Oxford history of the christian church

III. The Age of Photius (843-886)

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III. The Age of Photius (843-886).

1. Patriarch Methodius (843-847): the first patriarchate of Ignatius (847-858).

Methodius was faced with the problem caused by those who had lapsed during the second period of iconoclasm. Here he began by acting with some severity. He deposed those bishops who had returned to iconoclasm under Leo the Armenian and his successors and likewise all who had been ordained by such bishops after their lapse. 1 At the same time he had to provide the Church with an adequate episcopate in order to ensure the continuity of its daily life. He evidently had difficulty in finding sufficient candidates of moderate outlook who could satisfy all the canonical requirements and in some cases he appears to have relaxed these, thus incurring the criticism of his extremist opponents. A policy of this kind, regarded by Methodius as being in the best interests of the Church, inevitably roused the rigorist monastic element whose firm antagonism to any kind of oeconomia was accompanied by an equally firm conviction that they were called upon to play a leading, even a decisive, role in ecclesiastical affairs. They no doubt felt that they themselves could provide excellent candidates better fitted for episcopal office. The acute difficulties experienced by Methodius are reflected in his unhappy relations with the followers of Theodore Studites during the years 845-6. Certain bishops and abbots in the extremist party evidently voiced publicly their criticism of the Patriarch's appointments and were penalized for this. 2 Methodius then asked the Studites to repudiate Theodore's writings against the Patriarchs Tarasius and Nicephorus and their policy of compromise, as indeed Theodore himself in the end seems to have done. They refused. They were therefore anathematized, and possibly cursed (the formal ecclesiastical katathema). It was pointed out that the fourth canon of Chalcedon required monks to live apart from the world and to refrain from meddling in ecclesiastical or temporal affairs. 3 A schism resulted.

This action was apparently still unresolved at Methodius's death, even though just before he died the Patriarch tried to make his peace with the recalcitrant monks. He explicitly stated in his testament that he forgave those who had flouted the patriarchal authority and he desired to receive them back into the Church, but again only on condition that they repudiated Theodore Studites' criticism of Tarasius and Niccphorus. 4 Methodius, like his more moderate predecessors, had had to face the growing challenge, not so much of the authority of the isolated holy man, but of an increasingly powerful monastic party. These monks regarded themselves as the guardians of the Orthodox faith and as watch-dogs to ensure the rigorous observance of canon law. This was an element that was to persist within the Byzantine polity. Originally led by the Studites, in the later middle ages this movement was to some extent centred in the monastic communities of Mount Athos. It was not always victorious, but it could certainly not be ignored.

On Methodius's death both the monastic party and their opponents had their candidates. The choice rested with the Empress Theodora who opted for Ignatius, a son of the Emperor Michael I Rangabe. From an early age Ignatius had been a monk and at the time of his election was abbot of a house on one of the Princes Islands. Theodora did not however observe the normal procedure of receiving from the synod three nominations from which to select and to this extent Ignatius's election might be considered irregular. Though a monk, Ignatius had not so far shown himself to be a strong Studite partisan and it might have been hoped that he would take a midway stance and conciliate the two opposing parties. But this was not so. Ignatius proved to be neither wise nor tactful. He was drawn into the monastic party and at the same time also became involved in imperial politics on the side of the Empress Theodora whose authority was being challenged by her brother Bardas and the young Emperor Michael III. Ignatius's anti-Methodian feelings were evidenced by his public and ill-judged antagonism towards the friend of Methodius, the Sicilian Gregory Asbestas, archbishop of Syracuse. Gregory had been accused of canonical irregularity in consecrating the bishop of Taormina and his case was still sub judice. It was possibly for this reason that Ignatius declared that his status was suspended, but this is not clear. 5 When Gregory took his place in the procession at the patriarchal enthronement in Hagia Sophia Ignatius told him that he had no right to be there and with such rudeness that Gregory flung out in a rage, declaring that the Church had been given a wolf instead of a pastor. He was followed by some of his supporters. Gregory and two of his friends were subsequently condemned, possibly for continued opposition to Ignatius, and they were deposed by the Constantinopolitan synod, 6 whereupon both sides appealed to Rome. Evidence on both the cause and the sequence of events in this episode seems conflicting, but there can be no doubt that the Methodians and the Ignatians were now bitterly opposed. 7

Ignatius's own downfall was closely related to the fate of his supporter, the Empress Theodora. In 856 she was displaced and her chief minister, the logothete Theoctistus, was assassinated. Her son, Michael III, was declared of age and her brother, the influential Bardas, took control. He was a cultivated, urbane, and ambitious man, the very antithesis of Ignatius, the monk who despised secular learning. Ignatius, no doubt aware of Bardas's scorn of him, unwisely tried to undermine his authority by bringing various apparently unproved charges against him, including incest. In late 857 or early 858 he forbade him to enter Hagia Sophia for the usual Epiphany services. 8 Further, he refused to support the Empress Theodora's forced entry into monastic life. In 858 it was said that he had been involved in an anti-Bardas plot. For this alleged treason he was exiled to Terebinthus, an island two miles east of Principo in the sea of Marmora.

Negotiations, and almost certainly some pressure, resulted in Ignatius's resignation, 9 but only on terms 10 which were interpreted by the Ignatians as implying that the new Patriarch would not repudiate any of Ignatius's patriarchal actions and would remain in communion with him. This would mean in practice the recognition of the legitimacy of Ignatius's ordinations, despite the irregularity of his election, and might be supposed to include approval of his promonastic policy, in so far as this had favoured the extremists. The new Patriarch, Photius, appears to have agreed to certain conditions and he was enthroned some time before 25 December 858.

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