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The Great Schism

Watch Week Two Day Four

A Church Split

As we mentioned yesterday, language was one of the many factors that led to the Great Schism, the breakup between the Greek-speaking Eastern and Latin-speaking Western parts of the church in 1054. It did not help matters, then, that Cardinal Humbert, the delegate whom Pope Leo IX had sent to Constantinople to try to smooth things over between the two traditions, hadn’t bothered to learn Greek. As you might guess, Humbert’s conversations there didn’t end well.
On a summer afternoon in 1054, the moment in the church service that is supposed to put our unity on display instead became the moment of its division. After gathering to celebrate communion at Hagia Sophia, the main church building in Constantinople, Humbert placed a declaration of excommunication—an official document from the pope that declared someone to be outside of the faith—on the altar by the bread and wine and stormed out. He even shook the dust from his feet and spoke the words “Let God look and judge.” A distressed cardinal ran out with the document and begged him to take it back, but Humbert refused. It was dropped in the street.

The Split Today

While every member of the church claims to be orthodox in the lower-case sense of the word—that is, adhering to traditional belief—the Eastern church today is known as the Eastern Orthodox Church or Orthodox Catholic Church. It includes about fifteen distinct churches (such as Greek Orthodox) based mostly in Eastern Europe. It still preserves a unique tradition with emphases that distinguish it from the Western church. For example, while through the Middle Ages the Western church tended to focus on Christ’s atonement, the Orthodox tradition still places more weight on His incarnation. It’s as God incarnate that Jesus restores the image, or icon, of God in humanity that was tarnished by the fall.

Sadly, because we still live in the aftermath of the Great Schism, many of us in the West are ignorant of the Eastern tradition. Since the Great Schism, Eastern churches have largely remained isolated from the wider family of faith across the globe. Those of us in the West often suffer from a tunnel vision that causes us to overlook the larger family of which we are a part. At our worst, we can even think that our way of being the church in the world is the only “right” way.


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Anno Domini

Daily Question

How should we make sense of Jesus’ prayer for the church to be one (John 17) in light of our divided history?

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