The background of the Western schisms

[Chapter 2 of Catholicity: A Study in the Conflict of Christian Traditions in the West (Dacre Press, 1947), pp.18-19]

[18] The loss of ‘wholeness’ became notorious and palpable with the schisms of the sixteenth century. Some who have idealised the Middle Ages have spoken as if the wholeness was first seriously broken by the Reformers. But many of the features most open to criticism in the Reformation period were the perpetuation or extension of mediaeval faults. Going further back, we cannot fail to see that great damage was done by the schism between East and West, and the evils which led to it. Indeed, since the wholeness of the Christian Tradition is a spiritual thing, it has always been threatened by every evil which has attacked Christendom. Such ominous phenomena as Marcionism, Montanism, Novatianism and Donatism anticipate in many respects the divisive movements of more recent times.

Of all the factors which have helped to maintain the wholeness of the Tradition, the greatest is without doubt the Christian liturgy: partly because the Dominical Sacraments which it enshrines gather up in themselves the fulness of the mystery of the Redemption, and partly because the Eucharistic action and the text of the Divine Office are mainly composed of Biblical material, and thus preserve to the Church the concrete ideas and imagery in which Scripture conveys the truths of Revelation. The Creeds are formal and balanced statements of the faith which the Church maintained in its wholeness against heretical infringements of it.1

As we have seen, then, grievous harm was done to the Tradition by the breach between East and West. The difference of language made contact more difficult, while after Chalcedon Alexandria ceased to function as the intermediary between East and West, and the Mohammedan conquest of North Africa broke the sea communications. The West went into its Dark Ages when the barbarian invasions broke up the civilisation of the Empire, and the Church could only labour to save as much as possible from the ruin. But when a reconstruction began, contact with the East had been lost; and the new shape of things consisted of a new administrative legalism2 resulting [18/19] in clericalism; of a new theological rationalism in the scholastic systems; and (somewhat later) of a new individualistic piety. All this the East might have corrected. It had built up a social structure in which the Church was in close contact with social life but without becoming clericalist; it had retained a sense of the integrity of the faith, regarding the Redemption as accomplished in the Incarnation, Cross, Resurrection, Ascension, the gift of the Spirit and the Second Advent, and never isolating the Crucifixion as the West did; and it had always realised the corporateness of worship and the share of the Church on earth in the Communion of Saints. Where the West was moral, the East was mystical.

The East, for its part, has, however, even more markedly failed to learn from the West than the West has failed to learn from the East. Where the West has never allowed Caesar to make law in the things of God, the Byzantine Church became too dependent on the civil power. It has continually failed to translate its high spiritual principles into moral practice. It has suffered loss, also, through remaining outside the main stream of European history: it missed both Renaissance and Reformation, and it has only lately been introduced to Darwinism and Biblical criticism. Yet in this there has been gain as well as loss. The loss was that the East did not help in the solution of the new problems which these events presented; the gain was that it preserved old traditions uncontaminated, so that in regaining contact with the East, the West has made an invigorating re-discovery of truths which it had forgotten.

We cannot therefore think of a wholeness remaining substantially intact until 1054, or until 1520. The Western tradition which split up in the sixteenth century was already a defective tradition, and the reconstruction which began in the age of Charlemagne was undertaken with defective materials. Even the idea of a schism within Western Christendom was not new: for a large part of the fourteenth century there had been two and sometimes three rival Popes. The wholeness to which Christians today need to return is not that of the West in isolation from the East; nor yet will it be attained by the mere juxtaposition of Eastern and Western traditions. None the less, to make contact with the Orthodox East and understand its mind is not to run away from the Western problem, but rather to dig in the direction of its roots.

This separated Western tradition has in its turn broken down into the three main types of Christianity with which the modern world is familiar: orthodox Protestantism, Liberalism, and post-Tridentine Catholicism. These three types are all represented in the Church of England, but in order to understand even our Anglican problems it is necessary first to deal with them separately.

[Next: Chapter 3a: Orthodox Protestantism ]

1. Hence the Anglican appeal to ‘the first four General Councils’, or ‘the first six centuries’, and the explanation in the second Preface to the Book of Common Prayer that the endeavour is there made to return to the godly order of service provided by the ancient Fathers, all express a sense of the need to recover and retain the primitive ‘wholeness’.

2. The Canon Law was built up from the eleventh century on the basis of a revived study of the Civil Law.