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Schism: Schism in Christian History
Schism: Schism in Christian History

Emerged in the 1st century AD, Christianity over several centuries from a marginal Jewish sect was able to turn into the state religion of the Roman Empire. The official status demanded a strong organization - the patriarchies were created, headed by the powerful Pope. Large expanses, which were under the power of the clergy, did not contribute to consolidation - the Christian Church, for various reasons, was often shaken by schisms and schisms. They have had a significant impact on the history of religion and its earthly organization.

Akakian schism - the first spat between East and West

The early years of the Christian Church were marked by incessant theological controversy. The fragile church organization could not adequately respond to various philosophical challenges that arose from different sides - numerous trends arose throughout the Christian world, primarily due to the fact that the clergy did not have time to unify dogmas.

Theological disputes took on an especially acute character on the territory of Byzantium. The main problem was the assessment of the nature of Jesus Christ - more precisely, his "human" and "divine" essence. The first trend that was condemned at the Third (Ephesus) church council in 431 was Nestorianism, according to which these two essences of the son of God were a complete symmetry. Moreover, the divine essence of Christ is manifested only after his baptism.


Mosaic of the Catholic Cathedral of St. Patrick in the city of Armagh. Source:

Disputes about the nature of Jesus Christ did not subside after the condemnation of Nestorianism and became one of the reasons for the "Akakian Schism" - the first serious schism between the Western and Eastern Christian churches. It was caused by controversies that arose after the Chalcedonian Ecumenical Council, at which the official church condemned Monophysitism (supporters of this trend recognized only the divine nature of Christ). After this decision, Byzantium began to drown in all kinds of uprisings in its provinces - separatist sentiments were often intertwined with disagreement with the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon.

The Byzantine emperor Zeno the Isaurian, with the support of the Patriarch of Constantinople Akaki (it was his name that was named after the schism), tried to reconcile the warring currents in 482 with the help of the Enoticon, a confessional message. However, Pope Felix III saw in this act a departure from the decrees of the Council of Chalcedon and deposed Akakios.

The open split of the Eastern and Western Churches lasted for 35 years - until Emperor Justin I, who sought to settle relations with Rome, rejected Enoticon. In 518, in Constantinople, anathema was proclaimed to those who rejected the decisions of the Council of Chalcedon, and the following year the unity of Christianity was restored. Nevertheless, the strife in the Eastern Church continued - the rejection of Enoitkon led to the isolation of a number of patriarchates - for example, the Armenian Church, which still does not recognize the decision in Chalcedon.


V. Surikov. Fourth Ecumenical Council of Chalcedon. 1876. Source:

Fotiev's schism: the patriarch against the Pope

In 863, the Pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople again found a reason to break off relations. However, this time the situation was more serious - both pontiffs anathematized each other. Pope Nicholas I and Patriarch Photius initiated the next major schism in the Christian Church, named after the latter: the Photius Schism.

By this time, a sufficient number of differences in theological issues between the West and the East had accumulated. Photius, who was elected patriarch of Constantinople in 857 and had nothing to do with the church before (his appointment was caused by the internal political struggle in Byzantium), seriously criticized Western liturgies, the Roman interpretation of the Holy Trinity and opposed celibacy. Political differences were added to theological disputes: the Bulgarian Tsar Boris I, having been baptized according to the Byzantine model, strove for an alliance with Rome.

The split ended immediately after Photius was removed from the post of patriarch after another coup d'├ętat in Byzantium. At the Fourth Council of Constantinople, the new head of the Byzantine Church, Ignatius and Pope Nicholas I, condemned the teachings of the deposed cleric, announced the reunification of the churches, but Rome was forced to recognize Bulgaria as part of the sphere of influence of the Eastern Roman Empire.


Interrogation of Photius. Illustration from the illustrated manuscript "Review of History". Source:

Photios regained the patriarchate after the death of Ignatius, but there was no longer any talk of enmity with the Papacy. At the St. Sophia Cathedral in 879, the cleric's good name was restored.

Great Schism - the beginning of Catholicism and Orthodoxy

For theological, political, and cultural reasons, the Eastern and Western Christian Churches have become increasingly distant from each other, despite the declared unity. The examples of the Akakian and Fotiev schism showed that very soon the matter could end in a real rupture, final and irrevocable. It happened in 1054, becoming the logical result of the centuries-old confrontation between Constantinople and Rome.

In 1053, Patriarch Michael Kerularius of Constantinople, through the southern Italian bishops (at that time they were subordinate to the Eastern Church), turned to his Western colleagues and Pope Leo IX with harsh criticism of many ceremonies - from the sacrament to Lent. Moreover, in Constantinople in the same year, by order of the patriarch, Latin churches were closed.

The following year, the Pope sent legates headed by Cardinal Humbert to the East for negotiations and passed on counterclaims with him. But Leo IX went further - he accused Kerularius of wanting the article by the "ecumenical" patriarch (that is, to claim the place of the Pope in the hierarchy) and, relying on the "Gift of Constantine", demanded submission from the Patriarch of Constantinople. The head of the Eastern Church himself strove to avoid contact with papal ambassadors, but he strongly rejected the demand for obedience. Then on July 16, 1054 (after the death of Leo IX), the papal legates laid a letter on the altar of the church of St. Sophia, which, among other things, said: "Viedat Deus et judicet."


Church division map. Source:

A few days later, on July 20, the council in Constantinople declared anathema to all who had drawn up the papal charter. From that time on, the Western and Eastern Christian Churches were officially divided. Despite this, during the First Crusade there was a temporary rapprochement between the Patriarch of Constantinople and the Pope, but reconciliation was out of the question. Only in 1965 were the anathemas lifted.

The Great Western Schism: One Pope Is Good, Two Is Better

In 1378, two people were simultaneously elected to the Holy See, supported by different European rulers. Such cases have happened before in the history of the Christian church, but it was the events of the XIV century that led to the largest crisis, later called the Great Western Schism.

Where did the two Popes come from? This is due to the consequences of the famous Avignon captivity: for 68 years, the pontiffs were in charge of church affairs from Avignon, in France. At this time, the French kings exerted a great influence on the papal curia, and the transfer of the seat of the Holy See consolidated the servitude of the clergy.

This state of affairs ended in 1377 when Pope Gregory IX decided to return to Italy. It was then that the Vatican became the capital of world Catholicism. A year later, the pontiff died, and in his place, under pressure from the Romans, the Neapolitan Urban VI was elected. He announced the intention to carry out reforms in the Papacy, first of all - the reform of the curia and consistory, which could not but worry the cardinals. The pro-French high officials of the Holy See chose their pope, Clement VII, who returned to Avignon. Each created its own administrative system and was supported by the major powers of that time - the Avignon Pope was under the patronage of France, and the Roman Pope was under the patronage of England.


Map showing the position of the European powers in the split. Source:

In 1409, even a third Pope, Alexander V, appeared, located in Pisa. He was elected at a church council to reconcile the warring pontiffs, but they refused to come to the negotiations. Ten years later, the arbiter in the conflict was the Holy Roman Emperor Sigismund I. At the Ecumenical Council in Constanta in 1417, all three Popes were deposed, and Martin V was elected in their place.

The split of the Russian Church: Nikon against the Old Believers

Religious and political strife did not pass by the Russian Orthodox Church, which officially became independent from Constantinople in 1589. Nevertheless, in the middle of the 17th century, Tsar Alexei Mikhailovich and Patriarch Nikon decided to carry out church reform aimed at unifying the liturgy and correcting church books. The radical steps of the reformers were caused by the desire to prove in practice the continuity of the Russian Church in relation to the Church of Constantinople, especially since the recently annexed territories of Little Russia were religiously closer to Byzantine rather than Russian traditions.

In 1654, reforms were announced at the church council. Almost immediately, there were those who refused to accept the innovation - they were anathematized two years later, but the persecution of "Old Believers", defenders of already established traditions, began immediately after the announcement of the changes. Archpriest Avvakum Petrov became the moral leader of those who resisted, despite the persecution, who actively criticized Nikon and his reforms.

The deposition of Patriarch Nikon in 1666, however, did not stop the schism. The Great Moscow Church Council confirmed the decisions of twelve years ago, and Avvakum's refusal from his views predetermined his fate: the rebellious archpriest was exiled to Pustozersk, where he continued his criticism of the church and the tsar. In 1682, together with his supporters, he was martyred by burning.


P. Myasoedov. Burning of Archpriest Avvakum. 1897. Source:

The confrontation between the Old Believers and the Russian Orthodox Church continued for many more years and was accompanied by severe persecution of the former. Only starting from the 19th century, in religious matters, there were indications of indulgence towards the zealots of the old faith, and in 1971 the Local Council of the Russian Orthodox Church finally "rehabilitated" the Old Believers.

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