A Church Without Schism II- The Oneness of the Saving Message

What would the life of a hierarch who embraced the New Testament call to maintain the One Body of the Church look like? One could do no better than to emulate the example of Athenagoras I. He represented the communion of the Eastern Orthodox Churches as Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople from 1948 until his death in 1972 (memory eternal!). It was he who joined with Pope Paul VI in 1965 to lift the mutual anathemas that had been wrongfully issued in 1054 A.D. 1964 marked the end of the formal break between the particular institutions of the Vatican and the Phanar. Though the anathemas were lifted, the consequences that rend the entire body of Christ of course live on. But they live on in spite of the efforts of Athenagoras I:

“He was meek, ascetic, tolerant of others, patient, physically as strong as iron, persevering, never yielding to outside influences, prophetic in his visions, a man of prayer, intelligent, and able as a pastor to confront extremely delicate storms and violent oppositions…

“The dangerous tendency to overemphasize differences and to compare traditions and approaches, concluding that the differences are insuperable, is ever present. But Athenagoras was against making such comparisons. He was convinced that, on the whole, Orthodox and non-Orthodox hold the same views on basic issues of Christian faith and live the same Christian experience. East and West are not as divergent as some would believe. Traces of eastern thought can be found in the western mind, and western influence discovered in the East. There is an interpenetration which causes all believers in Christ to face the same spiritual realities. Athenagoras was not just patriarch of a limited See: he belonged to the whole oikoumene. In fact, it was his vision that the whole of Christendom should see the oneness of the saving message of the Gospel through the same eyes. The legacy left to us is to follow his example of seeing with the eyes of Christ in order to ensure that the obstacles to unity do not prove stronger than the will to unite.”

– From a review of the book, A MAN SENT BY GOD: THE LIFE OF PATRIARCH ATHENAGORAS OF CONSTANTINOPLE, by DEMETRIOS TSAKONAS. Brookline, Mass.: Holy Cross Orthodox Press, 1977

A Church Without Schism I- 1054 A.D. is No More

In early summer months of 1054 A.D., papal legates who represented a dead Pope (Leo IX, who expired not long after dispatching them) and a pharisaical Patriarch of Constantinople (Michael Cerularius) issued mutual anathemas and excommunications after weeks of petty bickering and blustering, much of it of a personal nature. The issues behind the catfight might have been weighty, but the triumph of egotism and invective over Christian charity and reasoned dissention was a moment of great triumph for the forces of darkness.

Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI

Patriarch Athenagoras and Pope Paul VI

Because it was a moment in history that crystallized the tensions between the apostolic Churches, our “Discovery Channel/Reader’s Digest” (pick your generation) approach to history asserts that the separation of the undivided Church of the First Thousand Years can be marked at that point.

Not really. Few churchmen of that era saw it as such. Serious efforts at reunification did not end with that event. In fact, the Great Schism of 1054 itself was laid to rest in December 1965. Pope Paul VI and Ecumenical Patriarch Athenagoras I met and rescinded the specific excommunications issued by their dubious representatives in the 11th century.

Surprised? Does much of anything look different on the ground between the apostolic churches since the removal of the anathemas?  Why do so many of the consequences of the schism remain unresolved over forty years later?

The New Testament call for unity could not be clearer; it was the focus of the last lessons of Christ as written in John’s Gospel.

Our own hardness of heart maintains our continued division. How would we act if we really believed that the barriers that divide the apostolic churches don’t reach all the way to Heaven?