After I became convinced by the historical claims of Christianity concerning the person of Jesus, I started looking for a church to call my own and as I did, I quickly became confused by the disorienting variety of teachings and practices among different denominations and this forced me to confront questions about the divisions that exist within Christianity.
I started studying Church history and I quickly narrowed my focus to the division between Catholicism and Protestantism. Eastern Orthodoxy didn’t, at that time, register as a contender for one very simple reason.
I’m an English speaking white dude in a British commonwealth country.
There is a universality to Catholicism that doesn’t exist in the Eastern Orthodox churches. For me to become Eastern Orthodox, I’d have to join a Church with a very specific ethnic or national identity.
When people ask me why I’m not Eastern Orthodox, I’m tempted to get into a theological throw down, but the easiest way to answer that is by pointing out that I’m not Russian, Ukrainian, Greek, or any other ethnicity that the Eastern churches in the city I live in serve.
A point of contention at all the major divisions in Christianity has been the focus on authority. So, the East-West split focused on the authority of the Pope vs. other bishops and patriarchs. The protestant reformation was about the authority of the Church and the Pope vs. the exclusive authority of scripture, and the English Reformation was about the authority of the Pope vs. the authority of the King. So, as you might guess, authority, how it’s defined, and where it resides, seems like a pretty essential component of the faith.
So in the case of the East-West schism, there were a number of controversies that they were stuck on, but arguably, the most significant one was the disagreement over the authority of the bishop of Rome vs. that of the other patriarchs and bishops. Rome insisted that the bishop of Rome had a unique and universal authority over the entire Church, without which there would be no universal Church, as inherited from the authority of Peter. The Eastern Orthodox side was arguing that the bishop of Rome was a first among equals but only in an honorific way which meant that he had the same authority as the other patriarchs. So that was their position going into the controversy. OK, how true were they to their positions after the controversy had led to an actual division and schism? Well, the West still maintained the conviction that the bishop of Rome had a universal authority over the whole Church. But the East, did not continue to treat the Bishop of Rome as a first among equals. In fact, they excommunicated him which seems like a clear violation of their own claim that no autocephalous patriarch has authority over another. The honor of first among equals has since been designated to the Patriarch of Constantinople.
Jesus wanted his followers to be one as a sign of his divinity to the world. Between East and West, from what little I know of it’s history, I only have ever seen major attempts from the West to realize that unity. Through the councils of Lyon and Florence, the East’s bishops conceded Rome’s position on Papal Supremacy, the Filioque, and purgatory, but the unity that was struck fell apart when the Eastern delegates went home and succumbed to political pressure there.
Rome has always been the initiator of ecumenical dialogue, from what I’ve seen. It was at the first Vatican Council that the mutual excommunications of 1054 were lifted. It was the second Vatican council that made ecumenism a high priority for the Church moving forward which paved the way for the joint theological commission of East and West.
It was Pope John Paul II and Pope Benedict XVI who recited the Nicene Creed with Eastern patriarchs without the filioque. It was the bishop of Rome who first visited the East. It wasn’t until 1995 when the Patriarch of Constantinople finally visited Rome.