958 years ago, on this day – July 6, 1054 – Cardinal Humbert excommunicated the Patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius, under the authority of Pope Leo IX. The Patriarch followed this with excommunications of Cardinal Humbert and his delegation, and strongly criticizing many practices of the western church – criticisms that had in part given rise to this event, and partly a long running disagreement with Rome over what sort of power the Pope had. Roman practices, such as using unleavened bread in the Eucharist, forbidding their priests to marry, official use of the filioque in the Nicene Creed and the Pope’s claims to authority over the church were all things that the East found objectionable.
In 1965, the Ecumenical Patriarch and Pope rescinded these excommunications, but this is little more than a belated show of good will. The excommunications of 1054 did not immediately break the church in two and in fact were not seen of great consequence for church unity at the time. Popes and Patriarchs had disagreed before, yet after this event the rift between Pope and the Patriarchs of the East continued to grow especially following the barbaric fourth Crusade which ravaged Constantinople and resulted in the forcible introduction of the Roman church to that area and many Eastern treasures being shipped off to Western churches, where they can still be seen today.
History is not something many Christians spend a lot of time thinking about, beyond the history of the Bible. Specifically in Protestant circles, very little connects us to the history of the church. I think I grew up with some vague notion that we were Christians, and there were other Christians, but I had no idea where they’d come from. I progressed to the idea that there had been a church that Jesus had founded, but it got off track rather quickly and really wasn’t worth thinking about. My denomination was the best representation of the way Christianity ought to be – though if you asked me to justify that, I probably couldn’t have. But history is worth thinking about.
Our roots are not in the 16th century reformation and 95 theses nailed on a church door in Wittenburg. Nor are they in a book called The Institutes of the Christian Religion. They’re in the Bible, in the works of Jesus Christ and his apostles in the New Testament. And in the church that he founded – a church now shattered into thousands of competing and conflicting groups. We can’t get away from history so easily by simply dismissing it as ‘the time of the Catholic church.’ Martin Luther was a faithful member of that church until the Reformation, and his questions and doctrines were shaped by that history. So was John Calvin. Both of them relied on church tradition and history for some of their arguments. And today, we continue to make use of doctrines like the trinity (trinitas) and things like the canon of scripture and the Nicene Creed… fruits of our unbroken history, right back to Christ and his apostles.
Our legacy as “Western” Christians (even Protestants) includes this little bit of tragedy, the Great Schism of 1054. It’s one of those things that still affects our faith today, and yet something we either don’t think about or offload the responsibility to another church or another time. When it comes to this particular episode of history, we need to be responsible and admit we botched the job, and are botching the job, so long as we can look at other Christians and believe them genuine Christians and yet not worship with them. What’s the solution? I don’t know. But Jesus is praying for us, and it’s worth thinking about.
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one – I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity.” – Jesus, John 17:20-23a (NIV)