The year was 1054 CE, the date to which the “Great Schism” is traditionally ascribed.
It must have felt like the kind of separation that could one day be bridged again (and really, would be bridged again, because it was THE Church, wasn’t it?). It must have felt like the most important thing, to preserve doctrine above all else. It must have felt worth it.
To make a very long story short, a bull of excommunication was issued from Pope Leo IX to Patriarch Michael Cerularius of Constantinople via a representative, who was sent to the Hagia Sophia to settle the disagreement. In turn, the Patriarch excommunicated the Pope, resulting in a stand-off that lasted for more than 900 years, until Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI lifted the mutual excommunications in 1965.
The issues prompting such a schism were many and varied, not the least of which was the geographic distance that separated East from West. The distance resulted in poor communication and one-sided decisions made by the Pope in the West. The popes’ insistence on papal preeminence left no room for the authority of patriarchs. As a result, Pope and Patriarch rarely interacted well.
The distance also produced divergent theology and doctrine. The Church in the East disagreed with Western inclusion of the Son in the creedal procession of the Holy Spirit. They also protested Western clerical celibacy, the issuing of confirmation only by the bishop, and the use of unleavened bread in the Eucharist.
What few accounts of the East-West Schism mention is the fact that many in the Church believed the mutual excommunication was only temporary. Although the separation only seemed to grow over time, there was no reason to imagine this break would become permanent. Hope for a reunited Church was there, taking root underneath bulls of excommunication and doctrinal debate.
And then the unthinkable happened.
In 1204, during the 4th of the Crusades (which in themselves marked a kind of unbelievable inhumanity infiltrating the Church), an army of Crusaders sacked the city of Constantinople, looting, raping, pillaging, murdering. Although the exact number is unknown, historians estimate thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people lost their lives. Countless others were made refugees, searching for a new place to call home after surviving the destruction of their city.
Although this was not the Pope’s intention, it solidified the split. And how could it not? Despite the mutual excommunications, there had been hope. Even if the two churches never found their way back into being the Church, at least there was fellowship in Christ! At least there was common human decency.
But this was too much. Christian men killing men, women and children in the name of Christ, killing not only those of other religions but even their sisters and brothers in Christ… it was the heaviest last straw to ever break the camel’s back.
Further attempts from the West to reconcile were always refused by the East. Until 1965, East and West remained completely separate, unable and unwilling to reunite. Even still today, despite recent moves toward reconciliation, the atmosphere remains tense. Forgiveness was a long time coming. There are some wounds that, although healed, leave scars that cannot be ignored.
As I spent the past nine months studying the full two-thousand-year timeline of Church history, different professors explained the importance of such historical study to me in different ways. Although I appreciated these attempts at rationalizing such a rigorous course, I didn’t really need to hear it. I already knew why it was important.
As with all history, the study of Church history is vital because it reveals to us the mistakes of the Church’s past, the mistakes of our past. Some of these mistakes were rectified in a matter of months. Others required the label of ‘heretic’ to be sorted out. Others took hundreds of years to fix. And still others extend to this very day, with hurt and anguish and heartbreak too deep and too wide to cover over and forget.
A careful assessment of the modern Western Protestant church would reveal an atmosphere much like that of the Church just before the Great Schism.
The recent drama at Duke Divinity, made public by an outside party and picked up by the Times, revealed to me (as a student) and to many others that even – or perhaps especially – places of preparation for ministry are not exempt from such polarization.
The recent council held by the United Methodist Church brought out the worst in both sides. The word ‘schism’ has been thrown around for several years now, and even still it is sharp like a broken shard of glass as it pierces my ears and sinks into my heart.
United Methodist. Schism.
Like many others, I find myself on one side of these debates. Many people whom I love and respect stand with me, and many people whom I love and respect face me from the other side.
I’ve read what each side has to say, and about how those in the middle feel stretched and exhausted, holding together two jagged edges that are fighting to separate.
I’ve read a call for the other to return to “holiness” and “sound theology”, a call that deeply wounded me and no doubt many others. The implications, while perhaps well-meaning, are clear: my side is correct, yours is not. Your theology is incorrect; your choice is unholy.
To both sides, I would pose this question: would a person on the other side, a person who is another disciple with whom you share Christ’s body, intentionally choose to pursue what was unholy, what was theologically irresponsible?
No. Of course not. That is the problem, isn’t it? Both sides believe theirs is the side of holiness, the side of God.
However, both sides (including the one I find myself on) err in this way: to believe we have the essence of God boiled down to our theology, to our political ideology, to our identity, even, is the most fatal of Christian errors. To believe we fully and completely stand with God, that we understand the entirety of God’s identity and intention and can therefore speak on God’s behalf, is naïve and foolish. And – although we would deny the truth of this statement, and perhaps scoff at the ridiculousness of it – to believe God is enslaved to our desires and expectations is a dire error, one that has been made since the beginning of time, and certainly since the birth of the Church.
The question remains: how do we fix this? Where do we go from here? Do we, like the Church of the 11th century, cut our losses, close up shop, go our separate ways, and dare to hope for a time when old wounds might someday be healed?
While my brain sees this as one of the few viable solutions left to pursue, my heart itself begins to split in two at the very mention of it. History repeats itself. We are not to the point of excommunication yet, but I fear we are well on our way.
It follows that not long after that breaking point comes the siege, the sack, the looting, raping, pillaging and plundering which will seal the deal. The only difference is that our church cannot survive 900 years of horrified gasps, cold shoulders and broken hearts.
In order to keep from erring in the same way I have described, I will simply speak from my own perspective.
The God I know is unified from eternity, and is somehow three in one and one in three and God and Jesus and Spirit all at once.
The God I know can’t wait for liberation, and hardens hearts and softens them as necessary to ensure freedom.
The God I know doesn’t stand at a distance but breaks into the world in the form of an infant, and grows into a man who dies for the salvation of the whole world.
The God I know makes friends among the least, the last and the lost, and brings about a new covenant for all people.
The God I know makes promises of the very best kind, and looks ahead to the day when God’s home will be made on the new earth, and where there will be no death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.
It is to this promise of the God I know that I look. It is for this peaceful unity that my soul longs.
But until then, friends, there is much work to do.
I wonder if Pope Leo IX and Patriarch Cerularious would have done anything differently if they could have somehow looked out over the next 900 years of division that their actions sparked. Even though it must have felt like the kind of separation that could one day be bridged again, even though it must have felt like the most important thing, even though it must have felt like it was worth it, I like to think they might have tried a little harder to preserve the unity their actions trampled upon. I like to think those 900 years would instead have been spent constructing bridges instead of walls, building up instead of tearing down.
Here’s the thing: even if their actions had been unifying rather than divisive, now, nearly 1000 years later, 900 of which were spent in radio silence, I imagine there would still be a struggle to preserve that unity. Just like the human race is ever growing and evolving, so scripture and the Church are living… that is, growing and evolving. Growth means change, and change means difference, and difference means disagreement. It is the story of the Garden. It is part of the human condition. It is who we are.
I believe that until the very end, there will always be ways we can find to separate ourselves. There will always be polarizing issues. There will always be sides, and accusations, and heartbreak.
But I also believe that the Holy Spirit will always be working. I believe that, although the future of the United Methodist Church (and perhaps the Western Church as a whole [despite the fact that in many places outside of the West around the world, the Church is thriving and growing!]) is bleak, not only is it possible, but it is our calling – our very namesake – to stick together, to continue to be one body with one Spirit, called to the one hope of the one Lord, to one faith, to one baptism, to the one God of all, who is over all and in all and through all.
No one said it would be easy. In fact, the Apostle Paul seemed to think it was going to be very hard, so much so that he spent much of his time writing letters full of practical advice to the earliest churches who even then struggled to stay together. As much as we love to quote the glamorous Paul of Romans 8 or Philippians 2, we also have to read the leave-no-stone-unturned Paul, who reveals the greatest flaws of Christian communal life and nags until someone fixes them. Perhaps these are the verses we need to be reading now more than ever.
I’m not going to pretend like I have the answers. I’m a twenty-three year old pastor wanna-be. Of course I don’t know how to fix this.
What I do know is that it won’t be easy. It may take 900 years, and another 900 after that, and another 900 after that. But it will be worth it.
I don’t know about you, but I can’t imagine anything more worthy of hundreds of years of struggle and strife and contention than unity in the Body of Christ.
You are one body and one spirit, just as God also called you in one hope. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, and one God and Father of all, who is over all, through all, and in all.
– Ephesians 4:4-6
Grace and peace,