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summer’s afternoon in 1054, after testy exchanges with the Patriarch of
Constantinople, the Pope’s representative, Cardinal Humbert, entered the city’s
main place of worship, Hagia Sophia, placed a document on the altar, and then
left quickly. The document was a Bull of Excommunication, expelling the
recipients from the church and thereby denying them a route to heaven. This
dramatic gesture is widely taken to mark the beginning of the ‘Great Schism’,
the moment when the previously ‘undivided’ Church was split and Eastern
Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism were born.
of course, is more complicated than this. At the end of the first millennium,
the unity of the Church was already broken. Five hundred years earlier, complex
disputes about the nature of Christ had led to a rupture between the
Catholic/Orthodox and Eastern ‘Oriental’ Churches following the Council of
Chalcedon in 451.
even the moment seen as the start of the schism was infact just the latest step
in what was a growing gap between east and west.
Bull of Excommunication was the not so much the cause, but rather the symptom,
of the difficulties which had been gradually unfolding over time.
the Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Churches organise their spiritual
officers into three main categories: deacons at the bottom followed by priests
and then bishops.
biggest difference between the two churches is the status of the Roman Catholic
Bishop of Rome was very early in Christian history given a position of honour
based on the city’s significance and history. But while the Orthodox are happy
to recognise the Pope, they reject his supremacy over the Church as a whole,
and the suggestion that the Pope’s decisions on religious matters are
‘infallible’ and binding for all Christians.
the second millennium, the Roman Catholic Church developed an intensely
centralised concept of spiritual authority, but the Orthodox Church has always
tolerated greater independence. It is made up of a number of effectively
self-governing churches. The Patriarch of Constantinople for instance, has no
direct jurisdiction over the other Patriarchs.
Roman Catholic Church’s beliefs are neatly contained in a single-volume
document known as the Catechism. The same is not true for the Eastern church.
both adhere to decisions made by the first Seven Ecumenical Councils which
united the leaders of the Church between 325 and 787 to agree key principals
three forms of God – “The Father” in heaven, “The Son, Jesus Christ” who came
to earth returned to heaven and “The Holy Spirit” which is God’s presence
ability of Jesus Christ to be divine and human at the same time
special status of Mary as the mother of God
use of icons in worship.
Roman Catholics and Orthodox disagree on the nature of the relationship of the
Holy Spirit to the Father and the Son.
also have different understandings of the meaning of Easter, the festival
marking the death and reincarnation of Jesus Christ. For Roman Catholics, Jesus
saved man and allowed him to reach heaven by paying the price for sin through
his death by crucifiction.
the Orthodox, salvation is achieved by Christ’s triumph over death in the
Resurrection. As a result, Greek art, unlike Western art doesn’t fixate on the
figure of the bleeding, crucified Christ.
richness of the spiritual practices of the Western and Eastern Churches nearly
defy categorisation. Nevertheless, certain customary differences stand out.
Roman Catholics tend to use statues to represent the saints, the Orthodox
Church has a rich iconographic or pictorial tradition.
Catholics tend to kneel in prayer while Orthodox worshippers usually stand.
Roman Catholic Churches, unleavened bread (made without yeast) is used in
church rituals, while leavened bread is employed by the Orthodox Church.
permits married priests but western Catholic priests are required to remain
single and abstain from sexual relations.
1923, all eastern churches used the ‘Old’ Julian Calendar (introduced by Julius
Caesar in 45 BC) which is at present runs 13 days behind the ‘New’ Roman
Catholic calendar (introduced by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582). This meant that
the West and East celebrated church feasts such as Christmas and Epiphany on
different dates. Many Orthodox Churches have since adopted the new calendar,
which means that the feasts now coincide except for Easter which they still
calculate according to the old calendar. Accordingly, Orthodox and Roman
Catholic Easters may be celebrated up to five weeks apart.
and theologically, far more unites the Western and Eastern Churches than
divides. Through the centuries, numerous attempts have been made to unite them
and these efforts are likely to continue through the third millennium.