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  • Book I.

Excerpts from

“The Great Church in Captivity”

A study of the Patriarcate of Constantinople

from Eve of the Turkish Conquest to the Greek War of Independence

By Steven Runciman


Excerpts from

The Great Church in Captivity”

A study of the Patriarcate of Constantinople

from Eve of the Turkish Conquest to the Greek War of Independence

By Steven Runciman

Book I.

The Church on the Eve of the Turkish Conquest.

1. The Background.

2. The Structure of the Church.

The Hierarchy.

The Monasteries.

3. Church and State.

4. The Church and the Churches.

The East.

The West.

5. The Church and the Philosophers.

6. The Theology of Mysticism.

7. The End of the Empire.

Book II.

The Church Under the Ottoman.

1. The New Pattern.

2. The Church and the Infidel State.

3. The Church and Education.

4. The Church and the Churches.

Constantinople and Rome.

The Lutheran Approach.

The Calvinist Patriarch.

The Anglican Experiment.

8. Constantinople and Moscow.

9. The Definition of Doctrine.

10. The Phanariots.

11. The Church and the Greek People.

12. Epilogue.

Book I.

The Church on the Eve of the Turkish Conquest.

1. The Background.

Of all the roads that a historian may tread none passes through more difficult country than that of religious history. To a believer religious truths are eternal. The doctrine that he preaches and accepts gives expression to their everlasting validity. To him the historian who seeks to discover and explain why the doctrine should have appeared at a particular moment of time seems guilty of unwarranted determinism. But Revealed Religion cannot escape from the bounds of time; for the Revelation must have occurred at a particular moment. The Christian religion, above all others, is concerned with the relations of time and eternity. Its central doctrine, the Incarnation, is not only an eternal truth but an event in history; it is a bridge between the temporal and the eternal. The institutions of Christianity, however divine their inspiration, have been ordered and governed by men and are affected by the temporal processes to which man is subject. The articles of faith, whatever their transcendental validity, have been spread around the world by the agency of man, and their transmission has been affected by changes in worldly circumstances and outlook. It may be that man is continually refreshed by messages from on high. It may be that there is a divine ordering of history. But the historian himself is mortal, restricted by the limitations of temporality; and he must have the modesty to know his limitations. His business is to tell the story and to make it, as best he can, intelligible to humanity.

Nevertheless, if the story is to be intelligible, more is needed than a presentation of mundane facts. Many great and wise men have told us that history is a science and no more. It is true that in the collection of historical evidence accuracy and objectivity are required, especially when the subject concerns religion, a sphere in which judgment is too often influenced by personal conviction and prejudice. But the historian’s methods cannot be entirely empirical. Human behaviour defies scientific laws; human nature has not yet been tidily analyzed; human beliefs disregard logic and reason. The historian must attempt to add to his objective study the qualities of intuitive sympathy and imaginative perception without which he cannot hope to comprehend the fears and aspirations and convictions that have moved past generations. These qualities are, maybe, gifts of the spirit, gifts which can be experienced and felt but not explained in human terms.

For the study of the Orthodox Faith of Eastern Christendom some such intuitive gift is needed. It is a Faith which has always been suspicious of attempts to reduce religion to a near-philosophical system and which has always preferred to cling to esoteric and unwritten tradition. Its genius is apophatic, dwelling on the ignorance of man face to face with the Divine; all that we can know about God is that we know nothing; for His attributes must from their nature be outside the realm of worldly knowledge. Its theology and its practices are characterized by antinomies that are not easily resolved by a logical observer. It may well be that no one who has not been nurtured in the atmosphere of the Orthodox Church is in a position to understand it fully, still less to describe it. The objective student before he begins his study must charge himself with sympathy and must forget the taste for dialectical precision that is apt to characterize Western theology.

The effort is the greater because most Western students have been reared on stories of the passionate debates that raged amongst the Eastern Fathers of the Early Church over minutiae of doctrine. The Eastern Church is not tolerant of demonstrable error, that is to say, any doctrine that seems to impair the essential message of Christianity. Truths revealed by the Holy Scriptures and explained and defined by the action of the Holy Spirit at the Oecumenical Councils of the Church, exegesis by Fathers of the Church whose divine inspiration cannot be called into question, and tradition handed down from the apostolic age are all sacred and to be accepted; and it may be that the Holy Spirit may still deign to give us further enlightenment. But beyond that point the Church has been shy of dogmatic definitions, preferring to rely on traditions that were not written down until a need arose. The pronouncements of the Oecumenical Councils were made to counter doctrines that seemed to damage the true meaning of the Trinity or of the Incarnation. Nearly all the works of the Greek Fathers were written to answer specific questions from an anxious inquirer or from a challenging controversialist. The ancient taste of the Greeks for speculative philosophy was not extinguished. It was, rather, encouraged so long as it kept itself apart from dogma. None of the philosophers ventured to work out a complete compendium of theology. The Greek Church did not and could not produce a Thomas Aquinas. It still has no Summa Fidei.1

This apophatic attitude had its strength and its weakness. It permitted a certain tolerance and elasticity. There is a word which we meet continually in Greek Church history, the word oikovohioc, ‘economy’. The word means literally the administration of the house. Greek theologians use it sometimes to denote the method of operation; the ‘economy of the Holy Spirit’ is the method in which the Holy Spirit operates on the Church. Economy is, however, more frequently used to mean a wise handling of the oecumene, the inhabited world; and in this sense it became roughly equivalent to the ‘ dispensation’ of Western theologians. In the interests of harmony and good will the Church — that is to say, the Orthodox Church — can overlook or condone minor errors in belief or liturgical practice and minor breaches in canonical correctitude; they can be covered by the grace of the Holy Spirit for the greater good of Christendom. Unlike dispensation in the West, the term, is deliberately imprecise and ungoverned by fixed rules. Western theologians, approaching the question with the legalism that is their inheritance from Scholasticism, have sought in vain for an exact definition. Even Orthodox theologians have described it in varying and often contradictory terms. Sometimes it seems to critics to be over-elastic: as when Basil declares that, while it was morally wrong for Jacob to deceive his blind father and steal the inheritance from his brother Esau, we must show economy towards his sin because it was for the ultimate benefit of mankind. But in general economy was admirable, and all the more so because it was not hedged by rules and restrictions.2

The difference between the Eastern and the Western attitudes was due largely to historical developments. When the Roman Empire collapsed in the West, the Roman Church was left as the repository not only of Roman traditions and Roman law, as opposed to the customs introduced by the new barbarian rulers, but also of learning and education. In the chaos of the invasions, with the former lay governors fleeing or dispossessed, ecclesiastical officers were often called upon to take over the administration of cities and whole districts. Moreover, when orderly government was restored, there were for many centuries few literate men outside of ecclesiastical ranks. Churchmen provided the lawyers and clerks on whom the lay rulers depended. This all tended to give the Roman Church a legal outlook. The Papal chancery was obliged to fill itself with trained lawyers, whose tastes began to dominate theology. Roman theologians liked clear-cut definitions. The apophatic tradition, of which Augustine had been so eminent an advocate, tended to give way to Scholastic tastes, to the desire to turn theology into a systematized philosophy.

In the East Roman Empire lay life was never interrupted until the Turkish conquest. It survived in exile even during the half-century of the Latin occupation of Constantinople. In Constantinople the lawyers remained laymen; and there was always a highly educated laity which provided most of the philosophers and many even of the theologians. The scope of canon law was small; the Church never acquired a legalistic outlook. Nor did the ecclesiastical establishment acquire an overriding authority. In the West ‘the Church’ came in ordinary parlance to mean the hierarchy and the priesthood. In the East the Church always meant the whole body of Christians, past, present and future, including the angels in heaven. The priesthood was not a class apart. Communion in both kinds continued to be administered to the laity.3

There was thus never any serious conflict in the East between the lay and ecclesiastical authorities. The Patriarch was a great personage; he was, so to speak, the keeper of the Empire’s conscience. But the Emperor was the unquestioned head of the Oecumene, God’s living viceroy on earth. The whole Eastern Church viewed with disapproval the desire felt by the Western Church in the middle ages to subordinate all lay powers to the authority of the supreme Pontiff. But the accusation of Caesaropapism often levelled against the Byzantine Church is not just, however applicable it might become to the Church in Tsarist Russia. The Orthodox believed in making the distinction between the things which are Caesar’s and the things which are God’s, though they might dispute about the exact place where the line should be drawn.

This attitude had its weakness. The reluctance to make of theology a complete philosophical system led to a reluctance to make of religion a complete guide for the conduct of life. It was for the ministers of the Church to uphold morality and to denounce sin; but the daily ordering of existence should be left to the lay authorities. As a result the hierarchy in the East could never exercise the same moral influence as the hierarchy in the West; and the attitude goes far to explain the curious dichotomy in the Byzantine character, with its intense and genuine piety and conviction that life in this world was but the prelude to the true life to come, and its practical, self-seeking, cynical and often unscrupulous handling of mundane affairs.

The weakness was enhanced by the structure of the Eastern hierarchy. In the Western Empire Rome had always been the one great metropolis. Only the African cities could rival her; and the African bishoprics never fully recovered from the Donatist schism. The impact of the barbarian invasions made it all the more necessary for the Roman bishopric to insist on her pre-eminence. She was left as the heir of the Roman Empire, sitting crowned on the ruins thereof, not a ghost, as Hobbes imagined, but a living vigorous force, the guardian not only of the Faith but of the traditions of Roman civilization. Amid the political disruption of the West it was inevitable that men should long for unity and should see in the Roman Pontiff the one power that was in a position to maintain unity. In the East there had been many great cities. Each had its church, none of which was ready to submit to the dominance of a rival. The historian Dion Cassius truly remarked that there is no equivalent in Greek to the Latin word auctoritas;4 and this dislike of authority characterized the churches in the Greek world. It is possible that, but for the destruction of the city in a.d. 70, the Church of Jerusalem under the vigorous leadership of James, the son of Joseph, and his successors, might have established a hegemony, though the Gentile Churches would doubtless have soon rebelled against its judaistic tendencies.5 As it was, each Church in the East was held to be of equal rank. The Holy Spirit had descended equally to all the Apostles at Pentecost; and their successors, the bishops, thus enjoyed charismatic equality. None could dictate to any other on matters of faith or doctrine. If such decisions were needed, then all bishops, representing all the churches, should come together, and the Holy Spirit would descend again as at Pentecost. But in time administrative needs led to the creation of an ordered hierarchy. Bishops were grouped together under metropolitans; and the bishops of the two greatest cities of the East, Alexandria and Antioch, each acquired certain disciplinary rights over a vast province; and each eventually was given the title of Patriarch. But there was a lack of uniformity. Certain Churches, such as that of Cyprus, the Church of St Barnabas, were recognized as being disciplinarily autonomous, just as certain archbishops were free of metropolitan control. In the West it was difficult to maintain in practice that all bishops were equal when the Roman Pontiff so obviously overtopped them all. Even the Easterners admitted him, as bishop of the Imperial City, to be the senior hierarch in Christendom, whose views and rulings were entitled to special respect. The position was complicated by the foundation of a new Imperial capital at Constantinople, whose bishop had, reasonably, to be raised to Patriarchal rank and given disciplinary authority over a great province. But the Patriarch of Constantinople, with his power restricted on the one side by the presence and the overriding majesty of the Emperor and on the other by the democracy of the Church and the egalitarian claims of the bishops, could never attain the status enjoyed by the Pope in the West. These restrictions, combined with the looser attitude of the Orthodox towards theology and their definite dislike of a monolithic structure, weakened the administrative cohesion and efficacy of the Church organization.

The strength and the weakness of the Byzantine Orthodox ecclesiastical organization and religious outlook were to be revealed when the Church had to undergo the cruellest fate that can befall a community: sudden subjection to an alien and infidel domination. It is the aim of this study to examine the effects of the Ottoman conquest upon Greek ecclesiastical history and religious life. But it is necessary first to give a picture of the Byzantine Church as it was during the last centuries of its independence, in order to assess the consequences of the conquest and of the long years of servitude.

The history of the Church of Constantinople can be roughly divided into four epochs up to the Turkish conquest. The first lasts from the foundation of the new capital to the Arab invasions of Syria and Egypt. Christendom was still undivided and nominally conterminous with the old Roman Empire, whose official religion it had recently become. But already divergences were appearing. Many centers, in particular the three great religious metropoles of Rome, Alexandria and Antioch, were developing their own characteristic theological outlook; and the differences were enhanced and complicated by great Christological controversies. Arianism had spread through Christendom without a definite core and therefore died out, except amongst the barbarians settled in the West, where the challenge of Arianism. guided theological developments. Nestorianism, the product of the Antiochene school, failed within the Empire. The Nestorians went off to build up their remarkable missionary church under alien domination. Monophysitism, the product of the Alexandrian school, was more successful. Helped by political dissatisfaction, it resulted in the establishment of heretic churches in Syria and Egypt which drew off most of the congregations there. But its successes were local; neither it nor Nestorianism found adherents in the Western world, which was little touched by the problems that they raised. In the official Church the Roman view in general prevailed — largely, so cynical orientals thought, because the crudity of the Latin language prevented Roman theologians from appreciating the nicer points at issue and enabled them thus to provide comprehensive formulae. During these controversies the Church of Constantinople played a not very impressive part. It was something of a parvenu church, and it was seated at the seat of the secular government. Its hierarchs were too often required to express the views of the Emperor of the moment; and there was as yet no strong local tradition to counter Imperial influence. The great Cappadocian Fathers of the fourth century and John Chrysostom a generation later were beginning to build up a characteristic school of thought. But it was not till we come to Maximus the Confessor at the end of the period that we begin to see a definite Constantinopolitan theology.6

The second period lasts from the Arab invasions of the seventh century to the Turkish invasions of the eleventh. Alexandria and Antioch have now passed under infidel rule and will never again play a leading part in Church history. Rome has her own troubles and is only fitfully concerned with the East. Constantinople is now the unquestioned capital of Christian civilization. The bounds of its Patriarchate are roughly those of the Empire, making of it a national church, the church of the Empire, the oecumene, as the Byzantines now, with philological inaccuracy, called the dominions subject to the Emperor. The proximity of the Imperial government was still an occasional cause of embarrassment to the Church authorities. The long and bitter quarrels over Iconoclasm, when a succession of Emperors tried to force a controversial doctrine on a mainly unwilling people, had to be resolved before Church and State could settle down together in a relationship that remained undefined but, apart from minor disturbances, was generally accepted and understood.7 With the close of the controversy Byzantine theology can be said to have taken on its lasting characteristics. The Liturgy and the practices of the Church were established in forms that have scarcely been altered since that day. There were no fundamental theological disputes for some centuries. The Church shared in the prosperity of the Empire and worked together with the State on great missionary enterprises. Among the most splendid achievements of the period were the conversion of the Balkan Slavs to Orthodox Christianity in the ninth century and the conversion of the Russians at the end of the tenth.

The period that followed was one of decadence and transition. The Turkish invasions, though they were stemmed, resulted in the loss to the Empire of most of Anatolia, its chief granary and source of manpower. The Church suffered along with the State. The Christian life of Anatolia came almost to a halt. Many Christians fled to the coastlands or to greater safety beyond the sea. Others allowed themselves to be converted to the conquering faith of Islam. The rest remained as Christian enclaves in partibus infidelium, impoverished and half-isolated. At the same time the Empire had to face Norman invasions from the West and the loss of Byzantine Italy, and the claims of the reformed Hildebrandine Papacy. All these factors led to the movement which we call the Crusades; from which at first Byzantium gained certain material advantages, but which led to worsening relations between Eastern and Western Christendom. Early in the period there had been a bitter quarrel between the Churches of Constantinople and Rome; and before the period was over political misunderstandings combined with religious rivalry to produce enmity and open schism, till the climax was reached of the Fourth Crusade.8

The Latin conquest, temporary though it proved to be, ushered in the final period of Byzantine political and ecclesiastical history. The religious life of Byzantium and its whole moral and intellectual atmosphere during the last two centuries before the fall of Constantinople were fundamentally affected by the disruption and shock of the Latin conquest, by the courageous revival of the Greeks and by the disintegration and decay that followed ironically soon after their recovery of Constantinople. It is necessary to remember this political background. The Crusaders failed in their attempt to annex the whole Empire. They, jointly with the Venetians, held Constantinople for half a century. Frankish lordships in Greece itself and in the islands lasted for some two centuries; and the Venetians acquired some islands and ports of strategic and commercial value. But Byzantium lasted on in exile, based round the ancient city of Nicaea. The Nicaean Empire provides one of the most admirable episodes in Byzantine history.

It was ably ruled, first by Theodore Lascaris, son-in-law of one of the last Emperors, and then by his son-in-law John Vatatzes, an even more remarkable man. Though there had been other Greek succession states, the Despotate of the Angeli in Epirus and the Empire of the Grand Comnenus at Trebizond, the Nicaean Empire was soon recognized by most Greeks as the legitimate Empire. The Despotate of Epirus faded out about the end of the thirteenth century; and, though the Empire of Trebizond was to outlive the Empire of Constantinople and remained a commercial and intellectual center of some importance, it played only a minor part in international history. It was with the efficient Empire of the Nicaeans that the future seemed to lie. John Vatatzes’s son, Theodore II, was a man of high intellectual tastes but no politician. On his death in 1258 the throne was seized by an ambitious noble, Michael Palaeologus, founder of the last Byzantine dynasty. He not only began the reconquest of the Greek peninsula, but in 1261 his troops entered Constantinople, and extinguished the Latin Empire.9

For Byzantium, religiously as well as politically, the recovery of the capital was a moral triumph and a triumph of prestige. But it created new difficulties. To rehabilitate Constantinople was costly. An alliance had been made with the Genoese, in order to counter the Venetians; and the Genoese had to be paid with concessions that virtually gave them control of the Empire’s commerce. The West burned for revenge; and Michael could only protect himself by an expensive foreign policy and by promises of union with Rome which offended most of his ecclesiastics, who were already hostile to him owing to the unscrupulous circumstances of his usurpation. The treasure accumulated by the thrifty Nicaean Emperors was spent. Unwise economies were made over the defense of the eastern frontier. There seemed to be no immediate danger there; whereas in the Balkans the Bulgarian Empire of the Asen dynasty had been a potential threat, and now the Serbian Empire of the Urós dynasty was growing ominously powerful.

Michael’s European policy was effective. There was no apparent challenge from the West during the reign of his son, Andronicus II, who was therefore able to make peace with his Church by jettisoning his father’s ecclesiastical schemes. But Serbian power was increasing; and the weakened eastern frontier was threatened by a vigorous Turkish emir called Osman, whose people, known from his name as the Osmanlis or Ottomans, began to encroach into the Empire. The Emperor was short of soldiers and rashly hired a mercenary band of Catalans. The Catalan company turned against its employer, blockaded Constantinople for two years, ravaged all the provinces and introduced the Turks into Europe, before retiring to establish itself at Athens. Andronicus II’s reign ended in revolt; he was dethroned by his grandson, Andronicus III, in 1328.

Decay continued under the new Emperor. The Serbs were at their zenith under the great king Stephen Dusan, and seemed for a time likely to absorb the whole of Byzantium. The Ottoman advance continued. Brusa had fallen in 1326. Nicaea fell in 1329 and Nicomedia in 1337; and soon almost the whole of Byzantine Asia was lost. When Andronicus III died in 1341 his son, John V, was a child. He was to reign for fifty years, during which he was driven from power first by his father-in-law, John VI Cantacuzenus, from 1347 to 1355, then, from 1376 to 1379, by his son Andronicus IV, and lastly, for a while in 1390, by his grandson John VII. The civil war with John Cantacuzenus was particularly bitter and harmful. Religious as well as political issues were involved. In the midst of it there was a disastrous visitation of the Black Death, in which about a third of the Empire’s population seems to have perished. Both sides called in Ottoman aid, with the result that the Ottoman Sultan was able to establish himself irremovably in Europe. By the time of John V’s death in 1391 the Ottoman Empire had annexed Bulgaria and most of Serbia and stretched to the Danube, with its capital at Adrianople, in Thrace. The Emperor’s dominions were restricted to the cities and environs of Constantinople and Thessalonica (though that was temporarily in Turkish hands), to a few coastal cities in Thrace, and to most of the Peloponnese, where a cadet of the Imperial house was Despot.

John V’s ultimate successor, his younger son Manuel II, was unable to stem the decay. It seemed clear that the Empire was doomed to fall into the hands of the Turks unless help came; and only the powers of Western Europe were in a position to provide help. But their price was religious union, a price which most Byzantines were not prepared to pay. John V had gone to Italy to seek for allies and had personally submitted to the Pope at Rome. But he could not carry his people with him, and he ended his Italian tour detained for debt at Venice. Manuel II traveled as far as Paris and London in his search for aid, but avoided committing himself to Church union. One Western army came to fight the Turks but was crushed by them at Nicopolis in 1396. There was a respite next year when the Turks, who had just begun to lay siege to Constantinople, were forced to withdraw to face the armies of Timur the Tartar. Their defeat by Timur led to civil wars, in which Manuel managed to recover a little territory. But they soon recovered. In 1422 they were again before Constantinople, only retiring because of plots within the Ottoman dynasty. In 1423 the governor of Thessalonica, despairing of the future, sold his city to the Venetians; but the Ottoman Sultan took it from them seven years later.10

Manuel II died in 1425. His eldest son, John VIII, less prudent and more desperate than his father, journeyed to Italy and pledged his Empire to union with Rome at the Council of Florence in X439- The union was bitterly opposed at Constantinople. Had it resulted in effective aid, the opposition might have been silenced; but the one ensuing Western expedition was annihilated by the Turks at Varna in 1444. John died at the end of 1448, in an atmosphere of bitterness and gloom. His successor, his brother Constantine XI, was a brave and capable man; but there was nothing that he could do. In 1451 the Ottoman throne passed to a young man of high brilliance and ruthless ambition, Mehmet II, who was to be surnamed the Conqueror. Early in April, 1453, he laid siege to Constantinople. After a heroic defense lasting for six weeks it fell to him on 29 May 1453. In 1460 his troops overran the Peloponnese. In 1461 they extinguished the Empire of Trebizond. Greek independence was ended.11

It was in this atmosphere of gathering gloom that the Byzantines lived during the last two centuries of their Empire. The disillusion was all the more bitter because the period of the Nicaean Emperors had been one of regeneration and hope, and the recovery of Constantinople had seemed to open a new era of glory. There was always an element of pessimism in Byzantium. Even in its most splendid days men had whispered of prophecies foretelling that the Empire would perish. On stones in the city and in the books of such great seers and magicians as Apollonius of Tyana and the Emperor Leo the Wise the lists of all the Emperors had been given, and the names were drawing to an end. It was natural that in the deepening darkness many of the Byzantines should seek refuge in mysticism and should emphasize the other-worldly side of their faith. Yet, paradoxically, the cultural life of Byzantium was never so brilliant as in the two centuries before its fall. The art of the period was perhaps the most beautiful and certainly the most human that Byzantium ever produced; and it was produced so long as there was money to pay for it. The intellectual brilliance lasted on to the end, led by scholars whose vigour and originality were as fine as any of their forefathers’ and whose renown spread to foreign lands. Many of these scholars hoped that regeneration might still be achieved, even though it might involve integration with the West and an abandonment of ancient traditions. But others believed that there could be no escape from the coming political doom and that the only task to be performed was to see that the Faith and all that it meant did not perish in the holocaust. This conflict, complicated by crosscurrents, gave a bitter intensity to the religious life of the dying Empire, adding to the problems that faced the harassed Church.12

These problems can be roughly grouped under five headings. First, there was the problem of the organization of the Church; how could the machine be kept adaptable enough to meet the needs of the changing political world? Secondly, there was the problem of the relations between Church and State, which needed adjustment, now that the Emperor ruled effectively over a small and dwindling proportion of the Orthodox congregations. Thirdly, what was the relationship of the Byzantine Church to be with other Churches, in particular the great Church of the West, now that Western Europe was, materially and culturally, taking the lead in Christendom? Fourthly, what were the duties of the Church towards education, especially now that the secular State was collapsing? Fifthly, new controversies over theology had arisen, touching especially on the deep and delicate question of mysticism; and their repercussions had not been stilled.

All these problems were intertwined; and they had not been resolved when the infidel conquerors came, bringing in their train problems for which it would be even harder to find a solution.

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