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The Great Schism of 1054 AD
By 1000 AD, the Christian Church had steadfastly survived a millennium of upheaval. Most significantly, the Roman Empire had crumbled some 500 years before and had given way to a mixture of regional governments and barbarians, none of whom had Rome’s ability to cohesively construct the infrastructure of modern society. In many respects, Europe began to fall apart.
This was especially true in the western part of the empire, where Latin was the dominant language (The eastern part was always predominantly Greek speaking). The west very quickly lost high quality arts, education, decent living standards and formal religious cohesion. These were the dark ages.
In the east, the remains of the Roman Empire continued for a time based at Constantinople (so named because Constantine moved the Empire’s Government there). By the time the west crumbled, the surviving eastern part was known as the Byzantium Empire.
The Byzantium Empire was strategically placed to protect Europe from invasion by ‘Muhammadans’ (Islam), but eventually it went broke and was taken over by the Venetians who ultimately (1453 AD) fell to the Ottoman Empire.
In response to the sacking of Rome by the Goths in 410 AD, Augustine wrote The City of God in which he hoped to convince his readers that Rome’s demise did not come about as a result of its citizens giving up their pagan gods (and therefore their embracing of Christianity). The question Augustine left with his readers was whether they wanted to be citizens of an earthly city or God’s eternal city.
Holy Roman Empire
Ironically, about the only unifying force in Europe over the next half a century was the Church itself. The Church, with its seat of Government resting firmly with the Pope, maintained a very Roman order while ever it could.
But the real powerhouse behind this new European order were the Germanic peoples. For almost a millennium (962AD to 1806AD) the Roman head of State was also Rex Romanorum (King of the Romans).
This began with Charlemagne, the King of the Franks, who conquered Italy and was given the title Romanorum Imperator Augustus (August Emperor of the Romans) partly because he had just taken over Italy and they wanted to stay on his good side, and partly because they considered whoever controlled western Europe should rightly inherit the title once held by the true Roman Emperor.
This made Charlemagne a direct rival of the creaking Byzantium Empire, but within a decade it too would acknowledge him as Emperor (he is known as Charles I in the histories of France, Germany & the Holy Roman Empire and usually commonly referred to as “Charles the Great” in English).
After a century of uneasiness, the German Otto I took control of Europe in 962AD, was duly crowned Emperor by the Pope and thus became the first German Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire.
This continued, for better or worse, until 1806 when the invading Napoleon forced the Emperor, Francis II, to abdicate and dissolve the Empire which meant freeing all inhabitants from its laws.
So, midway between the fall of Rome (410 AD) and the fall of Constantinople (1453 AD) came the biggest upheaval the Church had known until that point. It marked the split of the Western Church from the Eastern Church in Europe. It is a split which has never been repaired.
After the fall of the Roman Empire, the Germanic tribes spread out into western Europe. They settled in three major regions; Italy, Gaul (France) and Britannia. As a result the western Church became Germanic although the Latin language and literature remained the accepted tool of communication.
The Germanizing of the Church marks a major turn in the Church’s history. For in a Church so made up of different elements, a process of fermentation (like the action of yeast on dough) was sure to set in. That fermentation in the centuries to come was going to produce great results.1
Between the fall of Rome and the turn of the first millennium, the Arabs nations had successfully annexed Egypt, Palestine and Syria for Islam, but the remainder of the Eastern Church survived, albeit weakened, in the prevailing Greek language and culture. The Church therefore became known as the Greek Orthodox Church.
Despite its circumstances, the Eastern Church had produced some theological heavyweights. Clement of Alexandria, Athanasius and Origen would be the most notable examples, however they were few & far between following Rome’s demise.
Who’s the boss?
By the time of the first millennium, the Eastern and Western Churches of Europe were estranged. They eventually split in terms of fellowship the way they had split in administration years before. The issue was brought to a head when the Papacy flexed its muscles in Rome and Constantinople simply ignored.
In 910 AD William the Pious established a monastery at Cluny, France which was partly in response to and then facilitated a genuine European Christian revival. Despite its monastic setting, the adherents of this new movement were genuine believers determined to purify the Church.
This stood in stark contrast to the Papacy which had by this time become utterly corrupt. The situation had become so bad, at one time there were no less than three Popes all claiming legitimacy. The tower became so tall it toppled over.
Pope, Pope & Pope
The farce started when Benedict IX became Pope in 1033. He was 12 years old. As soon as he was able he stained the Papacy with a level of corruption never seen before. It wasn’t long before some locals had all they could take and drove him from office. Sylvester III was put in his place, but soon after Benedict promptly resumed his Pontificate, thus creating a dual Papal office.
Benedict soon grew tired of the whole matter and in an unprecedented move, sold his Papal position to a man who became known as Gregory VI.2 This became the greatest ignominy ever to stain the Papacy and when news of it leaked out, Benedict changed his mind and decided he would like to remain Pope after all. Hence, there sat three Popes in Rome.
This was the Church of which all Christians are descendants. Both Protestants and Catholics should grieve over these days.3
Holy Roman Empire to the rescue
The reformers at Cluny could not stand it any longer and called in the head of the Holy Roman Empire, Henry III, a layman sympathetic to the aims of Cluny. Henry formed a Synod which promptly dismissed Sylvester and coerced Gregory to resign. A second Synod deposed Benedict, leaving the Papal seat vacant for a time.
Henry decided the Italians could not be trusted to appoint a new Pope free of corruption (theirs or his) so he brought in a German bishop known as Clement II to do the job. Unfortunately, both Clement and his immediate successor died rather quickly so a third was given what was becoming a poisoned chalice.
His name was Bruno, Bishop of Toul. Henry had every confidence in him, mainly because Bruno was his cousin. This new Pope moved to Rome and became known as Leo IX.
Leo, like his esteemed cousin Henry, was a supporter of Cluny and therefore began reformation of the Papacy from within. His first move was to take power away from the College of Cardinals, the main advisers to the Pope. Instead of appointing only Italians, Leo opened it up to men from all parts of Europe, provided they were sympathetic to the ideals of Cluny. You can imagine how this went down.
Even though the Church was officially unified, in practice the eastern and western parts had been drifting apart for years. This became official in 1054 AD and it was ugly.
Leo became involved in a dispute with the patriarch of Constantinople, Michael Cerularius. In 1054 Leo sent an envoy to Constantinople with an official letter which excommunicated Cerularius. Not to be outdone, Cerularius responded by excommunicating Leo. The Church had split.
Hildebrand steps forward
Both Leo IX and Henry III were to die soon after the schism (Leo later that year & Henry within two years). This left everyone in a state of flux. The Cluny reformers continued to agitate for like minded Popes, while the nobles in Rome slowly began to claw back their influence.
Up until that point, the Cluny reformers had been content to sit under the influence of the Holy Roman Empire based in Germany because it seemed preferable to Roman nobles, but now the time seemed right to break even these bonds.
The bonds didn’t exactly break, but through a tumultuous series of events the reformers found an ally in the man Leo had put in charge of Papal finances – Hildebrand.
Hildebrand proved to be one of the outstanding men of the era and in 1073 became Pope himself (Gregory VII), but while the embers of division were still glowing, Hildebrand used his considerable influence to ensure a reform-minded Pope was elected next (Nicholas II) and eventually to have the entire system of electing Popes taken out of the hands of both the Roman nobles and the Emperors.
This new system, decreed at the Synod of 1059, it basically still used today. It took the election of Popes out of the hands of the power brokers and into the hands of the cardinal bishops who would nominate a successor and then take it to the clergy & the people of Rome. Thus, the new Pope could come from anywhere in the Church.
What have we learned?
As students of the Reformation well know, the momentous events of 1054 did not solve the Church’s problems. It would take another 500 years for them to come to a head and for the great Protestant movement to reclaim Biblical Christianity for the people.
For the first 1000 years of the Christian Church, there was only one Church. Some of those in its leadership were Godly & some were corrupt, but they were all under one banner. This, however, is not necessarily the yardstick of orthodoxy.
Undoubtedly most within the Church strived to maintain unity. Much the same happens today, but when the full details are known, it is clear there are times when discipline is needed before any unity can be proclaimed.
500 years after the schism of 1054, the Church had become so distorted, an even greater split was required, known as the Reformation. Roman Catholics alone deny this was needed.
When it comes to the health of the Church, it is God’s rules which must be followed, not man’s and if that means a split, so be it. Certainly the gravity of such a move must be considered prayerfully, but if it is Biblically demanded and we do nothing, will not God judge us accordingly?
1. B. K. Kuiper, 1995, The Church in History, Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 88
2. The practice of selling one’s Church office for money became known as ‘Simony’ after Simon Magus in Acts 8 who offered Peter and John money so that he might have control over the Holy Spirit.
3. B. K. Kuiper, 1995, The Church in History, Eerdmans Publishing Co., p. 85