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Orthodox England - fact or fiction? A reply to Simon Dennerly's "ROCOR rewrites history to convert Anglicans"

Orthodox England - fact or fiction? A reply to Simon Dennerly's "ROCOR rewrites history to convert Anglicans"

By the Rev. Dr. Frederik Irenaeus Herzberg
Special to Virtueonline
July 6, 2019

Recently, a piece appeared on Virtueonline https://virtueonline.org/rocor-rewrites-history-convert-anglicans which argues that the Western Rite Vicariate of the Russian Orthodox Church Outside of Russia "rewrites history to convert Anglicans". Its author takes exception to the claim of senior clergy of said jurisdiction that England "remained in union with the East" after 1054, while elsewhere in the West communion with the East was suspended. Unfortunately, he also includes a number of grievous ad hominem attacks on clergy of this jurisdiction, but I am in no position to respond to these statements, having no connections with these brethren except for a common Faith.

By contrast, the author's historical assertion, can easily be refuted. To begin with, it must be remembered that the immediate effects of the Great Schism of 1054, as opposed to its long-term ramifications, are commonly overestimated in popular literature on the topic. For, on that infamous (and in hindsight fateful) day in 1054, the papal legate Cardinal Humbert excommunicated only Patriarch Michael Cerularius himself - and even this without a valid mandate, the Pope having left the church militant prior to these events. Likewise, Patriarch Michael through his Synod shortly afterwards excommunicated only the papal legates. The widening chasm between East and West was thus, at this
time, still primarily theological, not yet sacramentally and canonically defined. It was not until 1099 that rival jurisdictions were erected, starting with the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem -- and even this may have been partially due to Eastern reservations concerning the Roman rite or thinly-veiled ambitions of crusader clergy. Whilst political and cultural tensions between East and West grew tremendously after the Latin massacre of 1182 and the sack of Constantinople 1204, the medieval centuries did not pass without more conciliatory periods, so that for instance the Council of Lyon 1272 still commenced with a joint celebration of the Eucharist. Therefore, the burden of proof in this matter squarely rests with those who claim that England was not in communion with the East well before 1099. And it is rather improbable that they will ever succeed in this, as we shall see below.

(It must be noted, if only in passing, that 1054 was not the first time when excommunications were exchanged between Rome and Constantinople. For example, Pope Felix went into schism with Patriarch Acacius in 484 over the latter's sympathies for critics of the novel christological terminology defined by the Council of Chalcedon; the schism lasted 35 years. Later, Patriarch Photius deposed Pope Nicholas I over the latter's insistence on - an early form of - papal primacy of jurisdiction.)

However, some English-speaking proponents of Western Rite Orthodoxy go beyond the relatively cautious statement that England remained de facto and de iure in communion with the East at least until 1066. Rather they claim, in addition, that this communion was terminated very soon after 1066. Establishing this hypothesis beyond reasonable doubt would indeed constitute quite a scholarly challenge. However, at the very least an argument of plausibility can be adduced for this claim. The underlying reason for this is the fact that the theological rift between Rome and Constantinople in the 11th century was largely due to the increasingly vocal claims of papal supremacy, especially with Pope Leo's prelude to the Gregorian Reform and ever-more stringent papal centralisation. The mutual excommunications of 1054 were the logical consequence of the loss of a common shared doctrine of the Church.

Now, here comes the point: The Anglo-Saxon Church at the time did side, whether consciously or not, with the East in its theological and practical rejection of much of the ultramontane, centralising reforms of Pope Leo IX and his successors. Whether this resistance resulted from deep Orthodox conviction or rather from ecclesio-political considerations is hard to ascertain. But this question is also not pertinent to the present discussion. In any case, Archbishop Stigand of Canterbury did not recognise the excommunications pronounced against him by successive Popes (for his uncanonical possession of two
dioceses), nor did he consider it necessary for the first few years of his archiepiscopate to receive the pallium, the token of papal appointment. To be sure, Stigand's canonical status in the English Church was considered somewhat controversial, due to his excommunication and his being eventually granted a pallium from an anti-pope. Consequently, he probably neither presided at coronations nor was he able to keep episcopal candidates of his province from seeking consecration abroad, Yet the fact remains that he was allowed to remain in office as Primate of All England in spite of multiple papal excommunications. The English Church therefore emphatically did not accept the papal juridical prerogatives that were the rationale behind the 1054 excommunication of Patriarch Michael Cerularius by Cardinal Humbert.

The ecclesiastical climate in England did change significantly after 1066. Whilst Stigand was able to keep his position for a few more years due to his tremendous economic influence, he was deposed, at the urging of papal legates, in 1070. From thence, full submission to papal authority was expected from the English episcopate. This, of course, implied a profound theological divergence of the Norman English Church from the Byzantine Church. Perhaps these critical ecclesiological differences also resulted in the occasional suspension of intercommunion between English and Greek Christians already in the 11th century, although we might remain ignorant thereof as the number of practical occasions (English people visiting the East and vice versa) for such scandals must have been very limited.

Finally, the Normans themselves testify to the ecclesio-political overtones of their campaign against Anglo-Saxon Britain. They justified (especially after their success) their conquest of England and the brutal killing of her legitimate King with the English opposition to papal obedience. Furthermore, the Normans received encouragement and support from Pope Alexander II for their invasion of England, on the grounds of the English opposition to the papal agenda of concentration of power.

In sum, it is highly unlikely that England and the East went out of communion as early as 1054. It is, by contrast, very well possible that the East was considered schismatic by well-informed English hierarchs from the 1070s onwards.

The underlying factual information can be quickly corroborated by interested readers, not only through specialised church history textbooks, but also by means of easily accessible and reliable online resources for a general audience, including standard reference works such as the Encyclopedia Britannica (in particular the entries on Archbishop Stigand and Pope Alexander II). The ROCOR Western Rite
Vicariate may not yet be writing history, but it has not rewritten history either - let alone in bad faith. Maybe an apology to Vicar General Mark Rowe would be in order?

The Reverend Dr Frederik Irenaeus Herzberg is Episcopal Vicar of the Nordic Catholic Church (Union of Scranton), overseeing the missionary and catechetical work of this jurisdiction in Germany. In addition to his Master of Theology degree from the University of Aberdeen, he has a doctorate in mathematics from the University of Oxford and a higher doctorate (Habilitation) in philosophy from the University of Munich.

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