Church History 3 - The Church of Imperial Byzantium (about AD 1000)

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Relations between church and state

The ideology that had prevailed since Constantine (4th century) and Justinian I (6th century)—according to which there was to be only one universal Christian society, the oikoumene, led jointly by the empire and the church—was still the ideology of the Byzantine emperors. At the heart of the Christian polity of Byzantium was the Emperor, who was no ordinary ruler, but God's representative on earth. If Byzantium was an icon of the heavenly Jerusalem, then the earthly monarchy of the Emperor was an image or icon of the monarchy of God in heaven; in church people prostrated themselves before the icon of Christ, and in the palace before God's living icon - the Emperor. The labyrinthine palace, the Court with its elaborate ceremonial, the throne room where mechanical lions roared and musical birds sang: these things were designed to make clear the Emperor's status as vicegerent of God. 'By such means,' wrote the Emperor Constantine Vll Porphyrogenitus, 'we figure forth the harmonious movement of God the Creator around this universe, while the imperial power is preserved in proportion and order.'' The Emperor had a special place in the Church's worship: he could not of course celebrate the Eucharist, but he received communion within the sanctuary 'as priests do'- taking the consecrated bread in his hands and drinking from the chalice, instead of being given the sacrament in a spoon - and he also preached sermons and on certain feasts censed the altar. The vestments which Orthodox bishops now wear are the vestments once worn by the Emperor in church.

The life of Byzantium formed a unified whole, and there was no rigid line of separation between the religious and the secular, between Church and State: the two were seen as parts of a single organism. Hence it was inevitable that the Emperor played an active part in the affairs of the Church. Yet at the same time it is not just to accuse Byzantium of Caesaro-Papism, of subordinating the Church to the State. Although Church and State formed a single organism, yet within this one organism there vvere two distinct elements, the priesthood (sacerdotium) and the imperial power (imperium); and while working in close co-opcration, each of these elements had its own proper sphere in which it was autonomous. Between the two there was a 'symphony' or 'harmony', but neither element exercised absolute control over the other.

This is the doctrine expounded in the great code of Byzantine law drawn up under Justinian (see the sixth Novel) and repeated in many of the; Byzantine texts. Take for example the words of Emperor John Tzimisces: 'I recognize two authorities, priesthood and empire; the Creator of the world entrusted to the first the care of souls and to the second the control of men's bodies. Let neither authority be attacked, that the world may enjoy prosperity." Thus it was the Emperor's task to summon councils and to carry their decrees into effect, but it lay beyond his powers to dictate the content of those decrees: it was for the bishops gathered in council to decide what the true faith was. Bishops were appointed by God to teach the faith, whereas the Emperor was the protector of Orthodoxy, but not its exponent. Such was the theory, and such in great part was the practice also. Admittedly there were many occasions on which the Emperor interfered unwarrantably in ecclesiastical matters; but when a serious question of principle arose, the authorities of the Church quickly showed that they had a will of their own. Iconoclasm, for example, was vigorously championed by a whole series of Emperors, yet for all that it was successfully rejected by the Church. In Byzantine history Church and State were closely interdependent, but neither was subordinate to the other.

There are many today, not only outside but within the Orthodox Church, who sharply criticize the Byzantine Empire and the idea of a Christian society for which it stands. Yet were the Byzantines entirely wrong? They believed that Christ, who lived on earth as a man, has redeemed every aspect of human existence, and they held that it was therefore possible to baptize not human individuals only but the whole spirit and organization of society. So they strove to create a polity entirely Christian in its principles of government and in its daily life. Byzantium in fact was nothing less than an attempt to accept and to apply the full implications of the Incarnation. Certainly the attempt had its dangers: in particular the Byzantines often fell into the error of identifying the earthly kingdom of Byzantium with the Kingdom of God, the Greek people - or rather, the 'Roman' people, to use the term by which they themselves described their own identity - with God's people. Certainly Byzantium fell far short of the high ideal which it set itself, and its failure was often lamentable and disastrous. The tales of Byzantium duplicity, violence, and cruelty are too well known to call for repetition here. They are true - but they are only a part of the truth. For behind all the shortcomings of Byzantium can always be discerned the great vision by which the Byzantines were inspired: to establish here on earth a living image of God's government in heaven. The authority of the patriarch of Constantinople was motivated in a formal fashion by the fact that he was the bishop of the "New Rome," where the emperor and the senate also resided (canon 28 of the Council of Chalcedon, 451). He held the title of "ecumenical patriarch," which pointed to his political role in the empire. Technically, he occupied the second rank—after the bishop of Rome—in a hierarchy of five major primates, which included also the patriarchs of Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. In practice, however, the latter three were deprived of all authority by the Arab conquest of the Middle East in the 7th century, and only the emerging Slavic churches attempted to challenge, at times, the position of Constantinople as the unique centre of Eastern Christendom.

The relations between state and church in Byzantium are often described in the West by the term caesaropapism, which implies that the emperor was acting as the head of the church. The official texts, however, describe the emperor and the patriarch as a dyarchy (government with dual authority) and compare their functions to that of the soul and the body in a single organism. In practice, the emperor had the upper hand over much of church administration, though strong patriarchs could occasionally play a decisive role in politics: Patriarch Nicholas Mystikus (patriarch 901-907, 912-925) and Polyeuctus (patriarch 956-970) excommunicated emperors for uncanonical acts. In the area of faith and doctrine, the emperors could never impose their will when it contradicted the conscience of the church: this fact, shown in particular during the numerous attempts at union with Rome during the late medieval period, proves that the notion of caesaropapism is not unreservedly applicable to Byzantium.

The Church of the Holy Wisdom, or Hagia Sophia, built by Justinian in the 6th century, was the centre of religious life in the Eastern Orthodox world. It was by far the largest and most splendid religious edifice in all of Christendom. According to The Russian Primary Chronicle, the envoys of the Kievan prince Vladimir, who visited it in 987, reported: "We knew not whether we were in heaven or on earth, for surely there is no such splendor or beauty anywhere upon earth." Hagia Sophia, or the "great church," as it was also called, provided the pattern of the liturgical office, which was adopted throughout the Orthodox world. This adoption was generally spontaneous, and it was based upon the moral and cultural prestige of the imperial capital: the Orthodox Church uses the 9th-century Byzantine Rite.

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