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Orthodox, and Otherwise

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I’m having a reasonably good morning.

You can always tell my good mornings, because I’m not listening to Beethoven–or Yardbird–at six a.m.

If I’m listening to something even less plausible at six a.m.–say, Mingus at Town Hall–the world has probably come to an end, and you can just shoot me.

This morning, however, I am listening to Paul O’Dette’s Alla Venetiana, which is a collection of 16th century pieces for the lute.  Paul O’Dette is the guy to go to for lute, or at least that’s how my children would put it.

Anyway, 16th century lute music is very subdued, at least as this album plays it, and that’s nice for just getting up and not quite having the caffeine in me to face the day.

In fact, lute music is so subdued and the caffeine arrived with such alacrity that I’m not even going to have a snit fit here about all those comments delineating the difference between reading “intellectually” and otherwise.

I, also, get lost in fiction–very lost.  I identify with characters, even ones I don’t write. 

Reading remains an activity of the mind.  And if you want to see me lose my emotional connection to a book, assuming I had one to begin with, just throw a sex scene into it.

All that said–I have just started to read a book I bought some time ago on the assumption that it was something else.

The book is called The Art of the Renaissance, and it is a collection of essays on Renaissance art and architecture by a collection of authors I know nothing about.  It’s edited by a man named Rulf Tomin, and it was published originally in Germany.

The reason I said that I bought this book on the assumption that it was something else is this:  I saw it online, not in a store, and it was priced at $5.99.

At this point I made an assumption that I probably shouldn’t have made.  Since the book cost only $5.99, I thought it must be, say, a pamphlet on Renaissance art–something small and easy to handle that I could take around in the car with me and bring to class to read when students were taking quizzes.

What arrived instead was this enormous, heavy, hardcover coffee-table sized book, the kind of art book that would normally cost upwards of $50 and that is always too heavy and unwieldy to take around with me. 

I put it to the side and chose more practically-sized volumes for going to and from class.

And then, as often happens, I just forgot about it, until about a week ago.  My semester was coming to an end, I’d just finished a book, and it occurred to me that this would be a good time to read this thing.  The pictures are gorgeous, the essays sounded interesting, and I didn’t have to take it anywhere if I didn’t want to.

The first essay in this book is the introduction, written by the editor.  It doesn’t do much except give an overview of the essays that follow, and try to establish a timeline for “the Renaissance.”

The book then begins with an essay by a professor named Alick McLean, an expert in the history of architecture in the late Middle Ages, and apparently an American with a doctorate in architecture from Princeton.

I was more than a little cautious when I started to read this thing, because the introduction described the piece as being about how the architecture of the late Middle Ages was “propagandistic” in aid of Papal Imperial power.

In general, I don’t find this kind of thing either helpful or particularly interesting.  Everything is Politics hasn’t done much to help explain the world.  If anything,  it has made the world less and less clear, and made human life look completely incoherent.

But I’m not going to go into this kind of thing at the moment.  I have only started to read the piece, and although I’ve been wincing at yet another casual misuse of the word “theocratic,” I may find by the time I finish it that it’s less tendentious than I suppose.

So we’ll let that go.

What got me worked up this morning was something else–it was the statement, thrown away without elaboration or citation, that the Protestant Reformation broke the hegemony of Rome over Christendom.

Okay.  I’ll admit it.

This is not the kind of thing that people spend their time being annoyed about at six o’clock in the morning.

But for those of you who don’t know, the name on my birth certificate is…well, Greek.

I’m not Greek–that is, I was born in the US, as were both my parents, and I could not more function in Athens without committing mayhem (especially now) than I could train a bunny to sing opera.

Nevertheless, to the extent that I had any religion in my upbringing at all, that religion was Greek Orthodox. 

And, feeding into that, there is the fact that I am continually driven crazy by the Enlightenment narrative of the history of the world–the way the Catholic Church oppressed us all until Brave Scientists and Protestants threw off their shackles and Broke Free into the world of reason and objectivity…

You know the one.

But, as I’ve said, that isn’t my problem this morning.

My problem is this:  the Protestant Reformation did not break the hegemony of Rome over Christendom.

Rome never had hegemony over Christendom, just as it doesn’t have it now. 

There was never a time–and the operative word is “never”–when the Pope was the leader of all Christians and the reigned over all the Church in all its manifestations.

This may seem like a minor point, but it really is not.  It’s impossible to understand all kinds of things–the Crusades, the Protestant Reformation itself–without first understanding that the Bishop of Rome’s claim to be in authority over all the other bishops on earth was uncompromisingly rejected by most Christian bishops, then as it is now.

The Bishop of Rome, by the way, is the Pope’s official title. 

And that’s how we get into this mess.

If you read a history of what’s called “the Greek Schism,” what you’d probably get is an account of what’s called the “filioque controversy.”

I’m not going to go into all that here, but in capsule: in 1054, the bishops of the Christian Churches of the East, declared anathema on the Christian Churches of the West, because the Pope (the Bishop of Rome) added the phrase “filioque” to the Nicene Creed.  After that, the two sides stopped talking to each other for nearly a millennium.

The Nicene Creed had been agreed to by a Council of Christian bishops in 431.  Adding or subtracting from it would have been a major issue even if it had been done in the ordinary way, by a Council of all (or nearly all) the bishops.

In this case, the phrase–which means “and the son” and which was added to the line explaining that the Holy Ghost “proceeds from the Father,” so that in the changed version the Holy Ghost “proceeds from the Father and the Son”–

Anyway,  in this case, the phrase was added by Rome alone, and Rome then declared its authority to so determine doctrine for the entire church.

Okay, so this sounds like what we’ve got now, and it is–Rome has spoken, the issue is decided.

And it is, in fact, what we’ve got now, in the West.  To use my husband’s childhood capsule explanation:  The Pope is the boss of the Bishop, the Bishop is the boss of the Priest, the Priest is the boss of the nun, and the nun is the boss of you.

But the important point here is this:  the Bishop of Rome never had such authority over all the other bishops.

From the beginning of Christianity as an organized institution, the procedure had been as follows:  missionaries would go to a new area and convert the populace.  When enough of the populace had been converted, the church who sent the missionaries would consecrate a bishop for the new area, and the bishop would go there and become the authority for that area.

By himself.  Alone.  Without any other bishop set over him to watch what he did.

The Eastern churches always were, from the beginning, what they called “autochthonous.”  That is, each bishop in each place was the Pope of that place, and his authority could not be superceded by any other bishop. 

When St. Cyril set up the Christian Church in Russia, that Christian Church and its bishop became their own, autonomous Church, able to act on its own in matters of faith and morals.

And pretty much anything else.

That is not, however, what happened when Rome sent missionaries, and then bishops, into new territories.

In the Roman Model, a bishop–take, say, Patrick–although given authority over his new See, held it only as a subordinate of the Pope, and could be removed by the Pope if the Pope saw fit.  He had no authority over doctrine, and could not pronounce on anything in opposition to the Pope.

The Western Church therefore became one vast empire ruled by the Vatican–and the Vatican began to assert just this kind of primacy over the Eastern Churches.

And the Eastern Churches weren’t having any.

As far as they were concerned, each Bishop had always had absolute authority in his own See, and could only be overruled by a Council of all the bishops acting together.  Rome was not the ruler of the Church but just one Church among many.  The Pope was also one Bishop among many, an equal and not a monarch.

It has long been the contention of the Roman Catholic Church that the organization as asserted by the Eastern Churches would be ultimately untenable.  One of two things would end up happening:  either each autochthonous church would end up with its own doctrine that conflicted with many of the others; or all progress in theology, history and philosophy would come to a screeching halt as each Church refused to move on anything in fear that they would end with dissension and heterodoxy.

And, for what it’s worth, that second thing is what happened, although part of the problem was the rise of militant Islam and its spread across the lands once held by Eastern Christians.

I know all of this sounds a little esoteric and irrelevant, but think about what would be the case today of the Eastern model had won out, and the Dioceses were all little fiefdoms of autochthonous Bishops.   It’s not impossible that the Church in Seattle would be celebrating gay marriages while the Church in Birmingham would be condemning them outright.

What’s more important to me this morning, though, is that the Greek Schism was an ever-present issue in the Middle Ages, and in the Reformation, too.  The example of the Church having been torn apart was on the minds of people like Luther and Calvin as well as Church loyalists like More and Erasmus.

The Church was already in tatters, and the authority of Rome had already been fatally compromised.

Neither the Middle Ages, nor the Renaissance, nor the Reformation, was what all these West-o-centric pontificators think it was.

And I think this has been a very long and incoherent post, and undoubtedly far less interesting to read posts about sex.

Written by janeh

May 19th, 2012 at 10:53 am

Posted in Uncategorized

One Response to 'Orthodox, and Otherwise'

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  1. In one newsgroup I sometimes visit, regulars use ‘the Bermuda Triangle’ to refer to the UK and more westerly bits of Europe because some people seem unable to escape from it and consequently don’t know what’s going on anywhere else.

    You’d expect better from someone writing about church history, even medieval church history. The Great Schism, as I always heard it called, was hardly an unimportant or obscure event.


    19 May 12 at 9:04 pm

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