The Thousand Year Tiff

November 24, 2003

Surely the weirdest quirk of European history has to be the argument in the Body of Christ that has split Europe for a thousand years!

In “The Clash of Civilizations”, Samuel Huntington makes much of this fault line which will shadow much of the border of the expanded European Union when ten new states join next year. Starting at the Baltic nations, it runs down through the western parts of Belarus, the Ukraine, and Romania, dividing Croatia from Serbia, and bisecting Bosnia right through Sarajevo.

To the west lies the Latin-based culture of Catholicism and Protestantism, and to the east the Greek-based culture of Orthodoxy. The division dates back to the fourth century, when Constantine divided his empire into east and west for administrative reasons. Rome of course was his western capital. Humble man that he was, he named his new eastern capital, Constantinople, today’s Istanbul.

Over the following centuries, rivalry developed between Rome and Constantinople as to which centre was really the most important. (In the footsteps of the disciples?) Tensions already emerged in the ecumenical councils of Nicea in 325 and Constantinople in 381, and developed over time around issues including celibacy and the wearing of beards. Orthodox believers came to consider Constantinople, not Rome, the Second Jerusalem.

Things came to an abrupt head on the 16th of July 1054 when the legate of Pope Leo IX in Rome slapped a papal bull excommunicating the Orthodox Patriarch on the altar of Saint Sophia, (the Sofia Mosque of Istanbul today), right in the middle of a celebration. Constantinople responded tit for tat by excommunicating the “Latins”.

But here’s the bizarre bit. The tiff directly leading to the resulting Great Schism was disagreement about whether the Spirit was sent by the Father and the Son, or by the Father through the Son.

Now I realise this is a hot issue for us all and I don’t mean to provoke an avalanche of emotional emails defending one side or other of the issue!! Just kidding – frankly, we struggle to even understand what the big deal was! The theological nuances are lost on most of us over the distance of a thousand years.
But here I kid you not: this was the argument among those claiming to represent the Body of Christ which has left a deep, ugly scar on European history ever since. This dispute created the background to much Crusader violence starting in the eleventh century through to the outbreak of the First World War, the Cold War and the Bosnian war in the twentieth century.

What a scandal!!

Reciprocal excommunications were only lifted during Vatican II in 1965 by Pope Paul VI and the Patriarch Athenagoras. In May 1999, John Paul II became the first pope in a thousand years to celebrate mass with an Orthodox leader, the Metropolitan of Romania.

Surely the continued existence of this fault line should stir us to want to do something, however small, to heal this rift. Think of it! While Jesus had taught that the mark of his followers should be right relationships – love for God and for each other – from the Nicean Council onward, true orthodoxy was measured by doctrinal agreement, regardless of relationships. This is unfortunately still often true even in our evangelical circles!

So how should we evangelicals respond to this great divide? Of course, what we believe does matter. But should we simply assume that we as evangelicals have everything to offer and nothing to receive when it comes to relating to believers of these older, eastern traditions? Is our task really simply to transplant western-style fellowships, singing latest Hillsong music and Matt Redman songs, translated into Slavic languages? Are we just franchising McChurches in a form of spiritual globalisation? In our mission work in eastern Europe are we to assume that we wipe the slate clean of the past and import products of modern western life? Is the best we can hope for an alternative spirituality on the fringe of society, or dare we dream somehow to influence the mainstream of Orthodox and eastern Christian spirituality?

On recent trips through Russia and the Caucasus, I’ve wondered how we can tap into the rich vein of spirituality and devotion that developed over centuries and survived seventy years of communist suppression. In Georgia, a country known more for corruption than spirituality, I was nevertheless impressed by the deep grass-roots devotion expressed each time we would pass a church building in public transportation, when many of the passengers would cross themselves three times – working men, school kids and babushkas alike. I have written before about the sensitive spirituality I have encountered in Armenia, tempered by centuries of suffering. I have also written about the Coptic oases in the western desert of Egypt, the source of a movement of spiritual life that flowered into the monastic mission movement largely responsible for evangelising Europe. (see WW 20.05.02, WW 27.05.02 & WW 19.06.02)

For many of us, Russia may seem a grey, colourless cultural product of two generations of Communist atheism. Yet perhaps we need to think of her as a fresco that has been painted over and in need of careful restoration. Last weekend I was taken to the Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow with its outstanding collection of Russian art, starting with icons from the 12th century through to magnificent canvasses painted right up to the revolution of 1917. Surely art galleries reveal the soul of a nation! How much the story of Jesus has shaped Russia’s past was evident from so many of these paintings.

I was moved by one particular painting by M.V. Nesterov, called ‘In Russia. The Soul of the People’, depicting a collective image of Russia searching for God, painted on the eve of the Revolution. It showed a procession along the banks of the River Volga led by a young peasant boy, personifying the future Russia. The tsar, the metropolitan, a monk, a woman representing the Bride of Christ, a naked fool-in-Christ (a characteristic figure in Russian history), a soldier blinded by gas in the World War raging at the time, and the recognizable figures of novelists Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, were all part of the large crowd. But hardly had the paint dried on this particular creation before the red curtain fell across Russia. That peasant youth never had the chance to become all the artist had envisaged.

The painting does remind us however that before the Revolution stretch centuries of spiritual heritage. How much common ground can we find there? To what degree do some of the icons reflect an understanding of spiritual warfare lost to much of the modern rationalistic western church? Can we detect the Holy Spirit at work somewhere in these traditions? What can we learn and what can we offer as evangelical believers to these ancient Christian traditions?

I don’t have easy answers for these questions. Perhaps its not so important to have the right answer to the question about how the Spirit was sent. What is important however is the faithful witness to how the Son was sent. Jesus said that our love for each other would tell the world he had been sent from the Father. That’s why we need to look at these questions.

So next week I’ll tell you about a consultation next February where we want to explore these issues.

Till then,

Jeff Fountain

Till next week,

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