Project Canterbury Our Debt to the Eastern Churches
By the Rev. C. B. Moss, B.D.
London: SPCK, n.d.
A LITTLE while ago I was looking at a circular issued by one of our leading publishers, in which the books published by the firm were grouped according to subject. Theology was divided into three classes: Anglo-Catholic, Evangelical, and Roman Catholic. These three types, roughly speaking, divide between them the whole of English-speaking Christianity.
But there is in the world a fourth Christian type, older than any of these, whose belief and worship, culture and traditions recall, not the Reformation, nor the Counter-Reformation, nor even the Middle Ages, but the period of the Councils and the Fathers. This is the world of Eastern Christendom: a world which is now strange to most of us, but without which neither Roman, nor Anglican, nor Evangelical Christianity would be what they are today if, indeed, they existed at all.
By far the largest part of Eastern Christendom is the Orthodox Communion, which consists of the ancient patriarchates of Constantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem, with the self-governing Churches of Greece and Cyprus, all of which belong to the Greeks: the patriarchate of Antioch, which is Arabic-speaking: the Slav Churches of Russia, Serbia and Bulgaria, and the Church of Roumania, an Orthodox country with a Latin language, together with the Orthodox Churches in some other countries of Eastern Europe, and the Russian missions in Japan and other parts of the Far East. In this paper the word "Orthodoxy" refers to this great Communion, with its 130 millions of Christians, second in numbers only to the communion of Rome.
The first Christian writer of the Greek race was St. Luke the Evangelist. In his book, the Acts of the Apostles, we read of the foundation of many of the existing Orthodox Churches: Jerusalem, Antioch and Cyprus, Thessalonica, Athens and Corinth. Thanks to St. Paul, the religion of Christ, which had begun as a Jewish sect, soon spread throughout the Greek world, where it was welcomed as heartily as it had been rejected by the Jews. Thus it came about that all the books of the New Testament were written, not in Aramaic, the language spoken by our Lord and by the Jews of Palestine, but in Greek, the language of culture, of commerce, and of philosophy.
During the next few centuries the Divine truths revealed to men by our Lord gradually clothed themselves with Greek terms and were stated in the form of Greek thought. This was the last and greatest achievement of the philosophers of ancient Greece. The Jews received the revelation from on high: the Greeks fitted that revelation with armour capable of withstanding the attacks of false philosophers and false religions. The Greek fathers inherited the religion of the Old and New Testaments and the philosophy of Plato and Aristotle, and taught them to understand one another. Thus Christianity became, as it has been ever since, the religion of Western civilization. Asiatic in origin, it became European in form. We have the results of the work of the Greek Fathers briefly stated in our Nicene Creed, and in the decrees of the great General Councils on the Incarnation of our Lord. These Councils all met in Greek cities, and their members were almost entirely Greek bishops. So that we owe to Greek Orthodoxy the intellectual determination and definition of the Faith: in a word, we owe them our Creed. Some of the work was done by Latins, but by far the greater part is due to the Greeks.
The first Council, which met at Nicaea, in the northwestern corner of Asia Minor, in 325, was composed, according to tradition, of 318 bishops, only three of whom came from Latin Christendom, while the rest were all Greeks, or at least Easterns. This Council decided that the Godhead of our Lord Jesus Christ was and always had been the belief of the Church, and, in order to safeguard this belief, inserted in the Creed which it issued the word which is translated in our "Nicene Creed," "being of one substance with the Father." The leader at this Council was St. Athanasius, afterwards Bishop or Patriarch of Alexandria, whose festival is commemorated in our new kalendar on May 2.
The second Council met at Constantinople, which was becoming the capital of Greek Christendom, in 381. Its 150 members were all Greeks. This Council declared, among other important matters, that the Church had always believed in the Godhead of the Holy Ghost.
The third Council met at Ephesus, the city of St. Paul and St. John, in 431. This Council asserted that the Church had always believed of our Lord that "though He be God and Man, He is not two, but one Christ": and that because Jesus is God, the Mother of Jesus is rightly called Mother of God, though, of course, she is not the mother of His Godhead, but His mother according to the flesh. The fourth Council, which met at Chalcedon, on the Asiatic coast opposite Constantinople, in 451, proclaimed that our Lord is still fully Man, in opposition to those who taught that His Manhood was swallowed up in His Godhead as a drop of vinegar in the ocean.
These four General Councils, and two or three later ones of less importance, were all Greek; their authority is recognized by the Orthodox, Roman and Anglican Communions, as it was by most of the great Reformers. It has been said that the formulation of the Catholic Creed was the last great achievement of the Greek genius: certainly no other race and no later age could have done that work so well.
But besides what all Christendom owes to the Greeks, we of the English-speaking nations have our own special debt to them. Who first brought the Gospel to the English? St. Augustine, the Roman monk, and St. Aidan, the Irish monk. But monasticism was brought to Rome itself from Egypt two centuries earlier by St. Athanasius, when he took refuge from the persecuting Arian Emperor, Constantius. So that even as far as we arc the children of Rome, we are in a sense the grandchildren of Alexandria.
The Irish strain in our ancestry too had its connexions with the East. St. Patrick, though himself emphatically a Latin, was trained at Lerins, the founder of which, St. Honoratus, had brought his plan of an island monastery from Greece: the close resemblance between Celtic and Eastern monasticism shows that this was not the only link between Irish and Greek Christianity.
The Irish monastery, with its beehive cells for individual monks grouped round the church, or often as at Glendalough, Monasterbois, Clonmacnois) group of churches, with its abbot, who might be himself a bishop, or might keep a bishop on the premises to ordain his monks, with its Columban Rule, so loose in organization yet so rigid in its demands on the individual, differs widely from the later Latin monastery of the Benedictine type, but is closely related, in a manner which cannot now be fully explained, to the monasteries of Greece, Egypt, and Syria. Whereas the Latin monastic orders have always been ecclesiastical imperialists, seeking to escape from the control of the local bishops and fighting, for good or evil, on the side of centralization and the Roman See, the monks of Ireland and Wales (and even, it appears, of England in the period of the Norman Conquest) were, like those of Egypt, Syria and Russia, ardent nationalists. Iona was the last stronghold of the "Celtic Easter," Ely the last refuge of English resistance to William the Conqueror (just as the monks of Egypt fought for Egyptian autonomy against the growing centralization of the Byzantine Empire, just as 1,100 years later the monks of the Troitska held out against the "false Dmitri" and his Polish and Jesuit allies, and finally succeeded in driving them out of Russia).
The story of St. David's visit to Jerusalem may be a legend, but the idea which lay behind it was evidently not without influence.
But apart from these indirect connexions we have one direct and quite certain link with the East in our early history. The best claimant to the title of founder of the Church of England is Theodore of Tarsus, the seventh Archbishop of Canterbury. He was sent by Pope Vitalian to bring order into the scattered missions which had been preaching the Gospel among the English kingdoms.
Theodore was a Greek from Tarsus in Cilicia, the birthplace of St. Paul, and had been educated, or at any rate had spent some time, at Athens. At the age of sixty-seven he was sent to England as archbishop. He found the various missions in the most lamentable state of disorder. There were only three bishops in the country, of whom St. Wilfred and St. Chad were rival claimants to the see of York, and Wina of London had obtained his bishopric by simony. Theodore filled the vacant sees, united all the missions into one province under one Metropolitan, and divided the enormous dioceses of Northumbria, Mercia, and East Anglia into areas of manageable size.
He held the first English Provincial Synod at Hertford in 673. This was the first assembly, ecclesiastical or civil, of the whole English nation, and the ancestor not only of all subsequent English synods, but of the English Parliament. Of this Synod of Hertford' our present provincial synods, the Convocations of Canterbury and York, are the direct successors. Archbishop Theodore also defined the boundaries of the English dioceses, and founded the sees of Worcester, Hereford, Lindsey (now Lincoln), and several others which have no exact modern representatives. He was the first archbishop whose authority extended throughout the country (for York was not yet a separate province). He opened a school at Canterbury, to which pupils came even from Ireland, and issued a "Penitential," or set of rules for dealing with moral offences, many of which were accepted in Ireland as well as in England.
After an episcopate of twenty-one years, he died in 690 at the age of eighty-eight. This great archbishop, the true founder of the English Church (for before his time it was not a church, but a group of unconnected missions) is commemorated in our new kalendar on September 19.
At the very time when the Roman and Irish missionaries were bringing the Gospel to the English, there was being prepared, at the opposite end of Christendom, one of the most dangerous enemies which that Gospel has ever had to face. Mohammed's Hegira, or retirement from Mecca to Medina, took place in 622: and for a thousand years, from the day when the Byzantine and Persian Empires were summoned by the unknown barbarian from Arabia to submit to Allah and Mohammed His prophet, to the day when Sobieski drove back the Turkish host from the walls of Vienna, in 1683, Christendom was in constant fear of the power of Islam. There was once an Arab general who, having conquered Spain, invaded France, and was only defeated on the banks of the Loire: 700 years later there was a Turkish Sultan who swore to stable his horse in St. Peter's at Rome. From the seventh century to the seventeenth our religion and our civilization were constantly in danger, and often in very serious danger, from the religion and civilization of Mohammed.
During the greater part of this period, the Orthodox world, and in particular Constantinople, was the main bulwark of Christendom. There are three ways by which an invader from Western Asia can enter Europe by land or short sea crossing: by the Straits of Gibraltar, by the Bosphorus and Dardanelles, and through the passes of the Caucasus. The first is a very long way round; the second, the direct way, was blocked by the Orthodox Empire with its headquarters at Constantinople ; the third way was defended by the Orthodox kingdom of Georgia, and beyond it the Christian, though not Orthodox, kingdom of Armenia.
During the period which we call the Dark Ages, before the eleventh century, when the nations of modern Europe were being formed, and when Western Christendom was in the gravest danger of being crushed between two enemies, the heathen Norsemen and the Moslem Arabs (in mediaeval legend we often find the two confused), the Orthodox Byzantine Empire made it impossible for the Khalifs of Damascus or Bagdad to make a direct attack upon Europe by land. Twice the Arabs were beaten back from the very walls of Constantinople, by Constantine IV. and by Leo the Isaurian. Had the city fallen, there was nothing to prevent the Moslems from conquering all Europe, before the great Christian nations were strong enough to resist them.
In the meantime, the libraries of Constantinople preserved all that was left of ancient culture. Most of what we know of the ancient Greek world, out of which our civilization came, was preserved for us by the Byzantine Empire. Constantinople, Greek, Christian, and Orthodox, was beyond all comparison the greatest city of Europe, the capital of the only civilized Christian state. And that state was maintained and defended by its religious unity. It was from Constantinople that the missionaries went who evangelized the Slavonic tribes, from Bohemia in the west to Russia in the east, even though many of the fruits of their labours were afterwards garnered by Latin bishops.
When at last Constantinople fell, it fell before an attack from behind. The bulwark which had been impregnable to northern barbarians and to Moslems from the east, was broken down by the pirates who called themselves the soldiers of the Cross. The Fourth Crusade, which, instead of going to free the Holy Sepulchre, took and sacked Constantinople, was the real cause both of the permanence of the schism between Greek and Latin Christendom, and of the invasion of Europe in the next century by the Ottoman Turks, with all the misery and ruin that followed it. For the Byzantine Empire, though it recovered Constantinople from the Latins, was permanently weakened, and so the Turks forced an entrance into Europe. Behind Constantinople lay the rising Orthodox nations of Serbia and Bulgaria. Only when these were crushed did the Turks begin to threaten Germany and Hungary.
Meanwhile an invader even more formidable and ruthless was threatening Europe and Christendom. Out of the steppes of Central Asia came the Mongols, at first heathens, afterwards Moslems, but whether heathens or Moslems bringing nothing but desolation to the countries over which they swept. It was Orthodox Russia which felt the full weight of their attack, and which was forced for 200 years to bow to their yoke. But for the heroism of such leaders as St. Alexander Nevsky, the Mongol attack on Europe would have been far worse than it was. Happily the savage hosts which had ravaged every country as far as China, and had almost completely destroyed the once flourishing East Syrian or "Nestorian" Church, never penetrated further into Europe than Hungary. After "that night in May," 1453, when Constantinople, the capital of Eastern Christendom, the bulwark of Europe for so many centuries, was captured by the Turks, the Orthodox nations were all subject to Moslem rulers, except Russia and Montenegro. From this time our debt to Orthodoxy" takes a different form.
The entente between the English Church and the Orthodox East in the seventeenth century has left two permanent memorials: the famous Codex Alexandrinus, one of the oldest manuscripts of the New Testament, which was given to King Charles I. by the Patriarch Cyril Lucaris of Alexandria, and which is now one of the greatest treasures in the British Museum; and Worcester College, Oxford, which was originally intended for the training of Greek Orthodox priests.
The influence of the ancient Greek liturgies, of which the first faint traces are found in the First Prayer-Book (in the misplaced invocation of the Holy Ghost, and the so-called Prayer of St. Chrysostom, taken from the Liturgy of St. Chrysostom), is very marked in Bishop Andrewes' Preces Privates (which were largely written in Greek) and in the Scottish Liturgy of 1764. Bishop Rattray, who had studied the Eastern Liturgies, introduced into the Scottish Prayer-Book the Eastern method of consecration by invocation of the Holy Ghost or epiclesis. When Samuel Seabury, the first American bishop, having been refused episcopal consecration in England, obtained it from the Scottish bishops at Aberdeen, they required that he should introduce into America the Scottish epiclesis; and to this day the liturgy of the Scottish and American Churches follow in this respect the Eastern tradition.
During the century 1820-1920 the Orthodox subjects of the Turk recovered their freedom, and the long-buried Christian nations of the Balkans once more took their place in the European family. This is not the place to tell the story of that struggle. We in England did something to help our Orthodox brethren, but not as much as we might have done: once, at any rate, we actually fought by the side of the Turkish tyrant against Russia, in spite of the protests of some leaders both in Church and State, and discovered later that we had "backed the wrong horse." We occupied Cyprus in 1878 in order to defend the Turkish Empire against Russian encroachments, having exacted as the price of our help that the treatment of the Christians of Anatolia should be improved. But we were never able to enforce this condition upon the Turks, who have always regarded their Christian subjects as "rayah," cattle. Again, during the Great War we promised freedom to the Greeks, Armenians, and Assyrians who fought on our side, but that promise has never been kept, and the Armenians and Assyrians are wanderers on the face of the earth, while the Greeks of Anatolia have all been massacred or driven from the country which their ancestors had occupied for three thousand years, and that though Turkey was defeated in the war and Constantinople itself was for many months in our hands.
On the other hand, our alliance with Russia, Serbia, and Roumania during the Great War greatly strengthened the already existing entente between the Anglican and Orthodox Churches. For many years our clergy visiting Jerusalem have been permitted, by the courtesy of the Greek Patriarch, to celebrate the Holy Eucharist in the Chapel of Abraham, adjoining the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the traditional site of Calvary; and more recently our pilgrims in the Holy Land have been granted the same privileges at Nazareth, Damascus and other places.
Not only we, but all other Christian Churches, owe a great debt of gratitude to the Orthodox Patriarchate of Jerusalem for its care of the Holy Places. Through centuries of Moslem rule the Brotherhood of the Holy Sepulchre has clung to the purpose for which it was formed, and while it has resisted vigorously all attempts to deprive it of its traditional rights, it has never refused its welcome to pilgrims even of other Communions who have come to worship and not to proselytize or to seek political advantage.
Among many acts of Christian brotherhood done for us by the Orthodox, we must mention that the beloved and venerated Bishop Collins of Gibraltar, the first Anglican President of our Association, was buried by Archbishop Chrysostom of Smyrna, who afterwards died a martyr's death when Smyrna was sacked by the Turks in 1922.
The Great War, which has altered the whole world, while it has given to some Orthodox countries freedom and national independence, has on the whole left the Orthodox world in a state of dire confusion. The Russian Church, by far the greatest part of Eastern Christendom, is either suffering persecution, which may rank with those of Decius and Diocletian, at the hands of those who hate "all that is called God or that is worshipped," or else is scattered in poverty-stricken exile. The (Ecumenical Patriarchate has seen the majority of its people massacred or driven from their homes, and itself is living in conditions even more intolerable than those which prevailed under the Turkish Monarchy; for the new Turks, who respect no religion, not even their own, refuse to allow the Patriarch to take any part in the policy of the great world-wide Communion of which he is the centre, and do everything to make his position and that of his people difficult and dangerous.
The Churches of the Balkan States have difficulties of another kind. Their people, especially the students, have to face all the intellectual and social problems of Western Europe, and their Church, which has been in the past continually engaged in the struggle for bare existence, is unable to prepare them for these problems.
We who, thanks largely to their endurance, have been able to work out these problems for ourselves, are bound to do all we can to give them the benefit of our experience. In the British Isles we have to some extent solved the problem of Nationalism, which in the Balkans still threatens the peace of the world. Our theologians have shown that the full acceptance of modern science and scientific method is quite compatible with the traditional faith of the Church. In many ways our experience can be used for the benefit of our Orthodox friends.
Some of the Eastern Churches still need material help. The Russians especially have the greatest difficulty in providing the training of their future priests. The theological colleges of Russia have been closed: the few students who are being trained with enormous financial difficulty in the little Russian Academy at Paris and in the Orthodox Faculty of the University of Belgrade, are the only hope for the spiritual future of Russia. The Patriarchate of Jerusalem, which is bankrupt owing to economic changes in other countries, needs a theological college. The Armenian exiles in Syria can be settled permanently on the land if money is forthcoming: and those who are still enslaved in Turkey can be freed by the skilled workers who are acting with the sanction but without the financial support of the League of Nations. The Assyrians, exiled from their country, and massacred in the country in which they had settled trusting to our protection, make the strongest of appeals to us, not only on religious but on national grounds, for they have always been our most faithful and trustworthy allies in the Middle East. All these churches, Orthodox or Separated, need our continued prayers, and where possible our service and our gifts: not merely as the obligation of Christian charity, but as a debt of gratitude and repayment of just reward for all that they have done for us.
But the greatest debt that we owe to the Orthodox Churches, next to the Creeds and definitions of Faith, is the example that they set before us of a Church which is unquestionably Catholic without being Papal: which has preserved the Creed, the Sacraments, the Hierarchy, and the life of Catholic devotion, in spite of the most severe and protracted dangers and difficulties, without Roman addition or Protestant subtraction. In their liturgy and their other services we see and feel a corporate devotion which is unsurpassed in Christendom; in the bishops of their venerable sees we behold true successors of the Apostles by whom the Gospel was first preached to the world; in the sufferings of their martyrs and confessors, such as Chrysostom of Smyrna, Tikhon of Moscow, Benjamin of Petrograd, we who have not for centuries "resisted unto blood, striving against sin," recognize the genuine inheritance of the martyrs of old; and in the friendship and love which they continually show towards us, both as a Church and as individuals, we perceive the fulfilment of the words of the beloved disciple, "My little children, let us not love in word, neither in tongue: but in deed and in truth."