post my questions here so that those more knowledgable than I can hopefully point the way forward to some answers.
I am uneasy about the presence of such a large and ancient portion of Christendom that I am out of communion with. But this raises an important question: in what sense can we even meaningfully speak about Eastern Orthodoxy being out of communion with the Western Church? After all, there have been significant ecumenical meetings between Popes and Patriarchs of Constantinople which have included a lifting of previous excommunications. The most recent meeting was between Benedict XVI and Bartholomew I, who signed the Common Declaration which stated that "We give thanks to the Author of all that is good, who allows us once again, in prayer and in dialogue, to express the joy we feel as brothers and to renew our commitment to move towards full communion".
When I asked an Eastern Orthodox brother about this he said that Constantinople was acting as an aberrant congregation when they did this. However, given that the various Pentarchy in the East have a relationship that is primus inter pares rather than hierarchical, and that each main Orthodox communion is autocephalous, by what criteria can we claim that Constantinople did not represent Orthodoxy? If they were violating the decrees of an ecumenical council it would be a different matter, but there never has (to my knowledge) been a formal severing of communion with the West on the part of the East. The altercation of 1054 (known subsequently and somewhat anachronistically as the "Great Schism") was largely personal and did not, at the time, represent a full scale separation of the Western and Eastern branches of Christendom. The two branches remained in intermittent communion after that and only fell out of communion gradually. As far as I can make out, there never was a point when the East and West corporately and officially stopped being in communion. Now this is crucial because it raises the question: if the separation between the East and the West was gradual, non-corporate and never formalized, then re-assuming communion could also be gradual, non-corporate and non-formalized. But if so, then on what basis can we claim that the liberal ecumenical strains of Orthodoxy are anachronistic?

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